In Search of “the Wobblies”

John de Meyrick

In response to Jack Hutson’s query about the origins of the term ‘Wobblies’, Hummer has received following most plausible explanation from John de Meyrick.

I once spent many hours, without success, searching through every available text I could find to discover the origin of the term “Wobblies”. Standard texts such as The Wobblies by Patrick Renshaw and the I.W.W.’s own publication in 1955 to celebrate its first 50 years, provide no clues at all. What I did ascertain however, is that the term seems to have arisen some time after 1920 because an early work on the I.W.W. and Syndicalism in America by Paul Brissenden, published by Columbia Press in that year makes no reference to the term, yet it does appear in other publications after that date. I also concluded that the term did not arise in America (whether before or after 1920) but was more likely to have arisen in Great Britain. Further, it seems to me that the term does not refer alone to the I.W.W. as such, but it a collective reference to the many factions of the I.W.W. and of other class unionism movements such as “Workers Of The World Unite” (the general banner of all such groups), One Big Union (as the Knights Of Labour were generally referred to, especially in the U.K.), British Advocates of Industrial Unionism (which was a separate U.K. version of the I.W.W.), British Industrial League which was an anarchist break-away organisation of the I.W.W in Britain), the League of Industrial Unionism, or League, as it was commonly called (which the B.I.L. was later to become), and Industrial Workers of Great Britain (which split off from the B.A.I.U.). Indeed, when one begins to refer to some of these groups collectively by their acronyms a derivative of the term “Wobblies” may be discovered. For example, although I have deliberately arranged it in that way, if one takes the first initial of the several organisation mentioned above and in the order given” you will find it reads: WOBBLI. Of course, the contrivance may be misleading. Yet, without any more rational explanation, it may serve as a somewhat “wobbly” theory, at least. One thing is for certain. If the term had been derived from some event or group, or in connection with some champion of the movement, then surely that fact would have been recorded somewhere (eg., consider Luddism). It is perhaps not too late to trace the origin of the term with the help of some living witnesses of the times but, I dare say, with so much interest in the subject and so much written about it over the years, anyone with this knowledge would have passed it on. The term however, is more likely to have arisen quite insidiously in some obscure and indirect way (eg., consider the origin of the term “gay” in reference to homosexuality). One feature of it which is intriguing, I feel, is the sense of derision which it conveys. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that, although class unionism held considerable conceptual support among workers and trade unions from about 1880 to the time of the 1926 General Strike, it never achieved any stable organisational focus or central leadership for its ever-fragmenting movement and, more importantly, after the formation of the Industrial League with its radical/anti union and anarchist approach, the concept was soured and left open to ridicule and suspicion by traditional trade union interests.

For my own part, if I were to guess at it, I should think that the term arose among trade union people after the League brought disfavour to the movement (probably in discussion around the local watering hole or at a conference or other meeting) by someone referring to all the factions and groups involved and in sweeping collective reference, as the “Workers of the World/One Big Union Mob”, which more conveniently became the “W.W.O.B. League” and, ultimately, the “Wobblies”.