Today in the Americas, the Wobblies

iww founding convention 1905

It is the 104th anniversary (1905) of the founding of the International Workers of the World (IWW). Their impact on labor and social relations in the first half of the twentieth century cannot be overstated, although today the IWW has fewer 2,000 members.

On this day, the first day of the conference, Big Bill Haywood, opened the convention by stating:

“This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have big bill haywoodfor its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism…

The aims and objects of this organization should 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, is not a working class movement. It does not represent the working class…

What we want to establish at this time is a labor organization that will open wide its doors to every man that earns his livelihood either by his brain or his muscle. There is a great work to be accomplished at this convention, and every one of you must recognize the responsibility that rests upon you.”

Just like today, in 1904, labor unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were either too conservative or could not garner enough solidarity to push for worker demands. Thus, socialists and anarchists who affiliated with mainstream labor unions, like American Labor Union or the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (both merged with the IWW), were left scattered across the country and with no influence on labor negotiations.

In January of 1905, a manifesto was drafted that became the basis for the June conference and the founding of the IWW. It called for a labor movement that was inclusive, not exclusive (the largest union at the the time, the AFL, was still one devoted to the separation of crafts, and thus, the segregation of unions and the stifling of solidarity). Excerpts from the manifesto, which was read aloud at the first day of the convention in Chicago, can be read here. In sum:


Universal economic evils afflicting the working class can be eradicated only by a universal working class movement. Such a movement of the working class is impossible while separate craft and wage agreements are made favoring the employer against other crafts in the same industry…


One obligation for all.

A union man once and in one industry, a union man always and in all industries.

Universal transfers.

Universal label.

An open union and a closed shop.

The manifesto was approved today in 1905, signed by the likes of Haywood, Eugene Debs, Daniel De Leon, Thomas J Hagerty, Lucy Parsons, and others. Thus, the Western Federation of Miners (27,000 members), American Labor Union (16,750 members), United Metal Workers (3,000 members), United Brotherhood of Railway Employees (2,087 members), and the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (1,450 members) merged into the IWW. (Click to read Howard Zinn’s account from “A People’s History of the United States”).

The insistence upon “industrial unionism” instead of “craft unionism” set the precedent for the twentieth century and continues, by and large, today. While American unions today are continually being gutted and subjected to state and federal governments who openly disapprove, the IWW attempted to bring all workers of the world under one umbrella to stave off a storm like the one seen today. As the Wobblies fell, so did American unionism.

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~ by Daniel on June 27, 2009.

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