INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD (IWW) RETURNS TO SAN DIEGO
Graphic by Alexis Buss
The Industrial Workers of the World has (re)chartered a San Diego General Membership Branch. The IWW is a union for all workers, regardless of employment, status, race, or orientation, since 1905. From 1907 San Diego-Tijuana IWW members have been instrumental in the Mexican Revolution, the San Diego Free Speech Fight, and organizing in our region.
For the first time in several decades, the IWW, also known as “the Wobblies”, is organizing workers again in San Diego. The IWW’s General Executive Board has issued a new charter for a San Diego General Membership Branch (GMB). A “branch” is the IWW term for a union local.
“We are an international union with autonomous locals, independent of all political parties, with a bottom-up structure, by and for workers” says the new Branch Secretary, Preston Chipps. He continued, “The IWW was founded in 1905 and the first union in this country to welcome women and all races.” Chipps is an old hand in the labor movement in San Diego and is the retired chair of the San Diego State University (SDSU) Labor Council, the coalition of campus unions.
The IWW is a union for all workers, engaged in every aspect of human ‘industry’, whether currently employed or unemployed, retired, apprentice or student – all workers. IWW is run democratically by membership meetings, with unpaid officers elected annually and other volunteers. With members on five continents, only one union-wide elected officer, the General Secretary Treasurer, is paid. IWW is organized industrially rather than by trade, to create one big union. IWW pioneered industrial unionism two decades before the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO).
Consistent with the goals of the IWW, the San Diego Branch declared in its application for a charter that “It is our intent to organize the workers of the world as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the earth.
“We live in one of the world’s great urban communities, with an arbitrary and oppressive international border running right through the middle of it. We intend to do all we can to practice mutual aid and cooperation with fellow workers on the Tijuana side of our community.
“We will continue our ongoing activities to organize all workers in our area into One Big Union, engage in cultural and educational activities to raise awareness of our anti-authoritarian and revolutionary syndicalist traditions, and support worker struggle by any means at our disposal.”
A PROUD HISTORY IN SAN DIEGO
By 1907, just two years after our union’s founding, Wobblies were organizing in San Diego. By 1910, IWW Mixed Local 13, a predecessor of today’s General Membership Branch, was chartered. That August, Mexican immigrant IWWs struck at San Diego Consolidated |Gas and Electric (now SDG&E) and won higher wages and a union shop. The union shop at the utility didn’t survive long as, unfortunately, many of the members soon returned to Mexico to participate in the Revolution. Also in August 1910, sewer diggers went on strike. They were comprised of Mexican, Greek, and Italian immigrants, and American workers. The American workers were getting paid 25 cents/day more. The Mexicans were all IWW members and called the strike and were supported by most of the other workers. They won the strike, got their 25 cent/day raise and a closed union shop at the sewer company. That same month IWW members won a strike against the Barber Aspalt Company.
In 1911 Wobblies were instrumental in the Magonist Revolution in Mexicali and Tijuana. Many Wobblies participated in the Tijuana Commune, in which ordinary working people democratically ran the city. When another faction of the Mexican Revolution gained control of Baja California, Wobblies who were not citizens of Mexico were deported. Most of those deported were Americans and were promptly imprisoned for violation of the Neutrality Act.
The IWW is best known in San Diego for one of its boldest moments. From 1912-1913, Local 13 fought the bloody San Diego Free Speech Fight right on the streets of downtown. After the San Diego Common Council passed an ordinance restricting gatherings within 49 blocks of the center of San Diego, Local 13 sent out a call for IWW members everywhere to come to San Diego to engage in civil disobedience to fight for repeal of the ordinance, and the San Diego Free Speech Fight was born. Under the ordinance any group of 3 or more people was subject to arrest. The ordinance was aimed at union organizers who stood up on soapboxes on sidewalks and talked about why people should join the union. (Religious speakers similarly standing on soapboxes had never ‘earned’ an ordinance to stop them.)
As many as 5000 Wobblies, along with many others, answered the call from Local #13 to come to San Diego, stand up on a soapbox, violate the ordinance, get arrested and refuse bail to force the city treasury to pay for their ‘room and board’ in jail until the ordinance was repealed. The fire department turned fire hoses on the crowds and one free speech demonstrator died due to injuries inflicted upon him by police officers in San Diego.
