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To Save the Republic
The California Workingmen's Party in Humboldt County

Daniel Cornford

Editor's Introduction

By the mid-1850s, the prospects of a Californian striking it rich at the gold diggings were slim. Most of the prime mining sites were controlled by corporations. Nevertheless, thousands of people continued to migrate to California with great expectations of a better life in the Golden State.

While various studies have documented significant upward social and economic mobility after the gold rush, especially in San Francisco, California was still subject to the ups and downs of the national economy. Although some found riches on the Far West frontier, others experienced failure and disappointment. The opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 did not bring the prosperity and stability the railroad promoters had promised; indeed, its completion coincided with the onset of the "Terrible Seventies." An increased labor supply, the competition of cheap goods from the national market, and a national depression beginning in 1873 resulted in a sharp decline in wages and high levels of unemployment for most of the 1870s. All this came at a time when the Chinese population of San Francisco was growing rapidly, and inevitably the already strong anti-Chinese sentiment of many workingmen was fueled even further.

At the same time, farmers found that the railroad charged them exorbitant shipping fees, even as the prices of almost all their crops plummeted. Prospective California farmers discovered that much of the cultivatable land was still the subject of litigation dating back to the Mexican land disputes of the 1850s and that vast amounts of land had been engrossed by land speculators with the apparent connivance of the state government. In his pamphlet Our Land and Land Policy (1871), Henry George lamented: "In all of the new States of the Union land monopolization has gone on at


an alarming rate, but in none of them so fast as California, and in none of them perhaps, are its evil effects so manifest."

By the early 1870s, growing economic and social discontent was finding expression in various third-party political movements. Many Californians believed that the problems were as much political as economic and that the woes of working people were attributable to the machinations and corruption of politics at all levels of government. In 1877, this political dissent came to a head in the wake of a massive railroad strike in the East. Under the leadership of Denis Kearney, the Workingmen's Party of California (WPC) was founded. Within months, it had become a major force, with branches in most California counties, and it elected many representatives. Most spectacularly, in 1878 it elected a third of the delegates to a state constitutional convention—only the collaboration of the Democrats and the Republicans prevented these delegates from controlling the convention.

These developments attracted the interest of many of the world's most illustrious political observers. Englishman Lord Bryce visited California in the 1870s and was so fascinated by the WPC that in his classic work American Commonwealth he devoted a chapter to "Kearneyism in California." In 1880, Karl Marx appealed to his American correspondent Friedreich Sorge for "something good (meaty) on economic conditions in California," and added, "California is very important to me because nowhere else has the upheaval shamelessly caused by capitalist concentration taken place with such speed."

Most studies of the WPC have focused on San Francisco and mainly on the role that anti-Chinese sentiment played in the WPC's founding. The following article by Daniel Cornford examines the WPC in Humboldt County, situated in northwest California, two hundred miles north of San Francisco. Although strong anti-Chinese sentiment existed in Humboldt County, other factors were more important in the rise of the WPC in that area.

Tracing the emergence of the WPC back to the late 1860s, this essay describes how a variety of local, state, and even national issues fueled dissenting movements in the county. Crucial to understanding why a dissenting tradition evolved in Humboldt County is the fact that the political culture of most residents was shaped by a cluster of values often referred to as a "democratic-republican" tradition. In essence, Humboldt County inhabitants believed that the American Revolution, and further struggles


during the Jacksonian era, had established a republic in which "equal rights" for all should prevail. It is difficult to define this belief precisely, but to Humboldt County residents, developments after the Civil War—in particular, large concentrations of economic power, the perception that "class legislation" was being passed, and the belief that politics at all levels of government was riddled with corruption—violated their notion of what the republic was supposed to be. Viewing themselves as guardians of their cherished republic, a diverse group of farmers and workers united to form a workingmen's party.

Even when the WPC expired in 1880, these watchdogs of the democratic-republican tradition did not let down their guard. Their continued desire to purify the tainted republic was reflected in strong support for the Knights of Labor in the 1880s and the Populist party during the 1890s.

Viewed from San Francisco, as it usually is, the California Workingmen's party appears as a reactive formation organized in response to the depression of the 1870s and the flood of Chinese immigrants released into the labor market by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.[1] Yet Workingmen's parties were founded in forty of California's fifty-two counties, and within less than a decade labor tickets or parties would appear in one hundred and eighty-nine towns and cities in thirty-four states.[2] Relatively little attention has been paid to dissenting third-party movements in the small towns and rural areas of Gilded Age America, although until 1900 two-thirds of the population lived in such places.[3] Historians of nineteenth-century radicalism have concentrated instead on events in major metropolitan areas. Furthermore, to the extent that the third-party insurgencies of the late 1870s and 1880s have been examined, their ideological and institutional antecedents have often been neglected.

In far northern California's Humboldt County, a radical democratic-republican tradition sustained a succession of dissenting third-party political and social movements, including the California Workingmen's party, the Greenback Labor party, the International Workingmen's Association, the Knights of Labor, and the Populists. Although none lasted more than a few years, the persistent reappearance of such movements indicates the vitality of the critical perspective which spawned them. In newspaper editorials, letters to the local press, diaries, sermons, correspondence to regional and national labor leaders, and in party platforms, Humboldt dissidents, from a wide variety of callings, clearly articulated an ideology shaped by


the more radical elements of the values and rhetoric of the American Revolution and Jacksonian democracy.

The radical democratic-republican ideology drew on a cluster of ideas that embraced the notion of "equal rights" and the labor theory of value.[4] This progressive antebellum ideological legacy was sustained and reinforced by the acrimonious Civil War debates in which Union supporters characterized the conflict as one between the noble free laborer of the North and an autocratic slavocracy in the South. Embodied in the free-labor ideology was a deep faith that under a government founded and maintained on true democratic-republican principles the workingman could rapidly ascend the social ladder. A Humboldt Times editorial in 1864 argued that "if there is one thing in our government which more than commends it to the people it is the fact that the gate of honor is open to the poor and rich alike."[5] Moreover, any government that deprived a worker of the full product of his labor was guilty of "class legislation" and of fostering the interests of "monopolies" at the expense of the honest toiler. A government that adhered to true republican principles would result in a society in which, according to Humboldt pioneer James Beith, "none are very rich and none very poor."[6] While even the most radical upholders of the democratic-republican tradition did not believe in the feasibility or desirability of absolute social equality, nevertheless, as Beith put it, the principal aim of government should be "how to promote best the true social equality."[7]

As they scrutinized Gilded Age America, Humboldt County radicals were greatly alarmed by what they saw. They were convinced that economic power was becoming increasingly and dangerously concentrated and that the once pristine American political system was suffering from a serious affliction evidenced by a series of charges and revelations of corruption in local, state, and national government. Moreover, to the extent that the pioneers of Humboldt and other California counties expected to find a land of boundless opportunity and rough social equality in the Golden State, they were to be sorely disappointed. Within a decade of the Gold Rush, disparities of wealth were as marked as in many of the eastern communities from which the pioneers had come.[8]

Unlike the Eastern urban artisans who have been the focus of most of the important studies of nineteenth-century working-class radicalism, Humboldt's dissenters were not being "deskilled" or seriously affected by the advent of industrialization.[9] Twenty-five years after the Gold Rush had lured the first white settlers to Humboldt County, its economy was based primarily on lumber and agriculture. Humboldt County was on the verge of establishing itself as the heartland of the Redwood Empire's


lumber industry. By 1876 there were twenty mills in the county and overall the county's lumber industry employed at least a thousand workers. At this time the lumber industry was centered primarily in Eureka and the vicinity of Arcata. Eureka was the county's "metropolis"; the city and its environs contained approximately a third of the county's 15,000 inhabitants in 1880. Throughout the county, and especially in the fertile Eel River Valley, farming also flourished.[10] The dissenters in Humboldt County constituted a broad coalition of lumber workers, farmers, artisans, and professionals.

Until the end of the Civil War, politics in Humboldt County was dominated by national issues. The county conventions and platforms of the major political parties hardly addressed local issues, and there is little evidence of divisiveness over them. The protracted sectional crisis probably helped subsume tensions, but there were other reasons for the consensus in local politics. Humboldt's pioneers were united by a desire to promote their community to outsiders. Highly conscious of their geographical isolation, they realized the need to attract outside capital and a larger population if the county was to become a viable economic entity. Accordingly, there was a widespread recognition of the need to use county revenues to lay the foundation of a basic economic infrastructure. At the same time, the possibility of discord over appropriations and expenditures was limited by their small scale. In addition, the transience of many early pioneers lessened the chances of polarization over local issues.

