AskDefine | Define wobbly

Word Net

wobbly adj : inclined to shake as from weakness or defect; "a rickety table"; "a wobbly chair with shaky legs"; "the ladder felt a little wobbly"; "the bridge still stands though one of the arches is wonky" [syn: rickety, shaky, wonky] n : a member of the Industrial Workers of the World
see Wobbly



  1. unsteady and tending to wobble


unsteady and tending to wobble


  1. alternative spelling of Wobbly
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies) is an international union currently headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. At its peak in 1923 the organization claimed some 100,000 members in good standing, and could marshal the support of perhaps 300,000 workers. Its membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split brought on by internal conflict and government repression. Today it is actively organizing and numbers about 2,000 members worldwide, of whom less than half (approximately 900) are in good standing (that is, have paid their dues for the past two months). IWW membership does not require that one work in a represented workplace, nor does it exclude membership in another labor union.
The IWW contends that all workers should be united within a single union as a class and that the wage system should be abolished. They may be best known for the Wobbly Shop model of workplace democracy, in which workers elect recallable delegates, and other norms of grassroots democracy (self-management) are implemented.

History of the IWW 1905-1950


The IWW was founded in Chicago in June 1905 at a convention of two hundred socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists from all over the United States (mainly the Western Federation of Miners) who were opposed to the policies of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The Wobblies differed from other union movements of the time by its promotion of industrial unionism, as opposed to the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor. The IWW emphasized rank-and-file organization, as opposed to empowering leaders who would bargain with employers on behalf of workers. This manifested itself in the early IWW's consistent refusal to sign contracts, which they felt would restrict the only true power that workers possessed: the power to strike. Though never developed in any detail, Wobblies envisioned the general strike as the means by which the wage system would be overthrown and a new economic system ushered in, one which emphasized people over profit, cooperation over competition.
One of the IWW's most important contributions to the labor movement and broader push towards social justice was that, when founded, it was the only American union to welcome all workers including women, immigrants, and African Americans into the same organization. Indeed, many of its early members were immigrants, and some, like Carlo Tresca, Joe Hill and Mary Jones, rose to prominence in the leadership. Finns formed a sizeable portion of the immigrant IWW membership. "Conceivably, the number of Finns belonging to the I.W.W. was somewhere between five and ten thousand." The Finnish-language newspaper of the IWW, Industrialisti, published out of Duluth, Minnesota, was the union's only daily paper. At its peak, it ran 10,000 copies per issue. Another Finnish-language Wobbly publication was the monthly Tie Vapauteen ("Road to Freedom"). Also of note was the Finnish IWW educational institute, the Work People's College in Duluth, and the Finnish Labour Temple in Port Arthur, Ontario which served as the IWW Canadian administration for several years. One example of the union's commitment to equality was Local 8, a longshoremen's branch in Philadelphia, one of the largest ports in the nation in the WWI era. Led by the African American Ben Fletcher, Local 8 had over 5,000 members, the majority of whom were African American, along with more than a thousand immigrants (primarily Lithuanians and Poles), Irish Americans, and numerous others.
The IWW was condemned by politicians and the press, who saw them as a threat to the market systems as well as an effort to monopolize labor at a time when efforts to monopolize industries were being fought as anti-market. Factory owners would employ means both non-violent (sending in Salvation Army bands to drown out speakers) and violent to disrupt their meetings. Members were often arrested and sometimes killed for making public speeches, but this persecution only inspired further militancy.

Political action or direct action?

Like many leftist organizations of the era, the IWW soon split over policy. In 1908 a group led by Daniel DeLeon argued that political action through DeLeon's Socialist Labor Party was the best way to attain the IWW's goals. The other faction, led by Vincent Saint John, William Trautmann, and Big Bill Haywood, believed that direct action in the form of strikes, propaganda, and boycotts was more likely to accomplish sustainable gains for working people; they were opposed to arbitration and to political affiliation. Haywood's faction prevailed, and De Leon and his supporters left the organization.


