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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

IWW train riders: The IWW's Boxcar Strategy

by Arianne Hermida

The IWW turned boxcars into organizing spaces as thousands rode freight trains moving through the wheat harvests of the Great Plains. From International Socialist Review, June, 1915 .

As autumn approached in 1908, a gang of twenty men dressed in matching black overalls, white shirts, and red ties gathered near a railroad yard in Portland, Oregon. They were about six weeks and two thousand miles from their destination, Chicago, where they would attend the third annual convention of the Industrial Workers of the World.[1]

A few months earlier, the Socialist Party of America fronted by presidential candidate Eugene Debs launched a new propaganda campaign. They bought a train that would function as the Socialist Party headquarters for the upcoming election. Costing $35,000, this train toured the country adorned with red flags and streamers and hauled a baggage car stuffed with Socialist literature, a sleeping and dining car, and its own brass band. Called the "Red Special," the train made stops all over the country spreading the Socialist message.[2]

Jokingly dubbed “the IWW ‘Red Special’ Overalls Brigade,” the group of twenty in Portland had a similar plan in mind. They scheduled meetings all over the Western and Midwestern states to distribute literature and entertain with their songs. They had, however, no baggage car for their pamphlets and no sleeping quarters. Their Red Special would consist of empty boxcars. They would be hopping freight trains.[3]

The journey did not prove easy. Within their first few days, their boxcar was unexpectedly cut off the train and left behind, after which a gun-wielding brakeman aggressively confronted them and demanded they get off the train, though they reportedly scared him away and are able to continue. Then they were pulled off in Auburn, Washington by “railroad officials” and forced to spend a night in jail.[4] Despite these hiccups, the Brigade was impressively able to hold over thirty propaganda meetings, sell almost $400 worth of literature and songs, and still make Chicago in time for the convention.[5] They lacked the comfort and pomp of the real Red Special, but they managed to accomplish their goals by roughing it on the trains and always keeping their wits about them. These men were one example of how and why the IWW rode freight trains.

Solidarity, August 14, 1915, p.4

This essay examines the Wobbly train stories and their place in the life of the IWW. It explores the importance of freight trains as a transportation system and as an organizing space for the radical union movement. The IWW depended on the "free transportation" of boxcars to get activists to sites of struggle -- strikes, meetings, and especially "free speech fights." This was a union in motion that needed to move hundreds of impoverished workers from location to location in order bolster support for local campaigns. It would have been impossible if they did not steal rides.

Secondly, I argue that freight train hopping’s role in the union changed over time. While, it began with Wobblies hopping trains strictly for passage, after 1915 the IWW developed a more strategic role for freight trains as organizing spaces. Especially in the Midwest with the birth of the Agricultural Workers’ Organization, boxcars became prized locations for communication, education, and recruitment. Organizers at times used boxcars as recruiting stations, signing up itinerant workers, collecting dues, requiring riders to show a red card.

The best sources of understanding the IWW’s use of freight trains are the organization’s newspapers. This essay is based on a reading of the Industrial Union BulletinIndustrial Worker, and Solidarity as well as the yearbooks compiled for the IWW History Project whose information came from those newspapers.  It also draws upon secondary literature. Paul Brissenden in The IWW: A Story of American Syndicalism and Melvyn Dubofsky in We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW have provided excellent and detailed histories of the union that give context to these stories. Frank Tobias Higbie’s Indispensible Outcasts contributes information on the strategy of the A.W.O. on trains. Lastly, in Harvest Wobblies, Greg Hall examines the decline of the A.W.O. and its link train riding, which is crucial to understanding how reliant on riding the rails that branch became.[6]

Hard Travellin’

