Porkchops for All! The 100th Anniversary of the San Diego Free Speech Fights

“…the Amer­i­can class-strug­gles are more seri­ous than Euro­pean ones in that they obtain more results with less ide­ol­o­gy.” – Mario Tron­ti


On Jan­u­ary 8th, 1912, the busi­ness and prop­er­ty own­ers of the San Diego Com­mon Coun­cil passed Ordi­nance No. 4623. The func­tion of the ordi­nance: to crim­i­nal­ize free speech in a zone cen­tered around the inter­sec­tion of 5th and E streets, pop­u­lat­ed pri­mar­i­ly by work­ers. By Jan­u­ary 16th, the IWW had respond­ed by form­ing the “Cal­i­for­nia Free Speech League,” with the sup­port of social­ists, church­es, and oth­er union locals.

The Wob­blies, with the ben­e­fit of sheer num­bers and lit­tle else, sought to test the ordi­nance and its enforce­ment with aggres­sive soap­box­ing and inces­sant speechi­fy­ing in the restrict­ed zone. City attor­ney W. R. Andrews rec­om­mend­ed against enforc­ing the ordi­nance until Feb­ru­ary 8th, to stave off imme­di­ate con­fronta­tion with mil­i­tant agi­ta­tors in the Gaslamp Quar­ter. When police inter­ven­tion began, the jails were quick­ly filled, and the IWW put out a call for mem­bers to hur­ry to San Diego Coun­ty for more sup­port.

A few months lat­er, seek­ing retal­i­a­tion with­out fur­ther com­pro­mis­ing his over­crowd­ed cells, police chief Keno Wil­son con­spired with hired thugs to attack soap­box­ers, social­ists, and Wob­blies. Pub­lic sup­port for the Wob­blies’ fight waned by the sum­mer­time, as cit­i­zens tired of the con­stant vio­lence. A sem­blance of peace was even­tu­al­ly achieved, but only after insur­gency had forced the sus­pen­sion of the rule of law. As Ros­alie Shanks writes, “vic­to­ry belonged to the stronger of two vio­lent mobs.”

What does it mean to com­mem­o­rate the ques­tion of “free speech” one hun­dred years lat­er? An affir­ma­tive his­to­ry of these events forces us to recall that what began as a mere reformist ges­ture, a sim­ple col­lec­tive act of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, ulti­mate­ly threat­ened bour­geois soci­ety and brought its order to the lim­it. The IWW had prac­ticed direct action and move­ment-build­ing in one arch-strate­gic sequence of rup­ture and alliance.

The fact that this move­ment was ini­ti­at­ed by a reformist cam­paign is of fun­da­men­tal sig­nif­i­cance. The IWW demon­strat­ed that ral­ly­ing around these kinds of issues can prove to be very pow­er­ful; their actions were under­stood as steps on the path towards the devel­op­ment of rev­o­lu­tion. The actions of the orig­i­nal rank-and-file of the IWW require us to rethink the dif­fer­ence between calls for reform and the explo­sion of pure­ly insur­rec­tionary acts. We can deter­mine how the Wob­blies per­formed a polit­i­cal process at a dis­tance from the state, while tra­vers­ing the facile oppo­si­tion between tac­tics of direct action and the hard work of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing.

Maps of Mil­i­tan­cy

Ser­gio Bologna of the Ital­ian rad­i­cal his­to­ry jour­nal Pri­mo Mag­gio described the sig­nif­i­cance of the Wob­bly mod­el:

The IWW suc­ceed­ed in cre­at­ing an absolute­ly orig­i­nal type of agi­ta­tor: not the mole dig­ging for decades with­in the sin­gle fac­to­ry or pro­le­tar­i­an neigh­bour­hood, but the type of agi­ta­tor who swims with­in the stream of pro­le­tar­i­an strug­gles, who moves from one end to the oth­er of the enor­mous Amer­i­can con­ti­nent and who rides the seis­mic wave of the strug­gle, over­com­ing nation­al bound­aries and sail­ing the oceans before organ­is­ing con­ven­tions to found sis­ter organ­i­sa­tions. The Wob­blies’ con­cern with trans­porta­tion work­ers and long­shore­men, their con­stant deter­mi­na­tion to strike at cap­i­tal as an inter­na­tion­al mar­ket, their intu­itive under­stand­ing of the mobile pro­le­tari­at – employed today, unem­ployed tomor­row – as a virus of social insub­or­di­na­tion, as the agent of the “social wild­cat”: all these things make the IWW a class organ­i­sa­tion which antic­i­pat­ed present-day forms of strug­gle…

