Near It But Not In It: Gene Debs and Early Preparation for the IWW (19-03)


When the smoke clears the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), organized in 1905, will emerge as the longest-lived radical organization in American history. Admittedly, the tiny self-described “revolutionary industrial union” still has a couple decades to putter along before it catches the current record-holder, the Socialist Labor Party of America (1876-2008) — but small radical organizations with big names have incredible durability, as the SLP ably demonstrated.

The IWW wasn’t always tiny and it wasn’t always powerless — power being the ability to make a decision and cause others to comply. The IWW was once big. It once had teeth.

I have a shelf and a half of books about it — general histories and monographs, memoirs and graphic storybooks — it retains scholarly interest.

Its history is closely intertwined to that of the Socialist Party of America (1901-1972), which itself had a long life saga of birth, maturity, crash, and impotence. Indeed, during the first decade of the IWW’s existence, the two organizations shared a considerable number of dual members.

One of these, for a brief time at least, was Eugene V. Debs.

•          •         •         •         •

Who were the actual fathers of the IWW?


Fr. Thomas J. Hagerty, a radical Catholic labor priest who resigned his collar under pressure in 1902, conceived of the IWW’s directory of numbered industrial divisions, apportioned by occupation. The system was designed to forestall jurisdictional fights and to bring the myriad of otherwise unrelated crafts together as One Big Union.

Discussions about the formation of a new industrial union that would encompass all workers across multiple industries began with informal discussions between Dan McDonald, president of the American Labor Union, heads of the Western Federation of Miners, and a number of other prominent labor leaders and labor journalists — including particularly William E. Trautmann, of the bilingual St. Louis socialist and labor newspaper Brauer Zeitung (Brewers’ News)

In the fall of 1904, Trautmann and five other prominent activists got together in Chicago to further discuss their new initiative. Attending along with Trautmann was the radical labor priest Thomas J. Hagerty, closely affiliated with the American Labor Union Journal; Clarence Smith, general secretary-treasurer and the chief leader of the American Labor Union; two functionaries of the stillborn attempted remake of the Debs ARU, the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees, the train engineer George Estes, and his associate, General Secretary-Treasurer W.K. Hall, as well as Isaac Cowen, the American representative of the British Amalgamated Society of Engineers. (fn. Paul F. Brissenden, “The Launching of the Industrial Workers of the World,” University of California Publications in Economics, vol. 4, no. 1 (Nov. 25, 1913), pp. 1-82.)

These were the actual fathers of the IWW.

Mark that.

•          •         •         •         •

The November 29 call for a secret conference

These six core founders decided to call another, more formal conference of labor leaders, to be held in Chicago in January. The call for this meeting was a letter dated Nov. 29, 1904, and signed by five of the six who attended the gathering, as well as by Eugene V. Debswho was apparently enthused with the project and who lent his name and national prestige to the effort. (fn. Brissenden, op. cit., pp. 3-4.)


The New Zealand-born William Ernst Trauttmann (1869-1940), editor of the bilingual St. Louis Brauer Zeitung (Brewers’ News), was one of the prime organizers of the IWW.

This letter, written in the form of a resolution by William E. Trautmann, the radical editor of the Brauer Zeitung, declared

Believing that working class political expression, through the Socialist ballot, in order to be sound, must have its economic counterpart in a labor organization builded as the structure of socialist society, embracing within itself the working class in approximately the same groups and departments and industries that the workers would assume in the working class administration of the Cooperative Commonwealth; * * *

We invite you to meet with us at Chicago, Monday, January 2, 1905, in secret conference, to discuss ways and means of uniting the working people of America on correct revolutionary principles, regardless of any general labor organization of past or present, and only restricted by such basic principles as will insure its integrity as a real protector of the interests of the workers. (fn. The Founding Convention of the IWW: Proceedings, pp. 82-83.)

This was sent to about 36 prominent trade union activists and editors of radical or labor newspapers. (fn. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Vol. 4: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917. New York: International Publishers, 1965; p. 15) Two of these rejected it outright as a counterproductive declaration of war on the American Federation of Labor, instead favoring continuation of the tactic of “boring from within.” These were Victor L. Berger of Milwaukee, publisher of the Social Democratic Herald, for which Debs wrote almost exclusively through 1904, and Max S. Hayes, editor of the Cleveland Citizen, prominent in the national typographers’ union and an annual warrior against Sam Gompers at the annual conventions of the AF of L.


Max S. Hayes (1866-1945), editor of the venerable Cleveland Citizen, was a socialist activist in the typographers’ union who fought the Gompers administration each year at the annual AF of L convention. He was adamantly opposed to the dual union tactic, which he believed would again lead to a sectarian cul-de-sac.

