The IWW in California, 1905-1931

Socialism in San Diego

  • Conditions they are bad.
  • And some of you are sad;
  • You cannot see your enemy,
  • The Class that lives in luxury.
  • You working men are poor,
  • Will be for evermore,
  • As long as you permit the few
  • To guide your destiny.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) believed the “historic mission of the working class is to do away with capitalism” — to take power from the “rich and well-born” and give it to the workers.

1923 IWW ad. Most Wobblies, in the words of an unnamed representative, thought it was a “complete failure and a fiasco in which the organization should have taken no part.”

1923 IWW ad. Most Wobblies, in the words of an unnamed representative, thought it was a “complete failure and a fiasco in which the organization should have taken no part.”

Also known as “Wobblies,” the IWW had a “wandering membership,” which roamed through California between 1910 and the Depression. They went to lumber and construction camps, fields and orchards during harvest, and incited workers to strike against intolerable conditions.

“Imbued with an ideal for a new society,” Weintrab observes, “the IWW carried on a vigorous, militant fight for free speech, filling the jails of Fresno, San Diego, San Pedro, and many other cities. The IWW reached those neglected by the traditional trade union organizations” — including Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican workers — “and elevated them, if not economically, at least with the philosophy of an egalitarian society.” The IWW — whom the L.A. Times labeled the “I Won’t Workers” — envisioned a general strike across America. “Such a strike would result in the capitalist class being forced to hand over the reins of society to the workers.” It would also free a growing number of political prisoners.

Jail became a badge of honor, and the prisoners behaved the same behind bars: “These men tormented their jailors by singing all night long when they packed the jails in the free-speech fights.”

The most famous free-speech fight took place in San Diego in 1912. On January 8, the San Diego Common Council passed an ordinance forbidding street-corner gatherings within 49 blocks of the city center. A month later, police arrested 41 men for violating the ordinance. “Word spread quickly among the hobo fraternity. Those spoiling for a fight began to pour into San Diego...by foot and by rail.

“At various times during the San Diego Free Speech Fight there were as many as 5000 Wobblies there, yet the total original strength of the IWW in San Diego was not more than 50 men.... The Wobblies continued to come even after they were aware of the brutal beatings their comrades were getting in and out of jail.”

Armed guards patrolled the county line, dispersing any group of three or more people. “Since there was only one railroad track into San Diego, this method was effective in apprehending most of the men who tried to come in and any who tried to get out.”

The Fire Department gave the “water treatment” — spraying crowds with a fire hose — to every assemblage, even a religious meeting by mistake.

The San Diego Tribune advocated a permanent solution: “Why are the taxpayers of San Diego compelled to endure this imposition? Simply because the law which these lawbreakers flout prevents the citizens of San Diego from taking these impudent outlaws away from the police and hanging them or shooting them. That would end the trouble in an hour.”

Bands of vigilantes formed on the outskirts of San Diego. They met freight cars, ordered the “hobos” off and “beat them unmercifully...and forced them to run a gauntlet of 106 men armed with clubs, whips, and guns.” In one instance, they burned “IWW” onto a man’s back.

The San Diego Free Speech Fight of 1912 called national attention to the IWW cause. Weintrab says it was the most important demonstration in California. Yet most Wobblies, in the words of an unnamed representative, thought it was a “complete failure and a fiasco in which the organization should have taken no part.”

“In so far as the IWW was concerned,” Enness Ellae told the Industrial Worker in 1945, “the most notable result of the Free Speech Fight was that the privateers intensified their hatred for them.”

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