Impressions of the Founding Convention of the IWW (19-07)


Before we get to the 1906 attempt to decapitate the leadership of the Western Federation of Miners (and thus the Industrial Workers of the World), I need to roll back the clock to the founding convention of the organization in the summer of 1905. I have in mind examining not only the gathering itself, but the roles played at the event by Eugene V. Debs as well as his erstwhile nemesis, Daniel DeLeon.

The emergence, growth, and transformation of the IWW is one of the main stories in the history of the Socialist Party during the Debsian era. Debs was extremely close to the organizers of the new industrial union and his speeches were taken down verbatim and reproduced as three of the very first pamphlets issued by the organization. He would be a wall of granite in the defense of the kidnapped IWW leaders in 1906. Yet within a relatively few months, he was no longer actively cheerleading for the organization, having moved on from it just as he had moved on from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, the Supreme Council, the American Railway Union, and the Social Democracy of America before.

There is a story to be told, I am sure, but first there is a mystery to be solved.

•          •          •          •          •

Western Federation of Miners Dominated Convention

The Industrial Workers of the World were established at what was originally billed as an “Industrial Union Congress,” called for June 27, 1905, in Chicago by the manifesto emerging from the secret January conference, a document to which Gene Debs affixed his signature. (See: Near It But Not In It: Gene Debs and Early Preparation for the IWW, Debs blog 19-03).

Those present at this earlier meeting, it will be recalled, included two chiefs of the Western Federation of Miners, Charles H. Moyer and William D. “Big Bill” Haywood; J.M. O’Neill of Miners’ Magazine; A.M. Simons of International Socialist Review; Thomas J. Hagerty of the Industrial Workers’ Club of Chicago, probably a small debating circle; Charles O. Sherman of the United Metal Workers; independent labor organizer Mary “Mother” Jones; and — acting on his own authority rather than as an official representative — Frank Bohn, national organizer for the Socialist Labor Party and the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance. But not Gene Debs.


There were a total of 203 delegates in attendance at the Founding Convention, but these did not participate on the basis of strict equality. In accord with the convention call, delegates entering the gathering as representatives of unions who agreed to empower their delegates to officially cast their lot with the new organization would be accorded one vote for each paid member of their union. Those wishing to participate without such prior agreement — observers who would report back to their unions or individuals like Debs who were part of no such mass organization — would be allowed only one vote.

Those agreeing to grant power to install in the new industrial union were:

  • Western Federation of Miners — 27,000 members — 5 delegates
  • American Labor Union — 16,750 members — 10 delegates
  • United Metal Workers — 3,000 members — 2 delegates
  • United Brotherhood of Railway Employees — 2,087 members — 19 delegates
  • Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance (SLP) — 1,450 members — 14 delegates

This list is well enough known. It should also be observed that in addition there were a number of smaller organizations agreeing to affiliate:

  • Journeymen Tailors’ Union, San Francisco — 400 members — 1 delegate
  • Longshoremen’s Union, Hoboken — 201 members — 1 delegate
  • Punch Press Operators Local 224, Schenectady, NY — 168 members — 1 delegate
  • Paper Hangers’ Local 584, Chicago — 87 members — 3 delegates
  • Industrial Workers’ Club of Cincinnati — 78 members — 1 delegate
  • Industrial Workers’ Club of Chicago — 54 members — 12 delegates
  • Debattir Club of Chicago — 47 members — 1 delegate
  • United Mine Workers, Pittsburg, KS — 30 members — 1 delegate
  • Workers’ Industrial and Educational Union, Pueblo, CO — 30 members — 1 delegate
  • United Mine Workers’ Local 1771, Red Lodge, MT — 27 members — 1 delegate
  • Journeymen Tailors’ Local 102, Pueblo, CO — 10 members — 1 delegate

In other words 74 of the delegates were awarded multiple votes, totaling 51,419. The other 129 delegates in attendance were awarded one vote each — 129.

