By the last years of the nineteenth century, many American and Canadian workers were keenly aware that the craft unions affiliated to the American Federation of Labor and the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada would not alter the basic relations between capital and labour. Unions could continue to carve out better wages for their members, but they would not help the mass of workers who were not organized. Nor would they work to abolish the unjust system of capitalism. At the same time, the socialist movement was isolated from the working class and its daily struggles. Prompted by the Western Federation of Miners and the left wing of the Socialist Party of America, unionists and radicals tried to create a new organization that would be able to unite all workers and work towards revolution as the only way to solve labour’s problems once and for all. Late in 1904, workers from the American Labor Union, the United Railway Workers, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and the Brewery Workers met to begin the formation of “a labor organization that would correspond to modern industrial conditions.” In January 1905, several delegates drew up a manifesto which would lay the foundation for a revolutionary industrial union. The manifesto decried the power of monopoly capitalism and outlined the fundamental changes in the labour process which accompanied it. As machines replaced skilled workers, the tradesman was “sunk in the uniform mass of wage slave. . . . Laborers are no longer classified by differences in trade skill, but the employer assorts them according to the machines to which they are attached.” Trade unions could not address this problem; at best, they could offer “only a perpetual struggle for slight relief within wage slavery.” The manifesto ended with a call for unionists and radicals to assemble in Chicago that June to create a new labour organization.
By early morning on 27 June 1905, Brand’s Hall in Chicago was filled with tobacco smoke and people. More than two hundred delegates had shown up in response to the January manifesto.
The platform attracted most of the famous radicals of the era. Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party of America, Daniel DeLeon of the Socialist Labor Party, Thomas Hagerty, Mother Jones, and Lucy Parsons were all in attendance. Four Canadians had also made their way to Chicago: R.J. Kerrigan and W.F. Leach from Montreal, John Riordan and James Baker from the mining districts of British Columbia.
At 10 a.m., William Dudley Haywood, secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, picked up a short board and pounded this makeshift gavel to silence the crowd. He chose his opening salutation with care, for this new organization did not want to be tainted by rituals and reminders of other radical groups. Haywood wanted to avoid the “brothers and sisters” so redolent of the American Federation of Labor, while “fellow citizens,” the address of the French Communards, hardly fit the multilingual and multinational gathering. He brushed aside the “comrades” that had been appropriated by the Socialist Party, and decided on his opening:
Fellow workers! . . . 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. 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 today. 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.
With this speech the Industrial Workers of the World came into being. It was created to do what the AFL could not, or would not, do: organize unskilled, immigrant workers to fight not just for “more, more, more,” but for a revolution that would destroy capitalism and the state.
The radicalism of the IWW was different from that of its contemporaries, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Labor Party. These parties had come to see the state as the potential liberator of the working class, and believed that the fundamental contradiction of capitalism was its inability to produce and distribute goods fairly and efficiently. Consequently, they believed that the task of the socialists was to take over the state in order to control production and distribution.
The IWW agreed that capitalism was a tyrannical, oppressive way to organize production and distribution. Capitalism meant a handful of people who did little real work reaped the rewards of great wealth, power, and prestige, while those who actually produced society’s goods and services were often unable to provide themselves with even basic necessities.
The Wobblies’ critique, however, went beyond the socialists’ concern for a more equitable distribution of wealth. It was a broader attack on power and privilege as well. Their view, known as syndicalism, held that workers’ control was the essential element of socialism, and that the state was as much the enemy as capitalism, for the two were inseparable allies.
