The Wobblies and the Dream of One Big Union

The Wobblies and the Dream of One Big Union

One Big Union

The Red Scare and the fall of the IWW.


In Butte, Mont., masked men woke up radical labor organizer Frank Little, dragged him from their car, and then hanged his lifeless body from a railroad bridge. In Bisbee, Ariz., the county sheriff organized a gun-wielding posse that packed more than 1,000 striking miners into boxcars and sent them nearly 200 miles into the New Mexico desert without food or water. In the state of Washington, a local jury convicted several working men of murder after they defended their union hall from an armed raid by American Legionnaires, four of whom were killed in the fracas. In Chicago, a federal court found all 101 national leaders of that same union guilty of conspiring to violate the Espionage Act, passed to criminalize opposition to World War I. The trial judge sentenced most of them to lengthy terms in prison, where abuse against anti-war dissenters was common.

All of the victims belonged to a single, and singular, organization: the Industrial Workers of the World. Founded in 1905, the Wobblies set forth on a revolutionary mission. By engaging in frequent strikes and constant agitation, they would gradually persuade wage earners of every race, immigrant group, and gender to join their “One Big Union.” By demonstrating their ability to wrest higher pay and better treatment from recalcitrant employers, workers led by the Wobblies would learn the virtue of class solidarity. Then, some glorious day, the IWW predicted, all this organizing would pay off: Workers would show their bosses the door, take possession of every factory, mine, warehouse, and office, and run the economy for the benefit of all.

The Wobblies were Marxist in their analysis of capitalism but anarcho-syndicalist in the kind of society they yearned to establish: The state, they argued, should be replaced by a revolutionary union. In the catchy phrase of their best-known leader, William “Big Bill” Haywood, the IWW would be “socialism with its working clothes on.” That romantic vision—backed up by courageous, militant organizing—earned the admiration of such popular writers on the left as Upton Sinclair, John Reed, Helen Keller, and Jack London, and a membership as high as 100,000.

What excited many radicals about the IWW at its creation was the brash alternative it posed to the dominant forces in the labor movement and on the left, which had failed to mount a serious challenge to corporate rule. IWW leaders condemned the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a bastion of skilled craftsmen, for doing little to organize most industrial wage earners, and its leader, Samuel Gompers, for favoring mediation with employers instead of realizing that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” And although the Wobblies did not tend to condemn the Socialist Party, which ran candidates in races throughout the nation, neither did they think one could topple the capitalist state by playing its rigged electoral game.

During the first decade of its existence, the IWW incurred the hatred of capitalists, the cops, and politicians from both major parties by signing up some of the poorest workers in the United States and leading them in at least 150 strikes. The Wobblies periodically disrupted production from the silk mills of Paterson, N.J., to the wheat fields of the Great Plains and the forests of the Pacific Northwest. They also insisted on their right to speak, without a permit, to crowds on the streets of the cities where they organized. Such actions led the authorities to throw thousands of Wobblies and their supporters in jail. The persecution intensified after the United States plunged into the Great War in 1917, when the IWW refused to stop calling for and leading strikes. By 1920, the Wobblies were broken, with most of their leaders in jail and their members hounded as pariahs. The organization survived, but it never recovered.

In Under the Iron Heel, Ahmed White memorializes the One Big Union by telling the lamentable story of its crushing during World War I and the Red Scare that followed. A law professor, White focuses on the legal means by which the state—on the federal, state, and local levels—tormented and persecuted its members, while offering an extended brief in defense of what the IWW was struggling to accomplish. He takes his title from The Iron Heel, a dystopian 1908 novel by Jack London about an anti-worker “Oligarchy” whose brutal rule presaged the history of fascism. Proceeding state by state and trial by trial, White describes, in vivid prose, “the vast scale and comprehensive reach” of this repression by governments and private employers, illustrating “how in wrecking lives it also wrecked the union.” While White’s narrative of this legal assault is impressive, he does not wrestle with the ways in which the IWW’s own ideology and tactics limited its growth and gave its enemies an excuse to attack it. The same Wobblies who could be such skillful organizers did little to build a strong and durable organization.

