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Industrial Workers of the World

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or the Wobblies, was an industrial union of the early 20th century that rapidly exploded in membership and influence, before being all but crushed within a decade as part of the fierce US repression of leftists. It was an anarcho-syndicalist union, meaning it staunchly opposed the state and held a revolutionary vision of the working class itself organising and running society.

There are a few factors said to have been involved in its decline, but the most important seems to have been repression. This repression took the form both of laws being passed to hamper it (such as anti-sedition laws, and most infamously the Espionage Act) and nominally illegal, violent intimidation that the police and the courts turned a blind eye too. Often the excuse for why such repression was necessary was that the IWW supported “sabotage”, although the main way the IWW viewed “sabotage” was efforts like go-slows. Many people were convicted for supporting “sabotage” without prosecutors ever even alleging they were actually involved in wrecking machinery or anything like that. Thousands of Wobblies were also convicted of “vagrancy”, a hopelessly vague charge against which it was basically impossible to defend yourself.

One prominent historical figure who belonged to the IWW was Joe Hill, who wrote numerous songs (one of which is the origin of the phrase “pie in the sky”, which originally referred to how preachers tried to fob workers off and discourage them from demanding better pay by saying that if they were good, they’d be able to eat “pie in the sky” i.e. heaven) before he was convicted and executed for a murder he didn’t commit in Utah.

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