The jail was filled to over-capacity. This new tactic of filling the jails, pioneered by IWW, was often used later and by other movements, including the Civil Rights Movements’ Freedom Riders during the 1960s. We won the San Diego Free Speech Fight. This, along with similar Free Speech Fights in other cities, was a major victory for the First Amendment right of all people to freely and peacefully assemble in public.
IWW tactical innovation won the 8 hour day for the workers in the timber industry of the Pacific Northwest nearly twenty years before it became federal law with the passing of the national Fair Labor Standards Act in the 1930s. IWW-organized lumber workers all left work early, after ‘only’ 8 hours because an organizer would blow a whistle when 8 hours were up. The next day the boss would fire everybody who left work ‘early’ and set about hiring a new crew. But then the new crew would do the same thing. Soon the bosses knew they could no longer find a crew that would work more than 8 hours nor would any crew accept any cut in pay to ‘make up’ for the shorter hours.
During the notorious Red Scare following World War I, 20 states enacted so-called “criminal syndicalism” laws, which made mere membership in the IWW a crime. California passed the California Criminal Syndicalism Act in 1919. Many IWW union members were arrested and sent to prison for no act other than admitting their membership in the union. The law remained in effect until it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1969. This overt repression did reduce the membership numbers of the IWW for a long time. However, throughout these decades Wobblies persisted and continued union organizing and publishing the union’s newspaper, the Industrial Worker.
Some history books wrongly report that the IWW faded away in the U.S. after mass arrest of leaders in the 1920s. However, between the 1930s and the late 1940s the IWW remained a force in the labor movement in this country, organizing mine workers, auto workers, metal workers and many others. The IWW retained strongholds, especially in several seaports with its Marine Transport Workers division, well into the McCarthyite period of the 1950’s. Those strong locals, in a sense, are still with us, although they eventually voted to join either the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) or its West Coast counterpart, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
As America recovered from the long nightmare of the 1950’s McCarthyism, Wobblies supported the birth of the “New Left” and participated in building national organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Here in San Diego, in 1970 first the street sellers and then the rest of the staff of the San Diego Street Journal newspaper organized as an IWW shop. With over 100 members, the branch was the largest in the US at the time, until the paper closed in 1972. From 1976 to 1979 the student-owned-and-operated Print Co-op at UCSD carried the IWW union “bug.” During this time a group of local musicians, the “Squalling Panther Fiddle Band” were IWW members, and used the IWW Recreational Workers Industrial Union (IU) 630 contract.
In 2012 the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council organized a commemoration program for the centennial of the IWW’s San Diego Free Speech Fight. Following the commemoration, a few local IWW members called a meeting and over a score of local union activists began holding monthly meetings and building a new San Diego branch.
During these past six years IWW members presented a 2012 teach-in (for Occupy San Diego) on the Haymarket Incident of 1886. We initiated a weekend long organizer training conference, open to all workers and conducted by the IWW’s Organizing Department, at the offices of American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 1931. We sponsored a ‘stop’ at the union hall of the San Diego Education Association (SDEA), for the “Joe Hill Roadshow”, a national concert tour observing the centennial of the murder of Joe Hill by the State of Utah. We participated in the planning of annual May Day rallies and concerts. We joined picket lines put up by other unions, every chance we got. In November 2016 we began working with a wide array of revolutionary organizations in San Diego to form the new coalition, Collective Resistance San Diego.
In 2017, once again, a San Diego IWW Branch has been chartered. Once again, that old Local 13 spirit lives. Labor historian Staughton Lynd has observed that “The IWW has always had an influence out of proportion to the size of its membership.” Today, with almost 90 percent of the workforce in this country not unionized, the IWW is again growing, promoting the solidarity of working people everywhere, and living our motto that “An Injury to One, Is an Injury to All!”
About Industrial Workers of the World San Diego GMB:
The San Diego IWW meets every 3rd Sunday of the month at 12:30 pm.
All workers are always welcome to attend as guests.
For more information contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (619) 630-5537.
We maintain a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SDIWW
Learn more about the IWW at iww.org