William Haywood (February 4, 1869–March 18, 1928) was a colorful and dynamic organizer and activist in the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). To his friends and supporters, Haywood was the very embodiment of a class-conscious militant labor leader. To many in the middle class and within more moderate wings of the labor movement, Haywood was unrealistic and recklessly incited workers to violence and to lost cause battles with organized capital.
Haywood was born in Salt Lake City. His father, a Pony Express rider, died when Haywood was three, and his mother remarried a miner. At the age of nine, Haywood lost his right eye in a home accident, a misfortune that brought him the nicknames “Squint Eye” and “Dick Dead-Eye.” His formal education ended at age 15, when he left home and took a series of cowboy and mining jobs in Nevada and Idaho. Despite leaving school, Haywood fit the classic Marxist profile of an organic intellectual—quick-minded, well read, articulate, and analytical. Although he was less than six feet tall, his fellow miners bestowed upon the burly-framed Haywood a nickname he much preferred: “Big Bill.” In 1889, he married Jane Minor, a rancher's daughter, with whom he fathered two daughters. Haywood was largely an absentee parent due to his activism and a penchant for heavy drinking and womanizing. His wife, dubbed “Nevada Jane,” fit the profile of a pioneer woman. She remained devoted to her wayward husband, even though he largely ignored her and separated from her in the 1890s.
In 1894, Haywood moved his family to Silver City, Idaho, where he joined the WFM, an early industrial union. He rose quickly within the WFM hierarchy, joining the executive board in 1900, becoming secretary-treasurer the next year, and developing a reputation as a spellbinding speaker and rabble-rouser. Haywood helped convert the WFM into an organization that espoused revolutionary unionism. He took part in numerous WFM strikes, including one in Idaho in 1899 that was broken when Governor Frank Steunenberg declared martial law. In 1901, Haywood moved to Denver and took part in several bitter Colorado coalfield strikes. Haywood was also present at the 1905 founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. Like many who passed through the IWW, Haywood held utter contempt for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which he saw as complicit in promoting capitalism. In return, AFL President Samuel Gompers saw Haywood as unprincipled and dangerous, and viewed the IWW as injurious to the cause of labor. The AFL occasionally enjoyed success by presenting itself as a safe, patriotic, and respectable alternative to the IWW.
In 1906, Haywood, WFM President Charles Moyer, and two others were jailed on a charge of murdering ex-Idaho Governor Steunenberg in 1905. Haywood and his compatriots were acquitted when their defense team, led by the famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, demolished the testimony of Pinkerton agent James McParland, who had once claimed he infiltrated the Molly Maguires. The court victory valorized Haywood among labor radicals. He was briefly a victim of internal fighting within the IWW, causing him to leave that group, and from 1908 through 1912 was an organizer for the Socialist Party. Haywood rejoined the IWW just in time for its victory in the 1912 Lawrence textile strike and became general secretary of the IWW (its highest office). He led the IWW to the height of its influence and presided over the group's drive to organize agricultural workers in the Midwest. Haywood's fiery rhetoric led to his expulsion from the Socialist Party in 1913, when that group renounced violence and put its faith in electoral politics. Like many IWW members, Haywood had little faith in the ballot box as a means of social change, and thought the American electoral system was a sham in which elites exploited the working class by creating an illusion of democracy. Haywood advocated the abolition of the wage system and a future society based on anarcho-syndicalist ideals.
Haywood's militancy led to his arrest in 1917. He and other IWW members vehemently opposed militarism and U.S. involvement in World War I. Haywood interpreted the war as a conflict among elites in which working people were being used as pawns, so he encouraged workers to avoid it. In a U.S. court, his comments were found to be in violation of the 1917 Espionage Act. On August 17, 1918, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Haywood appealed his conviction, but the outbreak of the Red Scare convinced Haywood that that the courts would not vindicate him or uphold the sanctity of free speech. Haywood skipped bail, and fled to the Soviet Union in 1921. His flight was much criticized, as several supporters forfeited cash and property that had underwritten his bail. Haywood also left behind his legal wife and bigamously married a Russian woman who spoke little English. He managed a mine in the Soviet Union, set up an international fund for imprisoned radicals, and wrote his autobiography. When he died in 1928, he was buried in the Kremlin wall.Suggested Reading
WILLIAM D. “BIG BILL” Haywood was an atheist and a socialist. He was a physical presence with a thunderous voice, but more importantly, he was a...
US labour leader. After working as a miner, homesteader and cowboy, he joined the Western Federation of Miners in 1896, and quickly achieved...
Credit: Associated Press One of the most famous radical labor leaders of the early 20th century, William Haywood’s imposing physical size and lo