On November 2, 1909, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) formally begins the Spokane free-speech fight. This is a civil disobedience action mounted in public defiance of a Spokane City Council ordinance banning speaking on the streets, an ordinance directed against IWW organizing. On this day, one by one, IWW members mount a soapbox (an overturned crate) and begin speaking, upon which Spokane police yank them off the box and take them to jail. On the first day, 103 Wobblies are arrested, beaten, and incarcerated. Within a month, arrests will mount to 500, including the fiery young Wobbly orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964). The Spokane free-speech fight will end with the City revoking the ordinance. It will inaugurate free-speech fights in other cities, and is considered one of the most significant battles to protect freedom of speech in American history.
Employment Agencies Prefer Silence
Stevens Street in Spokane was lined with employment agencies that charged the many transient workers looking for work a dollar to receive a job in a logging camp or construction crew. The employer would then keep the worker for a day or two, dismiss him, and hire another. If the worker wanted another job he could go down to one of the employment agencies and pay another dollar to get one.
IWW organizer James Walsh arrived in Spokane in the fall of 1908, and found the streets surging with two or three thousand angry workers. On at least one occasion Walsh calmed a mob set to wreck an employment agency, urging the men instead to join the IWW. That year the IWW established a union hall with a library, a cigar and newspaper stand, and a meeting hall. The union conducted meetings and lectures four or five times a week. A newspaper, the Industrial Worker was established.
The employment agencies, known to laboring men as "sharks" or "leeches," persuaded the Spokane City Council to pass an ordinance against speaking on the streets, and this went into effect on January 1, 1909. Spokane Mayor N. S. Pratt, a prominent wholesale lumberman, did not object.
The IWW cooperated at first, holding union meetings inside the union hall. In the summer the harvest season was on and many workers left town. In August the City Council made an exception to the prohibition on street speaking for the Salvation Army. This was not acceptable to the IWW. In the fall numerous transient workers returned to town, and the free-speech fight was on. The Industrial Worker sent out a call for Wobbly members to come to Spokane to get arrested for the cause, and migrant laborers from all over, known as hoboes or bindlestiffs or timberbeasts, began pouring into town.
"Friends and Fellow Workers!"
On November 2, a soapbox was put up, and Wobblies began standing on it to begin speaking to the huge assembled crowd. Each "speaker" was arrested immediately, so there was no need to be a talented orator. Legend has it that one brave soul mounted the box and began: "Friends and Fellow Workers!" For the moment there was no police officer at the ready. The man was struck with stage fright and hollered, "Where are the cops?!"
During the next month more than 500 were arrested. The U.S. War Department assisted the City of Spokane in its fight against the constitutional right of free speech by providing Fort Wright to lock up the Wobblies after the city jail was full to overflowing.
Rebel Girl Arrives
The young organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived in town and delayed her immediate arrest by chaining herself to a post. She was an impassioned and appealing orator and one of the reasons other citizens in town began to come around to the point of view that the Wobblies were on the right side.
Flynn was put in jail and later published accounts in the Industrial Worker of the filthy, crowded, and generally horrendous conditions in the city jail, including the charge that the sheriff was using the women's section of the jail as a profitable brothel, with police soliciting customers. Police attempted to destroy every copy of the December 10 issue in which Flynn made these charges. Before this, eight editors in succession had gotten out an issue before being arrested. After the December 10 issue, the Wobblies moved the Industrial Worker to Seattle until on May 10, 1910, they moved it back to Spokane.
Spokane Comes Around
The Spokane free-speech fight attracted nationwide attention. The IWW's own union history gives this account of its successful conclusion:
"The constant arrests; the police brutalities; the appearance of men in court matted with blood; the disrepute into which Spokane had fallen in the more enlightened portion of the nation's press; the widely-known evil practices of the employment sharks; the mounting cost to tax-payers; the boycott on Spokane merchants by men in many camps -- all these made it harder for city fathers to continue. Feeling was for the prisoners. On the rare occasion when they were marched through the streets to where they could get a bath, citizens showered them with Bull Durham, apples and oranges" (Thompson and Murfin, 49).
In the end the Wobblies were supported by the Spokane Press, local women's civic groups, AFL craft union affiliates, various socialists, and German societies.
On March 4, 1910, Spokane revoked the ordinance, and the prisoners were released. Before long the licenses of 19 of the employment agencies were revoked and firms began hiring workers directly. The reputation of the Industrial Workers of the World reached a high point in Spokane.