The 1909 Spokane, Washington Free Speech Campaign Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The 1909 Spokane, Washington Free Speech Campaign

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The Setting - Spokane, Washington - 1909

The City of Spokane is located in eastern Washington State, near the Idaho border.

In 1909, Spokane was a centre for the agriculture, lumber, construction and mining industries. The nature of agricultural work and, to a lesser extent, work in the lumber industry, is that the work is temporary. At some point, the harvest is collected or the forest levelled, and those who did the work have to move on.

In Spokane, as in other cities in the United States at the time, employment agencies recruited workers for these jobs. These agencies typically charged the prospective workers a fee of one dollar to refer them to businesses that could use their services. If a worker did not have the fee, it was deducted from his1 pay.

The nature of these employment agencies made rapid turnover of the workforce more profitable. A number of the employment agencies entered into 'agreements' with the employers to maintain a constant status of 'one crew coming, one working and one going'. Workers often found themselves fired after a single day. The next day, they would have to go back to the employment agency and pay another dollar for another job. The one dollar fees were split with the businesses that hired the workers.

The Industrial Workers of the World

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905, was a union like no other. It organised workers largely ignored by more conventional unions; migratory farm workers, lumberjacks, construction workers, and others whose jobs required that they move around the country rather then settle in any one place.

Hopping freight trains was the most common means of transportation for the typical IWW member. These transient workers were most often labelled 'bums2' or 'hobos3'.

One IWW recruitment poster showed a picture of an obviously 'down and out' man walking along some railroad tracks. The caption read:

He built the road- With others of his CLASS, he built the road. Now o'er it, many a weary mile, he packs his load, chasing a JOB. Spurred on by HUNGERS goad. He walks and walks, and wonders why in HELL he built the road.

The IWW also refused to categorise its members by craft or trade. The ultimate aim of the IWW was to create 'One Big Union' for all workers.

Logging and agricultural workers lived in company-owned housing on company-owned land. Organising these workers at the job site was hard, dangerous, and illegal. The IWW did much of its organising by way of public speech making and singing in population centres where the workers gathered when not working.

In 1908, the IWW set up a union hall in Spokane, through which labourers could find a job without paying the one dollar fee. IWW organisers began speaking on street corners, especially on Stevens Street, where many of the employment agencies were located. The IWW's message was 'Don't buy jobs'.

The Spokane Free Speech Campaign

The political and industrial leaders of the City of Spokane tired of the IWW and its organisers after a matter of months. They passed a law prohibiting street meetings and public rallies in Spokane. IWW members and organisers obeyed this law until the summer of 1909, when it was amended to make exceptions for religious organisations. The amendment was intended specifically to allow members of The Salvation Army to engage in public speaking.

The IWW regarded The Salvation Army as one if its worst enemies. While the IWW was preaching militant direct action to result in change here and now, The Salvation Army was preaching quiet acceptance of 'the way things are' here and now as a way of easing entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. The two groups were sending opposing messages to the same audience.

The IWW opinion of The Salvation Army is stated most clearly in the song 'The Preacher and the Slave', composed by IWW organiser Joe Hill in 1911. The chorus of that song, which contains specific references to The Salvation Army, is:

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

IWW organisers tested the city's determination by going out and speaking on the street corners again, in violation of the law. They were quickly arrested.

It was at this point, in October of 1909, that the IWW national leadership decided that it was time for a major political action. The IWW newspaper in Spokane, The Industrial Worker, ran the story of local events under the headline 'Wanted - Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane'.

The national headquarters sent a letter to all of the IWW local offices throughout the United States:

November 2nd. Free Speech Day. All lovers of free speech are asked to be in readiness to be in Spokane on that date... It is of course needless to add that the meetings will be orderly and no irregularities of any kind will be tolerated.

From all over the United States, IWW members and others who had got word of the campaign rode the freight trains into Spokane.

On 2 November, 1909, hundreds of workers from all over the country were in Spokane, having come for the specific purpose of being arrested. One person would get up on a soapbox, begin speaking, and promptly be arrested. The speeches usually got no further than 'Fellow workers...' before the arrest was made.

The Spokane Police Department arrested 103 speakers that day. IWW organisers who were present report that there was one occasion when the police department took slightly longer to make the arrest. The man on the soapbox, who had come to be arrested, not to speak, found himself tongue-tied. His entire speech was: 'Fellow workers, - Where the Hell are the cops?'. The police then saved the poor man by hauling him off his soapbox and taking him to jail.

The free speech campaign continued. By the end of November, 500 'speakers' were in jail. Frank Little, an IWW organiser, was sentenced to 30 days of hard labour for reading the United States Declaration of Independence from a platform.

