The Early IWW’s Unionism Was So Effective That Capitalists Decided It Had to Be Smashed

Ahmed White

The Industrial Workers of the World pioneered a radical unionism that built a small but incredibly dedicated group of unionists and union supporters — which is why American capitalists and politicians quickly decided they needed to stop the union.

Industrial Workers of the World labor organizer Frank Tannenbaum, speaking to a gathering at Union Square in New York City, March 21, 1914. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Interview by
Peter Cole

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and its radical unionism was exploding in power and members. Yet less than ten years later, the IWW was all but smashed after a brutal campaign of repression and vigilantism. How did such a vibrant force of working-class power end up all but destroyed in the course of a decade?

In his new book, Under the Iron Heel: The Wobblies and the Capitalist War on Radical Workers, labor and legal scholar Ahmed White documents the legal and extralegal repression the union faced, along with the incredibly dedicated radical unionism such repression was designed to stamp out. He spoke to labor historian Peter Cole about his new book and what the history of Wobbly repression has to teach unionists today.

Peter Cole

First, tell us about the IWW and why this union was both so important and so distinct from other unions in the early twentieth century.

Ahmed White

The IWW distinguished itself in several ways. It was not only an avowedly industrial union at a time when the mainstream labor movement’s primary focus was craft-based organizing, it was also the most radical union of its day and probably in the history of this country. Besides this, its perspective and strategy were uniquely syndicalist, as it believed its radical visions would be achieved by workers themselves, organized not around the conventional, modern state and a system of legal rights but their own indigenous institutions.

At the same time, the union also viewed the state in its current manifestation with unqualified contempt, as a bound servant of capitalist interests. Obviously, the IWW did not realize its revolutionary vision, and almost certainly it never had more than 200,000 members at any given time. But through the late 1910s and early 1920s, perhaps several times this number passed through its ranks, and hundreds of thousands of workers who never took out membership in the union were enthralled with its rhetoric and embraced its program.

All of this made it an exceptionally dangerous union in the eyes of capitalists and their allies, which is why the union and its members were the target of such extraordinary repression.

Peter Cole

Even though the rival American Federation of Labor (AFL) was much larger in size, arguably the IWW was the most notable union of the World War I era. Yet it seemed to “disappear” almost as quickly as it arose.

Historians, Wobblies, and others have long debated its demise. You argue that repression — by the federal government, many state governments, and employers — was the preeminent reason that its membership, power, and influence collapsed by the mid-1920s. Why do you make this claim?

Ahmed White

Certainly many factors contributed to the union’s demise, including organizational deficiencies, changes in work that undermined the efficacy of its organizing methods, and the rise of communism as a rival socialist tradition, to name a few. But yes, I argue that repression was key, and I do so because I think the record is so clear on this point.

There’s been a lot of excellent work on the Wobblies over the years, including on the question of repression. Indeed, it is impossible to write anything about the IWW without talking about repression on some level. But for whatever reasons, the tendency has been to discuss the different types of repression the union faced in relative isolation from each other without looking at the ways these all worked with each other to make the union’s survival untenable.

There has also been a tendency not to reckon adequately with repression’s devastating effects on individual people, to focus maybe too much on how it damaged the institution instead of how it destroyed the lives of the people in the union. When you look at repression in these ways, it becomes very difficult to see how the union endured as long as it did and impossible to deny that it was a decisive factor in its demise.

Peter Cole

The title of your book is taken from the title of a novel by Jack London. Tell us about London, that novel, and why you found it so compelling that you used the same title.

Ahmed White

London was not only one of the most successful writers of his day — he was also a socialist.

His writings were devoured by leftists of all stripes, but especially the Wobblies, who, as we know, put a great premium on literacy. The Iron Heel, written only a few years after the IWW was founded, was immensely popular among the union’s ranks. Not only did it serve as a kind of introduction to socialist theory, but its dramatic account of the merciless crushing of a workers’ uprising, led by the state and abetted by reformists in society, seemed to prophesy the Wobblies’ own experience with repression — to the point that Wobblies, who eulogized London as “an IWW man,” often spoke of themselves as being “under” or “beneath” the “Iron Heel.”

