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Persecution of the Industrial Workers of the World

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed in June 1905. It was known as the Wobblies and it aimed to improve the working conditions in industrial enterprises in the United States. Corporate America was the sworn enemy of the IWW and employed sometimes violent tactics to crush it.

America's Gilded Age

The period from 1870 to 1900 was dubbed America's Gilded Age by Mark Twain in his 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.

It certainly was gilded if your name was Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, or John D. Rockefeller. These men have been collectively called Robber Barons, which Merriam-Webster tells us were American capitalists “who became wealthy through exploitation (as of natural resources, governmental influence, or low wage scales).”

While they erected gaudy mansions as testaments to their astounding business acumen their employees toiled in unsafe workplaces for pitiful pay packets.

Typically, workers put in 12-hour days, six days a week, and there were no regulations to protect them from abuse. Large numbers of children were employed in mines, cotton mills, and other factories. If a worker was crippled or killed there was always a plentiful supply of Europe's overpopulated masses to fill the gaps.

To protect themselves from being taken advantage of, workers began to form unions to push for better conditions. The Industrial Workers of the World was in the forefront of the union movement.

Andrew Carnegie fills his pockets with gold from the labour of others.

Andrew Carnegie fills his pockets with gold from the labour of others.

The Industrial Workers of the World Formed

Unions had formed as early as the 1860s, but they rarely had any effect against the opposition of business owners.

In 1904, six union leaders met in Chicago to talk about forming a working-class organization to counter the power of the capitalists. This gathering led to the founding convention of the IWW in June 1905.

The leader of the Western Federation of Miners, Big Bill Haywood spoke to the delegates:

“We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism . . . The aims and objectives of this organization shall 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.”

Within a few months, Bill Haywood along with colleagues Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone were under arrest, charged with murder. The men were nowhere near the scene of the crime and the case against the men fell apart as the chief witness proved to be an unreliable scoundrel.

This was a foretaste of the kind of treatment the members of the Wobblies (IWW) were going to receive.

Big Bill Haywood (tall man in bowler hat) leads workers in the 1912 Lowell, Massachusetts textile strike.

Big Bill Haywood (tall man in bowler hat) leads workers in the 1912 Lowell, Massachusetts textile strike.

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The Spokane Free-Speech Fight

In the Pacific Northwest there was a loathsome species of characters known as “employment sharks.” Jim Kershner (The Spokesman-Review) explains the scheme: “Dozens of employment agencies in downtown Spokane were charging loggers and miners $1 for a job and then splitting the fee with employers who would fire the worker after only a day or two. Then the worker would have to go back to the agency and pay another dollar for a job.”

The IWW membership drives were particularly successful in Western America and they were keen to stop this practice, by making speeches in the streets. The city of Spokane, Washington wanted to put a stop to that so it passed an ordinance banning public speaking on downtown streets. The Wobblies put out a call for supporters to go to Spokane to “fill the jails.” And, they did.

Starting on November 2, 1909, activists took turns climbing onto a soapbox and speaking, only to be arrested. Within a few weeks, 500 people were clogging up the jail and the city had to accommodate them in a school. Housing and feeding them all got expensive and the city was ridiculed for its actions. In March 1910, Spokane repealed the law and the Wobblies moved on to other battles, many of which did not end peacefully.

The Free Speech campaign was used successfully in other locations causing authorities to deal with the unsupportable locking up of more than 5,000 IWW members between 1908 and 1916.

The Everett Massacre

Bloody Sunday occurred when 300 IWW members turned up in Everett, Washington. It was November 5, 1916 and the Wobblies were there to hold one of their “Free Speech Fights” as they had done in Spokane. They arrived in a boat at the Everett dock to be met by a couple of hundred police and deputized vigilantes.

The union men went to Everett “after IWW organizers had been run out of town and beaten by business owner vigilantes due to their support of a shingle weavers' strike” (University of Washington). An argument with the county sheriff occurred about whether the men could land on the dock, and then a shot was fired.

The passengers rush to the side of the boat away from the dock causing the vessel to heel over, pitching some into the water. A few drowned but it's not known how many.

