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11 Reform, Utopia, and Racism The Politics of California Craftsmen
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Editor's Introduction

"A movement, however laudable and externally worthy, is bound to fail if it has no soul."
—Frank Roney, labor organizer in late nineteenth-century San Francisco[1]

"California is the white man's country and not the Caucasian graveyard."
—Olaf Tveitmoe, editor of Organized Labor , 1907[2]

During the mid-1890s, the American labor movement fought to survive during one of the harshest depressions in the nation's history. Between 1897 and 1904, however, with the depression over, labor experienced a dramatic renaissance, with union membership growing from 440,000 to 2,067,000 nationwide.

In California, the growth of the labor movement was equally impressive. Between 1900 and 1904 alone, the number of unions increased from 217 to 805, and union membership rose from 30,000 to 110,000. While the trade union movement flourished in most of California's urban population centers, nowhere did it attain such power as in San Francisco. In 1904, muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker wrote an article about San Francisco entitled "Where Unionism Holds Undisputed Sway." Although Baker somewhat exaggerated the power of San Francisco labor in the early twentieth century, at least one-third of all of the city's workers belonged to unions at a time when less than 10 percent of the nation's industrial work force was unionized.

Unquestionably, San Francisco workers established the strongest labor movement in any American city during the early twentieth century. Teamsters, carpenters, iron molders, waitresses, seamen, and longshoremen, among others, benefited from the high wages and fixed hours that a virtual closed shop in their trades made possible. Moreover, economic power at the workplace translated into considerable political power. The Union Labor candidate for mayor was elected in 1901, 1903, and 1905. In the 1905 election, all eighteen members elected to the board of supervisors were Union Labor party nominees. In 1909, despite the exposure of corrupt


practices on the part of two of its leaders, the Union Labor party elected its candidate mayor and obtained a majority on the board of supervisors.

In his book Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era , Michael Kazin examines in-depth the most powerful component of the San Francisco labor movement. As early as 1901, the San Francisco Building Trades Council (BTC) boasted thirty-two locals with about fifteen thousand members. The administration and governance of the San Francisco BTC were dominated by Patrick Henry McCarthy, an Irish immigrant who had worked as a carpenter in his youth. McCarthy and his henchmen had a major influence over both San Francisco labor matters and politics. McCarthy was president of the San Francisco BTC from 1898 to 1922, and in 1909 he was elected mayor of San Francisco under the banner of the Union Labor party.

In this selection, Kazin analyzes the political ideology of both the leaders and the membership of the San Francisco BTC and explains why it broke sharply with the national AFL policy of mistrusting political action. He also explores the relationship between the BTC and more radical organizations such as the Socialist party and the Industrial Workers of the World. Finally, Kazin looks at the important role of the San Francisco BTC in the Asiatic Exclusion League.

In the years before World War I, Patrick McCarthy and his men yearned to govern San Francisco, but their aims went far beyond the filling of friendly pockets and the gratification of hungry egos. In every public arena, the craftsmen and former craftsmen who led the Building Trades Council expressed their desire for a society in which working people would both propose social reforms and play a large part in running the state


which administered them. Inheritors of an "equal rights" tradition as old as the American republic itself, they argued that no government or corporation which excluded and patronized workers could be democratic in anything but name. For BTC men, the jostle for urban influence meshed continuously with the rhetoric of ideals. It would be naive to deny that they were fighting for themselves, but it would be equally myopic to miss the larger meaning of their struggle.

In their search for power, building trades unionists appealed to two overlapping constituencies. On the one hand, they spoke the language of class conflict and identified with wage-earners of all industries and nations. Their own redoubtable organizations seemed the perfect springboard for an army of workers that could—with the dual weapons of the labor vote and the closed shop—peacefully sweep aside all opponents. In 1910, sheet metal worker James Feeney grandiloquently described what he felt to be the raison d'être and ultimate objective of his San Francisco local:

It is a grand thing to know you are one of an organization of progressive men, who see in every brother a fellow workman doing his best to maintain himself as a good citizen with the interest of his organization at heart at all times . . . we can ever press onward with charity in judgment of our Brother members, our hearts gladdened with the knowledge of duty well done, our spirits fired with the zeal of Argonauts as we fall in step with the grandest march civilization has ever known to that goal of industrial justice, the emancipation of the working class by and for themselves from the thraldom of competitive exploitation, strong in the hope and knowledge that, "We have nothing to lose but our chains, We have a world to gain."[3]

Publicly owned utilities, producer cooperatives, land reform, and state-financed welfare measures were all considered strides forward on this long march toward a glorious future for laboring men and women.

On the other hand, building tradesmen constantly affirmed their identity as white Americans who were engaged in a crusade to bar Asians from their blessed land. From the pioneer artisan-unionists of the Gold Rush era to McCarthy and Tveitmoe six decades later, California labor leaders believed they were carving a just and rational order out of the social chaos of America's last frontier. They branded Asians as threats to this nascent order, perpetual outsiders whose cultural distinctiveness and superior numbers (across the Pacific) made them a greater, more visceral threat than the frequent charge of "cheap labor" suggests. By scapegoating Chinese and Japanese and barring them from all areas of white working-class life, unionists affirmed, in their own minds, their ability to represent the common interests of the broad majority of Californians. The labor move-


ment was thus not merely a device to press the economic demands of its members but a bulwark against the incursions of a hostile race.[4]

These two impulses—the inclusive, optimistic faith in class solidarity and the appeal to racial fears and hatred—did not pose an agonizing contradiction either for white labor leaders or for most of their followers. By the early twentieth century, the argument that the Western labor movement should defend the "productive" citizenry against "coolies" judged incapable of self-reliant work or thought had been echoed by the U.S. Congress in the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1882 and extensions passed in 1892 and 1902. In the South, "populist" Democrats like Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina were carrying the day with similar arguments about Afro-Americans, and their words encouraged lynchings and other violent acts which surpassed anything that occurred in California.[5] Candid expressions of racism were completely legitimate features of America's political culture at the time. In fact, within the ranks of organized labor, the burden of proof rested heavily on those activists who called for a multi-racial movement. How could that ideal be realized in a world where nations and ethnic groups constantly warred over the division of scarce resources and territory?

