California labor: Total engagement

1901 San Francisco Strike of Teamsters, longshore and maritime workers
1901 Waterfront Strike marching on Kearny Street

This chapter from Carey McWilliams, California: The Great Exception (1949) tells the history of class war in San Francisco, when "all of labor [was] pitted against all of capital." The conditions were unique: "Nowhere in the world has there been a more favorable economic environment, nor more freedom for social and political experiments than in California." The result? Wobbly organizing and near-general strikes on the San Francisco waterfront in 1886, 1893, 1901, and 1916, setting the stage for the 1934 General Strike, followed by the Oakland General Strike in 1946.

Submitted by IDP on October 23, 2012

THE CALIFORNIA labor movement has long occupied an altogether exceptional niche in the history of American labor. San Francisco, it has been said, is one of the best laboratories in the nation for the study of industrial relations. Developments have taken place here in a fortnight of history that in other cities have been spread over several decades. The California labor movement, to a degree that is not generally appreciated, has had an important influence on national labor trends. San Francisco was the first major seaport in the world to be thoroughly organized, and it was in this port that the first permanent sailors' union was formed. As the labor capital of the West, San Francisco sent organizers throughout the entire region west of the Rockies and furnished the funds which were used in many western organizing drives. It has been the total engagement of labor in California that has, from the beginning, given the California labor movement its distinctive character. The labor struggle in the state has not been partial and limited but total and indivisible; all of labor pitted against all of capital. From time to time, in fact, at fairly regular intervals, California has been convulsed by violent labor struggles. The repetition of this pattern of violence indicates the existence of underlying dynamics of a most exceptional nature. It is the purpose of this chapter, first, to point out the respects in which the California labor movement is exceptional; and, second, to give an account of the how and the why of these deviations.


The most striking characteristic of the labor movement in California is its deep-rooted and indigenous character. Unions are as old as the state itself. "One is tempted to believe," wrote Lucille Eaves, "that the craftsmen met each other on the way to California and agreed to unite." The mining camps were, in effect, embryo unions which regulated working conditions and prevented unfair competition. The first strike in California took place in the winter of 1849 when the carpenters and joiners of San Francisco struck in support of a wage demand for $16 a day (the prevailing rate was $10). Within a week, the strike was settled on the basis of a compromise of $13 a day which was shortly upped to $14. Sailors first struck in the new seaport of San Francisco in 1850, and the shore workers began to organize in 1853. San Francisco had strong unions before the eastern labor leaders were even aware of the fad that a labor movement existed in this remote outpost of the American frontier. Not only did unions spring into existence overnight -they were born with the founding of San Francisco-but these unions remained local, unaffiliated groups until as late as 1886. No one organized San Francisco; it organized itself.

There seemed to be something in the air, in the social atmosphere of San Francisco, that prompted workingmen to organize. Historians have noted, for example, that the sailors of the port of San Francisco were always "more articulate" than sailors in other American ports. When a slave-owner tried to return Archy Lee, a young Negro, to Mississippi in 1853, the miners of the state, with one voice, prevented the removal of the former slave. Andrew Furuseth, a great California labor leader, once said that the "sea has no affinity with bondage" and so one might say that California has no affinity with any form of bondage. For there has always been some special elixir about California that has prompted men to assert their rights.

From the beginning, also, labor has always been politically orientated in California. A mechanic's lien law was passed in 1850 and a ten hour day statute was enacted in 1853. As early as the 1860's California labor was showing an active interest in politics. In 1877 the Workingmen's Party elected numerous local and state officials; exerted a dominant influence in the adoption of a new state constitution in 1879; and, for a few years, made political history in California. The rise of this new political party represents, as William M. Camp has observed, "the nearest thing to a workers' revolution the West has ever seen." For the first time labor had played a dominant role in the political affairs of a western state. Later, at the turn of the century, the Union Labor Party dominated San Francisco politics for a decade. This early political involvement of labor in California is merely one of many manifestations of the "total engagement" of labor. In no other state has labor been so continuously involved in political action, and from such an early date.

Closely related to this characteristic is the fact, noted by Camp, that "vehement radicalism has marked almost every stage of the growth of the labor movement in San Francisco." Elsewhere radicalism was a late growth in the labor movement; in California it was born, so to speak, with the labor movement. In the 1880's the International Workingmen's Association, a Socialist organization, played a key role in the labor movement; in the period from 1905 to 1920 the Industrial Workers of the World played a similar role; and, in the period from 1920 to 1940, a somewhat similar role was played by the Communist Party. One should note, also, the role which the Socialist Party played in the development of the labor movement in Los Angeles which, for a decade or more, had one of the strongest municipal socialist movements of any American city. This more or less indigenous radicalism which has always gone hand-in-hand with the labor movement is still another indication of the "total engagement" of labor in California.