The IWW first attracted attention in Goldfield, Nevada in 1906 and during the strike of the Pressed Steel Car Company at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania in 1909. Further fame was gained later that year, when they took their stand on free speech. The town of Spokane, Washington had outlawed street meetings, and arrested Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a Wobbly organizer, for breaking this ordinance. The response was simple but effective: when a fellow member was arrested for speaking, large numbers of people descended on the location and invited the authorities to arrest all of them, until it became too expensive for the town. In Spokane, over 500 people went to jail and four people died. The tactic of fighting for free speech to popularize the cause and preserve the right to organize openly was used effectively in Fresno, Aberdeen, and other locations. In San Diego, although there was no particular organizing campaign at stake, vigilantes supported by local officials and powerful businessmen mounted a particularly brutal counter-offensive. By 1912 the organization had around 50,000 members, concentrated in the Northwest, among dock workers, agricultural workers in the central states, and in textile and mining areas. The IWW was involved in over 150 strikes, including those in the Lawrence textile strike (1912), the Paterson silk strike (1913) and the Mesabi range (1916). They were also involved in what came to be known as the Wheatland Hop Riot August 3, 1913
Between 1915 and 1917, the IWW's Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO) organized hundreds of thousands of migratory farm workers throughout the midwest and western United States, often signing up and organizing members in the field, in railyards and in hobo jungles. During this time, the IWW became synonymous with the hobo; migratory farmworkers could scarcely afford any other means of transportation to get to the next jobsite. Railroad boxcars, called "side door coaches" by the hobos, were frequently plastered with silent agitators from the IWW. Workers often won better working conditions by using direct action at the point of production, and striking "on the job" (consciously and collectively slowing their work). As a result of Wobbly organizing, conditions for migratory farm workers improved enormously.
Building on the success of the AWO, the IWW's Lumber Workers Industrial Union (LWIU) used similar tactics to organize lumberjacks and other timber workers, both in the Deep South and the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada, between 1917 and 1924. The IWW lumber strike of 1917 led to the eight-hour day and vastly improved working conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Even though mid-century historians would give credit to the US Government and "forward thinking lumber magnates" for agreeing to such reforms, an IWW strike forced these concessions
From 1913 through the mid-1930s, the IWW's Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union, proved a force to be reckoned with and competed with AFL unions for ascendance in the industry. Given the union's commitment to international solidarity, its efforts and success in the field come as no surprise. As mentioned above, Local 8 was led by Ben Fletcher, who organized predominantly African-American longshoremen on the Philadelphia and Baltimore waterfronts, but other leaders included the Swiss immigrant Waler Nef, Jack Walsh, E.F. Doree, and the Spanish sailor Manuel Rey. The IWW also had a presence among waterfront workers in Boston, New York City, New Orleans, Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Eureka, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver as well as in ports in the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and other nations. IWW members played a role in the 1934 San Francisco general strike and the other organizing efforts by rank-and-filers within the International Longshoremen's Association up and down the West Coast.
Wobblies also played a role in the sit-down strikes and other organizing efforts by the United Auto Workers in the 1930s, particularly in Detroit, though they never established a strong union presence there.
Where the IWW did win strikes, such as at Lawrence, they often found it hard to hold onto their gains. The IWW of 1912 disdained collective bargaining agreements and preached instead the need for constant struggle against the boss on the shop floor. It proved difficult, however, to maintain that sort of revolutionary elán against employers; In Lawrence, the IWW lost nearly all of its membership in the years after the strike, as the employers wore down their employees' resistance and eliminated many of the strongest union supporters.

