Murdo Ritchie reviews a new book by Eric Chester, The Wobblies in their Heyday. The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World During the World War One Era.




Using documents that have been concealed or hidden in plain sight, Eric Chester reveals the repression used to destroy the militant union organisers of the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies. Just as the USA entered World War One, powerful business groups, the police, private detective agencies organised armed vigilantes; State and Federal authorities including the President and the courts ignored legal and constitutional laws to crush this militant union.

Phelps Dodge the copper mining giant used company spies and government agents alongside armed gangs that broke into the homes of 1,200 miners in Bisbee, Arizona loaded them onto trains then dumped them in the New Mexico desert without water or shelter. Amongst the intimidation the Anaconda Copper mining company inflicted on the striking miners at Butte, Montana was the lynching of IWW organiser Frank Little. It actively discriminated against the strikers of Finnish origins. The IWW proudly organised all peoples of all languages, races and sexes under the slogan of an open union and a closed shop. It shows the scale of the frame-up trials against the Wobblies in Chicago and Sacramento. Constitutional and legal rights mean nothing when capital feels challenged.



 It led some of the most intransigent union struggles from its birth in 1905 and well into the war years. But the world was changing. They always opposed political action, believing that with enough shopfloor organisation a general strike would somehow be called that would remove the capitalist class without creating an alternative seat of government based on the working class. This view went by the name anarcho-syndicalism. But it still brought down severe repression. One investigating commission “made it explicitly clear that the IWW was being targeted because it organised militant strikes in critical industries not because of its tentative opposition to the war.” (p.153)

Indeed, “[v]irtually every official of … the IWW and very much of the national leadership made a deliberate decision to refrain from any discussion of the war, or of the draft, from the moment the United States declared war on Germany. These veteran Wobblies were convinced that the union could only survive the escalating wave of repression by focussing its energies solely on workplace organising.” (p.121) An industrially organised base with a high political consciousness is essential but it needs to be focussed on the need to grasp political power.

The unwillingness to use a political perspective meant it glorified sabotage as a tactic. This appeared in pamphlets and speeches, though there is almost no evidence it was ever used. This led Eugene Debs to reprimand IWW leader “Big” Bill Haywood while noting its “principles or industrial unionism are sound.” (1) As war repression advanced, this kind of behaviour left the union exposed.

This is a book about the repression used to destroy a militant union in wartime. It’s a story of jaw-dropping heroism of organising the unorganised winning the unwinnable and making the impossible happen. Just before the book begins, the Wobblies had just won the Lawrence strike when 20,000 workers in numerous crafts, twenty-five nationalities speaking forty-five languages as one of the best examples of organising in history. Their drives laid the basis for the later unskilled organising of the Congress of Industrial Organisations some years later. This book is about one of the most fascinating workers ‘organisations in history.