Home / General / This Day in Labor History: November 2, 1909

This Day in Labor History: November 2, 1909


On November 2, 1909, the Industrial Workers of the World called a free speech strike in Spokane, Washington. The free speech movements would highlight what the IWW did well and where is struggled, as the organization exposed the hypocrisy and brutality of Gilded Age capitalism and exposed to the nation the terrible lives of working people while at the same time failing to build on a major early victory when it won this battle.

The IWW was founded in 1905 to give power to the millions of industrial workers who lacked it in Gilded Age America. With the American Federation of Labor largely unwilling to organize women, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, farmworkers, children, or the giant industrial workplaces developing during the late 19th century, there was a tremendous vacuum for someone willing to organize the masses. The IWW would step into that vacuum.

Conditions in northeastern Washington were as bad as the rest of the nation. This was farming and logging country and both industries relied on itinerant labor. Working and living conditions were terrible and pay was poor. What really made workers angry was the employment agency scam. Companies and farmers would contract out with employment agencies, forcing workers to use them for a job. Workers paid for this service. If a job wasn’t there when they arrived, no money back! Return to Spokane and try again. Same if the job just lasted a couple of days. This was rank exploitation of the poor.

These conditions made Spokane an early IWW organizing hotspot. By mid 1909, the city and surrounding region had up to 1500 dues-paying members and a nice headquarters. It expanded its presence through street speaking. This is the literal meaning of “get on your soapbox” in action here. In angry speeches denouncing the exploitation workers faced, Wobbly speakers attempted to convince the workers passing through Spokane from job to job to fight back. As 1909 went on, the Spokane police began cracking down against this. In March, the city council passed an ordinance banning public speaking to all “revolutionists.”

anit-IWW cartoon from Spokane Spokesman Review 1909

Anti-IWW cartoon from Spokane newspaper

As arrests grew, the IWW moved toward a larger action. When local Wobbly leader Jim Thompson was arrested for speaking without a permit on October 25, the IWW demanded his release and threatened to send speakers from around the country to city and flood the jails. Spokane called the IWW on its bluff and the IWW began its first major free speech fight on November 2. Spokane police began arresting everyone who tried to speak. Soon 400 people were in jail, overwhelming the prison system. As the members cycled out of jail, often after a 30-day sentence, they got themselves rearrested. Conditions in the prisons were terrible. Overcrowded and cold, the prisoners were intentionally underfed and forced to take ice-cold outdoor showers in the winter.

This was not quite the first free speech fight, but it was the first to become a national story. Major radical speakers like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived. Flynn was nineteen and pregnant. She was arrested as well, after chaining herself to a lamppost to avoid it. When she was in prison, she had a story published in Industrial Worker that the Spokane police were using the prison as a brothel. The police went ballistic and attempted to confiscate all copies. The intense resistance of the IWW surprised Spokane and overwhelmed its ability to deal with the crisis of its own making.


The IWW won a pretty complete victory in the free speech fight here. All the unconstitutional restrictions on their activities were taken away and the free speech prisoners freed. It could hold outdoor meetings without the police harassing them. And during the strike, the employers gave up the contract labor system in order to take away part of workers’ reason to be angry. But the employers could have held out. Most of the arrested strikers were out of town revolutionaries and the IWW leadership was having trouble finding more. The IWW actually approached the Spokane city government for a deal because it knew it would lose soon.

What I find fascinating about the IWW response to Spokane is how rapidly the conditions of work in Spokane disappeared from the pages of Industrial Worker, the most important IWW newspaper, once this struggle became about free speech. Instead of the hellish lives experienced by the rank and file, the fight was about free speech, heightening the contradictions of capitalism by forcing mass arrests, and the potential for revolutionary change. But the actual conditions of work became secondary, basically disappearing from Wobbly documents. That might make sense in the short term. But when the strike ended, Spokane itself faded from view. The Wobblies moved on to the next big national struggle. The focus on conditions in Spokane that was common in the paper before the strike was completely gone after it was won.

Even after the strike was won, the conditions of labor were still terrible. But the IWW as a national organization really failed to build upon this victory. It could have really doubled down in Spokane and started pushing further improvements to the lives of the loggers, agricultural workers, and urban workers (who were really the same people since people switched work in this economy all the time). But it did not. The loggers would still remain active IWW members and northeastern Washington and northern Idaho the heart of Wobbly radicalism in the Northwest timber industry. But it would take another decade, more strikes, and government intervention to solve the labor unrest caused by the terrible exploitation of the timber industry.