Government repression

The IWW was well known for opposing the First World War from 1914 onwards, and in many ways was at the front of the anti-conscription fight. A narrow majority Australians voted against conscription in a very bitter hard-fought referendum in October 1916, and then again in December 1917, Australia being the only belligerent in World War One without conscription. In very significant part this was due to the agitation of the IWW, a group which probably never had as many as 500 members in Australia at its peak. The IWW founded the Anti-Conscription League (ACL) in which IWW members worked with the broader labour and peace movement, and also carried on an aggressive propaganda campaign in its own name; leading to the imprisonment of Tom Barker (1887-1970) the editor of the IWW paper Direct Action, sentenced to twelve months in March 1916. A series of arson attacks on commercial properties in Sydney was widely attributed to the IWW campaign to have Tom Barker released. He was indeed released in August 1916, but twelve mostly prominent IWW activists, the so-called Sydney Twelve were arrested in NSW in September 1916 for arson and other offences. (Their trial and eventual imprisonment would become a cause celebre of the Australian labour movement on the basis that there was no convincing evidence that any of them had been involved in the arson attacks.) A number of other scandals were associated with the IWW, a five pound note forgery scandal, the so-called Tottenham tragedy in which the murder of a police officer was blamed on the IWW, and above all the IWW was blamed for the defeat of the October 1916 conscription referendum. In December 1916 the Commonwealth government lead by Labour Party renegade Billy Hughes declared the IWW an illegal organization under the Unlawful Associations Act. Eighty six IWW members immediately defied the law and were sentenced to six months imprisonment, this was certainly a high percentage of the Australian IWW's active membership but it is not known how high. Direct Action was suppressed, its circulation was at its peak of something over 12,000. During the war over 100 IWW members Australia-wide were sentenced to imprisonment on political charges, including the veteran activist and icon of the labour, socialist and anarchist movements Monty Miller.
The IWW continued illegally operating with the aim of freeing its class war prisoners and briefly fused with two other radical tendencies–from the old Socialist parties and Trades Halls– to form a larval communist party at the suggestion of the militant revolutionist and Council Communist Adela Pankhurst. The IWW however left the CPA shortly after its formation, taking with it the bulk of militant industrial worker members.
By the 1930s the IWW in Australia had declined significantly, and took part in unemployed workers movements which were led largely by the now Stalinised CPA. The poet Harry Hooton became involved with it around this time. In 1939 the Australian IWW had four members, according to surveillance by government authorities, and these members were consistently opposed to the second world war. (See files in National Archives of Australia) After the Second World War the IWW would become one of the influences on the Sydney Libertarians who were in turn a significant cultural and political influence
Today the IWW still exists in Australia, in larger numbers than the 1940s, but due to the nature of the Australian industrial relations system, it is unlikely to win union representation in any workplaces in the immediate future. More significant is its continuing place in the mythology of the militant end of the Australian labour movement. As an extreme example of the integration of ex-IWW militants into the mainstream labour movement one might instance the career of Donald Grant, one of the Sydney Twelve sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment for conspiracy to commit arson and other crimes. Released unbowed from prison in August 1920 he would soon break with the IWW over its anti-political stand, standing for the NSW Parliament for the Industrial Socialist Labour Party unsuccessfully in 1922 and then in 1925 for the mainstream Australian Labor Party (ALP) also unsuccessfully. But this reconciliation with the ALP and the electoral system did not prevent him being imprisoned again in 1927 for street demonstrations supporting Sacco and Vanzetti. He would eventually represent the ALP in the NSW Legislative Council in 1931-1940 and the Australian Senate 1943-1956 No other member of the Australian IWW actually entered Parliament but Grants career is emblematic in the sense that the ex-IWW militants by and large remained in the broader labour movement, bringing some greater or lesser part of their heritage with them.
"Bump Me Into Parliament" is the most notable Australian IWW song, and is still current. It was written by ship's fireman William "Bill" Casey, later Secretary of the Seaman's Union in Queensland.