Most syndicalists would agree with the anarchist Michael Bakunin, who held that the state would always be a tool of oppression, even if it ruled in the name of the workers. Instead of working for a socialist state, the IWW fought for a co-operative commonwealth that would eliminate “such things as the State or States.” Rather, worker-controlled “industries will take the place of what are now existing States.” One Wobbly’s fierce attack on the state socialism of Victor Berger and the Socialist Party of America gives a powerful introduction to the syndicalism of the IWW:
Berger imagines that Socialism can be attained by a nation operating the industries within its artificial boundaries. . . . There is no trust nor industry that is confined in one nation, and control of industry, therefore, must finally rest with producers regardless of border lines. In place of “Let the nation own the trusts,” it must be “Let the producers control the industries.” The first is the slavery of State Socialism; the second is Industrial Freedom. . . . Are we to believe that the State, the mailed fist of the master, based upon exploitation and having as its sole purpose the conserving of property rights . . . can be of value to the workers merely by changing its personnel? . . . It is small consolation to have the State deprive the workers of industrial liberty in return for the privilege of owning and managing their own toothbrushes.
Should Berger’s ideal become a reality it must of necessity contain within itself the germ of another revolution. A rebellious working class would rapidly cause such a germ to mature and burst open State Socialism so as to liberate the proletariat.
But let us hope we can gain freedom without the necessity of a second revolution by avoiding the pitfalls of the politicians’ dream – State Socialism.
This emphasis on workers’ control and local autonomy meant that the IWW stood for, in the words of a contemporary observer, a “new kind of revolution’; beside this radicalism, “socialism was respectable – even reactionary – by comparison.”
But if political action – that is, electing left-wing candidates to capture the state and bring in socialism from above – was reactionary and useless, how was the IWW to make the revolution? The Wobblies held that the direct action of workers themselves in the factories and workshops would be able to usher in the new society. Once the majority of workers were organized in one big union, they would call a general strike that would paralyze capitalist society. This would prevent profits, goods, even food, from going to the capitalists. The workers, who already knew how to produce and distribute goods, would then take up production for themselves. As Bill Haywood put it, when the workers were properly educated and organized, they could “lock the bosses out and run the factories to suit ourselves.”
The IWW did not expect the bosses and the state to surrender meekly when the general strike broke out. They would fight back to protect their privilege, and they would use soldiers, machine guns, and prisons. But if all the workers were organized and united, the armed forces would be useless. Haywood, reflecting on the Coeur d’Alene strike of 1892, recalled that all the mines were closed down by the strikers. Mine owners brought in gun thugs, and the miners fought back with their own weapons. Then mine owners cried for the government to send militia troops, and they were sent. But, Haywood asked, “Who brought the soldiers? Railroads manned by union men; engines fired with coal mined by union men.” In a general strike, no trains could roll without the permission of the workers; no coal would fire the engines; troops would receive neither food, nor shelter, nor munitions.
In the meantime, before the workers were completely organized, the union argued that conditions had to be reformed through industrial action. The IWW fought for higher wages at Lawrence, Massachusetts; for sanitary conditions along the railway camps of the Fraser River; and for shorter hours in Vancouver. But the Wobblies simultaneously insisted that workers must be organized to create a new society in which privilege and want would be unknown. Strikes would make life a little better in the here and now, but they were also
mere incidents in the class war; they are tests of strength, periodic drills in course of which the workers train themselves for concerted action. This training is most necessary to prepare the masses for the final “catastrophe,” the general strike which will complete the expropriation of the employers.
This fusion of revolution and practical labour organizing has led many historians to misinterpret American syndicalism. Joseph Conlin, for example, has gone so far as to argue that the IWW must be seen primarily as a labour union and not as a revolutionary body.
Conlin correctly points out that Thomas Hagerty, a founding member of the union who designed its structure, stated that the first function of the organization must be to combine the workers to help them in their struggles for wages and conditions. But Hagerty then argued that the IWW’s second function was it “offer a final solution of the labor problem . . . [and] burst the shell of capitalist government and be the agency by which the working people will operate the industries, and appropriate the products to themselves.”