I don’t necessarily blame the IWW here for its failure to build on the free speech fights, a problem it would have throughout its history. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of the victory in Spokane. This was a young organization with the struggles that new groups have. It was very good at certain things, such as throwing the hypocrisy of the capitalists back in their face, creating public displays, and promulgating powerful cultural images. It also managed to make strong connections some of the nation’s poorest workers. It was not good at understanding how to build a long-term struggle, nor would it ever be. For many IWW leaders and intellectuals, ideas of revolution and struggle had more appeal than the day to day organizing needed to build long-term worker power. For an organization so dedicated to the struggles of the nation’s poorest, a lot of its leaders and famous speakers could abstract the working class at the same time as providing material assistance to it at its hardest times.

I think the real relevance of this story today is in the tricky connections between free speech and long-term organizing. The commitment of American radicals to free speech as a principle has waxed and waned over time, but today, like a century ago, it’s high on the radical agenda. And fighting for the spaces and rights for that speech against what can be a coercive state is a major demand, like a century ago. So I guess I see Occupy Wall Street and the IWW free speech fights as having certain similarities. Demanding the soapbox is a vital principle, but it’s awfully hard to build on that to other issues that connect directly to everyday people’s lives. This went far to undermine Occupy and proved a barrier for the IWW as well. The free speech fights were noble, but in the end they didn’t do a whole lot for empowering the rank and file to control their own lives.

This is the 124th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • JL

    Yeah, as someone who has my own critiques of Occupy from the inside, but has often argued with various outside critiques (including those in posts and commens on this blog), this is the first thing I’ve read where my immediate reaction is “Yeah, the parallels are by no means exact*, but I can see some clear similarities in what was done well and poorly here.”

    Three years ago it was really getting into what I generally think of as Raid Season or Raid Autumn, and there were starting to be arguments around whether staying in the camps and getting raided was good strategy (in Boston, we were in a court battle to stay in our camp, so I feel like this played out differently and the heat of this argument happened much later, but it wasn’t as though we didn’t notice the discussions elsewhere). Most people, including me, thought that staying and getting raided was worth it, not only because of principle but because dramatic raids were increasing public sympathy. In Boston, we’d already been through one raid, the expansion camp raid, which was the first really dramatic raid on an urban Occupy camp, and it had hugely increased Occupy Boston’s ranks.

    I still think this was true – I have argued here before for the value of the camps as organizing sites – but people got so wrapped up in the camp fight that they couldn’t figure out how to switch gears mentally once the raids happened and the camps were gone. OWS itself spent months trying to re-establish an outdoor physical presence and getting run off, culminating in the M17 raid on its six-month anniversary and smaller police responses in the days after, which were together violent enough to destroy morale, erase further dreams of a new camp, and leave people flailing. Occupy Boston tried to avoid the OWS situation, immediately forming things like neighborhood councils and looking for existing labor struggles and the like to support – OB always had a pretty good rapport with local labor – but all the internal conflict that people had been putting on hold during the struggle to keep the camp blew up in everyone’s faces, and within a couple of months a lot of people had left in anger and the rest were heavily factional and struggling to get much done. Interestingly, Occupy Oakland, which gets a lot of flak for tactics, adjusted relatively well to the new era. Occupy Chicago, which had never been able to establish a long-term camp in the first place, did very well.

    *For one thing, Occupy sites around the country were run overwhelmingly by locals, not people who came from somewhere else to organize.

    • And I would not make the claim that they are exact parallels of course because there are never exact parallels in history. But I do think that understanding the IWW’s actions in these events can inform debates over organizing today for the reasons you discuss here. This is what I am hoping the IWW book does.

      • DrDick

        I think the biggest parallel is the ability of both groups to mobilize relatively large groups and to get publicity for their issues, combined with a general inability to organize effectively going forward, thus losing their momentum and much of whatever gains they won.

        • DocAmazing

          It’s not like there aren’t other organizations in the present day that can latch onto the momentum generated by groups like Occupy. They just have Other Priorities.

      • JL

        One legacy of Occupy, I think, is the way it politicized and mobilized a bunch of people for other movements. Nearly every movement that I come into contact with, from climate justice and the anti-fossil-fuel movement, to Fight for 15, to the growing anti-police brutality movement centered around Ferguson, to our local sex worker organizing, to the reproductive justice fight in Texas, to increased-minimum-wage campaigns, I run into Occupiers among the organizers, and in many cases, Occupy was their first experience with such work. I’ve also run into a few indie journalists who got into that work because of Occupy. There are a few city councilors, aldermen, etc, around the country – we have a local one, Cambridge’s Nadeem Mazen, who was part of Occupy Boston’s Media Working Group – who are Occupy veterans.

        Did something similar happen with the IWW, or did their activism mostly stay IWW-specific?

        Were they into social-services-as-activism (like Occupy Sandy, or the anti-globalization movement’s post-Katrina Common Ground Relief, or Mountain Justice’s service projects in Appalachia, or the Black Panthers’ free clinics and breakfast programs for schoolkids) at all? That’s a form of activism that I associate pretty strongly with anarchism-influenced movements, but I don’t know when that started.