Freight train hopping dates back to the 19th century as rails began to streak the landscape of the United States. The railroads moved westward and jobs opened up for those willing to travel to the newly connected areas. Companies needed hands to break the soil, lay the track, and hammer the spikes. The major industries made possible by the rails, including large-scale mining and timber operations, required huge amounts of labor. These opportunities enticed men to hop trains westward. The economic crash of 1873 and the following depression sparked a sharp upturn in the number of train riders and consequently the advent of the “tramp class,” which became a widely recognized subculture.[7] As an increasing number of men found themselves out of work, they packed up what little they had left and jumped trains, navigating by the rumors of work in faraway lands. In Hard Travellin’: The Hobo and His History, Kenneth Allsop writes, “…these new unemployed began riding trains they themselves had manned, or whose track they had laid, or whose trucks they had filled. The tramp was in a hurry, and as he began to steal his lifts on freights he began to turn himself into the hobo.”[8]

This sketch and poem about "The Blanket Stiff" who "built the ROAD" was reprinted from another newspaper on page 1 of the Industrial Worker, April 23, 1910, p1

Hobos and hobo culture align with the image that the Industrial Workers of the World hoped to put forth in the West. The IWW appealed to workers unsatisfied with existing labor organizations. As an industrial union, organized unskilled and semi-skilled workers, who were often neglected by the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor. The IWW welcomed all types of workers, including women, immigrants, and people of color and worked to maintain that inclusivity with relatively low initiation fees and dues.[9] Unlike the East, where the IWW had its most important strongholds in textile mills and other factories, in the West, the union tended to attract workers in resource extraction industries, such as lumber, mining, and agriculture. The boom-and-bust and seasonal nature of resource extraction meant many of its workers migrated for work, a factor that complicated most union membership.

The IWW found pride in the differences between itself and other labor unions. In its weekly newspapers, it highlighted itself as the true defender of the working class by publishing stories of Wobblies subjected to the footloose lifestyle only known to genuine working stiffs.  One issue of Solidarity boasted, “The nomadic worker… embodies the very spirit of the IWW [and is] an admirable exemplar of the iconoclastic doctrine of revolutionary unionism.”[10]

Free Speech Freights

Free speech protesters face fire hoses in San Diego, 1912. Photo: UW Libraries

Because the IWW wanted to identify with this “nomadic worker” and because freight-riding was part of that lifestyle, IWW newspapers casually mentioned train-riding in covering strikes and campaigns, especially the "free speech fights" that became a hall mark of Wobbly organizing in western states. In doing so, the newspapers make it clear that train-riding was an essential part of those campaigns.

            The IWW often encountered persecution while trying to spread their message. Under the guise of limiting seditious and unpatriotic behavior, law enforcement frequently arrested soapboxing Wobblies. On several occasions, this led to a full-fledged free speech campaign.[11] The actions of the rank-and-file in response to these free speech fights exemplify the IWW’s use of freight trains as transportation to and from union activity without known attempts to organize other riders.

            An early free speech fight began with the arrest of James P. Thompson in Spokane, WA in the fall of 1909. Thompson was arrested after violating an ordinance against speaking on the street that may have been imposed specifically to curb the influence of the IWW A call was sent out in the IWW’s weekly organ, the Industrial Worker, to locals across the nation to send able members to “Fill the Jails of Spokane.”[12]

            Like fleas on a dog, hundreds of Wobblies from around the country took hold of the grab irons and rode to the budding free speech fight.[13] In just three weeks after the arrest of James Thompson, four hundred people were put in jail for violating the ordinance, including the organization’s most famous female orator, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The IWW accomplished its goal; the jails of Spokane overflowed with Wobblies, many of whom came via freight train, and the municipal government revoked the restrictive ordinance.[14]

            The Wobblies who hopped trains to the Spokane free speech fight appeared to do so without exact prompting. That is, no official IWW publication mentioned the riding of trains as a way for willing workers to join the fight; the Industrial Worker asked that they come without specifying how or mentioning freights. This changed over the course of the next couple fights.