Another characteristic of the labor movement in the state is to be found in the early and continuous emphasis on joint action. The first central trades assembly was formed in San Francisco in 1863; the first statewide federation of labor in 1867; and the first effort to unite the waterfront unions took place in 1886. The tendency of labor to federate in California has paralleled a similar tendency on the part of employers to unite. Some of the first employer organizations in the nation were formed in San Francisco, and as early as 1888, one finds unions being pitted against employers as a group. Industry-wide collective bargaining, in fact, had its genesis in California. The history of labor relations in California, as the La Follette Committee discovered, is essentially a history of the struggle between "associations of employers" and "federations of unions." "To a greater degree than this Committee has found elsewhere," reads the report, "associations of employers in California have played a leading role in fixing labor policies, and have been able to impose their influence upon the social and economic structure of the state." In short, the history of labor in California is really not a history of the struggle of unions to achieve recognition but of a struggle for power between organized labor and organized capital. From the outset, both sides have been fully engaged, totally committed. The nature of this engagement accounts for the periodic convulsions in the state's social history in which periods of intense conflict have alternated with periods when labor's resentment smoldered beneath an apparently tranquil surface. Both the scale and bitterness of the labor struggle in California are most remarkable when one realizes that California did not become a major industrial center until well after the turn of the century.

A final characteristic of the labor movement in California is to be found in the fact that, at various periods, labor has spoken for large masses of people in the state who were not functionally a part of the labor movement. For many years, the California labor movement also included within its ranks a large petty bourgeois element. In fact it has only been of recent years that industrial workers, as such, have come to be the mainstay of the labor movement. Obviously special influences have shaped the labor movement in the state; otherwise it would be difficult to account for the paradox of a strong labor movement in a non-industrial state.

This brief specification will suffice to make the point that there has always been "something peculiar" and different about the labor movement in California. As with other aspects of the state, the key to an understanding of California's peculiar labor dynamics is to be discovered by concentrating attention upon the exceptional qualities of the state itself, the things that make it different.


That a strong labor movement should have arisen in early-day San Francisco is in part to be explained by the key location of the city. Here was a centrally located harbor on a coast where, as Miss Eaves points out, "the mountains crowd close to the oceanside and where but few indentations permit a safe entrance for commerce." Until the completion of the transcontinental railroad, San Francisco was the key point of entrance and exit from the state. With the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers entering into the bay, San Francisco was in a position to control the commerce between the outside world and the gold camps. It was to San Francisco that the rich came to spend their money; that the unemployed came in search of new opportunities; that the discouraged came to seek exit from the state. This city assumed a political power comparable to its social and economic power. Over a period of many years, control of San Francisco, more particularly control of the waterfront, was tantamount to control of the entire state. The unique geographical position which San Francisco occupied in relation to the rest of the state, and to the entire West, gave labor its great opportunity in California.

What invested the centrally located position of San Francisco with such extraordinary significance, however, was the discovery of gold. Gold, in relation to labor, was indeed "the magic scepter." For reasons already pointed out, the California mining frontier was unlike other mining frontiers because of the extraordinary democracy of opportunity which prevailed. "Nowhere in the world," writes Miss Eaves, "has there been a more favorable economic environment, nor more freedom for social and political experiments than in California." It is significant that the first labor legislation adopted in the state was an ordinance of 1847 aimed at preventing the desertion of ships by sailors. Men simply could not be kept at jobs other than mining. "Desertion," in fact, was the major labor problem-desertion from ships, mills, farms, stores, foundries. "In the days of '48 and '49," writes Dr. Ira Cross, "the employer as such was virtually unknown." The shortage of labor and the wealth of economic opportunities which existed created an extraordinary, and never fully recaptured, opportunity for labor. The circumstances suggested organization. No precedents were needed; no external stimulus was required.

Social factors, born of the same situation, re-enforced the economic factors. "Every man was a laborer," writes Dr. Cross, "whether or not he had previously been a teacher, lawyer, mechanic, preacher or sailor. Physical labor was honorable. Class lines and class distinctions were forgotten, and a universal spirit of rough democracy prevailed. This wholehearted democratic spirit of the mining days permeated virtually every phase of early California life." To illustrate the universality of this spirit of labor, suffice it to say, that in a strike of thirty carpenters in 1849 it was discovered that three of the strikers were preachers, two lawyers, three physicians, six bookkeepers, two blacksmiths, and one was a shoemaker. Long after the gold rush had vanished, the tradition of high wages, of the honor and dignity of labor, continued to create a congenial social milieu for trade union activity. Over a period of many years, as Miss Eaves has noted, "the workmen as a rule had the sympathy of the public."