Within the definition of the labor movement as a Caucasian preserve, self-defense was a cherished principle. The enemies of free white workers seemed to be everywhere: monopolistic corporations, anti-union judges, conservative politicians, and the Citizens' Alliance directed the attack, using "little yellow and brown men" as a flying wedge. To parry this challenge required a determination by all citizens to defend the rights and material conditions they had already won. But organized labor also had to enlarge its power in society more generally. So union spokesmen maintained that America's democratic civilization had no better guarantors of its survival and prosperity than the men and women who did its work. Thus, the BTC posed proudly as champion of both the majority class and the majority race. In so doing, it articulated a "common sense" about politics that was probably shared by most wage-earning Californians.[6]

Where did the men of the BTC fit within the broad ideological spectrum of labor in the Progressive era? On the right of labor opinion were the cautiously pragmatic leaders of most international craft unions, the members of the AFL Executive Council, and Samuel Gompers himself. In 1906, the AFL plunged into campaigns for Democratic candidates after lobbying Congress for a decade to pass an anti-injunction law and an eight-hour day for government workers. However, its governing philosophy was that of "voluntarism": an aversion to other than temporary ties with a political party and opposition to legislation such as unemployment insurance which


would protect workers regardless of their union affiliation. The national AFL mistrusted political action because it might whet the desire for independent labor parties and other groups that could draw workers away from an exclusive reliance on the economic might of trade unions.[7]

Gompers and other longtime AFL officials also rejected the Marxian assumptions of their left-wing opponents who believed that capitalism brought only misery and a widening gap between the classes. Like American leaders in other fields at the turn of the century, the men who directed the AFL subscribed to many of the ideas of the "social Darwinist" Herbert Spencer, believing most government actions to be "interference" in a natural process which would inevitably bring amelioration of workers' lives.[8] Radicals not only opposed the policies that Gompers and his allies pursued. They also substituted the contentious and artificial mechanism of "class struggle" for the growing social harmony which the shared abundance of modern industry made possible. Thus, both practical and philosophical considerations led AFL leaders to say, "A true unionist could not be a socialist trade unionist."[9]

At the center of labor politics was a combination of reformist Marxists and nonsocialist advocates of industrial unionism. Men like Victor Berger of Milwaukee, Morris Hillquit of New York City, and Max Hayes of Cleveland as well as women like Rose Schneiderman and Helene Marot of the Women's Trade Union League composed the former group. Leaders of both the Socialist Party and powerful union federations in their home cities, they believed in a gradual transformation of capitalism through the ballot box and the universal organization of wage-earners. Until the United States entered World War I, Socialists formed a large bloc within the AFL and controlled several large unions such as the Brewery Workers and Tailors. At the party's apex in 1912, Max Hayes, running against Gompers, won almost a third of the votes for the presidency of the federation, while William Johnston, socialist head of the Machinists, took 40 percent of the total cast for the vice presidency.[10]

Less noted by historians but fully as important to their contemporaries were those boosters of industrial unionism who kept their distance from the Socialist Party. Men such as John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor and Charles Moyer of the Western Federation of Miners learned the futility of craft-divided organization through the experience of jurisdictional squabbles and the rigors of strikes in company towns where disunity spelled certain defeat. At various points in their careers, Fitzpatrick and Moyer had worked closely with Marxists, but they always put the welfare of the unions they directed above the doctrines of radical spokesmen.


After the 1918 Armistice, Fitzpatrick and other unionists of his ilk founded the Independent Labor Party in hopes of attracting both socialists and unaffiliated militants. But both the Socialist Party and the AFL greeted the new organization with hostility, and it was soon crushed between the factional millstones of postwar America.[11]

The Industrial Workers of the World flamboyantly occupied the labor movement's revolutionary wing. Regarded with scorn as "dual unionists" by AFL members of every political stripe, Wobblies fought with much heroism but spotty success to organize unskilled proletarians regardless of race, sex, or immigrant status. The IWW took Gompers's mistrust of the state one gigantic step further. Denouncing Socialists for counseling workers to seek their liberation through the state, Wobblies prophesied that increased waves of resistance on the job would build to a future general strike and the takeover of the economy by the working class. The "One Big Union" embraced a variety of anarcho-syndicalism which was repugnant to mainstream socialists as well as to the vast majority of AFL members. The Wilson administration's wartime onslaught of propaganda and legal persecution against the IWW finally limited the group's core of support to those unafraid of serving a long jail term for their beliefs.[12]

The leaders of San Francisco building trades unionism drew in significant ways from and sustained a flexible relationship toward each of these national tendencies. As loyal members of the AFL, the BTC preserved separate craft unions at the same time as it required those unions to act together in a crisis. Like the reform socialists, the BTC called for organized wage-earners to "vote as they marched," viewing partisan politics and legislative action as the essential tools of an advancing labor movement. Together with the IWW, McCarthy and his men believed that their Council and others like it throughout the industrial world were the embryo of a more just, egalitarian, and prosperous society.

Until the United States entered World War I, the BTC was able to straddle a political divide that often bedeviled union activists elsewhere. On a daily basis, San Francisco construction unions operated within the norms of capitalist production. Any contractor who adhered to the closed shop and local trade rules was, in effect, protected by the BTC's virtual monopoly of the supply of skilled labor. But the BTC also mobilized voters and tried to shape public opinion to accept a state run by and for white wage-earners. While disclaiming any revolutionary intentions, these local leaders of the AFL pursued power through all the avenues which a capitalist democracy provided to a disciplined working-class organization.


Thus, the BTC gestured toward a combination of the Gompers brand of "business unionism" and a kind of syndicalism like that being advocated at the time by radical craftsmen in Western Europe. Syndicalists were a majority in the French General Confederation of Workers (CGT), and they were also a significant force in the labor movements of Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Great Britain. They preached that only industrial organizations steeled by "direct action" on the shop floor could win the trust of workers and represent them in the difficult contest for power against the bourgeois state. In 1915, Robert Michels described syndicalist aims in a way that also captured the aspirations of McCarthy and his men: "Syndicalism is to put an end to the dualism of the labour movement by substituting for the party, whose sole functions are politico-electoral, and for the trade union, whose sole functions are economic, a completer organism which shall represent a synthesis of the political and economic function."[13]

BTC spokesmen often chided Gompers and his associates for not confronting businessmen and the state. According to Olaf Tveitmoe, national unions needed "a little less petitioning and a little more show of teeth" in order to defeat industrial behemoths such as United States Steel. In 1913, after Gompers publicly attacked British syndicalist Tom Mann, BTC officials befriended and publicized the flamboyant organizer of London's stevedores. Welcomed to San Francisco by McCarthy, Mann preached the gospel of industrial unionism before large crowds at the Building Trades Temple and other local halls.[14] The barons of the construction trades were, to coin a phrase, "business syndicalists." While careful not to upset the equilibrium of their own industry, they were exuberant about the potential of a unified body of workers to transform society in their own image.

Reforms by and for the Working Class

To realize this potential, the BTC continuously participated in electoral politics. "United action by a million wage workers [then the membership of the AFL] in defining the policy of our national government," Tveitmoe wrote in 1900, "would be a factor that no party would dare to reckon without."[15] The BTC's leverage over one of San Francisco's most important industries and tutelage over a constituency that seldom numbered less than 15,000 men and their families made it formidable, as either friend or foe. The authoritarian style which provoked internal opposition also enabled the McCarthy machine to push its way into civic affairs and to negotiate on roughly even terms with members of the urban elite.