If the orga­ni­za­tion­al form of the IWW “antic­i­pates” today’s strug­gles, does this mean that orga­ni­za­tion syn­tac­ti­cal­ly comes pri­or to strug­gle? The ques­tion address­es the rela­tion­ship between class com­po­si­tion, mass sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, and labor’s rela­tion­ship to cap­i­tal. In an account of the research done by Bologna and oth­ers on the “mass work­er” that shaped 20th cen­tu­ry labor, Steve Wright argues that this rela­tion­ship is mutu­al­ly con­sti­tu­tive:

Polit­i­cal class com­po­si­tion is above all the result, the end point of a his­tor­i­cal process. But it is also, and in a dialec­ti­cal man­ner, the start­ing point of a his­tor­i­cal move­ment in which the labour sub­sumed to cap­i­tal inter­prets the pro­duc­tive, social and polit­i­cal organ­i­sa­tion of exploita­tion and over­turns it into the organ­i­sa­tion of its own auton­o­my.

This means that orga­ni­za­tions emerge out of his­tor­i­cal process­es; they are sit­u­at­ed in spe­cif­ic con­fig­u­ra­tions of the labor process and social devel­op­ment. With this in mind, what val­ue does the orig­i­nal IWW still have for us giv­en our rad­i­cal­ly changed his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions?

One tra­di­tion of the left obses­sive­ly stud­ies labor his­to­ry, only to return to the same tropes, the same sce­nar­ios, the same tired schemat­ics time and time again. Con­verse­ly, a coun­ter­cur­rent dis­miss­es any affir­ma­tion of a his­to­ry of strug­gle, which could be car­ried forth in the sense of lin­eage – as though the new could be rail­road­ed into being, armed with noth­ing more than desire and obtuse­ness.

To tra­verse both ten­den­cies requires that we rec­og­nize, even cel­e­brate, past vic­to­ries and con­flicts, but also engage in the can­cel­la­tion or sub­trac­tion of ele­ments that are imma­te­r­i­al to a sit­u­a­tion. Com­mem­o­rat­ed end­less­ly by labor his­to­ri­ans, the rau­cous events of 1912 find them­selves sub­ject to the aca­d­e­m­ic sep­a­ra­tion of labor his­to­ry and labor strug­gles. Against this trend, we approach the Free Speech Fights less as sanc­ti­fied “rad­i­cal his­to­ry” and more as a gen­uine map of where mil­i­tan­cy, orga­ni­za­tion, and pol­i­tics meet; not as a pro­gram­mat­ic pre­scrip­tion, but rather an invi­ta­tion to think con­tra­dic­tion.

Agi­ta­tion, Edu­ca­tion, and Orga­ni­za­tion

The IWW itself was a loose-knit, porous, even nomadic orga­ni­za­tion, char­ac­ter­ized by a diver­si­ty of rhetoric and tac­tics. On June 22nd, 1911, when the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor Por­firio Diaz retook Tijua­na with Mex­i­can fed­er­al troops, the oppos­ing “social­ist army” com­posed of Mag­o­nistas (against “Author­i­ty, Cap­i­tal and the Church”) and Wob­blies was rout­ed. Across the bor­ders, rebels in flight were round­ed up by the U.S. Army and held in cus­tody. Such upheaval, cou­pled with some of the fire-breath­ing rhetoric of Wob­blies, was sure to cause the San Diego bour­geoisie deep anx­i­ety:

We are opposed to the exist­ing order; we are against it from bot­tom up. We do not respect the laws or flag of the Unit­ed States. It is a sym­bol of oppres­sion… It floats over the vilest places and has no mes­sage for us. We do not believe in the sys­tem of wages. We pro­pose to over­throw the whole sys­tem and give every man a chance. We do not believe in a God. The preach­ing of the gospel of Jesus Christ has been the great­est curse in the world because it preach­es sub­mis­sion to the present order, promis­ing some­thing bet­ter in a future life.