The geographic isolation of California also strengthened labor's position. In the crucial decades prior to the completion of the Central Pacific, it was quite impossible to recruit strikebreakers, or to flood the labor market with new recruits. Distance threw a protective tariff, so to speak, about the local labor market. No picket line could have been more effective than the distance which separated San Francisco from the centers of population. When the bakers of the city struck in 1863, the employers had to send to Hamburg for strikebreakers and by the time they arrived the strike had been settled. Not only did workers have a magnificent opportunity to organize but they had the ability to enforce their demands. The factor of distance operated in still another way for it invested the local unions with an almost complete freedom of action. Even if the San Francisco unions had been affiliated with national organizations, it would have been quite impossible for the parent union to have imposed its discipline upon them. "So isolated was the city itself from Eastern centers of labor," writes Camp, "that the strongest point in favor of solid labor unionism was its independence." Hence the strong tradition of local autonomy which has long prevailed in the labor movement in California. By and large, local autonomy makes for strong unions that stand on their own feet and fight their own battles.

Labor's opportunity in California was, of course, capital's special disability. From the outset employer groups felt compelled to experiment with strong-arm tactics in order to offset the advantage which labor possessed. The tradition which sanctions the use of extra-legal tactics by employer groups is almost as old as the labor movement in California. The difficulty which shipowners faced in maintaining crews accounts for the fact that San Francisco was the first major port to permit unrestricted crimping, i.e., the procurement of sailors by decoy, fraud, and violence. In fact the word "shanghai" originated in San Francisco. Crimping was sanctioned from the earliest time by both the ship-owners and the municipal authorities. The system existed for so long that it came to be regarded as part of the business of shipping itself and no more to be questioned than one would question the accuracy of a nautical chart.

Since capital was for so many years at a distinct disadvantage in its dealings with labor, a tradition of violent tactics arose which, of course, had an enormously stimulating effect on labor organization. Each side was driven to take strong measures against the other: labor to exploit its extraordinary opportunity; capital to cope with an exceptionally powerful labor movement. It is this peculiar relation between labor and capital which Camp had in mind when he wrote that "just as San Francisco was the first major port to permit unrestricted crimping, so also was San Francisco to become the first airtight 'labor town.' "The tradition of strong-arm employer tactics also accounts for the vehement radicalism which has gone hand-in-hand with labor organization in California. The "direct action" of the Wobblies was the counterpart of the "direct action" of the employer groups.

The wonderful opportunity which labor possessed during the gold rush period was not, moreover, something that once existed and then was lost; to a considerable extent it has continued to exist. San Francisco was not only the first boom town in the West but the one town that continued to boom. Although the bonanza days soon passed, nevertheless the rapidity with which California continued to grow created a most favorable economic environment for labor organization. Not only was the growth of the state phenomenal, but it recovered more rapidly than other areas from periods of depression. In a study of business cycles in California, Dr. Frank L. Kidner has found that "there is an apparent tendency for economic activity in California to recover from a business depression more rapidly and more fully than is true of the United States as a whole." In the booms which invariably followed the periods of depression, labor possessed marked advantages in relation to capital and it never hesitated to exploit these advantages. This recuperative power, the ability to bounce back quickly from depressions, reflected the continued migration of population to California and the fact that the state remained a land of new and expanding business opportunities. It has been this phenomenon of "quick recovery" which explains the fact that trade unionism has flourished in California during periods when labor in other sections of the country has been caught in the backwash of the economic cycle. Boom times, as organizers know, are good times to organize and the history of California is a history of booms.

Another secret of labor's power in California consists in the selective force of migration. A large part of the skilled labor force of San Francisco was made up of foreign-born workers who brought a knowledge of trade-union organization to California. For example, there were unions of German-speaking cigar-makers, brewers, bakers, and cabinet-makers. The Sailors' Union, which served as a training school for trade unionists in San Francisco, was largely made up of men who were natives of Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Between 1889 and 1903, 13,796 men left this organization to enter other occupations; half of them were natives of these three countries. "In a society where all were strangers," writes Miss Eaves, "the possession of a common trade would furnish the most natural and promptly recognized bond of union." And this bond, of course, was strongest where it happened to be identical with the bond of a similar language and cultural background.

The selective force of migration, however, operated in still another way. The presence of a large number of Chinese restricted to undesirable jobs had the effect of discouraging the migration of unskilled workers. The fact that the types of jobs most difficult to organize fell to the Chinese made it all the more easy to organize the skilled trades. Ordinarily the existence of a large pool of unskilled labor operates as a threat to the standards which labor seeks to establish in the skilled trades; but, in this case, the unskilled were racially distinguishable and were under a great handicap by reason of the language barrier and other factors. It was extremely difficult, therefore, to recruit apprentices from this group, a fact which served to invest the skilled trades with a special degree of protection. The absence from the labor market, also, of women and children tended to protect the standards which organized labor had established.