The BTC had several good reasons to follow an electoral strategy. First, the organization mobilized and represented a particularly avid bloc of voters. Building craftsmen tended to stay in San Francisco longer than other blue-collar workers, taking advantage of the high wage scales available in the metropolis.[16] Despite a large contingent of immigrants, construction unionists during the turn-of-the-century boom registered to vote in numbers far above their percentage in the work force as a whole. At the end of 1902, for example, 14 percent of all San Francisco registrants worked in an occupation represented by BTC unions, although construction workers were only 6 percent of the city's wage-earners. In 1916, building occupations registered about 8 percent of the total, still an important segment of the voting public. By this time, women could vote in California state elections, and they made up over a third of all registrants. Of course, there is no way to discover how many building workers actually voted, but if exhortations in Organized Labor (the official organ of the San Francisco BTC) and the diligent canvassing of business agents had any impact, it was a high percentage of those registered. Grant Fee, president of the Building Trades Employers' Association, testified to a healthy rate of labor participation when he told the Industrial Relations Commission in 1914 that "95 percent of men working for salaries attend to their civic duties," while less than half of businessmen bothered to vote.[17]

Moreover, building workers shared a personal interest in municipal decisions. A friendly administration and popularly elected judges would stand aside while the BTC enforced its boycott of nonunion materials and informally instruct police officers to deal lightly with cases of violence against "scabs." Lucrative public building contracts and appointments of union men to city posts also depended upon the inclinations of the mayor and Board of Supervisors. The municipal sector employed less than 5 percent of the San Francisco labor force during this period, but at least half of those approximately 12,000 jobs were in construction.[18]

In a larger sense, participation in local politics signified that the business of government should be a perpetual concern of the labor movement. Simply railing at capital's injustices had been fine for the late nineteenth century, when unions rode insecurely on the bucking horse of the economic cycle. However, permanent organization brought with it new power and new responsibilities. Leaders of the BTC wanted to prove they were at least as capable guardians of the welfare of the entire population as were the middle- and upper-class men who were accustomed to rule. By way of example, Organized Labor pointed to New Zealand and Australia where


national labor parties periodically controlled governments that passed legislation to protect the health and raise the wages of all workers. "We outnumber the capitalists ten to one," the BTC journal commented in appreciation of these achievements down under, "yet what say have we in regard to the State laws?"[19]

The BTC placed the improvement of workers' lives highest on its reform agenda. Unlike the national leaders of the AFL, San Francisco unionists rarely opposed an expanded state role in the economy. In 1902, a BTC committee drew up a bill to establish the eight-hour day on all public works in California and convinced an assemblyman who was a former marble cutter to introduce it. After the measure passed, both the BTC and California Federation of Labor urged the legislature to enact a "universal" eight-hour law introduced by Socialist Assemblyman J. M. Kingsley. By 1915, McCarthy was floating the idea of a six-hour day as a means of spreading work to men whose jobs had been lost as a result of mechanization.[20]

The BTC also unsuccessfully championed a spate of measures that, if enacted, would have made California the most advanced welfare state in the nation. Lacking any trace of voluntarism, McCarthy and his men advocated the establishment of massive public works programs to absorb the seasonally unemployed in the West and elsewhere. During World War I, they energetically advocated "social" (public) health insurance, but attempts to pass such an amendment to the state constitution found few backers outside the labor movement and a few left-wing progressives.[21]

Indeed, the only issue on which McCarthy's machine agreed with Gompers's opposition to regulatory legislation was that of a minimum wage for women. Sneering that some "bureaucratic commission" could not be trusted to enforce the minimum, Organized Labor advised women to join unions and rely on their own power at the workplace. Even in this demurrer, however, the BTC did not hold consistently to an anti-statist line. One of the original members of the California Industrial Welfare Commission, formed in 1913 to set and enforce the female wage standard, was McCarthy's close ally Walter Mathewson, longtime president of the BTC in nearby Santa Clara County.[22]

Within San Francisco, the BTC and the rest of the local labor movement usually achieved the reforms they demanded. From 1901 until after World War I, mayors and boards of supervisors either genuinely sympathized with labor's agenda or voted for it because they feared the potential wrath of voters in the South of Market area and Mission District. However, outside the city, the belief that government should protect the interests of


property owners guided most legislators, who were themselves usually employers or professionals with close ties to business. Despite the presence of a full-time state lobbyist for the San Francisco Labor Council (SFLC), legislative measures banning child labor and work over eight hours on government projects were not enforced, and ones providing for factory inspections and workmen's compensation found few backers outside the Bay City. Moreover, at a time when corporations were increasingly using the courts to cripple strikes and boycotts, a series of anti-injunction bills failed to pass either house of the state legislature.[23]

The BTC welcomed aid from progressives who sincerely wanted to help workers, but McCarthy and his men never really warmed up to them. Republican reform Governor Hiram Johnson, who took office in 1911, had first gained recognition by serving as assistant prosecutor for the San Francisco graft trials, and his supporters regularly berated the BTC for acting like a "labor trust."[24] Progressives from Southern California also made several attempts to pass a state prohibition amendment. These initiatives received almost no votes from the union, Catholic, and immigrant precincts of the Bay Area.[25]

According to the BTC, cultural bigotry tainted the actions of middle-class reformers, most of whom were Anglo-Protestants or assimilated German Jews. Their attempt to stop workingmen from gathering at taverns was not so different from their eradication of a city administration that had been friendly to organized labor. Even some female unionists, who did not figure in the polling booth drama until they won the suffrage statewide in 1911, equated political progressivism with condescending social work. As a contemporary scholar put it, working-class women were "convinced that the laboring people themselves are more competent to work out a solution of their difficulties than any outsider could be."[26]

Labor and progressive activists also had divergent, competitive reasons for supporting the same reforms. Progressives wanted fair and efficient administrators to preside over a society free of class and partisan warfare. They were primarily concerned that the legal ground rules not favor business or labor. BTC leaders, on the other hand, viewed the state apparatus as a crucial arena in which the industrial conflict was being played out. It could not be separated from class interests.

The long campaign for municipal ownership of San Francisco's utilities, which both groups favored, illustrates their ideological differences. During the first third of this century, a complex battle raged over the control of resources upon which the city's economic life depended: water, telephones, natural gas and electricity, and streetcars. Firms which had earlier won


lucrative long-term franchises under corrupt regimes clung to their properties and fought every official attempt to raise the funds to buy them out.[27]

The BTC agreed with urban progressives that public ownership would break the grip of greedy magnates over the city's future. "It will mean cheaper rates, better service, higher wages for the employees and far less political corruption," Organized Labor proclaimed in a 1901 editorial.[28] Disinterested bureaucrats would substitute altruistic principles for the seamy profit-mindedness which had resulted in poor maintenance, inadequate service, and frequent labor disputes. This was the heart of civic progressivism: anti-monopoly fervor harnessed to a rational, orderly solution.

However, when McCarthy's men connected municipalization to the enhancement of union power, they parted company with professional reformers. Olaf Tveitmoe argued that once cities owned their utilities, citizens would interest themselves more in the conditions of workers on the streetcars and in the pumping stations. With a faith in the public's pro-union attitudes that current labor officials could not share, Tveitmoe predicted that municipal ownership would bring steady improvements in wages and hours and a strict adherence to union standards. Thus, the interests of workers and the broader community would be equally served.[29]

The BTC's argument for public ownership exemplified the organization's general stance toward the reform temperament. While progressives cheered municipal trolleys and the Industrial Welfare Commission as steps away from the abyss of class warfare, San Francisco's most powerful unionists still spoke as trench soldiers slowly pushing back the army of capital. "The streets of this city belong to the people," Organized Labor declared in 1902, "and the transportation companies are common carriers and should be operated by the people."[30]

Reformers wanted both sides of the social cleavage to play fair by submitting their grievances to impartial, expert custodians of the public weal. They welcomed labor's support but mistrusted the class interest that kept slipping into the demands of even the most accommodating union leader. For their part, building trades unionists were convinced that only an increase of their own economic and political power would assure beneficial change. In moments of frustration, they would have echoed Eric Hobsbawm's assertion that "middle-class movements can operate as 'stage armies of the good'; proletarian ones can only operate as real armies with real generals and staffs."[31] While they energetically promoted legal solutions to workers' problems, McCarthy and his associates also shared the cynicism toward the state, even one controlled by progressives, that both Samuel Gompers and the revolutionary syndicalists of the IWW preached.


