History of the Labor Movement in the United States - Vol. 4

By Philip S. Foner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
The Free-Speech Fights, 1709-1911

"Fellow workers and friends" was the usual salutation that opened the speech of an I.W.W. soapbox orator. In the years between 1909 and the first World War, these four words came to be associated with some of the most spectacular attempts to put the Bill of Rights into practice the country has ever seen -- the free-speech fights of the I.W.W. The I.W.W. riveted national attention upon itself as Wobbly after Wobbly was yanked down from soapboxes by the police in scores of cities and marched off to jail, after uttering these four challenging words.

"The struggle for the use of the streets for free speech and the right to organize," was the usual I.W.W. description of a free-speech fight. It was essential for the I.W.W. that the right to speak on the streets be protected because this was the method the Wobblies relied upon to gather new recruits among the homeless, itinerant workers who poured into the western cities by the thousands every winter. "The street corner was their only hall," wrote an I.W.W. organizer, "and if denied the right to agitate there then they must be silent."1 Here at the street-corner meetings they could distribute quantities of literature, newspapers, leaflets, and pamphlets, all carrying the message of industrial unionism to the unorganized. How important it was to the I.W.W. that this educational process continue was revealed in the Industrial Worker's explanation for the free- speech fights: "We have little desire to enter into these scraps, neither will we stand idly by and see our only hope taken from us -- the right to educate the working class. When we lose that we have lost all our hopes and ambitions, so take care what you are playing with when you try to throttle Freedom of Speech."2 Street-speaking was important for still another reason. In a strike the worker's side was either completely suppressed or distorted by the commercial press. The most effective way the Wobblies could get their story to the public was by means of their open- air meetings. Being colorful speakers, the Wobblies usually attracted large audiences, and they not only aroused sympathy for the strikers, but,

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