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Free Speech Riots 1909 & 1911

Disclaimer - The following article is reposted here because it is an issue with some relevance to the IWW. The views of the author do not necessarily agree with those of the IWW and vice versa.

Riots: Part of your Vancouver heritage - By Michael Barnholden, Oct, 20 2005

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth. We find that the centring of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all. Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.” It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”
—Industrial Workers of the World preamble to the Constitution

Until 1872, Canada treated unions as criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade, as did British Law. Despite harsh sanctions, workers still found it necessary to organize, but unions had to be incredibly strong to withstand the united onslaught of employers, police and courts until the right to organize was enshrined in law and bargaining rights could be enforced. Unionism was just one front in the struggle for human dignity, accomplishing such benefits as Worker’s Compensation for injuries or death on the job. It is always good to remember that people died in the fight for the eight-hour day. In the political sphere, advances in social legislation that we have largely taken for granted, but are now under attack again, had to be wrested from the ruling class through years of struggle and confrontation. Unemployment Insurance was introduced in 1940; Family Allowances, 1945; Old Age Security, 1951; Pensions, 1966; and medicare, in 1968. All of these advances, which were essentially compromises on the part of capital with labour in order to maintain their hegemony and privilege, are again on the table, as capitalism globalizes and demands that workers surrender these hard-won victories in the name of competitiveness and productivity. It is also interesting to note that riots virtually disappeared from the scene during the time frame of 1940 to 1968 when it seemed like it might actually be possible to reform capital. 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a scene like this might have played out on a Vancouver street.

Two men stagger out of an alley near Hastings and Carrall. “Help! Help! I’ve been robbed!”

One is carrying a soapbox while supporting his dishevelled friend.

“Somebody stole all his capital! Took all the money he ever earned. Everything is gone.” They set up their soapbox while the Salvation Army band is playing across the street.

“Gather ’round people and hear his story!” A crowd begins to form on the sidewalk. The men are careful to organize them, leaving room for pedestrians to pass.

The roughest-looking man climbs up on the soapbox and shakes his fist. “I have been robbed, that’s right. I’ve been robbed by capitalism. Every dollar of profit is a dollar stolen from a worker’s pocket. I have had the money I made working on the docks taken right out of my pocket by a boss more interested in the health of his bottom line than the well being of me and my family. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we are here today breaking your town’s law against gathering on the street, even though right across the street in direct contravention of the same anti-loitering law, the Starvation Army is allowed to preach their brand of “pie in the sky when you die liberalism.”

“Now that I have your attention I would like to tell you about the fight the Industrial Workers of the World are waging in your town for the freedom to speak in the streets. This is not simply the freedom to make a political speech and ask for your vote. No, we demand the freedom to organize an industrial union of all workers of all races, religion, age and sex. The freedom to advocate the end to a class of people who are responsible for all the misery in the world. The freedom to dump the bosses off our backs.”

The worker begins to sing from a little red book.

Are you poor forlorn and hungry?
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up of misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back.

These words, written by John Brill, were sung to the tune of the well-known hymn “Take it to the Lord in Prayer.” Another popular favourite would have been the “Preacher and the Slave,” or any other song by Joe Hill, who had wandered the “thousand-mile picket line” from San Diego to British Columbia, writing and singing. Joe Hill might have stood kitty-corner from the Salvation Army at Hastings and Carrall and sung:

And the starvation army they play
And they sing and they clap and they pray.
Till they get all your coin on the drum
Then they tell you when you are on the bum:


You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, and live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

The Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies’, critique of capitalism covered not only economic and social concerns, but extended into the arena of religion, exposing the hypocrisy of preaching obedience to political masters whose very practices violated the teachings of all the major religions. They were not afraid to challenge any authority that stood in the way of their ultimate goal of a cooperative commonwealth, a visionary utopia reliant on the workers for its ultra-democratic process that was in and of itself utopian. Enacting their radical message by organizing around practical issues like the eight-hour day, the IWW came to be viewed with a fear that inspired vindictive and often illegal reactions.

Up and down the West Coast of North America, the basic conditions that led to “free speech fights” were nearly always the same. Civic leaders were nervous about both the language and content of the public speeches given by members of the Industrial Workers of the World. They understood only too well that the IWW was advocating the overthrow of capitalism and the end of privilege. Capitalism was under attack from many quarters, but the capitalists were not about to give up without a fight. The weapons of choice ranged from the legalistic, but largely ineffective, banning of street speaking, which led to full jails and expensive prisoner upkeep. Violence by police, vigilantes, hired goons, militias and the military were stages in the escalation. Somewhere in between, divide-and-conquer strategies were used, a familiar tactic of oppression used by the ruling class to back what they saw as their god-given right to profit at the expense of others.

