The View From 1776

IWW - Organized Crime in the Labor Market

Liberals have long sentimentalized the IWW as a rollicking, happy-go-lucky bunch who merely bargained for justice in the form of better wages and working conditions.  In fact, however, the IWW was nothing more than labor gangsterism, aimed officially at destroying our Constitutional government.

For a couple of reasons it’s useful to examine the policies and tactics of the IWW, a labor organization from the first half of the 20th century:

First, the policies espoused by the IWW still are part of the doctrine that finds favor with today’s liberal-Progressives.  John Steinbeck’s novels, for instance, depict IWW members, anarchists, and socialists as heroes struggling against the criminality of capitalism.  It’s an interesting coincidence that in the movie version of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” the workman hero was played by Henry Fonda, the father of Hanoi Jane Fonda.

Second, the IWW set the pattern for the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the CIO, the mass industrial union organized by Communist Party members Victor and Walter Reuther. Their confrontational tactics, modeled on those of the IWW, were actively supported in the 1930s by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and still by liberal-Progressives on both sides of the political aisle.  In retrospect, the excesses of industrial unionism amounted to eating their seed corn.  Unsustainably high labor costs imposed by union tactics since the 1930s threaten bankruptcies today at General Motors and Ford.  The IWW pattern of militancy temporarily improved the status of union members, but it was at the expense of today’s workers, who must face the cold forces of economic reality from the rest of the world.

Third, the avowed aims of the IWW to take over the government and reshape it into a Soviet people’s republic has to a dangerous extent been realized by today’s non-industrial unions, the teachers and government workers unions.  In that regard, see Labor Unions: Socialism’s Shock Troops and the City Journal article by Steven Malanga, The Real Engine of Blue America.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known also as the Wobblies, came into existence in 1905, because its founders believed that other labor unions were not sufficiently radical.  Initially there was close cooperation between the Socialist Party and the IWW.  Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for President, spoke at the original organizational meeting. But even the Socialists were too tame for the IWW.

In 1908, the preamble to the IWW constitution was amended to read:
“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.  There can be no peace as long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system…..

“It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.  The army of production must be organized, not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.  By organizing industrially, we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

Methods to be used for overthrowing the existing Constitutional government were described in an IWW pamphlet written by Vincent St. John:

“As a revolutionary organization the Industrial Workers of the World aims to use any and all tactics that will get the results sought with the least expenditure of time and energy.  The tactics are determined solely by the power of the organization to make good in their use.  The question of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ does not concern us….

“Where strikes are used, it aims to paralyze all branches of the industry involved….  Failing to force concessions from the employers by the strike, work is resumed and ‘sabotage’ is used to force the employers to concede the demands of the workers….. Interference by the government is resented by open violation of government orders, going to jail en masse, causing expense to the taxpayers, which is but another name for the employing class.  In short the I.W.W. advocates the use of ‘militant direct action’ to the full extent of our powers to make good.”

Sabotage was defined by other writers as slowing production rates, deliberately turning out substandard products, breaking machines, spoiling products, and generally disrupting a factory.

Such amoral tactics are essentially the same approach employed by the Mafia, with the exception that the Mafia just wants your money, but has no designs to seize revolutionary control of the United States government.

Grover H. Perry amplified the foregoing in “The Revolutionary I.W.W.” published by the IWW Publishing Bureau:

“.... We are going to do away with capitalism by taking possession of the land and the machinery of production.  We don’t intend to buy them, either.  The capitalist class took them because it had the power to control the muscle and brain of the working class in industry.  Organized, we, the working class, will have the power.  With that power we will take back that which has been stolen from us.  We will demand more and more wages from our employers.  We will demand and enforce shorter and shorter hours.  As we gain these demands we are diminishing the profits of the bosses.  We are taking away his power.  We are gaining that power for ourselves…... The Industrial Workers of the World are laying the foundation of a new government.  This government will have for it legislative halls the mills, the workshops, and factories.  It legislators will be the men in the mills, the workshops, and factories.  Its enactments will be those pertaining to the welfare of the workers….. Classes will disappear, and in their place will be only useful members of society ? the workers.”

