Happy Birthday Big Bill

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Mike Davis commemorates the centenary of a high point in American socialist history.

A hundred years ago the Industrial Workers of the World was formed and US bosses trembled.

Brand Hall, Chicago, 27 June 1905. Big Bill Haywood pounded his gavel and brought the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to order: 'This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.'

The hall erupted in applause. In addition to Haywood's own union, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the delegates included coalminers from Kansas, tailors from San Francisco, pressmen from Schenectady, janitors from Chicago, longshoremen from Detroit and Hoboken, blacksmiths from Pullman, brewery workers from Milwaukee and cloakmakers from Montreal.

Keynote speakers included North America's two most famous revolutionary socialists: Eugene Debs and his old sectarian antagonist Daniel De Leon. Other prominent supporters included Mother Jones of the coalminers' union and A M Simons, the editor of the International Socialist Review.

But the call for the convention had originated with the WFM. As Haywood reminded comrades, hardrock miners had been fighting a brutal labour war in the Rockies since 1892: 'There has not been a strike in the mines by the WFM but that we have been confronted by the militia.' In contrast to the American Federation of Labour (AFL) under Samuel Gompers, the WFM did not dine with robber barons, support US imperialism or beg President Roosevelt to mediate industrial disputes. If necessary, its membership knew how to use the business end of a Winchester 30-30 rifle. As a result, Haywood noted, 'the capitalist class of this country fear the WFM more than they do all the rest of the labour organisations.'

Now the western miners had come east to help build a new 'labour organisation broad enough to take in all of the working class' - an organisation, Haywood insisted, 'formed, based and founded on the class struggle, having in view no compromise and no surrender'.

The AFL, Haywood argued, was not a working class movement, but an exclusionist cartel that represented an elite of white, native-born skilled workers. 'What we want to establish at this time is a labour organisation that will open wide its doors to every man [sic] that earns his livelihood either by his brain or his muscles.'

In the most eloquent speech of the convention Lucy Parsons made it clear that this new solidarity also had to include working women, 'the slaves of slaves'. An ex-slave herself, and widow of Albert Parsons, one of the Chicago radicals executed for the murder of a policeman in Haymarket Square, she was one of the most extraordinary figures on the American left. She urged delegates to cast their eyes 'to far-off Russia and take heart and courage from those who are fighting the battle there, and from the further fact that carries the greatest terror to the capitalist class throughout all the world - that the red flag has been raised.'

Indeed, the reports of strikes in Moscow and mutinies in Odessa electrified the convention hall. Over the next year solidarity with the unfolding revolution in Russia would become one of the new organisation's principal priorities. When the Socialist International called for international action in support of the Russians on 22 January 1906, the IWW organised mass meetings. Later it sponsored a celebrated fundraising tour by Russian writer Maxim Gorky, greeting him as 'a representative Industrial Unionist.'

When Gorky found out that Bill Haywood and WFM president Charles Moyer had been arrested in Idaho for the alleged murder of a strikebreaking former governor, he immediately sent them a telegram: 'Greetings to you, my brother socialists. Courage! The day of justice and delivery for the oppressed of all the world is at hand.' From their jail cell Haywood and Moyers replied, 'Brother. The class struggle which is worldwide, the same in America as in Russia, makes us brothers indeed. Convey our best wishes to fellow workers in your native land.'

According to labour historian Philip Foner, the Wobblies' passionate solidarity with the revolt in Russia won them enthusiastic support among immigrant workers in eastern milltowns, opening the way for the IWW's key role in the epic strike wave of 1909-13. Moreover, hundreds of exiled Russian, Polish, Finnish and Jewish revolutionaries soon swelled its ranks. Despite the common stereotype of the Wobblies as romantic hobo anarchists, the IWW, in fact, became an extraordinary melting pot of international revolutionary traditions.

This was dramatically illustrated during the 1909 strike that inaugurated the four year long uprising of the immigrant working class. At the notorious Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, an average of one worker each day was killed in an industrial accident. Sixteen different nationalities toiled in the plant, and management relied on American-born craftsmen's bigotry towards immigrant 'Hunkies' to keep unionism at bay.

When a spontaneous strike broke out in July, both company and AFL officials expected that it would collapse in a day or two. Instead the foreign-born workforce under IWW leadership fought strikebreakers, the Coal and Iron Police, and the local constabulary for 45 days. Thirteen strikers were killed, but the workers won their demands.

It was a stunning victory by supposedly 'ignorant European peasants'. In fact, as a International Socialist Review article explained, the internal strike committee was a miniature revolutionary international. Its members included Italian anarchists and socialists, a Russian Social Democrat, several survivors of the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre in St Petersburg, blacklisted Swiss and Hungarian trade unionists, as well as a cadre of veteran German metal workers. A few years later the IWW would become deeply involved in another epochal revolution in Mexico.

Not surprisingly, the Wobblies became the principal target of government repression and patriotic vigilantism during the First World War. They were, after all, truly dangerous. No labour organisation in American history was less patriotic or more gloriously internationalist.