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Research Guides

Industrial Workers of the World Photograph Collection: Race & Gender

Interpretive exhibit examining the historical and cultural context of the the Industrial Workers of the World Photograph Collection at the Labor Archives of Washington, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

Women's Role

Women were not excluded from the IWW; they were recognized as integral workers deserving protection of their rights. The IWW's focus was not limited to combating gender bias against women but, rather, it centered on addressing the exploitation of women within the working class. The core belief was that "all female workers must enjoy full membership and equal rights within the One Big Union." Interestingly, during protests, women held a strategic advantage as law enforcement was often hesitant to confront female strikers and speakers. Government officials also tended to avoid prosecuting women. A prominent figure within the IWW, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, emerged as a leading advocate for women's rights in the organization, earning the moniker of the 'Rebel Girl.' Additionally, Joe Hill strongly emphasized the indispensable role of women in the IWW, asserting that their inclusion was vital to prevent the organization from becoming imbalanced.

Asian Americans

Asian immigration faced strong opposition from the broader American population, particularly concerning labor matters. Prejudice against Asian workers, especially on the West Coast, was prevalent, often manifesting as the unfounded fear of a "yellow menace" that alleged Asian workers would take jobs and lower living standards. Moreover, many unions affiliated with the Workingmen's Party and the American Federation of Labor on the West Coast actively supported legislation against Asian immigration, giving rise to exclusionary immigration polices and laws that forbid Asian American immigrants from owning property.

In contrast to most other organizations that excluded Asian workers, the IWW adopted an inclusive approach, extending a warm welcome to Chinese, Japanese, Filipinx, and other Asian American workers. This decision set a pioneering standard for the solidarity of organized labor, emphasizing the IWW's commitment to unity and inclusivity.

Inclusion for All

"To Colored Workingmen and Women
If you are a wage worker, you are welcome in the IWW halls, no matter what your color. By this you may see that the IWW is not a white man's union, not a black man's union, not a red man's union, but a workingman's union. All of the working class in one big union."

~Bird, Stewart, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer. 1985. Solidarity forever: an oral history of the IWW. Chicago: Lake View Press.Pg. 140

The Labor Archives' IWW Photograph Collection prominently showcases Euro-American members, including notable women like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Katie Phar, one Native American figure in Frank Little, and Latinx members such as Enrique Flores Magon. Although this specific collection lacks visual representation of Asian and African American members, it's important to acknowledge their active participation within the IWW. "Solidarity Forever" offers several passages on IWW universalism, extending its message to members of all races. Additionally, other sources are available that provide a more comprehensive view of the IWW's diverse membership.

Indigenous Workers

The indigenous membership in the IWW constituted a significant portion. Among the most renowned IWW members, Frank Little had indigenous roots as part Cherokee. He took great pride in his indigenous heritage, even playfully teasing fellow members that he was the sole authentic "red" and genuine American among them. Frank Little achieved remarkable success during his tenure with the IWW, notably for his role in founding the Agricultural Workers Organization.

Latinx and Hispanic Communities

The IWW stood out for its remarkable inclusivity and warm embrace of Latinx and Hispanic immigrants, a commitment reflected in the substantial Latinx and Hispanic membership within their organized unions. Notably, IWW miners and marine workers passionately championed the cause of elevating living standards for all workers.

In the Southwest, there existed a robust presence of Mexican American immigrants, including those with deep-rooted connections to the region dating back before the US war of conquest against Mexico. These individuals played pivotal roles within IWW mining and agricultural unions, contributing significantly to the organization's goals.

Conversely, on the East Coast, the Marine Transport Workers Union boasted an impressive 50% representation of Latinx and Hispanic individuals among its ranks.

Prominently, among these Latinx and Hispanic members were the Flores Magón brothers. Not only were they active participants, but they also took the initiative to establish and lead the Mexican Liberal Party. Their close collaboration with the IWW during the San Diego Free Speech Fight underscored the strong partnership between Latinx and Hispanic activists and the overarching mission of the IWW.