Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

  • By Ross Rieder
  • Posted 12/08/1999
  • Essay 2016
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The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, was founded in 1905 in Chicago, and by 1908 had become influential among migrant laborers in the Pacific Northwest. Members were dubbed "Wobblies" and soon earned a reputation for loud singing, radicalism, and militancy. IWW members and organizers played an active role in Northwest metal mining (in Idaho), logging, and agriculture. In 1909 the IWW Spokane free-speech fight was an early and legendary example of direct action in support of constitutional rights. The massive statewide lumber strike in the summer of 1917 brought the industry to a halt at the beginning of World War I. The union's bloody clashes with authorities in Everett (1916) and Centralia (1919) became the stuff of legend. IWW membership and influence declined sharply after the anti-radical purges of the World War I era, but the union never quite died off. Young IWW members made a dramatic reappearance in Seattle during protests around the World Trade Organization conference in late 1999.

A Democratic, Industrial Union

The IWW was an "industrial" union, one that embraced and organized both skilled and unskilled workers within particular industries. Formed in 1905 partly in opposition to the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), it was a democratic union with a mix of radical anti-capitalist politics. The founding membership included socialists and labor unionists of various kinds, dominated by the militant, radical metal miners of the Western Federation of Miners. The founding convention took place in Chicago on June 27, 1905. Bill Haywood, leader of the Western Federation of Miners, called the 203 delegates to order with these words:

"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 aims and objectives of this organization shall be to put the working class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters. The American Federation of Labor, which presumes to be the labor movement of this country ... does not represent the working class" (Dubofsky, 81).

Shortly after the IWW was formed, Bill Haywood and two other leaders of the Western Federation of Miners were arrested on the charge that they had murdered former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg. Idaho Senator William Borah was the prosecuting attorney and Clarence Darrow led the defense. The three union leaders were acquitted, and Haywood returned to an active role with the IWW.

Tenets and Tactics

From 1908 to 1917, the IWW in Washington was particularly influential among migrant laborers who rode the boxcars to follow the harvest or to get a job in a lumber camp. The Seattle IWW Branch printed the following manifesto in answer to the question "What is the IWW?"

"It is a fighting labor union which believes that the interests of labor can be fully served only when working people are united as a class. It wants to see all on the same job united, all in the same industry in one union, all who work for wages in one big union.
"The IWW differs sharply from the position of other unions that the problems of the working class can be solved by begging crumbs from employers or praying to politicians for favors. While it fights for better conditions today, the IWW insists that working people are entitled to everything they produce, instead of a meager share.
"There will be insecurity and hunger among those who toil for as long as there is an employing class which benefits from low wages and evil working conditions. The IWW holds that there can be no solution to industrial warfare, no end to injustice and want, until the profit system itself is abolished.
"In striving to unite labor as a class in one big union the IWW also seeks to build the structure of a new and better social order within the shell of the old system which fails to provide for the needs of all."

The IWW was considered radical because it supported worker ownership of factories, a 40-hour work week, and sanitary conditions in logging camps.

Spokane Free-Speech Fight

In the fall of 1909, the IWW launched the Spokane free-speech fight. This was a civil disobedience action mounted in public defiance of a Spokane City Council ordinance banning speaking on the streets, an ordinance directed against IWW organizing. On November 2, one by one, IWW members mounted a soapbox (an overturned crate) and began speaking, upon which Spokane police yanked them off the box and took them to jail. On the first day, 103 Wobblies were arrested, beaten, and incarcerated. Within a month, arrests mounted to 500, including the fiery young Wobbly orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964). The Spokane free-speech fight ended in victory, with the City revoking the ordinance. It inaugurated free-speech fights in other cities, and is considered one of the most significant battles to protect freedom of speech in American history

The IWW organized migrant harvesters around Yakima with some success, as well as sawmill workers and loggers in Grays Harbor County. Its most notable strike was the 1917 "Strike in the Woods." It is also remembered for two tragedies, the Everett Massacre and an incident in Centralia.

