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One Big Union, One Long Fight

Industrial Workers of the World union label
Robert Young is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, where he studies urban planning and sustainable economic development.
The Wobblies, a film directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer (1979; Docurama, 2006), 89 minutes, color, DVD.
Fred W. Thompson and Jon Bekken, The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First Hundred Years (Cincinnati: IWW, 2006), 247 pages, $15, paperback.

In recent decades, both the U.S. and global economy have become mired in a prolonged stagnation. As a shrinking number of large corporations dominate a greater share of industries and sectors, business investment has slowed and wage growth has stalled. Although the economy has been on this trajectory for quite some time, a series of financial bubbles has obscured the trend. The collapse of the most recent of these, and the subsequent Great Recession of 2007–09, has laid bare this overall macroeconomic condition, to the point that even mainstream economists such as Larry Summers openly recognize “secular stagnation” as the economy’s dominant course.1

A stagnating economy is most immediately characterized by a general decline in business investment, static or falling wage levels, and deficit spending by governments trying to reignite sustained growth. In the wake of each burst bubble, the economy makes a weak “recovery,” without returning to its earlier strengths.2 Thus, over time, although specific sectors may experience some growth, the overall economy continues to slow in terms of investment, jobs creation, and wage increases, and appears increasingly fragile in each of these spheres.

The longer-term implications of an economy caught in stagnation are quite serious. As the situation continues to worsen, both corporations and the general public demand that steps be taken to stimulate economic growth. Politically this pressure has yielded two possible—and very distinct—paths. The first is a sharp turn to the right, as has happened in the United States and elsewhere in the advanced capitalist core. This reactionary tendency scorns liberal democracy as weak and inefficient, embracing chauvinist and conservative attitudes and vilifying the poor and marginalized. The other path is a shift to a more progressive politics based upon solidarity, community, and innovation, one that seeks to remake the economy on new foundations of justice and equality.

The stagnation in real wages described above has been compounded by a historic decline in job security, as flexible employment, temporary work, informal labor, and short-term contracting replaced steady, full-time, “family-wage” work. Together, these factors are transforming great swathes of the workforce into a newly precarious proletariat, or a “precariat”: not an “underclass” of the unemployed or unemployable, but people with job experience, education, and some assets, who must often work several part-time positions to make ends meet.

The question, then, is how to organize politically and economically to revive economic growth and strengthen equity, fairness, and democracy, and how is this to be done in the face of an increasingly globalized, monopolistic economy with a fragmented, precarious workforce. After decades of declining union membership among U.S. workers, where should we seek effective strategies for organizing the unemployed and under-skilled?

The best starting place might be the earlier labor history of the United States. Before the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board, sanctioned collective bargaining, and other labor legislation, the country’s situation at the turn of the twentieth century was strikingly similar to today’s. Corporations were growing exponentially in political and economic strength. Workers were largely unorganized, especially those without specialized skills, and unions, however active, represented only a small fraction of the workforce. Unorganized workers often had to work on short contracts or with no job security at all—a tableau not unlike the conditions facing many workers today.

Into this highly precarious situation stepped the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose history and experience offer insight into how to grapple with these problems today. Founded in Chicago in 1905 by a veritable who’s-who of the era’s leading labor militants, including Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, and “Big Bill” Haywood, the IWW sought to build “One Big Union,” uniting workers across industries and sectors as a counterforce to an emerging monopoly capitalism. The key to this strategy was to organize industrially, as opposed to the then-dominant practice of organizing workers on the basis of specific crafts, the approach promoted by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The IWW (or Wobblies, as they became known) saw the self-defeating nature of the AFL strategy: when workers were organized by craft under separate contracts, employers often pitted one group of workers against another. AFL activists also sought only to organize skilled workers, leaving the vast majority of the workforce out of the equation.

True to their vision, the Wobblies set out to organize any and all members of the working class, skilled and unskilled, in manufacturing and service industries, black and Latino as well as white, women as well as men. To do so, IWW activists lit out across the country (and eventually around the world) organizing workers wherever the jobs were. From logging and mining operations in the Pacific Northwest and Great Basin, to the dock yards along the east and west coasts, to the auto industry, wheat fields, and orchards of the Midwest, the Wobblies began agitating for higher wages, safer and more dignified working conditions, and ultimately industrial democracy.

The documentary film The Wobblies, directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer, and the book The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First Hundred Years, by Fred W. Thompson and Jon Bekken, offer an excellent introduction and exploration of the IWW’s origins, struggles, strategies, and survival into the present. Bird and Shaffer’s film, released in 1979, covers the union’s early, “heroic” period. Perhaps most valuable are the film’s numerous interviews with IWW organizers of the 1910s and 1920s, veterans of the epic strikes in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Paterson, New Jersey, and the timber wars of the Pacific Northwest.

Though many of the storytellers in the film are in their seventies and eighties, their fire and whimsy are evident when recounting their times on the picket line, in the lumber camps, or riding the rails. Known as the “singing union,” for their proclivity for breaking into song, several of the old timers launch into choruses of “Hold the Fort,” “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” and other standards of the IWW’s Little Red Songbook. But while these historic film clips and first-person narratives are precious documents, the film suffers from a general lack of context. Viewers without at least a passing knowledge of the IWW and the larger labor history of the period will likely miss some of the film’s subtler points. An example, especially relevant today, is the very effective Wobbly strategy and philosophy of uniting workers across language and ethnic lines to join together in solidarity. One veteran IWW activist in the film refers to it briefly, but the film’s narrators leave its significance largely unexplained and unexplored. Bird and Shaffer also downplay the severe and at times murderous repression the Wobblies faced, save for their detailed treatment of the massacre of IWW members on the docks at Everett, Washington in 1916.