        • Oh damn, that’s a good question. I was just talking about this with a friend today–what do these people do after the IWW goes up in flames? Some become communists, which is a fascinating ideological shift, although it can probably be explained generally as “what are you going to do.” I don’t think I can answer this yet in a meaningful way though.

          • JL

            Some become communists, which is a fascinating ideological shift…

            Occupy has had a couple of “fascinating ideological shifts” as well. Google Justine Tunney if you want to read about the trainwreckiest possible version of this. From Occupier to…whatever it is that one would call her ideology now. Technofuturist proto-fascist gamergater. Who locked everyone else out of the old OWS Twitter account and has been using it as her personal platform for months.

            Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing the answer when you find out (the book in general is sounding pretty interesting). I’m mostly pretty happy when I look around other movements and see people who learned activism in Occupy contributing productively and in some cases taking major roles and/or bringing in needed skills or analyses that were lacking before. Occasionally I am embarrassed to see people who learned activism in Occupy doing things like obliviously co-opting someone else’s march. Certainly there would have been no lack of movements and causes for the IWW people to spread out into at the time, to attempt to apply whatever lessons they’d learned and skills they’d gained.

  • Jhoosier

    Anti-IWW cartoon from Spokane newspaper

    To me, the imagery evokes exactly the opposite sentiment. It seems like a big bully shutting up the little guy. How things change..

    • Vance Maverick

      Yeah, it’s not easy putting yourself in a position to identify with the 50-foot sandal-shod figure of Spokane, but that must have been how it was intended.

  • DrDick

    Worth noting that in the Pacific Northwest, and the Midwest, most of the migrant farm laborers were Indians from reservations in the regions.

    • I don’t think that’s quite precise. There were some for sure, but there just weren’t enough of them to provide that needed labor force. There was a whole migrant labor network that rode the rails from job to job in timber and agriculture, to and from the cities. That network was almost entirely white. I do know that the BIA was “encouraging” Indians to leave the reservations in order to work on the farms around the West.

      • DrDick

        It really was the major source of income for a great many of the Indians in both regions (probably the largest, though I have not seem any precise statistics). Again this is almost in agriculture (though timber was important on some reservations).

        • That I believe, but that’s different from dominating the labor force.

          • DrDick

            I could be wrong, but it has been my impression from the literature that they were a large segment of the agricultural work force.

            • DrDick

              I noodled around a bit and it seems you are correct. It seems they were more heavily concentrated in some areas than others, like the hop harvest. There is sadly a pervasive problem with the Native American literature (mostly originating from NAS programs) of overblown claims not supported by the data. Ward Churchill was not as unusual as some would like to pretend.

              • There is an interesting dissertation being done on this topic of Native Americans being recruited for harvesting in Colorado. It’s very promising.

                • DrDick

                  There is also a good book on the Choctaw in the timber industry in SW Oklahoma, Choctaws at the Crossroads.

                • DrDick

                  Also, Martha Knack has done a lot of work on Paiute in the labor force in Nevada/Utah.

    • Incidentally, the very first free speech fight was I believe in Missoula.

      • DrDick

        I know there was a vibrant Free Speech Movement (and a Speakers Corner) here during that period, but really do not know much about it.

  • DocAmazing

    It sounds as though the IWW was pretty thoroughly exhausted after its victory in Spokane. Moving on might well have been a good decision from the point of view of maintaining the organization, rather than grinding it away on one area’s struggles. What was the state of organization among the Spokane workers when the IWW changed focus?

  • I think I’m going to like your book a lot.

  • cpinva

    this is a problem confronting every organization, throughout history: the inability or disinterest in doing the grunt work necessary to keep things moving along. those groups that pay attention to the nitty gritty details survive and prosper, those only interested in the “Big Picture” tend to fade away.

    • JL

      This doesn’t sound like it’s about lack of interest in grunt work to me, it sounds like poor strategic judgment as conditions on the ground changed, possibly combined with ego and limited capacity. I can’t imagine that the organizing that the IWW did in that region, the production of their newsletter, dealing with the logistics of bringing in strikers, keeping track of arrestees, etc, were accomplished without serious grunt work. The cultural productions that the Wobblies put on in their various fights would have taken a lot of grunt work – indeed, one of the obvious criticisms of such pageantry is that it requires a lot of grunt work for, in most cases, little strategic gain.

  • Brett

    What really made workers angry was the employment agency scam. Companies and farmers would contract out with employment agencies, forcing workers to use them for a job. Workers paid for this service. If a job wasn’t there when they arrived, no money back!

    Nothing new under the sun when it comes to exploitation, Jesus. I suppose we should at least be grateful that the “labor contractors” and temp agencies of today don’t charge you for signing up to work for them, although this shit still happens in the modeling/acting fields as well as other rich countries (looking at you, Gulf countries!).

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