In the late 1860s, with the sectional conflict no longer the preeminent issue and with the county population growing and becoming more settled, important questions arose concerning county revenues that brought the consensus to an abrupt end. An increasing number of citizens began to feel that the county was going too deeply into debt to fund internal improvements and that the burden of taxation was falling disproportionately on small farmers and workers. A proposal in 1867 to build a hundred-mile road to link Humboldt County with the state road system raised a storm of protest amid charges of corruption and incompetence in the county government.[11] The bond issue to finance the project was defeated by a vote of 1,038 to 134 in the 1868 election.[12] In 1870, a bitter debate erupted over the extent of the county's indebtedness for expenditures financed by county warrants which no longer sold at anything like their par value. A year later, a plan to build a railroad from Eureka to the Eel River Valley encountered fierce opposition; voters repudiated a proposed $100,000 bond issue 899 to 143.[13]


The Republican party retained its ascendancy over the Democrats in Humboldt County for the immediate postbellum years, but its image was tainted and its support eroded by charges of corruption. A series of letters in the Northern Independent alleged that Republican candidate for the state assembly J. De Haven paid almost no local taxes and that the taxes paid by everyone on the 1869 Republican ticket amounted to "a mere pittance."[14] At the same time, H. L. Knight, the future secretary of the California Workingmen's party, charged that the vote at the Republican party convention had been blatantly manipulated to secure the renomination of Humboldt County sheriff W. S. Barnum and that Barnum was guilty of various forms of tax evasion.[15] Barnum's rebuttal was not convincing, and the Humboldt Times , which had supported the Republican party since the Civil War, endorsed several "independent" candidates while refraining from disputing the charges. At the election, the Republican party's traditional large majority was severely pruned, and Sheriff Barnum was not reelected.

Increasingly, the issues of taxation, public indebtedness, corruption, and political cliques became linked in the minds of many Humboldt County residents, a perception that was reinforced by their view of developments in state and national politics. To a growing number of people it seemed that, whether the symptom was a corrupt local sheriff or a national Crédit Mobilier scandal, a serious malaise had begun to afflict the American body politic. Numerous instances of actual or alleged corruption at all levels of government in the late 1860s and early 1870s shook people's faith in their political institutions. In Humboldt County, the Republican party had emerged from the Civil War with a large reservoir of moral and political credit that enabled it to buck the trend toward the Democratic party that occurred throughout most of California. But by the early 1870s, many Humboldters felt that the Republicans had exhausted their credit.

In 1871, Louis Tower, who had been an ardent supporter of the Republican party in the 1860s, eloquently expressed the growing sense of foreboding and disenchantment of many Humboldters in a series of articles entitled the "Next Irrepressible Conflict." Tower stated that it was his duty to "call the attention of my fellow laborers—the producers of wealth—to the consideration of our interests as treated in the policies and practices of our government." He asserted that "the tendency of our legislatures both national and state . . . is drifting in favor of capital" and mentioned specifically the growing wealth and power of corporations and railroads; the pervasiveness of corruption in politics; and the "absorption" of the pub-


lic domain "into the hands of capitalists through Congressional action," which threatened the free laborer with "the fate that has befallen the workers of the older more densely populated countries." Tower spoke of the Republican party in its early days as representing "the rise, progress and culmination of the principle that labor should be free and that the soil, the great bank of labor exchange, should be free also." But, he argued, the conflict between labor and capital was not inevitable, and the "producers of wealth" should form a new party that would elect men of integrity.[16]

The Humboldt Times sensed the growing disaffection and entreated the "laboring classes" to retain their loyalty to the Republican party. The newspaper reminded readers that the Democratic party had supported slavery, "the very bane of free labor," had opposed the income tax, and had failed to provide public education in many states; the Republican party, in contrast, had abolished slavery, had thrown open the public lands to settlement, and had established a public educational system in many states.[17] Despite such pleas, disillusionment with the Republicans in Humboldt County mounted. In 1873, when Henry McGowan announced his candidacy for the state assembly as an independent, he expressed many of the same sentiments as Tower. He praised the Republicans for seeing the nation through the ordeal of the Civil War, but, he said, the party "has unfortunately allowed itself to be led by corrupt and designing men into a state of political depravity."[18]

On August 2, 1873, at a mass meeting at Ryan's Hall in Eureka, a Tax-Payer party was formed. The party's formation paralleled but apparently had no direct links with a Tax-Payer Independent party that was beginning to pick up momentum in California under Newton Booth.[19] Booth, the Republican governor of California, had been elected in 1871 with the strong support of the Grange, running on a platform that stressed opposition to railroad subsidies. In Humboldt County, many of the leading figures in the new party were former Republicans. The most notable among them was W. J. Sweasey, who had been chairman of the county's Republican party since the Civil War. Sweasey was elected president of the new party, and a full slate of candidates was chosen for upcoming elections. First among a long list of party resolutions was an expression of strong opposition to "giving lands or money or loaning the National credit to corporations or other persons, for the purposes of creating dangerous monopolies to oppress the people." Another resolution denounced corruption "whether by means of 'Credit Mobilier Frauds' in the East" or "Contract and Finance Companies in California." The Tax-Payer party declared its support for


"equality of taxation, so that the burden of maintaining the government shall be borne by the rich in proportion to their wealth." Finally, it endorsed a measure to regulate "the carrying business of the country" by controlling railroad freight rates.[20]

The ensuing campaign was one of the most heated in the county's history. The Tax-Payer party faced difficulties from the outset. The Republican platform, although not quite as populist in tone, was almost indistinguishable from the Tax-Payer program in its planks on taxation, corruption, and monopoly. Several Republican candidates openly acknowledged that corruption and monopoly were serious problems. The Tax-Payer party also had to face the opposition of the county press and repeated allegations that party members were a group of "sore heads and broken down political hacks" who had been shunned by the Republican party, notwithstanding the fact that the Tax-Payer party held its convention before the Republicans.[21]

The Republicans fretted, in particular, about the allegiance of Humboldt's farmers. In 1872 and 1873, there were growing manifestations of their discontent. Farmers in various locales throughout the county began forming Farmers' Protective Unions in 1872 "for the purposes of reflecting the best interests of the farming community of the county and deriving some plan of action for mutual benefit."[22] In 1873, Humboldt County farmers affiliated with the California Grange.[23] While the Humboldt Grange did not make political endorsements, there can be no doubt that the organization reflected deep-seated discontents. Farmers complained repeatedly to the county press about low prices, and the Humboldt Times reported that for "several years" local farmers "have received but indifferent rewards for their labor" and that "in some instances it has taken nearly all . . . to pay commission and expenses of transportation."[24]

The overall performance of the Tax-Payer party was impressive. It succeeded in electing its candidate to the state assembly and lost most of the county contests by narrow margins. The extent of the county farmers' disaffection showed in the strong support the Tax-Payer party received in most rural precincts, equivalent to its showings in Eureka and Arcata.[25] The 1873 election was the first electoral expression of a rising tide of dissent in Humboldt County. Rumblings of discontent had been growing louder since the Civil War and were finally crystallizing into a coherent political movement. Several leading political figures in Humboldt County permanently severed their connections with the Republican and, to a lesser extent, Democratic parties. Sweasey emerged as the leading dissident in the


county—a position he occupied for the next decade and that culminated in his nomination for the lieutenant governorship of California on the Greenback Labor party ticket in 1882. No one else in the county expressed with such lucidity and forcefulness the profound sense of disillusionment felt by many people.

Sweasey was born in London, England, in 1805. At age twenty-one, he captained a sea vessel engaged in trade with the West Indies. In 1837, he left "'perfidious Albion' to set out for the land of the free," and, shortly after arriving in America, he and his family joined Robert Owen's communitarian settlement in New Harmony, Indiana. For several years he was a "near neighbor" and employee of Owen, whom he described as "an old and valued friend." In the 1840s, Sweasey became involved with the Young America movement before taking the overland route to California in 1850. Soon after his arrival, he became a champion of settlers' rights in their battle with the Spanish land grant holders. He became known as the "Squatter King," and he lived on a ranch near Redwood City until he was evicted. He joined the Democratic party and in 1853 was elected to the California Assembly as a representative from San Francisco. In 1855 he moved to Hydesville, in southern Humboldt County, where he engaged in dairy farming. Within a year, he was chairman of the Humboldt County Democratic party, but shortly after the election of James Buchanan in 1856, he left the party. He helped found the county's Republican party and was its chairman from its inception until 1872.

Sweasey moved with his family to Eureka in 1862 and established a successful general store there.[26] By 1867, in spite of his prominent position in the county's Republican party, Sweasey had become highly critical of the Republican-dominated county administration. Just before the 1873 elections, he severed his ties with the party. He wrote frequent letters to the local press voicing his profound concern at the direction in which he believed America was heading, the most eloquent of which appeared a few months after the 1873 election.

