Industrial Workers of the World

Identification: Global labor union

Date: Founded in June, 1905

Location: Chicago, Illinois

Also known as: Wobblies

Significance: The Industrial Workers of the World was the first large labor union in the United States to organize as an industrial union instead of according to craft. It focused a large part of its organizing efforts on newly arrived immigrant workers, whom other union organizations ignored or overtly discriminated against.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in Chicago in 1905 by unionists opposed to the policies of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), in particular its refusal to organize unskilled workers. Founding members included William D. “Big Bill” Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party, and Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party. Unlike most union and leftist political organizations in the United States during the early twentieth century, the IWW recognized the importance of organizing all workers regardless of race, gender, national origin, or craft. This realization stemmed from its philosophy of international worker solidarity as expressed in the IWW slogan, “One Big Union.” Although many of the workforces involved in IWW organizing drives were made up primarily of European immigrants, internationalist immigrant organizing was important given the separation of communities along ethnic lines.

Other unions, especially those affiliated with Samuel Gompers and the AFL, considered immigrant workers competition for what were considered “American” jobs. The IWW sought to overcome the artificial separations enforced by governmental, economic, and religious authorities in order to create a sense of common struggle. Strikes among miners and textile workers that were organized with the help of the IWW included women, children, and men of all backgrounds and were usually successful, at least in terms of creating class solidarity, based in part on the union’s opposition to the “owning classes” of all nations.

In the eastern United States, the IWW organized among textile workers (often the most exploited members of the workforce), many of whom were of southern European origin. In places such as Lawrence, Massachusetts, and other mill towns, the IWW represented multiple nationalities to create a strong, unified strike against the textile mill owners. In the western United States, the IWW was one of the first major national labor organizations to organize Asian workers. In doing so, the union stood in contrast not only to the AFL but also to radical political groups such as the Socialist Party. Asian workers were separated not only by their language differences but also by their physical and cultural differences. Consequently, they faced both de facto and de jure discrimination and the threat of deportation. The IWW worked to defend these workers’ rights while organizing. In 1912, after Italian organizers Arturo Giovannitti and Joseph Ettor were arrested in the Lawrence strike, it was the IWW that led the campaign to free the men. The U.S. government responded with mass deportations of immigrants associated with the union.

In its heyday during World War I, the IWW claimed more than 100,000 members. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, it was a much smaller organization. The union has continued to organize among immigrants and other underrepresented workers and advocate for immigrant rights.

Ron Jacobs

Further Reading

  • Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 4. New York: International Publishers, 1965. 
  • Thompson, Fred W., and John Bekken. The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First One Hundred Years—1905 Through 2005. Foreword by Utah Phillips. Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 2006. 

See also: Economic opportunities; Employment; Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-1918; Garment industry; Gompers, Samuel; Industrial Revolution; International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union; Labor unions; Massachusetts; United Farm Workers.

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