Conlin suggests also that syndicalism requires the autonomy of industrial unions, and that the IWW was highly centralized. Though the One Big Union structure seems to imply centralization, the rank and file democracy of the IWW meant the union was never centralized. Conlin argues that instead of participatory democracy, syndicalists must adhere to a policy of autonomy for the local union; instead of pledging fealty to the king, members should pledge to the local baron. The IWW held that workers should not be ruled by anyone, a much more democratic and decentralized concept of organization. It is true, as Conlin points out, that Wobblies often rejected the label of syndicalism, seeing it as a foreign importation. But as Dubofsky points out in his book, the IWW would reject the label but follow syndicalist policies and actions. Certain historical differences, such as the pattern of industrialization, and the dominance and conservatism of Sam Gompers and the AFL, created organizational and ideological differences, but the IWW is properly regarded as syndicalist. Conlin seeks to counter earlier work that saw the IWW merely as an imported revolutionary aberration, but in playing up the bread and butter side of the union, he overcorrects. Further, it is making too much of the Wobblies’ practical concern with reform and democracy to argue that they “evinced a commitment to traditional American liberties.” Such a claim obscures the nature of both American liberalism and the syndicalist critique.
The IWW was quick to point out that any resemblance to more conservative unions was only superficial, and that it did not itself hold with capitalist values:
The IWW is a revolutionary labor movement, industrial in its form, direct in its methods, and open in avowing its ultimate purpose of overthrowing the wage system.
While better immediate conditions are fought for, they are merely incidental to the main object of building an organization that will serve to batter on the institutions of capitalism and to form the basis of production in the new social order.
The IWW can never afford to gain in membership at the cost of sacrificed principles, or by appealing to the workers from the standpoint of immediate material benefits alone.
Our outward form may be imperfectly copied by other bodies. Our tactics may be applied partially by craft unions to gain a higher wage scale. But our spirit of revolt makes us stand out from those who acquiesce in the wage system and it marks us for the bitter hatred of the employing class. . . . The one thing that will keep the IWW from degenerating is to foster the spirit of revolt against slavery of any kind.
In his history of the IWW, Philip Foner argues that the union was too radical. He believes that its opposition to political action was “a basic error,” while the attempt to combine industrial unionism and revolutionary activity constituted a “fundamental mistake.” Measures that would have ensured the growth and stability of the union were often rejected in favour of revolutionary principles. For example, the IWW did not sign contracts or have a dues check-off (the automatic deduction of union dues by the employer). But the refusal to sign contracts allowed employers to regroup and eliminate conditions that had been won once the initial enthusiasm and militancy died away. Renouncing the dues check-off meant the IWW could not generate a stable income, professional leaders, or long-term union membership. The universal transfer system, which made all Wobblies members of any local, tended to give locals a “here today, gone tomorrow” quality, while the refusal to create long-term strike funds hurt the union’s endurance in strike actions. Finally, the refusal to provide unemployment and sick benefits meant the IWW could not attract members by supplying special services.
The IWW did no avoid conventional trade union practice through oversight. Each of these measures, it argued, had a harmful aspect. Signing contracts meant formal acceptance of the employers’ legal right to the factory and production, a principle the IWW denied. Contracts limited the right to strike during the agreement, but they did not limit the employers’ ability to prepare for strikes through stockpiling, speed-ups, and lay-offs. At the same time, actions by the workers to resist stockpiling and speed-ups, or to hamper production in order to strengthen the union’s position, were illegal. The contract was a peace treaty in the class war, but its terms disarmed only the working class.
Collective agreements could even turn the union against its members. In a wildcat strike or job action, the union could be sued and its leaders jailed if they did not order the strikers back to work. In this way, contracts turned the union bureaucracy into policemen for the company. The labour movement could even be pitted against itself, for contracts would force unions to keep working on a site struck by another. Solidarity and militancy would be replaced with acquiescence and placidity, for courts and lawyers would replace the collective action of the workers to enforce conditions and wage rates.
Similarly, the IWW argued that the dues check-off stripped the workers of autonomy and responsibility for their own affairs. As one Wobbly put it, the union “expected grown-up men to be big enough to pay their own dues without a check-off.”
