Donald Yung - 2006 Essay Winner


What is the Relevance of Unions Past and Present?





An essay by Donald Yung

The early twentieth century marked a period of great achievement and change for the young American nation. The growing middle class built factories and invested their profits on acquiring more capital, as the spirit of capitalism demanded. But abandoned from this period of progress was the average worker, who labored in smoky factories under unsanitary and dangerous conditions for a paltry wage in return for the blood and sweat of his labor.

Many unions were created during this era of darkness but they faced stiff opposition. The Industrial Workers of the World, created in 1905, joined the battle for the advancement of the working class. Its leaders, such as Big Bill Haywood, and Eugene V. Debbs, and the thousands of workers who gave the IWW life believed in creating a society in which capitalism would be overthrown and people could live harmoniously with themselves and nature.

This was their vision.

The IWW was one of the few unions during this period who accepted all workers, regardless of their race, color, sex, religion or nationality. White longshoremen, black factory workers, and asian construction laborers alike are united in the quest for worker equality. Women also played an important role in supporting their husbands in the protest for better working conditions.

During the first two decades of its life, the IWW made unprecedented changes to the lives of workers. It gained fame during the 1907 miner's strike in Goldfield, Nevada, and the 1909 strike in Pressed Steel Car Company, Pennsylvania. Using simple, non-violent methods such as rallies, speeches, and sit-in strikes, the IWW grew in effectiveness, fame, and numbers. By 1912, the young organization had over 50,000 members. The successes of the IWW in improving the lives of migratory farm workers, by organizing strikes or simply slowing down their production rate, led to victories in other industries, such as the lumber industry. By 1917, the US government passed laws which led to the eight-hour work day and greatly improved working condition in the Pacific Northwest. Although these changes were credited to the government and lumber companies, it was the IWW which applied the appropriate pressure in order to turn this ideal into an achievable goal. But despite its successes, the IWW fought an uphill battle. For example during the 1910's, it unsuccessfully attempted to pressure company managements to improve working conditions, not through conventional collective bargaining, but through constant resistance from every employed worker. This method proved to be difficult to implement.

Unhindered, the IWW would have continued to make groundbreaking achievements. Sadly, the successful actions of the IWW became the fuel for violence and resistance against their cause. Business owners took death to the streets and murdered many IWW members, such as Frank Little; he was a senior IWW member. The federal government took advantage of the IWW's refusal to support the First World War and arrested over a hundred IWW leaders for "hindering" the war effort. Over forty IWW meeting halls were raided by the Department of Justice. During the 1920's, members of the IWW were prosecuted by the "Palmer Raids", which associated the IWW with the Communist. Faced with opposition from those in power and internal divisions within the organization, the IWW lost most of its membership and strength after the 1920's.

Many historians believed the IWW to be non-existent by the mid-twentieth century. But like the legendary phoenix believed to have been killed and defeated, the IWW was reborn out of the ashes of injustice and continues to protect the rights of workers. Rebuilding strength from the grass-root memberships which gave it life over five decades ago, the IWW grew from the 1960's onwards. Today, members of the IWW have taken an active role in building high tech industries, ship yards, schools, parks, and other industrial and public facilities. In 2004, the IWW helped organize a union for the Starbuck's company; it was an important step in countering the company management's anti-union ideology.

An organization born, maintained, and reborn through its grass-roots membership, the IWW had fought for, and still fights for, its noble vision. Regardless of the strength of the determined opposition, the Industrial Workers of the World will continue to fly towards creating a better tomorrow.