The emancipation of the working class depended, in the last analysis, on the strength of the labor movement.

Elements of a Vision

While engaged in the difficult struggle for reform, BTC leaders were aware that even the most successful trade unions could achieve only a partial and insecure solution to the woes of the industrial system. Behind the closed shop, the eight-hour day, and a friendly administration in City Hall lay the vision of a democratic society controlled by workers and small farmers, one which embodied both nostalgic and forward-looking notions of utopia. As editor of Organized Labor , Olaf Tveitmoe was the main architect of this idealistic project. However, most BTC unionists followed his lead, both rhetorically and materially. In their dreams, California could become a commoner's paradise, and they were willing to use the resources of the BTC to speed the transformation.

BTC leaders did not advocate socialism. They spoke instead of an "aristocracy" of businessmen who usurped the natural rights of workers through "artificial" means such as the courts and trusts. Their heroes were American statesmen like Jefferson and Lincoln who had stood for majority rule at times when democracy was imperiled. Testifying before the Industrial Relations Commission, McCarthy compared open-shop employers such as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to the men "who threw the tea into the ship rather than from the battlement of the ship" in Boston harbor in 1773.[32] Even those leaders, like Tveitmoe, who hoped for a socialist future seldom discussed it with the membership. To do so would have created a major rift in the organization and with the national AFL. It would have also meant rejection of the BTC's claim to a share of civic responsibility. In early twentieth-century San Francisco, it was permissible for union leaders to make angry populist speeches and still have routine dealings with businessmen and politicians who did not share their views. Verbal allegiance to the creed of an international workers' order, however, would have relegated the BTC to a ghettoized existence.

The visionary aspect of BTC politics borrowed from a long, continuous tradition of working-class republicanism. Beginning in the cities and industrial towns of the Northeast in the 1820s and 1830s, labor activists castigated entrepreneurial manufacturers for making formerly independent men and women into tightly regulated drudges who had to operate machines for someone else's profit or risk starvation. "The time has arrived when the people of the United States must decide whether they will be a Republic in fact, or only a Republic in name," wrote George Henry Evans,


a leader of the New York Workingmen's Party in the early 1830s. In essence, Evans and his many counterparts were condemning the elite for being anti-American, for sabotaging the egalitarian creed of the Revolution. Through the Gilded Age, such organizations as the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor and individuals like Ira Steward and Henry George deepened this critique and popularized it among millions of native-born and immigrant workers who felt a similar gulf between the promise of American democracy and the powerless reality of industrial work. In addition to durable unions, they also advocated land reform, producer cooperatives, and a radical inflation of the money supply as ways to escape the tyranny of the wage system.[33] While BTC unionists took a pragmatic approach to such inherited proposals, they certainly did not reject them.

Producer cooperatives held a special attraction partly because they were something of a local tradition. Coopers, fishermen, and even underwear seamstresses had created at least a dozen such businesses in San Francisco between 1864 and 1900. In 1897, several hundred craftsmen had established a labor exchange, a system of distributing goods based on the quantity of labor expended on a particular product that had been pioneered in one of Robert Owen's utopian socialist colonies in the 1820s. The San Francisco exchange, one of over 300 that sprouted across the county during the depression of the 1890s, used "labor checks" redeemable for goods at a common warehouse or sympathetic retail stores. In San Francisco, the scheme lasted little more than a year, but the hundreds of mechanics and small businessmen who participated demonstrated that even an anachronistic cooperative plan could attract adherents.[34]

BTC leaders viewed mutualistic enterprises favorably, particularly when they enjoyed union sponsorship and were thus a salutary complement to normal activities. The union-operated planing mill which broke the back of the 1900-1901 lockout was the organization's most dramatic plunge into cooperation, but the BTC also extended financial and promotional assistance to other union enterprises, including a cooperative meat company and a brickmaking factory. For several years, the exclusionist Anti-Jap Laundry League operated laundries, managed and staffed by unionists under the guidance of BTC officials. Plans for a union-controlled bank, a cooperative building association, and a mattress factory to aid female strikers in that industry were promoted in the pages of Organized Labor but never bore fruit. Nevertheless, far from being a utopian notion which had died with the Knights of Labor, cooperation was a small but significant stone in the edifice of BTC strategy.[35]


McCarthy and his fellow leaders tempered their general support for mutualistic enterprise with a recognition of its ambiguous characteristics. Many building trades workers wanted to become individual employers or to enter into partnerships with other craftsmen. Calling such a business a "cooperative" insured it a degree of acceptance from the laboring population but ran afoul of union rules against members doubling as contractors. In 1914, a group of carpenters were fined for operating a building society which accepted both union and nonunion men as stockholders and mechanics. If operated under BTC auspices, the firm would have been welcomed. A delegate to the California BTC convention once even suggested that McCarthy and other officials should double as contractors and thus contribute to the relief of jobless unionists.[36]

Despite the gamut of enterprises which fell under the rubric of "cooperation," the concept retained an idealistic core. Building mechanics were well acquainted with the skills and responsibilities of contractors and material suppliers, and therefore viewed the separation between employer and employee with a degree of skepticism. "Why can we not assume the superintendency and couple the profits thereof to the wages we now receive," a craftsman named Cornelius Lynch asked in 1901, "and thus divert toward ourselves a larger share of the wealth that our labor creates?" Most cooperative firms led a short, debt-ridden life and failed to mount any real challenge to the contracting fraternity. However, the persistence of such efforts demonstrates that the republican dream of economic independence still struck a chord among white workers. As a cooperative activist wrote in 1921, "down in the heart and soul of every human being that works for a living [exists the feeling] that he is not free as long as he is compelled to work for another."[37]

San Francisco unionists believed that one major barrier to a democratic economy was the concentration of large holdings in land. Before the American conquest of California in the 1840s, a few Mexican rancheros had owned huge stretches of arable land on which they grew crops and grazed cattle. With the Gold Rush and statehood came wily speculators and such new corporations as the Central (later Southern) Pacific Railroad which swindled for and bought massive properties in the rich valleys which lie between the coast and the Sierra Nevada. In the 1870s, land speculators Henry Miller and Charles Lux acquired more than a million acres in California and the Pacific Northwest, effectively blocking ownership by prospective small farmers. Henry George's fierce indictment of "the land monopoly" in Progress and Poverty (published in 1879) drew its inspiration from the widespread disgust such holdings aroused in California.[38]


A quarter-century later, the unequal ownership of rural land continued to be an issue for urban-dwelling tradesmen. To BTC spokesmen, speculative holdings of unimproved property which could feed thousands seemed the quintessence of exploitation, the clearest indication that California was not being run in the interest of its people. When local employers accused San Francisco unions of hurting the state's economy with "unreasonable" demands, McCarthy shot back that "the heavy, the large, the tremendous bountiful grants of land associated with . . . few individuals" were the true culprits behind sluggish growth. Organized Labor ran numerous articles accusing financiers and real estate brokers of stealing public lands and monopolizing the irrigation funds which the U.S. Government had begun to provide under the Reclamation Act of 1902. These vehement attacks drew no distinction between the power of industrialists and that of wealthy landlords.[39] On a deeper, ancestral level, a Georgist diatribe may have appealed to unionists who were only a generation removed from the impoverished cotters of the West of Ireland or the tenant villages of Germany.

