Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, June 1995
A native of Salt Lake City, William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, became the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, one of the most famous (and infamous) labor organizations in American history. At the time of his 1917 arrest, the New York Times called him “the most hated and feared figure in America.”
Born in Salt Lake City on February 4, 1869, Haywood spent part of his youth in the mining camp of Ophir, Tooele County, where his stepfather had found work. He received some of his formal education there and also claimed to have worked in the mine alongside his stepfather at age nine. He was still a boy when he lost his right eye in an accident while carving wood. He allegedly witnessed gunfights in Ophir’s streets and saw vigilantes lynching lawbreakers. “I accepted it all as a natural part of life,” he wrote in his autobiography. He was briefly indentured by his uncle to a farmer and then worked at such odd jobs as a boy of thirteen could find back in Salt Lake City. In 1884 he went to Nevada to learn the skills of hard-rock mining. His experiences in mining and the Haymarket Riot of 1886 impressed Haywood with the need for labor to organize.
Haywood drifted between jobs for the next few years, mining copper in Bingham and reportedly farming, surveying, cowboying, and selling real estate. In Idaho he was exposed to the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, which represented conservative, “bread and butter” craft unionism. The WFM broke away from the AFL to pursue a more radical stance based on industrial unionism.
“Big Bill” rose rapidly within the WFM, becoming secretary-treasurer in 1901 and
proving himself an able administrator and a tireless organizer. A wave of strikes in Colorado in 1903 proved disastrous, as the state government and local business employed militia and detectives to crush the strikes and the WFM locals. Haywood decided that the world’s workers needed “One Big Union,” an idea that he pushed at a June 1905 labor convention. The Industrial Workers of the World was born.
Shortly thereafter, Haywood was implicated in the bombing murder of the former Idaho governor, Frank Steunenberg, by an IWW member. He spent over a year in jail before Clarence Darrow, his famed attorney, secured his acquittal. Meanwhile, the WFM had become too moderate for Haywood, who became active in the Socialist Party of America. By 1911 he was back with the IWW. The union supported strikes at the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile mills in 1912 and the Paterson, New Jersey, silk factories in 1913. The IWW achieved most of its success, however, from 1915 to 1917 when its membership jumped from 30,000 to more than 100,000, mostly western miners and timber workers. Much of the credit for the IWW’s success in those years has been credited to Haywood’s leadership skills and the fiery oratory he used to arouse workers. The IWW was heavily influenced by European syndicalist ideas that called for direct action against capital and the eventual control of the means of production by workers.
The IWW’s strong stand against involvement in World War I created more problems for the organization. Some IWW leaders counseled that men should fight the “class war” in the U.S. rather than the “imperialist war” in Europe. The Justice Department eventually charged over 100 IWW defendants with crimes, including interfering with the war effort and counseling resistance to the draft. A jury took less than one hour to find all the defendants guilty on all charges. Haywood was sentenced to the maximum 20 years in prison. On May 1, 1919, unknown persons delivered bombs to the Salt Lake City offices of Frank K. Nebeker, the prosecuting attorney in the case, and dozens of others across the country; nearly all of the bombs were intercepted, and only two people were injured.
Haywood was in and out of jail over the next few years. The IWW was practically crushed, and many of his personal friends and associates were dead. In March 1921 he jumped bail and fled to the Soviet Union, which greeted him as a hero. Before long, however, Haywood was lonely, bored, and often ill. On May 18, 1928, he died in Moscow and was given an elaborate state funeral. One half of his ashes were interred in the wall of the Kremlin, while the rest were buried, as he had requested, next to the Haymarket martyrs memorial in Chicago.
Sources: Melvyn Dubofsky, “Big Bill” Haywood (New York, 1987); Andrew Hunt, “Beyond the Spotlight: The Red Scare in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 61 (1993).