|IWW members at a local hall gather to answer the call to go to Spokane.|
I didn’t start out to be probably the greatest landmark battle for free speech and free assembly in American history. It grew out of the practical, if militant concerns of a labor union trying to establish itself in an all important local industry—the lumber trade of the Pacific Northwest. But on November 2, 1909 the Industrial Workers of the World launched a Free Speech Fight on the streets of Spokane, Washington. Before the first day was out 103 workers trying to mount a literal wooden soap box on Stevens Street had been hauled off to jail. Many were beaten or roughed up in the process.
The IWW was still a pretty new outfit, but it was rapidly gaining a reputation for militancy and a willingness to organize unskilled laborers as well as skilled craftsmen and those employed in seasonal industries with unstable work forces. The timber industry, in which the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had a small and ineffective presence limited to mill men and mechanics and which hired large gangs of workers off of the streets of local towns in the months between the snows, was an enticing target. Spokane was the center of the industry in western Washington.
By 1908 the union had established a branch with its own meeting hall, news stand, and canteen. Members were mostly conducting regular educational meeting, hoping to build an organization. They had also established a weekly newspaper, The Industrial Worker which eventually became the union chief western journal and eventually relocated to Chicago as the official organ of the whole organization. It’s the same paper to which I contributed and edited in the 1970’s.
Progress was steady and the local members were convinced that given great dissatisfaction over the employment agency system through which men were hired for the lumber camps or big railroad construction jobs. General Secretary William D. “Big Bill” Haywood and the General Executive Board in Chicago decided to dispatch one of the union’s top organizers to Spokane to help out.
James H. Walsh was something of a firebrand organizer, but an effective one. He had been working in Seattle and other lumber centers. He felt that the leadership in Chicago had become too preoccupied with eastern factory struggles and were slipping toward “plain and simple” unionism devoid of class struggle and consciousness. That summer he led a group of 20 men, lumberjacks, construction workers, casual laborers, to the IWW Convention in Chicago. The Overalls Brigade, as they came to be known, traveled across country riding the rails. Their arrival at the convention in rough work clothes and dusty from days on the road grabbed everyone’s attention. As did their demands for action in the West.
Some officials may have been a bit intimidated. They literally drove Daniel DeLeon and his Socialist Labor Party faction to bolt the convention and set up a rival IWW in Detroit. Haywood was impressed. He gave Walsh General Organizing Credentials and sent him to Spokane with a promise of support.
When Walsh arrived in September, he found a riot on Stevens street. The job sharks, as the 31 employment agencies that lined that strip were known, were up to their old tricks. They would charge a man a dollar for a hiring ticked to remote lumber or construction camps. They camps would only hire men referred by the agencies. Corrupt foremen would keep men for a few days then find an excuse to fire them, making them beat their way back to town on their own. The agencies paid the foremen kickbacks for churning the labor force. The system was thoroughly corrupt and everyone knew it.
On his first day in town Walsh found nearly 2000 men milling on Stevens street. Rocks had been thrown through window and some were gathering fuel and torches to burn down the agencies. Walsh mounted a wagon and convinced the near mob that violence would only lead to suppression. He must have been a hell of a speaker. He invited the crowd to come to the IWW hall to discuss what to do or go home.
All fall meetings at the hall were jammed as workers learned the basics of unionism and plans were hatched to find a way to end the agency system and replace it with an honest union hireling hall. But disturbances still occasionally flared up on the street. Walsh suspected Pinkerton or other spies were acting as provocateurs to open the door for the kind of mass armed suppression that was common in western labor struggles.
Walsh and other members regularly conducted street meetings. More and more men were taking out Red Cards and it was obvious that the union would soon conduct a major campaign. On January 17, 1909 the biggest mob yet, estimated at upwards of three thousand men, formed outside the Red Cross Agency—no relation to the venerable organization—one of the worst of the job sharks. They had already shattered the windows with chunks of ice when Walsh arrived around 6 PM. According to the local pro-business daily, The Spokesman Review, Walsh once again calmed the crowd telling them “There were a lot of hired Pinkertons in the crowd. All they wanted you fellows to do was to start something and then they would have an excuse for shooting you down or smashing your heads in…You can gain nothing by resorting to mob rule.”
