Big Bill Haywood Biography
Big Bill Haywood: Labor Agitator
One of the foremost labor radicals of the American West, "Big Bill" Haywood became a leading figure in labor activities across the United States.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1869, Haywood had a difficult life. He was only three years old when his father died, and at age nine he both lost an eye and for the first time worked in a mine. The economic desperation which led him to work as a child prevented him from ever receiving much formal education.
In 1884, Haywood became an underground miner at the Eagle Canyon mine in Nevada. After a brief stint as a cowboy and a failed homesteading effort, he returned to mining in 1896, this time in Silver City, Idaho. Here he began his labor career as a founding member of a local chapter of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the industry-wide union that had been founded in 1893 in Butte, Montana. Haywood rose quickly in the union ranks, becoming secretary and president of his local, joining the national union's General Executive Board in 1900, and editing the union's magazine and serving as secretary-treasurer in 1901. Haywood became co-president of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) union in 1902.
Just as Haywood became one of the leaders of Western unions, labor relations in Colorado exploded into violence. Motivated largely by harsh working conditions, similar to the mines of Butte, Montana, the WFM launched a series of mining strikes in Colorado beginning in 1901. The next several years saw near warfare in Colorado's mining fields. The defeat of the strikes led Haywood to stress the need for "one big union" which could bring broader support to individual labor struggles; accordingly, in 1905 he played a key role in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), commonly referred to as "the Wobblies."
The next year Haywood was charged with plotting the murder of a former Idaho governor. The jury acquitted Haywood, but businessmen and fellow labor leaders would continue to fear and even hate Haywood for his alleged endorsement of violence and sabotage. In 1915, he became the formal head of the IWW and helped to direct strikes from New Jersey to Washington State.
From 1905 to 1920, the IWW organized hundreds of thousands of workers in mines, lumberyards, farms and factories; it never had more than about 150,000 members at any one time, but over 3 million people joined at one time or another. The IWW was strongest in the West, where it organized women and men, African-Americans and whites, recent immigrants and native-born Americans into large industry-wide unions. Wobblies were explicit about their eventual goal of toppling capitalism, and many of their leaders, including Haywood, expressed open admiration for the young Soviet Union. Wobblies quickly became a part of the folklore of the West, celebrated for their staunch egalitarianism and no-holds-barred style.
The domestic repression which World War I brought ultimately crushed both Haywood and the IWW. In 1917, the federal government arrested Haywood and one hundred others and charged them with violating espionage and sedition acts for calling strikes during wartime. All were convicted. When the Supreme Court rejected his final appeal in 1921, Haywood jumped bail and fled to the Soviet Union, where he died in 1928.