Native Son: Big Bill Haywood

Happy Labor Day!

[The] barbarous gold barons do not find the gold, they do not mine the gold, they do not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belongs to them.

— Big Bill Haywood, addressing commencement of miners’ strike, Colorado, 1903.

Work taught him of injustice early and converted him to socialism. His first boss whipped him when he was only twelve, and the same year he witnessed a black man handed over to a lynch mob. Three years later he was a Nevada miner doing a “man’s work for a boy’s pay,” breaking the loneliness of Eagle Canyon by reading Darwin, Marx, Burns, Voltaire, Byron, and Shakespeare. An older miner’s explanation of the class struggle capped his education, though it didn’t sink in until the Haymarket anarchists were hung two years later.

After that, he saw scores of men poisoned at Utah’s Brooklyn lead mine, watched a friend’s head crushed against an air drill by a slab of falling rock, and had his own right hand smashed between a descending car and the side of the shaft at Iowa’s Silver City mine.

Adored by women and instinctively obeyed by men, he was the most popular union organizer in the country. Blessed with the manners of a gentleman, he packed a revolver, cried like a baby when reciting poetry, and delivered thunderous speeches that ignited crowds of workers like a wick in a powder keg: “Eight hours of work, eight hours of play, eight hours of sleep, EIGHT DOLLARS A DAY!”

Haywood had no use for politicians and referred to Washington D.C. as a “political sewer.”  He testified as an expert witness before the United States Commission on Industrial Relations, which gathered broad testimony on labor issues from 1913 to 1915. Commissioner Harry Weinstock, a California businessman, attacked Haywood and the Industrial Workers of the World, the most militant and democratic union in U.S. history. Weinstock bluntly suggested that Haywood was a crook for promoting worker-controlled production:

“If I was to come in and take possession of your property and throw you out, would I be robbing you?”

“You have a mistaken idea,” Haywood responded, “that the property is yours. I would hold that the property does not belong to you. What you, as a capitalist, have piled up as property is merely unpaid labor, surplus value. You have no vested right to that property.”

“You mean then,” Weinstock said, “that the coat you have on your back does not belong to you but belongs to all the people?”

“That is not what I mean,” Haywood answered. “I don’t want your watch. I don’t want your toothbrush. But the things that are publicly used – no such word as private should be vested by any individual in any of those things.  For instance, do you believe that John D. Rockefeller has any right – either God-given right, or man-made right, or any other right – to own the coal mines of the state of Colorado?”

“He has a perfect right to them under the laws of the country,” Weinstock replied.

“Then the laws of the country are absolutely wrong,” Haywood retorted.

Reported the New York Call on Haywood’s repartee: “The big witness clipped a sizzler across the suave Commissioner. In every one of these highly amusing clashes on the broad question of right and wrong, Haywood had Weinstock fighting for wind.”

In addition to the jibes, Haywood set out the IWW’s ultimate aspiration:

“We hope to see the day when all able men will work, either with brain or muscle. We want to see the day when women will take their place as industrial units. We want to see the day when every old man and every old woman will have the assurance of at least dying in peace. You have not got anything like that today. You have not the assurance – rich man that you are – of not dying a pauper. I have an idea that we can have a better society than we have got . . .”

The “better society” would be achieved, Haywood told the Commission, when workers owned and operated their industries collectively and democratically. “If foremen or overseers were necessary, they would be selected from among the workers,” he said. “There would be no dominating power there, would there? I can conceive of no need for a dominating national, world-wide power…”

Commissioner James O’Connell, an official of the American Federation of Labor’s machinists’ union told Haywood that his dream was “Utopian.”

Haywood disagreed. “Really, Mr. O’Connell, I don’t think that I presented any Utopian ideas. I talked for the necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter, and amusement. We can talk of Utopia afterwards. The greatest need is employment.” He recommended to the Commission a virtual blueprint of New Deal programs like the WPA and the CCC that president Franklin Roosevelt took up twenty years later.


Roughneck – The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson (1983: W. W. Norton), pps. 226-7

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – Rebel Girl, (International Publishers, 1955) p. 131-2

Melvyn Dubofsky, Big Bill Haywood (Manchester University Press, 1987) pps. 10-15

Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais Labor’s Untold Story, (Cameron Associates, 1955) pps. 146-51

Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble – (Simon and Schuster, 1997) p. 233, 237

Robert K. Murray, Red Scare – A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920, (University of Minnesota, 1955)

Mathew Josephson, The President Makers – The Culture of Politics and Leadership In An Age of Enlightenment, 1896-1919, (Harcourt, 1940) p. 400

Mari Jo Buhle and Paul and Harvey J. Kaye eds., The American Radical, (Routledge, 1994) pps. 105-11

Michael K. Smith is the author of The Madness of King George from Common Courage Press. He co-blogs with Frank Scott at Read other articles by Michael.