The IWW in the UK

Although much smaller than their North American counterparts, the BIROC (British Isles Regional Organising Committee) reported in 2006 that there were nearly 200 members in the UK and Ireland. Numbers have been steadily increasing since the late 1990s, and in the year 2005-2006 numbers leapt up by around 25% and continue to climb. As of late 2007 there are around 350 members (approximately 250 of whom are in good standing).
Having been present in the UK in various guises since 1906, the IWW was present to varying extents in many of the struggles in the early decades of the twentieth century, including the UK General Strike of 1926 and the dockers' strike of 1947. During the decade after World War II the IWW had two active branches, in London and Glasgow. These soon died off, before a modest resurgence in North-West England during the 1970s. More recently, IWW members were involved in the Liverpool dockers' strike that took place between 1995 and 1998, and numerous other events and struggles throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including the successful unionising of several workplaces, such as support workers for the Scottish Socialist Party. Between 2001 and 2003, there was a marked increase in UK membership, with the creation of the Hull GMB. During this time the Hull branch had 27 members of good standing, being at that time the largest branch outside of the US. In 2005, the IWW's centenary year, a stone was laid in a forest in Wales commemorating the centenary, and the death of US IWW and Earth First! activist Judi Bari. 2006 saw the IWW formally registered by the UK government as a recognised trade union.
The IWW has launched a website and has branches in a number of major cities and several organizing groups around the UK alongside two growing industrial networks for health and education workers. The largest branches are found in Glasgow, Leicester, London and the West Midlands conurbation (largely Birmingham). The IWW publishes a magazine aimed at the British and Irish members, Bread and Roses, a national industrial newsletter for health workers and a specific bulletin for workers in the National Blood Service. In 2007 it launched a campaign alongside the anti-capitalist group No Sweat which attempts to replicate some of the successes of the US IWW's organising drives amongst Starbucks workers. In the same year its healthworkers' network launched a national campaign against cuts in the National Blood Service, which is ongoing.
In 2007, IWW branches in Glasgow and Dumfries were a key driving force in a successful campaign to prevent the closure of one of Glasgow University's campuses, in Crichton, Dumfriesshire. The campaign united IWW members, other unions, students and the local community to build a powerful coalition. Its success, coupled with the ongoing Blood Service campaign, has raised the IWW's profile significantly since early 2007.
The IWW currently has no formal workplace contracts in the UK.

The IWW in Canada

The IWW was active in Canada from a very early point in the organization's history, especially in Western Canada, primarily in British Columbia. The union was active in organizing large swaths of the lumber and mining industry along the coast of BC, and Vancouver Island. The wobblies also had relatively close links with the Socialist Party of Canada.
Today the IWW remains active in the country with numerous branches active in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Toronto. The largest branch is currently in Edmonton.

The IWW in Germany

A Regional Organizing Committee has recently been formed for the German speaking countries of Europe. They maintain a website with many translated IWW documents and 15 city contacts as of January '08.

Folk music and protest songs

One Wobbly characteristic since their inception has been a penchant for song. To counteract management sending in the Salvation Army band to cover up the Wobbly speakers, Joe Hill wrote parodies of Christian hymns so that union members could sing along with the Salvation Army band, but with their own purposes (for example, "In the Sweet By and By" became "There'll Be Pie in the Sky When You Die (That's a Lie)"). From that start in exigency, Wobbly song writing became legendary. The IWW collected its official songs in the Little Red Songbook and continues to update this book to the present time. In the 1960s, the American folk music revival in the United States brought a renewed interest in the songs of Joe Hill and other Wobblies, and seminal folk revival figures such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie had a pro-Wobbly tone, while some were members of the IWW. Among the protest songs in the book are "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" (This song was never popular among members, and removed after appearing in only the first edition), "Union Maid", and "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night". Perhaps the best known IWW song is "Solidarity Forever". The songs have been performed by dozens of artists, and Utah Phillips has performed the songs in concert and on recordings for decades. Other prominent I.W.W. song writers include Ralph Chaplin who authored "Solidarity Forever", and Leslie Fish.
The Finnish I.W.W. community produced several folk singers, poets and song writers, the most famous being Matti Valentine Huhta (better known as T-Bone Slim), who penned "The Popular Wobbly" and "The Mysteries of a Hobo's Life." Hiski Salomaa, whose songs were composed entirely in Finnish (and Finglish), remains a widely recognized early folk musician in his native Finland as well as in sections of the Midwest United States, Northern Ontario, and other areas of North America with high concentrations of Finns. Salomaa, who was a tailor by trade, has been referred to as the Finnish Woody Guthrie. Arthur Kylander, who worked as a lumberjack, is a lesser known, but important Finnish I.W.W. folk musician. Kylander's lyrics range from the difficulties of the immigrant labourer's experience to more humorous themes. Arguably, the wanderer, a recurring theme in Finnish folklore dating back to pre-Christian oral tradition (as with Lemminkäinen in the Kalevala), translated quite easily to the music of Huhta, Salomaa, and Kylander; all of whom have songs about the trials and tribulations of the hobo.