Note that this breakdown differs somewhat to a shorter and more simple set published in 1913 by pioneer historian of the IWW Paul Brissenden and thereafter repeated endlessly by other historians of the event. (fn. Stenographic Report, Appendix, pp. 595-616. See also: Brissenden, The Launching of the Industrial Workers of the World, pp. 14-15.)

The conclusion generated by this revised set of delegate numbers and voting strength and that of Brissenden et al. remains the same, however. A tiny segment of the delegates, just 15 by my count — hailing from the Western Federation of Miners and the American Labor Union, which it thoroughly dominated — controlled an overwhelming majority of votes on the convention floor.

The handful of WFM and WFMish delegates had the ability to decide every question at the convention by simply voting en bloc. And the Western Federation did vote en bloc.

Further illustrating the Western Federation of Miners’ complete dominance, two of those casting votes ostensibly on behalf of the American Labor Union were Charles Moyer and William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, President and Secretary-Treasurer of the WFM, respectively. (fn. Stenographic Report, Appendix, op cit.)

The expression “interlocking directorates” comes to mind.

•          •          •          •          •

A Middle Class Affair


Former silver miner William D. Haywood (1869-1928) was the chair of the founding convention of the IWW. He was 35 years old at the time, slightly older than this picture.

Another first impression of the founding convention of the IWW:  it was very self-aware. The delegates conducted a lengthy debate over whether to take a stenographic report of the session and who was to foot the bill for said transcription. A special assessment totaling the equivalent of approximately two day’s wages was laid upon all delegates in attendance who were on the payroll of their union.

There was already a stenographer in the room ready to work, mind you. The Socialist Labor Party’s daily newspaper, The Daily People, was responsible and would have footed the bill had not the delegates contributed and taxed themselves to pay the stenographer and the not inconsiderable printing costs.

However: important conventions published stenographic reports of their proceedings. This important convention saw itself as an important convention and went to great pains to do exactly this.

Moreover, for all the rugged-industrialist-working-class-burliness associated with the IWW in popular memory, there was a very middle class feel to the functioning of this founding conclave. Things ran strictly according to Roberts’ Rules of Order — with motions and seconds and amendments and ending debate and putting of questions. These were not roughnecks raisin’ hell and burning torches, they were educated individuals running a proper meeting according to Hoyle.

Union functionaries, even those of very radical unions, were well enough paid. The nature of the tasks of editing a magazine and mining precious metals or coal or firing a locomotive were entirely different. It was a white collar crowd.

Spoiler alert: All successful radical movements and all unsuccessful radical movements have middle class people at their core. There is no shame in that. But neither should one pretend that things are otherwise.

•          •          •          •          •

The Personalities in Action

Bill Haywood was the chairman of the convention. He was the main decision-maker, the boss, the guy. He’s a really interesting personality and needs a true biographer to tell his story. He ended up jumping bail and escaping to Soviet Russia, where he directed the organization an American-financed collective farm in the Donets Basin of the Ukraine. His papers exist on published microfilm, the originals residing in Moscow.


Daniel DeLeon stayed for the full duration of the founding convention of the IWW and participated actively in its proceedings. Gene Debs did not.

Daniel DeLeon, coming to the floor of the convention after Debs to give a long and dramatic speech, called Debs “Brother” and not “Comrade.” There’s a big difference between a trade union ally and a party ally and I’m sure it was perfectly acceptable, polite, and reasonable to use that title in what was a trade union conclave. Despite the mutual attempt to reduce political dispute to self-effacing joke, there remained significant tension between DDL and his Socialist Labor Party and Gene Debs and his Socialist Party.

DeLeon and Debs approached the convention in an entirely different manner from each other. DeLeon stayed, delivered a major speech, participated actively from the floor in the work of shaping the organization. Debs made a keynote speech and darted off — places to go and things to do. He would make 9 more speeches under the organization’s auspices in the year, wrote a spate of articles on its behalf, and seems to have participated with his brother Theodore on the resolutions committee of “Terre Haute Local Union No. 9,” — but he basically was a publicist. DeLeon, for better or worse, stuck around in Chicago at the convention and got his hands dirty building a new organization.