The Iron Heel was not the only work by London that spoke to the Wobblies in this way, but it was his most important. Likewise, while London was not the only writer to influence the Wobblies, his influence in their ranks was unsurpassed.

The police driving the Industrial Workers of the World off of the sidewalk at Union Square in New York City, April 14, 1914. (Bettmann / Getty Images)
Peter Cole

You don’t just focus on governmental repression. You also devote a lot of attention to vigilantism. Tell us why that matters.

Ahmed White

Initially, this was going to be a book about criminal syndicalism laws, which were state and municipal sedition laws enacted for the express purpose of criminalizing the IWW. But I gradually expanded the project as I recognized, first, that a book about the IWW would be infinitely more interesting than a book about laws, and second, that you really can’t understand any aspect of the union’s experience with repression without trying to understand everything its members had to deal with.

Once I reconceived the book in this broader way, it likewise became obvious that the lines people draw between “legal” and “illegal” or “legal” and “extralegal” are often not very useful, either practically or conceptually. Much of the vigilantism the Wobblies endured was sanctioned by police and government officials, and much of the legal repression they faced was hardly within the four corners of the law anyway — which helps prove the broader point that law and legal process are not alternatives to violence but instead different means of imposing violence.

Peter Cole

You’re a lawyer and teach at a law school. Could you go into greater depth as to how the law was used as a bludgeon against the IWW?

Ahmed White

I mentioned Jack London’s importance to the Wobblies. You might also say that I found a reading of London important, in turn, in understanding how it was that the Wobblies viewed the world. In both respects, whether one is talking about London or the IWW, one thing that really stands out is this understanding that the state was poised to crush any significant threats to the interests and values of powerful capitalists; another is that the law was in many ways a means by which the state was prepared to accomplish this.

So it was that between 1917 and 1921, the federal government, nearly two dozen states, and dozens of municipalities all enacted laws designed to punish the Wobblies for their radicalism and to drive the IWW out of business. At the federal level, the main provisions adopted for these purposes were sections of the infamous Espionage Act, which criminalized interfering with the war effort. At the state and municipal levels, the focus was on criminal syndicalism laws, which made it a crime to advocate or belong to an organization that advocated revolutionary change by sabotage, violence, or other criminal acts.

These all worked in quite similar ways, making membership in the organization a seditious act that could be prosecuted and punished as a conspiracy, which is to say without police or prosecutors ever showing that defendants had actually done much more than belong to the IWW.

The prosecutions were aided in almost every case by the charge that the IWW, which for years celebrated the concept of sabotage in its literature and iconography, was committed to a program of wanton destruction as a means of achieving its revolutionary purposes. While the IWW’s view of sabotage was quite broad and its commitment to the practice mainly involved slowdowns, overly deliberate work, and similar means of “striking on the job,” some Wobblies did engage in what was called “destructive sabotage,” and the union was widely reputed to be committed to such tactics. This made it easier to convict defendants, even though it was almost unheard of for prosecutors to allege that anyone actually on trial was guilty of such conduct — and even though there was never much evidence that the union, which in 1917 repudiated the very concept of sabotage, had sanctioned any such conduct.

In the end, over 150 Wobblies were convicted of violating the Espionage Act; twice this number, at least, were convicted of felony criminal syndicalism charges. The great majority of these defendants were imprisoned. A few were also convicted by similar means of conventional sedition charges. Dozens were convicted of misdemeanor, municipal-level criminal syndicalism charges. And a few members were also wrongly convicted of homicide charges.

But exceeding all other prosecutions, in number, at least, were vagrancy cases. It was not uncommon for wayward workers to be prosecuted for vagrancy in these days — something a young London famously discovered — or for vagrancy charges to be levied against union organizers or strikes.

