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Lessons from the Wobblies for Labor Activism Today

Despite their failure to achieve their ultimate goal, the IWW and its resilient members can be examples for the resurgent unions of today.

In the late 1910s and early 1920s, the Industrial Workers of the World was the target of the most intensive campaign of state-sponsored repression in American history. A story of violence, law, and class conflict in the waning years of the progressive era, what happened to the union is a lesson about the place of labor radicalism in liberal society that’s still relevant today. One that seems relevant in imagining what will become of the unexpected surge of labor activism over the last few years.

The IWW was founded in 1905 with the purpose of organizing the industrial working class and leading a massive general strike that would demolish the “wage-labor” system and pave the way for a workers’ commonwealth. For years, the union flirted with irrelevance. However, by the time the United States entered the First World War, it claimed over 100,000 members, had organized several times that number, and had become a potent force, especially among migratory workers west of the Mississippi River. This did not bring the IWW near its goal of revolution, but it did threaten the interests and values of powerful capitalists and their allies in government who had set out to destroy the union.

Between 1917 and 1925, some 500 “Wobblies,” as the union’s members were called, were imprisoned on charges of violating the Espionage Act by conspiring to undermine the war effort or committing “criminal syndicalism” by advocating violent, revolutionary change. These convictions were easily gotten, as these laws —designed to break the IWW— made membership tantamount to guilt. During this period, thousands of Wobblies were also prosecuted for vagrancy and similar crimes by a process that likewise treated IWW membership as proof of culpability.

Driven by contrived depictions of the Wobblies as violent and seditious, this campaign to crush the IWW went beyond legal repression, featuring widespread, sometimes deadly vigilantism as well as the occasional framing of union members for serious crimes. Part of the “Red Scare,” the persecution of the IWW and its members extended well past the point at which that chapter in American history ostensibly ended, lasting as long as the IWW remained viable.


The Surprisingly Socialist History of America

Although the IWW never achived their ultimate goal of overthrowing the capitalist state, their efforts to support the American worker are worthy of examination.