Review: “The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood” – William D. Haywood

The one-eyed William D. “Big Bill” Haywood (1869-1923) was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a member of the Communist Party of the USA, and a revolutionary fighter against capitalism and exploitation.

His autobiography is a riveting working-class history of the USA. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1869, he describes growing up in the “Wild West” with all its evils: racism, poverty, outlaws, mob violence, street shootings, religious fanaticism, and lynches of Mexicans, Native Americans, and African-Americans. At age 9, while carving a slingshot, Bill stabbed himself in the eye with a knife (ouch!), and at age 15, he began work as a miner.  

Major labour uprisings such as the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in defense of the 8-hour workday and the Great Pullman Strike of 1894 greatly influenced Bill’s ideological development. By 1900, Bill had become a member of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) General Executive Board. As a member of the WFM executive, Bill was actively involved in the Colorado Labour Wars of 1903-1904. According to Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr,
“There is no episode in American labor history in which violence was as systematically used by employers as in the Colorado labor war of 1903 and 1904.” As a founding and leading member of the IWW, Bill was also actively involved in other significant strikes, such as the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 and the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913.

Bill’s labour and IWW activities and his opposition to World War I earned him the wrath of state and federal authorities. Police repression and his many legal troubles feature prominently in his memoirs. In 1905, Bill was kidnapped in Colorado by Pinkerton detectives working for Idaho state officials to face trial for the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. He was acquitted and became a national labour icon. In 1917, the Justice Department raided IWW offices and arrested more than 100 activists under the Espionage Act for “conspiring to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes.” Bill was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but skipped bail and fled to the USSR, where he lived until his death in 1928.

An excellent memoir by one of America’s most powerful trade unionists.

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