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The Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the IWW or the Wobblies, promoted the idea that "one big union" would generate the class power necessary to overthrow the wage system. Organized in June 1905 as a militant alternative to trade unionism in general, and the AFL in particular, the IWW prided itself on its revolutionary potential. "It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism," the preamble to the IWW constituted stated. "By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the society within the shell of the old." (View Luke Grant's eye-witness reports of the IWW's founding convention.)

Promising to organize the unorganized, especially black, women, immigrant and unskilled workers, early leaders like Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, and socialists Eugene Debs and Daniel DeLeon, took it for granted that industrial unionism was the key to labor solidarity. Yet from the very beginning, the leadership could not agree on goals or strategies. In fact within a few years both Debs and the Western Federation of Miners -- the IWW's largest affiliate -- would leave the organization, and Daniel DeLeon would launch a rival IWW. Thus, while the IWW captured the interest of intellectuals and social reformers -- especially after its victory in the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Ma.-- the organization was never able to consolidate its gains or build a stable organization. In fact, just two years after the Lawrence victory, the IWW unions there had dissolved.

The IWW probably had its best success organizing migratory workers who followed the harvest in the West. These were some of the most exploited workers in the country and they welcomed the IWW's fiery rhetoric of class struggle. But that rhetoric had a double edge: During the First World War, radical IWW leaders were accused of sabotaging the war effort and hundreds of members were prosecuted under federal and state espionage and sedition laws. Although the IWW still exists, the organization never recovered from its wartime experience and by 1920 the IWW was all but defunct.

In Gompers' view, IWW supporters were "rainbow chasers" who thought solidarity could be imposed from above, and IWW leaders were spoilers, determined to rule or ruin the labor movement. Indeed Gompers and other trade unionists suspected that antiunion forces funded the IWW in order to undermine collective bargaining and link organized labor to violence and sabotage in the public mind. Nevertheless Gompers did what he could to secure the release of IWW supporters imprisoned for violation of the Espionage Act or for refusing to serve during the war.






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