In a new ten-part column John Newsinger tells the the remarkable story of US revolutionary trade unionists the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies
On Tuesday 27 June 1905 Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners called the first and founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to order. He told the 200 delegates assembled in Brand’s Hall, Chicago, that they had come together “to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class”.
It was their intention to give the working class “control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters”. They recognised that “there is a continuous struggle between the two classes”, the capitalist class and the working class, and consequently “this organisation will be formed, based and founded on the class struggle, having in view no compromise and no surrender”.
The convention bought together delegates from 43 organisations representing some 60,000 workers. There were also a number of individuals, including Lucy Parsons, the African American anarchist and widow of one of the Haymarket martyrs; Mother Jones, the mineworkers’ organiser; and Eugene Debs, the leader of the left wing of the reformist Socialist Party and himself a veteran trade unionist.
They gathered in response to what they saw as a crisis within the US labour movement where the conservative union leaders of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) were failing to defend the working class against the attacks of a rapacious, brutal capitalist class.
Many American employers were prepared to resist unionisation by armed force, employing their own armed guards and hiring private detective agencies to break strikes and smash union organisation. The methods that the employers used extended from blacklisting all the way through to assassination. Trade unions in the US were at best only semi-legal and often operated in police state conditions, except that unlike in Tsarist Russia, the American secret police were privatised, with the likes of the Pinkertons, Baldwin-Felts, the Burns Agency and hundreds of other outfits. The Pinkertons alone had some 30,000 agents on their books.
The AFL was completely incapable of taking on these employers. Instead of uniting the working class, it divided it, first of all by craft and then by often refusing to organise black workers, women workers, immigrant workers and the unskilled. Solidarity was opposed by the union leaders with members routinely crossing the picket lines of other unions, even those organising in the same industry.
The unions were dominated by corrupt bureaucrats who preached class collaboration, that the capitalists and the workers had the same interests, and actively opposed militancy. They often never bothered to maintain even the pretence of democracy, but ruled as autocrats, prospering while their members were ground down. As Debs told the convention, the “pure and simple unionism” championed by the AFL, “has long since outgrown its usefulness”. It was not only in the way of progress, but “has become positively reactionary, a thing that is but an auxiliary of the capitalist class”. To all intents and purposes, the AFL “is today under the control of the capitalist class”.
Recent often bitterly fought strikes, that had all ended in defeat, proved as much. He called for the establishment of a new union movement “based on the class struggle”. In place of the AFL, the convention determined to build a new union movement, the Industrial Workers of the World, democratic through and through, and based on industrial organisation whereby all the workers in one industry would be organised in the same union.
The employers would be unable to play the different crafts off against each other or divide the skilled from the unskilled, men from women, black from white, native from immigrant. Instead they would confront a united union movement founded on militancy and solidarity, on the principle that “an Injury to One is the Concern of All”.
The ultimate aim was the takeover of the means of production by the entire working class and the establishment of socialism.
Lucy Parsons warned the delegates that the capitalist class will never “allow you to vote away their property”. Instead, it “means a revolution” and the instrument for accomplishing this revolution was the general strike. The convention passed a resolution enthusiastically supporting the revolution that was underway in Russia, urging “our Russian fellow-workmen on in their struggle” and promising all the support they could “to our persecuted, struggling and suffering comrades in far-off Russia”.
The opening sentiments of the new union movement’s Preamble summed up its philosophy: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common… Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”
This spirit was to involve the IWW in massive struggles across the United States and see it face repression on a scale never seen before or since in that country. The Wobblies, as IWW members came to be called, were to write a heroic chapter in the history of the international working class movement.