All the working class had was the right to organize, guaranteed by the protection of free speech. The IWW was determined to make use of their rights to obtain what they saw as their legal ends: the education and organization of the working class to eventually drive capitalism from the face of the earth by eliminating the coercive nature of wage slavery. Elected officials, hearing only threats of violence and what they regarded as blasphemy, pushed by their panicking business constituents, would begin by selectively enforcing hastily drawn bylaws, and the fight would be on.

Invariably, the press would take the side of moderation and decry any perceived attack on the status quo. The IWW were always portrayed as wild-eyed radicals, capable of any outrage. In fact, mere membership in the IWW became a crime near the end of World War II in both Canada and the United States. The Wobblies faced a formidable array of enemies, including elected officials and their well-armed enforcement branches of police, army, and militia; the so-called free press and allied business interests; and the religious element, who were offended by the irreligious nature of the campaign. Even other workers, like labour skates (workers who had signed on to the historical compromise between labour and capital known as unions) and scissorbills (workers lacking in class consciousness) were against the IWW. The Wobblies seized the initiative by characterizing clashes with all of these groups as “free speech” fights. This is just one example of early media manipulation, although free speech was not a universally respected or well-entrenched right at that time.

Conditions leading up to the first free speech fight in Vancouver centred on a fiercely anti-labour mayor and council who refused to implement the eight-hour day for civic workers, despite its being approved by plebiscite, as well as insisting on contracting-out day labour. American real estate developer C.S. Douglas, the newly elected mayor, also initiated a “clean-up the streets” campaign directed primarily against radicals from Seattle, a city which was “cleaning up” its own streets in preparation for the upcoming Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exposition. In one day in April, nineteen of these “undesirables” were prevented from disembarking from the Seattle ferry. Vagrancy charges climbed. A long and bitter IWW-led longshoreman’s strike against the CPR had just been broken by the use of scabs, and the cost of living was on the rise again.

Carrall Street, between Hastings and Cordova, had long been the best place for street speakers. In the centre of the worker’s community, with many labour organizations headquartered in the immediate area, there was always a guaranteed audience. In fact, the Salvation Army had its usual spot covered on the other side of Hastings Street.

On Sunday, April 4, 1909, Vancouver city police asked the IWW and Socialist Party of Canada speakers to disperse, and when they refused, issued summonses. Missing the point of free speech entirely, the police contended the streets were for walking on and the speakers could simply hire a hall to get their message out. Tellingly, the Salvation Army was allowed to proceed with their larger, noisier, and more disruptive street meeting.

On April 6, as the trial of the men was adjourned for a week, the judge offered that the men should refrain from further public speaking. Of course, another meeting had already been scheduled for the same location on the very next night. The Vancouver Trades and Labour Council organized a rally in front of City Hall, at which they extended sympathy and pledged support.

The battle continued both in the court and on the streets. The first of May saw another mass meeting in front of City Hall, where as The Province put it, “There were several speakers, who advocated most strongly the principles and ideas of the revolutionists.” On May 13, Lucy Parsons, IWW member and widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons, outlined the circumstances of the unjust murder of her husband by the authorities to a large crowd, and William Taylor, who had been fined for his original speech, addressed the crowd against the magistrate’s orders, demanding that free speech be restored. More street meetings and more arrests followed. Those who were not arrested helped raise money for the imprisoned.

On May 18, more than a thousand people gathered at Hastings and Carrall. When the speaker refused to give the police his name, the four constables and a sergeant moved off. The next night, the police observed but did not disrupt the speeches and the stand-off was over. Open police harassment stopped, the crown did not prosecute the remaining cases with any vigour, and the IWW could declare a victory for free speech even though the solidarity of the working class on the issue was at best questionable.

During the Victoria Free Speech Fight of 1911, the radicals opposed the city official’s decree: that unionists, Wobblies, and socialists could only speak on one out-of-the-way corner, while the religionists went unimpeded. As usual, when faced with fines or jail time, the Wobblies chose jail, and the streets were filled with protesters demanding that the labour speakers be accorded at least equal treatment to the Salvation Army. Their demands were met in that all street speaking was restricted to certain corners, but at least no one group was denied equal treatment. In the end, seven Wobblies chose to have their fines remain in the hands of the workers, stating, “We have freedom of speech, the food and lodging and the fines stowed away in our jeans. What did you get out of it Mr. Boss?”

Eventually, the free speech fights would turn from skirmishes to outright riots. By 1912, the downturn in the pre-war economic boom led to high levels of unemployment. Workers gravitated to the city, encouraged by the Salvation Army, government officials, and the usual civic “boosters,” all of whom had a vested interest in ensuring a large supply of cheap labour eager for the few available jobs. The primitive forms of “workfare” organized by the city were totally inadequate. The IWW continued to hold street meetings to organize the unemployed. The inevitable crackdown on vagrants and transients was soon to follow. Vagrants, by definition, were the poor and unemployed, but the charge itself was a familiar catch-all, used against radicals and organizers under the category of “undesirables.”