            The IWW began their next major free speech fight just months later. Fresno, California began to strip Wobblies of their street-speaking licenses and threaten jail time for anyone caught speaking without one. A call for supporters went out using the union’s best form of mass communication, the Industrial Worker. It stated that IWW General Secretary Vincent St. John authorized “a general call for volunteers to go to Fresno and prove to the bumptious officials there… that the workers are going to have free speech in spite of all the blue coated thugs in office.”[15]

            In February of 1911, a group of Wobblies in Seattle devised a plan to ride freight trains to Fresno. By that time, over one hundred of their comrades had been jailed. Just south of Tacoma, the train crew found them and ordered them off, but called off their demand due to “IWW tactics” on the part of the riders. In Portland, they gained about 100 travelers, also members headed for Fresno with the same intention. A few days later in Ashland, Oregon, Southern Pacific officials informed them no freight trains would depart as long as the Fresno-bound gang was aboard. The men resolutely decided that if the trains would not run, they would travel the remaining 500 miles by foot. They marched through the Shasta and Siskiyou mountains through rain, sleet, and snow. One Wobbly recounted, “The trip... will never be forgotten by those who made the hike. We slept by camp fires in the snow, boxcars, barns, and suffered miseries long to be remembered.”

            They were again able to catch a southbound Southern Pacific train, though this time legally. A traveling theatre company heard about the journey of these men and bought all 105 of them tickets to Dunsmuir, which brought them 15 miles closer to their destination. The men marched together another 125 miles to Chico, where they decided to disband three weeks after the start of their journey.  At this point, we lose track of this group, but one article from the Industrial Worker suggests that at least ten members continued south on freights toward Fresno.[16]

            The Industrial Worker followed the journey of the Seattle and Portland men in a series of articles and made explicit references to riding trains. This was the newspaper’s first acknowledgement of the possibility of rank-and-file members hoboing as a way to support a free speech fight.

            The following year saw another free speech fight, this time in San Diego.  In early 1912, its city council banned street meetings in the downtown area that served as the stage for soapboxers of all sorts, including Wobblies. One week after the ban went in place, the police had hauled one hundred fifty street speakers to jail.

            The Southern California beach city was an unlikely candidate for an IWW struggle. Aside of tourism, it hosted no major industries and attracted few, if any, itinerant workers. Its IWW locals had no more than a few hundred members.[17] But San Diego authorities may have been especially intolerant because of recent events in nearby Baja California. Led by Ricardo and Enrique Magon, the PLM, an anarchist organization supported by the IWW, had briefly seized power in Baja California before being routed by troops loyal to the Mexican government. The fear that a similar insurrection might occur in southern California fed the determination of city officials to suppress IWW activities.[18]

As was the standard, the Industrial Worker printed a plea for bodies to come cram into the jails and flood the justice system. And for the first time in the union’s history the Industrial Worker made a specific reference to hopping trains as a means of transportation to the city in need of support. The press committee of Local 13, IWW from San Diego penned the verse,  “Come on the cushions / Ride up on top; / Stick to the brakebeams; / Let nothing stop / Come in great numbers; / This we beseech: / Help San Diego / To win FREE SPEECH!”[19]

            About one hundred forty Wobblies in Los Angeles dutifully responded to the call. When they arrived in San Diego on a single freight train in the middle of the night, they found themselves surrounded by four hundred armed, drunk, and violent vigilantes. The vigilantes forced the men off the train at gunpoint and goaded them into a cattle corral where they suffered serious beatings that rendered many unconscious. In the morning, the bloodied Wobblies were marched to the county line, forced to endure further beatings, and made to kiss the American flag.

            The free speech fight dragged on for months and ended in defeat. Downtown San Diego street corners remained eerily silent, devoid of the Wobblies, anarchists, and preachers whose messages once reverberated through the square.  Defeated, the IWW and its supporters were unable to pressure the city and its justice system enough to revoke the street meeting ban.[20]

The deciding factor in the defeat of the Wobblies in the San Diego free speech fight may have been the vigilantes’ securing of the train route to ensure that no wave of dissidents entered their city. The little industry and thus a small native IWW population combined with the fact that there was no inward flow of itinerant protestors meant the police force could relatively easily round up all those willing to risk their freedom for the cause without overwhelming the courts. Without the usual flood of Wobblies ready to fill the jail, the IWW’s strategy of passive resistance failed.

