The Wobblies and the Free Speech Fight of 1909

Spokane's Radical Past

To the modern observer, Spokane is a relatively quiet regional city. Full of the comings and goings of its own residents but unlikely to generate news of interest to the national media, the city keeps a much lower profile than its larger neighbors of Seattle and Portland.

A well-informed person from New York City or Boston might know of Spokane for its connection to NCAA basketball through the Gonzaga Bulldogs, or maybe even for the World's Fair the city hosted in 1974, but probably little else. The average Spokanite most likely considers a lack of newsworthy events to be one of the city's many attractive qualities.

A century ago, however, Spokane had a national reputation as a rough and tumultuous frontier town, populated by a large number of migrant laborers, miners, and lumbermen. From around 1908 through 1917, East Coast newspapers ran headlines describing Spokane's troubled relationship between city and business leaders on one side, and organized labor on the other. These tensions culminated in the Free Speech Fight of 1909, considered a watershed event in the radical labor movement of the early twentieth century.

During the first decade of the 1900s, many of Spokane's large population of itinerant workers found themselves the victims of a corrupt bargain between employment agencies and employers. The agencies would charge job seekers $1.00 each to be placed with an employer that would fire them after a day or so, forcing the worker to return to the agency and pay another dollar for another job, sometimes with the same employer.

International Workers of the World (IWW) song book

The Wobblies Enter the Scene

Anger at the situation worked in the favor of a new player on the scene in American labor relations, the International Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW, commonly known as the 'Wobblies' served as a general union for the loggers and miners in Spokane, with many sister chapters nationwide. Its ever-growing ranks began holding larger and larger rallies on street corners in front of Spokane's corrupt employment agencies, protesting their poor treatment of workers.

In 1908, pressure from the business community led the city council to pass a measure that banned all public speaking in the "fire limits", referring to the core of downtown Spokane that had been rebuilt following the devastating fire of 1889. Initially the Wobblies obeyed the new law, but an August 1909 exemption allowing the Salvation Army to hold public speeches within the fire limits prompted the IWW to take action.

Fight for Free Speech Declared

On November 2, 1909, a large group of Wobblies and other supporters set up soapboxes at the intersection of Stevens St and Front Ave (now Spokane Falls Blvd) and took turns attempting to make speeches, one-by-one. The event had been well-publicized by the IWW, and the police were waiting to arrest every man and woman who dared flaunt the law. Fire hoses were also used to suppress the will of those present, but they were undeterred.

Over 100 Wobblies were taken to jail the first day of the protest. Within weeks, the number had swelled to over 500. The city's jail was not up to the task of incarcerating so many people, and conditions quickly became untenable. The military barracks at nearby Fort George Wright, and even an abandoned school were converted into makeshift prisons.

Even with the expanded facilities, conditions at the jailhouses were deplorable. Many of the imprisoned became seriously ill and several reportedly died during the ordeal or soon after release. City leaders and police were unsympathetic to the cause of the demonstrators and even resorted to confiscating nearly all copies of an IWW-published newspaper that reported on conditions within the jails.

Despite dismissive attitudes from Spokane newspapers, by early 1910 the whole affair had gained considerable attention back East. Outside pressure on Spokane's civic leaders to end the unrest, coupled with the high cost of maintaining the jails, was sufficient to bring them to the bargaining table with the IWW in March.

The agreement between the two groups was touted as a win by both sides, but in historical context was a clear victory for the IWW. The jailed Wobblies and their supporters were released, the public speaking law was quickly repealed, and eventually the corrupt employment agencies were disbanded. The Spokane Free Speech Fight was used as a model and rallying cry for similar fights that followed across the country.

Decline of the Wobblies and Legacy of the Free Speech Fight

The IWW continued to wield considerable influence in Spokane politics and industry for the next several years. As the United States entered World War I, however, the authorities' willingness to tolerate dissent had completely evaporated.

In August of 1917, the Wobblies threatened a general strike affecting all areas of the region's industry. Worker demands included clean camp conditions and a workday capped at eight hours. In the new wartime atmosphere, this was considered seditious and the response was swift.

Washington's Governor mobilized the National Guard which moved to occupy Spokane and declare a state of martial law. Public speech was again banned, and card-carrying Wobblies were arrested on sight. The IWW's offices in Spokane were seized and all employees were arrested. These actions effectively ended the Wobblies' period of dominance in Spokane, and similar events took place nationwide. The era of the radical labor movement was over.

While the events of Spokane's Free Speech Fight are largely forgotten, the legacy of the labor movement remains. The eight-hour workday, forty-hour workweek, sick leave, vacation pay, paid holidays, workplace safety, minimum wage, and collective bargaining are all rights enjoyed by American workers that were earned through actions such as those done by the Wobblies.

Spokane may not make much of a ripple in today's 24-hour news cycle, but the events of a century ago helped create a wave of change across the country and around the world.

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Spokane Washington 1909