Here is Hayes’s alternative view:

This sounds to me as though we were to have another Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance experiment again; that we who are in the trade unions, as at present constituted, are to cut loose and flock by ourselves. If I am correct in my surmises it means another running fight between Socialists on one side and all other partisans on the other…. If there is any fighting to be done I intend to agitate on the inside of the organizations now in existence… (fn. Hayes letter to W.L. Hall, Dec. 30, 1904, cited in Brissenden, op. cit., p. 5).

Debs begged off from attending this critical initial organizing session, citing reasons of ill health — adding a fifth data point to what was becoming a pattern of non-attendance of key and potentially controversial organizational meetings. Recall that he had earlier missed the late night organizational meeting at the time of split forming the Social Democratic Party in June 1898, the negotiations between the Springfield and Chicago SDP at the 1900 Chicago convention, the pivotal second day of the Jan. 1901 convention of the Chicago SDP, and the entire founding convention of the Socialist Party of America in the summer of 1901.

Debs penned a lengthy and illuminating letter to Clarence Smith of the ALU, one of the chief organizers of the confab, explaining his non-attendance:

I shall not be able to attend the meeting on the second [Jan. 2, 1905]. I keenly regret this for I had counted on being with you and in giving such assistance as I could to the work of organizing that is to be undertaken along new and progressive lines. In spite of my best will this is now impossible.

For a good many years I have been working without regard to myself and in all my life I have never known what it is to have a rest. The last year’s work was in many respects the hardest of my life. I spent myself too freely and have now reached the point when I must give up for a time as the doctor warned me that my nerves are worn down and that I am threatened with collapse.

There is nothing the matter with me except that I am compelled to let go for a time and so I have had to cancel all my engagements for the immediate future. How soon I may be able to resume I do not know, but I think I shall have to quite the public platform entirely, or almost so, for a year or such matter. There are too many demands constantly upon me and I shall have to turn them aside until I can get myself in physical condition to resume my activities. Under any other circumstances I should have considered it a privilege as well as a pleasure to attend your meeting.

Please find draft enclosed covering the amount you were kind enough to advance to me. Please accept my warm thanks for the favor. (fn. Debs in Terre Haute to Smith in Chicago, in William E. Trautmann (ed.), Proceedings of the First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World: Founded at Chicago, June 27-July 8, 1905. New York: New York Labor News Co., 1905; pp. 98-99).

These are not the words of a primary organizer of what Debs called “your [Smith’s] meeting,” but rather a lengthy and rather tortured apology from one who had lent his name and prestige to a letter calling a session the previous month, but who was now feeling forced to duck the actual planning session itself.

Quoting my own doggerel: “When factional organizing reared its head / Eugene Debs was sick in bed.”

This was, however, nevertheless the fork in the road where Debs and his longtime co-thinker Victor L. Berger parted company, at least for a time. Debs did cast his lot once again with a new industrial union against the established network of existing craft-based organizations.

Debs and his associates believed these existing labor entities were inseparably under the control of an overpaid, overfed, unprincipled bureaucracy who worked hand-in-glove with their capitalist masters.

They were ready to tear it down and start over, lest the working class never be able to face down and win a battle against a united and organized ruling class.

•          •         •         •         •

The Socialist Labor Party comes in from the cold

While Debs was a pioneer of “industrial unionism” with the formation of the American Railway Union in 1893, it was the Socialist Labor Party and its controversial labor party initiative, the ST&LA that broke new ground in 1896 with an explicitly socialist dual industrial union across multiple industries. Although little headway was made in practice, the tactical maneuver did manage to burn bridges between SLP activists and friends within the established labor movement and had been a primary reason for internal conflict within the SLP itself, culminating in a bitter split of the organization in 1899.

After the Western Federation of Miners borrowed the dual socialist industrial union tactic through their promotion of the American Labor Union in 1902, it was only a matter of time until all was forgiven and a rapprochement was made between the isolated and sectarian SLP/ST&LA and the broader radical labor movement of the Mountain West.

National organizer for the SLP/ST&LA Frank Bohn was fortuitously passing through Chicago in December 1904 and he was contacted by the William Trautmann on behalf of the “Committee of Seven” and personally invited to attend the January organizing conference to discuss the situation.

According to Bohn

Trautmann, in stating the general purpose of the conference on behalf of the Committee of Seven, proclaimed clearly and firmly the old, old truths which we, of the SLP, have never ceased to emphasize during all these years of fighting. After proving the capitalist character of the AF of L and showing its open follies and its hidden rottenness, he added: “It will be said that we are practically accepting the principles of the ST&LA. Yes, we are. We must come to that. They are the right principles.” (fn. Frank Bohn, “Preliminary Explosion or Volcanic Rumblings Coming to a Head,” Weekly People, vol. 14, no. 43 (Jan. 21, 1905), p. 1).

