One Big Union: The Philosophy of Industrial Unionism
By Joyce Kornbluh
At 10 A.M. on June 27, 1905, William D. Haywood, then secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, walked to the front of Brand's Hall in Chicago, picked up a piece of loose board and hammered on the table to silence the whispers in the crowded room.
"Fellow Workers," he said to the delegates and spectators in the room, "This is the Continental Congress of the Working Class. We are here to confederate the workers ' of this country into a working-class movement in possession of the economic powers, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution without regard to capitalist masters."
In the audience were nearly 200 delegates from thirty-four state, district, and national organizations -socialists, anarchists, radical miners, and revolutionary industrial unionists. They were united in opposition to what they called "the American Separation of Labor's" craft unionism, conservative leadership, and nonclass-conscious policies, and by their desire to establish an industrial labor organization that would ultimately overthrow the capitalist system and create a "cooperative commonwealth" of workers.
On the speakers' platform were Eugene Debs, leader of the American Socialist Party, Haywood, and Mother Mary Jones, a little lady of seventy-five with curly white hair and gray eyes, who had been a labor agitator for almost half a century. Other well-known delegates were Daniel De Leon, the sharp-tongued, erudite leader of the Socialist
Labor Party; A. M. Simons, editor of the International Socialist Review; Charles O. Sherman, general secretary of the United Metal Workers; William E. Trautmann, editor of the United Brewery Workers' German-language newspaper; Father Thomas J. Hagerty, a tall, black-bearded Catholic priest who edited the American Labor Union's Voice of Labor; and Lucy Parsons, widow of one of the anarchists condemned to death following the 1886 Chicago Haymarket riot.
Rapidly expanding machine technology, the growth of large-scale corporate enterprise, and the class-war character of many industrial struggles west of the Mississippi had led to several previous attempts to organize workers into industrial unions and to oppose the conservative orientation of the American Federation of Labor. Shaken by crushing strikes in Colorado and Idaho, leaders of the Western Federation of Miners which broke from the A.F.L. in 1897, formed first the Western Labor Union, then the American Labor Union to strengthen their organization and broaden their base of support.
Late in 1904, W. F.M. leaders initiated a meeting in Chicago of six radical spokesmen to consider plans for a new national revolutionary union. They invited thirty prominent socialists and labor radicals to meet for a secret conference in the same city on January 2, 1905. The invitation expressed hope that the working classes if correctly organized on both political and industrial lines were capable of successfully operating the country's industries.
The January Conference, as it came to be known, was held for three days in a hall on Lake Street often used by the Chicago anarchists. Most of those invited were present. They drafted a manifesto, an analysis of industrial and social relations from the revolutionary viewpoint, which spelled out labor's grievances, criticized existing craft unions for creating a skilled aristocracy, and suggested "one big industrial union" embracing all industries" and "founded on the class struggle."
Printed in great quantities, the Industrial Union Manifesto was sent around the country. All workers who agreed with the document's principles were invited to attend a convention in Chicago's Brand's Hall on June 27, 1905, to found a new, revolutionary working-class organization.
The Western Federation of Miners was the most important organization represented in this founding convention. Others were the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance; the American Metal Workers Industrial Union; and a few former A.F.L. locals. Individuals came from the Socialist Labor Party and Socialist Party.
"Big Bill" Haywood, chairing the sessions, a massive, stoop-shouldered man, had been a cowboy, homesteader, and miner. Blinded in one eye in a mine accident, Big Bill left the Silver City, Utah, mines at the turn of the century to become an organizer for the Western Federation of Miners and the Socialist Party. He was, as historian Foster Rhea Dulles has phrased it, "a powerful and aggressive embodiment of the frontier spirit." From the start of the convention Haywood expressed his interest in organizing the forgotten unskilled workers, those without votes and without unions:
"I do not care a snap of my fingers whether or not the skilled workers join the industrial movement at this time," Haywood shouted at the meeting. "We are going down into the gutter to get at the mass of workers and bring them up to a decent plane of living."
Speaker after speaker rose to elaborate the theme that since machinery was rapidly eliminating the craftsman's skill, it was necessary to organize workers made unskilled by advancing technology into integrated industrial unions paralleling the integrated structure of modern industry. This was vital to wage effective war on the great combinations of capital. To the philosophy of industrial unionism, an essentially American contribution to labor theory and practice, the I.W.W. added a new concept: that industrial unions would become the basis for a new social order.
For ten days the delegates debated issues and voted on resolutions and a constitution. Although they were united in opposition to capitalism and craft unionism, they were divided as to the tactics of bringing about an end to capitalism and the wage system.
Secretary to the constitution committee was Father Thomas J. Hagerty, a Catholic priest from New Mexico who had been converted to Marxism even before his ordination in 1892. Suspended by his archbishop for urging Telluride miners to revolt during his tour of Colorado mining camps in 1903, his formal association with the church ended at this time, although he insisted that be was still a priest in good standing. Hagerty, who helped frame the Industrial Union Manifesto and composed the chart of industrial organization ("Father Hagerty's Wheel"), is also credited with authoring the famous Preamble to the I.W.W. constitution with its provocative opening sentence, "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common."
