The Wobblies in Their Heyday
The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era
by Eric Thomas Chester
August 2014, 316pp, 6 1/8x9 1/4
1 volume, Praeger

Hardcover: 978-1-4408-3301-4
$75, £58, 66€, A103
eBook Available: 978-1-4408-3302-1
Please contact your preferred eBook vendor for pricing.

In 1917, “Wobbly” organizer Frank Little was lynched, yet no one was prosecuted.

During World War I, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) rose to prominence as an effective, militant union and then was destroyed by a devastating campaign of repression launched by the federal government. This book documents the rise and fall of this important industrial labor organization.

The Industrial Workers of the World—or “Wobblies,” as they were known—included legendary figures from U.S. labor history. Joe Hill, “Big Bill” Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn have become a part of American popular folklore. In this book, author Eric T. Chester shows just how dynamic a force the IWW was during its heyday during World War I, and how determined the federal government was to crush this union—a campaign of repression that remains unique in U.S. history. This work utilizes a wide array of archival sources, many of them never used before, thereby giving readers a clearer view and better understanding of what actually happened.

The book leads with an examination of the three key events in the history of the IWW: the Wheatfield, CA, confrontation; the Bisbee, AZ, deportation; and the strike of copper miners in Butte, MT. The second part of the book deconstructs the IWW’s responses to World War I, the coordinated attack by the federal government upon the union, and how the union unraveled under this attack.


  • Offers an accurate portrayal of the Wobblies as a group of dedicated radicals who viewed workplace organizing as one aspect of a broader movement to bring about fundamental social change
  • Presents information drawn from a wide range of documents held in the National Archives that were kept closed to the public for many decades after the World War I era
  • Provides a unique case study of the profound impact that World War I had on those who remained at home and how the federal government stifled dissent to quell popular discontent
  • Represents the only modern, in-depth, and scholarly examination of the IWW in its heyday
Eric Thomas Chester, PhD, taught economics at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. His published works include Covert Network: Progressives, the International Rescue Committee, and the CIA; Rag-Tags, Scum, Riff-Raff, and Commies: The U.S. Intervention in the Dominican Republic, 1965–66; and True Mission: Socialists and the Labor Party Question in the U.S. Chester holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


"Meticulously researched, Chester's study has a narrow focus and will be of greatest interest to labor historians. Profiles, notes, and a bibliographic essay at the end of the book will assist scholars of the labor movement. However, the book’s balanced judgments, indicting illegal and unethical government and corporate actions as well as ill-advised decisions by IWW leaders, will also inform all readers interested in social protest movements. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students, researchers, and faculty."—Choice, March 1, 2015

"Eric Chester's book gives us a much-needed reminder of the government-backed destruction of the most radical working-class organization in U.S. history—an organization whose class-wide organizing across lines of occupation, race, and gender is a potent perspective for the renewed class struggle today." —Loren Goldner, Coeditor, Insurgent Notes

"Eric Chester’s illuminating book on the Industrial Workers of the Worlds cuts through the mythology on the left and right to portray the IWW as a powerful, radical trade union movement dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. Chester demonstrates both the impressive successes of the IWW’s organization of miners during World War I and the extraordinary repression unleashed by the liberal Wilson Administration that ultimately decimated the IWW. This book should be read by those who wish to understand how radical movements in the United States can flourish and how such movements need to be defended by all who are dedicated to protecting the full use of our civil liberties."—John Willoughby, Professor, Department of Economics, American University

"This deeply researched study offers an incisive analysis of the success of the IWW in organizing during World War I and of the relentless campaign of corporate and federal authorities to destroy it. Chester has established a new watermark for historical understanding of the IWW."—Staughton Lynd, Independent Scholar and Author of Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism

"Based on prodigious research in primary and secondary sources, Eric Chester has provided a much-needed new look at the Wobblies. He smartly constructs a context in time (the Wobblies’ second decade) and space (key sites of struggle, such as Butte, Bisbee, and Seattle) in order to 'go beneath the surface mythology' and probe 'the IWW as it really was.' His probing reveals an organization which, at the height of its militancy and energy, was wracked by internal conflicts over ideology, strategy, and tactics; and under sustained attack from employers and the government, who proved to be ruthless, powerful opponents. Chester demonstrates that, at critical moments, these opponents knew how to take advantage of the Wobblies’ internal conflicts. And they did, with disastrous consequences for the IWW. For today’s activists who feel drawn to this labor organization, certainly an audience Chester has in mind, The Wobblies in their Heyday offers a cautionary tale, even as it recounts heroic, principled struggles. For scholars, this book offers a carefully composed and richly detailed account that challenges the dominant narratives provided by older studies."—Peter Rachleff, Professor of History, Macalester College

"Eric Chester's important book establishes that the IWW's revolutionary vision was embraced by large numbers of American workers, and that the union was building a strong presence in vital industries. The government's brutal campaign of repression was driven by its deep fear of working-class rebellion and by the employers' determination to crush the union while they still could."—Jon Bekken, Associate Professor at Albright College and Coauthor of The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years

"Using official Justice Department and Military Intelligence files as well as IWW records that had been unavailable to previous scholars of the IWW, owing to federal government document classification policies, Eric Chester proves beyond doubt that President Woodrow Wilson and his Justice Department—assisted by the U.S. military and its intelligence services—worked assiduously to put the IWW out of business. Chester’s description of the anti-subversive crusade by federal authorities during World War I and their linking of domestic radicals with violence or terrorism proves yet again how government uses its legal authority to crush and punish dissenters and mavericks. The counter-subversive tactics that are today part of our ‘war on terror’ as well as the policies implemented by the Department of Homeland Security and the NSA are, as Chester shows, practices with a long history in the U.S."—Melvyn Dubofsky, Distinguished Professor of History & Sociology Emeritus, Binghamton University, SUNY, and Author of We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World
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