As street protests continued to escalate, the electorate voted in James Findlay, a law-and-order conservative candidate, as mayor, and city council promptly passed a bylaw banning all outdoor meetings. On January 20, 1912, four men were arrested at an IWW-organized meeting at Cordova and Carrall. Three were charged with vagrancy and the other with assaulting a police officer. The following day, six speakers were arrested at Powell and Carrall. On Sunday, January 28, a crowd of several thousand gathered at the Powell Street Grounds to hear Parmeter (Parm) Pettipiece of the Socialist Party of Canada report on his meeting with the provincial government and their response to the current levels of unemployment. The deputy chief of police declared the meeting illegal, and arrested the main speaker. When the crowd protested, he signalled his officers to charge, swinging clubs and horsewhips.

“. . . those not fortunate enough to get out of the way went down like ten-pins before the irresistible onslaught of the officers… The Powell Street Grounds looked something like a battlefield.”
—Vancouver Province, January 29, 1912

Almost thirty arrests were made with bail set at five hundred dollars. The border was sealed to prevent an anticipated Wobbly invasion, and the Interurban rail line was monitored.

What had been expected to prove a diversion from the usual quiet Sunday afternoon routine was fast dwindling into a very poor show. Then something happened. Arthur Wong, member of the Young Chinese society, attired in a natty serge, boutonniere of Chinese lilies, standing collar, and all the accessories of correct dress, from his closely clipped hirsute to his faultless patent leathers, mounted the rostrum amid thunderous applause. Wong was a socialist, and the date might be set down in history as the first wherein one of his race has mounted the open air rostrum. While Wong was “long” on enthusiasm he was woefully “short” on English. However, his elucidation of the socialistic problems was fully as erudite as that of his Christian brothers. Wong’s message read something like this.

Anglo-Chinese treat

“When Manchu him lun China, come ’long like big p’licemans, big club, say ‘skidoo,’ Chinaman him scatter likee lat before cat; when big p’liceman him come this place two Sunday ago, and I gettee crack on head. Today we no scatter likee chicken. I bin all over world; I see China, Gleat Blittin, alle same. Young Chinese society all bin socialists. I bin reporter China newspaper. I tell em all we no scatter likee chicken when p’liceman come.” His explanation of the modus operandi of socialistic acquisition of all wealth and the relegation of the capitalist to the realms of Beelzebub was equally as lucid as the above.
—Vancouver Province

Further meetings were broken up by police, including one in Stanley Park, where the speakers used megaphones to address the crowd from boats. The strong current prevented the speakers from being heard and they were arrested when they came ashore. When the IWW upped the ante, hinting at a general strike and sabotage, the other labour groups backed down and compromised with the city in order to pursue electoral reform at the ballot box in the upcoming provincial elections, selling out the Wobs along the way. No meetings were to be allowed on public streets, but public squares could be used. All charges would be dropped. After much wrangling and infighting between labour, civic officials, and the province, limited free speech was reinstated; however, the charges were not dropped and the prisoners, mainly Wobblies, were not released.

“The entire organization supports Vancouver Workers in their efforts to maintain free speech. The rights of the members of this organization will be enforced in spite of all the corporation lice holding political jobs in the Dominion of Canada. Free speech will be established and maintained in Vancouver, if it takes twenty years. Hold you personally responsible for any injury inflicted upon members of this organization by Cossacks under your control.”
—Telegram from Vincent St. John, IWW general Secretary to Vancouver Mayor Findlay, February 12-13, 1912

Mainly by publicizing the threat in this letter, the Wobblies were discredited and isolated by their more moderate allies. The argument seemed to be that direct action (i.e. street protest) inevitably led to violence, never mind that the violence could almost always be characterized as a “police riot” and that violence against a vastly better supplied enemy was suicidal. The radical underpinnings of the IWW were repudiated, although further IWW protests took place; soon, more important battles took precedence—for example, the Lawrence textile workers’ strike and the San Diego free speech fight.

Without immediate and tangible repression, the IWW could not compete with other more moderate organizations who could deliver small victories at the ballot box and compromises with capital such as welfare, medicare, Pensions and Unemployment Insurance. But whenever capitalist repression of the working class reaches intolerable levels, Wobblies promise that the socialist ideas of the Industrial Workers of the World will answer the call.

Reading the Riot Act (ISBN: 1-895636-67-1 ) by Michael Barnholden—a social history of riots in Vancouver (from which the preceding article has been excerpted)—is available now from Anvil Press.