The IWW’s victories in various free speech fights created an important legacy for working class groups in the United States. Wobblies became an early 20th century example of how a determined and organized group can triumph, however fleetingly, over government bodies that work to silence them. They demonstrated the possible efficacy of non-violent direct action. American Civil Liberties Union co-founder and director Roger Baldwin claimed, “The little minority of the working class represented in the IWW blazed the trail in… fighting for free speech which the entire American working class must in some fashion follow.”[21] Given that the IWW’s free speech victories seem to have been contingent on whether or not supporting members came en masse, it becomes clear that the IWW may not have been so remembered and celebrated if the Wobblies stayed off the trains.

 The A.W.O. and the 800-Mile Picket Line

Wheat harvests employed hundreds of thousands of workers in the summer and fall season. Here men fill and sew sacks of wheat.

In its first decade, the IWW seemed to struggle with organizing itinerant workers who called no one place home for more than a couple months. Its system of locals pegged workers to a specific town or city, which was of no help for those endlessly travelling. It attempted to work around this flaw by establishing “membership-at-large” in its first constitution, which allowed for workers to be in the union without belonging to a specific local. This, however, did not solve the problem of itinerants being distanced from the union due to lack of participation in the normal local activities: speaking and voting in meetings, paying dues, proposing referenda for the annual conventions, and interacting with fellow members.  Abolished in fourth convention then reestablished in the fifth, membership-at-large could not provide hobos with sufficient incentives to become and remain a Wobbly.[22]

In a 1914 article in the International Socialist Review, prominent IWW member Charles Ashleigh writes, “Certain is it that around nearly every ‘jungle’ fire… the IWW red songbook is in evidence, and the rue rebel chants are lustily sung and discontent expressed more and more definitely and impatiently.” A few paragraphs previous, however, he (pre)qualifies his statement with, “[O]h, Solidarity, thy name is null among the railroaders…!”[23] If his observations were reported honestly, many itinerant workers subscribed to at least some parts of IWW ideology and/or culture and therefore would likely be receptive to organization if presented a way to participate that would jibe with their lifestyle.

Harvest workers had been a target of IWW organizing all along, but in 1915 the organization developed a new plan to organize the hundreds of thousands of men who spent the summer and fall in the wheat fields that stretched from Texas to North Dakota. A Solidarity article described the message to the country’s locals, “For the purpose of effecting an organization among the migratory workers,the ninth annual convention issued a call to all locals in the Harvest Belt of America to have delegates to a conference to be held in Kansas City, April 14.”[24]

The convention created and set the ground rules for the newest branch of the IWW, the Agricultural Workers’ Organization (A.W.O.) Local 400. It established the concept of field delegates that would travel by freight and organize the boxcars, jungles, and on the job, thus setting into motion the IWW’s first official attempt to organize train riders. Additionally, the delegates voted to set the initiation fee at $2.00, twice the amount of the rest of the union and roughly equivalent to a day’s wage for a harvest worker at the time. The report of the convention gave no reasoning behind this steeper fee, but the answer may lie in its target demographic. A hobo may run into a delegate on a train and agree to join, but the near constant travelling in search of the next job fiercely complicated the paying of dues. The A.W.O. 400 likely wished to ensure its financial security by charging a higher fee upfront to make up for the possibly low percentage of recurring dues payments.

To promote its new branch, the IWW spent over $3,000 in 1915 sending its newspaper, Solidarity, to the harvest belt so workers could get copies free of charge.[25] In part, the A.W.O. advertised itself in print similarly to the rest of the IWW by communicating the future possibility of improved working conditions. In the harvest fields, this meant, “A ten-hour day… good, clean board, clean beds and plenty of clean bedding, no discrimination against union men, [and] a minimum wage sufficient to be able to make a winter’s stake.” It claimed that if enough workers joined the A.W.O. and put pressure on the bosses, “John Farmer” would have to succumb to their demands.[26] This methodology was nothing new; it mirrored the strategy of the IWW in countless previous strikes and campaigns.

