Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Haywood, William D(udley) from Chambers Biographical Dictionary

known as

Big Bill

1869-1928

US labour leader

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he worked as a miner, homesteader, and cowboy, then joined the Western Federation of Miners (1896) and quickly became prominent. In 1905 he helped to found the Industrial Workers of the World, which was committed to revolutionary labour politics and to the organization of all workers in one big union. An active socialist, he was convicted of sedition in 1917 for his opposition to World War I, then fled from the USA (1921) and took refuge in the Soviet Union.


Summary Article: William "Big Bill" Haywood (1869–1928)
from The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame

Credit: Associated Press

One of the most famous radical labor leaders of the early 20th century, William Haywood’s imposing physical size and loud oratory earned him the nickname "Big Bill."However, because of his advocacy of militant direct action in labor and Socialist Party organizing, he was also called "the most dangerous man in America."

Haywood’s stepfather was a miner, and the family often lived in mining camps around Salt Lake City, Utah, when not living in the city itself. Haywood entered the mines at the age of fifteen. Although Haywood tried other occupations in the ensuing years, he returned to mining, eventually settling for several years in Silver City, Idaho. There Haywood joined the labor movement. In 1886 he was a charter member of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) local in Silver City. By 1900 he was president of the local and joined the national executive board. Shortly afterward, Haywood moved to Denver, Colorado, and began working for the WFM fulltime, editing its journal, Miners’ Magazine, and serving as secretary-treasurer.

The WFM was one of the more militant unions in the nation, operating in mining towns that occasionally experienced dramatic uprisings by miners and violent reprisals from mine owners (who sometimes relied on government troops to impose order). The Rockefeller and Guggenheim financial empires—owners of some of the largest mining companies at the time—rightly saw the WFM as a threat to their economic interests. After moving to Colorado, Haywood helped orchestrate a statewide struggle by miners, lasting approximately three years, which brought him into conflict with the courts and the governor.

In 1905 Haywood formed the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) with Eugene Debs and Daniel De Leon, among others. The IWW’s philosophy was to organize those who had been left out of the craft labor organizing movement. They advocated the creation of "one big union" for all workers, regardless of skill, race, or industry. Haywood’s leadership role at the IWW brought him to national attention and infamy, but it was his connection to the WFM that nearly sent him to the gallows.

In 1906, not wishing to engage in time-consuming legal procedures to extradite radicals, private police (headed by James McParland, a Pinkerton agent) and law enforcement officials forcibly moved Haywood and two other labor leaders from Colorado to Idaho. There the three were charged with organizing a bombing that had killed Idaho’s former governor Frank Steunenberg. (The bombing was allegedly in retaliation for Steunenberg’s use of federal troops to indiscriminately round up hundreds of men and hold them in crowded makeshift jails, sometimes for months on end, during the violent labor conflicts in Coeur d’Alene in the late 1890s.)

The trial was a national sensation. President Theodore Roosevelt called the defendants "undesirable citizens," but supporters were able to raise $250,000 for their defense. Haywood was defended by Clarence Darrow, who both criticized the prosecution’s reliance on a Canadian drifter and criminal as their main witness and portrayed the trial as nothing more than an attack on labor. Haywood was acquitted in 1907. (Another defendant, labor activist George Pettibone, was acquitted in a separate trial, and the charges against the third defendant, WFM president Charles Moyer, were eventually dropped.)

Haywood’s vocal support for sabotage and other militant tactics resulted in tension between him and Socialist Party leaders, and he was removed from the party’s national executive committee. He continued to support the IWW’s organizing of migrant farmworkers, loggers, copper miners, and textile workers and led several major strikes.

In 1912, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 25,000 workers, mostly immigrant women, went on strike after the mill owners cut their already meager pay. The strikers demanded a 15 percent pay increase and a fifty-four-hour workweek. Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Joseph Ettor, and other experienced IWW organizers went to Lawrence to help organize the workers. The strikers were met with brutal violence from local police and militia, who turned fire hoses on workers and sent strikers to jail. This generated public sympathy for the plight of the workers and outrage at the police brutality. The IWW and Socialists organized strike relief, including medical care, food, and funds for the families. They also arranged for the children of strikers to be sent to New York, where supporters, mostly wealthy women, found temporary homes for them. Nurses, including Margaret Sanger, accompanied the children on the trains.

The national reaction pressured the mill owners to give in to the strikers’ demands. The walkout became known as the "Bread and Roses" strike because one of the women reportedly carried a picket sign that read, "We Want Bread, but Roses Too!" This became a rallying cry among the Lawrence strikers and then an anthem for workers elsewhere, a demand not only for economic justice but also for human rights and dignity.

These successes demonstrated the Wobblies’ ability to do two things. First, the IWW could organize elaborate strikes involving workers who were recent immigrants from several nations and spoke many different languages. Second, the IWW appealed to workers in a wide range of industries. News coverage of these events made Haywood a popular speaker in intellectual circles.

World War I brought labor shortages, which gave the IWW a stronger hand in negotiations over working conditions. However, the IWW’s opposition to US entry into World War I and its strikes during the war brought them into conflict with the federal government. Once again, Haywood became the target of investigations. In September 1917 the Department of Justice arrested more than 100 IWW officers, including Haywood, on charges including espionage and sedition. Almost a year later, a federal trial in Chicago ended (in August 1918) with convictions and lengthy sentences for Haywood and dozens of codefendants.

Haywood was freed on bail while appealing his conviction. He returned to public speaking, focusing on various political prisoners in the United States. His final appeal failed in April 1921, and Haywood left the country, reappearing in the Soviet Union later that year. In the last seven years of his life, Haywood was given some organizing assignments by the Soviets, but he soon retired to the Lux Hotel in Moscow and married a Russian woman. Haywood frequently entertained visitors from America, but health problems (including diabetes and alcoholism) led to his early death at age fifty-nine. Some of his ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall, and the rest were interred at Forest Home Cemetery (formerly Waldheim Cemetery) in Forest Park, Illinois, next to the graves of the victims of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre.

© by Nation Books Press 2012

Related Articles


Full text Article Haywood, William D. (1869–1928)
Encyclopedia of Politics

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...

Full text Article Haywood, William Dudley, known as Big Bill (1869 to 1928)
Chambers Dictionary of World History

US labour leader. After working as a miner, homesteader and cowboy, he joined the Western Federation of Miners in 1896, and quickly achieved...

Full text Article William "Big Bill" Haywood (1869–1928)
The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame

Credit: Associated Press One of the most famous radical labor leaders of the early 20th century, William Haywood’s imposing physical size and lo

See more from Credo