Staughton Lynd reviews ‘The Wobblies in their Heyday’ (2014)


FW Eric Chester (Clydeside) has recently published an in-depth history of the IWW in the World War I era.  We are pleased to publish this review of the book by Staughton Lynd, author of  Doing History from the Bottom Up, Solidarity Unionism, and Wobblies and Zapatistas. Originally published on Znet.

Eric Chester, The Wobblies in their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2014.

Reviewed by Staughton Lynd

The Wobblies are back. Many young radicals find the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the most congenial available platform on which to stand in trying to change the world.

This effort has been handicapped by the lack of a hard-headed history of the IWW in its initial incarnation, from 1905 to just after World War I. The existing literature, for example Franklin Rosemont’s splendid book on Joe Hill, is strong on movement culture and atmosphere.  It is weak on why the organization went to pieces in the early 1920s.

Eric Chester’s new book fills this gap. It is indispensable reading for Wobblies and labor historians.

One way to summarize what is between these covers is to say that Chester spells out three tragic mistakes made by the old IWW that the reinvented organization must do its best to avoid.

Macho Posturing

Labor organizing flourished during World War I because of the government’s need for a variety of raw materials.  Among these were food, timber, and copper. Wobbly organizers made dramatic headway in all three industries. At its peak in August 1917 the IWW had a membership of more than 150,000.

Nine months later, Chester writes, “the union was in total disarray, forced to devote most of its time and resources to raising funds for attorneys and bail bonds.”

This sad state of affairs was, of course, partly the result of a calculated decision by the federal government to destroy the IWW. But only partly.

According to Chester another cause of the government’s successful suppression of the Wobblies was that during and after the Wheatlands strike in California hop fields in 1913 some Wobblies threatened to “burn California’s agricultural fields if two leaders of the strike were not released from jail.”

For years, Wobbly leaders had insisted that sabotage could force employers to make concessions, Chester writes.  But what Chester terms “nebulous calls for arson” and “macho bravado” only stiffened the determination of California authorities not to modify jail sentences for Wobbly leaders Ford and Suhr.

Chester finds that there is no credible evidence that any fields were, in fact, burned. But after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, this extravagant rhetoric calling for the destruction of crops apparently helped to convince President Wilson to initiate a systematic and coordinated campaign to suppress the Wobblies.

Efforts to Avoid Repression by Discontinuing Discussion of the War and the Draft

International solidarity and militant opposition to war and the draft were central tenets of the IWW.  Wobblies who had enrolled in the British Army were expelled from the union.  At the union’s tenth general convention in November 2015, the delegates adopted a resolution calling for a “General Strike in all industries” should the United States enter the war.

What actually happened was that general secretary-treasurer Bill Haywood and a majority of IWW leaders

agreed that the union should desist from any discussion of the war or the draft, in the vain hope that this policy would persuade the federal government to refrain from targeting the union for repression. At the same time, the great majority of rank-and-file members, with support of a few leaders such as Frank Little, insisted that the IWW should be at the forefront of the opposition to the war.

Self-evidently, what Chester terms the IWW’s “diffidence” was the very opposite of Eugene Debs’ defiant opposition to the war. When Wobbly activists “flooded IWW offices with requests for help and pleas for a collective response to the draft,” the usual response was that what to do was up to each individual member. Haywood, Chester writes, “consistently sought to steer the union away from any involvement in the draft resistance movement.”

Debs notwithstanding, however, the national leadership of the Socialist Party like the national leadership of the IWW “scrambled to avoid any confrontation with federal authorities.” Radical activists from both organizations formed ad hoc alliances cutting across organizational boundaries.

The IWW General Executive Board, meeting from June 29 to July 6, 1917, was unable to arrive at a decision about the war and conscription, and a committee including both Haywood and Little, tasked to draft a statement, likewise failed to do so.  In the end, Chester says, “the IWW sought to position itself as a purely economic organization concerned solely with short-run gains in wages and working conditions.”

Disunity Among IWW Prisoners Fostered by the Government

The reluctance of the Wobbly leadership to advocate resistance to the war and conscription carried over to a legalistic response when the government indicted IWW leaders. Haywood urged all those named in the indictment to surrender voluntarily and to waive any objection to being extradited to Chicago. In the mass trial that followed, the defendants were represented by a very good trial lawyer who was also an enthusiastic supporter of the war and passed up the opportunity to make a closing statement to the jury. Judge Landis’ superficial fairness deluded Wobs into hoping for a good outcome.

