Formed in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — or the Wobblies, as they were also known — may have been the most radical and egalitarian mass union in U.S. history. From the mills of New England to the wheat fields of Kansas, from the docks of Philadelphia to the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the IWW organized workers, often the so-called unskilled laborers that craft unions shunned, across all lines of race, nationality and sex. With their militant spirit, their culture of humor and song, and their dream of One Big Union, the IWW left an imprint on U.S. labor history that stretches to the present.
To this day, a romance still swirls around the Wobblies, that motley band of loggers, miners, farmworkers, dockers, textile workers, troubadours, and more. They swore off bourgeois decorum and believed workers themselves could organize each other and unite to take down the boss, with whom they had nothing in common. The IWW produced martyrs such as Joe Hill whose names are still invoked. They’ve inspired successive generations of workers to organize and fight.
But during and immediately after World War I, the Wobblies were broken by the U.S. state and the capitalists whose interests they threatened. The IWW paid for its unabashed radicalism, organizing success and antiwar principles with a wave of unforgiving repression. Countless members were arrested. Hundreds were deported. Some were violently lynched by vigilante forces. Much of this repression occurred with the approval of the highest reaches of state and federal authorities and under the purview of the legal system. By the early 1920s, the organization was effectively cut down, if not crushed.
All this raises questions about the uses and limits of the law in the U.S. for militant workers bent on openly confronting capital. Today, the IWW is still organizing, though its historic heyday has long passed.
Ahmed White tells this story of the IWW’s brutal repression in his recent book, Under the Iron Heel: The Wobblies and the Capitalist War on Radical Workers, published by the University of California Press. White vividly recreates the early 20th century world of the Wobblies and lays out, in painstaking detail, the apparatus and flow of legal and extralegal repression that largely smashed the union. White’s account brings up important questions about the boundaries of the law when it comes to militant class struggle under capitalism. While sobering, his book also paints an inspiring picture of the vision, courage and dedication of the IWW, and invites us to reflect on how we might continue its spirit of unapologetic and bottom-up worker organizing today.
White is the Nicholas Rosenbaum Professor of Law at the University of Colorado Boulder. In this exclusive interview with Truthout, he discusses some of the main themes of his book and what we might, today, learn from the experiences of the Wobblies.
Derek Seidman: What are some important things readers today should know about the IWW? And what motivated you to write about the Wobblies?
Ahmed White: The IWW was a labor organization composed of some of the most marginalized members of the working class. This included migratory workers in industries like agriculture, oil, lumber and construction. These were workers who didn’t make much money and didn’t have much political standing.
Nevertheless, they and their organization were distinguished by their unapologetic ambition to change the world. The IWW wanted to bring down what it called the “wage labor system” and replace it with a workers’ commonwealth. This wasn’t just empty rhetoric. They were very serious about this. I think they stand out in that regard.
In fact, one of the things I most wanted to contribute to the discussion of the Wobblies was a sense of the seriousness of the organization. I wanted to try to understand them on their own terms and go beyond the understandable tendency to romanticize the organization and its history. I wanted to tell a story that speaks to who these people were — but also, in this way, speaks to the world we live in today. I think the history of the IWW, properly told, brings to light some significant things about America, about capitalism, and about the situation that workers and labor organizations find themselves in.
The IWW successfully organized many thousands of workers in the lead-up to its repression. You go into depth about its “roving delegate system” that helped the organization grow. What was this, and are there lessons from it for today?
This was a system of organizing premised on the idea that the organizers on whom the union relied to recruit workers would work alongside those people. Because the people being organized were migratory workers, roving delegates would travel among them from job to job and organize along the way. In fact, the delegates would often not only recruit workers, but also take the initiative in organizing protests and strikes and negotiating the terms of employment with employers. This method was not only flexible and well-suited to the kind of organizing the union was attempting, it also showcased the importance of putting organizing above all else, of doing it in an almost completely nonbureaucratic way.
The story of the IWW in the early 20th century can be divided into two periods. The first period, from the mid-1900s to the early-1910s, was a heroic one, but one defined ultimately by futility. The union managed to lead some of the most important strikes in American history during that period, but one thing it didn’t do was find a way to build a stable membership. That came later in this second period, starting in the mid-1910s, when the IWW settled upon this new roving delegate system.
By dispensing with a more professionalized and bureaucratized way of organizing, the union not only managed to increase the reach of its organizers, but to generate among the people it was organizing a significant level of trust and confidence in the organization. Organizers were right there working alongside the people they were organizing, traveling with them, enduring the same hardships, including repression.
