“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 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 earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”

—from the Preamble to the IWW Constitution

In THE WARLOCK’S CURSE, one of my favorite characters is Harley Briar, a labor organizer with the Detroit IWW. When he’s not rallying the workers at the “Big Three” magical factories, he haunts the so-called “slave markets,” where the unemployed gather to seek work despite the ruinous placement fees charged by the “sharks.” As the life of my main character (Will Edwards) devolves into chaos and disorder, Briar ultimately becomes his guide and mentor through a very unsettled time in American history.

Because I think Briar kicks ass all up and down Grand River Avenue, and in honor of International Worker’s Day, I thought I’d write a bit about the IWW—or, as they’re better known, the Wobblies.


 The first labor unions in the United States—craft or trade unions—had their roots in the old guild system. They were federations of workers united by a common profession or craft, such as cigarmakers, leatherworkers, or typesetters. In THE NATIVE STAR, the Witches’ Friendly Society (for which Penelope Pendennis worked as an union representative) was a craft union. (You will, I trust, pardon the pun.)

Members of these kinds of unions possessed specialized skills, usually developed through lengthy apprenticeships. Their bargaining power came from the fact that they were difficult workers to replace.

The foreign-born workers flooding into the new mass-production factories, on the other hand, were not difficult to replace. In fact, with thousands of hungry new immigrants continuing to arrive on America’s shores, they were becoming easier to replace by the day. Workers like these required a whole new kind of union—an industrial union.

In an industrial union, all workers in the same industry—regardless of skill or trade—were organized into one collective unit. This allowed the unskilled workers to leverage the skilled workers’ greater bargaining power. But organizing these two classes of labor into a unified whole wasn’t easy. Convincing the skilled workers that they should be concerned with the fate of their comrades was a hard sell—as was convincing the lower-paid workers that the interests of their higher-paid brethren weren’t far more closely aligned with the bosses’ than with their own.

The Knights of Labor, established in 1869, were one of the earliest industrial unions. They promoted “the social and cultural uplift of the workingman [and] rejected Socialism and radicalism.” They had some notable victories (they are largely to thank for the 8 hour work day) and suffered some notable setbacks. The infamous Haymarket Massacre, which we commemorate today, occurred during a strike led by the Knights in 1886. (As an interesting side-note, the Knights did not want to see May 1 enshrined as the official “Labor Day,” fearing it would become a commemoration of the violence and not the principles behind it. They instead favored the current date in September.)

By 1900, however, plagued by autocratic structure, mismanagement, and unsuccessful strikes, the Knights of Labor had all but disbanded. The remaining faithful—including the majority of New York City’s District Assembly 49—joined the Industrial Workers of the World at its founding convention in Chicago in 1905.


“Syndicalism: an economic system proposed as a replacement for capitalism and an alternative to state socialism, which uses federations of collectivised trade unions or industrial unions. It is a form of socialist economic corporatism that advocates interest aggregation of multiple non-competitive categorised units to negotiate and manage an economy.”

Melvyn Dubofsky, “We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World

Mixing syndicalist philosophy, anarchist ideals, and Marxist ideological principles, the Industrial Workers of the World brought a fresh revolutionary zeal combined with a keen sense of propaganda. Disdaining the conservative motto “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage” that had guided the English working-class movement since the mid-1800s, they advocated instead for the wholesale abolition of the wage system. Their ultimate goal was to combine the American working class (and eventually wage earners worldwide) into “one big union” composed of discrete industrial departments, as outlined in Father Haggerty’s famous “Wheel of Fortune“:

The wheel has been slightly amended over the years. Three new Industrial Unions were added since this graphic was produced: Data Storage and Retrieval Workers Industrial Union 570 (since combined with IU 560); Household Service Workers Industrial Union 680; and Sex Trade Workers Industrial Union 690

These departments were designed to act as syndicalist shadows of American capitalism, so that after the revolution they could quickly step forward to govern the workers’ commonwealth.

Having evolved from the Knights of Labor and organizations like them, the Wobblies took many important lessons from their predecessors. Like the Knights (who frequently included music in their regular meetings and encouraged local members to write and perform their work) the Wobblies recognized the power of the protest song (which would be taken to famous heights by the labor troubador Joe Hill.)