•          •         •         •         •

The January Conference

The “January Conference” was convened in Chicago on Jan. 2, 1905, with William E. Trautmann presiding. A total of 25 people were present,(fn. Bohn, op. cit.) including  Charles H. Moyer and William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, the two top officials of the powerful Western Federation of Miners; C.O. Sherman of the United Metal Workers; labor organizer Mary “Mother” Jones; Frank Bohn, an organizer for the Socialist Labor Party and its faltering red dual union, the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance (ST&LA); editor A.M. Simons of the socialist theoretical monthly, the International Socialist Review; and J.M. O’Neill, editor of Miners’ Magazine. (fn. Brissenden, op cit., p. 5).


“Big Bill” Haywood (1869-1928), head of the Western Federation of Miners

This conference issued a Industrial Union Manifesto, also known as the Chicago Manifesto, formally calling a June 27 convention to organize a new industrial union. According to the text of this convention call:

A movement to fulfill these conditions must consist of one great industrial union embracing all industries — providing for craft autonomy locally, industrial autonomy internationally, and working class unity generally.

It must be founded on the class struggle, and its general administration must be conducted in harmony with the recognition of the irrepressible conflict between the capitalist class and the working class.

It should be established as the economic organization of the working class, without affiliation with any political party.

All power should rest in a collective membership.

Local, national, and general administration, including union labels, buttons, badges, transfer cards, initiation fees, and per capita tax should be uniform throughout.
All members must hold membership in the local, national, or international union covering the industry in which they are employed, but transfers of membership between unions — local, national, or international — should be universal.

Workingmen bringing union cards from industrial unions in foreign countries should be freely admitted into the organization…. (fn. Industrial Union Manifesto, Voice of Labor [Chicago], vol. 3, no. 6 (March 1905), pp. 3-5).

A “permanent executive committee” was chosen. This included “Big Bill” Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners as Chairman and the indefatigable W.E. Trautmann as Secretary. Rounding out the board were Clarence Smith of the ALU, W.L. Hall of the tiny Railway Employees’ union, and Algie Simons, editor of International Socialist Review. Gene Debs was not part of this executive board, unsurprisingly.

As he did not attend the organizing meeting, Debs’s name was not one of 26 affixed to the convention call in the first published version, which appeared in the Daniel DeLeon-edited Weekly People. It was, however, later appended and appears in most published versions. (fn. “First Explosion: More to Come,” Weekly People, vol. 14, no. 44 (Jan. 28, 1905), pp. 1-2).

The stage was set for the formation of a new labor organization.

•          •         •         •         •

The Way the Media Portrayed the Forthcoming Establishment of the IWW

We have seen the primary movers for IWW were Trautmann of the Brauer Zeitung, Thomas Hagerty and Clarence Smith of the ALU, Estes and Hall of ARU-inspired albeit tiny United Brotherhood of Railway Employees, and William D. Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners.

But it was Gene Debs who remained the great bogey man in the eyes of the press. The Wall Street Journal pinned it all on him, bringing to life the specter of the ten-years-dead ARU in a Jan. 12, 1905 snippet:

Eugene V. Debs is endeavoring to form a gigantic labor organization, with the American Railway Union as the nucleus. He contemplates the overthrow of of the American Federation of Labor. He called for a convention in Chicago on June 27. (fn. “Newspaper Specials, Wall Street Journal, vol. 45, no. 10 (Jan. 12, 1905), p. 2.)

This drumbeat emerged again as the June 1905 launch of the new industrial union drew near.


Los Angeles Herald, May 1, 1905, p. 4. Much too much work for them to learn the actual organizational backstory… The implications of the new union were, however, clear.

Wire reports of this time cast Debs as the new president of the yet-to-be-announced industrial union, which was to go to war against the AF of L, since “there is no concealment of the fact that Debs will do his utmost to disrupt the organization of which Gompers is the head.” (fn. See, for example: “New Labor Body,” Topeka Daily Herald, May 2, 1905, p. 6).

Other news reports of similar vintage went even further, purporting that Debs had “confirmed” that he was to be the head of the new industrial union. (fn. See, for example: “The Latest,” Louisville Courier-Journal, May 4, 1905, p. 1).

