In the early 1900s, radicals and militant unionists across Australia founded the Industrial Workers of the World, arguably the most legendary left-wing organisation in Australian history.
The IWW – or the ‘Wobblies’, as they were colloquially known – believed workers should form unions not just to win better wages and conditions, but to overthrow bosses and take over their workplaces themselves. They poured scorn on parliamentary participation, union bureaucracy, and the Australian Labor Party, and argued instead that only strikes, slow-downs, sabotage and direct action could get results.
Within a few years, thousands joined the IWW, and its influence was being felt everywhere. IWW members contributed to a massive wave of strikes, ruthlessly attacked racism and the White Australia policy, and led the way in opposing Australian involvement in the First World War. The mainstream media and politicians reacted with hysteria, furiously denouncing the organisation, and the hundreds of members were imprisoned on dubious charges and the IWW declared illegal.
In this episode, we speak with Verity Burgmann, an honorary professor at Monash University and the leading historian of the Australian IWW, about the IWW’s spectacular rise and fall and what we can learn from it today.
You can find Verity’s book on the IWW in Australia, Revolutionary industrial unionism, here.