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Wobfest 2010 in Baltimore: John Duda talks about the Spokane Free Speech Fights


Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company

Early in the 20th century in the Pacific Northwest, employment agencies started charging fees to casual laborers and itinerant workers looking for work, such as in logging camps. Members of the

—aka the Wobblies—started trying to organize these workers, frequently by speaking out in the streets. And in 1909 in Spokane, Wash., the efforts by employment agency bosses—who the Wobblies called "job sharks"—in league with law enforcement and hired, private muscle to prevent the Wobblies from speaking in the street led to the Spokane Free Speech Fight, civil disobedience battle between radical organizers and local power that resulted n hundreds of men being arrested, but eventually ended with Spokane revoking the ordinance banning street speaking.

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John Duda, a co-founder of the

collective, researched the Spokane Free Speech Fights and edited

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Wanted: Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane

, published by the

last year to commemorate the fight's 100th anniversary. Subtitled "Fighting for Free Speech with the Hobo Agitators of the Industrial Workers of the World,"

Wanted

offers a collection of essays from the time—including a number of elegantly potent speeches from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—cartoons, and photographs that create an invaluable look at a Wobbly action that incorporated wit and humor into tactics fighting the all-too-familiar ways moneyed power tries to quiet dissent. This weekend Duda talks about the Spokane Free Speech Fight at

, which takes place in Baltimore this weekend.

City Paper

caught up with Duda at Red Emma's to talk about why what the Spokane Free Speech Fight can teach labor organizing today

.

City Paper:

How did this book come about?

John Duda:

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I had always been kind of aware of the free speech fights and I've been kind of interested in the Industrial Workers of the World. And I had been sitting around with Franklin and Penelope Rosement—well, Franklin

—but they were the people behind Charles H. Kerr Publishing, which is the oldest continuously operated labor press. It's pretty impressive. And they, basically, were saying we're coming up on the 100th anniversary [of the Spokane Free Speech Fight], and they said somebody needs to do a book on the fight, because it was a victory. So much of radical history is a wonderful, tragic fight that ends in all sorts of wonderful ways of being defeated. And so they were really convinced and really excited that someone should do it, so they handed me a folder of original documents and said, "John,

you

do a book on the Free Speech Fight."

CP:

Were you already familiar with it? I ask because it's not entirely obscure, but it is just old enough to be not that talked about.

JD:

When I started the project I knew a little bit about it but not as much as I needed to. I was very quickly getting up to speed on it. I got totally fascinated by it. It turns out to be both a kind of remarkable and inspiring story, but also there's a whole back story behind it that I think is not all that well known.

CP:

How did you start doing research? I imagine the folder you were given pointed you in some directions. Where did you go from there?

JD:

A lot of it was going through periodicals from the time.

CP:

Such as what?

JD:

One of the things was the

International Socialist Review

, which is—there's a current periodical under that name, which is not really connected. But at the time, the

International Socialist Review

, which was published by Charles H. Kerr, was the very broad, nonsectarian journal of left opinion and analysis. So there was a lot of coverage in there. And one of the things that was really exciting was there was so much independent, left-leaning media at the time. There were all these papers coming out. The Wobbly paper, the

Industrial Worker

, was coming out of Spokane, and there was a whole bunch of papers connected to the Wobblies.

But, basically, most of the research came out of press at the time. And I also looked at the mainstream press, and the mainstream press of Spokane at the time was kind of hideous in their continual denouncing of the Wobblies.

CP:

Was it pretty much standard discrediting of their fight?

JD:

Yes. They're "dirty foreigners" and they have to be deported or jailed or this sort of thing.

CP:

I was wondering what sort of coverage mainstream press would have given it, and what the tenor of that coverage would be.

JD:

It was big news at the time. And definitely across the Left, everybody was paying attention to the free speech fight, which was pretty interesting to see.

CP:

Where did the illustrations in the book come from, because they're fascinating.

JD:

A lot of these backstory illustrations come from periodicals like the

Industrial Worker

or the

International Socialist Review

.

