Founded over 110 years ago on June 27, 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, created an iconic legacy and rich history of militant unionism in the U.S. The union was founded by radical unionists and currents within the labor movement with the purpose of building an alternative to the conservative trade unionism of the American Labor Federation (AFL) which promoted harmony between workers and capital and practiced exclusion in their organizing along the lines of race, gender and skill. Today the IWW continues to organize as an alternative to mainstream unions and we celebrate it’s vision of a labor movement committed to the emancipation of the working class.
William “Big Bill” Haywood
William “Big Bill” Haywood was a veteran unionist and Secretary of the Western Federation of Miners prior to the founding of the IWW. He would go on to become a key early figure of the IWW and was expelled from the executive of the Socialist Party for his advocacy of direct action. Here in his opening address to the founding convention on June 27, 1905, he elaborates in one simple paragraph the radical vision that inspired the what the IWW attempted to create.
Fellow Workers: In calling this convention to order I do so with a sense of the responsibility that rests upon me and rests upon every delegate that is here assembled. This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism. (Applause).
There is no organization, or there seems to be no labor organization, that has for its purpose the same object as that for which you are called together to-day. The aims and objects of this organization should be to put the working class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters. (Applause).
The American Federation of Labor, which presumes to be the labor movement of this country, is not a working class movement. It does not represent the working class. There are organizations that are affiliated, but loosely affiliated with the A. F. of L., which in their constitution and by-laws prohibit the initiation of or conferring the obligation on a colored man; that prohibit the conferring of the obligation on foreigners. What we want to establish at this time is a labor organization that will open wide its doors to every man that earns his livelihood either by his brain or his muscle.
Lucy Gonzalez Parsons
Lucy Parsons organized with women textile workers and was a prominent anarchist who gained international renown for her campaign against the execution of her husband and Haymarket Martyr, Albert Parsons. Her speech at the convention, given on June 28, 1905, articulates a key distinction in the early 20th century left between electoral reform efforts (“political socialists”) versus those who emphasized the collective power of workers to take control of means of life (“revolutionary or industrial socialists”).
Now, what do we mean when we say revolutionary Socialist? We mean that the land shall belong to the landless, the tools to the toiler, and the products to the producers. Now, let us analyze that for just a moment, before you applaud me.
First, the land belongs to the landless. Is there a single land owner in this country who owns his land by the constitutional rights given by the constitution of the United States who will allow you to vote it away from him? I am not such a fool as to believe it. We say, “The tools belong to the toiler.” They are owned by the capitalist class. Do you believe they will allow you to go into the halls of the legislature and simply say, “Be it enacted that on and after a certain day the capitalist shall no longer own the tools and the factories and the places of industry, the ships that plow the ocean and our lakes?” Do you believe that they will submit? I do not.
We say, “The products belong to the producers.” It belongs to the capitalist class as their legal property. Do you think that they will allow you to vote them away from them by passing a law and saying, “Be it enacted that on and after a certain day Mr. Capitalist shall be dispossessed?” You may, but I do not believe it.
Hence, when you roll under your tongue the expression that you are revolutionists, remember what that word means. It means a revolution that shall turn all these things over where they belong to the wealth producers. Now, how shall the wealth producers come into possession of them? I believe that if every man and every woman who works, or who toils in the mines, the mills, the workshops, the fields, the factories and the farms in our broad America should decide in their minds that they shall have that which of right belongs to them, and that no idler shall live upon their toil, and when your new organization, your economic organization, shall declare as man to man and women to woman, as brothers and sisters, that you are determined that you will possess these things, then there is no army that is large enough to overcome you, for you yourselves constitute the army. (Applause). …
My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production. If any one is to starve … let it be the capitalist class. They have starved us long enough, while they have had wealth and luxury and all that is necessary.
A YouTube Video on the life of Lucy Parsons:
If you enjoyed this piece we recommend our analysis of the contemporary labor movement, “The State of Labor: Beyond Unions, But Not Without Them” and for more historical discussion on the radical labor movement we recommend “Albert Parsons: Anarchist and Labor Martyr in His Own Words.”