IWW lingo

The origin of the name "Wobbly" is uncertain. Many believe it refers to a tool known as a "wobble saw". One often repeated anecdote suggests that a Chinese restaurant owner in Vancouver would extend credit to IWW members and, unable to pronounce the "W", would ask if they were a member of the "I Wobble Wobble," although other possible explanations for the name have been suggested.
For more information on the term Wobblies, an examination of "International" Workers of the World, and other IWW-related slang, see Wobbly lingo.

Notable members

Notable members of the Industrial Workers of the World have included Lucy Parsons; Helen Keller; Joe Hill; Ralph Chaplin; Ricardo Flores Magon; James P. Cannon; James Connolly; Jim Larkin; Paul Mattick; Big Bill Haywood; Eugene Debs; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; Sam Dolgoff, Monty Miller; Indian Nationalist Lala Hardayal; Frank Little; ACLU founder Roger Nash Baldwin; Harry Bridges; Buddhist beat poet Gary Snyder; Australian poets Harry Hooton and Lesbia Harford; anthropologist David Graeber; graphic artist Carlos Cortez; counterculture icon Kenneth Rexroth; Surrealist Franklin Rosemont; Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie, former Members of the Scottish Parliament; Judi Bari; folk musicians Utah Phillips and David Rovics; mixed martial arts fighter Jeff Monson; Finnish folk music legend Hiski Salomaa; U.S. Green Party politician James M. Branum; Catholic Workers Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy; nuclear engineer Susanna Johnson. The former lieutenant governor of Colorado, David C. Coates was a labor militant, and was present at the founding convention,Roughneck: The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pp. 78. although it is unknown if he became a member. It has long been rumored, but not yet proven, that baseball legend Honus Wagner was also a Wobbly. Senator Joe McCarthy accused Edward R. Murrow of having been an IWW member. The organization's most famous current member is Noam Chomsky.


Further reading



  • A large part of the trilogy U.S.A., which is considered the major work of John Dos Passos and which comprises The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936), is devoted to a vivid and highly sympathetic description of the struggles waged by the IWW.
  • Green, Archie, and David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont, and Salvatore Salerno, eds. [2007]. The Big Red Songbook. Charles H. Kerr, 538 pages. ISBN 0-88286-277-4

Documentary films

  • The Wobblies. Directed by Stewart Bird, Deborah Shaffer, 1979. DVD 2006 NTSC English 90 minutes. (Includes interviews with 19 elderly Wobblies)
  • An Injury to One. A Film by Travis Wilkerson, 2003 First Run Icarus Films. English 53 minutes. Chronicles the 1917 unsolved murder of Wobbly organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana, during a strike by 16,000 miners against the Anaconda Copper Company. The film connects "corporate domination to government repression, local repression to national repression, labor history to environmental history, popular culture to the history of class struggle," according to one review .
  • The Ghost of Hangman's Bridge. A feature film — currently in pre-post development stages — about the state of Washington's Centralia Massacre, by Ursula Richards-Coppola, anticipated release 2009. For more information:

External links

wobbly in Catalan: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in Danish: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in German: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in Spanish: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in Esperanto: IWW
wobbly in French: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in Korean: 세계산업노동자
wobbly in Italian: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in Dutch: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in Japanese: 世界産業労働組合
wobbly in Norwegian: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in Norwegian Nynorsk: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in Polish: Robotnicy Przemysłowi Świata
wobbly in Russian: Индустриальные рабочие мира
wobbly in Finnish: Industrial Workers of the World
wobbly in Swedish: Industrial Workers of the World
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