Everett Massacre

On November 5, 1916, two boatloads of workers and IWW members traveled from Seattle to Everett to hold a free speech demonstration in support of striking shingle mill workers in Everett, and in support of First Amendment rights, which had been severely curtailed in Everett by the county sheriff under the influence of the timber barons. Shingle mill workers were on strike because mill owners had refused to restore wage cuts that unions had conceded when the price of cedar fell. The price had since recovered, and workers wanted their wages to recover as well. Members of the IWW saw this as an opportunity to organize and provide support to striking workers. They went to Everett to speak in support of the strikers, and against the mill owners and the economic system they represented. Many heads were banged, teeth loosened, and a serious beating had taken place at the Beverly Park Interurban Railway station on October 30, 1916.

The Wobblies planned a return visit for Sunday, November 5. Their vessel, the steamer Verona, was met at an Everett loading dock by County Sheriff Donald MacRae and his businessmen's posse. The sheriff called out, "Who are your leaders?" The entire boatload of Wobblies yelled back, "We all are!" Then someone (never identified) started shooting and five workers on the boat soon lay dead or dying. Probably another dozen were shot in the water after the boat pulled hastily away. Two businessman-deputies on the dock also died from shots in the back.

The Strike in the Woods

In March 1917, IWW loggers in Spokane formed their own industrial union, the Lumber Workers Industrial Union, IWW. (Wobbly loggers and sawmill workers had previously belonged to the IWW Agricultural Workers Organization). Early in the summer, loggers began striking spontaneously. The IWW planned to call a strike for July, but noting that loggers were already quitting work, moved the date up to June 20. Jack Miller, an IWW member, survivor of the Everett Massacre, and participant in the 1917 strike, later described the situation:

"Our motto was, 'We have nothing to lose but our chains.' Look at it this way: when conditions and wages are below subsistence, you lose if you continue to work. When you only have part-time work offered, it isn't much of a hardship to be on strike.
"Lumberjacks have got to be the most independent of workers. A lumberjack is a big man with a Paul Bunyan complex. But between the time of the shooting at Everett on November 5, 1916, and mid-summer of 1917, we organized those lumberjacks in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Northern California, and parts of Montana.

"Some 50,000 lumberjacks went on strike at the call of the IWW, and there was not one single act of violence. No one ever crossed the picket lines and no logger remained in a camp where an IWW could reach him to tell him the strike was on. After that walkout, the timberbeast was on the way out."

The lumber strike during the summer of 1917 brought the industry to a halt. The issues were filthy conditions and poor food in the lumber camps, and especially, the eight-hour day.

In August, in the context of World War I and the urgent need for lumber, Washington Governor Ernest Lister and the U.S. Secretary of War attempted to persuade the logging firms to improve conditions and institute the eight-hour day, while also pursuing and jailing IWW leaders. By late August, with the leadership incarcerated, the IWW encouraged loggers to take the strike to the workplace. Wobbly loggers returned to work, but worked as inefficiently as possible, quit often, and in general continued to obstruct the industry. Eventually, the government forced the eight-hour day on the lumber barons. (U.S. soldiers were also sent to the woods to harvest spruce needed to build airplanes.)

Centralia Tragedy

In 1919, Washington was still a rough-edged pioneer state blessed with seemingly endless resources. Thousands of Americans had come home from the trenches of Europe, eager to enjoy the fruits of victory. Some labor unions were beginning to resist the excesses of the market economy. The conflict was particularly acute in mill towns such as Centralia where it was hard to ignore the enormous gap between wealthy timber barons and the workers in the woods.

On November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the Armistice that ended the War to End All War, members of the local American Legion, including young veterans, marched up Centralia's Tower Avenue. Near the intersection of Second Street and Tower Avenue, the contingent stopped in front of the Roderick Hotel, which served as a local union hall for the IWW. The union had been warned that the Legionnaires would attack their hall. It had happened before, the previous year. Its local lawyer, Elmer Smith, advised that they were entitled to defend their property. So they were armed. As in Everett, no one knows who fired the first shot, but within minutes, four young Legionnaires lay dead or dying on the street. The town went crazy. Citizens become vigilantes and descended on Wobblies and other union members, arresting them in their halls or homes and throwing them in jail.

