- Historic Sites
Here Come The Wobblies!
To the hard-bitten laborers of the I.W.W., the union was a home, a church, and a holy crusade.
June 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 4
The opening years of the organization’s life were not promising. Its founding fathers were numerous and diverse—discontented trade unionists, Socialists like Eugene V. Debs and the whiskered, professorial Daniel De Leon, and veterans of almost every other left-wing crusade of the preceding twenty years. There was among them all, a recent I.W.W. historian has written, “such a warfare as can be found only between competing radicals.” They were, however, united in objecting to the craft-union principles of A.F.L. chieftain Samuel Gompers, whom Haywood described as “a squat specimen of humanity” with “small snapping eyes, a hard cruel mouth,” and “a personality vain, conceited, petulant and vindictive.”
Gompers’ plan of organizing only skilled craftsmen and negotiating contracts aimed only at securing a better life from day to day struck the I.W.W.’s founders not only as a damper upon whatever militancy the labor movement might generate to challenge capitalism, but also as a betrayal of the unskilled laborers, who would be left to shift for themselves. The new leaders therefore created a “single industrial union,” as far removed from craft divisions as possible.
All industrial labor was to be divided into thirteen great, centrally administered divisions—building, manufacturing, mining, transportation, public service, etc. Within each of these would be subgroups. But each such group would take in all employees contributing to that industry’s product or service. On the steam railroads, as an instance, clerks, telegraphers, and trackwalkers would share power and glory with engineers, brakemen, and conductors. A grievance of one lowly set of workers in a single shop could bring on a strike that would paralyze a whole industry. And some day, on signal from the One Big Union, all workers in all industries would throw the “Off” switch, and the wage system would come tumbling down.
Much of the scheme came from the brain and pen of a priest, Father Thomas Hagerty, who while serving mining parishes in the Rockies had come to believe in Marx as well as Christ. He had the scheme of industrial unionism all worked out in a wheel-shaped chart, with the rim divided into the major industries and the hub labelled “General Administration.” Gompers looked at a copy of it in a magazine and snarled: “Father Hagerty’s Wheel of Fortune!” He did not expect it to spin very long.
Nor, during the I.W.W.’s first three years of existence, did it seem likely to. Factional quarrels wracked national headquarters and the Western Federation of Miners, the biggest single block in the entire I.W.W. structure, pulled out. By spring of 1908 the organization, whose paper strength was perhaps 5,000 but whose actual roster was probably much thinner, was broke and apparently heading toward the graveyard that seems to await all clique-ridden American radical bodies.
But the death notices were premature. The headquarters brawls were among and between trade unionists and Socialists, and the I.W.W.’s future was, as it turned out, linked to neither group. It belonged to a rank-and-file membership that was already formulating surprise tactics and showing plenty of vigor. In Schenectady, New York, for example, I.W.W.-led strikers in a General Electric plant protested the firing of three draftsmen by staying at their machines for sixty-five hours, a use of the sit-down strike thirty years before it was introduced by the auto workers as a radical measure during the Great Depression. In Goldfield, Nevada, the I.W.W. under thirty-one-year-old Vincent St. John organized the town’s hotel and restaurant workers into a unit with the local silver and gold miners. This unlikely combination of hash-slingers and miners, an extreme example of industrial unionism, forced the town’s employers to boost wage scales, temporarily at least, to levels of five dollars per eight-hour day for skilled underground workers, down to three dollars and board for eight hours of dishwashing by the lowly “pearl divers.” It seemed to be clear proof that “revolutionary industrial unionism” could work. The fiery St. John was even able to close down the mines one January day in 1907 for a protest parade—on behalf of Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone, three officers of the miners’ union who had been arrested (they were later acquitted) in the bomb-killing of former Governor Frank Steunenberg of Idaho. St. John’s parade brought three thousand unionists into the small-town streets “all wearing tiny red flags.”