Free speech fights

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Free speech fights are conflicts over the right to speak freely, particularly involving the Industrial Workers of the World (the "IWW", or "Wobblies'") efforts in the early twentieth century to organize workers and publicly speak about labor issues. Wobblies, Single Taxers, and other radicals of the time were actively engaged in organizing workers and others, and their efforts were often opposed, and sometimes met with violent repression by local government and business authorities. The most notorious of these conflicts was the "San Diego Free Speech Fight",[1] which brought the IWW to the greater notice of the American public and was notable for the intensity of violence by anti-labor vigilantes directed at the IWW; this violence included the kidnapping and tarring and feathering of Ben Reitman, who was a physician, and was Emma Goldman's lover.

More generally, a free speech fight is any incident in which a group is involved in a conflict over its speech. For instance, the Free Speech Movement, which began with a conflict on the Berkeley Campus in California in the 1960s, was a "free speech fight".

"Free speech fights" and the IWW[edit]

The IWW engaged in free speech fights during the period from approximately 1907 to 1916. The Wobblies, as the IWW members were called, relied upon free speech, which in the United States is guaranteed by the First Amendment, to enable them to communicate the concept of One Big Union to other workers. In communities where the authorities saw their interests in avoiding the development of unions, the practice of soapboxing was frequently restricted by ordinance or by police harassment. The IWW employed a variety of creative tactics, including the tactic of flooding the area of a free speech fight with footloose rebels who would challenge the authorities by flouting the ordinance, intentionally getting arrested in great numbers. With the jails full and a seemingly endless stream of union activists arriving by boxcar and highway, the local communities frequently rescinded their prohibitions on free speech, or came to some other accommodation.

History of the IWW's free speech fights[edit]


In A History of American Labor, Joseph G. Rayback has written,

[The Industrial Workers of the World] made its first impression upon the nation through its involvement in the "free speech" fight begun in Spokane, Washington, employment center for the casual labor elements of the Pacific Northwest. The fight developed late in 1908 when the I.W.W. launched an extensive speaking campaign with the slogan "Don't Buy Jobs" in the streets around the Spokane employment agencies which had become skilled in the art of swindling men who applied for jobs.[2]

The "job sharks" were so closely tied to the crew boss on many job sites that there would be "one gang coming, one gang working and one gang going." The faster the turnover, the greater the fees that could be generated. From time to time the men would ignore the IWW and seek revenge after an employment shark took someone's last dollar for a job that didn't exist. The Spokesman-Review of January 18, 1909 reported,[3]

Hurling rocks and chunks of ice through the windows of the Red Cross Employment Agency, 224 Stevens St., several members of a noisy mob of between 2,000 and 3,000 idle men were about to attempt to wreck the place about 6 o'clock last evening, when James H. Walsh, organizer of the IWW, mounted a chair and pacified the multitude. In the opinion of the police had it not been for the intervention of Walsh, a riot would surely have followed, as the rabble was worked up to such a pitch that its members would have readily attempted violence. Walsh discouraged violence and summoned all members of the IWW to their hall at the rear of 312 Front Ave. The police dispersed the rest... At the hall Walsh warned the crowd against an outbreak. "There were a lot of hired Pinkertons in that crowd," he said. "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."[4]

For the rest of the summer, IWW street meetings brought more and more working stiffs into the IWW.[5]

The agencies promptly countered by pressuring the city council to pass an ordinance forbidding street speaking. The I.W.W. obeyed the regulation for nearly a year, until Spokane religious groups, which habitually used the streets, secured a new regulation exempting them from the street-speaking ordinance. Angered by the discrimination on behalf of "the Christers," the Spokane I.W.W. renewed its campaign.[2]

The newspaper of the IWW, the Industrial Worker, published the following on October 28: "Wanted—Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane." Then the IWW sent out a notice to all locations, "Nov. 2, FREE SPEECH DAY—IWW locals will be notified by wire how many men to send if any... Meetings will be orderly and no irregularities of any kind will be tolerated."[5]

In one day 150 men were arrested and crowded into jails that could hardly accommodate them. Reinforcements promptly arrived from the surrounding territory.[2]

The Spokane City Council arranged for rock-pile work for the prisoners.[5]

At the end of twenty days four hundred men had been jailed.[2]

Overflowing prisoners were lodged in the Franklin School [then located along Front Street (now Trent)], and the War Department made Fort Wright available for more. Eight editors in succession got out a copy of the Industrial Worker, and then took their turn soapboxing, and went to jail. The IWW's "rebel girl," Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was fresh out of high school, delayed her arrest by chaining herself to a lamppost. She later charged that the police were using the women's section of the jail as a brothel, with police soliciting customers. When that story was printed in the Industrial Worker on December 10, the police attempted to destroy all copies. Public sympathy began to favor the strikers. When the prison guards would march the overflowing prisoners through the streets to bathing facilities, crowds would shower the men with apples, oranges, and Cigarettes.[6]

The effort brought results: the W.F.M. declared a boycott of all goods coming from Spokane, and taxpayers began to protest against the cost of feeding, housing, and policing the prisoners. When Vincent St. John publicly appealed to all Wobblies to come to Spokane to renew the struggle, city officials capitulated.[2]

The victory for the free speech fight came on March 4. The licenses of 19 of the employment agencies were revoked.[6]

The I.W.W. was granted freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to distribute its literature.[2]