Automatic check-offs also tended to separate the union from its members, for the job steward was able to avoid the task of going to each worker and collecting complaints and suggestions along with the dues.
The low initiation fees of the IWW did make it difficult to build a war chest, but they also made it possible for unskilled, unemployed, and underpaid workers to join the union. In contrast, the high fees of the AFL often acted as a barrier to workers. Large strike funds could be seized by the state if the union engaged in illegal activity, and workers could not always rely on union officials to issue the money. More importantly, large strike funds encouraged conservatism in the class war, for union leaders were often tempted to keep them intact rather than risk the union’s money in a strike. Furthermore, money invested to aid union veterans represented money diverted from the organization and the education needed to bring in new workers; it benefited the “home guard” and labour officials while hurting unionism in the long run. Finally, attracting workers by offering them sick and death benefits did nothing to make them class conscious, or even job conscious. This had the effect of turning working class organizations into “coffin societies,” and made the workers collectively responsible for problems caused directly by the employers.
The IWW’s program resulted from a radical critique of society and the American Federation of Labor. An organizer for the IWW summed up its position concisely:
Can there be any dispute that if the IWW struck bargains with employers, compromised its principles, signed protocols, contracts, had the employers collect the dues and acted as “good boys” generally, we should have a half million members? . . . But rather than sacrifice our principles, kowtow to all sorts of freak notions, declare a practical truce with the enemy, and have a large number of duespayers, we have preferred to be true to our own purpose in spite of all opposition. Our men have sweated blood in carrying on the propaganda for a revolutionary labor body – revolutionary in methods as well as final purpose.
Foner’s other criticism of the IWW, that industrial unionism was fundamentally incompatible with revolutionary activity, has some truth to it. But this argument is more obvious in the latter part of the twentieth century than it was in the early part. In 1905, the attempt to combine unionism and revolutionary agitation seemed logical and correct. The AFL showed quite clearly what would happen to a union that did not inscribe revolution on its banner. Capitalism would again be accepted and propped up by the workers’ organization; huge struggles would be fought, for only slight improvements in conditions, and labour leaders would remain little more than lieutenants for the captains of industry. The basic fact of class conflict would be steadfastly ignored.
On the other side, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance showed the futility of creating yet another revolutionary society. The STLA was founded in New York in 1895 to bring a purer, more scientific, and increasingly rarefied version of socialism to the working class. Headed by Daniel DeLeon, a former law professor, the STLA was noted for its rigorous socialist thought and doctrinal purity. It was also noted for its conspicuous inability to attract workers to its fold. Well might DeLeon rail that “you could not first take the men into the union under the false pretence that you were going to raise their wages, and afterward indoctrinate them. No, you had to indoctrinate them first, and then bring them in.” Such a policy might have created well-schooled socialists, but it did not create many of them. The STLA never became more than a splinter group, largely because it could offer workers nothing save rhetoric; highly refined rhetoric, to be sure, but still no more substantial.
The IWW effort to combine industrial unionism with revolution made a great deal of sense, for it was an attempt to steer between the Charybdis of opportunism and the Scylla of sectarianism. Yet the failure of the Wobblies cannot be ascribed to this strategy. The Socialist Party advocated and used political action in the way suggested by Foner and came no closer to achieving its goals, while the growing conservatism of the Western Federation of Miners did not save it from extinction after 1905. Both Conlin’s attempt to picture the IWW as a conventional trade union and Foner’s criticism of its syndicalism block our understanding of the union and the historical conditions that led to it. Their analyses also overlook the fact that the IWW’s two-pronged approach – unionism and revolution – was a way out of an old dilemma that often hurt radical groups. Put simply, holding to a pure revolutionary line meant abandoning immediate reforms; the purist argument held that workers should suffer short-term pain for long-term gain. On the other side, those who were less “pure” argued that such a policy forced worse conditions than were necessary on those living in the present. Further, a pure approach to revolution risked alienating workers who could be won to a program that promised immediate aid and future freedom. In her autobiography, Emma Goldman relates an episode that highlights the dilemma acutely. Sent by Johann Most, the leading American anarchist of the nineteenth century, to agitate against the movement for the eight-hour day in favour of the revolution, she was forced to rethink the position in Cleveland:
The gist of my talk was the same as in Buffalo, but the form was different. It was a sarcastic arraignment, not of the system or of the capitalist, but of the workers themselves – their readiness to give up a great future for some small temporary gains. . . .