The film also fails to account for the success of IWW tactics in “getting the goods”—winning workplace concessions from bosses. While one veteran makes a case for the union’s innovation of “striking on the job,” and several others briefly comment on the power of industrial sabotage, the film only hints at the tactical and strategic value of these shop-floor forms of direct action.3 Similarly, the IWW’s overall vision of establishing a “Commonwealth of Labor” organized around industrial democracy is barely mentioned. But despite these shortcomings, Bird and Shaffer’s film gives vivid voice to the now-vanished first generation of Wobblies—a voice that still speaks with strength and determination today.

Fortunately, Thompson and Bekken’s history of the IWW fills in many of the gaps and omissions of The Wobblies. In the first half, Thompson, the longtime editor of the IWW’s newspaper, the Industrial Worker, chronicles the union’s growth, repression, and near-disappearance during its first fifty years, from 1905 to 1955. Covering the actions and outcomes of the union’s campaigns in detail, Thompson describes the personalities, events, tactics, and occasionally theory of the IWW’s powerful and tumultuous first half-century. Particularly strong is his emphasis on the sheer number and diversity of industries targeted by IWW organizers during this period, detailing campaigns across job sites and economic sectors around the country and the world. But while Thompson effectively channels the Wobblies’ energy and activism, his account suffers from a sometimes sensational, news-headline narrative style, moving restlessly from one IWW organizing campaign to another.

The book makes up for this weakness in its second part, written mainly by Bekken, who joined the IWW in 1978 and later became its general secretary and treasurer. In a smoother, more scholarly style, Bekken covers the Wobblies’ recovery after the repression of the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare of the 1920s. Like a tough old worker, the IWW, though battered, outlawed, ignored, and isolated both by the owning classes and the mainstream of the American labor movement, refused to disappear.

Bekken documents the union’s stubborn refusal to resign itself to historical irrelevance. Instead, his story finds IWW activists organizing workers in small manufacturing firms in the Ohio Valley, grocery workers in the West, and bicycle messengers in Manhattan. The organization makes inroads into the consumer cooperatives of the 1970s, and extends its vision beyond the workplace to join struggles against imperialist interventions in the global South. While still too weak to try to organize the “commanding heights” industries that the early Wobblies took on, such as auto manufacturing, timber, and mining, the union nevertheless returns to its roots in organizing workers in the low-wage, low-security service industries, and finds friends and new members among rank-and-file workers disaffected with the declining remnants of the major bureaucratic labor unions.

In telling this story, Bekken shows the promise and the difficulties of forging new paths in organizing workers in a fragmented global labor market. Though many of the contemporary Wobbly campaigns ended in defeat (as have those of many other contemporary unions), their efforts are revealing. Of particular note is the union’s return to shop-floor organizing built around addressing workers’ immediate concerns, rather than the pursuit of recognition from the largely compromised National Labor Relations Board.

It is here that the past relevance and future promise of the IWW are strongest. Born as an uncompromisingly radical union dedicated to solidarity and to establishing an economy in which workers would “take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the earth,” the Wobblies threatened the established powers of both capitalism and traditional unionism.4 The root of this fear, then as now, was that the unskilled, transient laborers—the majority of the U.S. and global workforce—on which systems of exploitation depended might organize, find a voice, and fight back. In its initial heyday, the Wobblies were the leading vehicle for that voice.

This history is worth remembering for two reasons. First, as the world’s economies continue to fail to “deliver the goods” for a growing percentage of working people and their families—a category that now includes large portions of the middle class as well as the traditional working class—activists will increasingly be called upon to address these issues in concrete terms. Our response cannot be to offer more of the same half-measures, market solutions, or “public-private partnerships,” that have proven ineffective and often harmful. A sense of past struggles and their continued relevance is vital to the development of new strategies for economic justice.

Second, the IWW sought as its ultimate goal to establish a far more equitable society, where all people, regardless of race, gender, education, or ethnicity could share in the fruits of production that are the rightful domain of no single person or class. The IWW’s idealism and committed struggle provide a “north star” by which we can begin to chart our course. As the global economy grows increasingly unstable, undermining job security and the dignity of work, the IWW’s pioneering tactics, and perhaps even the union itself, may again be the means by which working people of all walks secure “the good things in life” while building “a new society within the shell of the old.”


  1. Ben S. Bernanke, “The Near- and Longer-term Prospects for the U.S. Economy,” speech given at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Symposium, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, August 26, 2011,; Robert E. Hall, “The Long Slump,” American Economic Review 101, no. 2 (2011): 431–69.
  2. Scott Horsley, “Despite an Economy on the Rise, American Paychecks Remain Stuck,” National Public Radio, May 26, 2015.
  3. For a fuller treatment of Wobbly theory and practice on nonviolent direct action, see Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Walker C. Smith, and William E. Trautmann, Direct Action and Sabotage, ed. Salvatore Salerno (Oakland: PM, 2014).
  4. Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World,
2017, Volume 69, Issue 06 (November 2017)
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