This insur­rec­tionary rhetoric served to fright­en, not seduce the mid­dle class. The refusal to meet niceties of polit­i­cal dis­course halfway was redou­bled in the street – all the while cir­cling around the “reformist” issue of free speech. But insur­rec­tionary rhetoric was bridged with the strat­e­gy of “accom­pa­ny­ing” peo­ple in their demands for a bet­ter life. Mil­len­ni­al­ism and a “com­ing insur­rec­tion” would be seen as “pie-in-the-sky” talk, no more use­ful than the obnox­ious ascetism that found virtue in pover­ty. Instead, Wob­blies empha­sized mate­r­i­al gain for peo­ple who were hun­gry, ill-housed or under­e­d­u­cat­ed: “Pork­chops for all!” was one such great mate­ri­al­ist slo­gan.

Remem­ber­ing the Free Speech Fights is less a mat­ter of get­ting the facts right, than res­ur­rect­ing the spir­it such past mil­i­tan­cy inspired. What is impor­tant to rec­og­nize are the for­mal prop­er­ties of the orig­i­nal IWW as a union, which refused to dis­tance itself from the work­ing class of San Diego as a sub­ject. The rank and file could iden­ti­fy them­selves not just with the union, but as San Diego’s work­ing class as a whole. In strug­gle, their class auton­o­my dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed itself not only from cap­i­tal and the state, but from spe­cif­ic trades as well. This was a body of per­sons who toiled in unde­sir­able jobs by day and dis­cussed Marx by night. This was a union that assigned roles to its most enthu­si­as­tic, while lack­ing the means to enforce mem­bers to pay their dues or par­tic­i­pate at all if they did not desire to do so.

So, while they were a union, a sanc­tioned artic­u­la­tion of labor pow­er with­in cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, their shift towards polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, fight­ing a city ordi­nance, went above and beyond typ­i­cal trade union demands – even though the struc­tur­ing prin­ci­ple of this strug­gle was an exem­plary case of lib­er­al reform, “free speech.”

The San Diego Wob­blies had antic­i­pat­ed pop­u­lar sup­port for fight­ing the local ordi­nance. The use of reform brought them into rela­tion with the work­ing class out­side their union; it over­turned the polit­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tion­al lim­its of syn­di­cal­ism. By per­for­ma­tive­ly soap­box­ing and get­ting arrest­ed, their strug­gle was no longer medi­at­ed through capital’s exploita­tion of their labor pow­er.

This strate­gic appraisal of their sit­u­a­tion was con­sis­tent with the his­tor­i­cal traits of the orig­i­nal Wob­blies as a rad­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion of mil­i­tants and work­ers. While the IWW pro­mot­ed “Agi­ta­tion, Edu­ca­tion, and Orga­ni­za­tion,” it host­ed numer­ous unem­ployed and home­less in its ranks. There was no esteem for the anar­cho-indi­vid­u­al­ist fetish of “ille­gal­ism,” only a recog­ni­tion that what was ille­gal was often nec­es­sary for peo­ple of no means.

The struc­ture of IWW held the capac­i­ty for lead­er­ship, hero­ism and indi­vid­ual recog­ni­tion; there was no time for obfus­ca­tion or anti-social behav­ior. Lucy Par­sons, Big Bill Hay­wood, Joe Hill, Helen Keller, and Eliz­a­beth Fly­nn all stand out as indi­vid­u­als who did not equiv­o­cate their sup­port for the strug­gles of the work­ing poor, rev­o­lu­tion, and out­right class war­fare. How­ev­er, the hor­i­zon­tal orga­ni­za­tion of their strug­gles pro­vid­ed num­bers for anonymi­ty, mag­ni­tude, mob, ral­ly, and riot.

These points do not present a para­dox or impasse, but instead a dialec­ti­cal fer­til­i­ty that might encour­age rad­i­cals of today to give up the rep­e­ti­tion of past fac­tions, splits, and plat­forms. Activists today are cor­rect in refus­ing emp­ty rep­e­ti­tions of past orga­ni­za­tions. How­ev­er, insist­ing on con­tem­po­rary strug­gle should not dis­place the care­ful inter­pre­ta­tion of the his­to­ry of orga­ni­za­tion­al forms, and their role in the con­sti­tu­tion of the present. Like the IWW of 1912, strate­gi­cal­ly antic­i­pat­ing strug­gle where autonomous action occurs might afford the oppor­tu­ni­ty to once again demand, “pork­chops for all!”

Author of the article

is a librarian and a writer.