The Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) was founded in 1905 by "seasoned
old unionists" who were dissatisfied with contemporary movements to organize American
laborers. The most powerful existing organization of workers was the American Federation
of Labor (AFL), a gathering of specialized craft unions that actually fought against
other emerging solidarity unions of all types of workers, skilled or unskilled. Many
who opposed the AFL in favor of inclusive unions were already active in existing labor
movements and argued amongst themselves as to worthy theory and policy to pursue. It
was into this chaotic landscape that the I.W.W. was born.
Six men met in Chicago in November of 1904 to set about correcting the
inadequacies of the American labor movement. All six men already belonged to unions
of their own: Clarence Smith, secretary of the American Labor Union; Thomas Haggerty,
editor of that union's newspaper; George Estes and W.L. Hall, president and secretary
of the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees; Isaac Cowan, American representative
of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers; and William E. Trautman, editor of the official
publication of the United Brewery Workmen organization. To avoid complications within
their respective unions, the six met in secret. Others labor organizers, such as the
future I.W.W. leader Gene Debs, knew about the meeting but were unable to attend.
The men weighed the question of whether or not scattered and sputtering
craft unions could be re-organized alongside millions of unskilled laborers.
Figuring it was worth a try, the men invited 36 prominent labor leaders to
attend a second secret meeting to be held the following January. Only 25 of
these leaders attended the meeting. They moved forward nonetheless, officially
founding the I.W.W. on June 27, 1905 with a start-up membership of just over
two hundred men and women.
Calling their founding convention "the Continental Congress of the working
class, "William D. Haywood, then Secretary of the Western Federation
of Miners, sought to make the I.W.W. an organization open to workers
of all types. Unlike the AFL, which excluded non-whites, women,
the unskilled, and the foreign born, the I.W.W. poised itself
as a movement available to all varieties of workers. Within a
year, the I.W.W. grew to a membership of 3,000 workers, thanks
to their inclusive policies.
Four phases of the I.W.W.:
From its founding in 1905 through about 1911, the I.W.W. refined its policies
and sought to establish viable local chapters in as many cities and states as
possible. It was during this initial period of growth that the "Wobblies," as they
came to be called, achieved a reputation for their tenacious and effective strikes.
Coupled with their efforts to gain a greater measure of free speech for political
and economic dissidents, the I.W.W. became both a respected and hated labor
organization. Due to their leftist hopes of destroying the wage system, the I.W.W.
lost the support of many industrial unions that were interested in labor reform,
not labor revolution. The Wobbly goal of giving ownership and management of
industrial production to the workers was too Socialist for many organizations
who simply wanted to barter for better wages, not strive to dismantle the
Despite disagreements with other labor organizations, the influence of the
Industrial Workers of the World grew. Spurred on by a success in the textile
industry in 1912, the I.W.W. became increasingly effective as a trade union.
It won support among harvest workers, lumberjacks, miners, longshoremen, and
mariners. Glory was short-lived, however, as the federal government, under the
political weight of angry corporations, moved to stifle the organization's
Beginning in 1917, the federal government used World War I as a rationale to
harass and imprison Wobblies. Citing that agitation during wartime was equivalent
to treason, the federal government put the I.W.W. into a defensive posture, slowing
their growth and hampering their attempts at continued labor consolidation. During
this time, union resources had to be spent on legal defense against state and federal
attacks. Another setback was the formation of an American Communist movement, which
led to an ideological splintering of the union. Coupled with infiltration and sabotage
by government and company agents, the I.W.W. suffered an organizational schism in
Since that year, the I.W.W. has lost its organizational power and become a marginal
political factor. Though the association lives on today, with chapters in dozens of
cities around the world, the Wobblies lack the organizational power they once enjoyed.
Lacking the central power and labor support it once enjoyed, the I.W.W. has since
developed pronounced anarchist overtones while simultaneously becoming a popular
source of mythmaking and legend.