Political and Social Movements

Labor Unions

Who were the Wobblies?

The Wobblies were the early radical members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a union founded in 1905 by the leaders of 43 labor organizations. The group pursued short-term goals via strikes and acts of sabotage as well as the long-term goal of overthrowing capitalism and rebuilding society based on socialist principles. One IWW organizer proclaimed that the “final aim is revolution.” Their extremist views and tactics attracted national attention, making IWW and Wobblies household terms during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Founded and led by miner and socialist William “Big Bill” Haywood (1869–1928) and mine workers agitator Mary “Mother” Jones (1830–1930), the IWW aimed to unite all workers in a camp, mine, or factory for the eventual takeover of the industrial facility. The union organized strikes in lumber and mining camps in the West, in the steel mills of Pennsylvania, and in the textile mills of New England. The leadership advocated the use of violence to achieve its revolutionary goals and opposed mediation (negotiations moderated by a neutral third party), collective bargaining (bargaining between worker representatives and an employer), and arbitration (third-party mediation). The group declined during World War I (1914–18), when the IWW led strikes that were suppressed by the federal government. The organization’s leaders were arrested and the organization weakened. Haywood was convicted of sedition (inciting resistance to lawful authority) but managed to escape the country. He died in the Soviet Union, where he was given a hero’s burial for his socialist views.

The IWW never rose again to the prominent status of its early, controversial days. Many accounts of the group’s history cite its demise in the 1920s. But, according to its own statement, the organization continued to “enjoy a more or less continuous existence” into the twenty-first century. As the IWW prepared to celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary in 2005, it continued to promote its original goal of organizing workers by industry rather than trade. Under the IWW’s scheme, workers around the world would organize into one big union divided into six camps (or “departments”): agriculture and fisheries, mining and minerals, general construction, manufacture and general production, transportation and communication, and public service. In the early 2000s the IWW had a few dozen member unions in the United States, as well as branches in Australia, Japan, Canada, and the British Isles.


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