Wesley Everest, a 31-year-old logger, IWW member and World War I veteran, who had fired some of the fatal shots, was pursued through the streets, cornered, beaten and thrown in jail with the rest. Later that night, the city lights went out. An angry mob dragged Everest out of jail, drove him to a bridge across the Chehalis River and hanged him. Witnesses said he had been castrated, but the coroner's report the next day stated "no scars that could be located on the body outside where the rope cut neck. Hole that looked like bullet hole ... rope was still around the neck of the man" (McClelland p. 85).

Ten weeks later, 11 union members were put on trial for the murder of Warren Grimm, one of the Legion members. After a stormy trial (moved to Montesano in Grays Harbor County), tainted by the presence of troops, seven were convicted and sentenced to 25 years. Many complained the trial and sentences were unfair. Several jurors later signed affidavits attesting to the intimidation and influence of the uniformed militia. The convictions only deepened passions in a state already known for its populism. The tragedy was revisited by appeals courts, by John Dos Passos in his novel 1919, and by a panel from the Federal Council of Churches. It has been the topic of countless books, pamphlets, and magazine articles. Of the seven men convicted, one died in prison, five were paroled in 1930 and the last, Ray Becker, saw his sentence commuted in 1939 after 19 years in prison.

Seattle General Strike and After

By 1919 many IWW leaders were in jail, and many Wobbly union halls had been raided, wrecked, and closed. The 1919 Seattle General Strike was not dominated by IWW members, yet it would be unfair to dismiss IWW influence in the city's labor community. Many unionists were dual union members. As one of the songs in the late 1980s rock opera Seattle 1919 goes, many workers had one card for their job and one for what they believed.

Most local and national press denounced the strike, while conservatives called for stern measures to suppress what looked to them like a revolutionary plot. Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940), elected the year before with labor support, armed his police force and threatened martial law and federal troops. After the General Strike fizzled out in February 1919, police raided the IWW hall and Socialist Party headquarters, and closed the labor daily newspaper Union Record.

The IWW survived, but continuing government harassment and the return of prosperity in the Roaring Twenties undercut its influence. It was involved in organizing laborers at late-1920s Seattle City Light projects in the North Cascades, in Boulder Dam near Las Vegas, Nevada, and in the Yakima orchards of the 1930s. It is no secret that many older Wobblies were involved in both the organizing in the woods of the Northwest and in the nation's auto industry in the 1930s.

As of the late 1990s, IWW chapters were operating in Seattle, Olympia, and Portland, Oregon. Seattle Wobblies tried to organize workers at a small food store in West Seattle, but the drive ended when the store management changed in 1998. In November 1999, IWW members and supporters were prominent among the thousands who protested the World Trade Organization's Seattle session.

The IWW's Little Red Songbook, first published in Spokane in 1909, has been updated constantly, proving that Wobbly ideas and hopes are still alive. It has been a cultural icon of the labor movement, helping to keep alive the notion that "When you stop singing, the revolution has ended and so has the progress of the union."


John McClelland Jr., Wobbly War, The Centralia Story (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1987); Tom Copeland, The Centralia Tragedy of 1919, Elmer Smith and the Wobblies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993); Robert L. Tyler, Rebels in the Woods: The IWW in the Pacific Northwest (Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1967); William D. Haywood, Bill Haywood's Book (New York: International Publishers, 1929); Steward Bird, Dan Georgakas, Deborah Shaffer, Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW (Chicago: Lake View Press, 1985); Melvyn Dubovsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969). See Also Industrial Workers of the World, Seattle Joint Branches Records, 1905-1950, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries  ( WorldSeattleJointBranches0544.xml). Note: This entry was corrected on November 7, 2003, and expanded on June 25, 2005.

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