The BTC endorsed two solutions to the land problem, agricultural colonies and the "single tax." In 1910, Olaf Tveitmoe wrote, "the unions ought to have a tract of land where every striker could put in his labor in support of himself and his family." On the back page of the same issue of Organized Labor , a large advertisement announced the formation of a company offering land at twenty cents an acre in a virgin oil field near Bakersfield, California. As president of the firm, Tveitmoe had convinced sixteen union officials from both halves of the state to join him in a scheme which soon went bankrupt without selling a single plot. Five years later, the annual convention of the state BTC recommended that the organization purchase groves of apricot orchards as a self-supporting "land reserve" for injured, retired, and unemployed craftsmen.[40] With a unionist twist, the Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian democracy had sprouted in the unlikely soil of an urban federation of skilled workers.

The call to settle on the land revealed a subterranean dissatisfaction with the capital-labor nexus. Why, BTC leaders asked, should our horizons be limited to wages and work rules while other men engorge themselves on the bounty of crops or the profits of speculation? Unlike other "back-to-the-land" advocates of the period, BTC men did not perceive the city as a locus of social evil or uphold the family farm as a model to be emulated. They simply argued that collectively owned land could be "a harbor of refuge . . . a base of operations in times of industrial war." Union farms might also employ redundant workers whose lives were being wasted


on the streets of San Francisco and other cities. If organized labor proved unable, the BTC was perfectly willing to let the state play the mobilizing role. The BTC even favored government ownership if that were necessary to break the stranglehold of the "land monopoly."[41]

The BTC also supported a campaign to enact Henry George's "single tax" in California. The former San Francisco journalist's idea to place a 100 percent levy on unimproved land had intrigued millions of readers and, together with his sympathy for workers' everyday grievances, almost got him elected mayor of New York in 1886. After George's death in 1897, "single tax" organizers switched from publicizing his plan internationally to attempting to put it into practice somewhere in the United States. In California, their tactic was to seek, through the initiative process, a constitutional amendment that would allow counties to write their own tax laws, hoping thereby to circumvent the statewide influence of large landholders. The campaign manager for the first initiative attempt in 1912 was Herman Guttstadt, a veteran leader of the West Coast Cigarmakers' Union and good friend of both Samuel Gompers and George himself. On several occasions, the BTC heard Guttstadt impart the gospel that "indolence and not industry should bear the burden of taxation."[42]

The local option initiative failed to gain a majority in three elections from 1912 to 1920, but it was not for lack of broad-based support. George had promised that enactment of the "single tax" would usher in an age of perpetual prosperity, "the Golden Age of which poets have sung and high-raised seers have told in metaphor," and California advocates of the proposal bridged the waters of political division. They included socialist minister J. Stitt Wilson, ex-Populist Congressman James Maguire, the State Federation of Labor and BTC, as well as liberal attorney Milton U'Ren and, at one point, a majority of both houses of the state legislature. All agreed that the strong medicine of the man Olaf Tveitmoe called "the immortal Henry George" might rid the world of a multitude of afflictions. Only a series of clever opposition campaigns that scared voters with predictions of economic disaster kept California from enacting the local option plan.[43]

The affection of BTC leaders for the "single tax," cooperatives, and agricultural colonies demonstrated both their romanticism and their pragmatism. The vision of a democracy of small producers receded ever further into historical myth, but it provided a rationale for political action which otherwise would have seemed simply a grab for power. On the other hand, utopian schemes could have utility, as the experience of Progressive Planing Mill Number One demonstrated. With Olaf Tveitmoe leading the


charge, the men of the BTC moved comfortably in different arenas where their economic prowess was respected. While they lacked a deep commitment to any one cause, they affirmed a sustained interest in proposals which could soften or negate the inhumanity of American capitalism.

The BTC and the Left

This concern, joined with a desire to co-opt potential rivals, led the BTC to take an ambivalent stance toward the organized left. The IWW and the Socialist Party, the only groups which mattered, had members and sympathizers inside many San Francisco unions and a greater claim to the practice of class solidarity than the chieftains of the BTC could boast. Socialist and anarcho-syndicalist opinions circulated freely among the domestic and international migrants who populated the California labor movement. Acknowledging their appeal, BTC leaders never subjected radical ideas to serious criticism until the end of World War I. But, at the same time, they cooperated with radical organizations only on a limited, ad hoc basis. McCarthy's men felt more congenial with leftists than they did with middle-class progressives, but they were no more willing to compromise the strength of their federation for Big Bill Haywood than for Hiram Johnson. As always, the value of an alliance depended upon the size of the constituency each side brought to it.

BTC executives regarded the IWW with ideological warmth but organizational frigidity. The Wobblies were a rather inconsequential force in the Bay Area. They had a smattering of members among the unskilled laborers who passed through the Waterfront and South of Market districts but never mounted a strike in San Francisco. Left-wing Socialists admired the heroism of IWW organizers and shared their goal of industrial unionism, but they usually advocated "boring within" the AFL to achieve it. Thus, the men of the BTC confronted the Wobblies more as a state and national phenomenon than as a real threat to their local position.

At a number of critical points, the BTC did assist the organization which brazenly announced its intention to supplant the "labor fakirs" of the AFL. In 1907, eighty BTC and SFLC locals joined a defense league for IWW leader Big Bill Haywood and two officials of the Western Federation of Miners who were on trial for allegedly murdering an ex-governor of Idaho. In 1912, Olaf Tveitmoe traveled to San Diego to protest the brutal treatment which Wobbly free speech campaigners were receiving at the hands of local police and vigilantes. Across the front page of Organized Labor , Tveitmoe splashed photos of police using firehoses to disperse peaceful if boisterous "soap boxers." The BTC also praised the IWW for organizing


polyglot industrial work forces in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Paterson, New Jersey. "Syndicalist tactics have proven themselves wonderfully effective," enthused the BTC organ after the successful 1912 strike in Lawrence.[44]

