1905-2005: A Century of the IWW

"Web special" article for RP 44 - Originally published on Prometeo 12 (2005)

This year is the centenary of the historic American union, the Industrial Workers of the World. We can do a re-run of their history through the biography of one of their founders: William “Big Bill” Haywood (1869-1928).

From his early childhood he travelled through many states of the western USA first with his family, and then by himself, but always for the same reason - to look for work.

As teenager he got to know some old Red Indians who told him the history of their people and their genocide by white men. Moreover he was there when some “good white” citizens beat and killed some blacks, hanging them, because they’ve dared to claim those rights which the law gave them (we’re talking here about after the abolition of slavery.)

He began to work in a coalmine where he heard echoes of the events of May 1st 1886 in the Haymarket and the execution of the “Martyrs of Chicago”; inside him an incipient class consciousness began: it took a socialist and anarchist character thanks to the influence of the Knights of Labor, the first American working class organization.

He became a member of the Western Federation of Miners, a fighting trade union which didn’t hide its socialist ideas. From 1901 he was the treasurer-secretary of this organization thanks to his skills as a speaker and organizer.

In those years there were a lot of strikes in Colorado and in the neighbouring states: the workers demanded an 8 hour day, better wages, and safer working conditions.

The company answered in two ways: first asking the State to use martial law, sheriffs, and the army (who literally deport striking workers and trade unionists into far away towns or different states of the Union without a time limit - despite their own Constitution...). On the other side the companies used spies and private detectives to infiltrate and to split the workers movement and to create clashes among strikers and between strikers and the authorities.

For instance, in Denver (Colorado), during a long strike the Citizen Alliance (a creation of mines’ owners and the local bourgeosie) paid some Pinkerton private detectives to get a local commuter train derailed during the rush hour in order to blame it on the strikers in order to repress them (a century before 9/11...) .

The workers answer, with Big Bill at their head, though arrested and deported more times, was the following: legal action (thanks to socialist lawyers) to see that the workers elementary rights under bourgeois law were recognised. Haywood himself was often on trial so he used the court as a tribune to rhetorically denounce the hypocrisy of the entire bourgeois system. At the same time at they also developed the class struggle, namely promoting solidarity initiatives (e.g.. collecting funds for strikers and their families, picket lines etc. etc. throughout the entire State and into the neighbouring states).

He developed the idea that the working class can only win by generalising its struggle or rather as he said in strike meetings if it is not enough for textile workers to be on strike with miners and then with railway workers then all the kinds of workers imaginable should be in solidarity with each other. Later he even organized unions with cowboys and the musicians of the Hollywood theatres. From here he saw the need for one big union which went beyond the trade divisions to organise all the workers. It should be remembered that at that time the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the main union umbrella organisation only organised the best paid workers and refused membership to blacks and immigrants.

This brings us to 2-1-1905: in the symbolic city of Chicago hundreds of delegates from all over US gave the birth to the IWW. Its first statement - written by Big Bill - says:

... The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.
We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system."
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

There was no disguising the fact that trade union which they were trying to build was considered the basis of the future communist society.

The IWW pubblications have been printed in 20 different languages and into tens of thousands of copies. Among the numerous founders we can find Lucy Parsons, widow of Albert Parsons, martyr of Chicago into 1886. She was active in the IWW until her death.

Though one of its members Big Bill refused to be a Socialist Party candidate for the US Congress (and before that State Governor), because he strongly believed that socialism can be achieved only by class struggle and not by parliaments or electoral votes. For this reason he was not very much in sympathy with the official socialist leaders (Debs, De Leon).

Into the 1910 he attended the Congress of the Socialist International in Copenhagen, where he met many European socialists and even Lenin (who was there under a false identity as a security measure).

When the First World War began, a federal law against “criminal trade unionism” was approved - with the support of Socialist Party votes too - in other words against all who opposed the war and the necessary sacrifices it would entail. The law was aimed at the Wobblies...; many militants were senteced to long periods in jail (and sometimes even for life) in the penitentiaries of Folsom, San Quentin and Alcatraz where many of them lost their health, both physical and psychological. Haywood spent one year in prison.

As their sentences were read they sing the “International” to show their total contempt, hate and alienation from the Court and the whole bourgeois world.