Still another factor underlying labor's exceptional opportunity in California is to be found, as Miss Eaves noted, "in an entire absence of that conservatism that comes with the more gradual accumulation of wealth." California has always been a rich state and richness makes poverty anachronistic. The quickness with which fortunes were amassed had bred in California a remarkable fondness for luxury which was ostentatiously exhibited. America has surely produced few millionaires who were less inhibited than the millionaires of early San Francisco. The circumstance that everyone knew that much of this wealth had been won by sheer luck created a disposition to demand a cut, to insist on high wages. Once the tradition of high wages was established, the ex-miners were psychologically unprepared and unwilling to accept a return to "normal" wage rates. As one historian has pointed out, they insisted "on the wages to which they had become accustomed." At this point the recurrence of booms becomes an important factor. Experienced Californians know that the state's booms do not last forever and that they must be quickly exploited. Hence every boom has touched off a hot labor-capital conflict.

Lastly it should be noted that the rise of San Francisco to world importance as a seaport occurred during the most formative years of the world labor movement. The year 1848 is of crucial importance in the history of European and American labor, and 1848 is the natal year for California.


Labor unions in California have been compelled by the nature of the economy of the state to federate, to seek alliances, and to found assemblies. The second largest state in the union, California is a highly developed economic area. All forms of economic activity are embraced within its borders. Its high level of cash farm income; the value of its mineral and forest products; its fisheries and oil fields; its canning and processing industries-these and other factors have served to make it an economic empire in itself. Since it is not one thing economically, but many things, labor has been compelled to reach out, to expand the area of organization, and to consolidate its gains. The labor market is as large, as interrelated and as interdependent as the state's economic activities. In such an economic area, nothing less than complete organization can possibly safeguard the interests of labor.

In California, also, agriculture has a unique relation to industry which arises from the dependence of agriculture on the export market and the accompanying reliance upon the processing, handling, and transportation industries. The very nature of many California crops brings a host of industries into close and intimate relation with agriculture. In 1948, some 6,352 trucks were used in transporting produce from the Imperial Valley alone, which suggests the reliance of agriculture upon transportation. In fact, it is often difficult to classify a particular industry in the state as being primarily "agricultural" or "industrial." The type of labor used in many agricultural operations shades off imperceptibly into the type of labor used in the handling and processing industries. The interdependence of so many industries has naturally encouraged labor to achieve, if possible, total organization. For many years the economic life of the state has been dominated by two urban centers, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the existence of these two competing centers has tended to divide the state into two major economic areas. The fact that large agricultural and tributary areas have been so highly dependent upon two major urban areas has given the urban areas an enormous power to influence labor relations in their respective hinterlands. The determination of labor policies in these two urban areas has affected labor policies throughout their respective regions; conversely, control of labor policies in the tributary areas is vital to control of labor policies in the urban centers. If the two major urban centers had not been highly competitive, each might have been able to ignore or to tolerate conditions in the hinterland areas which were inconsistent with or tended to undermine urban labor policies; but they have never been able to afford this tolerance.

The rivalry between the two centers, moreover, has always been accentuated by the fact that San Francisco was vitally dependent upon its port; whereas Los Angeles was late in developing a manmade port. The close relation between the Port of San Francisco and California agriculture can be shown by reference to the principal commodities which were exported through the port in 1938. Agricultural products totaled $75,744,046; other extractive products, such as wood, bulk oil, etc., totaled $44,276,415; and other products $19,599,524. So far as the economic activity of the northern and central portion of the state is concerned, the Port of San Francisco is the bottleneck. On more than one occasion, therefore, control of the San Francisco waterfront has carried with it, as a rich prize, indirect control over a large part of the economy of the state. Just as the waterfront has been the scene of innumerable labor struggles, so San Francisco labor subsidized the fight to organize Los Angeles, for to the extent that commerce and industry shifted to Los Angeles the advantage of waterfront control was weakened. Labor had to expand, therefore, in order to protect what it had achieved.

A large part of the California labor market has always been seasonal in character. Employment expands and contracts in the canning, processing, and handling industries as it expands and contracts in agriculture. The casual nature of waterfront employment invests it with some of the characteristics of a seasonal labor market. Faced with this situation, unions have been compelled to extend their control over the entire labor market; in fact the fight to control the supply of labor has been, perhaps, more important than the struggle to raise wages or to improve working conditions. For precisely the same reason, employers have strenuously resisted every attempt by labor to control the entire labor market. With seasonal employment being of such crucial interest, it is extremely important, from the employer's point of view, that the labor market should be kept unorganized and fluid. Seasonal industries in California cannot tolerate any interruption in work schedules. Peaches must be picked at a certain time; they must be processed on schedule; and they must be shipped on time to reach distant markets.

In short, the nature of the state's economy has always catapulted labor and capital into an intense struggle for control of the labor market. Since the labor market is as diverse as the products produced, both sides have sought to gain strength by combination. They have reached out, also, for allies and have constantly sought to enlist the public on their side. It has been the compulsion to reach out and control related lines of economic activity that accounts for the continued emphasis which the California labor movement has always placed on such weapons as the secondary boycott, the sympathetic strike, and "hot cargo" tactics. To keep the Chinese relegated to the unskilled trades, California labor made the first extensive use of the boycott in this country. The union label, which has long since become part of labors arsenal of weapons, was first used in California. These various weapons, the boycott, the union label, the refusal to handle "hot cargo" and so forth, have been of great importance in a state whose economy was so interrelated and interdependent as that of California's.

