Driven by Marxist ideology, the Industrial Workers of the World sought to draw the Australian unions into One Big Union, but of more lasting significance was their leadership in opposing the Great War. The working class, they said, owned no property and should leave the fight to the upper class and big land owners. ‘If you do not stop a German bullet, but return with missing limbs, the boss class who urged you to fight will not give you a job.’
The IWW’s first anti-military campaign was against ‘boy conscription’, compulsory military training in 1911, and it opposed the Great War immediately on its commencement in August 1914. The federal and New South Wales Labor governments tolerated this early dissent, but the Army’s Intelligence Corps and the police launched prosecutions. As the war in France worsened, support for the ‘Wobblies’ expanded through its paper, Direct Action, which published anti-war cartoons and sold in very large numbers at meetings in capital cities and Broken Hill.
The Labor government split in 1916 over Prime Minister Hughes’ conduct of the war and his plan for enlisting another 50,000 men by conscription. The IWW led in defeating the conscription referendum. Hughes legislated to have its non-Australian leaders deported and twelve Wobblies were falsely jailed for incendiarism in Sydney. Hughes extended his ban in 1917 to make Membership of the IWW illegal and penalised by six months’ jail, terminating the IWW entirely. Some members joined the Communist Party on its establishment in 1921.