Nonetheless Wobblies maintained their internationalist struggle proclaiming the war as imperialist on both sides.

The Revolution in Russia in 1917 gave new energy to Wobblies and their propaganda; the town of Seattle had a general strike started by the IWW to sabotage the sending of American soldiers and weapons to Russia ( throughout the peninsula of Sobciak ) to fight the new Bolshevik Government. John Reed, in the USA at that time to promote the cause of Revolution, warmly greeted this initiative.

Now they had to put up with the (often military) attacks of criminal gangs and hired killers paid by the bosses. All around the country there are a lot of attacks on the headquarters of the IWW - who responded with guns in their hands, killing some attackers.

In this difficult situation Haywood (who meanwhile had become member of the new born Communist Party - namely the American section of the Communist International) was sentenced to 20 years of prison along with some others leaders for “anti-american activities”. But they could remain out of prison until the sentence was carried out. Therefore they launched a campaign to get money for the legal actions which involved their militants and to keep alive the same organization which was - as he used to say - like a wounded hare in the mouth of a pitbull.

Into 1921, as the sentence was being carried out, he emigrated clandestinely to Russia with 250 other Wobblie leaders and their families on the personal invitation of Lenin in order to join and to collaborate with the Bolshevik Government.

Big Bill died from a stroke in 1928 and - in accordance with his expressed wish - his ashes were divided and half of them were buried under the Kremlin Wall (the only foreigner besides John Reed who has ever been allowed such honour) and the other half in the Waldheim cemetery of Chicago, close to the graves of Albert Parsons and the other Chicago “martyrs”. In relation to the Bolsheviks, his usual line in interviews with journalists from foreign workers papers (like Nicola Vecchi of the Italian Syndicalists) was that he marvelled how much time that they spent in theoretical discussions, fearing that this was in the long run a weakness, in contrast with the IWW which was much more “practical”.

His escape to Russia was felt or shown in a very negative way by the rest of organisation which felt “betrayed” as it shifted the organisation from the classically anarchist position (anti-party) which it had maintained since its inception.

The IWW survived through highs and lows into the decades which followed, but their heroic period was over by the end of the 1920s. The big strikes of the 1930s (after the 1929 crisis) didn’t overthrow the capitalism, but saw the birth of the new trade union called the CIO, a more modern instrument of integration of the working class inside the capitalist society.

This also demonstrated the theoretical limitations of the IWW, which coining so many of the slogans of anarcho-syndicalism totally devalued the role of the revolutionary Party as a political instrument for the overthrow of capitalism. The entirely correct desire to overcome the divisions into categories created amongst the workers by the capitalist division of labour can be done only on a political level, that is in a party not on the level of a union which by its very nature expresses those divisions and is irremediably linked to its negotiating counterparts, the bosses. Strikes, even the most determined, largely aim to improve the conditions for the sale of labour power for an objective that is supported by most of the workers which can bring about the widest participation of different layers of the workforce. However with the end or reflux of the movement everyone returns to the daily grind.

It is a huge methodological error to believe that all or even the greater part of the class can reach radically anti-capitalist positions in a homogenous way at the same time and stay there in the absence of high levels of struggle unless you maintain that in “normal” times the dominant ideology is not that of the ruling class. Only a few individuals, within and without the proletariat can perceive the need to go beyond the individual struggle, a perception which finds its conscious and coherent form in the revolutionary party which remains whatever the highs or lows of the class struggle but from which it is dialectically nourished on both a theoretical and numerical level.

In the IWW the problem of the conquest of power and its management through the dictatorship of the proletariat is resolved, or rather not resolved, by recourse to the general strike which would have brought down the entire framework of bourgeois power making the workers the managers of the means of production. It is not only a very simple vision but comes from that same evolutionism which animates the reformism of the Second International because it presupposed a progressive maturation of a mass anti-capitalist consciousness within bourgeois society.

And for this, in the fiery years of the post First World War the generous multi-national proletariat of the United States - and the rest of the world outside Russia - lacked a sufficiently rooted revolutionary party to guide the assault on the capitalist heaven, even if a part of the truly heroic militants of the IWW adhered to the two communist parties that were born in 1919: we are still, counting the consequences of this failure today.


Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.