Look at the corruption and venality exposed in our late national councils. Look at the profligate disposal of our public domain, the noblest inheritance ever bequeathed to a people. Look at our swindling financial system, made and perpetuated to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Look at the mass of misery and crime in our great cities; near 1,500 homicides in the city of New York alone in one year; thousands thrown houseless, breadless on the street. Why? Are they idle, unwilling to work? Has nature refused her support? Neither. Our harvests were never more bountiful. . . . A cen-


tury ago honesty and ability guided our national councils. Today can we say so? A few years more of this misrule of the weak minded and where will be the superiority of the condition of our people over the condition of the people of the monarchial governments of Europe? Already our taxes are greater than the taxes of any other people or nation. Our lands are held in quantities larger than German principalities; not by aristocracies of birth, but by aristocracies of wealth, by corporations who have no souls, who never die, who control the weak minded men, who fill our legislative halls, both National and State, while thousands upon thousands are suffering for food, shelter and the commonest necessaries of life.[27]

The depression of the late 1870s reinforced the fears of men like Sweasey and led to a revival of organized dissenting political activity. The dissidents were struck both by the social and political turmoil at state and national levels and by unprecedented social and economic dislocations in their own community. The destitution caused by the depression hit Humboldt County as early as January 1877. The Humboldt Times complained about the "insufferable nuisance" caused by the "professional beggar."[28] A few weeks later, the Times stated that "there seems to be a regularly organized band of ruffians in this city. Scarcely a day passes but what we hear of an assault being made upon some of our citizens."[29]

The depression severely affected the Humboldt County lumber industry as the price of redwood lumber plummeted. In 1876, prices stood at an all-time high of $30 per thousand board feet for clear lumber; by 1879, they had slumped to $18 per thousand feet.[30] Lumber workers' wages were cut by $5 to $25 a month in February 1877, a move that reportedly gave rise to "considerable complaint."[31] After the July 4 holiday that year, lumber employers closed their mills indefinitely. Hundreds of lumber workers lost their jobs, and there were grave predictions about the repercussions on the local economy.[32] Few mills resumed operations in 1877, and poverty and unemployment were widespread. The local press reported that many families were in dire straits. There were recurrent complaints about tramps and incidents of alleged arson.[33]

The press received a stream of anonymous letters that were indicative of growing social tensions. The Democratic Standard , which in 1877 came under the auspices of Greenback Labor party supporter William Ayres, provided a fresh outlet for expressions of discontent. In November 1877, it published a strongly worded letter from "Argonaut," insisting that a man had the right to work and warning that, while people prefer legal remedies, "men cannot be patient when they are hungry." He compared the plight of labor to a turtle "upon which the elephants of capital stand."[34] The Hum-


boldt Times received an equally strongly worded communication from "Justice":

Dissensions, like contagions, seem to spread over the country. Even the little Hamlet of Arcata is not an exception. She has a few pioneers who have been fortunate enough to make a little money out of the Indians, the soldiers and the later immigrants, until they have acquired a few town lots and some tenantable housing. Not unlike the railroad kings they are the self-constituted aristocrats who claim the right to extort by law . . . all the blood money possible from the poorer classes.[35]

Another theme expressed in critical letters to the editor was suspicion that public land laws were being violated. One writer charged the county surveyor with long delays in filing plats for preemption claims and suggested that the delays were a conspiracy to aid the "land grabbers."[36] In fact, it was a common practice for large Humboldt County landholders to circumvent the 160-acre homestead limit by paying another person a fee to file the initial claim with the understanding that the land title would soon be transferred to the sponsoring landholder.[37]

Land fraud and the growing concentration of land ownership received considerable attention in the state press. Thus, in 1873 the Sacramento Daily Record published articles based on data from the State Board of Equalization which revealed that land distribution had become very skewed in many California counties. These findings were reported in many California newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Humboldt Times .[38] In Humboldt, forty individuals or businesses owned over a thousand acres in 1873, and five owned more than five thousand. One individual owned 23,169 acres.[39] By the late 1870s, letters to the county press on the land question were frequent enough to suggest that sentiment on this issue contributed significantly to the discontent.

In the debates surrounding the election of delegates to the California constitutional convention in 1878, land monopoly and fraud were the most frequently discussed issues.[40] Sweasey wrote several long, impassioned letters on the subject. He asserted that unless reforms were undertaken to ensure a more equitable distribution of land, the result would be "serfdom and slavery or a bloody revolution."[41] He pointed to the turmoil in Ireland as proof of his argument and added that "what was done in Ireland by war and conquest was more successfully done in California by fraud under the pretense of law."[42] Sweasey described in great detail the fraudulent means by which much of California's land was acquired shortly after the Mexican-American War. He insisted that similar frauds were being used


to obtain land in parts of California not covered by the Spanish land grants and alluded to one scheme to aggrandize "thirty square leagues, north of Cape Mendocino."[43] In another letter, Sweasey spoke of land monopoly as the "greatest evil," and recalled the day he had witnessed eighty families being evicted from their land under the English enclosure laws to make way for a deer park.[44] At the Franklin Society Debating Club in Eureka in 1878, a schoolteacher, George Sarvis, echoed many of Sweasey's arguments. Sarvis spoke in favor of a motion to limit the amount of land an individual or corporation might own on the grounds that "the holding of large and unlimited quantities of land by one individual or an association of individuals disturbs the unalienable right of each citizen and when carried out, destroys popular government."[45]

Humboldt County farmers were not immediately hit by the depression of the late 1870s. Harvests in 1877 and 1878 were bountiful, and prices for most crops held constant, although they began to fall slightly in 1879. Nevertheless, the county's Grange did not hesitate to join other dissidents in calling for far-reaching reforms. The Grange had become a strong force in the social and political life of the county by the late 1870s. There were at least six branches of the Grange in 1877. Complete lists of branches and membership figures are unfortunately hard to obtain, but the fact that the Ferndale Grange boasted a membership of 150 in 1877 (up from 90 in 1874) suggests that the Humboldt County Grange was flourishing.[46] The Grange performed important social and economic functions. The Table Bluff Grange built its own hall,[47] and all the Granges frequently held dances and other events. The Table Bluff Grange (and perhaps others) also established cooperative retail facilities.[48] In the political realm, Humboldt Grangers stressed the need for a stable and expanded money supply based on silver and greenbacks. And, in general, their prognosis for the American body politic was gloomy. In March 1878, the Ferndale Grange passed the following resolution:

Whereas, a people view with alarm the growing tendency (by legislation) of a bourbon aristocracy, a system of landlordism such as exists in Germany, England and throughout Europe, and which if not checked soon will finally reduce the working classes of America to mere slaves and vassals. . .. The toiling masses of this country are today to the banks and corporations what the peons of Mexico are to the aristocracy of that so called Republic.

Resolved, that we look upon this bourbon element with suspicion and distrust in their efforts to subvert that form of government bequeathed to us by our fathers, and to erect instead a semi-despotic government, controlled by a centralized aristocracy.[49]


A host of grievances that had been simmering for a decade surfaced in 1877-1878 in the context of the depression and the debate over the need for a new state constitution. Complaints included the costs of state government, inequitable tax laws, corruption in government at all levels, and the political power of the railroads in California and nationwide. This conjuncture of events and discontents led to the formation of a California Workingmen's party in Humboldt and thirty-nine other California counties. Humboldt voters expressed their growing disquiet in September 1877 when a statewide referendum was held on whether to call a convention to rewrite the 1849 California Constitution. In general, Californians content with the status quo were opposed to a convention. Humboldt County voted in favor of a convention by a margin of 10-1 (2,552 votes to 258);[50] voters statewide approved the measure by less than a 2-1 majority (73,400 to 44,200).[51]

In San Francisco, another issue gained prominence at this time. Anti-Chinese sentiment reached new heights during the depression of the late 1870s, a fact that historians have viewed as the most important element in the birth of the Workingmen's party there. The Chinese population of Humboldt County also increased, from 38 in 1870 to 242 in 1880,[52] and by the late 1870s Eureka possessed a Chinatown of sorts.[53] The local press commented occasionally on the alleged existence of opium dens and brothels in Eureka's Chinatown, and several attacks on Chinese people, usually by Eureka youths, took place. Notwithstanding this, and the fact that in 1885 Eureka achieved the dubious distinction of being one of the first western communities to expel its Chinese population, Sinophobia was not a major issue in county politics in the late 1870s for a number of reasons.[54] First, by 1880 the Chinese constituted only 1.5 percent of the county's population, whereas in San Francisco they made up 16.3 percent of the inhabitants, and they were 8.7 percent of the state population. Moreover, Humboldt's Chinese population was relatively dispersed. Eureka, with its so-called Chinatown, in 1880 contained only 101 Chinese people. Second, while competition from Chinese labor may have aroused some animosity, few Chinese were employed in the county's two principal industries, lumber and agriculture. Most worked as miners (66), laborers (62), cooks (37), and in the laundry business (23). Only 6 of the 228 Chinese employed in the county worked in the lumber industry.[55] Thus, the Chinese in Humboldt County did not threaten white labor as directly as they did in San Francisco and other parts of California. Significantly, when lumber employers tried to make more extensive use of Chinese labor in the early 1880s, anti-Chinese sentiment rose dramatically. Undoubtedly, most


Humboldters favored Chinese exclusion by the late 1870s, but a host of other grievances were far more important in the formation of the California Workingmen's party.