This nonbureaucratic way of organizing went even further. Membership dues were pretty cheap, and membership was a very simple thing to take out. This union also eschewed the idea of entering into written, enduring contracts between the workers they organized and the employers that they work for. The idea here was not only to minimize the way in which labor organizing was bureaucratized and legalized, but also to make union organizing an ongoing thing that was not interrupted or proscribed by contracts — which, as people in labor know today, almost inevitably limit the ability of workers to go on strike. I think this raises some questions today for workers about the way forward.
Your book is largely about the repression of the IWW around a century ago. Is there a reason you felt it was important to tell that story to people today?
This is in many ways a tragic book, and maybe one that’s motivated by the tragedy of our times. There’s certainly been an upsurge in labor activism over the last few years and a refreshing skepticism about the reign of capitalism. But overall, the power of capital, its hold in our society and the damage it’s done to our society, are overwhelming. In this light, I found it easy to write about the destruction of this radical organization. This is, in some sense, a familiar story that speaks in some important ways to our current moment, how we got here and how we might, I think, with great difficulty, get out of this predicament.
Can you discuss the apparatus of repression that was used against the IWW? What did it look like, and how was it used against Wobblies?
The IWW was undone. Its members were persecuted across a very broad front, in a number of different ways, both legal and extralegal, and involving many different laws and many different repressive tactics. All this reflected the vast number of people that the union angered and frightened with its successful organizing and its unabashedly revolutionary ambition. This extended from local people in small towns, county sheriffs and police, prosecutors, Chamber of Commerce types, and all the way up to the highest reaches of government and some of the most powerful capitalist firms.
But despite all this diversity, the result was in many ways a unified campaign to destroy the union. This wasn’t because there was, underneath this all, a vast and singular conspiracy to bring this organization to its knees, but rather because of the way a great number of conspiracies by powerful and influential people converged around this common purpose.
This unfolded in ways that often blurred the lines jurisdictionally between the federal and state officials, who very much cooperated in the effort to destroy the union. It also unfolded in this way jurisprudentially, in the sense that the line between the legal and the extralegal was often very blurry. Many ostensibly legal prosecutions involved very ethically and legally questionable methods, and many extralegal acts of repression had the blessing (and often occurred with the participation) of governmental officials.
Who was ultimately responsible for the repression of the IWW?
The most important elements in this campaign, those at the core of this coalition that worked to destroy the organization, were powerful Western capitalists in industries where the union was making the greatest headway — in lumber and mining, for instance — along with very powerful government officials. These included Western governors and senators, attorneys general and officials in the federal government, including President Woodrow Wilson himself, and powerful members of Congress.
Alongside them were less prominent but still significant figures at the regional and local levels. These were local capitalists and local politicians who were frightened by what this organization sought to accomplish. They were irritated by how this union was effectively organizing workers, driving up the cost of doing business, and challenging their sense of what society should look like. These people all worked in their own ways to make membership in the IWW essentially a crime, one that could be enforced and punished by people at every level, with means both legal and extralegal.
In addition to conservative forces, your book focuses prominently on the role of progressives and liberals in crushing the Wobblies. Can you discuss that?
There were plenty of conservatives who wanted to destroy the IWW, and there were more than a few liberals and progressives who defended the organization. But the role of progressives in the repression of the union was integral. That can be surprising to people who are acculturated to think of progressives as allies of labor. To a considerable extent, that was true back then, and it remains true today. But how true this is begs the questions: Which progressives, and who in the labor movement are they allies of?
The IWW offended many progressives precisely because it was radical. The IWW’s radicalism was anathema to the reformism of progressives. It was a threat to their identity as reformers. Moreover, the Wobblies were workers who, in the eyes of many of these progressives, were exceeding their remit. They were taking upon themselves a role that many of these progressives reserved to people of their own class who are educated, professional, middle-class types. I think many progressives resented this. “Who are you,” they thought, “to try and usurp us with your radicalism and challenge these institutions that we hold dear, not least private property and capitalism?”
World War I was a turning point in the repression of the Wobblies. Can you talk about that?
The war created an opportunity for the union’s enemies to cast the organization as unpatriotic and as a real threat to the war effort, as treasonous and seditious. The Espionage Act was the principal means by which federal authorities criminalized membership in the IWW. It was enacted just as the country entered the war. The main federal prosecutions of the Wobblies were premised on the idea that they were interfering with the war effort and thus violated a key provision of this law. This was made easy by the fact that the union maintained a very vocal and principled opposition to the war, and the fact that the prosecutions were premised on conspiracy charges, rather than charges that these Wobblies had actually impeded the war effort.
