Today's labor unions stand on the shoulders of giants. And those giants stood upon soapboxes at the corner of Fifth Avenue and E Street, Downtown, in 1912, braving arrests and violence in one of the most turbulent clashes over free speech in American history.
Jan. 8, 2012, will mark the 100th anniversary of the San Diego City Council's passage of an ordinance banning public speeches in a six-block area, including the Downtown area known as “Soapbox Row,” in an alleged effort to hamper the Industrial Workers of the World's ability to recruit members. Thousands of IWW “Wobblies” flooded into San Diego to resist the ordinance; they were met with police brutality and vigilantism, which reached a horrifying crescendo with the alleged abduction, torture and tar-and-feathering of renowned anarchist Emma Goldman's partner, Ben Reitman. (That's according to multiple accounts, including Goldman's memoir, the Journal of San Diego History and research compiled by Jim Miller in the book Under the Perfect Sun.)
Last week, professors, labor leaders and representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union met for the first time to coordinate a formal effort to commemorate the “San Diego Free Speech Fight,” one of darker episodes in the city's heritage.
“Obviously, it's a critical part of labor history,” says Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer and CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. “Those people who study labor history in San Diego know about it, but I don't think the general public, for the most part, really understands the significant role that San Diego labor played in the free-speech movement.”
Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, tells CityBeat that, back in the day, the ACLU stood “shoulder-to-shoulder with labor,” precisely because of the challenge to free speech and the right to organize.
“The free-speech fights here in San Diego and several other places in the country were part of the inspiration for founding the ACLU and deserve a lot of credit for our actually having any meaningful free-speech rights in this country,” Keenan says. “Although you don't see the labor-ACLU connection as much today, in fact the antecedent of many of the rights we take for granted should be credited to the joint struggle for labor rights and civil liberties.”
In the planning stages, the committee is discussing what may be a smaller version of the “Labor Fest” events in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The plan is to host a series of lectures with state and national labor figures, film screenings and musical performances; the events would culminate in February with a reenactment of one of the bigger clashes that involved civil disobedience and mass arrests.
The group is starting the process of appealing for state and local historical recognition of Fifth and E, and perhaps as much as a plaque commemorating the site. Down the line, some would like to see a statue of a soapbox speaker erected in Horton Plaza Park.
“It's not like a beer fest,” Gonzalez says. “This is about expanding our minds and allowing other people to learn about the labor movement in a way that is not traditionally taught through our media, especially in San Diego…. Other cities have been doing this for years, and we're a little behind the curve. If all you know about labor in San Diego comes from the Union- Tribune or KUSI, then you have a very narrow approach.”
In a way, commemorating the event is especially poignant as tensions rise on the national level between public-employee unions and governments facing budget deficits; in order for labor to move forward, unions may need to draw lessons and inspiration from the past, particularly the San Diego Free Speech Fight.
“For the Wobblies, the free-speech fight was all about organizing,” says Miller, an author and labor-studies professor. His latest novel, Flash, centers around a labor figure involved in the IWW battles over free speech. “They wanted to stand up on a soapbox and say, ‘Why's Spreckels got everything and you got nothing? Come join the one big union!' That was the primary use, but it also became a campaign in and of itself, because other folks saw that if you can take away this person's right to speak, you can take away anyone's right to speak.”
San Diego City College's Labor Studies program coordinator Kelly Mayhew (a co-author of Under the Perfect Sun and Miller's wife) adds, “Whether or not, ultimately, they were successful, in the largest sense of the word, it was a seed that's been really important for the underpinnings of the labor movement. I think it's a timely anniversary because labor needs to remember its history and remember that people did stand up to the powers that be in whatever way they could.”
Mayhew points to City Councilmember Carl DeMaio's recent call to turn San Diego into “Wisconsin of the West,” a reference to the public-employee union stand-off with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker this year over collective-bargaining rights. For Republican DeMaio, the remark represents his desire to curtail the power of unions; to labor unions, it represents a need to organize, Mayhew says.
When it comes to recognizing the San Diego Free Speech Fight, labor may find itself with less Republican opposition than it expected. A spokesperson for City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who represents Downtown, says that he is “very supportive of their efforts and will help any way he can.” San Diego County Republican Party Secretary Derrick Roach elicited a “Whoa!” from Gonzalez when he, too, expressed his support and even interest in participating. Roach has been one of the Labor Council's lead antagonists, using his private-detective skills to attempt to discredit members of the San Diego Redistricting Commission with alleged ties to labor interests.
“I applaud Lorena Gonzalez with the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, the ACLU and the professors from San Diego City College for raising the public's awareness about this important event from San Diego's history,” Roach, who says he was previously unaware of this history, writes in an email. “When the free speech rights of any group, however much they may be despised, is limited, all Americans suffer. I hope that if the soapboxes are ever erected again on the streets of San Diego, that these groups remember to include all groups to participate in civil public discourse rather than the violent tactics of the past that filled the street of San Diego.”
The San Diego chapter of the international Socialists Organization has been critical of the modern labor movement, accusing unions of collaborating too much with corporate management. The group is hosting a “Socialist Worker Forum” on Thursday, June 2, at the City Heights Recreation Center (4380 Landis St.) to discuss how to reengage unions in the class struggle and inspire a new sense of “militancy.” The spirit of the San Diego Free Speech Fight is exactly what's needed today, San Diego ISO spokesperson Rebecca Anshell Song says.
“Our group really feels that unions need to return to the legacy of rank-and-file organizing based on democracy in the workplace,” she says. “The time in which unions were really the strongest was when they were exercising their economic muscle, shutting down production and posing a challenge to the system. The occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol was really a glimpse, a brief example of what the class struggle could be.”
Gonzalez doesn't disagree, and she hopes the next two semesters of City College's Labor Studies curriculum will help motivate and train new leaders. Under Mayhew's direction, the school's collective-bargaining class will return in the fall, and, in the spring, they'll launch a brand-new course in organizing.
“I think one of the facets of San Diego that is missing both within labor and in the broader community is true organizers, people with the skills to organize movements,” says Gonzalez, for whom the class has long been a goal.
“As a result, in my opinion, we probably haven't progressed culturally as other cities have,” she says.
“People don't realize it's a true skill, and there's a need for it. If you want to bring about social or political change and you don't have the economic power to do so, the best way for people to do that is through organizing. So, I'm excited.”