And though the the Knights of Labor had a problematic track record when it came to inclusiveness (they were strong supporters of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and were responsible for race riots that resulted in the deaths of about 28 Chinese Americans in the Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming, and an estimated 50 African-American sugar-cane laborers in the 1887 Thibodaux massacre in Louisiana) they did (after 1878) accept women and blacks as members, and advocated for their admission into local assemblies. The Wobblies significantly expanded upon these early efforts, and were strong advocates for the rights of the disenfranchised.


“Never attracting more than 5% of all trade unionists, the IWW looks like a grandiose failure—though in its heyday it was feared as a sinister plot, hatched by foreigners, anarchists, and Bolsheviks, against the American way of life.”

—Patrick Renshaw, ”The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States

The IWWs heyday was between 1905 and 1924. But even during that period, the IWW’s membership rarely exceeded 100,000, and the movement was constantly beset by factional squabbles.

In the time that THE WARLOCK’S CURSE is set, there existed a distinct (and rancorous) division between the Chicago IWW (the “Red IWW”) and the Detroit IWW (the “Yellow IWW.”) The Chicago wing—more anarchist in tone—entirely rejected political action as a means to emancipate the working class from wage slavery.

“Dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation for the working class, and to my thinking it never will,” argued Father Haggerty, maverick Roman Catholic priest and one of the movement’s early leaders.

Socialist firebrand Daniel DeLeon took the opposite view.“Thanks to universal suffrage, the ultimate, bloodless socialist revolution will be achieved at the ballot box.”

Sometimes called “The Pope” for his doctrinaire approach (he once “excommunicated” his own son for daring to question his interpretation of Marx’s Theory of Value) DeLeon advocated a mix of political action coupled with economic organization. At the 1905 convention in Chicago, DeLeon succeeded in having language included in the IWW constitution that recognized the need for the organization to agitate “on the political, as well as on the industrial field … without affiliation with any political party.” But this accommodation was not to last. The language was later removed from the preamble, and DeLeon was formally expelled from the Chicago IWW (after calling proponents of that organization “slum proletarians.”) In response, he formed the rival “Yellow IWW”—who later renamed themselves the Workers’ International Industrial Union (WIIU). The WIIU never conducted a strike of any importance, never claimed a very large membership, and was disbanded in 1925.


Despite these internecine squabbles and organizational challenges, the Wobblies played a key role in several significant actions between 1905 and 1917—including the McKees Rocks strike of 1909; the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and the 1913 Paterson silk strike in New Jersey—as well as numerous smaller strikes on the East Coast, in the grain fields of the Plains states, at lawless logging camps and mining towns in the Rocky Mountains, the Far West, and the South. Much of their success during those years came from their masterful employment of propaganda, especially song. The lyrics—which Wobbly folk poets wrote to hymn tunes and the popular melodies of the day—were disseminated through the IWW’s “Little Red Songbook,” and were often sung in the strikers’ native language.

They were “one of the few radical movements ever to possess a sense of humor,” wrote Walter Rideout, a student of the radical literary tradition in the United States. “The IWW was … a revolution with a singing voice.”

“It was the first strike I ever saw which sang,” added Ray Stannard Baker, young Progressive journalist. “I shall not soon forget the curious life, the strange sudden fire of the mingled nationalities at the strike meetings when they broke into song.”


The wave of xenophobia and war hysteria that resulted from the United States’ entry into WWI had disastrous consequences for radical and socialist groups like the IWW. The organization’s philosophical opposition to war, as well as their largely immigrant membership, made them a lightning-rod for patriotic opprobrium. When the IWW led strikes against wage cuts and soaring wartime profits in Arizona metal mines, the copper trust and local press denounced them (predicably) as “pro-German.” Members lived under constant threat of beatings, deportation, shooting and lynching from self-appointed vigilante groups and “superpatriots.” But it was persecution by local, state and Federal authorities that would, in the long run, prove far more damaging.