Debs’s sensational and sensationalized association with the industrial union project was not ignored by his anti-dual unionist friends in the Socialist Party of America. On April 29, 1905, following a speech before 600 people in Racine, Wisconsin, Debs retired to his room in the Hotel Racine with his old Milwaukee friends from Social Democratic Party days, Victor L. Berger and Fred Heath. The pair attempted to induce Debs to remove his name from the IWW convention call. They were unsuccessful, with Debs subsequently declining to make further comment to the press. (fn. “Would Block Opposition of Federation of Labor,” LaCrosse [WI] Tribune, vol. 1, no. 293 (May 1, 1905), p. 3).

•          •         •         •         •

A Digression: Debs’s First Speaking Tour of 1905

One thing I am attempting to do as a part of this project is to take advantage of the newly sprung historical resource that is (and its fabulous search engine of digitized newspapers) in order to reconstruct for the first time Debs’s various speaking tours.

It appears that his first 1905 tour kicked off in Pensacola, Florida on February 15 to a disappointingly small audience on the venerable topic of “Labor and Liberty.” That particular speech, under the auspices of the Lyceum Course of the Pensacola Library Association, featured the most expensive ticket price I’ve seen to date — $1 for the best seats, with other price tiers of 75, 50, and 25 cents. This was an era when a good wage was $3 a day. You do the math.

Shoe store ad cashing in on visit of Eugene V. Debs to speak at

A union shoe store in Muskogee, IT, took advantage of an appearance by Eugene V. Debs in March 1905 to promote itself.

The first 1905 tour then vanishes from the radar for three weeks (it might have been a one-off date, but keep in mind inclusion of Southern newspapers in the Newspapers .com database is bad). It may also be that Debs spent the “missing” time resting and recuperating from his December 1904 breakdown. There seem to be no available letters to answer this question either way.

Debs reappears on the radar of the mainstream press at the end of the first week of March. From that point the tour focused on the states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Indian Territory. Debs spoke at a number of small Kansas towns throughout the rest of the month of March, including Girard, Oswego, Columbus, Parsons, Udall, and Arkansas City, as well as the city of Wichita.

After touching base in Gutherie and Oklahoma City, Debs delivered an address to a major “Union Labor Congress” in Muskogee, Indian Territory, on March 29 on the topic of “The Closer Affiliation of the Unions.” After speaking in the afternoon for more than two hours to the 300 delegates and interested others, he then deadheaded back for an appearance the next night in Pittsburg, located in the mining country of Southeastern Kansas, just down the road from Girard.

This seems to have been the end of the tour.



I spent the better part of one day this week setting up my directory structure for Volume 4. I work in Apple Pages ’09 as my main word processor, which exports to Microsoft Word doc format (losing formatting in the transition, which needs to be restored line-by-line), which I then need to re-export to Word docx format (the form that is finally submitted), which in turn needs to be exported as pdfs for Marxists Internet Archive. So that’s four sets of the same files… Then there is an Excel word-counting spreadsheet for Vol. 4 that needed to be set up.  Now things should proceed smoothly.

The official deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 4 is October 15, 2019. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 22 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words. And so it begins…

  • “Invitation to a Secret Conference to Plan a New Industrial Labor Union” (Nov. 29, 1904) — 452 words
  • “Letter to Clarence Smith Explaining His Forthcoming Absence from the Meeting to Plan the Founding of the Industrial Workers of the World” (December 23, 1904) — 535 words
  • “Women: To Get What Is Due, You Must Take It” (Jan. 14, 1905) — 295 words
  • “The Socialist Party and Woman’s Freedom” (Jan. 14, 1905) — 179 words
  • “The Russian Uprising” (Jan. 26, 1905) — 588 words
  • “Winning a World” (Nov. 1905) — 1,654 words
  • “Craft Unionism: Speech in Chicago” (Nov. 23, 1905) — 9,705 words
  • “Class Unionism: Speech Delivered at South Chicago” (Nov. 24, 1905) — 10,266 words

Word count: 22,639 in the can + 23,674 this week + amendments = 48,059 words total.


David Walters will be running all of this material up on Marxists Internet Archive in coming days.

To find it, please visit the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive



Here’s a list of the microfilm that I’ve scanned this week, available for free download. There is a short delay between completion of the scanning and its appearance on MIA.

About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Near It But Not In It: Gene Debs and Early Preparation for the IWW (19-03)

  1. tangiblethoughts says:


    A quick note to say how much I appreciate the hard work that you and your co-workers do to research and make available all of these wonderful Debs and Socialist resources. The bulk of Debs’ that I tead comes from the Internet Archive. I am definitely adding your book(s) to my reading material wish list.


    Scott in Texas


  2. Pingback: Impressions of the Founding Convention of the IWW (19-07) | The Debs Project

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s