Notes for Varn Vlog Episode on the I.W.W.

Preliminary questions to answer:

How have the I.W.W.’s tactics shifted over the past century?

At the outset, there were three tactical approaches that were not always compatible. There were the reformist Socialists, who believed in a tactic that had been called “boring from within”: this was a tactic of trying to convert members of existing unions to the socialist cause. There were Marxists who did not believe in “boring from within,” favoring instead the creation of new unions. Then there were the so-called “direct actionists” who we would today associate with anarchism.

The I.W.W. inherited many of its tactics from the Western Federation of Miners, who were already regular users of direct action.

I don’t know how much the menu of approved tactics have shifted. I think it’s the ingredients that have been unavailable: members.

Why has it increasingly become seen as an anarchist project?

Over time, there has been a general blurring of the distinctions between plain syndicalism (trade unionism), revolutionary syndicalism (the general strike used as a revolutionary device and perhaps the expropriation of workplaces by the unions), and anarcho-syndicalism (revolutionary syndicalism without subordination to a party or otherwise centralized political organization). The difference between non-parliamentary unionism and anti-parliamentary unionism has also become blurred. The I.W.W. had always been non-parliamentary, but it had also become more (or less) anti-parliamentary at different times. Since anarchists have been consistent revolutionaries since the times of the Saint Imier International, they often get credit for any sort of revolutionary syndicalism, even when it is not anarcho-syndicalism. The lack of revolutionary and anarcho-syndicalist organizations in the United States also contributes to the conception of the I.W.W. as anarchists. It also helps that many Wobblies were anarchists!

When did syndicalicalism and Marxism seem to be at odds in the organization and when did that tension seem resolved?

At the Industrial Union Convention of June 27, 1905 the organizations that represented the most number of workers – est. 50,287 – were The Western Federation of Miners, the American Labor Union, the United Metal Workers, the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees, and the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. Ideologically, the major split was between the reformist Socialist Party and the Marxist Socialist Labor Party. Anarchists were present, but they were not a majority faction. Opposition to waged-labor (anti-capitalism) and opposition to the A.F.L. were the common cause that united them all. Some important figures there at this time were Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones, Daniel DeLeon, William “Big Bill” Haywood, Eugene V. Debs, “Father” T. J. Hagerty, William E. Trautman, A.M. Simons, Clarence Smith, D. C. Coates, and C. O. Sherman

I haven’t seen anything that suggests that the syndicalists became specifically anti-Marxist, but the parliamentary strategies of many Marxists (reformist or revolutionary) and the preference for organizations directed by a central governing body is a chasm that probably wasn’t often bridged. It’s conceivable that some Marxists would be in favor of revolutionary syndicalism of some sort, but I don’t know how often that actually happens.

The cases I am familiar with where Marxists have adopted revolutionary (not anarcho-) syndicalism are significant, but I don’t know how many Marxists did the same. Council Communists are one example. Georges Sorel and National Syndicalists are another.

Notes from Paul Brissenden’s The I.W.W. A study of American syndicalism

Part III The Anarcho-Syndicalists [The Direct Actionists]

Chapter XI Free Speech and Sabotage

Between 1908 and 1915 there were two labor organizations with the name I.W.W.

  1. The I.W.W. of the West:
    • Anarchists
  2. The I.W.W. of the East:
    • Socialists

During the time of this split, the organization(s) barely survived.

The I.W.W. became known for their free speech activities as they were for their strike activities. Their main tactic was to allow themselves to be arrested for revolutionary speech en masse to clog the jails and administrative system. Organizing these actions was carried out by requesting a call be put out by the general office to all available locals and then locals would act on their own from there. These bouts of activism could last anywhere from a few days to a few months in a particular locality.

In September, 1911 the sixth convention was held where the question of the authority of the general administration of the rank-and-file was first considered…

The French C.G.T. was also divided at this time between revolutionary syndicalists and conservative syndicalists…

The IWW and the CGT had no direct contact until 1908. The IWW and CGT were never close collaborators, but Wobblies did learn tactics from the French syndicalists by reading the works of Pouget, Sorel, Lagardelle, and others. The IWW was also more decentralized than the CGT.

I.W.W. support for MacNamara further split Wobblies from the Socialist Party:

The Socialists objected to the whole idea of direct action, especially sabotage… In May, 1912, the Socialist Party added a clause to their constitution (in Article II, Sec. 6):
“any member of the party who opposes political action or advocates crime, sabotage, or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation shall be expelled from membership in the party…”

Vide, National Constitution of the Socialist Party (Chicago, Socialist Party, 1914).

The Socialist Party also felt that the I.W.W.’s repudiation of political action was a war on the Socialist Party. This stuff doesn’t apply to the opinions of the Socialist Labor Party, apparently.

The bridge was burned completely when William (“Big Bill) D. Haywood was recalled from the National Executive Committee of the party.