A man in the front row who had attracted my attention by his white hair and lean, haggard face rose to speak. He said that he understood my impatience with such small demands as a few hours less a day, or a few dollars more a week. It was legitimate for young people to take time lightly. But what were men of his age to do? They were not likely to live to see the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system. Were they also to forgo the release of perhaps two hours a day from the hated work? That was all they could hope to see realized in their lifetime. Should they deny themselves even that small achievement? Should they never have a little more time for reading or being out in the open? Why not be fair to those chained to the block?
The man’s earnestness, his clear analysis of the principle involved in the eight-hour struggle, brought home to me the falsity of Most’s position. I realized I was committing a crime against myself and the workers by serving as a parrot repeating Most’s views. I understood why I had failed to reach my audience.
Combining unionism and revolutionary work, then, made a great deal of tactical sense. Equally important, it illustrates the commitment the IWW had to being a working class organization that represented workers as they were, while educating them to what they could become. Ignoring the day-to-day struggles would set the union apart from its members; the union would become another millenarian scheme, even another boss.
In We Shall Be All, Melvyn Dubofsky does attempt to put the union in context. He is careful to assert that material conditions, not the character or personality of the worker, were the cause of radicalism. Specifically, he argues that the development of monopoly capitalism in the latter part of the nineteenth century changed the nature of work and society. Rapid industrialization in the west, and technological innovations which displaced large segments of the working class, in turn created the conditions for fundamental conflict. Most important for Dubofsky, small-scale, local capital was replaced by large corporations. These new national corporations had no ties to the community and no knowledge of, or interest in, local customs, traditions, and conditions. Their size and dominant place in the economy made them almost invulnerable to small localized protest; their policies of centralized control meant that western managers had little power to intervene and act as buffers. Dubofsky suggests that “this divorce between ownership and local management, this geographical gulf between the worker and his ultimate employer, led to violent industrial conflict.”
But Dubofsky’s use of western exceptionalism, or the belief that geography and location explain radicalism, leaves much to be explained. Radicalism in this period was not confined to the west, and such an explanation is especially difficult to apply to the IWW. Many of the delegates to the founding convention came from the eastern United States; half of the Canadian delegates came from Montreal. The first General Secretary-Treasurer of the union, William Trautman, was from Cincinnati.
And the IWW fought several of its most important battles in the east: Lawrence, Paterson, McKees Rocks, and Akron are only a few of the major eastern strikes that undermine western exceptionalism as an explanation for the IWW.
Dubofsky’s framework of industrialization, corporatization, and technological change is also inadequate. Industrialization and technological change were hardly unique to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, the substitution of machine labour for human labour is an essential part of industrial capitalism, for making labour more productive through changes in the work process squeezes more profit out of the workers.
Why would this process suddenly push workers towards syndicalism in 1905? Pure and simple industrial unions would provide the stronger framework needed to fight the same battles against stronger employers. They might even be better equipped to protect their members than a radical organization, as Foner implies. The logical response to bad conditions or abuses is reform, not revolution; the desire for revolution surely suggests deep dissatisfaction with fundamental aspects of society. The IWW insisted on a radical transformation of society, and a very specific transformation at that. This is precisely the point Dubofsky does not adequately explain, Conlin seeks to ignore, and Foner, who is more sympathetic to the Communist movement, attempts to denigrate.
