San Diego Labor History

San Diego has been described as “the birthplace of California,” because it was the first part of California that Europeans settled in. Early in its’ history, the town became a center for Labor activists.

The boom of the 1880s lured new settlers as well as opportunists looking to service the desires of sailors and other visitors to San Diego. Gamblers and prostitutes prospered, while police and local officials looked the other way. Fresh from the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp moved to San Diego in the mid-1880s and operated three gambling halls in what some now called the Stingaree district.

Prostitution and gambling flourished in the Stingaree district well into the early 20th century. When San Diego announced that it would host the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, city fathers and business leaders urged police to clean up the Stingaree.

Jan. 8, 1912, the San Diego City Council’s passed an ordinance banning public speeches within 49 blocks of the center of San Diego, including the Downtown area known as “Soapbox Row.” The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), not public safety, was the real reason for the ordinance. The IWW, or Wobblies, as they were often called, used the streets to organize workers and rally the city’s working class against local capitalists like John D. Spreckels, publisher of the San Diego Union.

On March 4, 1912, the San Diego Tribune published an editorial about the IWW declaring that:

[h]anging is none too good for them and they would be much better dead; for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion, there to rot in cold oblivion like any other excrement.”

Hoping to impress visitors to the upcoming exposition, police arrested scores of IWW members who attempted to test the new law. But news of these arrests drew hundreds of Wobblies throughout the state to San Diego; they took turns speaking at the corner of 5th and E, before being hauled away to the local jail.

From 1912-1913, IWW Local 13 fought the bloody San Diego Free Speech Fight, calling 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.

As many as 5000 Wobblies, along with many others, answered the call 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 the police.

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.Local vigilantes, many of them local real estate businessmen, seized Wobblies from their overflowing cells and marched them to the county line—where they forced them to run a gauntlet of vigilantes who beat and burned the socialists with cigars. By the opening of the exposition in 1915, the Stingaree no longer threatened the favorable, sanitized image touted by San Diego’s leading citizens.

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.

The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council (chartered in 1902) is the local central body affiliate of the AFL-CIO.  The Labor Council represents approximately 125 affiliated labor groups within San Diego and Imperial Counties with a membership of more than 250,000 local working families.

Today, San Diego continues the fight for human rights as a battleground for the issues of homelessness, immigration, human trafficking, women’s, LGBT, working families and elder rights.

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