The war also empowered the very progressives who played such a huge role in persecuting the union, giving impetus to their vision of the state as a strong entity that would play a prominent role not only in regulating the economy, but likewise regulating people and their ideas, which inevitably involves prosecuting them. That powerful state was fundamental to the persecution of the IWW, as well as many socialists and other leftist and dissidents, and it is something we still live with.
Your book is also about the limits of the law under capitalism when it comes to class conflict and confrontations with capital. Are there lessons here that are important for today?
This book was, for me, a reckoning with my own thoughts as a lawyer and law professor about the law and where it stands on these questions. Entwined with that, I imagined the book is a kind of cautionary narrative for readers who, in their sympathies with organized labor, and in their ambition to create a better world that confronts the realities of class inequality, are inclined to view the law as an effective and even reliable tool in accomplishing their purposes.
The story of the Wobblies in the early 20th century can be understood as the story of an organization that, by tragic fate, foresaw its effective destruction at the hands of people using the law. The repression it endured confirmed what the people who founded this union believed when they founded it, which was that the law, and the people behind the law, would prove to be their implacable foes. And what happened to them confirmed all that.
That’s the irony, and maybe the most fundamental tragedy, of the history of this organization. I think it’s one that bears reflection nowadays. I am not suggesting there’s no place for the law in this world, or that the kind of radical anarcho-syndicalism that the IWW propounded is necessarily the right way to think about the world and about labor activism. It might be, it might not be. But I think what happened to this organization is an invitation to think carefully about what the law is and what the state is in a class society.
There’s a long debate, of course, on the extent to which the U.S. system of labor relations helps or hinders the labor movement.
Many young militants hoping for a resurgent labor movement today are finding that the law remains a cage in exactly the way that the Wobblies anticipated. People ask me all the time about the potential efficacy of militant tactics that workers today might use. The answer inevitably is, “Yes, but that’s essentially illegal.” And they often ask, “Can we get out from under the machinery of the National Labor Relations Act and the National Labor Relations Board to make a go outside of those strictures?” And the answer is, with very few qualifications, no, you have to participate in this very system that limits what you can do.
This is not just in the sense that you can’t engage in acts of violence or destruction. It’s quite understandable that there are limits on that. But you can’t even do things like engage in sympathy strikes. You can’t picket in particularly large numbers, for instance, without running the risk of being essentially enjoined. They are all kinds of limits that the law imposes.
The Wobblies anticipated this. They saw that the state and its machinery of labor rights were apt to be a fist in the velvet glove. I think that very much remains the situation today.
There’s no victory in defeat, but your book tries to recover the courage and dignity that Wobblies showed in the face of repression. Can you talk about that?
I was drawn to the romantic dimensions of this story at the very same time that I regarded that romantic approach as incomplete. I think there is a kind of dialectic between the romance and the suffering here.
On the one hand, the history of the Wobblies is a history of unsurpassed courage and dignity, evident in how these people met the repression that they endured. The stories are extraordinary — of Wobblies who volunteered to be prosecuted and go to prison, and who, once in jail or prison, refused to leave, despite the extraordinary hardships they endured. They refused to leave because their fellow Wobblies would not be allowed to leave with them or because they’d receive something short of a complete pardon. Dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds, of Wobblies displayed that kind of remarkable resolution. What these people showed in the way of political courage has been unsurpassed in the history of this country.
At the same time, I tried to do justice to the other side of this, which was the fact that this repression worked. It undermined the union. There were plenty of other factors at work, but repression was key to the destruction of the IWW in the early 20th century. And the way it worked was by destroying these people, by punishing them, and they suffered mightily from what they endured. Many of them emerged from their experiences broken and damaged.
I think that’s an important part of this story to acknowledge. This kind of repression is no joke. Behind the romance of this organization was an extraordinary amount of suffering and quite a lot of sadness.
We’re seeing a renewed interest in labor radicalism today, especially among younger people. What do you hope readers take away from your story of the IWW and its repression?
This is a pessimistic book, to be sure, written in a time that nurtures this kind of pessimism. At the same time, there are some notable and very promising expressions of consciousness and activism on the part of workers and people of the left who are being inspired to challenge our conditions today. I hope the book can, in some way, help validate this.
More broadly, I hope this book inspires a certain pride in people. If you’re a Wobbly — and of course, there are Wobblies out there today — there is a lot to be proud of in what your forebears accomplished, what they undertook and what they suffered.
But even if you’re not a Wobbly, there’s something to be proud of here in this story. It’s a story of perseverance and principle, of resolution and courage. I think that’s something that many people can take from it. Yes, I hope it inspires people in and around the labor movement, and who are part of the left, but I also hope it speaks even more broadly to people who want to find something redeeming in these cynical times, and in the human condition.