Michael McDowell - 2001 Essay Winner


The American Labor Movement: The IWW





An essay by Michael McDowell

One of the most controversial and extreme unions is the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies. Bill Haywood founded the IWW in June of 1905 during a convention in Chicago which drew hundreds of left wing industrial workers from all over the United States. Haywood’s goals reflected many socialist ideals, in the fact that he wanted to liberate the working class from what he saw as the “slave bondage of capitalism”. He aimed to put the laborers “in control of the machinery of production and distribution”, and do away with upper class management. The IWW set out to create “One Big Union” to which every industrial worker belonged, and discouraged making contracts with employers, as it often did not allow the employee to strike.

One of the IWW’s main ideals is “Direct Action”. “Direct action means industrial action directly by, for, and of the workers themselves, without the treacherous aid of labor misleaders or scheming politicians. A strike that is initiated, controlled, and settled by the workers directly affected is direct action... Direct action is industrial democracy.”

The IWW has been a rather militant group that is viewed by some as courageous, and by others as fanatical. They claim that they will not initiate violence, but will only defend themselves if necessary.

Even though there have been many violent outbursts between the IWW and the authorities throughout the last century, the IWW believed strongly that they would not win a labor battle by taking arms and revolting, but rather by simply striking. Their ideas swept through Europe after the formation of the IWW, and soon new leftist groups were appearing all over the continent.

In Spokane, in 1909, the city passed an ordinance that would stop street meetings. An IWW organizer attempted to speak, and was arrested. Thousands of IWW members congregated in the city, and the authorities filled their jails with over 600 of them. The city could do nothing about the situation but give back the people the right to speak.

Throughout the next few years, many IWW members were arrested for violating free speech laws. Many of them were beaten and killed, but in almost all situations, the first amendment rights were given back.
In Everett in 1916, a firefight took place between members of the IWW on a boat, and two hundred vigilantes rounded up by the sheriff. Many IWW members were killed, and even more injured.

Since then, the IWW has had many problems with opposing groups in America, especially during the McCarthy era. They had defeats and successes, but now the IWW ranks grow, and although aren’t as well known as they once were, they still have the potential to bring about change.