by Robert G. Rodden

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. 

Reformers 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 lives.

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."

IWW inroads 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 their craft.

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.

Vigilantes and a Case of Mistaken Identity, Socialism in The IAM,
The IAM and Scientific Management



Comments or Suggestions? E-mail the Communications Officer
of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright