Industrial Workers of the World: Definition, Goals & History

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was a radical union that was active in the first two decades of the 20th century. It attempted to organize all unskilled workers in the nation, with no preference to gender or race. Learn more about the IWW, then take a short quiz.

What Was the IWW?

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is a labor union that was founded in 1905. Whereas previous unions, especially the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded by Samuel Gompers, focused their attention on only recruiting skilled workers, the IWW focused its efforts on unskilled labor. The goal of the IWW was to organize all of the workers of the nation into the single union and then work to abolish the capitalist system.

Because the IWW focused on unskilled workers, it made efforts to organize groups that had previously been overlooked and ignored by other unions, including women, African-Americans, and immigrants. At its height in the 1910s, the IWW was strongest in the western states. It was also particularly popular among immigrant groups, such as the Finns and Italians.

The IWW was remembered for its ideology, as well as many of its more colorful aspects. Members of the union became known as Wobblies, although the reason for this nickname is unclear. Union members were given a red union card which was known as the Red Card, its color signifying the radicalism of the IWW. The Black Cat was chosen as the union's symbol to represent direct action and sabotage - which really meant things like striking on the job.

An IWW Red Card
An IWW Red Card

The IWW also produced a popular song book that contained songs written by Wobbly martyr Joe Hill, who was executed by authorities in Utah after being accused of a murder that many felt he did not commit.

Formation of the IWW

The story of the Industrial Workers of the World began in 1905 when radical unions and political groups, such as the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), Marxists, and Anarchist from across the nation met in Chicago to form a new labor union to organize the unskilled laborers in the United States and to overthrow the capitalist system.

This convention became known as the First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World. Many of the attendees were drawn from the WFM, the American Labor Union, the United Metal Workers, Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, and United Brotherhood of Railway Employees.

These Unions had all suffered problems in the past, including being targeted by government infiltration, and had had difficulty organizing. Together, they declared that the problem stemmed from the established labor union, especially the AFL, which only favored skilled workers and who they accused of working with the capitalists.

Together, the groups announced their desire unite all workers, skilled and unskilled, under 'One Big Union'. The new Union chose 'An injury to one is an injury to all' as their motto, which summed up their belief in the class struggle. The convention drew radical leaders from across the nation including figures such as Eugene V. Debs, Big Bill Hayward and Mother Jones; all figures who had spoken against the AFL in the past.

Soldiers confront strikers in Lawrence, MA
Soldiers confront strikers in Lawrence, MA

Peak Period

The IWW reached its peak in the 1910s, when it organized a strike among the textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts and secured a 5% pay raise or the workers. Following this success, the IWW grew in the West, especially among lumberjacks and miners, but also among a number of factory and dock workers. In the Pacific Northwest, the IWW was again successful when it organized the Lumber Strike of 1917, which secured an 8-hour day and improved safety conditions for lumberjacks.

The IWW organized workers By 1912, 25,000 members carried IWW membership cards. As their numbers began to increase, the union began to draw recruits from different ethnic groups, including African-Americans, Italians and Finns. In fact, the only daily newspaper associated with the IWW was the Finnish language paper The Industrialisti, published in Duluth, Minnesota. The Wobblies also proved able to organize migrant agricultural workers in the West and Southwest.

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