Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

History: The pioneering efforts of the IWW

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), often known as the Wobblies, were a radical industrial union that originated in America. Their idea of creating ‘One Big Union’ spread to Australia in 1907 but the beginning was slow.

By May 1912 the Sydney local (branch) had only 14 members. However from there things developed at a quickening pace. In 1914 there were four locals – Adelaide, Sydney, Broken Hill and Port Pirie.

Early in 1915 locals opened in Melbourne and Brisbane, and in the following year branches were established on the West Australian gold fields at Fremantle and in North Queensland, until they numbered about a dozen. Probably the membership rarely, if ever, exceeded a couple of thousand but the circulation of their paper, started in 1914 under the title Direct Action, went up as high as 16,000 weekly.

They recognised the class war. The preamble to their constitution stated, “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” A simple point but a crucially important one, that these workers recognised. It is a basic premise that, despite their university degrees, the vast bulk of the current batch of trade union leaders are unable to grasp.

A solidly working class organisation, the Wobblies believed that only ‘direct action’ – direct confrontation between the workers and the boss on the job – would achieve any results in the class struggle. They believed in sabotage as a tactic, as they put it “the conscious withdrawal of industrial efficiency”. They called for “a bad days work for a bad days pay!”

They proclaimed…”When you feel like working shorter hours and you think you’ve had enough
Use sabotage that’s all
Don’t strike or arbitrate or anything so rude or rough
Use sabotage that’s all…
S-A-B-O-T-A-G-E spells sabotage
All the frightened bosses say it’s awful
Taking profits from them is unlawful
Sabotage that’s all
Take a hunch
You silly bunch
Use the weapon with the knockout punch
Sabotage that’s all!”

While they had a focus on industrial and general unionism they were also involved in campaigns outside of the workplace. As Vere Childe wrote in the 1920s, “The IWW secured the right to sell literature in the Sydney Domain by simply exercising it in defiance of the existing regulations. A few members were gaoled for so doing, but the comrades soon demonstrated that there were plenty of recruits to hand on the lamp of life, and the Labor government had in the end to climb down.

“In a similar way by simply ‘singing in the streets’ of Sydney in defiance of traffic ordinances, this enterprising body secured the right – long ago accorded to the Salvation Army, but hitherto denied to the Socialists – of speaking in certain streets at night… they were game enough to act and speak boldly in defiance of the law and take terms of imprisonment as the penalty…

“Before ‘No Conscription’ became a popular watchword, while the Labor Party was still toying with militarism, the IWW steadily and unflinchingly denounced the curse and prepared the field where the Labor Party afterwards reaped.”

But perhaps one of the most significant points about the Wobblies was their internationalism, their anti-racial prejudice, whilst the vast majority of the labour movement advocated the White Australia policy.

The IWW were syndicalists. Having observed the negligible results the Labor Party had achieved through parliament, despite a considerable presence there, the Wobblies came to the conclusion that politicians and the parliament were useless to workers in the class struggle.

They were openly contemptuous of Labor parliamentary representatives, “the Australian working class has been shamefully betrayed by the very men whom it lifted out of obscurity into the padded seats and lazy competency of professional parliamentarism”, their paper Direct Action declared.

A song about politicians (to the tune of Yankee Doodle) was a favourite at their meetings…

“Come listen all kind friends of mine
I want to move a motion
To make an Eldorado here
I’ve got a bonzer notion
Bump me into parliament
Bounce me anyway…ay
Bump me into parliament
On next election day
Some very wealthy friends I know
Declare I am most clever
While some may talk for an hour or so
Why I can talk forever”

But for all the accurate criticisms they made, the IWW’s own strategy was confused and lacking. Ian Turner summarised it as “the believed that direct industrial action would culminate in the apocalyptic general strike, the simultaneous withdrawal by all workers of their labour power, so that industry would grind to a halt, government become impossible, and the IWW come into their own.” Theoretically all this was to be achieved without the workers organising politically.

Despite their weaknesses they were hated by the bosses, the press and the right wing of the Labor Party as their ideas gained more of an echo. Former Prime Minister Billy Hughes called them “foul parasites who have attached themselves to the vitals of Labor…”

But there was also a grudging admiration for them. The right wing Bulletin magazine commented at the time, “misguided they are of course and all that: but how the enthusiasm of these IWW people shames Liberals and Laborites.” And a not too sympathetic historian said of the paper Direct Action, “The dedication and devotion of those responsible is beyond doubt. Most worked as labourers during the day and spent the night setting type, printing, proof reading, bundling and addressing.”

The Wobblies major impact was during the wartime anti-conscription battles, which bitterly split the Labor Party. So effective were the IWW in the campaign that Prime Minister Billy Hughes (ex-Labor by now) had a law passed that made it punishable by six months imprisonment merely to belong to the IWW.

This was after twelve Wobblies were charged on the eve of the conscription referendum with “conspiracy to commit arson and sedition” for which they received jail sentences of five to fifteen years.

Vere Childe wrote “all the usual laws about contempt of court were ignored while the twelve were awaiting trial. The trial and the charges arising out of it were freely used by Hughes and the capitalist press all over Australia to discredit the anti-conscriptionists and connect them to disloyalty, arson, murder, German gold and revolutionary violence… Finally on the eve of the trial, James MLA who had been briefed for the defence, through up his brief in order to take a portfolio in Holman’s Coalition Cabinet.”

After a concerted campaign from other sections of the labour movement the IWW twelve were released in 1920, but by that time the continued rounds of raids and arrests had effectively smashed the organisation.

By that time as well the events of the Russian revolution of October 1917 were having a tremendous impact in Australia, as they were right around the world. Tom Barker, an IWW leader wrote, “I’d never heard of Lenin or Trotsky but I organised meetings in Sydney in support of the February revolution.”

By the time the shock waves of the October revolution had begun to settle, many of the remaining Wobblies, who had not been burnt out by the hard struggle, turned towards the infant Communist Party of Australia. They had seen that industrial struggles alone were not enough, political organisation and action was needed as well.

Whatever their shortcomings, it would be completely wrong not to recognise that on many issues the IWW stood head and shoulders above everyone most others in the labour movement at the time. The legacy of not only their courage, but also their tremendous verve, humour and enthusiasm, with which the Wobblies went about their work despite the difficulties they faced represents a mighty example – an example from which the present generation of activists can certainly learn a great deal.

This article was written by Paul True and originally published in The Militant (predecessor of The Socialist) during the 1990s.


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