In White’s telling, the most powerful legal weapon that prosecutors used to pummel the Wobblies was a new breed of laws designed for just that purpose: acts to punish “criminal syndicalism.” The statute, first passed overwhelmingly by the Idaho Legislature in 1917, set the precedent for other states. The bill, White explains, “made it a felony…to advocate or organize for, become a member of, or assemble with any organization that advocated” the newly created crime of using “violence, terrorism, and, notably sabotage” to bring about “social change.”

Since the IWW’s publications did, at times, advise unhappy workers to try a bit of sabotage when their foremen or bosses sought to lengthen their hours or decrease their pay, the new laws threw the union on the defensive. “The class struggle is a physical struggle and depends on physical force,” one IWW journalist wrote. A claw-brandishing “sab cat,” hued either tabby or black, had appeared on countless Wobbly leaflets and stickers. Organizers gently prodded workers to snarl up a machine or rip up sacks of grain. Yet while the union’s rhetoric and imagery often welcomed physical conflict, rank-and-file members rarely resorted to violence, even during strikes; they knew their heavily armed adversaries could quash their movement if they did.

In the end, however, although the IWW’s members rarely used sabotage, they were routinely prosecuted for allegedly threatening to do so. Cowed by the letter of the criminal-syndicalism laws, few juries had the courage to acquit defendants whose only true crime was to encourage working people to defend their interests, albeit in militant ways. Hundreds were arrested and jailed under these laws, and many more dropped out of the movement for fear of facing a prosecution that could have destroyed their lives.

For historians of this era, the story that White tells is, in broad terms, a familiar one. Melvyn Dubofsky devoted several chapters to the IWW’s “Trials and Tribulations” in We Shall Be All, his comprehensive study of the union, published back in 1969. Adam Hochschild describes some of the same outrages in American Midnight, his luminous new saga of the tyranny visited on left-wing dissenters of all stripes during and after the United States entered the First World War.

But no one before White has given us such a precise and passionate account of the IWW’s ordeal. He introduces little-known Wobbly organizers, explains the deeds that got them into such trouble with their powerful enemies, and then follows them into prison and, often, to their deaths. After being found guilty of criminal syndicalism, a California activist named Abe Shocker was dispatched to San Quentin. He resisted orders to work in the prison jute mill and was thrown into a dungeon, where he endured “weeks in darkness, on bread and water, with no bed or chair, only rags and straw on a wet floor.” Driven insane by his time in that hellhole, Shocker killed himself.

White also sketches engaging profiles of the attorneys who toiled for the union’s cause. One was Caroline Lowe, who studied law at a Socialist college in Kansas, then represented many Wobblies in court for free while also finding time to raise funds for their defense. Lowe belongs on any honor roll of unsung heroes of the left.

White’s account of these forgotten dissenters is stirring. So too are his tales of the injustices that the Wobblies suffered, and there is no doubt this ferocious storm of legal persecution hobbled the union’s ability to wage effective strikes and attract new members. But though White notes that the IWW’s membership was “surging” in the months just before and after Congress declared war on Germany, even at the union’s zenith, no more than 5 percent of the nation’s union members were in its fold. Many of them signed up for a particular organizing push or work stoppage and then drifted away.

To continue striking during wartime did make the Wobblies vulnerable to repression, of course. But the failure to maintain their earlier momentum was not solely due to the iron heel of the state. Despite its adamant opposition to the war, the Socialist Party continued to wage election campaigns and denounce the draft. The administration of President Woodrow Wilson censored the party’s newspapers and banned some from the mail, and several of its most prominent spokespeople, such as Eugene Debs and Kate Richards O’Hare, were convicted under the Espionage Act and spent years in federal prison. But in the fall of 1917, Morris Hillquit, a union attorney and a leading voice in the party on international affairs, ran for mayor of New York City on an anti-war platform and won close to 25 percent of the vote in a four-way contest. Persecution by the state, however severe, was not the only reason the Wobblies were incapable of building their organization into the One Big Union of their dreams.

In his narration of the Wobblies’ travails during the war years, White fails to look inward as well. It was not just the state and employers that hampered their efforts but also the union’s ideology and freewheeling style, which kept it from becoming a serious alternative to the AFL, much less getting anywhere close to realizing a syndicalist future. Time and again, IWW organizers made daring efforts to mobilize some of the poorest workers in the nation but left no lasting presence of their power behind. Typically, the organizers would arrive on the scene, inspire people who made little and owned nothing to lay down their tools and abandon their machines, and then did little to counter the weapons, legal and otherwise, arrayed against them. Abjuring any truce in the class war, the Wobblies refused to sign contracts with employers or build many stable locals, and as a result, their beachheads of militancy soon disappeared.

