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date: 08 December 2021

Industrial Workers of the Worldlocked

Industrial Workers of the Worldlocked

  • Peter ColePeter ColeDepartment of History, Western Illinois University

Summary

Perhaps the most important radical labor union in U.S. history, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) continues to attract workers, in and beyond the United States. The IWW was founded in 1905 in Chicago—at that time, the greatest industrial city in a country that had become the world’s mightiest economy. Due to the nature of industrial capitalism in what, already, had become a global economy, the IWW and its ideals quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. The Wobblies, as members were and still are affectionately known, never were as numerically large as mainstream unions, but their influence, particularly from 1905 into the 1920s, was enormous.

The IWW captured the imaginations of countless rebellious workers with its fiery rhetoric, daring tactics, and commitment to revolutionary industrial unionism. The IWW pledged to replace the “bread and butter” craft unionism of the larger, more mainstream American Federation of Labor (AFL), with massive industrial unions strong enough to take on ever-larger corporations and, ultimately, overthrow capitalism to be replaced with a society based upon people rather than profit. In the United States, the union grew in numbers and reputation, before and during World War I, by organizing workers neglected by other unions—immigrant factory workers in the Northeast and Midwest, migratory farmworkers in the Great Plains, and mine, timber, and harvest workers out West. Unlike most other unions of that era, the IWW welcomed immigrants, women, and people of color; truly, most U.S. institutions excluded African Americans and darker-skinned immigrants as well as women, making the IWW among the most radically inclusive institutions in the country and world.

Wobbly ideas, members, and publications soon spread beyond the United States—first to Mexico and Canada, then into the Caribbean and Latin America, and to Europe, southern Africa, and Australasia in rapid succession. The expansion of the IWW and its ideals across the world in under a decade is a testament to the passionate commitment of its members. It also speaks to the immense popularity of anticapitalist tendencies that shared more in common with anarchism than social democracy. However, the IWW’s revolutionary program and class-war rhetoric yielded more enemies than allies, including governments, which proved devastating during and after World War I, though the union soldiered on. Even in 2020, the ideals the IWW espoused continued to resonate among a small but growing and vibrant group of workers, worldwide.

Subjects

  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Labor and Working Class History

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