The same compulsions have driven both labor and capital in California to achieve, in their respective fields, total integration. "Labor unions and employee groups," reads the report of the La Follette Committee, "have been driven to cooperate with one another to a greater degree, perhaps, than in any other section of the nation." The same, of course, is true of the employer groups. The Ship Owners' Protective Association of the Pacific Coast, formed in San Francisco in 1886, was the first association among employers to be formed in this country for the exclusive purpose of dealing with labor. Not only was industry quick to use the collective approach to labor problems in California, but employer associations are almost as old as the trade union movement itself. California has always had a pattern of organized anti-unionism. Industrial employers in the state have been more solidly arrayed, as a class, against labor than in any other state. To such an extent has this been true that, with the formation of the Board of Manufacturers and Employers in San Francisco in 1893, the day of the independent, isolated businessman in labor relations was gone. From 1900 to 1940, the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association in Los Angeles coerced the small industrialist and businessman into following the labor policies which its directors had decided upon. In no respect is this control-by-association more strikingly illustrated than in the "license system" which the Industrial Association of San Francisco used to wreck the building trades unions in 1921. Under this system, every contractor had to agree in writing to operate an open shop before the material dealers would furnish him with materials and supplies. Confronted with this type of united opposition, unions have been compelled to resort to extraordinary tactics in order to survive.


The major paradox about the labor movement in California consists in the fact that a powerful labor movement should ever have arisen in a state which, prior to 1900, was largely nonindustrial. Yet by 1900 San Francisco was recognized as not only the most tightly organized city in America but as the stronghold of trade unionism in the United States. Obviously the labor movement in California must have included elements which are not ordinarily thought of as part of labor. In California there were three such elements: the small shopkeeping element; a large section of the rural population; and a sizable element of what today would be called "white collar" workers. How was it that these elements became allies and, in some cases, integral parts of the labor movement?

The answer is to be found in Camp's statement that the fear of Chinese competition in California "brought about the rise of such a great wave of emotional class consciousness that it swept obscure opportunists into public office." But it did more than sweep opportunists into office; it drove thousands of shopowners, farmers, and clerical workers into the camp of organized labor. If the gold rush had not brought a tidal wave of white settlers to California, it is altogether possible that the whites might have formed a tightly knit plantation-like economy based on the use of Chinese labor; but the whites were too numerous in relation to the Chinese to form a ruling clique. The alternative was to organize and thereby force the Chinese into the undesirable positions. A better alternative, of course, would have been to organize the Chinese also, but the language and cultural barriers were too great to make this a feasible alternative. It was, in any case, the threat of competition from Asiatic labor that made for solidarity and invested labor in California with a political power far stronger than it has ever possessed in any other state.

The potency of anti-Chinese agitation as "an emotional class consciousness" consisted in the fact that it tended to fuse with class lines. At an early date, J. Ross Browne reported that he could find "among the influential and respectable class" little antagonism to the Chinese. "The objections against them," he said, "are purely of a local and political character and come from the lower classes of Irish." By and large, the upper classes consistently favored unrestricted immigration; the lower classes as consistently opposed it. By utilizing this unity of feeling against the Chinese, labor was able to build the most powerful alliances. Nor was anti-Oriental agitation a passing phase in California politics; in various phases it persisted for seventy years or longer. It goes without saying, of course, that this movement had some extremely ugly implications; but it was certainly the force that held labor together.

After 1900 anti-Japanese agitation was used for the same purpose as anti-Chinese agitation had been used over a period of thirty years, i.e. to build a powerful labor movement. From 1900 to 1910 a union charter in California was, in some respects, primarily significant as an authorization to engage in anti-Japanese agitation. The Japanese represented a more potent threat to the lower middle class and middle class than the Chinese for they demonstrated a remarkable ability to move up into the self-employed and farm-owner category. The threat of this competition, real or imagined, drove thousands of people into labor's ranks not only in the cities but in the small towns and rural areas. After 1900, as one labor journal put it, the unions experienced a "Pentecost breeze." In fact it is doubtful if any state ever felt the ardor for organization that then prevailed in California. All sorts of occupations and callings were organized and charters were "signed for and hung in meeting houses until they covered the four walls." But, as this same labor journal pointed out, "very few of these unions were trade unions. . . . The labor council gathered under its wings a most varied collection of eggs and hatched some curious ducklings and labeled them trade unions." As one reads through lists of unions formed during this period one notices butchers, barbers, bakers, picture frame makers, cloak-makers, tailors, milk wagon drivers, art glass blowers, blacksmiths, and many similar occupations which usually fall into the "little business" category.

