The Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) was founded in 1905 by "seasoned old unionists" who were dissatisfied with contemporary movements to organize American laborers. The most powerful existing organization of workers was the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a gathering of specialized craft unions that actually fought against other emerging solidarity unions of all types of workers, skilled or unskilled. Many who opposed the AFL in favor of inclusive unions were already active in existing labor movements and argued amongst themselves as to worthy theory and policy to pursue. It was into this chaotic landscape that the I.W.W. was born.
Six men met in Chicago in November of 1904 to set about correcting the inadequacies of the American labor movement. All six men already belonged to unions of their own: Clarence Smith, secretary of the American Labor Union; Thomas Haggerty, editor of that union's newspaper; George Estes and W.L. Hall, president and secretary of the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees; Isaac Cowan, American representative of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers; and William E. Trautman, editor of the official publication of the United Brewery Workmen organization. To avoid complications within their respective unions, the six met in secret. Others labor organizers, such as the future I.W.W. leader Gene Debs, knew about the meeting but were unable to attend.
The men weighed the question of whether or not scattered and sputtering craft unions could be re-organized alongside millions of unskilled laborers. Figuring it was worth a try, the men invited 36 prominent labor leaders to attend a second secret meeting to be held the following January. Only 25 of these leaders attended the meeting. They moved forward nonetheless, officially founding the I.W.W. on June 27, 1905 with a start-up membership of just over two hundred men and women.
Calling their founding convention "the Continental Congress of the working class, "William D. Haywood, then Secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, sought to make the I.W.W. an organization open to workers of all types. Unlike the AFL, which excluded non-whites, women, the unskilled, and the foreign born, the I.W.W. poised itself as a movement available to all varieties of workers. Within a year, the I.W.W. grew to a membership of 3,000 workers, thanks to their inclusive policies.
Four phases of the I.W.W.:
From its founding in 1905 through about 1911, the I.W.W. refined its policies and sought to establish viable local chapters in as many cities and states as possible. It was during this initial period of growth that the "Wobblies," as they came to be called, achieved a reputation for their tenacious and effective strikes. Coupled with their efforts to gain a greater measure of free speech for political and economic dissidents, the I.W.W. became both a respected and hated labor organization. Due to their leftist hopes of destroying the wage system, the I.W.W. lost the support of many industrial unions that were interested in labor reform, not labor revolution. The Wobbly goal of giving ownership and management of industrial production to the workers was too Socialist for many organizations who simply wanted to barter for better wages, not strive to dismantle the employer-employee system.
Despite disagreements with other labor organizations, the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World grew. Spurred on by a success in the textile industry in 1912, the I.W.W. became increasingly effective as a trade union. It won support among harvest workers, lumberjacks, miners, longshoremen, and mariners. Glory was short-lived, however, as the federal government, under the political weight of angry corporations, moved to stifle the organization's growth.
Beginning in 1917, the federal government used World War I as a rationale to harass and imprison Wobblies. Citing that agitation during wartime was equivalent to treason, the federal government put the I.W.W. into a defensive posture, slowing their growth and hampering their attempts at continued labor consolidation. During this time, union resources had to be spent on legal defense against state and federal attacks. Another setback was the formation of an American Communist movement, which led to an ideological splintering of the union. Coupled with infiltration and sabotage by government and company agents, the I.W.W. suffered an organizational schism in 1924.
Since that year, the I.W.W. has lost its organizational power and become a marginal political factor. Though the association lives on today, with chapters in dozens of cities around the world, the Wobblies lack the organizational power they once enjoyed. Lacking the central power and labor support it once enjoyed, the I.W.W. has since developed pronounced anarchist overtones while simultaneously becoming a popular source of mythmaking and legend.