Maybe you’ve passed this building at 2117 W. Irving Park Ave., but did you know that it’s the headquarters of the international labor union, Industrial Workers of the World? The organization was originally headquartered in Chicago but, starting in the ’90s, began to move around – to Ypsilanti, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati—until returning to the Windy City in January 2010.
Joe Tessone, current General Secretary-Treasurer of IWW, explained the reason for the frequent relocation: “For awhile the organization hasn’t had quite enough people running for office, so [the headquarters] have moved around to make it easier for people to take the job of Secretary-Treasurer. Rather than you having to move to Chicago, the headquarters moved to you.”
Why did the IWW choose Northcenter? “Our Chicago branch office is on the South Side, at 37 S. Ashland Ave., so we wanted some place that was in a different part of the city,” Tessone said. “The space here suits our needs.”
IWW, or The Wobblies as they’re affectionately known, hold a special place in Chicago’s political and labor history. Founded at a convention in June of 1905, the IWW was started by a group of radical syndicalists and labor unionists in response to the American Federation of Labor’s policy (at the time) of organizing workers by craft, rather than by industry. Back then working people in America were leaving rural areas to work in large industrial factories in urban areas. The AFL at first refused to let these workers join their unions, preferring instead to organize a union by the job people did (such as plumber, carpenter, or pipefitter), rather than by industry (such as auto worker, mine worker or steel worker).
In fact, at the time, only about five percent of the American workforce was a union member. The IWW saw this as a failure of the labor movement to organize the working class for change. The IWW differed from other union movements in America in that its goal was to promote worker solidarity in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the employing class, emphasizing rank-and-file organization on the shop floor and class solidarity. The IWW largely refused to sign labor agreements, preferring instead to organize strikes when workers wanted something changed or an issue addressed at work.
Besides standing up for workers around the world, the IWW has a long tradition of labor culture, including penning folk songs and publishing books, pamphlets, and magazines for working people. That history of song and publishing also gives the IWW a unique place in American history as part of folk music and free speech movements in the twentieth century. Among the notable musicians that have performed Wobbly songs include Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie.
The organization peaked in membership in 1923; by the end of World War Two the IWW was a shadow of its former self, and the mantle of unionism in the U.S. had been taken by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which started unions organized by industry, held democratic elections to pick leaders and signed labor agreements.
Today membership of the IWW is diverse and its locals are run entirely by members. In 2004 an IWW local was organized at a New York City Starbucks; two years later some Starbucks locations in Chicago had unionized. In 2009 Chicago bike messengers started their own union with the IWW.
As to whether the Wobblies plan to stay headquartered in Chicago, Tessone said, “There’s a resolution for a referendum this year to have Chicago be a permanent place for the headquarters again. It puts a lot of financial strain on the organization to move around every couple years, but it’s ultimately up to the members.”