IWW/Wobblies Free Speech Fight in San Diego Archives

author: 
sd indymedia volunteer

100 years ago San Diego was a much different place. Not yet a military stronghold, the population was just 60,000 for the county. The namesake areas we know today were millionaire investors then, Marston, Spreckels, Scripps, developing their large properties and controlling the local media and government.

The working-class people of San Diego spent much of their time in the Stingaree district downtown, surrounding what is now 5th and E St. Wobblies, organizers and members of the revolutionary anti-capitalist, anarcho-syndicalist union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), were having trouble organizing in San Diego due to their meetings getting busted up by the police or vigilantes sponsored by business interests. They claimed the Stingaree streets as their organizing grounds.

"Fellow workers," Wobblies would proclaim from soapboxes, "the working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. "

Wobblies spoke of the need for all workers, across race, ethnic, gender and nationality, to organize as one big union of the working-class, take control of the means of production and abolish the wage system. They got the attention of the workers they wanted, but also got the attention of the business elite who wanted to silence the Wobblies.

After a couple years of illegal attacks on meetings and soapbox speakers from police and vigilantes, San Diego Common Council passed Ordinance No. 4623 on January 8, 1912 legalizing the repression of free speech practitioners within a 49-square block radius in the heart of the city of San Diego. "Soapbox Row" and the entire Stingaree district was now a restricted zone.

Wobblies, believing direct action gets the best results, immediately started civil disobedience campaigns and continued soapboxing within the restricted areas. Together with Socialists, church groups and trade unions the California Free Speech League was formed to attack the constitutionality of San Diego's new city ordinance.

Arrests were being made and the IWW Local 13 plan to accept jail time and individual jury trials over monetary fines to clog the justice system, was exhausting the membership of the Local 13 (presently around 50 members), and an appeal for Wobbly convergence in San Diego was made. 5,000 Wobblies converged upon San Diego to participate in the free speech fight.

Wobblies were successful with overcrowding the jails and bringing San Diego's justice system to a halt. This tactic didn't play out as expected, however, and Wobblies were treated to abuse by police and transported to the county line where vigilantes were waiting to further attack the arrested. Vigilantes in San Diego soon were stopping trains coming from Los Angeles and attacking free speech supporters before they entered the city.

Popular anarchist speaker Emma Goldman with her lover and "hobo doctor" Ben Reitman arrive in San Diego by train on May 14, 1912 to support the free speech fight. Immediately upon arrival Ben Reitman is seized by patriotic terrorists and taken to the desert where he is tarred and "sagebrushed", has the letters "IWW" branded on his ass with a cigar, is forced to kiss the American flag and sing the National Anthem. He is left in the desert to walk back to San Diego.

The arrests and vigilante activity continued in San Diego. Eventually, word reached California Governor Hiram Johnson, who sent in an investigative commissioner to judge the situation. The commissioner agreed that the arrests and city ordinance were unlawful and suggested the Attorney General take action. No action was taken and the violence against Wobblies and free speech supporters continued.

No happy "freedom prevails" end to this story. Mob rule, backed by city government controlled by business interests won this battle. The media at that time sided with the vigilantes. "Hanging is none too good for them, and they would be much better off dead," wrote the Evening Tribune about the arrested free speech activists. The Red Scare of 1919 turned San Diego's city ordinance into federal policy and anarchists, communists, socialists, labor organizers and the rest of the left were harassed and attacked.

Today, although the IWW still exists, it is no longer the threat to the capitalist system it once was. Membership to the IWW is at an all time low. Membership to all industrial and trade unions are at an all time low. Corporate globalization exporting industrial jobs to developing nations where the poor can be exploited much easier, without the fear of organized labor, has certainly done its fair share of decreasing union membership. The right's continued attacks on organized labor and union busting of American businesses hasn't helped. But the bureaucracy of today's unions, the wastefulness of its resources, and the suppression of class consciousness is what hurts organized labor today.

In 1912, "fellow workers" tried to unionize to shake up the bosses. In 2012, "the 99%" are occupying for a fair economic system. The class struggle and fight for free speech continues.

*For more information about the free speech fight in San Diego and the Wobblies, look through the attached PDFs of archived media sources. "Fellow Workers and Friends: I.W.W. Free-Speech Fights As Told by Participants" edited by Philip S. Foner is a great book for a "people's history" perspective of the free speech fight. And "Under The Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See" by Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew, and Jim Miller is another great book for the history of San Diego's class struggle.

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The AFT Guild with the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and a handful of sponsors are organizing a series of events to celebrate the Fight for Free Speech in San Diego. Let's hope they learn a few things from the Wobblies revolutionary ideas and are not just appropriating the IWW culture.

San Diego Free Speech Fight 100-Year Anniversary Exhibit Opening Event
January 6th, 2012
Centro Cultural De La Raza (2125 Park Blvd. Balboa Park)
7:00pm, exhibit continues all month long (Tuesday-Sunday, Noon-4pm)
http://sandiego.indymedia.org/node/1110

1938: A Year in the Life of Three Women, Anarchists, Prostitutes
+ "The Wobblies" Documentary Screening
January 20, 2012
Centro Cultural de la Raza (2004 Park Blvd, San Diego 92101)
7:00pm
http://sandiego.indymedia.org/node/1166

San Diego Free Speech Fight 100-Year Anniversary Celebration
January 26th, 2012
Saville Theatre, San Diego City College (C and 14th St.)
Music, performances
7:00pm
http://sandiego.indymedia.org/node/1111

San Diego Free Speech Fight Commemoration
February 8th, 2012
at the original site of the struggle, 5th and E downtown San Diego
Music, performances, special guests
Time TBA

San Diego Free Speech Fight Forum
February 20th, 2012
Auditorium of the School of Leadership & Education Sciences
University of San Diego, Mother Rosalie Hill Hall
Speakers
Time TBA

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San Diego Indymedia will also be celebrating the anniversary with film screenings of documentaries about revolutionary organized labor, anarchists and organizers like Emma Goldman. More info on this soon, please contact us if you would like to help.





Photograph courtesy of the San Diego History Center



Photograph courtesy of the San Diego History Center



Photograph courtesy of the San Diego History Center



Photograph courtesy of the San Diego History Center



Photograph courtesy of the San Diego History Center



Photograph courtesy of the San Diego History Center



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan



Photograph courtesy of the San Diego History Center



Image courtesy of the San Diego History Center



Photograph courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division



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