The lifestyle A.W.O.’s target demographic differed from that of the majority IWW, however, so solely using old tactics would not suffice. Low wages and the necessity of travel forced harvest workers to ride on freight trains frequently, exposing them to unique dangers every time they left one short-term job for another. The IWW used the freely issued copies of Solidarity as propaganda to spread the stories of these dangers and how the A.W.O. would surely mitigate them.[27]

An obvious danger is the risk of physical harm from these massive and unforgiving machines. The Association of Railway Claim Agents reports that in 1914 nearly 11,000 trespassers on railroad property were killed or suffered serious injury such as losing one or more limbs.[28] These injuries are most likely to occur when train-hopping hopefuls attempt to board when the train is moving too quickly. Solidarity printed a story during the first great hobo recruitment push shortly after the advent of the A.W.O. that suggested joining might be the key to safe, successful journeys. It read:

[A] dozen would-be harvesters attempted to board the fast moving train. Two of their number succeeded. When it became apparent to these that their fellow travelers could not catch the train, one of the resourceful travelers pulled the connecting pin… and the train was brought to a stop. The remaining members of the itinerants hastened to an empty car and jumped in.

 This account embodies the intended image of the A.W.O. It shows itinerant workers triumphantly banding together to ensure everyone’s freedom and security in spite of the dangerously quickening pace of the train. These types of tales of the organization and its strength in numbers likely made it quite attractive those harvesters reading their free copy before catching out to their next job.

Solidarity, October 9, 1915, p2.

Hobos often encountered greedy brakemen who demanded payment for the ride, sometimes stripping the riders of all their money before he was satisfied. A famous example of this extortion is the case of James Schmidt, an IWW member charged with murder in the fall of 1914. According to the Schmidt Defense Committee, he and others were boarding a freight train headed for the harvest when a brakeman “came up and asked the men for 25 cents apiece and when they said they were broke he ordered the men off the train.” The men obliged, but the brakeman fired upon Schmidt, who, after a warning, returned fire and killed his alleged assailant.[29]

The A.W.O. conveyed that it offered protection against these robbing “shacks”. In a letter to Solidarity, an A.W.O. member recounted a train hopping incident where workers stood up to brakemen.  He wrote, “Most of the crews were glad to have us aboard when they found we were IWW’s.” However, they encountered one marauding brakeman who demanded a dollar for the ride. The A.W.O. members refused to pay, informing the brakeman that “the train was not his property and that [they] would ride anyway.” The brakeman left, unsatisfied with their refusal to pay, and returned with another crewman, both with guns aimed at the Wobblies. One rider “shook his fist in one of the brakeman’s face… and offered to meet him at any time and place, but the offer was not accepted.” Apparently under the impression the Wobblies were armed, the brakemen scurried back to the caboose. Upon arrival in the next town, a sheriff and several armed officers ordered the men to unload. The Wobblies complied and were searched for firearms. The author of the letter claims, “All the officers laughed when they found no guns on us and eagerly listened to our recital of the scene in the car, much to the discomfort of the train crew, who were by this time being made a laughing stock of by the engine crew,” and the travellers were allowed to continue on their journey. The “brakies” again visited the vagabonds, though this time with their tail between their legs pleading that they tell no one of the embarrassing encounter in which unarmed Wobblies chased them away. The letter writer concludes with a statement that could make the IWW enticing to any itinerant harvester, “After giving them a talk on the One Big Union and making them promise to not molest any red card men[30], we granted their request.”[31]

The A.W.O. not only aimed to take the control of the train away from the brakemen who frequently mugged riders, but also from all unorganized (i.e. non-IWW) workers. It used the ubiquity of freight train travel to its advantage. Since virtually all harvest workers had to ride trains between sites, the organizers realized that if they controlled the rails, they controlled the jobs; and if they controlled the jobs, they would win their demands. To do this, organizers tried to bar anyone from riding who did not carry a current and valid red card. It is unclear when this practice began and to what extent it was used. Unlike stories of outsmarting brakemen or making heroic journeys to free speech fights, admitting to forcing non-IWW itinerants to pay $2.00 to take out a red card if they wish to hop a train runs might have seemed risky to the editors of the IWW newspapers. Thus, there are no front-page articles or lengthy correspondences that focus on this method of organization.