For much of the convention, debate focused on the political clause of the Preamble whose second paragraph, as presented by the constitution committee, read: "Between these two classes [capital and labor] a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political as well as the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organization of the working class without affiliation with any political party."
For the most part, the western delegates were
against "political action at the capitalist ballot
box"; as itinerant workers, many had never voted
in a public election. In addition to their antagonism to all types of politicians, they feared that
the Socialist Labor Party and the Socialist Party
would dominate the new organization and ultimately use the as a political adjunct.
Daniel De Leon, making the longest speech in favor of the political clause, argued that political action was "a civilized means of seeking progress." He emphasized the Marxist position that every class struggle is a political struggle." It was necessary, however, he stated, "to gather behind that ballot, behind that united political movement, the Might which alone is able, when necessary, 'to take hold."
When the political clause came to a vote, it was sustained by a sizeable majority, yet the controversy over direct vs. political action led to major cleavages in the I.W.W. which came to a head three years later at the 1908 convention.
The constitution and resolutions passed during the first convention attempted to link the immediate struggles of workers with a class-conscious, revolutionary aim. Any wage earner could be a member of the new organization regardless of occupation, race, creed, or sex. To the I.W.W. it "did not make a bit of difference if be is a Negro or a white man ... an American or a foreigner." An immigrant with a paid-up union card in his own country was eligible for immediate membership. Initiation fees and dues were set very low.
Labor-management contracts were viewed as an interference with labor's only weapon-the strike. Contracts were also rejected because they hampered workers from declaring strikes at the most critical times for employers. The "social general strike" was recommended as the most effective weapon to overthrow the capitalist system, and May 1 - adopted as the Labor Day of the new organization. Militarism was condemned, and membership could be denied anyone who joined the state militia or police.
The constitution provided that the structure of
the would prepare for the eventual establishment of the trade-union state. Thirteen centrally administered industrial departments composed of unions of closely related industries were
proposed. In this way, when the "one big strike"
was called, and won, the I.W.W. would have control of each of the major industries of the country. Socialism would be established through action by workers at the point of production, and
thus, "the army of production [would] be organized, not only for the everyday struggle with
capitalists, but to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown."
An I.W.W. poet was to make this philosophy enduring with his famous stanza from the labor hymn, "Solidarity Forever":
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold;
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,
For the Union makes us strong.
Less than six months after the first I.W.W. convention Frank Steunenberg, the anti-union, ex-governor of Idaho, was killed by a bomb as he opened the gate to his house during the Christmas holidays. Within a few days after Steunenberg's murder, police arrested a man who called himself Harry Orchard (born Albert E. Horsley) and turned him over to James McParland, head of the Denver Pinkerton Agency and a "consultant" to the Colorado Mine Owners' Association. Orchard confessed to the murder, as well as twenty-six other crimes which he claimed had been plotted by a radical "inner circle" of the Western Federation of Miners. Several weeks later, Idaho officials without warrants, seized Charles Moyer, W.F.M. president; Bill Haywood, W.F.M. secretary; and George Pettibone, a blacklisted miner turned small businessman. The men, arrested individually at night, were taken by a special railroad car to Boise, Idaho, charged with the murder of Steunenberg, and put in the death cells of the federal penitentiary.
The Haywood-Moyer-Pettibone case outraged the I.W.W., other labor organizations, and the labor and radical press. Frantic activity focused on raising thousands of dollars to defend the prisoners. Rallies in large cities netted enough money to engage Clarence Darrow and other prominent attorneys. Agitation in labor and radical newspapers resulted in improved treatment for the prisoners, including their transfer to cells in the county jail.
Fifteen months after his arrest, the trial of Haywood began in Boise on May 9, 1907. Defense lawyer Darrow was matched against prosecuting attorney William Borah, the Idaho attorney who was later to become a powerful senator from that state. In a brilliant courtroom performance, Darrow exposed Harry Orchard as a perjurer, produced witnesses to contradict his statements, and charged that McParland of the Pinkerton Agency had deliberately "fixed" Orchard's confession to throw blame for the murder on the W.F.M. The jury found Haywood, the first to be tried, not guilty. Moyer and Pettibone were later acquitted and released. Orchard was sentenced to be hanged, with a recommendation for clemency.
Haywood left Idaho a popular hero. Turning down lucrative offers from theater managers to lecture about his prison experiences, he toured the large cities, preaching the gospel of industrial unionism to hundreds of thousands of workers.