Chapter XII Lawrence and the Crest of Power

Chapter XIII Dual Unionism and Decentralization

The Syndicalist League of North America

The Syndicalist League of North America was a short-lived propaganda group that represented the French Syndicalist strategy of “boring from within” and opposed this strategy to the I.W.W.’s dual-unionism strategy. I sought to convert the A.F.L. to syndicalist positions from within instead.

The Suppression of the I.W.W.


The reasons behind the federal government’s campaign against the IWW stretched back almost to the foundation of the IWW in 1905, but the immediate cause of that campaign lay in the wider war in Europe. When the United States entered the First World War in April, 1917, the IWW became one of the leading voices against the conflict. IWW organisers roamed the United States and established powerful branches in two crucial wartime industries in particular – copper mining and lumber. They did so in the context of an industrial boom, stimulated by the demand for war material from the United States and Allied governments. That boom brought unemployment down from 15% in 1914 to 8% in 1917 and, at the same time, encouraged a wave of unrest across the entire country that broke all records for industrial conflict. Three thousand strikes took place between April and November 1917. Business and government leaders worried that these battles might hamper if not completely disrupt the war effort, and the Wilson Administration moved to grant concessions to unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor in return for industrial peace. The IWW, the most radical, anti-war and uncompromising section of the American labor movement, was marked out for repression instead.

That repression came from several quarters.

  1. Employers, particularly the Phelps Dodge Corporation, which owned a string of copper mines in Arizona, were not about to let the Wobblies lead their employees on strike.
  2. The military joined the anti-IWW crusade in earnest. The War Department claimed that during hostilities its soldiers put down twenty-nine revolts, most of which actually referred to strikes called by the IWW. Lawmakers gave army units the power to use force in defence of anything that state governors declared a “public utility.” In practice this meant that, as Robert Goldstein writes, military personnel ‘began a massive program of strike-breaking, including raids on IWW headquarters, breaking up meetings, arresting and detaining hundreds of strikers under military authority without any declaration of war, and instituting a general reign of terror against the IWW.’ Military Intelligence, which grew from 2 to 1300 employees from the beginning to the end of the war, contained a domestic counter-intelligence service, MI-4, which spent a large fraction of its resources in spying on and disrupting IWW branches across the United States. This included the Plant Protection Service, made up of informants at all the major munition plants in the country that kept tabs on the political activities of their co-workers and paid particularly close attention to the doings of the IWW.
  3. The Justice Department went farthest of all in their repression of the Wobblies. The Bureau of Investigation, founded in 1908, had only 141 employees in 1914. As war loomed the Bureau rapidly increased its force of special agents, quintupling them between 1916 and mid-1918.
  4. They could also draw on the services of 150,000 volunteer patriots grouped into the American Protective League, which acted as an auxiliary to the Bureau’s more reliable and effective force of special agents.
  5. Congress also provided the main legislative weapon that the Department used against the IWW: the Espionage Act.
  6. he Espionage Act, along with the power to raid and indict subversives of various kinds, also gave the government the power to deny the use of the US Postal Service to publications and correspondence deemed harmful to the war effort.
  7. The Criminal Syndicalist Laws
  8. Vigilante Campaigns of Terror

Criminal Syndicalist Laws

Senator W.G. Walker of Idaho, the nation’s first state to enact a criminal syndicalism law, introduced the criminal syndicalism legislation to the Senate with an anti-IWW speech.

By the year 1933, over 700 convictions of criminal syndicalism were made.

Prosecution for Sedition and Espionage

One example:

“Based in large measure on the documents seized September 5, one hundred and sixty-six IWW leaders were indicted by a Federal Grand Jury in Chicago for conspiring to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes, under the new Espionage Act. One hundred and one went on trial en masse before Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1918. Their lawyer was George Vanderveer of Seattle. They were all convicted—including those who had not been members of the union for years—and given prison terms of up to twenty years. Sentenced to prison by Judge Landis and released on bail, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union where he remained until his death.”

The Palmer Raids

The Palmer Raids were a series of raids conducted in November 1919 and January 1920 by the United States Department of Justice under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson to capture and arrest suspected socialists, especially anarchists and communists, and deport them from the United States.

The raids particularly targeted Italian immigrants and Eastern European Jewish immigrants with alleged leftist ties, with particular focus on Italian anarchists and immigrant leftist labor activists. The raids and arrests occurred under the leadership of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, with 10,000 people arrested. Though 556 foreign citizens were deported, including a number of prominent leftist leaders, Palmer’s efforts were largely frustrated by officials at the U.S. Department of Labor, which had authority for deportations and objected to Palmer’s methods.

They launched the career of J. Edgar Hoover, then only twenty-four but a rising star within the Bureau of Investigation. They also launched the Bureau as the federal government’s first line of defence against Bolshevism in particular and left-wing radicalism in general.