A.W.O. Secretary W.T. Nef briefly hints at this idea of locking down trains and agriculture jobs in a short blurb in Solidarity during the A.W.O.’s first harvest season. It reads in its entirety:

Here it is at last. Some of the members are coming in for their cards and others asking for duplicates, every day a few. What’s the reason? Here it is: The members want to see the card, or will not recognize them as IWW’s. The old gag, “I lost my card,” or “I have my card somewhere or others,” is about ausgespleit. All this means that there will be closed shop sooner or later, and this must be done.

 As he is the A.W.O.’s national representative, the “closed shop” he mentions likely refers to his organization’s territory, the “shop” being no physical factory but rather the harvest fields. [32]

What may be the earliest and only confession of this tactic by a field delegate in an official IWW publication reveals itself as a minute detail in a letter from an organizer about his plight in the North Dakota justice system. IWW organizer Harry Howard wrote to Solidarity about a freight train trip that landed him in jail for a month until he was pardoned by the state. He describes, “We left Fargo on the night of August 10th [1916] with twenty-five or thirty other fellow workers. We took charge of the train and ditched all unorganized men at stops north of Fargo.” The letter then details his experience being arrested on charges of highway robbery in the town of Grand Forks after leaving the train, claiming to have been framed by hi-jacks. The fact that this letter was printed and that it was titled “A Sample of ‘Justice’ for IWW Members” suggests the organization condoned or even supported the practice of restricting trains to only red card holders. Howard concludes his letter with, “The jail is just as good as the headquarters or the jungles for spreading the gospel of discontent.”[33] Notably, Howard lists jungles alongside headquarters as primary organizing spaces.

Statements by three young men who claimed that train crews required them to have IWW cards to ride boxcars in Washington state, obtained by U.S. Marshal, Western District, WA, in 1922.

In 1922, the U.S. Marshal of the Western District of Washington wrote to the Attorney General of the U.S. regarding “the use of IWW membership cards as transportation on railroads” and included numerous affidavits of hobos and their experience with the IWW They are nineteen statements made by freight train riders asserting they were forced to take out red cards. One reads, “The IWW tried to make me take out a card in North Dakota but I refused. When in the State of Washington… I was forced to take out a card or be thrown off in a desolate country.”[34] It is necessary to call into question the accuracy of these documents. These statements were made in the wake of massive IWW persecution. By this time, most of the important Wobbly leaders had been convicted of violating the Espionage Act[35] and hundreds of members had been arrested in a matter of months in the Northwest for violating criminal syndicalism statutes.[36] However, these are some of the few remaining documents that discuss red cards as freight train tickets and therefore merit note.

The A.W.O. achieved massive success in their recruitment campaigns. Within its first sixth months, thousands of members reportedly lined up to join.[37] Membership numbers in the IWW or its branches are notoriously difficult to pin down because both common suppliers of estimates, the organization itself and the law enforcement bodies, have incentives to exaggerate. However, it is known that the A.W.O. 400 contributed over half of the IWW’s finances from 1915 to 1925.[38] Another glimpse into the impressive results of A.W.O. recruitment comes tragically. During the A.W.O.’s second harvest season, a freight train bound for Sioux City derailed and resulted in the death or injury of many riding illegally on top of the cars. It was reported that this train was hauling about 200 Wobblies at the time of the crash.[39] Solidarity reprinted an article from a local South Dakota newspaper about a different train that reportedly carried 800 Wobblies into Aberdeen.[40] For just two trains to be carrying an estimated 1000 A.W.O. members, the branch must have been very well populated. Its thousands of members organized by hundreds of delegates who frequented the jungles, freight trains, and the fields formed what one Wobbly, Forrest Edwards, described as the “800 mile picket line.”[41]