In Labor's Untold Story, Boyer and Morais observed,

The courts became so clogged they could handle little else but free speech cases. The fight for free speech became largely a question of endurance between the lungs and heads of the Wobblies and the stamina of the police. In Missoula and Spokane as in most of the other towns where free speech fights were waged, any citizen could address any assemblage on any street on any subject at any time by the end of 1912.[7]


The IWW members won a free speech fight in Missoula when, on October 8, 1909, the city council decided to let the union members speak anywhere in the community, so long as they did not impede traffic.[8]

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was "a striking auburn-haired 19-year-old" when she arrived in Missoula with her husband, Jack Jones in September 1909. At Higgins Avenue and West Front Street, the Wobblies set up a soapbox. On September 22, Frank Little arrived to assist. Little and Jones were arrested on September 29. A young logger and a civil engineer then spoke, and were likewise arrested. Flynn put out the word, declaring, "we need volunteers to go to jail." Wobblies poured in from the surrounding territory, flooding the jail. They sang IWW songs, and shouted Wobbly slogans.[9]

According to Flynn, who also was arrested, the jail was "a filthy, dirty hole under the firehouse stable, where all the filthy excrement of the place pours down upon the prisoners." Yet enough Wobblies submitted themselves to arrest—frequently just before dinner time—that the city was feeling the impact of the Wobbly tactic.[9] After a night in jail, Wobblies were often offered their freedom before breakfast, but many refused to be released, instead demanding a jury trial.[9]

The Western Montana Apple Show was set to open, and Missoula officials decided to "wave a white flag." The IWW had won the Missoula free speech fight, and all charges were dropped.[9]

On February 7, 2011, the National Park Service officially recognized Free Speech Corner at Higgens Avenue and West Front Street, adding it to the National Register of Historic Places to commemorate the Missoula free speech fight.[10]

Other free speech fights of the IWW[edit]

The IWW followed with other free speech fights in Kansas City, Missouri; in Aberdeen, Washington; and in Fresno, California. In San Diego, California, there was a particularly brutal free speech fight between the IWW and its allies, and large groups of vigilantes supported by the authorities. Tar and feathers, beatings, clubbings, and forcible deportations were used in addition to incarceration. The San Diego free speech fight was unique in that the IWW did not have a specific organizing campaign at stake. The IWW won all of these free speech fights.[2]

In early 1913, IWW members in Denver, Colorado fought a lengthy free speech fight. Denver authorities had refused to allow the Wobblies to speak on street corners, so union members filled the jails for months. The union won the right to speak to workers, and within a year had formed two Denver branches.[11]

Other locations of free speech fights by the IWW included Duluth, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; New Castle, Pennsylvania, and New Bedford, Massachusetts.[7]

The IWW's provocative free speech message[edit]

The IWW message was particularly unpopular with the business community. IWW members believed that the capitalist system was corrupt, could not be reformed, and could only be resisted until a better society could be built for all working people. James Walsh's streetcorner speeches were therefore frequently disrupted, particularly by the local Volunteers of America and Salvation Army Bands.

Walsh recruited volunteers to put together a small band, equipped with "a big booming bass drum," in order to get the IWW's message to listeners. The group practiced patriotic and religious tunes of the period, but the Wobblies wrote new words to the songs.[12]

"To grab the crowd’s attention," the IWW band often "hid in a doorway while one member dressed in a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase and umbrella, yelled to the crowd, ‘Help! I’ve been robbed!’ The crowd rushed over only to hear, ‘I've been robbed by the capitalist system! Fellow workers ...’ He then launched into a short speech, and the makeshift band stepped out of the doorway and played their songs." [13]

See also[edit]


  • Peter Blecha, "Fanning the Flames: Northwest Labor Song Traditions", February 5, 2006, Retrieved May 14, 2007.
  • Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, Labor's Untold Story (1974).
  • Paul F. Brisseden, The I.W.W.: A Study of American Syndicalism (New York, 1919)
  • David Brundage, The Making of Western Labor Radicalism: Denver's Organized Workers, 1878-1905 (1994).
  • Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (1969)
  • Joseph G. Rayback, A History of American Labor (1966).
  • Fred W. Thompson and Patrick Murfin, The I.W.W.: Its First Seventy Years, 1905-1975 (1976).
  • Woodrow C. Whitten, Criminal Syndicalism and the Law in California, 1919-1927 (Philadelphia, 1969).

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Brisseden, p.283, and Whitten, p.6.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Rayback, p. 244.
  3. ^ Thompson and Murfin, p. 47.
  4. ^ Thompson and Murfin, pp. 47-48.
  5. ^ a b c Thompson and Murfin, p. 48.
  6. ^ a b Thompson and Murfin, p. 49.
  7. ^ a b Boyer and Morais, p.174.
  8. ^ Article, "Missoula witness to history of Industrial Workers of the World", Missoulian, Sunday, September 6, 2009, retrieved Sunday, September 6, 2009.
  9. ^ a b c d Article, "Missoula witness to history of Industrial Workers of the World", Missoulian, Sunday, September 6, 2009, retrieved Friday, April 29, 2011.
  10. ^ Kim Briggeman, Missoulian, "Missoula downtown historic district expands" published April 27, 2011, retrieved April 29, 2011
  11. ^ Brundage, pp.161-62.
  12. ^ Blecha, 2006.
  13. ^ Blecha, 2006, citing Linda Allen, Washington Songs and Lore (Spokane: Melior Publications 1988), p. 18.