On September 5, 1917, the Department of Justice conducted simultaneous raids on 48 IWW Local halls across the country, seizing five tons of letters and other documents. The seized materials formed the basis of an indictment by the Grand Jury of the United States Federal Court in Illinois that followed on September 28. The Grand Jury charged 165 IWW leaders on five counts:

  • Using force to “prevent, hinder, and delay” the execution of eleven different Acts of Congress and Presidental Proclamations covering the war program;
  • Conspiracy to “injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate” those who wished to enjoy the Constitutional right and privilege of executing contracts without interference;
  • Conspiracy to procure people to refuse to register for military service and encourage desertion from the armed forces;
  • Conspiracy to cause military insubordination; and
  • Conspiracy to defraud employers

Given the prevailing political climate, it seemed clear that the indicted Wobblies could expect little more than a judicial railroading. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (an organizer for the IWW in its early years who had been expelled in 1916 for “lack of solidarity”) advocated that indicted members resist arrest. IWW leadership, however, took a different view. Secretary-treasurer “Big Bill Haywood” saw the impending trial as an opportunity to spread IWW propaganda, and ordered all indicted members to submit to arrest. (Of course, when it came time for “Big Bill” to go to jail, he skipped bail and fled to Russia, where he would live out the rest of his days. After his death, his partial remains were ultimately interred in the Kremlin alongside revolutionary journalist John Reed’s.)

The arrested Wobblies—101 of them—spent almost seven months awaiting trial in the “verminous” Cook County jail in Chicago. The trial opened on April 1, 1918, and continued through August. After five months in court hearing evidence which ran to a million words, the jury reached their verdict on all the separate cases in less than an hour, finding all the defendants guilty. Sentences of up to 35 years were handed out, along with total fines amounting to over $2.5 million. Even in the face of this crushing defeat, the Wobblies did not entirely lose their sense of humor. Philadelphia waterfront workers’ leader Ben Fletcher cracked, “Judge Landis has been using bad English today—his sentences are too long.”

The government did not stop with this victory. The Deportation Act of 1918 gave President Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer sweeping rights to launch an unprecedented series of attacks on radical and socialist groups across the country. These notorious and violent “Palmer Raids” resulted in the summary deportation of nearly 250 people, including anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. During one of these Palmer Raids on an IWW office, the Feds even confiscated Joe Hill‘s ashes. (They would not be recovered until the late 1980s, under the Freedom of Information Act.) The Palmer Raids were completely unconstitutional—even J. Edgar Hoover, Palmer’s assistant at the time, admitted that—but they represented the very first flowering of the Red Scare that would come to dominate American politics in the decades to come.


After 1918, with most of the IWW leadership in jail serving lengthy terms, the Wobblies were outflanked on the extreme left of the political spectrum by the Communists, who—after the Bolshevik Revolution—had become the new focus for the world revolutionary cause. The IWW soon found itself split between three rival factions—the Communists (who wanted the IWW to merge into the Red International of Labor Unions) the anarchists (who wished to remain completely politically unaffiliated), and the traditionalists (who wanted the organization to carry on as it always had.) In 1923, after a successful amnesty campaign, the last of the Wobblies who’d been jailed in 1918 were released by President Coolidge. They emerged to find an IWW that was much different than it had been just a few years earlier. Riven with dissention, the final schism occurred at the union’s convention in 1924 when the organization split roughly along Communist and anti-Communist lines.


By the 1930s, with their membership reduced to a bare minimum, much of the work that the IWW had pioneered was taken over by the CIO. CIO leaders borrowed many strike techniques first used by the Wobblies as they assumed the task of organizing workers on an industrial rather than a craft basis. And the political climate that the CIO operated under ensured them far greater success—under the New Deal, unionization was protected by law. The CIO’s focus on improving living and working conditions for its members—instead of the larger goal of revolution—also won it greater support. And as the demographics of the membership shifted (with the predominantly immigrant membership of the 1910s replaced from the 1930s onward by their American-born children) the CIO found the task of organization easier thanks to greater commonalities of language and cultural assimilation.


The IWW is still in existence today, and since the early 1990s has been experiencing a renewed growth in membership and activity. Recent actions have included General Strikes in Oakland and Wisconsin, as well as the organization of workers in food service industries such as Jimmy John’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks. With their support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, one can only hope that the 21st century will be kinder to the Wobblies than the 20th.


One Response to The Wobblies: A Brief History

  1. Dante Blando says:

    Hey, I had Dubofsky as a professor back at SUNY-Binghamton! Great guy. 

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