Ordinarily there is no more inveterate if misguided opponent of organized labor than the small shopkeeper. It is the history of small shopkeepers that they are usually more capitalistic than the capitalists. They are also notoriously chauvinistic; in fact it was their tendency toward chauvinism that brought them into the California labor movement in droves. Many of these elements, of course, were never thoroughly integrated with the labor movement and they began to drop out as the anti-Oriental agitation passed out of the control of the labor leaders. These were the elements that kept some of California's most corrupt "labor" politicians in power for many years, thereby bringing great discredit to the labor movement.

Regardless of the price that labor ultimately paid for its espousal of the anti-Oriental movement, there can be little doubt that this movement, from an opportunistic point of view, paid great dividends to labor. In 1911, 39 out of 49 labor measures placed before the state legislature were adopted and a similar record was made in 1913 and 1915, with the result, as Dr. Cross has pointed out, "that California took a prominent place among states interested in conserving the welfare of the working class"-that is, the non-Oriental working class.


Since labor was totally engaged with capital from the earliest date, it is not surprising that the history of labor in California should be a history of labor's strenuous and often violent thrusts for power, and of the equally violent counter-repression invoked by capital. It has been this periodic outbreak of class warfare on a large scale which has been so largely responsible for the continued political instability of the state. Even in those periods in which labor has held the upper hand, fear of the expected and inevitable counter-attack from the organized anti-union forces has driven labor to seek still further power. "Cease fire" orders have been given from time to time but until the federal government began to intervene in labor relations there was no real peace between capital and labor.

Without going into the full details, it can be said that there have been four major labor-capital battles in California. The first, which occurred in the period from 1886 to 1893, had its genesis in a determined effort on the part of the employers to break the power of the unions. In 1886 there had been a serious waterfront strike, which is generally taken to mark the beginning of San Francisco's famous waterfront warfare, and an important strike by the brewery workers. In both cases, the contest had quickly developed into a fight between groups of unions and groups of employers. The employers were particularly disturbed by the formation in 1891 of the Coast Seamen's Union, a truly remarkable labor organization and the first stable organization of its kind to be formed in the world. Embracing the entire Pacific Coast, the union was centrally directed from San Francisco with agents in every west coast port. Wherever the coasting sailor went, into whatever port, his membership card was recognized and he enjoyed the same protection as every other sailor in that port.

There had also occurred, in 1890, a bitter fight between the Iron Trades Council, a federation of metal workers, and an employer organization known as the Engineers' and Foundrymen's Association. In each case, an issue had been fought out between a group of unions on the one hand and a particular employers' association on the other. The employers, therefore, decided to form an al1-inclusive employers group—the Board of Manufacturers and Employers formed in 1891—and to break up, if possible, the combinations of unions that had developed. This particular struggle culminated in a second waterfront strike in 1893 which labor lost largely because the explosion of a bomb on Christmas Day in front of a non-union boarding house, killing eight men and wounding many others, alienated public support. As a consequence of this defeat, the unions of San Francisco were, for the time being, largely destroyed or at least demoralized to the point where little unity or strength remained. This first battle, therefore, resulted in an unqualified victory for capital.

But, by the turn of the century, California was again booming. The Spanish-American War, the annexation of Hawaii, the gold rush to Alaska, and other factors stimulated a flurry of industrial activity in the state. Both sides, of course, immediately began to prepare for a resumption of the earlier battle. In this case the unions took the offensive since they feared that the employers were plotting another systematic campaign against them. In a great organizing campaign the number of union members was doubled in a year. The State Federation of Labor was formed in 1901, and the City Front Federation, a loosely knit federation representing some 13,000 waterfront workers, came into being the same year. The employers promptly formed an all-inclusive employers' group, the Employers Council, and proceeded to raise a war chest of $250,000 which was precisely the amount the City Front Federation had in its treasury.

The second great struggle began on July 30, 1901, when the waterfront workers struck, but the situation quickly developed into a tangle of sympathetic strikes as the two great contending forces moved into action. For three months the harbor was crippled. In the course of this strike, 5 men were killed and 300 assaults were reported. The violence was so great that both sides seem to have exhausted themselves and a mutual cessation of hostilities was finally negotiated without either side having won a clear-cut victory. In effect, however, the unions won this round because they emerged from the battle stronger than when they had entered it. "There is a kind of fighting which makes the enemy stronger," reported Ray Stannard Baker at the time, "and that was the method of the San Francisco Employers' Association. It was an example of how not to combat unionism." A few weeks after the strike was called off, the Union Labor Party won a smashing political victory in San Francisco and remained in undisputed control of the city administration for a decade. In the wake of this strike, in fact, San Francisco emerged as the first "closed shop" city in America.