Industrial Worker

was really big on cartoons, which is really fun because you get some really interesting cartoons. My favorite is this one that's basically got the police arresting and leading them into the jail, and the jail is already full of people, and then there's this line stretching away to the horizon of people who have gotten arrested for on the streets for free speech. And they all have a tag that says "leader" or "editor," because every time the police would arrest somebody and think,

We got the leader

, they'd put somebody else in his place. You know, OK, we're all leaders.

And the same thing with the newspapers. They arrested, I think, three consecutive editorial boards of the

Industrial Worker

. So the paper would come out, and everybody would get arrested. And then the paper would come out the next week, and the editorial statement would say, "Hi, I'm the new editor of the

Industrial Worker

. I will be in jail by the time you read this most likely. Enjoy the paper." And then they would get arrested. And in the cartoon, the police officer is standing there flat-footed, thinking he's got an editor or a leader, and there's a little dog down in the corner who has stolen the chief of police's hat, and he's got a tag that says "editor." So this kind of really nice graphic illustration showed the kind of organizing strategies they were using.

A lot of the photographs, they seemed to do a pretty good job of taking pictures of some of the people involved, especially when people were being arrested and facing all these conspiracy charges. Some of the actual action shots of the free-speech actions Ihad to get form the mainstream press.

CP:

Outside of this action being a victory, what do you think is still pertinent to consider when reading about this situation?

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JD:

Well, I think one of the things that's interesting to me is that they were organizing in this very, very precarious situation. It was this action where it wasn't a standard labor action, where you have a factory, where you have people who work in the factory, and they get organized and they have a union and they have a vote about some contract. There was none of that. It was basically people who were being hired out for temp jobs. And so the major focus of the campaign was against what the IWW at the time called "employment sharks," what we would call today temp agencies. And this to me is really interesting, because the strategies that they were using were really focusing on how do you organize people who don't have a steady job?

And I think that's something that we see today. We've seen increasing trend away from, you know, I got a job in the factory when I was 20 and I'll work there until I'm 70. Nobody is expecting that anymore. So what does a labor struggle look like in the 21st century? I think we can see echoes of that situation back in 1909 in the Pacific Northwest, and looking at the strategies that they had to use is inspiring. And also just their use of culture is fascinating.

CP:

I was going to ask about that, because reading through the book, one you're struck by how power works so easily to marginalize dissent looks and feels so familiar, but the free speech fighters' use of humor, of being so insouciant to short-circuit some things, felt really refreshing—because it was often so effective.

JD:

I especially like the marching band they put together. They had this amazing problem where they would be doing this really effective street speaking, which—eventually, the city of Spokane is going to ban and it's going to lead to the whole free speech fight—but they're doing this street speaking against the employment agencies and it's really working—except when the Salvation Army comes around. The Salvation Army has this huge brass band, and they just drown out whatever kind of revolutionary message they want to propagate with loud songs about Jesus or giving to charity or something.

So it's really interesting to see how the I.W.W. figured out how to respond to that, and what they did was say, "Well, they've got a marching band. We should have a marching band." So they copied all the Salvation Army's songs, changed all the lyrics, got some people who knew how to play some instruments together, and they were able to deploy their own marching band.

CP:

So you've been doing some touring with the book?

JD:

Yes. I've mostly been on the Eastern Seaboard region, and then I went out to the Pacific Northwest, right around the time of the 100th anniversary.

CP:

Were there any events planned around then?

JD:

There was definitely a re-enactment in Spokane, which I sadly was not able to make it to. But people were definitely paying attention to it. There was a whole wave of them. There was a re-enactment of the Missoula Free Speech Fight, which happened a little bit before the Spokane fight, so it was kind of a warm-up. And I'm guessing that people are not going to be re-enacting some of the later free speech fights because they end really horribly. The other free speech fight ends with Wobblies coming into town on a boat and getting shot by the bosses or people in league with the bosses.

CP:

And what are you going to be talking about this weekend?

JD:

I'll probably run through a lot of the visual material, because I think it's a really great way to tell the story.

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