The jury took less than an hour to find all one hundred defendants guilty of all counts in the indictment. Ninety-three received lengthy prison terms. Judge Landis ordered that they be imprisoned in Leavenworth, described by Chester as ‘”a maximum-security penitentiary designed for hardened, violent criminals.” Forty-six more defendants were found guilty after another mass conspiracy trial in Sacramento.

Thereafter, Chester writes, the “process of granting a commutation of sentence was manipulated during the administration of Warren Harding to divide and demoralize IWW prisoners.” The ultimate result was “the disastrous split of 1924, leaving the union a shell of what it had been only seven years earlier.”

Executive clemency, like that granted to Debs, was the only hope of the Wobblies in prison for release before the end of their long sentences. President Harding rejected any thought of a general amnesty, obliging each prisoner to fill out the form requesting amnesty as an individual.  The application form for amnesty contained an implicit admission of guilt.The newly-created ACLU supported this process.

Twenty-four IWW prisoners opted to submit a form requesting amnesty. A substantial majority refused to plead for individual release. More than seventy issued a statement in which they insisted that “all are innocent and all must receive the same consideration.” The government insisted on a case-by-case approach. Fifty-two prisoners responded that they refused to accept the president’s division of the Sacramento prisoners, still alleged to have burned fields, from the Chicago prisoners. Moreover they considered it a “base act” to “sign individual applications and leave the Attorney General’s office to select which of our number should remain in prison and which should go free.”

Initially, the IWW supported those prisoners who refused to seek their freedom individually. Those who had submitted personal requests for presidential clemency were expelled from the union.

In June 1923, the government once again dangled before desperate men the prospect of release, now available for those individual prisoners promising to remain “law-abiding and loyal to the Government.” This time a substantial majority of the remaining prisoners accepted Harding’s offer, and IWW headquarters, in what Chester calls “a sweeping reversal,” gave its approval.

Eleven men at Leavenworth declined this latest government inducement. In addition, those who were tried in California did not receive the same offer.

In December 1923 the remaining IWW prisoners at Leavenworth including twenty-two who had been convicted in Sacramento were released unconditionally. The damage had been done. Those who had held out the longest launched a campaign within the IWW to expel those who had supported a form of conditional release.There were accusations against anyone who had allegedly proved himself “a scab and a rat.” When a convention convened in 1924 both sides claimed the headquarters office and went to court. An organization consisting of the few hundred members who had supported the consistent rejection of all government offers “faded into oblivion by 1931.”


It is not the intent of brother Chester’s book, or of this review, to trash the IWW. This review has dealt with only about half of the material in the book, for example passing by the story of Wobbly organizing in copper, both at Butte, Montana and Bisbee, Arizona. Moreover, any one who lived through the disintegration of SDS, SNCC and the Black Panthers is familiar with tragedies like those described here. The heroism of members of all three groups who were martyrs, such as Frank Little, Fred Hampton, and the Mississippi Three (Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner), remains. The vision of a qualitatively different society, as the Zapatistas say “un otro mundo,” remains also.

What it seems to me we must soberly consider is what practices we can adopt to forestall disintegration when different members of a group make different choices. Hardened secular radicals though we may be, we can learn something from from King Lear’s words to his daughter Cordelia: “When you ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask of you forgiveness.”

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New forms of worker organisation | Manny Ness talk in Glasgow

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Strike Back! – Issue 3 (Winter 2014/15)

The latest Strike Back! includes articles on anti-militarism, perspectives on the recent Scottish Independence referendum, business unions, information on the Spirit of Revolt archive project and Wobbly songs.

Download Strike Back! Issue 3 here.

You can write for Strike Back! and distribute it locally. Contact:


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Statement on the Morning Star’s suppression of domestic violence allegations

The Clydeside branch of the Industrial Workers of the World fully supports one of its members, Rory MacKinnon, in his dispute with the Morning Star. Fellow worker MacKinnon was disciplined by the Morning Star for asking questions — just what a journalist should do. We urge all members of the IWW, and the progressive Left, to join us in a boycott of the Morning Star until this issue is satisfactorily resolved.

