The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States by Patrick Renshaw

In the early 20th century, Chicago gave rise to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or as they are commonly known, the Wobblies. Though active nationally they were founded in Chicago and are still to this day headquartered in Irving Park. The Wobblies were a radical union hoping to unite all workers across the world in an effort to abolish the wage system and eliminate exploitation.

While the majority of their efforts were peaceful, the Wobblies became known for their steely conviction and willingness to take any measure necessary. One of the most known and tragic IWW conflicts that turned violent is the Centralia Massacre, which took place on the first anniversary of Armistice Day. The local American Legion and the Centralia chapter of the IWW had become bitter rivals over a querulous eviction of the Wobblies from their local headquarters. Rumors had spread that the Legion would again try to remove the Wobblies from their home, using the parade as a guise to approach in formation. As the Legion halted in front of the Wobblies headquarters, shots poured out of the hall. Four American Legion members were killed and five wounded. The deputy sheriff was also killed in the skirmish. The only IWW death occurred when outraged citizens stormed the town jail, where all known Wobblies had been incarcerated, and indiscriminately grabbed Wesley Harding, who they then beat and hung.

The union also has a history of fierce government repression, perhaps none more infamously than another massacre, this one in Everett, Washington. In 1916, the industry of Everett, Washington, had been effectively ground to a halt by striking employees. As the local businesses and police forces made attempts at discouraging the strike, the Wobblies showed up to lend support to their striking brethren. As the battle grew more violent, the Seattle Chapter of the IWW boarded two steamers to Everett to join the fight. Upon arrival at the port in Everett, they encountered a crowd of law enforcement and local vigilantes who denied them access. A shootout ensued, leaving at least 7 dead and 43 wounded, the majority of the casualties being IWW members aboard one of the steamers, most being unarmed. Charges would be filed against the Wobblies, but all were acquitted or dropped.

As one of the original unions in America, they also experienced a great number of victories and are often regarded as forerunners for many of the rights of workers today, including minimum wage, shorter days, overtime, and humane treatment of employees. They were also strikingly egalitarian for the times, allowing membership to women, Native Americans, and African Americans; holding no discriminations toward any ethnic group.

Patrick Renshaw’s account of the movement, The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States, begins with the precursors of the IWW foundation and tells the story in an “eminently readable” fashion. He retraces the development of the IWW in depth, highlighting the driving politics of the organization and the fateful split that led to its obscurity.

To learn more about Chicago’s activist roots and the origins for the local distaste for Walmart and other big box stores, pick up a copy today.