Despite the fact that the IWW’s street meetings were a demonstratable break on violence, the City Council was easily persuaded by the employment agencies and lumber interests to enact a local ordinance banning street meetings and protests. By in large, the union tried to obey. They scheduled almost daily meetings and educational programs at the hall and conducted most of their organizing on the street by selling copies of the Industrial Worker and the popular red card printed with union songs—the ancestor of the famous Little Red Song Book.
In the summer workers not in the lumber and construction camps largely left town to follow the crops as fruit pickers or in the threshing crews that so that the union hall easily accommodated most meetings. But as migrants drifted back in town looking for work in the woods, it became apparent that outdoor meeting would be needed again.
Still, Walsh was reluctant to challenge the city—until they allowed the Salvation Army to conduct street meeting despite the law. When appealing to the city council for fair and equal treatment failed the union decided it had to act.
In the October 23 issue of the Industrial Worker, which by then was widely circulated in the Northwest, the union issued its famous call. “Wanted: Men to fill the jails of Spokane…Nov. 2 is Free Speech Day—IWW local will be notified by wire how many men to send, if any…Meetings will be orderly and no irregularities of any kind will be permitted.”
And so what has been described as the first mass peaceful civil disobedience in history was on. Hobos, bindle stiffs, and “footloose Wobblies” poured into town not waiting for direction from IWW locals.
The union set up its soap box on Stevens street. One after another, men mounted it and began to speak. Most got no further than announcing “Fellow Workers…” before they were dragged away. The police, however, were so busy that one shy worker took his turn and when no one was on hand to immediately arrest him and too tongue-tied to give a speech simply bleated, “Where are the cops?”
On day two there were plenty more men lined up to join their first 103 comrades. And more every day after that. Eventually more than 500 jammed the jail and second holding facility in a school. Some men even refused to be released when their sentences were up. The men were brutalized, under fed, subjected to horrific sanitation conditions. Many showed up in court still bleeding from wounds.
Not all of the Wobblies were men. The original Rebel Girl, 16 year old Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, all ready known as one of the union’s greatest speakers. She chained herself to a lamp post so that she could actually get here speech in before she was arrested.
Eight consecutive members got the Industrial Worker out with full reports on the campaign. Each in turn was arrested. City authorities tried to seize and suppress the December 10 issue of the paper which included Flynn’s scandalous charges that jailers were operation the women’s section of the jail as a brothel and police were pimping. The paper had to be temporarily moved to Seattle to continue printing.
The national press began to pay attention and sympathy for the Free Speech fighters grew. Men still in the camps boycotted Spokane business. The city’s reputation was being ruined and the cost of keeping so many in jail and paying for extra police was bankrupting the city, just as the union new it would.
On March 4, 1910 the city ran up the white flag—it revoked the ordinance and released all of the prisoners. In addition the worst 19 agencies lost their city licenses. The union did not win a hireling hall, but the system of direct hires by the companies either in town or at the camps was established. That allowed the IWW to effectively organize on the job, concentrating on tactics of direct action and solidarity. Within a few years the union was strong enough to enforce an 8 hour day in the camps by the expediency of simply refusing to work longer or evacuate the camps if fired. When workers burned filthy bedding on one day across the region, employers were forced to provide clean blankets, linens and mattress pads. Food improved. The desperate timber beast of old was transformed into clean and self respecting working men.
The tactic of the Free Speech fight spread as other cities attempted to squelch public meetings. A big one in Fresno, California erupted right on the heels of Spokane. Over the next few years there would be dozens more, the largest in Seattle. The results were always the same.
Eventually, at least until the post World War I Red Scare, cities mostly gave up trying to restrict street meeting. As for the union, it was glad to be able to refocus energy from the Free Speech fights and constant campaigns to support the class war prisoners, to be able to concentrate more on job action.
But the IWW in these fights won the admiration and loyalty of a lot of workers, and the fear and hatred of the bosses.