Curatorial Projects > Battle Emblems (2006)


Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international revolutionary union headquartered in Cincinnati, OH, contends that all workers be united within a single union as a class, and direct action in the form of strikes, propaganda, and boycotts be used to promote worker solidarity against employers. Formed in 1905 in Chicago inopposition to conservative businessunions, IWW emphasizedrank-and-file organization, rather than empowering leaders who would bargain with employers. In 1923, IWW claimed 100,000 members, including women, blacks, and immigrants, and could marshal the support of 300,000 workers. Membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split initiated by internal conflict and government repression; 2,000 members exist today. Historically, politicians and media condemned IWW, factory owners disrupted meetings, and members were arrested and sometimes murdered for making speeches; this, however, only inspired further militancy. From 1913 to the 1930s, IWW had a nationwide presence among waterfront workers and participated in the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. The effectiveness of IWW's non-violent tactics sparked violent reaction by government, employers, and citizens. In 1917, U.S. Department of Justice agents simultaneously raided 48 IWW meetinghalls, arresting 165 IWW leaders. Membership dropped in the 1950s, but the 1960s movements reinvigorated IWW. Holding organizing drives from the 1960s to the 1980s, IWW participated in labor struggles in the 1990s, including picketing the Neptune Jade in the Port of Oakland and assisting the rank and file in mainstream unions, including Bay Area concession-stand workers. IWW members include those in building trades, shipyards, hi-tech industries, hotels and restaurants, schools, railroads, and bike messengers.

The globe is often seen in early IWW artifacts, and seems to have become an actual logo around 1915–1917. It symbolizes the central IWW concept of global unity –“one big union of all the workers.” By the 1920s, IWW graphics and lettering generally moved away from the cluttered, sketchy Victorian look to the more streamlined modern “industrial” look that became popular in the 1930s. IWW members also effectively used "silent agitators," small stickers glued around workplaces bearing pro-worker messages or symbols. According to San Francisco State University’s Labor Archives and Research Center newsletter, workers used to compete with each other to stick these in risky places, like on the back of the boss’s coat.