All the attention given to the Palmer raids, however, has obscured the first great use of the Bureau of Investigation several years earlier against a domestic enemy: the Industrial Workers of the World. On September 5, 1917, agents of the Bureau of Investigation, in conjunction with local law enforcement, raided every office of the IWW across the United States within the space of twenty four hours, with possibly the widest-ranging search warrant in US history. They took five tons of material from the national headquarters of the IWW in Chicago alone, and took tons more from 48 local offices and the homes of leading Wobblies (IWW members). Federal agents seized everything from office furniture to paper clips. The District Attorney for Detroit complained to Thomas Gregory, Attorney General from 1914 to 1919, that it ‘became necessary to procure wagons to haul the stuff’ removed from the home of only one Wobbly, Herman Richter

Some government officials claimed that the seized material ‘was sought by the government as evidence tending to connect I.W.W. leaders with the German war office.’ The District Attorney for Philadelphia hinted at other motivations when he described the September raids as done ‘very largely to put the I.W.W. out of business.’[2] Justice Department officials then used the captured documentation to prosecute more than a hundred IWW leaders at Chicago. The Chicago trial became one of the largest show trials held outside Stalin’s Russia. The defendants were all found guilty, after less than an hour’s deliberation by the jury, of more than 10,000 individual violations of federal law. Fifteen of them received twenty-year prison sentences, and though some of these sentences were later commuted the raids, trials, and other repression hamstrung the IWW at one of the most promising times in its history.

Attacks by Vigilante Groups

Beyond the reaches of the State (but not without their help!), the American Legion and some other anti-communist, patriot vigilante groups led attacks against I.W.W. members. One example from 1917:

“In 1917, during an incident known as the Tulsa Outrage, a group of black-robed Knights of Liberty tarred and feathered seventeen members of the IWW in Oklahoma. The attack was cited as revenge for the Green Corn Rebellion, a preemptive attack caused by fear of an impending attack on the oil fields and as punishment for not supporting the war effort. The IWW members had been turned over to the Knights of Liberty by local authorities after they were beaten, arrested at their headquarters and convicted of the crime of vagrancy. Five other men who testified in defense of the Wobblies were also fined by the court and subjected to the same torture and humiliations at the hands of the Knights of Liberty.”

Another example from 1919:

“The conservatism and anti-communism of the 1920s proved to be even more harmful to the I.W.W., as the events of Centralia in 1919 would show. On November 11th several American Legionnaires planned to destroy the local I.W.W. office at the end of the Armistice Day parade. Alert to the Legionnaires’ plans, the Wobblies armed themselves to protect their headquarters. After a bloody gunfight, the Legionnaires took over the I.W.W. meeting hall and captured the fleeing Wobblies. That evening, one of the captive Wobblies was removed from jail and lynched. Unlike the public sympathy that followed the Everett Tragedy, the Wobblies received little public support despite the murder or the destruction of the meeting hall.” –

Another example:

“On the evening of November 16, 1917, members of a mysterious vigilante club called “The Black Robes” tossed a club through the window of the Hoquiam IWW headquarters.  A warning tied to the club read:

“Remember the boys in France.  Feathers are light and tar is cheap.  This is for the I.W.W.”  

Warning of “Another Tulsa?,” the Wobblies’ Defense News Bulletin reprinted an article from the Chicago Post that informed its readers of the Black Robes’ message.  The reference to Tulsa was to the breakout of anti-Wobbly vigilantism that had swept throughout Oklahoma during World War I.

In Grays Harbor County, too, Wobblies had been frequent victims of brutality. Throughout the war, the Aberdeen and Hoquiam IWW halls were raided, their literature and records destroyed, and several members were made to “run the gauntlet.”  Others were tarred and feathered by businessmen and members of the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (4Ls), a military-company union labeled the “Four Hells” by the IWW (Industrial Worker, January 5, 1918).” –

And yet another example:

“In 1919, an Armistice Day parade by the American Legion in Centralia, Washington, turned into a fight between legionnaires and IWW members in which four legionnaires and a Centralia deputy sheriff were shot dead. Which side initiated the violence of the Centralia massacre is disputed. A number of IWWs were arrested, one of whom, Wesley Everest, was lynched by a mob that night.”

Schism and Defection to the Communist Party

“The twenties witnessed the defection of hundreds of Wobbly leaders (including Harrison George, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, John Reed, George Hardy, Charles Ashleigh, Earl Browder and, in his Soviet exile, Bill Haywood) and, following a path recounted by Fred Beal, thousands of Wobbly rank-and-filers to the Communists and Communist organizations.”

I.W.W. Timeline(s)

A Brief History of the IWW outside the US (1905 – 1999)

To the I.W.W. – A Special Message from the Communist International

Response to the Above from I.W.W.