IWW funeral ribbon from the collection of digital archivist D.J. Alperovitz

The index to the stenogram tells the story: there were exactly two delegates with more indexed comments from the floor than Daniel DeLeon, plus Bill Haywood in the chair makes three.

Now we know that both Debs and DeLeon made lengthy speeches to the founding convention, as they were published as a pamphlet by the Socialist Labor Party shortly thereafter (with the Debs portion remaining in print with that rival organization even after EVD was returned to the enemies list). What is less known, although unsurprising if one thinks about it, is that others also delivered substantive addresses.

William E. Trautmann, formerly of the bilingual Brauer Zeitung of St. Louis and subsequently secretary of the IWW, delivered a lengthy “Indictment Against the American Federation of Labor,” in which he charged that organization had been “debauched and corrupted by the labor leaders.” Duncan McEachren, a journeyman paperhanger, had his allotted 10 minutes extended and spoke against trade autonomy.

Thomas Hagerty gave short remarks denigrating political parties as “never more than a shadow” to the trade union movement. Bill Haywood reviewed the history of the WFM and declared “the capitalist class of this country fear the Western Federation of Mines more than they do all he rest of the labor organizations in this country.” And Lucy Parsons gave a powerful and poetic speech revisiting the revolutionary socialist movement of the 1880s and putting it into a modern context. These were not all.

There was a place for oratory. Debs and DeLeon were only part of it.

•          •          •          •          •

Debs Doth Protesteth Too Much

There was a lengthy symposium on the relationship between the Socialist Party and the trade union movement (i.e., AF of L or IWW?) in the pages of the New York Worker during 1906 — a running discussion and debate to which Debs contributed the 11th installment. I was running the microfilm scanner through this material this past week and didn’t have a chance to read the material outside of EVD’s piece but it strikes me as of fairly great importance for figuring out the battle lines in the party debate. I will be returning to it during my research phase for the introduction this summer…


The Worker was the same publication as the dissident version of The People following a simple name change. They didn’t care much for the leadership or tactics of the SLP.

Remember that The Worker was formerly known as The People — the dissident paper established in 1899 in opposition to Daniel DeLeon’s weekly newspaper of the same name. It was the official organ of a party that was founded in large measure over disagreement on this very trade union question, with the split group feeling a deep dissatisfaction with the the DeLeon-Kuhn-Vogt leadership and its strategy of pushing an upstart Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance in “dual union” opposition to the AF of L.

Now here was Debs  cheerleading in their publication for exactly the same policy in the form of the IWW, a group which included in its ranks — most gallingly to the former SLP dissidents — Daniel DeLeon and the entire ST&LA organization… It makes for a very interesting historical moment.

Victor Berger was having none of it, you will recall. He and Fred Heath, old Chicago SDP comrades of Debs, actually broke with him over it.† The reaction does not seem to have been as severe in New York, with Debs actually writing a regular (albeit vapid) political affairs column called “Proletarian Pointers” in the pages of The Worker during his big IWW year of 1906.‡

A big criticism, and one that Debs was adamant about refuting, was that the IWW was an anti-political organization — that it would not deign to participate in party politics and in fact rejected political action altogether. The critique proved to be prescient, as Debs was soon to learn. But here is Debs’s response to the critics as of July 1906:

It has been claimed that the IWW does not favor political action. To silence controversy upon this point all that is required is the reading of its preamble. What a few individual members may think of the ballot is beside the point, the fact being, not only that the organization declares in favor of political action, but that a vast majority of its members are socialists, if not party members.

