The Birth of the Wobblies: An exclusive excerpt from a new book about America's largest mass trial and its most radical labor union.

AuthorStrang, Dean A.

In 1905, a small group of leaders of the Western Federation of Miners, members of other unions, and socialists had gathered in Chicago to implement a big idea. They saw a vast nation of American workers, and indeed workers in all nations, with much less influence than their numbers should have allowed.

Divided into craft or skill groups since its start in the mid-nineteenth century, the labor movement lacked broader unity. Moreover, white workers usually excluded black workers from their unions. Women, too, often were unwelcome or just unconsidered. The same was true of the foreign-born. Many unions, notably those allied with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), focused narrowly on wages and working conditions, leaving more general political issues to members' consciences.

Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), the first and longest-tenured president of the AFL, had been a cigar maker as a boy and then a leader in the New York local of the cigar makers' union by age twenty-five. He helped found the forerunner of the AFL in his early thirties. He was a tiny man but a titan in labor history. Still, his rigid wariness of political radicals and his conventional belief in organizing by craft or trade assured him many detractors in the labor movement for the nearly forty years he ran the AFL.

By contrast, the small group of unionists and socialists in Chicago instead saw militarism, nationalism, economic freedom, and all the important inequities of life as inseparable from the capitalist system that made "wage slaves" of millions. They saw political action as inseparable from economic action. They saw workers divided by craft or skill, but ready to be amassed and called to unity by industry as a whole instead. And worker collectives in one industry would be natural allies of workers in every other industry.

Given all of that, what if they could create one big union--an industrial union, not a craft union--that would unite all wage workers, regardless of trade or skill, race, sex, or nation? A union that would forge workers into a potent political force that could hasten the fall of capitalism and deliver ownership and control of the means of production into workers' hands? An aggressive union that would flex in unison the muscles of millwrights, farm hands, lumberjacks, longshoremen, seamstresses, miners, and millions of other workers every day? That would eschew labor contracts altogether, agreeing to work on Tuesday only if wages and conditions had...

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