Skip to main content

Myth #1 - I.W.W. stands for "International Workers of the World"

Many sources, including books, newspapers, scholarly articles, and periodicals often refer to us as the International Workers of the World, but as you can see from our banner graphics and our official literature, the "I" actually stands for Industrial.

This mistake is made so often, most IWW members simply take it in stride. A former General Secretary Treasurer of the Industrial Workers of the World, Fred Chase once jokingly remarked that the Industrial Workers of the World should ask the International Workers of the World to join up, since they're obviously a large and influential organization!

Why do so many people and organizations mistake "International" for "Industrial"? Nobody knows for sure. The organization is most popularly known by the initials "IWW" (as well as the nickname "Wobblies"). While the IWW is indeed an "international" union, the words "international" and "world" are redundant. Furthermore, the name "industrial" may be confusing to those not familiar with labor history in the United States of America and Canada, where the IWW has been historically most influential. The IWW formed in 1905 in Chicago, Illinois, as an answer to the American Federation of Labor (and other conservative business unions). The Industrial Workers of the World seeks to organize workers along industrial lines as opposed to craft lines. The idea is to organize all workers in the same industry into a single union. The AFL (mostly) organized workers by crafts and trades, thus allowing the employers in a single industry to pit one set of unionized craft workers against another (and sometimes skilled trades against unskilled workers, whom the AFL refused to organize before the formation of the CIO in the 1930s). The CIO, or Congress of Industrial Organizations was formed in the 1930s as a reform caucus within the AFL and was expelled from the parent organization in 1936. The CIO recombined with the AFL in 1955.

Many AFL-CIO unions are called "International". For example, there's the International Association of Machinists (IAM), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), International Woodworkers of America (IWA), Seafarers International Union (SIU), Service Employees International Union (SEIU). All of these unions have an "I" in their initials which stands for "International". About half of these represent old AFL unions and the other formed as independent organizations that later banded together to from the CIO (even though the "I" in CIO stands for "Industrial"!) In fact, most, if not ALL AFL-CIO unions with an initial "I" are named "International" something or other.

Furthermore, historians and reporters often associate the IWW with Communism, even though the IWW is not explicitly a Communist organization. The IWW is a revolutionary industrial unionist organization, and its membership includes radicals of every stripe, including anarchist, communist, socialist, syndicalist, etc. However, there exists a very strong anti-Communist ideology in the USA, due to lingering elements of Cold War propaganda, and as such any radical organization, no matter what its orientation is often dismissed as "Communist". Many Communist (and Socialist) organizations are called "International" something or other. Furthermore, there have been at least four "Internationals" including the First International (the International Workingman's Association) which included among its members Karl Marx, Frederich Engels, Michael Bakunin, and Lysander Spooner. For this reason its easy to see why the IWW is often referred to as the "International Workers of the World".

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, however.  Around the year 2000, a self described anarchist from Norway created an "organization" actually called the "International Workers of the World" complete with the abbreviation "IWW". This individual then proceeded to engage in sectarian jibes at specific IWW members and the IWW (i.e. the actual, Industrial Workers of the World) accusing them of being "Marxist" (because those specific individuals he criticized weren't sufficiently "anarchistic" in his opinion). In any case, this odd individual, while perhaps creatively opportunistic in their attempt to take advantage of the so-often made mistake in the actual IWW's identity, has not succeeded in appropriating the actual IWW's doppelganger.  As the actual IWW has gained further notoriety with its recent organizing campaigns, it seems the International Workers of the World (whether it be the nonexistent or Norwegian doppelganger) will finally fade into history!

Next page: Myth #2 - The IWW is a political organization and not a "real" labor union.