For obvious reasons the organization had to declare against affiliation with any particular party. To have done otherwise would have entirely defeated the movement at its inception. When once there is but one working class party the IWW will, without a doubt, assume the proper attitude toward it, but in the meantime it is not only vain and silly, but untrue that the Socialist Labor Party is “dead,” and the writer who makes that assertion does himself no credit by it.(fn. Debs, “The Socialist Party and the Trade Unions,” The Worker, vol. 16, no. 17 (July 28, 1906), p. 5.)

Debs’s observation of the need for “but one working class party” and insistence in defending the Socialist Labor Party as a living organization is interesting, seeming to place him firmly in the camp of the left wing Socialist Party of New Jersey that was attempting to broker unity between the SPA and the SLP.

The parallel Socialist Party and Socialist Labor Party organizations were one problem to be addressed, but there was an even bigger storm brewing.

For all his protestation that no meaningful difference on the question of political action vs. syndicalism existed, it was exactly this issue that would loom large over the next ten years.

In the middle of 1906, with the first year of the IWW in the books, Gene Debs was completely oblivious to the great disagreement that was to come.


† -There are exactly zero letters from Debs to Victor Berger preserved in the Berger papers after their face-to-face meeting on the question in Racine on April 29, 1905 for the rest of the decade.

‡ – For the record, these columns ran in The Worker in issues of  January 27, February 3, February 26, March 17, July 28, and August 4. None will make the cut for Debs Volume 4.



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 18 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.


Here’s a Debs Personality Cult product that I hadn’t heard of — 1906 sheet music for “The Hero of Woodstock Jail,” a “swinging tune suitable for solo or singing en masse.” That’d be a $200+ piece of gear if a specimen turned up and it had any kind of Debs image as a cover illustration…

I spent time this week chasing what I thought was a very significant error in the Socialist Party’s membership bookkeeping for 1911. I did a nice bonus blog post on the topic. Then at the last minute I figured out it that the entire exercise was based on my misunderstanding a set of membership numbers; it was I that had made a mistake and the SPA made no systemic error with their 1911 state membership counts after all… Down came the post. Whoops.


There’s nothing like wasted time to spur activity and I wound up really kicking out the jams in the content assembly department:

  • “Is Man Immortal? Contribution to a Symposium” (Jan. 13, 1905) — 391 words
  • “I Can Imagine Nothing To Change My Mind: Letter to Victor L. Berger” (April 13, 1905) — 1,409 words
  • “A Few Words, Mr. President: An Open Letter to Theodore Roosevelt” (April 15, 1905) — 1,672 words
  • “Revolt Against the AF of L is Bound to Come: Letter to Frederic Heath” (April 22, 1905) — 914 words
  • “Splits Are Not Always Bad: Letter to Frederic Heath” (April 26, 1905) — 977 words
  • “Industrial Revolutionists” (January 1906) — 1,002 words
  • “Socialist Papers and the Labor Unions: Letter to the Chicago Socialist” (Jan. 18, 1906) — 530 words
  • “Evolution of the Anthracite Miner” (Feb. 1906) — 850 words
  • “Arrest of Moyer and Haywood a Diabolical Plot” (Feb. 22, 1906) — 1,641 words
  • “Labor’s Awakening” (April 7, 1906) — 2,150 words
  • “To the Rescue!” (April 28, 1906) — 1,793 words
  • “Resolution for Postponement of the IWW National Convention, by Terre Haute Local Union No. 9” (Late April, 1906) — 209 words
  • “Where Daisy Sleeps” [poem] (May 1906) — 182 words
  • “The Socialist Party and the Trade Unions” (July 28, 1906) — 2,895 words
  • “What a Million Votes For the Socialist Party Will Mean” (Sept. 1908) — 3,086 words

Word count: 84,848 in the can + 19,701 this week +/- amendments = 106,095 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 the microfilm that I’ve scanned this week, available for free download. Bear in mind that there is generally a short delay between completion of the scanning and its appearance on MIA. Thanks are due to David Walters for getting this material into an accessible format.