The Humboldt County Workingmen's party was organized in May 1878 to participate in elections to choose delegates to the California constitutional convention. Sweasey, the party's first chairman, was the candidate for the county delegate seat. J. N. Barton, a farmer from Ferndale, received the senatorial nomination for the 27th District. The party's convention passed a string of resolutions: Public officers convicted of bribery should be liable to a twenty-year jail sentence; taxes should be levied only "to meet the expenses of government"; and "taxation should be equal, so that the burden of maintaining government be borne by the rich in proportion to their wealth." Also, railroads should be taxed in relation to their "actual cash value," while the large landholdings of corporations and wealthy individuals should be taxed at the same rate per acre as small landholders. All legal means should be used to halt the immigration of the Chinese "and other inferior races who cannot amalgamate with us."[56] A few days after the convention, the party founded a newspaper, the Workingman , edited by Sweasey and Barton.

The county Democratic and Republican organizations joined forces to elect delegates to the constitutional convention. County judge C. G. Stafford applauded this cooperation, for "as matters now stand it is possible for the Communists to get control of the Convention."[57] The fusion plan aroused the ire of the Workingmen's party. The Democratic Standard asserted that "the managers of the two parties, under the direction of the monopolists, have joined hands . . . against the 'common enemy,' that is, the workingman."[58]

At the June 19 election, the Humboldt County Workingmen's party triumphed over the "nonpartisan" party. Both Sweasey and Barton were elected delegates to the constitutional convention. On the whole, the votes for the two men were remarkably evenly distributed over the county, with both candidates picking up approximately the same levels of support in Eureka as they did in the rural precincts. In Eureka, Sweasey and Barton won fifty-six percent and sixty percent of the vote, respectively. Outside Eureka, Sweasey's share of the vote in all precincts combined was slightly lower (fifty percent) and Barton's somewhat higher (sixty-seven percent). The consistency of the two men's performance throughout the county's twenty-three precincts indicates the breadth of support for the Workingmen's party.[59]


Barton proved an especially effective spokesman at the constitutional convention. He spoke with particular stridency on the issue of "land grabbing," calling for a state investigation and the repossession of fraudulently acquired lands. But he declared that he was pledged to no "agrarian measures" and that he was not at the convention "to disturb the rights of property." He advocated "equal taxation" as the best means to stop land grabbing. To this end, he introduced several resolutions calling for amendments to the state's tax system, including the adoption of a state income tax. He also spoke in favor of retrenchment in state expenditures and a reduction in the salaries of state officials.[60]

The Humboldt Workingmen's party was pleased with the outcome of the constitutional convention, unlike the San Francisco branch of the party, which split on the question of ratification. Within two weeks of the convention, the Humboldt party launched a vigorous campaign to ratify the new constitution, which promised strict regulation of railroads and other public utilities, a more equitable system of taxation, an eight-hour day on all public works projects, and a series of anti-Chinese provisions. The Democratic Standard was the only newspaper in the county to endorse ratification unequivocally. It denounced the California Democratic party for opposing ratification and accused the party of betraying "the true principles taught us by a Jefferson and a Jackson," and called on its readers to "remember General Jackson and his war upon the privileged classes."[61] In the ratification referendum on May 7, 1879, California voters endorsed the new constitution by a relatively small margin of 77,959 to 67,134 votes; but in Humboldt County the ratification majority was much more decisive, with 1,714 votes in favor and 1,051 against.[62]

The Humboldt Workingmen's party perceived the ratification as a triumph for the workingman, and the party's success encouraged the belief that the time was ripe for a basic realignment of political forces to regenerate a corrupt and decadent American body politic. With remarkable frequency, letters to local newspapers harkened back nostalgically to the days of Jefferson and Jackson when the American republic supposedly had true Democrats at the helm. As one voter, "Jeffersonian," put it: "We are upon the eve of a reorganization of political forces. The two old parties have had their day." The Democratic party represented democracy in name only and had "drifted far from its moorings," while the Republican party was dominated by corporations and pro-Chinese sentiment. He concluded that the Workingmen's party was the only true standard-bearer of pure democratic principles.[63]


The profound concern expressed about the peril to American democracy cannot be dismissed as partisan political rhetoric. "Is this a Republic?" asked the Democratic Standard at the head of its editorial column immediately after the ratification election. It recounted how, just before the election, workers at one lumber mill had found a ticket under their dinner plates marked "Against the Constitution." The Standard commented: "When the daily laborer can be intimidated and forced to vote against his judgement what is he but a slave," and the editorial concluded that "if we are to be a republic let it be so in fact. Our sires laid down their lives to establish one. We should be prepared to maintain it, if needs be with our lives."[64] A month later, the Standard reported that some employers in the county had dismissed workers who had voted for the new constitution.[65] Events at the local, state, and national levels produced profound disquiet on the part of many Humboldters, who saw themselves as defending a sacred democratic-republican legacy. Not surprisingly, they invoked the figureheads, symbols, and rhetoric of a supposedly golden age.

The Humboldt Workingmen's party began taking steps in the spring of 1879 to consolidate its organization to contest the forthcoming statewide and county elections. In March 1879, a convention was held to elect delegates to a state convention of the Workingmen's party and to encourage the establishment of workingmen's clubs. By June 1879, clubs were mushrooming throughout the county.[66] In the same month, a convention nominated candidates and drew up a platform. The platform extolled the new constitution, stressing in particular how it would reduce the burden of taxation. But it reiterated that the resolute implementation of the new constitution depended on electing "faithful friends" to all branches of the government.[67]

Who were the "faithful friends" nominated by the Workingmen's party?[68] Most of the candidates were in their forties or early fifties and had come to California in the 1850s. Almost all had resided in Humboldt County for at least ten years. A majority were natives of the New England and Middle Atlantic regions and came from relatively humble origins. Very few had held public office before, and only one had done so in Humboldt County. Two farmers, both Grangers, were on the ticket; one owned a "small farm" and the other a "comfortable farm." Thomas Cutler, the candidate for sheriff, was the only businessman on the ticket. He was, allegedly, one of only two merchants in Eureka who supported the Workingmen's party "against all the threats of the San Francisco wholesale merchants and railroad carriers." Two of the men on the ticket ran livery stables. One was Pierce Ryan, the senatorial candidate for the state's 27th


District; the other, John Carr, had spent most of his life as a miner and blacksmith. The nominee for county clerk was a carpenter, and the candidate for county treasurer had worked in the lumber mills for six years. Three professional people—two lawyers and a schoolteacher—rounded out the ticket. Their prospective offices of district attorney, superior court judge, and school administrator demanded at least a modicum of professional training and experience.

The Workingmen's party conducted a spirited campaign against the Republicans and Democrats in the county. Leaders of the new party berated the old-line forces for opposing ratification of the state constitution and portrayed themselves as the true standard-bearers of the American democratic tradition. J. D. H. Chamberlin, the Workingmen's party candidate for superior county judge, opened a speech at Ferndale by quoting at length from the Declaration of Independence.[69] The Democratic Standard warned that there are "vital principles involved in the election of the most unimportant officer. . .. The tory spirit has revived after 100 years of rest and today opposes the honest yeomanry of our country with all the oppressive bitterness that persecuted the heroes of American freedom."[70] On the evening before election day, the Workingmen's party staged a torchlight parade in Eureka that drew supporters from all over the county. The Standard described the procession as "composed entirely of farmers, laborers and mechanics."[71]

Although the Workingmen's party did not achieve the sweeping success it had in electing delegates to the constitutional convention, its performance was impressive. Every candidate for statewide office on the Workingmen's ticket got a majority of the vote in Humboldt County. Party candidates for the state senate and legislature were elected, and the party won half the county's executive positions, losing the remainder by only a few votes to the fusionist opposition. Precinct returns again indicated that the Workingmen's party received consistent support throughout the county, performing best in the burgeoning agricultural townships of Ferndale and Table Bluff. In most other rural precincts the party performed no better, and sometimes worse, than in Eureka, where it fell only a few votes short of a majority in almost all county and state contests. Statewide, the Workingmen elected the chief justice of the state supreme court, five of six associate justices, and sixteen assemblymen and eleven state senators. This re-suit failed to give the party the hoped-for majority in the state legislature and was somewhat disappointing in view of its strong showing in the 1878 constitutional convention elections.