Nobody knows who fired first as both sides were armed but a ten-minute gun battle followed. Five IWW members were killed and 27 wounded. The sheriff's men outgunned the Wobblies and suffered two dead and between 16 and 20 wounded. The two deputies that were killed were actually shot by their own side.

Cartoon from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company magazine in 1912.

Cartoon from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company magazine in 1912.

Suppression of the Wobblies

The IWW and its followers (by 1917 there were 150,000 members) were not angels and they flirted with anarchy and communism. The union opposed America joining World War I on the grounds that capitalists stood to make money while workers were the ones who did the fighting and dying. The Industrial Worker, the IWW's newspaper, wrote “Capitalists of America, we will fight against you, not for you! There is not a power in the world that can make the working class fight if they refuse.”

Newspaper cartoon from the Wyoming Examiner portraying the IWW as allies of Germany.

Newspaper cartoon from the Wyoming Examiner portraying the IWW as allies of Germany.

Governments at every level worked to suppress the IWW, and the union's opposition to the war was generally unpopular with mainstream America. One of the IWW's most vocal war opponents, Frank Little, was lynched in Butte, Montana in August 1917.

No one was prosecuted for Little's murder but it's almost certain it was because of his union activities. Suspicion fell on men who were employed as vigilantes by the Anaconda Mining Company.

Washington clamped down on the Wobblies, carrying out raids on their offices and union halls and seizing documents. An article posted on notes that “Thousands of members, along with other anarchists and socialists, were harassed, arrested, imprisoned, and deported as the state attempted to destroy the IWW.”

From the papers seized in the raids, the Justice Department built a case under the Espionage Act for hindering the war effort. In his Chicago courtroom, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis presided over the trial of 101 defendants, including IWW leader Bill Haywood.

The trial lasted five months at the end of which all those charged were convicted. Judge Landis handed down sentences of between 10 days and 20 years. Bill Haywood drew the longest term but was allowed out on bail. He took the opportunity to flee America for the Soviet Union, where he lived until he died in 1928 at the age of 59.

The IWW regrouped after the war, but internal squabbles weakened the organization and it was never able to recover its revolutionary strength.

With about 8,000 members, the union still tries to organize workers where it believes they are oppressed. A recent focus of their activities has been in the fast food industry.

Bonus Factoids

  • In November 1917, police rounded up 16 IWW men in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The cops then handed them over to the Knights of Liberty, a minor branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The Wobblies were taken at gunpoint to a ravine where they were stripped, tied to trees, and whipped. The secretary of the Tulsa IWW reported “After each one was whipped another man applied the tar with a large brush, from the head to the seat. Then a brute smeared feathers over and rubbed them in . . . After they had satisfied themselves that our bodies were well abused, our clothing was thrown into a pile, gasoline poured on it, and a match applied. By the light of our earthly possessions, we were ordered to leave Tulsa, and leave running and never come back.”
  • The Bisbee deportation saw the U.S. Government remove as many as 1.8 million people, many of them American citizens, and send them to Mexico. It was an attempt to preserve “American jobs for real Americans,” and to crush IWW copper miners who were on strike for better wages and safer working conditions. You can read more about this here.
  • Joe Hill, whose original name was Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, was a labour organizer with the IWW and songwriter. Originally from Sweden, he was arrested in January 1914 and charged with robbery and murder in Salt Lake City. The case against him was entirely circumstantial but he was, nonetheless, found guilty. The night before his execution by firing squad he sent a telegram to Big Bill Haywood: “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste time in mourning. Organize.”


  • “Arrests, Prosecutions, Beatings, and other Violence 1906-1920.” IWW History Project, University of Washington, undated.
  • “America's Gilded Age: Robber Barons and Captains of Industry.” Maryville University, undated.
  • “Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)” Ross Rieder,, December 8, 1999.
  • “Industrial Workers of the World Photograph Collection: Everett Massacre, 1916.” Washington University, undated.
  • “1905-Today: The Industrial Workers of the World in the US.” Steve,, September 17, 2006.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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