While respecting their dedication, the BTC condemned the Wobblies for wanting to substitute themselves for the mainstream labor movement. Industrial unionism had always been popular in the West—among building workers as well as sailors, miners, and lumberjacks—but it could more easily be achieved through groups like McCarthy's which already wielded urban influence and had ample finances. Attacks on existing unions, a hostility to politics, and rhetorical bravado not supported by deeds only highlighted the fundamental weakness of the IWW's approach.[45] Even Big Bill Haywood deferred to the BTC's accomplishments. When the one-eyed veteran of minefield wars came to San Francisco in 1909, McCarthy invited him to speak at the Building Trades Temple. Haywood minimized any differences with his hosts and even lauded the BTC as "an organization that does things without talking and resolving and then adjourning to do nothing." Evidently, the confident use of power absolved the sins of business unionism.[46]

Relations with the Socialist Party were both more friendly and more complicated. The California branch, whose 6,000 members made it one of the nation's largest, was torn by a division of both regional and ideological dimensions. In the Los Angeles area, attorney Job Harriman led a faction of skilled workers, intellectuals, and feminists who advocated fusion with the Union Labor Party (ULP) to the north as well as woman suffrage and a host of other political reforms. But in the Bay Area, most activists were revolutionaries who followed the lead of labor organizers Tom Mooney and William McDevitt and the lawyer-theoretician Austin Lewis. They accused local craft union officials of committing "class collaboration" at the workplace and in politics.[47]

Both factions of the Socialist Party put up candidates for local and state office, but only the Harrimanites campaigned to win , tailoring their message to attract progressive-minded voters with pleas for municipal ownership and a more equitable tax structure. Successful "right wingers," like the Methodist minister Stitt Wilson who was elected mayor of Berkeley in 1911, were vociferously attacked by their internal rivals. In return, the "right" refused to sponsor Bill Haywood when he toured the state and even regarded Eugene Debs as too radical for the constituency they hoped to win over. The Harrimanites usually dominated the state organization,


but factional bitterness was so great that each side often declined to recognize an intraparty victory by the other.[48]

BTC leaders were generally tolerant toward their radical brethren. Individual Socialists freely ran for local union office, and at least one affiliate (the Cabinetmakers) was controlled by Socialist Party faithful. BTC leaders had little use for the party's left-wing faction, but they worked with the Harrimanites in several political battles. A heretic within his own party, Harriman espoused amalgamation with the AFL under the umbrella of a national labor party. Only such an alliance, he believed, could realistically compete for public office and hope to transform America in the interests of the working class.[49]

Since they agreed on the need for a stronger AFL and a labor party, why didn't the BTC seek a permanent coalition with right-wing Socialists? The answer is that organizational integrity came first. Building trades workers must, their leaders believed, avoid entangling alliances which could jeopardize their fortunes. Socialists of the Harriman variety meant well and were certainly more trustworthy than self-righteous "good government" men who purported to treat labor and capital evenhandedly in circumstances where no equality of means existed. In a romantic moment, Tveitmoe could write that soon "we will see the workingmen of this Nation solidified as never before and marching under the banner of the party which looks alone to the workers of the world for its perpetuity."[50] However, even the most practical Socialists embroiled themselves too much in Marxist dogma, refusing to give up loyalty to a creed in favor of the less principled but more promising strategies of the labor movement. The BTC viewed itself as the capable vanguard of a better civilization that socialists could only proclaim.

Racism as Self-Defense

Ironically, the BTC's most successful political cause was one dedicated to preventing workers of a different race from taking any part in that civilization. From the 1860s to the 1920s, the demand for Asian exclusion bound together white wage-earners in a movement that spoke loudly and forcefully for a majority of Californians. Organized labor spearheaded the mobilization and thereby gained support from citizens who either could not or would not join a union. As economist Lucile Eaves wrote in 1910, "Much of the present strength of the California labor movement is due to the sense of common interests, and the habit of united action which were


acquired in this great campaign." The anti-Japanese phase of the long racist march, beginning in the 1890s, drew inspiration from the earlier drive against the Chinese that had culminated with the passage of the nation's first immigration restriction law.[51]

However, a generation of trade union development had a marked effect on the campaign to restrict immigration in the Progressive era. From the 1860s to the 1880s, white workers inside and outside the fledgling unions had expressed their discontent through riots, "anti-coolie clubs," and votes for Denis Kearney's short-lived Workingmen's Party of California as well as for major party candidates who promised to "clean out the Chinese." By the twentieth century, strong locals and central labor federations were able to channel the frustration, managing the anti-Japanese campaign as they did strikes and boycotts against employers. Union officials handled the issue as one of several priorities which had to be balanced to further the interests of labor as a whole. The steady pressure of a lobbying group named the Asiatic Exclusion League largely replaced spontaneous violence and demagogic oratory. "Sandlot agitation is a thing of the past," wrote P. H. McCarthy in 1900, referring to the site of San Francisco's City Hall where Kearney's rhetoric had once inflamed thousands.[52]

The altered nature of the "enemy" also seemed to call for a more deliberate strategy. Unlike the Chinese who came earlier, immigrants from Japan did not accept a role at the bottom of society but, through diligent work, turned impressive profits in agriculture and commerce. Moreover, looming behind them was a government which had proved its military prowess and hunger for empire in two recent wars (against China in the 1890s and Russia in 1904 and 1905). White Californians felt a strong twinge of insecurity when they contemplated the pattern of Japanese success extended into the indefinite future. As Hiram Johnson candidly told Lincoln Steffens, "Their superiority, their aesthetic efficiency, and their maturer mentality make them effective in competition with us, and unpopular and a menace."[53]

Twentieth-century exclusion activists in California did not need to demonstrate their power in the streets; anti-Japanese sentiment was practically unanimous. Unionists began the movement but, within a decade, they were joined by the conservative San Francisco Chronicle , a large network of patriotic and fraternal groups, and even most leftists. Few white Californians even discussed the rights of Japanese. Instead, the dividing line was drawn between the great majority who favored an interventionist posture and a small minority which still clung to the laissez-faire policy of unrestricted immigration. Labor and progressive spokesmen both argued that a nation


which already suffered, in the South, the consequences of one "race problem" should not assume the burden of another. Leading San Francisco merchants and manufacturers agreed. Socialists were torn, but most reluctantly favored exclusion. As Cameron King of the San Francisco Socialist local wrote, "Our feelings of brotherhood toward the Japanese must wait until we have no longer reason to look upon them as an inflowing horde of alien scabs." Father Peter Yorke was merely echoing the attitudes of his parishioners when he favored the ULP's segregation of Japanese schoolchildren. Only a few employers concerned about a labor shortage, some Protestant missionaries, and, of course, Japanese immigrants themselves dared stand against the tide.[54]

San Francisco labor launched the anti-Japanese campaign in 1900, a year of rapid union growth. In May, both central councils passed resolutions calling for the total exclusion of Asian immigrants and invited Mayor Phelan to help inaugurate the new crusade at a massive rally. One of the orators, Stanford sociologist E. A. Ross, incurred the displeasure of his university's administration by declaring that immigration restriction served the same protective end as the high tariff. When Ross was fired, labor spokesmen claimed him as a martyr to "academic freedom." Olaf Tveitmoe wrote in the professor's defense, "There is a jangle of rusty shackles in Stanford's quad, and an odor of the medieval torture chamber in the place where the dons sit in solemn conclave."[55] After this flurry of attention to the Japanese issue, union officials concentrated on lobbying Congress for a permanent Chinese exclusion law and managing their own freshly won power at the workplace.

