The fiery organizer Mary “Mother” Jones, who at the age of eighty-three had been jailed after addressing the Colorado strikers, later told a New York audience that the union “had only the Constitution; the other side had the bayonets.” Yet the struggle of workers for the right to strike and of labor radicals against restraints on open-air speaking made free speech a significant public issue in the early twentieth century. By and large, the courts rejected their claims. But these battles laid the foundation for the rise of civil liberties as a central component of freedom in twentieth-century America.

State courts in the Progressive era regularly issued injunctions prohibiting strikers from speaking, picketing, or distributing literature during labor disputes. Like the abolitionists before them, the labor movement, in the name of freedom, demanded the right to assemble, organize, and spread their views. The investigations of the Commission on Industrial Relations revealed the absence of free speech in many factory communities, with labor organizers prohibited from speaking freely under threat of either violence from private police or suppression by local authorities. “I don’t think we live in a free country or enjoy civil liberties,” Clarence Darrow told the commission.

The IWW’s battle for civil liberties breathed new meaning into the idea of freedom of expression. Lacking union halls, its organizers relied on songs, street theater, impromptu organizing meetings, and street corner gatherings to spread their message and attract support.

The New York shirtwaist strike of 1909 inspired workers in other cities. Here women in Rochester, New York, boldly hold aloft a strike banner.

A sheet music cover, with a modem woman erasing the word “obey”from marriage vows.

In response to IWW activities, officials in Los Angeles, Spokane, Denver, and more than a dozen other cities limited or prohibited outdoor meetings. To arouse popular support, the IWW filled the jails with members who defied local law by speaking in public. Sometimes, prisoners were brutally treated, as in Spokane, where three died and hundreds were hospitalized after being jailed for violating a local law requiring prior approval of the content of public speeches. In nearly all the free-speech fights, however, the IWW eventually forced local officials to give way. “Whether they agree or disagree with its methods or aims,” wrote one journalist, “all lovers of liberty everywhere owe a debt to this organization for... [keeping] alight the fires of freedom.”

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