Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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Formed in June 1905 in Chicago, the Industrial Workers of the World ( IWW ) was a labor organization that sought to organize workers along the lines of industrial unions rather than the specialized trade, or craft, unions of the American Federation of Labor. The new organization, whose members came to be called Wobblies, embraced revolutionary socialism and extended membership to all wage workers regardless of race, creed, color or sex. It also rejected signing contracts with employers, believing that such agreements limited workers' ability to strike. In addition, the union's advocacy of direct action resistance, or sabotage, gave it a widespread, though undeserved, reputation.

By 1906 the IWW had organized three locals in Oklahoma Territory and two in Indian Territory, but the Panic of 1907 and a decline of a building boom in Oklahoma City killed these efforts. The organization revived in Oklahoma after 1914 as a result of the oil boom and serious problems in recruiting laborers for the state wheat harvest. The IWW's Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO) began its first recruiting efforts in 1915 at Enid in Garfield County. Though initially barely successful, the AWO's experience in Oklahoma led it to develop more sophisticated recruiting methods, such as the traveling job delegate who followed the harvesters from town to town. The new tactics spurred the growth of the AWO, which soon became the largest and financially strongest part of the IWW.

The AWO soon expanded its organizing efforts to include oil-field workers, especially pipeline crews. The Oil Workers' International Union (OWIU) had locals in Tulsa and Drumright by early 1917. But American entry into World War I led to attacks on both the OWIU and the AWO, now renamed the Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union. Businessmen and both state and federal authorities began active anti-IWW campaigns, especially after the labor union was falsely blamed for the Green Corn Rebellion, an antiwar uprising by tenant farmers along the South Canadian River. Attacks on IWW members included the brutal whipping, tarring, and feather of sixteen men in Tulsa in November 1917 and the repeated prosecution of one member wrongly accused of dynamiting a Tulsa oilman's home.

Federal officials also pursued conspiracy charges against members of the OWIU, convicting several in a series of trials in Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, while the Oklahoma legislature passed a criminal syndicalism law effectively making mere membership in the IWW a crime. After the war, the IWW briefly grew in Oklahoma, but several prosecutions of members under the criminal syndicalism law, the appearance of the combine-harvester and improved pipe-laying methods, combined with an ideological split with the organization, doomed any hope of a full revival.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, (2nd ed.; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988). Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 4, Industrial Workers of the World (New York: International Publishers, 1965). Nigel Anthony Sellars, Oil, Wheat, and Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma, 1905-1930 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

Nigel Anthony Sellars

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