In 1905, labor returned to the anti-Japanese hustings with a vengeance. On May 14, representatives of over one hundred local unions and a variety of other groups formed the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League (JKEL) (renamed, in 1907, the Asiatic Exclusion League [AEL]). The delegates thanked the Chronicle for publishing a sensationalist series on the Japanese "threat," established a modest headquarters in a downtown office building, and passed three resolutions which guided the organization's activities throughout its eight years of life: a demand that the Chinese Exclusion Act also cover Japanese and Koreans, a boycott of Japanese workers and Japanese-owned businesses, and the advocacy of segregated public schools. The BTC completely dominated the twenty-six-member executive board and the organization's staff. Olaf Tveitmoe was named president and major spokesman, John McDougald of the Marble Cutters served as treasurer, and Abraham E. Yoell of the Electricians' Union was hired to run the office.[56]


The AEL aspired to be the spearhead of a growing movement, but it served mainly as a propaganda center. Every week, Yoell sent out a thick packet of information to a mailing list of thousands, up and down the Pacific Coast. The publication both commented on progress being made toward the AEL's goals at various levels of government and supplied fuel for a wider racist perspective with articles on low wage rates, disease and sexual immorality among Japanese settlers, and warnings that many immigrants were actually spies for their emperor. The BTC financed the bulk of the AEL's restrained expenditures (which averaged about $4,500 a year), but the significance of the anti-Asian group transcended its meager material presence. As Alexander Saxton wrote, "its real function was to coordinate and harmonize the activities of an already existing organizational system—the trade unions."[57] Indeed, the AEL posed as the representative of all organized workers, on alert for their fellow citizens. Tveitmoe and Yoell publicized immigration statistics, monitored the activities of legislators and presidents, and supplied sympathetic officials with documentary ammunition to further the common end. Individual unions which conducted their own boycotts against employers of Japanese labor or Japanese-owned businesses received AEL advice and speakers. In October of 1906, the AEL enforced a ban against Japanese restaurants. The drive featured matchboxes with the slogan "White men and women, patronize your own race," and scattered incidents of violent coercion. In 1908, Tveitmoe helped union laundry workers and their employers to form the Anti-Jap Laundry League, which tried to convince local unions to impose fines of up to fifty dollars on members who took their soiled linen to Japanese-owned firms.[58]

The conjunction of the BTC and the AEL had political value for both groups. When Olaf Tveitmoe wrote to the Governor of California on behalf of the AEL, he also spoke as the representative of a body with influence which stretched from construction site to city hall. The San Francisco school crisis of 1906-1907, in which the segregation of ninety-three Japanese students set off a feverish bout of diplomacy between Tokyo and Washington, grew out of the ruling ULP's attempt to enact the AEL platform. Less than twenty delegates usually attended the AEL's monthly meetings, but the organization hosted mass election rallies at which scores of candidates declared their loyalty to the cause.[59]

From 1905 to 1910, the AEL was the core of a labor-based protest movement. Conservative Republicans then controlled the state government and routinely cited the swelling volume of trade with Japan to stymie discriminatory legislation. In Washington, President Roosevelt sought to pacify


the anti-Asian sentiment of the West with a partial remedy while warning against provocations that could lead to war. That measure, the Gentleman's Agreement of 1908 between Tokyo and Washington, informally barred the future immigration of Japanese laborers but allowed those already in the country to send for their families. California Democrats denounced these moves as insubstantial, but only the AEL could criticize them without the taint of partisanship and in the name of all white workers.

While promoting a movement which enjoyed almost universal support in their region, BTC officials took a strangely defensive tone. "Let us give warning to the East and the South and the North," Olaf Tveitmoe told a labor convention in 1906, "that this nation cannot exist one-third yellow, one-third black, one-third Caucasian . . . any more than it could exist half free and half slave." In 1914, at a time when Asian immigration to the state was manifestly decreasing, E H. McCarthy vowed, "I would rather see California without a solitary man within it . . . than to see California Japanized or Chinaized."[60]

Given the trickle of Japanese entering the United States and their scrupulously pacific attitude toward whites, such attitudes seem not just morally repugnant but absurdly irrational. Asian immigrants certainly posed no immediate threat to building tradesmen or other skilled urban workers. After disembarking at the port of San Francisco, Japanese typically went to work as domestic servants or in small businesses owned by their countrymen. Soon, a majority migrated to agricultural regions, especially near Los Angeles, where a young, efficient laborer could, according to historian Harry H. L. Kitano, "progress to contract farming, then to share tenancy and cash leasing, and finally to the outright purchase of land for his own truck farm." From rural backgrounds, few Japanese immigrants had been craft workers in their homeland, and they knew that any American union local would try to prevent them from picking up a tool. In 1910, less than 100 nonwhites were employed in all the building trades of San Francisco.[61] Why then did unionists regard the Japanese as such a serious threat?

The content of their fears demonstrates that a deep racial insecurity lurked behind economic strength. San Francisco's top labor leaders spoke as if their backs were to the wall with a force of enemy aliens attacking from all sides. The Japanese were simultaneously depicted as superhuman and totally repugnant. "I have learned," Walter MacArthur said at the founding convention of the AEL, "that a Jap can live on the smell of an oily rag." McCarthy told a union gathering, "That the Japanese is skilled and progressive must be admitted. Upon these qualities we must look with the


greatest apprehension."[62] Like the Chinese before them, their efficiency and frugality made the Japanese "unfair" competitors. Moreover, they refused to accept discriminatory treatment and rushed to California courts with challenges to school segregation and restrictions on the ownership of land. In Tokyo, their parent government protested legal and vigilante attacks on its residents abroad. Such acts only heightened the fears of whites who had always assumed their self-evident superiority would make other races quake.

To labor activists, the assertiveness of the Japanese pointed up the fragile nature of their own status. A mere decade before the formation of the AEL, unions had struggled to survive against a united phalanx of employers. During the Progressive era, San Francisco remained the citadel of unionism in California, but the open shop was the rule elsewhere in the state. Japanese immigrants did not have to ally with Patrick Calhoun (owner of United Railroads, who had a virtual monopoly on San Francisco's streetcar business) to be considered enemies of labor. Their lack of interest in unions was assumed, despite some evidence to the contrary.[63] However, unlike in the days of Kearneyism, union spokesmen could not blame capitalists as a class for the influx of undesirable aliens; many wealthy farmers and businessmen also denounced the "Asiatic menace." So unionists identified a new danger: Japanese immigrants were the advance guard of a conquering army.

