Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of the IWW in the Mother Lode and the Jackson Socialistic Circle (Post 1)

By David Roddy
Two-Gun Men from the West

Cowboy, Homesteader, Miner, and Socialist
"Big Bill" Haywood
Many of the gold mineworkers of Amador County were not simply interested in better wages and the eight-hour day. They dreamed of a movement that could break above the surface of their subterranean world and unite all working people. But socialism wasn't confined to the fantasies of a few dreamers, in fact, the socialist movement in the first decades of the 20th century was inexorably bound to organized labor. The Western Federation of Miners, under which all of Amador County’s hard-rock mineworkers organized, officially aligned itself with the Socialist Party in 1900, and the union’s leadership tended to be active members in the party.

For many, the fact that so many “rugged individuals” of the American West were socialists contradicts a popular narrative of American individualism. Labor historian Mark Wyman, in his 1979 classic “Hard Rock Epic,” clarified the political radicalism of turn of the century mineworkers:
“Radicalism, viewed in the context of the long-term experiences of hard-rock miners across the West, stemmed most immediately from a mounting sense of desperation among workmen who felt that they were suddenly losing their capacity to protect themselves in a world dominated by trusts and corporations that could count on government allies. Sensing this, they clutched at alternatives.”
To understand the socialist impulse of the western mineworkers, we must abandon our preconceived association of socialism and dependency on the state, and consider instead how early 20th century miners considered socialism to be a method of increasing individual autonomy against oppressive governments and mine owners.
Imprisoned Idaho mineworkers practice march
with wooden guns, demonstrating the militancy of many Western miners.
(1899,  Idaho Archives)

William “Big Bill” Haywood, the secretary-treasurer of the Western Federation, epitomized the “out-law cowboy” stereotype as a former miner, wrangler, bar-room brawler, and homesteader while simultaneously being one of the most influential socialists in American history. Haywood himself was conscious of this apparent contradiction, describing himself as a “two-gun man from the West” before pulling out his socialist party and IWW cards. The latter organization defined the yearnings of generations working in America’s Wild West.

If Haywood was the epitome of the radical Western activist, then the epitome of the radical labor movement itself came Tuesday, June 27, 1905, when several industrial unions and socialist activists met in Chicago to launch the Industrial Workers of the World. The WFM formed the bulk of the organization, with 27,000 rank-and-file votes delegating the union’s leadership, notably Haywood and Moyer, to represent them. Haywood called the meeting to order with a typically fiery speech:
“The aims and objects of this organization should be to put the working class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters.”
 It was disenfranchisement with the prevailing economic and political institutions, the despair associated with the loss of control over one’s life, which drove the Western mineworkers to radicalism. Something had to change.


Renshaw, Patrick. The Wobblies; the Story of Syndicalism in the United States. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967. Print.

Wyman, Mark. Hard Rock Epic: Western Miners and the Industrial Revolution, 1860-1910. Berkeley: University of California, 1979. Print.

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