The Clydeside branch of the IWW is also concerned by the failure of the RMT to hold a full hearing on the charges of domestic violence brought by Caroline Leneghan, an RMT member, against her former partner, Steve Hedley, currently a candidate for general secretary of the RMT. These charges should be taken very seriously. The actions of the RMT in summarily dismissing them would seem to indicate that a macho culture continues to this day within the RMT, a culture in which the issues of domestic violence and sexual harassment are viewed as of secondary importance.

See here for Caroline Leneghan’s statement in full, and here for Rory MacKinnon’s.

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Event: The Miners’ Strike and the British state – Glasgow 24th September & Edinburgh 25th September


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A union of ‘organisers’

OBUBy joining the IWW ,the Wobblies, an individual worker is making a statement. They are saying I identify with a revolutionary union, in the syndicalist, bottom-up tradition. Many who join have busy lives, partly dictated by work, which may involve more than one ‘part-time’ job, young families or care for relatives and friends. Therefore, participation in the workings of a local General member branch (GMB) of the IWW may be occasional & restricted.

However, many who are joining, especially online, have little contact with active branches, whether local, or ‘industrial union’ networks. It is a world of social media: facebook, google+, twitter, many avoid email & face-to-face contact with ‘strangers’. By joining the IWW you become a ‘fellow worker’, one strengthened by a community of solidarity, at least in theory. All theory has to be put into practice, if it is to avoid becoming abstract & detached from social reality.

Scotland wide, and in city based branches, the Union needs to offer more in the way of explanation how we operate. There is no “top down” leadership. Our union depends on a level of participation and understanding. Induction meetings, perhaps extending to some ‘mentoring’ for new members (if they wish) will be organised in the near future. ‘101 Training’ is another means to boost the confidence & expertise of new members, equipping them with skills to organise in the workplace.

In Scotland we have an annual Assembly, usually in November, we have email lists, this wordpress page, facebook pages. Funds can be devolved, such as to members in the Highlands to promote local activity. A network (SEWN) in education has been established, and others – Health & Care;  Call-centre; Bar & Restaurant, other ‘precarious’ worker networks are possible, with greater participation & understanding of IWW objectives.

We need a more social and supportive side to our union, and in so doing instill the Wobbly ethos, ‘we are all organisers': reducing passivity and uncertainty about how new members can contribute.

Keith |

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Mutual aid & resistance against austerity attacks


In Edinburgh claimants and lowpaid workers are organising through Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty to support each other and take action to resist workfare, benefit cuts and austerity attacks.

Occupations and blockades have hit companies and charities exploiting claimants through the governments compulsory “work-for-your-dole” schemes. Recent actions targetting Learndirect, provider for the new workfare scheme, Community Work Placements, included a disruptive hour-long occupation of their offices at shiny Conference House, on 12th June. Demonstrators have invaded Leith Job Centre protesting against benefits sanctions.

Protestors have besieged ATOS, responsible for the notorious Work Capability Assessments which deny many ill people their rightful sickness benefits. Now ECAP members have initiated the Disability Solidarity Network, to take forward the fight .
Weekly drop-in solidarity sessions at the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh are the basis for every day mutual aid to support individuals facing a punitive benefits system, debt, housing issues and other poverty-related problems. “Never face them alone” say ECAP, as activists accompany claimants to the dole, ATOS, fraud interviews, council housing appointments and the like – and, vitally, encourage people to attend such appointments with their own friends.

If “official channels” don’t get the desired result the ECAP Solidarity Network phone tree can launch action. Late last year a claimant was sent on Mandatory Work Activity at the Salvation Army charity shop on Leith Walk. By “co-incidence” his reporting for (unpaid) duty co-incided with the shop’s invasion by a dozen anti workfare demonstrators, parading placards and banners down the aisles of second-hand clothes!

ECAP is keen to make links, recent solidarity visits ranging from Dundee to Milan! ECAP activity is not a single issue, but part of the wider fight to assert human need over profit, and to challenge and ultimately overthrow capitalism. As our banner cries: “It’s our world – let’s claim it back!”.

Mike (ECAP)  | ECAP are also on facebook and  

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