This “picket line”, made possible by the strong-arming tactic of keeping non-IWW off trains and consequently out of the harvesting areas, was able to win demands. As early as July 1915, three months after its founding convention, W. T. Nef reported in a special harvest workers edition of Solidarity that “most of the members of the A.W.O. are working and many are getting $3.50 a day until the harvest is done,” which is significantly higher than the $2.00 to $2.50 standard of the day. [42] Another man reported on the status of the A.W.O.’s actions a few months later and claimed, “Industrial freedom is not a dream here, but a possibility… as the working class are awakening as never before.”[43]

The success of the A.W.O. (re-named the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union 400 or A.W.I.U. 400 in 1917 when it split with lumber workers[44]) was short-lived. Although it retained strength into the early 1920s, later than many other branches, membership declined rapidly after 1925.[45]

In Harvest Wobblies, Greg Hall traces the decline of the A.W.I.U. to the decreasing number of harvest workers travelling by freight train. In 1925, 65% of itinerant workers in the wheat belt used automobiles to get to their job sites. By 1928, that percentage reached 90. A.W.I.U. records imply the autotramp, a worker who travels by car, caused headaches for the organizers. The A.W.I.U. paid special attention to the issue of the automobile-using itinerant worker, also known as the autotramp, in its 1923 convention. Hall indicates that conventioneers “resolved to entice harvest Wobblies ‘who own automobiles to take out credentials and literature to educate and line up the workers who travel from place to place in automobiles.’” Despite this resolution, the recruitment of the autotramp was a massive failure, evidenced by the fact that 1929 saw only 639 new members of the A.W.I.U.[46] From its birth, the agricultural branch of the IWW had relied heavily on freight trains riders and their culture. When riding freight trains was phased out of the lifestyle of the average harvest worker, the union’s primary strategy became ineffective. Organizing on the trains had been one of the keys to the A.W.O.


Freight train hopping sustained the IWW throughout its first two decades. The torrent IWW members willing to be jailed necessary for winning a free speech fight was only possible if they rode the rails due to their economic status. As the union realized the political potential of hoboing, it sent organizers to the boxcars and jungles to create one of the IWW’s most fruitful branches, the A.W.O. 400, which at times made up more than half organization. Its heavy reliance on trains as organizing spaces eventually worked against it. The number of harvesters illegally riding trains evaporated as the automobile became more widely available. Unable to adapt, the A.W.I.U. lost its means of recruitment and retention of members. With fewer members, A.W.I.U. lost any possibility of job control, which hindered its ability to win its demands, which made it less attractive to prospective members, and hence snowballed into obsolescence.

 Although it ultimately failed due to the unforeseen change in harvester lifestyle, the IWW’s use of freight trains teaches an important lesson applicable to other radical movements. The world was unsafe for Wobblies in the early 20th century. Police jailed soapboxers, destroyed halls, and killed members; vigilantes were eager to attack; municipalities banned the IWW; judges sent countless people to jail for their “seditious” beliefs. The IWW responded by taking control of some of the safest places they had left: Freight trains and trackside camps. Police lurked on street corners and outside halls, but the cars of moving trains remained relatively secure. By transforming a zone that was easily accessible to and already frequented by its members and prospective members while simultaneously being difficult to police into an arena of industrial unionism, Wobblies were able to act freely with relatively few interruptions by their opponents. All radical movements must establish a similar type of zone, one reachable by members while difficult monitor and govern, in order to succeed or else be easily and quickly destroyed by opposition.

 Copyright (c) Arianne Hermida, 2016

[1] J.H. Walsh, “IWW ‘Red Special’ Overalls Brigade,” Industrial Union Bulletin,September 19, 1908, 1.

[2] David Arthur Walters, “The 1908 Red Special Campaign,”, July 26, 2005.

[3] J.H. Walsh, “IWW ‘Red Special’ Overalls Brigade.”

[4] J.H. Walsh, “IWW ‘Red Special’ Overall Brigade,” Industrial Union Bulletin,September 19, 1908, 1.