The third great battle developed shortly after the outbreak of the first World War. The war, of course, immediately brought about a sharp increase in the volume of cargo moving through the port and both sides promptly squared away for another slugging match. In 1916 the longshoremen went on strike, bottling up some $2,500,000 in exports. As in the prior struggle, the farming and business interests of the hinterland demanded that the San Francisco employers' group should break the strike. The murder of a striking longshoreman on June 2 I seemed, for a few days, to tip the scales of public opinion in favor of the unions. But, while the strike was still on, the tragic Preparedness Day bombing took place (on July 22nd) in which some 10 people were killed and 40 seriously injured. Out of this fateful event, of course, came the infamous frame-up of Tom Mooney. The bombing threw the weight of public opinion against the unions, the strike was lost, and, at the height of the excitement, the city adopted an antipicketing ordinance by a vote of 73,993 to 68,570.

Following its earlier victory in 1901, organized labor in San Francisco had decided that the time had come to organize Los Angeles, "the open shop citadel of America." Just how important this organizing drive was, in terms of protecting the closed shop in San Francisco, can be shown by the fact that in 1900 San Francisco had 66 per cent of the total organized trade union membership of the state by comparison with 6 per cent in Los Angeles. In 1910, 65 per cent of the trade union strength was in San Francisco and only 8 per cent in Los Angeles. Viewing open shop Los Angeles as a threat to everything it had achieved in San Francisco, the labor movement proceeded to raise nearly $500,000 for an organizing campaign. There the trouble started on May 19, 1910, with a strike of brewery workers, followed by a strike of metal workers and of Mexican workers on the street railway. To break these strikes, the Merchants' and Manufacturers' Association drafted an anti-picketing ordinance which is known in the labor histories as the model for all the anti-picketing laws and ordinances in the country.

Within a few weeks after the adoption of this ordinance on July 16, 1910, over 470 workers had been arrested; but, almost as fast as they were arrested, Los Angeles juries acquitted them. This particular struggle culminated in the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times on October 1st, 1910, in which 21 men lost their lives. This dreadful explosion, and the plea of guilty which the McNamara brothers entered a year later, set the cause of labor back for at least two decades in Los Angeles. Previously uncompromising in their anti-union attitude, the open shop employers of Los Angeles used this event in a most spectacular and devastating manner to swing community sentiment to their narrow purposes. What the dynamiting of the Times was to Los Angeles, the Preparedness Day bombing was to San Francisco: both events symbolized a crushing defeat for the labor movement.

All this while, however, there was another "labor movement" in California spearheaded by an outlaw, revolutionary organization, the Industrial Workers of the World. There was only one delegate from California at the meeting in Chicago on June 27, 1905, at which the I.W.W. was formed but, by 1910, the wobblies had 11 locals in the state and nearly a thousand members. It was Local No. 66, which Frank Little had organized at Fresno, that launched the first of the famous wobbly free speech fights in California. The campaign opened with an outdoor meeting on October 16, 1910 at which Frank Little, one of the speakers, was arrested and given a jail sentence by a jury which he contemptuously referred to as "composed of Bourgeois cockroaches and real estate grafters." In subsequent meetings, first 10, then 15, then 25, and 50 people were arrested and, finally, lawless elements in the community burned the wobbly headquarters. Fire hoses were used by irate police in an unsuccessful effort to keep the arrested wobblies from singing in jail. The campaign was finally settled, six months later, by the appointment of a mediation committee and at least a partial vindication of the right of free speech was secured.

The wobblies, of course, were quite free of the chauvinism which prevailed in the California labor movement at this time. They repeatedly attacked the "yellow peril" agitation and sought, without too much success, to organize Mexican field workers and other minority groups. Although many of the labor leaders of California of this period were of foreign birth, most of the wobbly leaders, ironically, were Old Americans with names like Dunn, Ryan, Olson, Sherman, and Eaton. The wobblies had real influence with the casual and seasonal workers of California, notably the waterfront workers, the lumberjacks, and the field and cannery workers. Their informal organization, the tactic of organizing on the job, the use of quick strikes, and the roving and migratory nature of the organization itself, made the wobblies effective pioneers in the effort to organize seasonal and casual workers.

Following the Fresno free speech fight, San Diego adopted on January 8, 1912 an ordinance limiting the right of free speech. The wobblies promptly moved in and launched a sensational fight to have the ordinance revoked. Although they had not more than 50 members in San Diego, it has been estimated that nearly 5,000 people took part in this campaign. Michael Hoy, a wobbly, was kicked to death in jail and another member, Joe Mikolash, was shot and killed. When jailings failed to break the spirit of the wobblies, a vigilante mob aided by the police rounded up several hundred men, made them "run the gauntlet," beat them with clubs and fire hoses, and drove them out of town. The issue reached such a pitch of excitement that Governor Hiram Johnson sent Harris Weinstock to San Diego to make an official report and investigation.In part because of this excellent, clear-headed report, the wobbly campaign was finally successful and the right of free speech was vindicated.