The ineffectual performance of many party representatives once in state and local office and persistent factionalism in the San Francisco branch led to a rapid decline of the party after the 1879 state elections. The gathering political momentum of the National Greenback party encouraged some members of the Workingmen's party, including Denis Kearney, leader of the San Francisco branch, to join the Greenbacks. In addition, the success of the Workingmen's party prompted California's Republican and Democratic parties (especially the latter) to become more responsive to the demands of the Workingmen's party on such issues as Chinese exclusion, land monopoly, and stricter regulation of railroads. Many Workingmen's representatives aligned with one of the two major parties, usually the Democrats, in a process that Alexander Saxton dubbed "the institutionalization of labor politics."[72]

The decline of the Workingmen's party in Humboldt County reflected its demise statewide. Supporters were discouraged by the overall performance of the party in the 1879 state elections and in municipal elections in Humboldt and other counties in early 1880. Throughout the 1879 campaign party leaders stressed that the new constitution was a dead letter unless the party obtained a majority in the state legislature. Thus, the Humboldt County Workingmen's party virtually turned the election into a referendum on the future of the party. Immediately after the election, the Democratic Standard declared that the new constitution had been "practically nullified." It lamented the well-publicized factionalism of the San Francisco branch and the fact that a considerable number of Working-men's party representatives were moving into the old parties.[73] Humboldters who retained their faith in the new party after the elections became disillusioned with the performance of some representatives. In April 1880, the Standard reported "much talk of dissatisfaction among the workingmen of Eureka about the policy which some of the county officers elected on the Workingmen's ticket have chosen to pursue."[74] George Shaw, who had been elected county assessor on the party ticket, incurred the wrath of many people when he added an office clerk to his staff at a salary of $135 per month and selected a long-time enemy of the Working-men's party as his main adviser.[75] By April 1880, Shaw was so unpopular that he required a bodyguard.[76]

Growing interest in the Greenback Labor party hastened the dissolution of the Humboldt County Workingmen's party. Greenback clubs sprang up throughout the county between 1878 and 1880. In fact, remnants of the Workingmen's party reconstituted themselves as the Humboldt Greenback Labor party. The Greenbackers' panaceas had a much


stronger appeal in Humboldt County than they did in San Francisco and many other California counties.

By the late 1870s, a coherent dissenting tradition had emerged in Humboldt County. The evolution of this tradition owed much to the persistence of values associated with an antebellum democratic-republican ideology that stressed the superiority of the American political system. Chauvinistic and almost millennial assumptions engendered a profound set of beliefs and expectations about the nature of the American political economy. In particular, the free-labor tenet and its corollary, the labor theory of value, stressing as they did the immense contribution of the free laborer to America's progress, heightened expectations about the future, reinforced the workingman's sense of his moral worth, and endowed him with a civic responsibility to scrutinize the destiny of the republic. Between 1866 and 1880, developments at the local, state, and national levels convinced many Humboldters that pernicious economic and political events threatened the sanctity and purity of the American Republic and seriously threatened the free laborer's advancement.

Undeniably, contradictions and ambiguities existed in the democratic-republican legacy. Two contradictions, in particular, are worth noting. Both derived from a marked discrepancy between the dissenters' penetrating political analysis and their often superficial prescriptions. On the crucial question of land monopoly, for example, Sweasey took a radical stance in advocating a statutory limitation on the amount of land a person might own. Barton and the Ferndale Grange, for all their deeply felt anxieties about the concentration of land ownership and land fraud, could not countenance so direct an interference with the rights of private property.[77] Paradoxically, many dissenters railed against what they perceived as the dangers of unfettered capitalism but could not bring themselves to advocate far-reaching controls (with the possible exception of railroad regulation) over private property rights. This disparity between a keen perception of fundamental problems and a naïve faith in piecemeal solutions that ignored underlying structural problems stands out in the dissenters' faith that all could be rectified if only good, honest men were elected. Even a man as disenchanted as Sweasey could in one breath speak of the gravity of social and economic trends and the threat to the republic and in the next proclaim his belief in the ability of the "best men" to correct the situation.

Notwithstanding its ambiguous features, the democratic-republican tradition provided Humboldt's dissenters with an arsenal of ideas. Increasingly, they would jettison many (but not all) of the contradictory strands of


the tradition and embrace reforms that entailed at least a measure of state control over private property. The Humboldt Workingmen's party bequeathed to the county a dissenting ideological legacy that the Greenback Labor party, the International Workingmen's Association, and the Knights of Labor were able to draw on in the 1880s, and that the Humboldt Populists relied on heavily in the 1890s. Many leaders of the Humboldt Workingmen's party played important roles in these movements. In 1886, the Arcata Union commented with alarm and derision on the growing strength of the People's party, the political arm of the Humboldt Knights of Labor, describing its leadership as "in the main the same old political fossils . . . that have monopolized every reform movement from the days of Kearney."[78]


Further Reading

Barth, Gunther. Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870 . 1964.

Bryce, James. The American Commonwealth. Vol. 2. 1889.

"The Chinese in California." Special issue. California History 57 (Spring 1978).

Cornford, Daniel. Workers and Dissent in the Redwood Empire. 1987.

Cross, Ira B. A History of the Labor Movement in California. 1935.

———, ed. Frank Roney, Irish Rebel and California Labor Leader . 1931.

Dancis, Bruce. "Social Mobility and Class Consciousness: San Francisco's International Workingmen's Association in the 1880s." Journal of Social History 11 (Fall 1977): 75-98.

Delmatier, Royce D., Clarence F. McIntosh, and Earl G. Waters. The Rumble of California Politics, 1848-1970 . Chapter 3. 1970.

Ethington, Philip J. The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850-1900 . 1994.

Gates, Paul W. Land and Law in California: Essays on Land Policies . 1991.

George, Henry. Our Land and Land Policy . 1971.

Griffiths, David. "Anti-Monopoly Movements in California, 1873-1898." Southern California Quarterly 52 (June 1970): 93-121.

Kauer, Ralph. "The Workingmen's Party of California." Pacific Historical Review 13 (September 1944): 278-291.

Kazin, Michael. "Prelude to Kearneyism: The 'July Days' in San Francisco." New Labor Review 3 (1980): 5-47.

Pisani, Donald J. "Squatter Law in California, 1850-1858." Western Historical Quarterly 25 (August 1994): 277-310.

Sandmeyer, Elmer C. The Anti-Chinese Movement in California. 1939.

Saxton, Alexander. The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California . 1971.

Shumsky, Neil Larry. The Evolution of Political Protest and the Workingmen's Party of California . 1991.

———. "Frank Roney's San Francisco—His Diary: April 2875-March 1876." Labor History 17 (Winter 1976): 245-264.

———. "San Francisco's Workingmen Respond to the Modern City." California History 55 (Spring 1976): 46-55.


Reform, Utopia, and Racism
The Politics of California Craftsmen

Michael Kazin

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]

Further Reading

Bean, Walton. Boss Ruef's San Francisco: The Story of the Union Labor Party, Big Business, and the Graft Prosecution . 1952.

Burki, Mary A. M. "The California Progressive: Labor's Point of View." Labor History 17 (Winter 1976): 24-37.

Cornford, Daniel. Workers and Dissent in the Redwood Empire . Chapter 8. 1987.

Cross, Ira B. A History of the Labor Movement in California . 1935.

Daniel, Cletus E. "In Defense of the Wheatland Wobblies: A Critical Analysis of the IWW in California." Labor History 19 (Fall 1978): 485-509.


Deverell, William, and Tom Sitton, eds. California Progressivism Revisited . 1994.

Ethington, Philip J. The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco , 1850-1900. 1994.

Issel, William. "Class and Ethnic Conflict in San Francisco Political History." Labor History 18 (Summer 1977): 341-359.

Issel, William, and Robert W. Cherny. San Francisco , 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development. 1986.

Kazin, Michael. Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era . 1987.

Knight, Robert E. L. Industrial Relations in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1900-1918 . 1960.

McDonald, Terrence J. The Parameters of Urban Fiscal Policy: Socioeconomic Change and Political Culture in San Francisco, 1860-1906 . 1986.