A prime example was the big 1912 strike in the textile town of Lawrence, Mass., which White mentions only in passing. In midwinter, 14,000 workers walked out into the grimy snow to protest a pay cut at a string of woolen mills along the Merrimack River. The workers hailed from dozens of nations and spoke as many languages. They were able to hold out until spring, thanks to a strike committee as clever as it was energetic. Each sizable ethnic group sprouted its own relief brigade, providing food, medicine, and clothing to the workers and their families. The strike committee also diligently raised funds from supporters in Eastern cities, where compassion for the underdog ran strong. Friends of the union arranged for hundreds of kids whose parents were on the picket lines to stay with middle-class families in New York and Philadelphia.

About two weeks after this “Children’s Crusade” had begun, local police blocked a large group of children who had gathered at the train station with their mothers and sponsors from embarking for Philadelphia. According to eyewitnesses, “The police…closed in on us with clubs, beating right and left…. The mothers and children were thus hurled in a mass and bodily dragged to a military truck, and even then clubbed, irrespective of the cries of the panic-stricken women and children.”

Three weeks later, battered by awful press coverage, the company essentially surrendered: In all six mills that had met with the strike committee, workers got a big wage increase and the mill owners agreed not to discriminate against any employee who had walked off the job. “The strikers of Lawrence,” declared Big Bill Haywood, “have won the most signal victory of any organized body of workers in the world.”

The euphoria did not last long. A year following this triumph, the polyglot proletariat of Lawrence was once more at the mercy of its employers. Haywood and his fellow IWW leaders had left town soon after the strike to fan the flames of revolt elsewhere in America. The firms in Lawrence temporarily closed down several mills and encouraged each immigrant group to compete with the others for the jobs that remained. In the 1930s, employers did come to terms with a union. But this one was the Textile Workers of America, an affiliate of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which signed a contract with the companies and won higher wages and better working conditions for its members.

The Lawrence uprising had been a thing of beauty for the textile workers and their radical spokespeople. Upton Sinclair dubbed it the “Bread and Roses” strike, after a contemporary poem which remarked that “hearts starve as well as bodies.” But the aftermath of the strike revealed that, for all its romantic élan, the IWW did not know how to win.

White is not merely a sympathetic historian of the Wobblies; he shares their politics and hails them as oracles of radical defeat. What the “story” of the war on the IWW “really does,” he writes, “is confirm the Wobblies’ own, darker anticipations as to the nature of capitalist rule, which align with the dismal fate of the labor movement and the radical left since the IWW’s decline, as well as the prophecies of the Wobblies’ most famous champion” ]Jack London.

The historical reality defies this fatalistic judgment. With the help of mass strikes and liberal politicians like Robert Wagner and Franklin Roosevelt, the “dismal” labor movement, spearheaded by both the AFL and the CIO, signed up 15 million workers by the middle of the 20th century. Its unions won job security and decent pay for most of their members—none of which the Wobblies managed to achieve for more than a small number of their members.

Of course, the American left has certainly not triumphed, but its vision and organizing played an essential role in winning Social Security and Medicare, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, and marriage equality—while radicals are among the leaders of today’s exciting, if still quite modest, revival of union organizing. And if the state had outlawed all opposition to capitalist domination, as London feared, neither White’s book nor this magazine would get published today.

The repression of the Wobblies was indeed a tragedy—the vicious squelching of an organization that strove, however imperfectly, to better the lives of working people—as well as a blatant violation of the First Amendment. But White’s pro-Wobbly take on the history of the last century undercuts the power of his meticulously documented and well-crafted narrative.

“When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run / There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun” begins “Solidarity Forever,” the famous anthem written by Ralph Chaplin, the IWW’s poet laureate. For unions to boom again, they will need a brigade of organizers committed to the ideal of class equality. But without a realistic strategy for persuading millions to join them—and for overcoming the resistance of their powerful foes in politics, the courts, and the corporate suites—that vision will never come to pass.

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