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This Day in Labor History: September 21, 1908

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On September 21, 1908, the Industrial Workers of the World met for its 4th annual convention in Chicago. This convention would reshape the struggling nascent organization, moving it clearly from an intellectuals’ movement to a workers’ movement.

Founded in 1905, by 1908 the IWW hadn’t really done much of anything and its future was murky. This is not to blame the IWW. This is the fate of most new activist organizations. It’s fairly easy to start an organization. But giving it shape and guidance, dealing with difficult personalities, and deciding not only what course of action to take but what ideology will guide that action is always difficult. That’s especially true for the early twentieth century left, where a panopoly of intellectual currents and factions could all fight for control of a given movement. Given that the 1905 convention brought in everyone from the Western Federation of Miners to Eugene Debs to Lucy Parsons, it did not originate with any clear ideological formation.

This does not mean the IWW was completely moribund in 1908. It did have a few adherents and they were organizing workers. In 1907 for instance, the IWW arrived in Portland, Oregon and started an organizing campaign among the city’s timber workers, largely over issues of better pay. It was put down fairly quickly by a combination of employers and the American Federation of Labor, already identifying the IWW as a threat even as it had no real interest in organizing on an industrial basis. IWW miners had also organized the mines of Goldfield, Nevada until the mine owners conspired with Nevada politicians and Theodore Roosevelt to crush them.

But the leadership of the IWW was in flux. The controversial socialist Daniel DeLeon wanted to control the IWW. DeLeon wanted to be the American Lenin. In 1892, he became the editor of the Socialist Labor Party’s newspaper The People. This put him in a position to become the leader of the SLP. Once this happened, he hoped to springboard to be the head of a labor organization. He first tried to take over the dying Knights of Labor, then the American Federation of Labor. He had little support for either. DeLeon then decided to create a parallel labor organization called the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance in 1895. When the IWW formed in 1905, DeLeon saw an opportunity to control the labor movement. He wanted to turn it into an adjunct of the SLP. But he received resistance almost from the first from the rank and file, especially the western workers who made up the core of IWW support, concentrated in the Western Federation of Miners. Those workers believed the state was their enemy and that political action was worthless. DeLeon wanted to create a leftist alternative to the Socialist Party and focus on political action. He kept introducing political questions into the IWW’s annual conventions, greatly irritating other Wobblies. All of this led to a lot of dissension in the conventions and little being accomplished.

In late 1907, the feud erupted openly, as DeLeon attempted to sabotage a call from James Connolly, the future Irish martyr who was working as an IWW organizer in New York, to launch a large recruiting drive in New York City. DeLeon took over the meeting by shouting about how Connolly was a traitor to the SLP. So by the time of the 1908 convention, most Wobblies were ready to be rid of DeLeon.

Another group attended this convention for the first time. Out of Portland, a group of radicals decided to hop trains and head to Chicago. This became known as the Overalls Brigade. Led by an organizer named John Walsh, these 19 workers headed east, organizing along the way. They held 31 meetings, sold more than $175 worth of IWW literature and $200 in IWW song sheets. They had complete contempt for DeLeon and for his own elitism about revolutionary theory that was supposedly above the head of the average worker. These were men who believed in industrial organizing, direct action, and taking on capitalism in a total war. They brought that spirit of direction action to the convention floor, singing their songs, and providing a bulwark of rank and file opposition to DeLeon. The Overalls Brigade opened the convention by singing “The Marseillaise” and convention leaders openly asking them to lead the fight against DeLeon.

Others joined the anti-DeLeon fray. IWW intellectuals like Ben Williams wanted this dealt with now because they believed the future of the IWW depended upon deciding just what its ideological stances were, especially around the role of direct action, industrial organization, and politics. DeLeon was ousted in a procedural vote because he did not represent a local which he claimed to represent. The delegates then debated the role of politics in the IWW. This was more closely divided than the decision to oust the difficult DeLeon. Some wanted to keep the political clause in the IWW constitution to give it a patina of respectability that would discharge claims it was an organization of anarchist bombthrowers. But in a 35-32 vote, the delegates did eliminate the reference to political action. Although what the IWW believed in was not really articulated at this point (and in fact, the IWW would always be awfully cagey about their actual ideological details), the emphasis on direct action was in the ascendant. Like the AFL, their diehard enemy, the IWW would refuse to play in politics, believing the state to be a class war enemy of workers’ rights. This demonstrates the sheer hopelessness that workers had for state action during the Gilded Age. The only thing that both union federations could agree on was that the state was worthless for guaranteeing anything for workers. The IWW was still not a stable organization after the 1908 convention, but it had eliminated the internal divide that would prevent it from moving forward with organizing workers and fighting class warfare.

The Overalls Brigade would return to the Northwest and bring their radical direct action to the workers of the Northwest, first with the Spokane Free Speech Fight and then with a decade of worker empowerment, strikes, and challenging the timber industry, police, and political leadership of the Pacific Northwest until they were crushed in a maelstrom of violence during and after World War I.

DeLeon went on to bitterly attack the IWW, especially for the “slum proletariat” that had taken over the convention and removed him. He died in 1914, failing in his effort to become Lenin.

This post relied on Melvyn Dubofsky’s classic We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World.

This is the 193rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • sum goy

    best precis of Dubofsky I have ever read. bravo, Erik, another great “This Day in Labor History.” The Connolly reference, and the denotation of the WFM as the bulk of active Wobblies in 1908, provides balance to the sectarian jockeying of DeLeon.

    • Bruce Vail

      Agreed, another great This Day in Labor History.

      Didn’t realize until I checked wiki that Dubofsky is still alive. What an impressive body of work!

  • Linnaeus

    Not to defend DeLeon, but I wonder if the IWW’s decision to avoid political activity may have, in the long term, been a mistake. It’s possible, however, that the IWW could not have survived the antileftist backlash of the 1910s and 1920s no matter what it did.

    • Cheerful

      Well, as noted, it’s not like they had a lot of options on the political side, or that they didn’t have reason to have no faith in the state. At the same time, though, there was a sizable contingent of organized working class, capable of concerted action, e.g. the 1919 General Strike in Seattle, and the IWW might have had some better success with political allies.

      • Linnaeus

        Fair point, and I certainly don’t blame the IWW for taking the direction that it did, given the political climate of the time and the fact that it had achieved some successes. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems to me (and perhaps I’m stating the obvious here), that social reform movements that play the political game to some extent or another endure longer than those whose strategies and tactics are solely centered on direct action.

    • so-in-so

      They probably couldn’t survive WWI with a pacifist agenda in any case, and a socialist political alignment would be a biog problem post 1919.

      • Linnaeus

        Agreed – the IWW would probably have had to transform into something else.

  • JL

    It’s always nice to remember that coalition maintenance problems aren’t new.

  • Piquoiseau

    “He died in 1914, failing in his effort to become Lenin.”

    Since Lenin would presumably not have been well known as “leader of the vanguard” in 1908, wasn’t he more likely trying to be the American Blanqui?

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