Perry, Louis B., and Richard S. Perry. A History of the Los Angeles Labor Movement, 1911-1941 . 1963.

Rogin, Michael. "Progressivism and the California Electorate." Journal of American History 55 (September 1968): 305-334.

Saxton, Alexander. "San Francisco Labor and the Populist and Progressive Insurgencies." Pacific Historical Review 36 (November 1965): 421-437.

Shover, John. "The Progressives and the Working-Class Vote in California." Labor History 10 (Fall 1969): 584-602.

Stimson, Grace H. Rise of the Labor Movement in Los Angeles . 1955.

Taft, Phillip. Labor Politics American Style: The California State Federation of Labor . 1968.

Tygiel, Jules. " 'Where Unionism Holds Undisputed Sway'—A Reappraisal of San Francisco's Union Labor Party." California History 62 (Fall 1983): 196-215.

———. Workingmen in San Francisco, 1880-1901 . 1992.


Mobilizing the Homefront
Labor and Politics in Oakland, 1941-1951

Marilynn S. Johnson

Editor's Introduction

The 1930s witnessed the renaissance of the California labor movement. The membership of the California State Federation of Labor increased from slightly more than 100,000 in 1931 to 291,000 in 1938. The booming economic conditions created by World War II and sustained with but few interruptions through the 1940s provided the setting for an even more dramatic growth in trade union membership. In 1950, when the state took its first census of union members, there were 1,354,000 unionized employees, who made up 42 percent of California's wage and salary workers (excluding farmworkers). The greatly enhanced strength of the California labor movement enabled it to make gains at the workplace and also gave it more potential political power than at any time since the Progressive Era.

Although the jurisdictional disputes between the CIO and the AFL were as bitter in California as anywhere, the rival organizations sometimes forged alliances that made them a potent force in California local and state politics. The CIO had never been averse to political action. The California AFL was much more reluctant to enter the political fray directly by participating in electoral politics. But the gains that unions made in the late 1930s and early 1940s resulted in a legislative offensive against labor at the local, state, and national levels, which impelled the California AFL to switch its focus from legislative lobbying to actively engaging in electoral politics.

The resort to electoral activity was not solely a defensive move. It also reflected the fact that labor emerged during the war years with a newfound sense of its moral and political legitimacy. Many union leaders and rank-and-file union members were determined to forge a postwar


social-democratic order fundamentally different from that of the 1930s, more akin to the political agenda of the labor movement in Western Europe.

Nowhere were the militancy and power of the California labor movement more apparent during the 1940s than in Oakland. In December 1946, a strike by retail clerks mushroomed into a general strike sanctioned by the Alameda County Central Labor Council and the Building Trades Council of the AFL. More than one hundred thousand workers took part. The strike was followed in the spring of 1947 by important municipal elections in which four labor candidates were elected on a progressive political platform.

Marilynn Johnson examines the factors that led to the Oakland general strike of 1946 and labor's subsequent political offensive. She shows how the defense boom helped to both cause and magnify a variety of urban social problems, which caused great discontent. The revolt was led by a coalition of labor, minorities, and workers from outside the trade union movement. The insurgents demanded such reforms as mayoral and district elections, public housing, rent control, and more money for schools. Johnson concludes that the labor movement's political challenge in Oakland (and other East Bay cities) foreshadowed progressive political revolts that would occur in later decades.

On the eve of the 1947 municipal elections, an extraordinary event took place in Oakland, California. Starting from their respective flatland neighborhoods, hundreds of the city's working-class residents set out for the downtown district on foot, by automobile, and atop parade floats. They convened in a mass torchlight procession down Broadway, brandishing brooms and mops to dramatize the need for "municipal housecleaning." The most impressive float, constructed by the United Negro Labor Committee, showed American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) pallbearers lowering a casket labelled "The Machine" into the ground. Alongside the burial scene was a placard depicting two gloved fists—one black, one white—smashing the Oakland Tribune tower, headquarters of the city's conservative political machine. The fists were labelled "Oakland Voters," and the banner beneath read "Take the Power Out of the Tower."[1]

The election parade dramatized an urban political revolt that had been gaining momentum in Oakland and other California cities since the middle


of World War II. While the defense boom accompanying the war created a spate of social problems and dislocations in these cities, such events also allowed political outsiders to challenge the status quo. Labor, black, and other progressive forces coalesced during the war and would become a major force in the municipal politics of the postwar era. In northern California, the city of Oakland became the site of the Bay Area's most dramatic and sustained political challenge. Cemented by a general strike in 1946, a labor-led coalition waged a mass electoral revolt against the businessoriented machine of Oakland Tribune publisher Joseph R. Knowland in 1947. Events there present a political dynamic different from the one that might be suggested by conventional wisdom.

Standard urban history accounts say little or nothing about wartime urban politics. In The New Urban America , one of the few works that address this issue, historian Carl Abbott argues that the war boom in southern and western cities laid the foundation for municipal political upheavals of the postwar era. Abbott describes these postwar political challenges as "G.I. revolts," led by returning veterans eager to build on wartime demographic and economic gains. This younger generation came to power by supporting a variety of middle-class reform measures aimed at promoting economic growth and municipal efficiency.[2]

In Oakland, however, it was not middle-class reformers who were the driving force in these struggles, but labor, minorities, and working-class people. Nor did these reformers seek to promote business-oriented municipal reform measures such as city manager government and nonpartisan elections (conservative forces had already instituted such practices in the prewar era). Instead, the labor insurgents called for an end to these practices, demanding an elected mayor, district elections, publicly owned mass transportation, public works projects, public housing, and increased funding for education and other social programs—in short, a broad-based liberal agenda. Middle-class business reformers, then, were not the only ones to take advantage of war-born opportunities; under the right conditions, labor and progressive forces also mounted effective political challenges to business-dominated city governments.

Furthermore, the Oakland experience suggests that municipal revolts in western cities were not strictly postwar affairs but had direct roots in wartime political arrangements. The wartime city, in fact, provided a crucible for progressives seeking to fulfill the social ideals of the 1930s. In this regard, the CIO was critical. Nearly all of the postwar issues and personalities can be traced back to the work of the newly formed CIO Political Action Committee (PAC) in 1944. Though initially a creation of the CIO's national


executive board, the local PAC soon took on a life of its own and became the core of an insurgent political movement that united a wide array of community interests, including more liberal elements of the AFL. While this laborled coalition did not survive the reactionary backlash of the 1950s, it foreshadowed progressive trends that would characterize the city in later decades.

Focusing mainly on the national level, labor historians have generally criticized wartime CIO political activity for fostering a rigid and ultimately detrimental relationship between labor, the federal government, and the Democratic Party.[3] When viewed at the grassroots level, however, the experience was far more open and fluid. By examining local politics in Oakland, we can begin to see how labor activists understood the war experience and why they chose to place their faith in the electoral system. Once in office, however, labor representatives found progress difficult. With the onset of the Cold War and domestic anti-Communism, Knowland forces were able to block labor initiatives and drove several progressive councilmembers from office. Indeed, just as the war had helped enhance labor's power in the mid-1940s, later national and international events contributed to labor's political demise. The Oakland experience thus speaks to both the potential and the limitations of electoral politics as a means of advancing workers' interests.

Located across the bay from San Francisco, Oakland had long been a thriving industrial center with a large blue-collar population. As a transcontinental railroad terminus and an active deep-water port, Oakland had become a key transportation and distribution center on the West Coast by the early twentieth century. As such, it attracted hundreds of manufacturing industries including automobile assembly, shipbuilding, canning and food processing, and electrical, chemical, and paint production. Despite the economic setbacks of the depression years, Oakland continued to grow through the 1930s, its population totalling 302,163 by 1940.