The wobbly campaign in California came to a climax with the famous Wheatland "hop pickers" riot of August 3, 1913, in which four people were killed.

Some 2,800 hop pickers, representing a wide diversity of nationalities, had been recruited by ads for work on a ranch owned by one of the largest employers of farm labor in the state. The pickers included a large number of women and children. On arriving at the ranch, the pickers found that the wage rates varied from day to day, depending on the number of pickers on hand, and that the "bonus"-which was advertised-was actually a "hold-back" forfeited if the worker left the job. Widely distributed, the ads had brought in about 1,000 more pickers than were needed. Average daily earnings were found to be about 90¢ or $1. The conditions at the camp may be indicated by the fact that 8 small toilets had been built to accommodate 2,800 people and that there were no separate toilets for women. The riot was touched off when law enforcement officials attempted to break up a protest meeting which a group of wobblies had called on the ranch.

To the wobbly movement, the Wheatland Riot had much the same significance that the Preparedness Day bombing and the dynamiting of the Times had for the labor movement; the three events, in fact, were part of a much larger pattern of violence in industrial relations. The Wheatland Riot is of great historic importance for it marked the beginning, in a sense, of intense labor strife in California agriculture. There had been earlier incidents, of course, but this case focused national attention for the first time on the miserable plight of seasonal field workers in California. Out of this incident came the prosecution of Richard Ford and Herman Suhr, both of whom were convicted in one of the most famous "labor trials" in the state's history. Along with Tom Mooney, J. J. McNamara, and J. B. McNamara, "Blackie" Ford and Herman Suhr acquired legendary fame as "labor martyrs." In the context of this chapter, the Wheatland affair is of importance for two reasons: it marked the extension to agriculture of the pattern of "total engagement" which had long characterized labor relations in California; and it emphasized, once again, the manner in which repressive employer tactics consistently precipitated radical protests.

In a broad historical sense, the third chapter of labor violence in California came to its climax with the adoption on April 30, 1919, of the Criminal Syndicalism Law. Although Idaho has the unenviable distinction of having adopted the first statute of this kind, the California act received the most notoriety because it was more widely enforced than any similar legislation. Criminal syndicalism acts in the other states soon became "dead letter" statutes but the California act was systematically enforced. In a five-year period following its adoption, 504 persons were arrested, bail was usually set at $15,000, and 264 of those arrested were actually tried. At least 34 cases, arising under this act, went to the appellate courts. Of those arrested, 164 were convicted and 128 of these were sentenced to San Quentin Prison for terms which ranged from one to 14 years. The emphasis given the enforcement of this act in California is not surprising for its adoption represented the culmination of seventy years of intense anti-union activity on the part of employer groups. It was, in effect, the logical end-product of the "total engagement" between capital and labor in California.

The fourth "engagement" took place in the 1930's and involved, first, a recrudescence of the waterfront warfare which had become more or less endemic in San Francisco, and, second, a series of great strikes in agriculture. Between January I, 1933, and June I, 1939, approximately 180 agricultural strikes were reported in California; farm labor strikes were reported, in fact, in 34 of the 58 counties of the state. All in all, some 89,276 workers took part in these strikes for which no parallel of any kind can be found in the history of American labor. Civil and criminal disturbances were reported in 65 of the strikes, with hundreds of arrests, 14 "violent" strikes, several deaths, and considerable property damage. The ferment of these years reached its climax with the "general strike" in San Francisco, July 16th to 19th, 1934, which was called to protest the killing of two waterfront workers on "Bloody Thursday," July 5th. Although the general strike collapsed, the waterfront workers won a. great victory which was followed up, one year later, with the formation of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific. As much as anything else, perhaps, it was this upsurge in labor activity, following the suppressions of the period from 1910 to 1924, that brought about the election of Governor Culbert L. Olson in 1938 whose first official act was the issuance of a pardon for Tom Mooney. The fourth round, in short, was won by labor and, with the adoption of the National Labor Relations Act in 1936, the labor movement achieved a new maturity and succeeded, at long last, in breaking the power of the employer organizations and in organizing "open shop" Los Angeles.

This greatly abbreviated statement of the pattern of attack and counter-attack should indicate the all-out character of the labor struggle in California. The unevenness of this struggle, with first labor and then capital, achieving the upper hand, largely accounts for the marked political instability of California. With the enactment of federal legislation assuring labor's right to organize and safeguarding the principle of collective bargaining, some of this political instability has disappeared and there has been a noticeable leveling-off of the sharp peaks and valleys of industrial conflict. But the end is not yet in sight if only for the reason that the processes which have finally brought a measure of peace to industry have still not been applied in agriculture. For California suffers from an ancient, malignant, and festering cancer-its notorious farm labor problem-which it is the purpose of the next chapter to describe.


From Carey McWilliams, California: The Great Exception (Santa Barbara, CA: Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1976 [original 1949]), 127-149.