Class Struggle and the Wobblies
In theory the IAM endorsed the class struggle. It was
mentioned approvingly in the preamble to the Grand Lodge
constitution almost from the time of the founding. In fact, however,
early members barred from their association those who needed
unionism the most; the unskilled and the semi-skilled. Machinists
were convinced their organizational strength depended on skills, not
numbers. They believed this had been proven by the disintegration of
the Knights of Labor, the smashing of Deb's one big railway union
and the rout of the striking steelworkers at Homestead.
Rejected by most old-time AFL craft unions, unskilled and
semi-skilled workers gravitated to a more radical organization, the
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905 by a group
that included Eugene Debs and "Mother" Jones. Also known
as the "Wobblies" the IWW was "one big union" of
radical hell-raisers. They were led by a big, brawling former miner
with a booming voice know as "Big Bill" Haywood. He was
openly and proudly committed to destruction of the employer class
and the "capitalist state." The Preamble to the IWW's
Constitution began with a ringing declaration that the "Working
class and the employing class have nothing in common."
Employers and the press depicted the IWW as an organization of the
unwashed and unwanted; popular cartoonists pretended the initials
stood for "I Won't Work."
Since the IWW
considered itself to be at war with capitalism it openly advocated
sabotage and did not hesitate to use violence in organizing workers,
black and white, immigrants and the unskilled, into "One Big
Union." IWW organizers were a reckless, brawling,
hell-bent-for-leather, irreverent and singing bunch of agitators.
They led many bitterly fought strikes of mill workers, copper
miners, lumber men, ranch hands, dock wallopers and others who had
been by-passed by what the IWW called the "American Separation
of Labor." Two of the strikes for which they were best
remembered shut down the textile industry in Lawrence and the silk
mills in Patterson. Adopting a tactic developed by the European
labor movement the IWW sent strikes' children to live with working
families in other cities, so that the workers would know their
children would eat even if the parents starved.
and intellectuals of the period romanticized the IWW. They raised
funds, wrote articles and made speeches. But they were rarely found
in the mining camps or other outposts where the real battles were
fought. They had little understanding of the depths of the
desperation that drove workers into unequal battles--like the Ludlow
Massacre in Colorado--in response to the misery of their daily
In the decade or so in which the IWW flourished, it
attacked craft unions as vigorously as it did employers and
government. Shortly after the IWW's founding, an editorial in the Journal
accused it of calling IAM officers "thieves and fakers"
and of raiding the IAM's membership. According to Wilson the IWW was
"preying upon legitimate trade unions, causing dissension in
the ranks and recruiting among the disloyal, the disgruntled and the
weak its false teachings had created."
into IAM membership never became extensive. But after 1905,
delegates to IAM conventions began adding and strengthening
provisions authorizing expulsion of members circulating
"malicious or untrue statements" or impugning the motives
of any officer or member.
Like the majority of Americans,
most machinists abhorred the violence inherent in Haywood's gospel
of revolutionary class warfare. Numerous writings in the Journal
indicate that even if Haywood had been a moderate in the mold of
Debs. machinists would see "one big union" as a threat to
the value of their superior skills. A recurring fear, evident in the
pages of the Journal, was that the IWW's brand of unionism
would cheapen the trade by destroying the pride machinists felt for
Though membership reached a peak of 200,000 by
the eve of World War I, the IWW was eventually crushed by the power
of the United States Government. Under wartime espionage laws,
federal agents suppressed IWW publications, jailed more than 150
officers and scattered the membership with threats, harassment,
prosecution and deportation.
The Wobblies left a legacy of
the labor movement's best-known songs, including "Solidarity
Forever," "Joe Hill" and "Pie in the Sky."
Their deeper significance was in paving the way for the CIO and
industrial unionism less than a generation later. Although finally
overwhelmed by the awesome power of the Federal Government, the IWW
proved that semi-skilled and even unskilled industrial workers could
be welded into a cohesive, militant, effective union organization.
When the IAM finally began to organize industrial workers in the
1930's IAM representatives found embers of IWW ardor still glowing,
waiting to be sparked into militant unionism once more.