The city's industrial development attracted a diverse working-class population, many of whom settled in the flatland neighborhoods of East and West Oakland. In 1940, 14.1 percent of Oakland's population was foreign-born, while immigrants and their children accounted for approximately one-third of the population. The African-American community, though smaller than its counterparts in eastern cities, accounted for 2.8 percent. Centered in West Oakland, adjacent to the railroad yards that had long provided employment for many of its residents, Oakland's prewar black community was the largest in the Bay Area.[4]

Despite the city's blue-collar character, labor played only a minor role


in Oakland politics prior to the war. Since the Progressive era, progrowth business elites had dominated municipal government through the implementation of two major charter reforms. Sparked by a serious Socialist Party challenge in the 1911 municipal elections, local business elites worked to eliminate the ward system and replaced it with a nonpartisan commission form of government later that year. Even under the new system, however, competing business factions continued to fight among themselves. One of these factions, led by prominent Republican and Oakland Tribune publisher Joseph R. Knowland, began campaigning for a second round of charter reform in 1928. The subsequent establishment of a councilmanager government in 1931 helped defeat Knowland's opponents and put his business machine in control of the city for the next fifteen years.[5]

The onset of the depression and the New Deal, however, enhanced labor's power by providing new organizing opportunities. The clearest sign of labor's revitalization was the eighty-three-day maritime strike of 1934, which culminated in a four-day general strike in both Oakland and San Francisco. Involving some 100,000 Bay Area workers, including members of over seventy Oakland locals, the dispute ended on an ambiguous note after AFL leaders agreed to government arbitration, over strong rank-and-file opposition. The "big strike," however, did galvanize support for labor and ushered in an era of union militancy in the Bay Area.[6]

The newly founded CIO was responsible for much of the renewed activism. In the late thirties, CIO activists in Oakland organized workers in a wide variety of manufacturing and service industries including auto plants, canneries, waterfront operations, newspapers, hospitals, and domestic service agencies. While the CIO sought to "organize the unorganized," local CIO dissidents also worked within existing AFL unions to form rival labor organizations. Such efforts outraged many local AFL leaders, who responded by purging CIO unions from the county's Central Labor Council, staging counter-raids on CIO unions, and supporting the use of city police against CIO pickets. Growing labor militance during these years also encouraged the Knowland machine to recruit Building Trades Council President James Quinn and several other AFL conservatives, offering them political patronage in exchange for labor's support of machine candidates and policies. Increasingly, AFL councilmembers backed the Knowland government in its efforts to suppress CIO organizing in the city.[7]

In-fighting between the AFL and the CIO ultimately hindered effecive political action by labor during these years. While some liberal AFL members worked with the CIO through Labor's Non-Partisan League, a


pro-New Deal political action group, the national and local AFL leadership remained staunchly opposed to any cooperation between the two groups. In Oakland, conservative AFL leaders formed a rival political organization that backed Knowland machine candidates against local CIO and Communist insurgents. In 1937-38, the two union federations would not even march in the same Labor Day parade, much less join forces politically.[8]

World War II, however, brought about cataclysmic changes in Oakland's economy, population, and physical development—changes that enhanced labor's role in the community. As one of the West Coast's major transportation and industrial centers, the metropolitan Oakland area received millions of dollars in federal defense contracts, including large outlays for shipbuilding, motor vehicle assembly, food processing, and military supply. To staff these operations, employers recruited local women, youth, and elderly workers and tapped distant labor markets in the South and Midwest as well. Consequently, Oakland's population grew from 302,163 in 1940 to 345,345 by mid-1944—a 14.3 percent increase in less than four years. Not surprisingly, the population boom severely strained housing, transportation, education, and other city services. To help alleviate these crowded conditions, the federal government provided funding for temporary war housing, expanded school facilities, and other community programs.[9]

The influx of civilian and military workers also altered Oakland's racial and class composition. Recruiting heavily in the southwest, defense employers drew many working-class families from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Black families figured prominently among the southwesterners, and Oakland's black population mushroomed from 8,462 in 1940 to 21,770 in 1944 and to 47,562 by 1950. Making up less than 3 percent of the city's population before the war, black Oaklanders constituted 6.3 percent of the total by 1944 and 12.4 percent by 1950.[10] Assuming they remained in the city, black and working-class war migrants provided a potential new source of support for Oakland's embattled labor movement.

For most migrants, however, organized labor offered a hostile welcome at best. Since the shipbuilding industry absorbed the bulk of new workers, most newcomers found themselves within the jurisdiction of the Boilermakers Union and other conservative AFL trades. Outnumbered by wartime newcomers and alarmed at their potential power, the Boilermakers' leadership created special nonvoting auxiliaries to accommodate migrants, blacks, and other new workers. Conceived as a temporary wartime expedient, the second-class auxiliaries effectively squelched newcomers'


participation in union activities and alienated them from the labor movement generally.[11]

By contrast, CIO unions and their more liberal AFL allies made serious attempts to address the needs of war migrants. Unable to organize most newcomers in the shipyards, CIO activists turned their attention to community problems. Such issues proved critical during the war as housing shortages, overcrowded transportation, inadequate social services, and increased racial tensions threatened productivity in Oakland and other important defense areas.

The unusual political arrangements of wartime cities also encouraged labor activists to adopt a community orientation. Specifically, the rhetoric and ritual of wartime unity offered labor, black, and other progressive forces an opportunity to participate on citywide committees and debate public policy issues. Following the example of federal agencies like the War Labor Board, local officials invited a wide range of community representatives to serve on ad hoc committees dealing with issues such as defense employment, housing, mass transit, public health, childcare, rationing, etc. Committee members included not only the conservative AFL building trades officials and black ministers traditionally appointed to represent the city's working class, but also left-leaning CIO and AFL members and black officials of the railroad brotherhoods. Organized labor embraced this opportunity to work with other community groups and praised Mayor John Slavich for "bringing labor spokesmen into committees and activity to further Oakland's war effort."[12]

Perhaps the most trenchant example of this urban corporatism was the Postwar Planning Committee convened by Mayor Slavich in 1943 to promote successful reconversion. Ostensibly representing all city residents, the committee was heavily business-dominated. Out of fifty members, thirty represented business and finance interests while only four spoke for organized labor. As an ad hoc group, the committee sidestepped formal planning bodies and developed projects that would make Oakland "the leading center of the New Industrial West." In an effort to provide longdeferred municipal improvements and to ease the transition to a peacetime economy, the committee developed an elaborate program of public works and civic projects. Their plans called for the repair or construction of roads, highways, sewers, schools, parks, pools, hospitals, and civic centers, many of which had languished since the depression. With fear of a postwar recession looming, such projects would create jobs for displaced veterans and defense workers—a key labor demand. For business interests, adequate facilities and services were prerequisites to industrial growth. "Immediate


and postwar civic improvements will have a far-reaching effect on Oakland's industrial development," said the committee. "Eastern concerns are more likely to locate their plants in Oakland knowing that the city of Oakland is willing to provide the facilities required by industry."[13] But the business-labor unity symbolized by the Postwar Planning Committee proved illusory, and the execution of postwar plans would become a source of bitter and protracted conflict.

Even during the war, labor remained at best a junior partner in this experiment in urban corporatism. As Carl Abbott has pointed out, defense contractors and federal bureaucrats—who generally favored policies acceptable to the city's business elite—dominated ad hoc committees and decision-making. The important point, however, was not labor's lack of influence but the experience with and exposure to urban policy issues fostered by such participation.

During the war, labor moved from a relatively narrow focus on workplace organizing to a broad-based community orientation. Communist Party members, who were well represented in many West Coast CIO locals, had a long history of community organizing in the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s. In the full-employment context of wartime Oakland, such experience proved invaluable as the need for increased productivity to win the war provided a perfect rationale for linking community and workplace issues. In an effort to expand such activities, the Alameda County CIO Council urged every full-time union official to sit on at least one civic group or committee. The Council also endorsed a new course on community services offered by the Oakland-based California Labor School and urged union members to enroll. This growing concern and sophistication in dealing with community issues would not disappear at war's end.[14]

Labor not only gained experience in urban policymaking during the war but also developed an impressive organizational network. With the creation of the national CIO Political Action Committee in 1943, local PACs began forming in major industrial centers to support the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt and other pro-labor candidates. The passage of the anti-labor Smith-Connally Act in 1943 also served to galvanize labor forces nationwide in an effort to repeal the legislation. In California, a "right-to-work" initiative known as Proposition Twelve spurred especially enthusiastic PAC activity in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas in 1944 and helped bring the long-feuding AFL and CIO together in a united front. In Oakland, AFL and CIO members joined forces with the establishment of United Labor's Legislative Committee in 1944.[15]

The PACs conducted mass voter registration drives that summer and


fall, enrolling a record number of voters statewide, including over 300,000 ballot applications from migrant defense workers. In Oakland, sound trucks patrolled working-class neighborhoods and war housing areas all day, every day, urging residents to register. The PAC appointed registrars in both the shipyards and war housing projects, while the Democratic Club led by black union leader C. L. Dellums concentrated on reaching new black voters in West Oakland. Defense migrants were popular targets for these campaigns, since working-class and Southern voters presumably voted Democratic. The PACs thus did extensive work in migrant neighborhoods, helping newcomers file for residency and explaining voting rights (including freedom from poll taxes and literacy tests). As a result of such efforts, Alameda County showed the greatest gains in voter registration in the Bay Area, rising from 225,000 voters before the primary election to 362,000 by late October.[16]