As London also discovered, there was essentially no defense to the charges. With the Wobblies, these prosecutions reached epic proportions.  Countless thousands of union people were charged with vagrancy — probably tens of thousands, in fact, many of them multiple times, and typically when trying to organize or hold out for better wages or working conditions.

The penalties for vagrancy weren’t especially severe, but jail was typical, and the cumulative effect of so many cases was simply overwhelming. In the end, these prosecutions probably did as much to criminalize the IWW and undermine its efforts as the Espionage Act and criminal syndicalism cases.

Peter Cole

The IWW already engendered tremendous hate and fear among employers and many in the middle and upper classes, resulting in the persecution that you documented. It was no secret that the state served the needs of the employing class. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of workers joined the IWW. What explains why so many signed up for a red card and remained unapologetic about being Wobblies?

Ahmed White

This is in many ways the most compelling part of the story. To carry the union’s red card was indeed to give license to police, local toughs, “respectable” citizens, or just about anyone to assault you, take your money, put you in jail and possibly throw you into prison, and in more than a few cases, to kill you. Those who were incarcerated endured unspeakable horrors, and many who were assaulted, either behind bars or on the streets, were grievously injured.

And yet they kept coming, sometimes, if perchance they were acquitted or not charged, demanding that judges and prosecutors convict them so they might join their fellow workers in captivity; and in scores of other cases refusing to leave prison when some kind of clemency was offered them unless their fellow workers were also released.

The courage these Wobblies showed in the face of repression is unsurpassed in this country’s history, which is saying something. And it does beg the question: How did they manage this? Certainly, these were exceptionally tough characters, mostly migratory industrial workers who were used to all manner of hardships. But more than this, the Wobblies’ extraordinary resistance was rooted in their remarkable devotion to what their union was trying to accomplish.

Time and again, Wobblies described the IWW as a “religion.” They likened themselves to the early Christian martyrs. And they clearly believed that it was their destiny, as industrial unionists, to change the world, to overthrow capitalism, and build a genuine workers’ commonwealth from which the exploitation and repression they suffered would be forever banished.

The Wobblies’ remarkable devotion to this vision didn’t make them invulnerable, of course; the union was eventually broken, along with many of those who were beaten or jailed. But in their devotion and in the courage they drew from this, these people showed us what proper radicals really are.

Peter Cole

Most of your book covers the 1910s and 1920s. How do you think the history of a revolutionary union that suffered brutal persecution connects to the United States and the world a century later?

Ahmed White

Much has changed in the hundred years since this story unfolded, but I do think that a great deal of what the Wobblies did and what happened to them remain relevant today. In a lot of ways, it’s only recently that the labor movement has widely and properly embraced the IWW’s vision of unionism that truly reaches across the divides of race, ethnicity, and gender. It is also conspicuous how many of the most promising campaigns that comprise the current surge in labor organizing are, like the IWW a century ago, independent of the AFL-CIO and its culture of bureaucratized, disenchanting business unionism. And there is the IWW itself, whose rebirth draws explicitly on the culture of socialism, radicalism, and self-reliance that made the union such a force a century ago.

Indeed, it is worth mentioning how long and how well the Wobblies have served, not only the labor movement, but the American left more broadly as models of resolution and courage in the face of tremendous adversity, of fidelity to the principles of working-class solidarity, and of decency and dignity in the face of depredation and inhumanity. This book doesn’t diminish them in any of these respects. Quite the opposite, in fact: I’m confident that workers and organizers of all stripes today can draw inspiration from this book. But that’s not all this story has to offer, I’m afraid.

Like the Wobblies themselves, I also see what happened to them as a warning to leftists and unionists of what the capitalist class and their allies are prepared to do to hold radicalism in check the moment they believe their interests and values are really in jeopardy. The Wobblies understood this from the very outset, in fact. And what happened to them, ironically, went a very long way toward proving that they were right all along.

Share this article


Ahmed White is a professor of law at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the author of The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America.

Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University and a research associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently Ben Fletcher: The Life & Times of a Black Wobbly. He is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project.

Filed Under