 Social Democratic Herald — 1906 (July – Dec.)

The Worker — 1906 (April – Dec.)



Who says that there is no new ground to be plowed in the field of Eugene V. Debs biography?

BuhleVeteran historian Paul Buhle, author of Marxism in the USA, and co-editor of The Immigrant Left in the United States [1996] and Encyclopedia of the American Left [1990, 1998], is back with another new volume for every library — this a follow up to his Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World [2005].

Our subject this time around is none other than the Earnest Red Hoosier, Gene Debs. In an episode of inexplicable synchronicity, this slim volume and the first of my six titanic gobs of gunk and goodness, EVD Selected Works Volume 1, released on the same precise day — February 19, 2019 — with neither Buhle nor myself aware of the other’s project until a few weeks ahead of our scheduled drop dates. One simply could not have scripted such a joint venture better, with both Verso and Haymarket no doubt enormously pleased with this fortuitous turn of the cards.

Unlike my Debs doorstop(s), this one should actually sell. Produced with funding from the Democratic Socialists of America Fund and contributions from viewers like you, this paperback is carefully crafted for a specific target audience — the 50,000 members of DSA and the millions of donors and supporters of Bernie Sanders (whose words in praise of Debs, not accidentally, appear on the front cover). It is getting the big push in that universe.

Some small percentage of these readers will move on to wanting to learn more about Debs the man and what he actually wrote and believed — which is sort of my department. The two projects are thus perfect complements.

Now for the compliments.

Art here is by Noah Van Sciver, an award-winning cartoonist who has drawn seven graphic novels and contributed to such comics as SpongeBob Comics, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and MAD Magazine. The artistic work is therefore, unsurprisingly, highly capable. Indeed, one does wish for more art and fewer words — this project being a somewhat disjointed hybrid between a thumbnail sketch biography and a graphic novelization of the Debs story. Going “all in” with the art would have doubled the size and tripled the cost, no doubt, but would also have made for a less “bookish” and more “comicsy” reading experience, which is what a graphic novel should be about.

The historically-accurate script (and short biography) is by Buhle and Students for Democratic Society founding member Steve Max, with an assist from experienced graphic novel scriptwriter Dave Nance. It is — short and historically accurate. (One is tempted to use the phrase “cartoonishly short,” but that is rather the point, is it not?)

The book opens with a three page “easy reader” style illustrated timeline, which only illuminates a few of the most major events of the EVD saga with lots of airy spacing that I see as a fashion DO and an information DON’T. The Debs legacy is rightfully tied to the current DSA in the short introduction, with five very short written chapters following: (1) The Rise of Eugene V. Debs; (2) “Debsian Socialism”; (3) Triumph — and the Edge of Tragedy; (4) Martyr Debs; and (5) The Debs Legacy: Norman Thomas, Michael Harrington, Bernie Sanders.

This covers the bases for the target audience, I suppose — but if a picture is worth 1,000 words, this reader would rather have seen the functional equivalent of the roughly 7,500 words of text in pictorial form. One is simply not allowed to become engrossed in either experience — the written word or the illustrated story — to the detriment of the whole.

My own belief — which I am completely sure is rejected by Comrades Buhle and Max — is that a second misstep was made with the inordinate preoccupation to connect the Debs story (pp. 1-95, 128; 75%) with today’s socialist movement (pp. 96-127; 25%). The book is supposed to be about Gene Debs, dammit — tell that whole story, don’t get sidetracked trying to gloss the history of the 20th Century… People can figure that out on their own. Grrrrrrrrr.

Meh, done’s done.

The authors knew what they were trying to do and I reckon they got to where they were trying to get. May they sell many, many copies to DSA kids who become hungry to learn more.

Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography. Art by Noah Van Sciver. Script by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, with Dave Nance. New York: Verso, 2019. (132+6 pp. — $19.95)

Publisher Sales Link.


About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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