[5] J.H. Walsh, “Abroad in the Nation,” Industrial Union Bulletin, October 24, 1908, 1-3.

[6] “IWW Newspapers,” Mapping American Social Movements Through the 20th Century. Retrieved December 9, 2015 from

[7] Sarah White, “The Machine Age: The Roll of the Rails

[8] Kenneth Allsop, Hard Travellin’ (NY: The New American Library, 1967), 111.

[9] Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW (New York: Quadrangle, 1969), 86-87.

[10] No title. Solidarity, November 21, 1914, 2-3.

[11] Paul F. Brissenden, The IWW: A Study of American Syndicalism (New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1920), 262.

[12] Oliver Janders, “IWW Yearbook: 1909,” The IWW History Project, (accessed October 14, 2015).

[13] Greg Hall, Harvest Wobblies (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001), 61.

[14] Janders, “IWW Yearbook: 1909.”

[15] “Another Free Speech Fight Go to Fresno,” Industrial Worker, September 3, 1910, 1.

[16] “On the Road to Fresno,” Industrial Worker, April 6, 1911, 4.

[17] Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, 190.

[18] Lawrence D. Taylor, “The Magonista Revolt in Baja California,” Journal of San Diego History 45, no. 1 (1999).

[19] “The Shame of San Diego,” Industrial Worker, February 29, 1912, 4.

[20] Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, 191-197.

[21] Roger N. Baldwin, “Free Speech Fights of the IWW,” Twenty-Five Years of Industrial Unionism (The Industrial Workers of the World: 1930), n.p.

[22] “Fifth IWW Convention.” Solidarity, June 11, 1910, 3.

[23] Charles Ashleigh, “The Floater,” International Socialist Review 15, (1914): 37.

[24] E. F. Doree, “Report of the Proceedings of the Harvest Convention,” Solidarity, April 24, 1915, 1.

[25] Richard Reese, “The A.W.O. – An Example of a Successful Union,” Solidarity, March 18, 1916.

[26] “Kansas Harvest Opens June 25,” Solidarity, June 19, 1915, 1.

[27] Frank Tobias Higbie, Indispensable Outcasts (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 153.

[28] Information Annual 1915: A Continuous Cyclopedia and Digest of Current Events, (New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1916), 500.

[29] “Harvest Hands Must Protect Themselves,” Solidarity, October 09, 1915, 1.

[30] Slang for IWW member referencing the red colored membership cards.

[31] “Did ‘Brakies’ Hold Them Up? No, They Were IWW’s,” Solidarity, December 25, 1914, 4.

[32] W. T. Nef, “Getting Next,” Solidarity, August 21, 1915, 4.

[33] Harry Howard, “A Sample of ‘Justice’ for IWW Members,” Solidarity, January 13, 1917, 3.

[34] Office of United States Marshal, Western District of Washington. Letter to Attorney General by E.B. Benn, (Seattle, WA, 1922).

[35] “Difference in Court Actions,” Solidarity, December 28, 1918, 1.

[36] “Statement of Workers Held in the Jail Throughout the North-Western District,” Industrial Worker, March 2, 1920, 1.

[37] Solidarity, 1915. Passim.

[38] Greg Hall, Harvest Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World and Agricultural Laborers in the American West, 1905-1930 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001, 4.

[39] “Hundreds Hurled in Air in South Dakota Wreck,” Solidarity, August 5, 1916, 1, quoting unnamed local newspaper.

[40] “Harvesters Invade South Dakota,” Solidarity, August 4, 1915, 1.

[41] “The Class War in the Harvest Country,” Forrest Edwards, August 19, 1916, 1.

[42] W.T. Nef, “Lessons Gleaned from the Kansas Harvest,” Solidarity, July 31, 1915, 11.

[43] “Humor in the Harvest Campaign,” J.A. McDonald, Solidarity, August 28, 1915, 4.

[44] Harvest Wobblies, 109.

[45] Ibid, 220.

[46] Harvest Wobblies, 220-226.