There’s something raw about the history of the 1910s, a period of depression and unrest, when Americans were engaged in an anxious quest for alternatives. It was a period of activism, when anti-capitalist sentiment and true human suffering allowed organized labor, still in its infancy, to make significant strides. At the center of these trends were redoubtable labor leaders like Big Bill Haywood (right), shown here in 1913 with his fellow activist Adolph Lessig.
William Dudley Haywood (1869-1928) was one tough customer, a sometime socialist who helped found the radical labor organization known as the International Workers of the World (IWW), or ‘Wobblies.’ Founded in 1905, the IWW was radical in seeking to organize workers of all types and nationalities, even unskilled workers, in contrast to the other, more exclusive, ‘trade’ unions of the day.
Haywood was born in Utah and by age 15 was working in western copper mines. By 1900, he had an invalid wife and two children and had gotten involved in the labor movement, skyrocketing to the top of the Western Federation of Miners, a militant union that in 1903 pitted itself against the Colorado mining industry and the state’s government in a bitter strike lasting nearly three years.
Aligned for a time with the fledgling Socialist Party, Haywood ultimately fell out with that group over strategy. By 1910, his chief interest lay in directly mobilizing masses of people in IWW-led strikes and protests, believing this the surest path to structural change.
Haywood was involved, for instance, in the famous 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, also known as the Bread and Roses strike, whose centennial is now being commemorated. Lawrence’s textile workers included large numbers of women and teens, and many persons of foreign birth. Their protests aroused national sympathy, particularly when children of striking parents were sent to New York City for safekeeping. The strike ended after three months, with workers gaining many concessions to their demands.
Haywood’s star began to set during WWI, when the IWW’s on-going militancy and vision of international solidarity jarred with wartime industrial demands and an accompanying tide of national feeling. In 1917, Haywood and 100 other IWW officials were arrested on charges of wartime sedition, found guilty, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Freed on bail while appealing conviction, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union, where he entered on an ignominious final chapter and died of alcoholism and diabetes a decade later.
His ashes are interred partly in a wall of the Kremlin, while others were sent back to Chicago to be buried in Waldheim Cemetery near the remains of the Haymarket martyrs.
Images: (top to bottom) Adolph Lessig and Big Bill Haywood, from this source;
Haywood and followers in Paterson, NJ (1913), from this source;
and a scene from the Lawrence textile strike (1912), from this source.
May Day Meditations, Our Polity.
The Strike That Shook America 100 Years Ago, History.com.