In his 1919 study of the IWW, Paul Brissenden made a similar appraisal of the contemporary liberal treatments of the union. His conclusions are compelling and applicable to the modern historiography:
The writer is bound to say, however that he considers the liberal interpretation entirely inadequate. The liberal attitude is expressed and judgement pronounced when it has been said that the IWW is a social sore caused by, let us say, bad housing. It must be evident . . . that any organization which purposes a rearrangement of the status quo . . . is much more than that. The improvement of working conditions in the mines and lumber camps would tend to eliminate the cruder and less fundamental IWW activities, but it would not kill IWWism. . . . We can only completely and fairly handle the IWW problem by dealing with its more fundamental tenets on their merits.
The “fundamental tenets” include the organization of the unskilled, industrial unionism, and “the question of the sufficiency of political democracy.” The most important, in Brissenden’s view, was the demand that “some of our democracy . . . be extended from political into economic life. [The Wobblies] ask that industry be democratized by giving the workers – all grades of workers – exclusive control in its management.”
The primary question for the historian of the IWW then becomes, what prompted this specific drive for workers’ control? It is fair, if not too helpful, to argue that capitalism in any form carries with it all that is necessary to create all types of resistance. And the IWW was the third mass movement in thirty years to challenge industrial capitalism in America, as it followed in the wake of Populism and the Knights of Labor. But the radicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World was different from that of the Populists and the Knights: it reflected the changes in the nature of capital and the lessons learned from the victories and defeats of those movements.
Most important was the change from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism. Having reached the limits of domestic growth by the end of the nineteenth century, corporations were forced to find new ways to increase and maintain profits. They did this in three ways. First, they sought to eliminate competition through mergers, price-fixing, and monopolies. Second, they used the government to regulate industry, restrict loans to new businesses, and limit competition. Third, they intensified the workdays to make labour more productive. This was done in several ways. The open shop movement was launched to destroy unions and lower wages. Mechanization and factory work expanded, allowing management to replace skilled workers with semi- and unskilled ones. These were not new tactics, though their strength and intensity were greater than in earlier years. But when bosses tried to make work more productive, they were often stymied by the resistance of workers. Since these workers had a monopoly of skill and knowledge, they were often able to slow down and halt the drive to change the customary ways of doing the job. Management was then pushed to find new techniques for running factories and controlling the work process. These new methods, loosely gathered together under the headings of “scientific management,” “de-skilling,” and “efficiency,” were designed to rob workers of their knowledge and their ability to control the job. The use of these managerial techniques was a new threat to workers, possible only with the advent of monopoly capitalism.
The “father” of scientific management, Frederick Winslow Taylor, saw clearly that the chief impediment to intensifying labour and increasing profits was the monopoly of skill held by the work force. Skilled workers – carpenters, printers, machinists, coopers, steel puddlers, and masons, to name but a few – exerted a good deal of control over the job. Often they knew more about the production techniques than the boss did, for skills and traditions were passed on by other workers and the union, not the company. Craftsmen could often set the pace of work and the amount done in a day; they could, to a degree, decide what constituted a fair day’s work, and could enforce minimum and maximum standards. Many shops would observe “Blue Monday,” a day when workers recovering from weekend celebrations would not work to full capacity but would use the time to sharpen tools, plan the week’s work schedule, and ease into the production routine. In the relative quiet of the cigar-making shop, workers would often appoint one of their comrades to read aloud to them as they worked. When the union controlled the apprentice program, it could limit the supply of skilled labour and help keep wages up. It would also ensure that new workers would be taught the principles of unionism along with the secrets of the trade. As highly trained craftsmen, workers were responsible for much more than the assembly-line production of “only the heads or points of nails,” as Adam Smith suggested. They took an active part in the design of goods and in planning production: in many cases they, not the boss, would decide how something was to be made or produced. Management could not force more productivity from its employees if they controlled production – it could only “induce” workers to apply their “initiative” to yield the largest possible return. The solution to the problem of this informal workers’ control over the work process was obvious to Taylor: managers would gather in all the traditional knowledge of the workers, and reduce this to a set of “rules, laws, and formulae.” All the planning formerly done by workers would now be done by management. Taylor recognized full well that his scheme “of a planning department to do the thinking for the men” hindered “independence, self-reliance, and originality in the individual.” His answer highlights the entire thrust of capital in this era. Those who attacked Taylorism, he wrote, also “must take exception to the whole trend of modern industrial development.”