In the years immediately after the earthquake, the "Yellow Peril" occupied a significant place in the racial phobias of McCarthy and his associates. In 1906 and 1907, Organized Labor reported that Japanese contractors and mechanics had gained control of the Hawaiian building industry. The journal serialized a melodramatic novel by one John Dathan-Landor which predicted that a Japanese invasion force would launch an attack on the American mainland from facilities owned by their countrymen in Hawaii. Olaf Tveitmoe had once written, "Militarism is the laboring man's worst enemy," and BTC officials routinely opposed increasing funds for the armed services. But they made an exception in this case. Organized Labor urged citizens to gird themselves for an international race war. In the spring of 1908, Tveitmoe was positive that hostilities were about to begin. He even ran a front-page story warning the American fleet not to visit Tokyo on a world cruise expressly undertaken to demonstrate American naval prowess. Japanese "harbors are filled with mines and lined with guns," wrote the BTC secretary. "Her people have the cunning of the fox and the ferocity of a bloodthirsty hyena."[64] It was an attitude that led


directly to the forced relocation of 112,000 Japanese aliens and their native-born children during World War II.

Repeated sentiments like Tveitmoe's exemplify an ideological slant which Richard Hofstadter once labeled "the paranoid style in American politics." Building tradesmen shared little else with the conservative, nativist WASPs whom Hofstadter discussed, but they did claim a genuine conspiracy was afoot to deprive white producers of their liberties.[65] Similar to other political paranoiacs, BTC leaders believed that the Japanese learned from and adapted to American society only in order to destroy it. The "superior" (white) civilization could be preserved only through the total elimination of "the enemy" from the Western Hemisphere. In the case of San Francisco unionists, however, a paranoid style still allowed the exercise of considered actions such as the establishment of the AEL or lobbying for limited victories in Sacramento. The catastrophic qualities of the anti-Asian movement did not diminish the political skills of its activists.

There was another, more conciliatory side to labor's anti-Asian ideology. As vehemently as Tveitmoe and his cohorts denounced the Japanese in racial terms, they did not forget their own position as leaders of a class-based movement.

Representatives of organized workers needed to explain their actions as derived from economic and political principles which were unselfish. "At this critical moment," wrote Tveitmoe in 1903, "when it is to be settled if America is to have what no other nation has ever had, namely, a common laboring class permanently earning more than a bare subsistence, our hope is to be blasted . . . by the invasion of cheap labor from the teeming Orient."[66] The invocation of a great cause, coupled with rhetorical support for Asian workers in their own countries, cast the racist appeal in a more altruistic, even fraternal mold.

On several occasions, Organized Labor acknowledged that Asians were capable of resisting the oppression of both state and capital. In 1909, the paper praised Japanese who were on strike against plantation owners on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and expressed horror at reports that the farmworkers toiled an average of fifteen hours a day. "Capitalists are the same the world over," was the curt analysis. Koreans and Filipinos both received sympathy for their struggles against Japanese and American imperialism, respectively. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, was hailed as an enlightened leader who believed in the "single tax" and the public ownership of utilities. Tveitmoe hoped the implementation of Sun's program in Asia would finally "settle the immigration question." In 1919,


the BTC and SFLC jointly protested the deportation of Indian independence activists, although the labor press had earlier described "Hindoo" immigrants as "unspeakably filthy and in nearly every instance suffering from dangerous and incurable diseases."[67]

To straddle the line between bold-faced racist invective and more acceptable arguments about cheap labor required a nationalist version of workers' rights. Men and women who were allies when fighting for justice in their own countries became natural "scabs" once they touched American soil. State Federation of Labor leader Paul Scharrenberg, who remembered his anti-Asian activities with pride, also told an interviewer that he had twice traveled to Japan to aid union organizing. "As soon as you have our standard of living," he told the Japanese, "then you can move in at your leisure." His vision was of each race being confined to its continent of origin, where, unable to rely on the "safety valve" of immigration, it would have to create a better civilization suited to its unique needs. The only exception to this rule was the potential paradise of North America, reserved for those of European heritage.[68] Thus, the belief that equality necessitated racial purity dovetailed with a ritualistic expression of global solidarity. Exclusion might turn out to be a boon for the excluded!

An example of the clash between anti-Japanese paranoia and class principle took place on Labor Day, 1909. The main attraction for the San Francisco crowd of almost 50,000 was a lengthy address by Clarence Darrow. The celebrated radical lawyer surprisingly devoted most of his time to criticizing his working-class audience. "The great mass of trade unionists," said Darrow, "look upon the man who is willing to come here and toil, as his bitter enemy, and will strangle him or starve him because he proposes to do our work." When this statement was greeted with laughter and jeers, the attorney added that unions, by fearing foreign labor and limiting the number of men able to learn a trade, were turning their anger in the wrong direction. Tveitmoe responded in the next issue of Organized Labor . The exclusion of Asians was regrettable, wrote the editor, but necessary as a "war measure." In this case, the laudable ideal of international brotherhood had to be sacrificed in deference to "the real problems of life."[69] Protesting that the color line was immutable, unionists helped strengthen it by defining bigotry as the only rational policy.

The leaders of the San Francisco building trades were not systematic or original political thinkers. Their particular blend of civic reformism, egalitarian vision, romantic class consciousness, and anti-Asian fervor emerged


from proposals that lay at hand to protect the wage-earners they represented. Land and utilities made huge profits for a corporate few; so they proposed a confiscatory tax on the first and wanted to buy out the other. Progressives in state government showed concern for the needs of workers; so unionists, somewhat warily, urged them to go further. Japanese threatened to undermine white standards; so the BTC led a movement to exclude them.

What united these disparate strands was a labor nationalism that looked two ways simultaneously. On the one hand, American workers as a class were sorely aggrieved, their status in the workplace and republic declining. Only strong unions could arrest the slide and put wage-earners once again on the road to power. On the other hand, a class identity did not capture the pride that skilled white workers felt in the accomplishments of their nation and the attendant fear that those accomplishments were fragile in a world ruled by "the law of self-preservation." Thus, BTC leaders regarded themselves as defenders of not just their own interests and those of other workers but of an entire people.

It is hardly surprising that the rhetoric of Tveitmoe, McCarthy, and their assistants resonated with populist themes, both when they condemned the venality of capital and the moral pretensions of reformers and when they cursed the Japanese. In American history, those who invoke the rights and interests of "the people" have usually been bound by a definition more ethnic than economic. Southern politicians from Tom Watson to George Wallace have proved particularly adept at striking vigorously democratic chords that were at the same time virulently racist.[70] But the same ideology could be applied nationally, and San Francisco unionists in the early twentieth century showed how. They posed as popular warriors with eyes set on a future of bounty and justice and with weapons of organization aimed at anyone who would threaten it. Stopping "hordes of coolies" from taking over white men's jobs and buying white men's land was a cause akin to stopping employers, judges, and legislators from destroying unions and defeating pro-labor politicians.

In one sense, the BTC's methods prefigured those employed by industrial unions during the upsurge of the 1930s and 1940s. A generation before the CIO successfully organized both inside factories and the halls of Congress, building tradesmen were operating in every possible arena. Organized Labor said of the BTC's dual strategy, "Labor is now fighting with both fists—politically and industrially. And in the language of the 'pug' [pugilist], it 'carries a knockout blow in each mitt.' " Yet, unlike their New Deal successors, the men of the BTC always assumed that their movement


was the creation and property of one race. They would have sympathized with Jack London, who once, during an argument with Socialist comrades over Japanese exclusion, pounded his fist on a table and shouted, "What the devil! I am first of all a white man and only then a Socialist!"[71]

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