The Wobblies


“Fellow Workers,” cried Bill Haywood as he opened the 1905 founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World, “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…”

Not the fraternal ‘Brothers and Sisters,’ but the proletarian salutation, ‘Fellow Workers’ — in keeping with an outlook summarized in the Preamble to the IWW’s Constitution: “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.”

This worldview made the IWW unique among American labor organizations. Unlike traditional unions which demanded a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, the IWW demanded abolition of the wage system. Most unions, believing that the interests of workers and employers were compatible, accepted as given the current relations between labor and capital and only contested wages and hours. But the IWW asserted that the status quo was not immutable, that not only might the distribution of wealth be altered but the very arrangement of selling one’s labor for wages might be challenged.

Haywood’s call to unremitting class struggle appealed to the coalition of radical labor leaders and socialists assembled in Chicago, among them such veterans of America’s labor wars as Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and Lucy Parsons. If chattel slavery could be abolished, why not wage slavery? Did not the exploitation of workers in fields and forests, mines and factories throughout the country demand their emancipation? Could not social and economic arrangements such as those envisioned by Laurence Gronlund, Edward Bellamy and others offer cooperative alternatives to the wage system? Would not public ownership resolve many of the contradictions of capitalism? Might not a general strike compel a realignment of the interests of labor and capital?

The answer, in workers’ practice, was NO. Despite its rhetoric of class struggle to abolish the wage system, almost all the nearly five hundred strikes called, organized or assisted by the IWW in its glory years, 1905 – 1920, dealt with wages, hours and working conditions. This was true irrespective of the occupation or number of workers involved or the location of workplace. Even the famous Free Speech Fights (1909-1912) grew out of efforts by migratory workers in the west to warn their comrades about labor contractors.

So, while IWW members might strike in solidarity with one another — sometimes in response to the firing, refusal to rehire or mistreatment of fellow workers, or over recognition of the IWW — on the whole their demands differed little from those of workers who joined the despised bread-and-butter trade unions.

What did differ and what distinguished IWW from trade union members was a set of values, beliefs, and commitments:

  • belief that capitalism would self-destruct;
  • belief in alternatives to the wage system;
  • commitment to direct action;
  • consciousness of themselves as members of the working class;
  • commitment to solidarity and class-wide struggle;
  • commitment to sharing the memory of struggle through song.

Perhaps it is through their commitment to song that the Wobblies have survived, even though the wage system and capitalism persist. Songs written by workers, set to popular tunes so they could be sung by fellow workers. Songs by Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin, Richard Brazier, T-Bone Slim and dozens of others constitute a musical documentary of a vibrant movement for social change. Songs “to fan the flames of discontent,” printed and reprinted in little red songbooks that could be purchased for a few cents and carried in workers’ shirt pockets. Songs like “The Preacher and the Slave,” and “Hold the Fort,” and “We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years,” and “The Rebel Girl,” and “There is Power in a Union.” And, especially, there is the Ralph Chaplin song that became the anthem of America’s labor movement, “Solidarity Forever” — still sung after one hundred years on picket lines and at union events by workers many of whom who can sing only the refrain, having forgotten or never learned the verses:

It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops; endless miles of railroad laid.
Now we stand outcasts and starving, ‘mid the wonders we have made; … 
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn.
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.  
We can break their haughty power; gain our freedom when we learn 
That the Union makes us strong.  
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold;
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth the new world from the ashes of the old.
Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever! 
For the Union makes us strong.

Songs like these pass from person to person and from one generation to another the IWW’s class identity, its commitment to struggle, and its optimism. Not without reason have dictators warned, “Beware a movement that sings.”

I should note that this film, released in 1979, is based [largely?] on Joyce Kornbluh’s 1964 book, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. As you will see, it combines historical photos and film footage with interviews of then-surviving participants in IWW struggles. It thus emphasizes parts of IWW history most accessible through these Wobblies’ recollection. The film scants the IWW during the 1960s and 70s and of necessity cannot speak to the IWW’s recent and current role. It is worth noting that today the IWW is active in organizing fast food and other low-wage workers, pressing — ironically for a union committed to abolishing the wage system — to raising the minimum wage.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t discussed specific struggles such as those of Lawrence textile workers (1912) or Paterson silk weavers (1913), or the execution of Joe Hill one hundred years ago this November, don’t worry: it’s all in the film.

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About Jon Garlock

Jon Garlock chairs the Education Committee of the Rochester (NY) Labor Council. He coordinates an annual Labor Film Series, now in its 26th year, presented at the International Museum of Film and Photography at George Eastman House. He has published on 19th century US and local labor history, co-directing a video and developing teaching materials on Rochester's unions.