San Diego became famous for the Free Speech protests of 1912. It also became infamous, in many circles, for the tactics used to stop them.
In the early 1900s, San Diego “lived in virtual isolation from the by the rest of the United States.”
John D. Spreckels, c. 1900. “The frenzied pace that San Diego put forth in its building program drew workers from all over the country. More importantly, it drew the attention of the Wobblies.”
San Diego Historical Society
Blocked by mountains and an ocean, a foreign country to the south, and only one railroad line to Los Angeles, it was difficult to reach. The city hadn’t developed the harbor people wanted. And its population was dwindling. “During this period, some Americans confused San Diego with Santiago, Cuba.”
Between 1910 and 1912, however, San Diego grew exponentially. Real estate, “The city’s main economic base,” flourished, especially in Fairmount, Bellmont, Eastgate, and City Heights. Money for new construction, in 1911, was $5,703,000, a mark, said the San Diego Tribune, “No other city in the country of equal population will anywhere near approach.” And few cities, ever, were as dominated by one person.
John D. Spreckels owned the city’s utilities, ferry system, two of the three newspapers, “short haul lines” (i.e,. local railroad tracks used for hauling), most of downtown and the waterfront, and a controlling interest in the Southern California Mountain Water Company. In a word, “John D. reigned.”
In May 1911, the state legislature gave San Diego (read: John D. Spreckels) the right to control its tidelands — i.e., its harbor. And in November a bond issue passed for dredging the channel and plans for an 800-foot-long pier. “The frenzied pace that San Diego put forth in its building program drew workers from all over the country. More importantly, it drew the attention of the Wobblies.”
The Industrial Workers of the World— a.k.a. IWW, a.k.a. the Wobblies — was founded by William Dudley “Big Bill” Haywood in 1905. “The abuses of capitalism can no longer be tolerated,” claimed its “January Manifesto.” In a statement prophetic about the San Diego Free Speech Fight, the Manifesto also said that “employer associations attempted to crush by brutal force any resistance to their will.”
The preamble to the IWW’s constitution declares: “It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.... By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”
The Wobblies “had a fierce dislike for anything political.” Like Gandhi, only decades before, they advocated changing the system by nonviolent means. “In addition to scorning the bullet and the bomb, the organization gave little credence to the power of the ballot. They devoted themselves instead to economic action.”
The IWW envisioned a nationwide general strike. To achieve it they first had to foster hundreds of local strikes, “slow down or sit down strikes on the job.” Their methods of “indirect action” included shipping materials to the wrong destination, doing repairable damage to a machine (so they could use it when they defeated capitalism), and “telling customers the truth about the defects of a product” The national strike would paralyze industry, forcing it to capitulate to the workers, and “the industrial state would be a reality.”
On occasion some Wobblies resorted to violence. In McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, the IWW local “adopted an eye-for-an-eye philosophy in a dispute with business and civil authorities.” At least a dozen people died.
Much more often, the IWW were victims of “needless brutality” from police and state militia. In an article for Mother Earth, Alexander Berkman said troopers reminded him of Russian Cossacks. The term “Cossack” became popular with Wobblies, “who used it frequently to describe the policemen they confronted.” Wobblies demonstrated across the country. Their strongest cohorts were men who moved from job to job, migrant workers, “usually unmarried and with no permanent homes.” These “footloose rebels” enjoyed a freedom of movement that became legendary. “Their knowledge of freight-train schedules could, at times, get them to their destinations faster than paying customers.”
The IWW fought for free speech in New Castle, Pennsylvania; Missoula, Montana; Walla Walla, Washington; Fresno, California; and Spokane, Washington. In Spokane, employment agencies demanded fees for finding applicants jobs — then sent them to nonexistent forms or lumber camps. The IWW launched a “Don’t Buy Jobs” campaign against the “job sharks.” They established a soapbox in downtown Spokane. Each person that mounted it was promptly arrested, and “another would just as quickly take the place of an arrested comrade.” Within 24 hours, 150 free-speechers were in jail.
Organizers threatened to bring in IWW members from around the country. “The thought of an army of thousands of Wobblies marching on their city panicked Spokane authorities. The city capitulated.... Jail-cell doors were thrown open, allowing IWWs to leave with an understanding they must get out of town. An investigation started against the employment agencies produced some fines and loss of licenses. Street speaking returned to Spokane.”
The IWW used the same tactics in San Diego—flood the city and city jails with Wobblies, make free speech an issue, receive national media coverage, but the results were far less peaceful.