Other measures were combined with scientific management to break the power of skilled workers and intensify the exploitation of the unskilled. The open shop campaign flourished in this period. The drive system, which combined the principles of scientific management with a move to larger factories and the use of supervisors to make sure workers met high quotas, was created. Corporate welfare schemes were devised to take the edge off union organizing drives. These schemes included profit sharing plans, cafeterias, and workers’ committees. Managers were professionalized an better trained to handle labour problems; together with sophisticated personnel departments, they strove to select suitable and acquiescent workers. The old hiring practices, often based on the informal networks of employees, simply left too much to chance. Company unions were established to circumvent real unions and foster an illusion of progressivism and class co-operation. Piecework, an old system condemned by Taylor as inefficient, was nonetheless joined with the new techniques to pressure workers to produce more. In their efforts to drive wages down, corporations went so far as to lobby the state for increased immigration, in order to swamp the market for unskilled labour. The newly created power of monopoly capitalism allowed business to embark on these fundamental changes to its relations with labour, changes Brissenden labelled the “Prussian method” of running industry. Contrary to Dubofsky’s argument, this method was hardly confined to the west; its scope was marked off by the lines of class, not geography.
Organized labour reacted to this threat in two ways. Many of the conservative leaders of the American Federation of Labor and the Canadian Trades and Labor Congress simply chose to retrench. Narrow battles to retain craft control were fought, as unions tried to protect their dwindling memberships from de-skilling and unemployment. Unskilled and immigrant workers were often viewed with alarm as competitors instead of potential allies, and a number of methods were used to keep them out of craft unions. Samuel Gompers himself symbolized and led a move away from any sort of radicalism or socialism. He moved the AFL towards a new respectability by co-operating with employers and refusing to fight for any demands save higher wages. This was an acceptance of the ground rules set by capitalism, for it meant workers could not challenge the employers’ self-proclaimed right to ownership and control of the workplace. But another response developed as well. Rank and file AFT-TLC members, immigrants, women, the de-skilled, the unskilled – in short, those unable to find comfortable niches in craft union constituencies – often turned to radicalism and industrial unionism.
As the economic power of the new monopoly capitalists increased, so too did their political power. Increasingly, their voices were heard in the halls of government, their priorities and needs taken up by government officials. Despite public outrage at the trusts, the cartels, and the price-fixing that represented monopoly capitalism, successive governments in Canada and the United States did little to reduce the power of corporations. Though leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King mouthed concern over the excesses of the trusts, they did virtually nothing to rein them in. It soon became clear that political action could not address the problem, for the governments responded to the lobbying of the powerful. In the United States, the Populist movement was utterly unable to force the state to defend farmers from the corporate giants. The Knights of Labor, despite their successes in focusing working class opposition and creating a strong working class culture, achieved little in the political arena. Despite their intense lobbying, neither the American Federation of Labor nor the Canadian Trades and Labor Congress had much influence on the governments of the day. Bill Haywood underscored the futility of labour’s political efforts at the IWW’s founding convention when he asked sarcastically, “If the American Federation of Labor spends $5,000 a year maintaining a legislative lobby and gets through absolutely none of the measures that they advocate, how long will it take the American Federation of Labor to bring the working class to the full product of its toil?” In contrast, he observed, the revolutionary industrial unionism of the Western Federation of Miners had “established in nearly all the cities through the west and the entire province of British Columbia the eight-hour day, and we did not have a legislative lobby to accomplish it.”
