Industrial Workers of The World Philosophy and Tactics - IWW Tactics and Action - Direct Action - Soapboxing and Free Speech Fights

Soapboxing and Free Speech Fights

Although lauded by civil libertarians as an important part of the struggles for civil and constitutional rights, the IWW's free speech fights were carried out for more concrete goals. If they weren't allowed to talk to workers, they wouldn't be able to organize workers. Wobbly activists simultaneously demonstrated that direct action works, and that it was possible for members of the lower strata of society to challenge authority and, through determination and perseverance, to frequently win.

The workers and the IWW had a common enemy in the communities that became free speech battlegrounds. These were the job sharks, agencies that controlled employment in agriculture and the timber industry. The combination of sharks, anti-union employers, and hostile or indifferent communities kept wages low, and employment uncertain for many workers.

The attitude in some communities toward IWW members engaging in the fight for free speech is nicely characterized by an editorial in the San Diego Tribune on March 4, 1912:

Hanging is none too good for them and they would be much better dead, for they are absolutely useless in the human economy. They are the waste material of creation and they should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion, there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.

The strategy of the IWW during free speech fights was to put out a call for "footloose" workers to come to the community, and to challenge a no speaking ordinance simply by violating it. Wobblies would talk about the job, the unfairness of the system, or would simply read the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. In violation of the law, they would get arrested. By filling the jails with workers, the IWW was able to put pressure on the community's taxpayers, who ultimately had to pay the bill for feeding and housing the prisoners. The taxpayers presumably had the power to avoid such expenses by forcing the local administration to change its policies, or to overturn the ordinance itself.

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