The Spokane jail filled. An abandoned, unheated schoolhouse was pressed into service to hold the ever-increasing numbers of prisoners. When the schoolhouse filled, an empty Army barracks was placed at the city's disposal.

The speakers kept on coming. Over the course of four months, 1200 people had been jailed.

Eight editors published one edition each of The Industrial Worker. Upon the publication of each edition of the newspaper, the editor was arrested and his duties were taken over by his pre-designated successor.

The speakers were generally sentenced to 30 days in jail under Spokane Municipal Law, while IWW organisers were being sentenced to six months under State conspiracy laws. John Panzer, one of the organisers, wrote the following description of events in the jail.

While awaiting our trial in the city jail, the state prisoners were put in one row of cells on one side of the cell block, and the city prisoners, who were convicted for speaking on the streets, were across the hallway on the other side of the cellblock. They were starting to serve their 30-day sentences, but they refused to go out and work on the rock pile, so they were put on 'bread and water' and kept locked in their cells.
We, who were the leaders awaiting trial were being fed 'steak and fried potatoes' and other such foods, so we leaders went on a hunger strike. It took a lot of will power, but when they brought our food, we threw it out through the bars on the floor of the hallway. There were steaks, potatoes, bread, coffee and tin plates and cups all over the floor.

An article in the Spokane Press4 described this scene:

Members if the IWW who are confined in the Franklin School as prisoners were marched to the central police station yesterday for their bath. Word of their coming spread, and crowds of people lined Front Avenue, intent on getting a view of the men. On their return, the crowd had increased and citizens bombarded the prisoners with a shower of sandwiches wrapped in paper, oranges, apples, and sacks of tobacco.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an IWW organiser, took a lesson from suffragists in England, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, and tried to delay her arrest by chaining herself to a lamppost before she started speaking. Her chains were cut and she was arrested in short order. She reported from the jail that the Sheriff of Spokane was using the women's section as a brothel. Members of the Police Department were procuring customers and the Sheriff was keeping the profits.

An IWW Success Story

As months passed and speakers kept arriving in Spokane to get themselves arrested, the leaders of the City did some accounting. They had spent over $250,000 convicting and jailing speakers. They were spending additional thousands of dollars every week to maintain extra police and to feed and house prisoners.

On 4 March, 1910, the City of Spokane released all of the free speech prisoners. A few days later, the Governor of Washington State pardoned the IWW organisers who were being held on conspiracy charges. The right of the union to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly was recognised by the city. The Industrial Workers of the World accepted a permit system for public speaking proposed by the City of Spokane.

19 of the employment agencies had their business licenses revoked by the City. Later investigations into the agencies led to regulatory legislation. Direct hiring of migratory workers by the businesses that employed them became the norm in Spokane.

Between 1909 and 1913, the Industrial Workers of the World staged free speech campaigns in at least 20 different cities, establishing their right to recruit members through street meetings.

'Hallelujah, I'm A Bum!'

This song, sung to the tune of the hymn 'Revive Us Again', was adapted by the Spokane IWW in 1908, having first been printed in the IWW Industrial Union Bulletin on 4 April, 1908. Although the identity of the author is unknown, it sums up the attitude of the IWW during that period.

O, why don't you work
Like other men do?
How in hell can I work
When there's no work to do?


Hallelujah, I'm a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout-
To revive us again.
O, why don't you save,
All the money you earn?
If I did not eat
I'd have money to burn.


O, I like my boss-
He's a good friend of mine;
That's why I'm starving
Out in the bread-line.


I can't buy a job,
For I ain't got the dough,
So I ride a box-car
For I'm a hobo.


Whenever I get
All the money I earn,
The boss will be broke,
And to work he must turn.


1These occupations tended to be entirely male at the time. There are now female migratory agricultural workers in the United States.2In the United States, the word 'bum' is frequently used to mean 'tramp'. The word appears to have as its origin a shortening of the German Bummler, a loafer and ne'er-do-well. American slang gets specific with types of bums. There's the beach bum and the ski bum, for instance. 'Bum' is also used as a verb in the United States, meaning to take something, with permission and without payment. 'Can I bum a cigarette?'3This is another Americanism for 'tramp'. The origin of this word is most likely a shortening of 'hoe boy'. The difference between a hobo and a tramp was that a hobo was a migratory worker and a tramp was a considered to be a person who travelled to avoid working at all. The word 'hobo' has pretty much fallen out of use, except within the phrase 'hobo jungle', which is used to describe a grouping of temporary shelters, usually near freight yards, erected and occupied by transients.4A small, independent newspaper that went out of business in the 1930s.

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