Though Haywood seriously understated the state of affairs in B.C., where political lobbying had in fact resulted in an eight-hour law for miners, his comments reflected a growing perception that little could be gained by petitioning or electing a government. Workers throughout North America could point to any number of strikes and protests that had been settled by the bayonets and rifles of the government. And if Haywood had mis-stated the situation in B.C., it was still true that the Western Federation of Miners had turned to radicalism and direct action because its political efforts had largely failed.
Syndicalism was also an attempt to explain and combat a growing trend to conservatism and reformism in labour and socialist organizations. In North America, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, radicals were alarmed by leaders who argued that capitalism could be reformed and that revolution was unnecessary. Socialists who could almost taste electoral victory were softening their belief in revolution to appeal to middle-class voters and were increasingly tempted to abandon the working class. If political action encouraged compromise and betrayal, syndicalists reasoned that the working class had to be prepared to go it alone and fight on its own terrain of the factory floor. Labour leaders were subject to similar pressures. As the heads of large organizations, they were powerful figures, often courted by capitalists and politicians. Negotiating contracts put them on nearly equal footing with the employers, and the very process of negotiating involved cutting deals and compromising. As successful bureaucrats, labour leaders had risen above the workers they represented and the need for revolution was no longer so obvious to them. Too often the men hailed as labour statesmen had lost their fire and were content to fit into the system and enjoy the fruits of capitalism. Even skilled workers who were not part of the union hierarchy had some stake in the present system, for their relative wealth was in part based on the labour of the unskilled and unorganized. Bill Haywood argued that
As strange as it may seem to you, the skilled worker today is exploiting the laborer beneath him, the unskilled man, just as much as the capitalist is. . . . What I mean to demonstrate to you is that the skilled mechanic, by means of the pure and simple trades union, is exploiting the unskilled labourer. . . . The unskilled labourer has not been able to get into the skilled laborer’s union because that union exacts that a man must needs have served a term of years as an apprentice. Again, there are unions in this country that exact an initiation fee, some of them as high as $500. . . . To demonstrate the point I wanted to get at, it is this: That the unskilled laborer’s wages have been continually going down, and the prices of commodities have been continually going up, and that the skilled mechanic through his union has been able to hold his wages at a price . . . that has insured to him even at these high prices a reasonably decent living; but the laborer at the bottom, who is working for a dollar or a dollar and a quarter a day, has been ground into a state of destitution.
Thus the skilled workers, through high initiation fees and apprenticeships, kept most workers out of the unions. This tended to make skilled labour scarcer, and enabled the unions to demand a higher price for their work. But it also doomed the mass of workers to increased exploitation; in effect, they subsidized the unionized workers with their lower wages.
It is, therefore, the confluence of several trends that explains the creation of the IWW in 1905. The AFL-TLC craft union structure was too weak to counter the new assaults of monopoly capitalism: only by uniting workers by industry could resistance be made effective. The base of the labour movement had to be expanded by organizing the unorganized and those thought unorganizable, not shrunk by excluding them and concentrating on a smaller number of craft veterans. Real changes, it appeared, could not be made through bargaining with the employers or lobbying the state; revolution was the only way to break their allied power. And since a mass movement was needed, radical groups had to seek a mass following among the working class or be doomed to impotence. If capital wanted to reduce the economic and political power of workers, it had to be opposed with complete political and economic democracy. Despite the specific grievances which triggered specific strikes, the explicit syndicalism of the IWW was caused by the advent of monopoly capital, the accompanying attack on labour, and the need felt for new forms of organization and new strategies.
The founders of the IWW viewed their North American form of syndicalism as the logical response to the new assault of capital. It is in a sense irrelevant to ask if a single railway navvy along the Fraser River joined the IWW in response to the de-skilling of his job. Probably only a small number of those who supported and joined the union did so because of a commitment to syndicalism and a carefully reasoned critique of monopoly capitalism. Workers joined the IWW because it was there. But the union was there because its founders were aware of the dangerous, autocratic power of capital and the state. The IWW was formed to combat the “Prussian” method of organizing production, even if workers often joined it for the same reason they continue to join unions: to fight immediate battles to improve conditions.