To capitalize on the American public’s initially favorable impression of the Russian revolution, the I.W.W. claimed to be the sole representatives in the United States of those principles and tactics which had proved so successful in Russia.

In an article in the March 1919 issue of “One Big Union Monthly,” John Gabriel Saltis wrote: “The I.W.W. contains the identical potentialities of the Soviet… The I.W.W. is the American soviet.”

In part, this posting is in response to critical emails from Alan Johnstone of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Jon Bekken, Editor, “The Industrial Worker,” Industrial Workers of the World.  Both objected to my passing mention of the IWW in Truth, in which, seeking to illuminate the pseudo-Christianity of the early 20th century Social Gospel, I wrote:  “[Dr. Harry F. Ward of Union Theological Seminary in New York ] also was chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which actively defended the terrorist tactics of the radical IWW labor organization, whose members murdered more than a dozen employees and executives of industrial companies they sought to intimidate with demands for labor seizure of management control.”

Mr. Bekken’s email stated “No historian of the IWW has ever found that the union engaged in terrorist tactics. A number of IWW members have been tried on murder charges, it is true, though none were ever charged with killing “executives.” In most cases these were victims of employer lynch mobs who were charged with defending themselves against their attackers. In one case, the owner of a small restaurant was killed when he brandished a gun against a picketing IWW member, threatening to kill him. There is of course the case of Joe Hill, now universally acknowledged to have been a frame-up.

“Any fair-minded student of history must conclude that it has been the IWW that was the victim of terrorism, not the other way around. It is I think telling that your essay cites not a single verifiable fact in support of its wild smear.”

My response is that, no doubt, no IWW historian ever has found anything to criticize about the IWW.  But the IWW’s own words, quoted above, make ridiculous Mr. Bekken’s assertion that the IWW never engaged in terrorist tactics.

A few examples to the contrary:

—Idaho’s Governor from 1896 to 1900, Frank Steunenberg, adhering to state law, used the militia to defeat a strike against the Bunker Hill Mines Company.  Subsequently he was killed by a bomb planted at his home.  IWW leader William “Big Bill” Haywood was indicted and tried for conspiracy to murder, but, owing to the extreme difficulty in proving such conspiracy cases, he was acquitted.

The general understanding, nonetheless, was that the assassination was by an IWW member in retaliation for Governor Steunenberg’s strike-breaking, because of the “eye for an eye” policy avowed by the IWW.

—For example, in 1909 during the IWW strike against the Pressed Steel Car Company of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, IWW leaders warned the Pennsylvania state constabulary that for every IWW man injured or killed one of the constabulary members would be murdered.  The IWW delivered on that threat by murdering half a dozen members of the state constabulary.

—In 1916, in Everett, Washington, IWW members organized a strike in the lumber-shipping port activities.  The local sheriff, seeking to disband the strikers in accordance with existing law, ran into the same violent street tactics by armed IWW members that had occurred in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.  In the armed assault by the IWW a deputy sheriff and a lumber company official were murdered and 24 non-union members were wounded.

—In 1914 Salt Lake City former policeman John Morrison and his son Arling were shot dead by gunmen as they were closing their small grocery store for the night.  Before being shot to death, Arling managed to fire the store’s pistol at the intruders.

A younger son, who was in the rear of the store when the gunmen burst into the store, heard one of them shout, “We’ve got you now.”  It was noted in the subsequent trial that Morrison had quit the police force because of threats from IWW members whose activities he had confronted while enforcing the law. 

An hour and a half after the murders, Dr. Frank McHugh was awakened at his home by IWW member Joe Hill, who had a gunshot wound in his chest.  As he was being treated, a revolver slipped from his pocket to the floor.  Hearing about the Morrison murders the next day, Dr. McHugh alerted the police.  Joe Hill was arrested, convicted, and executed for the murders.

The IWW, of course, argues that every charge against its members was a frame-up and that its members were all innocent victims.  Looking at the record, however, and the exact congruence with the IWW’s proclaimed policy of using any available force, without regard to right or wrong, to bring capitalism to its knees, it’s difficult to accept that characterization.  Wherever they went, the IWW were armed with lethal weapons and spoiling for a fight.  They were simply lawless thugs.

Visit MoveOff Network Members