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Big Bill Haywood – a fighter against the bosses and revolutionary trade unionist

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Big Bill Haywood was a giant of the US workers’ movement. John Newsinger has edited a new collection of Haywood’s journalism and writes on the life of the revolutionary
Issue 2513
Big Bill Haywood?in the middle, wearing a bowler hat?on a strikers’ march in Massachusetts in 1912
Big Bill Haywood?in the middle, wearing a bowler hat?on a strikers’ march in Massachusetts in 1912 (Pic: Library of Congress/flickr)

On 27 June 1905, Big Bill Haywood, the Secretary Treasurer of the Western Federation of Miners, opened the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The delegates were gathered there, he told them, to establish an organisation that “shall have as its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism”.

It was the intention of the IWW “to put the working class in possession of the economic power…the machinery of production and distribution without regard to capitalist masters”.

The IWW, known to millions as the Wobblies, were “founded on the class struggle, having in view no compromise and no surrender and but one object…and that is to bring the workers of this country into the possession of the full value of their toil”.

The IWW was a revolutionary trade union, organised along industrial lines, and set up in deliberate opposition to the conservative unions in the American Federation of Labour (AFL).

From the very beginning it set about organising black and Asian workers, many of whom were barred from membership of AFL unions.

It organised women workers and the unskilled.

The IWW was a democratic union, controlled by its members and not by a clique of full-time officials. It championed free speech and supported the cause of birth control.

It was committed to waging unrelenting class war against the employers until capitalism was overthrown and a socialist order achieved.

The US ruling class did not ignore this challenge.

A determined attempt was made to crush the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). By early 1906, Haywood and the WFM president, Bill Moyer, were on trial for their lives.


The badge for the Philedephia IWW dockers branch was a different colour each month to keep non union members off the job

The badge for the Philedephia IWW dockers branch was a different colour each month to keep non union members off the job

The Pinkertons were a large organisation of strike-breaking private detectives. They attempted to frame the pair for murder and have them judicially lynched.

Haywood and Moyer were charged with ordering the murder of a former Governor of Idaho.

The only witness against them was the actual assailant, Harry Orchard, an admitted multiple murderer, bigamist and company spy.

But the Pinkertons were confident that they could railroad the two men to their deaths with the help of an anti-union press blitz that was endorsed by US president Theodore Roosevelt.

The Socialist Party of America (SPA) rallied to their cause.

On 10 March 1906, Eugene Debs, the SPA leader, warned that if the ruling class attempted to hang the two men “a million revolutionists, at least, would meet them with guns”.

Inspired by the 1905 Revolution in Russia, he threatened “a general strike…as a preliminary to a general uprising”.

Massive demonstrations in support of the two men were held across the US. Even while awaiting trial, Haywood stood as the SPA candidate for Governor of Idaho, winning 16,000 votes.

When Roosevelt condemned Haywood as “an undesirable citizen”, thousands of people took to wearing “I am an undesirable citizen” badges.

On 28 July 1907, after ­eighteen months in prison, Haywood was found not guilty and released, a popular hero to the US left.

Haywood was never anti-political. As far as he was concerned both the IWW and the Socialist Party had important parts to play in the class struggle.

The revolutionary union had the decisive role.

It would organise the workers to take direct control of the means of production and distribution and to eventually overthrow the ruling class by means of the general strike.


Nevertheless, the Socialist Party also had an important propagandist role to play and those socialists elected into office could use their positions to assist in ­building the union.

The problem with this approach was that it did not recognise the uneven level of working class consciousness.

So, except during a revolutionary period, the majority of workers would not support a revolutionary organisation.

The IWW led a number of mass strikes, fought with great determination, courage and militancy, against often ­murderous employers.

But even when victorious, it was not successful in establishing a permanent union base.

Not until after the Bolshevik Revolution was the role of the revolutionary party recognised as the way forward by the great majority of revolutionaries worldwide.

That’s when its role organising the most politically advanced workers and working within the unions among the mass of the workers became clearer.

Haywood threw himself into the strikes that the IWW organised, eventually becoming the organisation’s general secretary in 1914.

He led it during the First World War and during the ­massive repression, the Red Scare, that was unleashed against the left and that continued after the war.

He was one of the 14 leading Wobblies sentenced to 20 years in prison at the end of the war. Wobbly militants were lynched, imprisoned and in much of the United States the IWW was effectively banned.

Haywood, in poor health, escaped to Soviet Russia. Here he was won over to Bolshevism and remained living in exile until his death in May 1928.

The fighting magazine of the working class

The International Socialist Review (ISR) became an agitational journal in 1909, “The Fighting Magazine of the Working Class”.

Its circulation rose from 6,000 in 1909 to 40,000 in 1911.

It was a remarkable publication.

Its contributors included Jack London, James Connolly, Eugene Debs, Margaret Sanger, John Reed and others.

Haywood joined its editorial board in October 1911 and wrote for it regularly.

He chronicled the class struggle, not only in New York, Lawrence, Little Falls, Paterson and Butte, but also in South Wales and Dublin.

His revolutionary journalism provides a vital insight into both the struggles of this period and in the development of revolutionary politics in the United States.


The Detective, December 1911

A detective is the lowest, meanest, most contemptible thing that either creeps or crawls, a thing to loath and despise.

A detective has the soul of a craven, the heart of a hyena.

He will barter the virtue of a pure woman or the character of an honest man.

He will go into the labor unions, the political party, the fraternal society, the business house, the church.

He will drag his slimy length into the sacred precincts of the family; there to create discord and cause unhappiness.

He breeds and thrives on the troubles of his own making. He is a maggot of his own corruption.

That you may know how small a detective is, you can take a hair and pinch the pith out of it and in the hollow hair you can put the hearts and souls of 40,000 detectives and they will still rattle.

You can pour them out on the surface of your thumb nail and the skin of a gnat will still make an umbrella for them.

When a detective dies he goes so low he has to climb up a ladder to get into hell, and he is not a welcome guest there. When his Satanic Majesty sees him coming, he says to his imps,

“Go get a big bucket of pitch and a lot of sulphur, give them to that fellow and put him outside.

“Let him start a little hell of his own, we don’t want him in here starting trouble.”

There is not room enough in Hades for a detective.

Further reading

The Revolutionary Journalism of Big Bill Haywood—On the picket line with the IWW. Edited by John Newsinger, £9.99

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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