Leaders such as William “Big Bill” Haywood thought all workers should organize into a single industrial union to avoid the possibility of individual trade unions’ being pitted against each other. The IWW employed a grassroots approach: the executive was purposefully weak; membership was open to everyone; local strikes were encouraged. Thus, under American-born leaders, the IWW became the most prominent voice of immigrant workers, who were often snubbed by other labor organizations.
Conflict with authority was inevitable, even before World War I. Part of the reason was the IWW’s willingness to use bare-knuckle tactics, such as sabotage and violent confrontation with strike-breakers. But the unresolvable conflict was ideological. To the IWW, the government was a tool of capitalist exploitation. To the authorities, the IWW was a revolutionary organization that sought to overthrow the existing government.
Thus, when 165 IWW leaders were arrested in 1917, charges ranged from treason to the use of intimidation in labor disputes.