Part five of our series looks at the free speech campaigns the Wobblies waged in their efforts to organise agency workers.
The Industrial Workers of the World set about organising migratory workers across the west of the US. In this effort they encountered fierce resistance.
The corrupt and exploitative role played by employment agencies was a particular focus. The Wobblies would have found the role of employment agencies and the working conditions at the likes of Sports Direct in Britain today very familiar.
Every obstacle was put in the way of their campaigns. Street meetings were banned, speakers were arrested and the distribution of literature prevented.
The IWW responded to this challenge with open defiance, calling on members and supporters to break the law and fill the jails.
When free speech campaigns were launched, the word went out for volunteers to travel across country, “riding the rails”, with hundreds heeding the call.
In the years before US entry into the First World War the IWW fought some 30 free speech campaigns, beginning in Missoula in 1909 and ending in the bloody Everett massacre of 1916. All that varied was the degree of violence and brutality the authorities were prepared to use.
In Missoula, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, her husband Jack Jones, Frank Little and others launched a campaign of street meetings to recruit migratory workers.
When the speakers were arrested, they sent out a call for reinforcements, and volunteers poured into the town “by freight cars — on top, inside and below”.
The jail was filled and the cost of incarceration soon made the policy unpopular. Prisoners demanded to be fed and insisted on a trial, all adding to the expense for the town authorities, and they sang rebel songs non-stop.
Throughout the campaign the IWW policy was one of passive resistance and by and large this remained a feature of the free speech fights. With public opinion rallying to the cause, the authorities capitulated.
While the Missoula campaign was coming to an end, another was starting up in Spokane.
Here, on 2 November 1909, James Thompson was arrested when he mounted his soapbox to speak. A succession of others followed and by the end of the day 150 people had been arrested.
The IWW hall was raided and the local leadership was arrested. The cry went out for “men to fill the jails of Spokane” and hundreds of Wobblies travelled to the town.
The police began a policy of systematic brutality to deter protesters. Men were beaten, crammed into cells so crowded they had to stand day and night, and starved. They were hosed down with freezing water and then left in unheated cells. Many became ill and three died from the abuse. Hundreds were hospitalised, many with pneumonia.
Among those arrested was Gurley Flynn. Once again the authorities capitulated as hundreds of determined men arrived in the town.
As Gurley Flynn later observed, the “unspeakable” Spokane police chief, Sullivan, was shot a few months later “sitting at his window…undoubtedly by one of the thousands he had brutally attacked”.
The most savage fight was in San Diego. Here the arrests began on 8 February 1912 and the town began to fill up with Wobblies. The local press demanded repression with the Tribune proclaiming that “hanging is none too good for them” and advocating that they should be shot. Prisoners were starved and beaten with one 65 year old, Michael Hoey, dying from his injuries.
Vigilantes were given free rein to brutalise the Wobblies with prisoners being handed over to them to be beaten and deported from the town at gunpoint. Wobblies arriving in town were beaten by hundreds of vigilante thugs.
The anarchist Ben Reitman was beaten, urinated on, branded and then forced to kiss the US flag. And on 4 May police shot dead a Wobbly, Joseph Mikolasek.
Yet even here the fight for free speech was won.
Crucial was the bravery, endurance and determination of the Wobblies, but much of the labour movement also rallied to their cause. AFL locals defied their national leadership and donated funds and in many towns Socialist Party members joined in the fight.
The last episode was the most murderous. In the port of Everett in August 1916 a free speech fight began. Men were beaten and deported from the town.
The IWW responded with a boatload of 200 volunteers who arrived on 5 November. They were met with gunfire from deputies on shore. Men who fell into the water were fired on.
By the time the shooting stopped, four Wobblies were dead and one mortally wounded on board the ship and at least another six were dead in the water with their bodies never recovered. So eager were the deputies that they accidentally shot dead two of their own number.
Some 74 Wobblies were put on trial for the deputies’ murder, but the first man to stand trial, Thomas Tracy, was found not guilty on 4 May 1917 and they were all released. It was a massive victory for the IWW. No deputy ever stood trial.