However, despite the emergence of Haywood as a national labor figure, the Idaho trial was a paralyzing blow to the newly organized I.W.W., which had invested tremendous funds and energy in contributing to the defense. Ideological factionalism and personality disputes split the new organization in the tense first years of its existence. Dissension developed almost immediately between the members who favored the tactics of direct economic action and those who advocated political action. Describing his views, direct-actionist Vincent St. John wrote:
"The first year was one of internal struggle for control by these different elements. The two camps of socialist politicians looked upon the I.W.W. only as a battleground on which to settle their respective merits and demerits. The labor fakirs strove to fasten themselves upon the organization that they might continue to exist if the new union was a success."
Quarrels erupted in a chaotic 1906 convention held while Haywood and Moyer were in prison. The "wage slave delegates" led by Daniel De Leon, William Trautmann, and Vincent St. John opposed the "conservative" faction, which included I.W.W. president Charles Sherman and most of the delegates from the Western Federation of Miners. In the process Sherman was charged with misdirected use of funds, removed from office, and the office of president was abolished. W.F.M. delegates bolted the convention and control of the organization remained with the revolutionists."
At their 1907 convention, the Western Federation of Miners voted overwhelmingly to withdraw from the I.W.W., whose revolutionary views had tinged the national newspaper publicity of the Idaho trials. Growing increasingly more conservative, the miners' federation was to rejoin the A.F.L. four years later. Meanwhile, it fired Bill Haywood who had been going around the country agitating for class solidarity, militant direct action, and a new social order. Vincent St. John, a W.F.M. executive board member, stayed with the I.W.W. in spite of the withdrawal of the miners' federation. The stage was set for the final clash between the direct and political actionists.
Despite organizational schisms, across the country from Tacoma, Washington, to Skowhegan, Maine, the message of "One Big Union" stimulated strikes among loggers, miners, smeltermen, window washers, paper makers, silk workers, and streetcar men. Wobblies staged the first sitdown strike in America at the Schenectady, New York, plant of the General Electric Company in December 1906. In the frontier town of Goldfield, Nevada, where Vincent St. John bad been a zealous organizer, an I.W.W. strike won a minimum of $4.50 a day for most of the cooks, waiters, and bartenders. In Portland, Oregon, the I.W.W. helped win a nine-hour day and a wage increase for sawmill workers and dramatized itself as a new force on the industrial scene of the Pacific Northwest.
Led by Jack Walsh, a former Socialist Party soapboxer, some twenty of these vigorous Westerners-loggers, sawmill workers, and seasonal harvest hands-beat their way across country to Chicago, to attend the 1908 I.W.W. convention. Traveling in freight cars, and camping in hobo jungles, these men, who were dressed in denim overalls, black shirts, and red bandanna neckerchiefs, held I.W.W. propaganda meetings along the way, selling I.W.W. pamphlets and song cards to finance their expenses.
In Chicago members of the "Overalls Brigade"
numbered about twenty of the twenty-six delegates in a convention whose delegate strength
was reduced because of membership splits and
the 1907 financial depression. De Leon was offended by their lack of sophistication and little
knowledge of socialist theory. He dubbed them
the "rabble" and the "bummery" because of their
singing of "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" at convention
sessions and accused them of trying to make the
I.W.W. a "purely physical force body." "Most of
them," he noted soon after the convention, " slept
on the benches on the Lake Front and received
from Walsh a daily stipend of 30 cents. This element lined the walls of the convention."
In turn, the Westerners joined Trautmann and St. John in ousting De Leon from the convention on the parliamentary technicality that he was a delegate to the convention from a union other than his own. De Leon and his followers withdrew to set up a rival I.W.W. with headquarters in Detroit, which became a propaganda arm of the Socialist Labor Party. In 1915 it changed its name to the Workers International Industrial Union and was finally dissolved in -1925. As editor of the S.L.P. newspaper, The Weekly People, De Leon continued until his death in 1914 to attack the anarcho-syndicalists, "labor-fakirs," craft unionism, and Samuel Gompers.
One of the first actions of the 1908 convention delegates after De Leon's ouster struck out all reference to political activity from the Preamble. Detached from both the Socialist Party and Socialist Labor Party influence, the pragmatic Westerners helped in the next few years to shape the fundamental long-range policies of the I.W.W. The goal was industrial democracy in a worker-controlled, cooperative commonwealth. The basic tactic to achieve it would be the weakening of the capitalist system through "action at the point of production" which would form "the structure of the new society within the shell of the old." The vehicle would be the One Big Union which, when strong enough, would carry through a general strike of all workers in industry to abolish the wage system, take over the means of production, and establish the new social order.
"We have been naught, we shall be all," sang the delegates to the 1905 founding convention. Inspired by the social idealism of the Manifesto and Preamble and the militant spirit of the Western rank-and-filers, the radical documents, slogans, songs, and poems by Wobblies in the years to come reflected the anti-authoritarian, anarchistic thrust set in that epochal 1908 convention.
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel could turn;
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the Union makes us strong.
Kornbluh, Joyce, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, Charles H. Kerr Publishing, Chicago, 1988
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