Labor groups made an equally impressive effort on election day. First, United Labor's Legislative Committee organized a mass distribution of slate cards in all major shipyards. Union members and their families then rallied voters via telephone and doorbell ringing, minded children while voters went to the polls, offered information on voting rights, and served as pollwatchers. When the returns were tallied, Oakland voters came in heavily for the triumphant Roosevelt and local pro-labor Democrats while defeating Proposition Twelve.[17]

Although it is hard to estimate the precise influence of PAC activity, the PAC's role as a nucleus of a progressive revolt in local politics is quite clear. As local shipyard worker and NAACP leader Joseph James observed in 1945, a progressive coalition had formed in the Bay Area "spearheaded by CIO-PAC in the 1944 elections. . .. The contacts made during the course of that political battle have remained intact to a surprising degree." In Alameda County, the origins of postwar progressivism were especially evident as local organizers of the 1944 campaign—Ruby Heide, J. C. Reynolds, C. L. Dellums, Earl Hall, and William Hollander—emerged as important figures in the grassroots revolt that first took shape in the 1945 Oakland elections.[18]

Once again, it was the CIO that spearheaded plans for an organized labor presence in the 1945 elections. In a meeting called by the CIO Council in December 1944, the PAC established four subcommittees to analyze the issues and candidates in the spring municipal elections in Oakland and other East Bay cities. The PAC hoped to identify progressive, pro-labor candidates who could defeat incumbents backed by local business machines. The present leadership was "obstructionist," said the PAC, and the region's


future was being "stifled by selfish interests and machine politics." While the war had not yet ended, the era of wartime unity was clearly over.[19]

Labor's confrontational stance grew out of both changing economic conditions and disillusionment over the business community's failure to pursue postwar planning measures. By the winter of 1944-45, the slowdown of the war economy and the spectre of another depression gave labor reason for growing concern. Shipyard employment in the East Bay had begun contracting slowly in the fall of 1943. Job layoffs increased considerably over the next year, and by early 1945 unemployment claims were five times higher than in the previous year. At the same time, local urban leaders had shown little enthusiasm for inaugurating the postwar public works projects designed to cushion the shock of reconversion. City officials, labor contended, had taken no concrete action on the recommendations of the Postwar Planning Committee nor had they sought funding for any new projects. The issue, as one columnist put it, was whether the city "will go forward or backward. . .. It is prosperity versus the prewar status quo, which means a return to unemployment."[20]

The split between labor and business was not as sudden as it seemed; the rhetoric of wartime unity had merely obscured the longstanding animosity between the two groups. This is not to say that wartime rhetoric was entirely false, but rather that labor and business understood the meaning of the war experience differently. For much of the old-time business community, the war boom brought an unprecedented expansion of business, population, and economic growth accompanied by a temporary, but necessary, dose of federal intervention. Although excited about the economic potential of an expanded population, conservatives expressed concern that migrants had become dependent on government social programs. Business hoped to encourage continued economic growth in the postwar era, but under the control of the private sector.[21]

For labor, the collectivist experiments of the war years had a very different meaning. The mass mobilization of resources, personnel, and government services seemed to prove that business and government were capable of creating a humane capitalism that provided jobs, a decent standard of living, and fair treatment for all Americans. Wartime social programs such as health insurance, public housing, and childcare were not just temporary expedients, but models for the postwar future. Labor's vision, then, was not one of radical anti-capitalism, but of more moderate social-democratic reform based on the war experience.[22]

Organized labor also had a far more positive view of the areas's newcomers. Far from being disoriented and dependent, labor leaders argued,


newcomers appreciated wartime social programs and merely wanted fair treatment from local housing authorities and other agencies. City leaders had "expressed hostility toward the problems of wartime inhabitants from outside areas," said one labor supporter. "The indifference . . . is rooted in the defeatist theory that such people are here only temporarily." To help overcome the nativist and racist sentiments that plagued the city, the PAC called for the creation of a civic unity committee that would bring different racial, occupational, and religious groups together to resolve community conflicts.[23]

The failure of elected officials to respond to such initiatives prompted the PAC to launch its own campaign in the spring of 1945. For the first time since the Progressive era, a unified opposition slate challenged local business rule, fielding candidates for city council, the school board, and other city offices. Calling themselves the United for Oakland Committee (UOC), the progressives campaigned for expanded industry and job opportunities, public works, slum clearance, public housing, a civic unity committee, increased pay for civil service employees, and expanded facilities and services for education, health care, childcare, recreation, and mass transit. In an effort to address the structural inequities of the council-manager system, UOC candidates also demanded district elections, an elected mayor, and other charter reform measures.[24]

The UOC's sweeping agenda attracted a broad-based alliance representing a diverse cross-section of the urban community. First, the coalition represented a solidly united AFL-CIO front unknown in prewar politics. Despite conservatives' efforts to split the labor vote by running machine-backed AFL candidates, the UOC remained united in support of its own candidates.[25] The labor coalition also forged links with forward-looking businesspeople who advocated aggressive postwar growth and opposed existing machines. UOC business supporters included former Postwar Planning Committee members Frank Belgrano, president of the Central Bank of Oakland and regional chairman of the Committee for Economic Development; liberal Republican Earl Hall, chairman of the Uptown Property Owners Association (rival of Knowland's Downtown Association); and Patrick McDonough, owner of defense-oriented McDonough Steel and chairman of the Alameda County Democratic Committee.

While both the Knowland machine and the UOC ostensibly supported industrial expansion, the labor group maintained that local machines jealously guarded their dominant position and created bottlenecks to discourage new businesses from locating in the city. Because of such attitudes, labor alleged, aircraft manufacturers like Lockheed chose to locate in


southern California instead of Oakland. Other businesspeople, however, had "a sincere desire to take Oakland out of the rut it's been in," said PAC official Paul Heide. "These are the people we want to work with." Historian Carl Abbott has described these forward-looking businesspeople as the instigators of postwar "G.I. revolts." In Oakland, however, it was labor, not business, that played the dominant role in this new urban coalition.[26]

Most significant, labor forces worked hard to develop strong ties with the black community. Black labor leaders such as C. L. Dellums, business agent for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Matt Crawford, former assistant director of the CIO Minorities Committee, provided key links between the labor movement and the larger black community. Dellums, in particular, represented a broad network of black interests in Oakland and helped deliver the support of the railroad brotherhoods, the local NAACP, and the Democratic Seventeenth District Citizens' League. The labor coalition's support for fair housing and employment practices, civic unity committees, and other civil rights measures made such inter-racial alliances possible.[27]

Finally, the labor coalition also drew support from middle-class white liberals, particularly those in progressive religious circles. Reflecting the social gospel tendencies of liberal Protestantism, members of the interracial war housing ministries and the local Council of Churches united with the UOC in support of fair labor practices and civil rights. As NAACP leader Joseph James explained, "There is a large group of prominent white persons who are outspokenly liberal on the question of racial equality." These people joined with "an overwhelming preponderance of working people, combined with the strength of the CIO," to form a truly broad-based progressive coalition in Bay Area cities.[28]

The UOC, however, was far less successful in actually turning out the vote on election day. With a dismally low turnout in the spring municipal elections, voters swept all of the incumbents back into office. Part of the problem was poor outreach; without the lure of Roosevelt and other high-profile national candidates, only 26 percent of the city's registered voters cast their ballots. In all likelihood, however, labor's message was as much a problem as its weak campaigning. By appropriating the pro-growth rhetoric of their opponents, liberal candidates were at times indistinguishable from machine incumbents. Future labor candidates would discover that a more frankly left-wing platform had more grassroots appeal than a watered-down reform agenda.[29]

Some last-minute concessions by Knowland forces may also have contributed to labor's defeat. Just prior to the elections, the city finally agreed


to raise the wages of police and fire personnel, one of the UOC's campaign demands. At the same time, incumbent Mayor John Slavich announced the formation of a civic unity committee—another labor campaign plank—despite prior dismissals of the idea. Labor's defeat in 1945, then, was more than just a painful learning experience. The UOC had successfully pressured the Knowland machine into action on several key community issues and continued to win concessions afterward. In May of 1945, the city council finally presented a bond measure to provide modest funding for roads, sewers, libraries, swimming pools, parks, and a new hall of justice. The measure passed decisively with Knowland and UOC support. In a separate election in September, the city council offered a second bond measure to fund new school facilities. Heartened by these small victories, the UOC vowed to continue the fight by extending outreach and education efforts until the next election.[30]

In the meantime, the termination of hostilities between the U.S. and Japan virtually shut down Oakland's war industries. Local manufacturing operations had been contracting steadily since their peak in June 1943, when they employed nearly 1.2 million people statewide. By December of 1946, this figure had fallen to 730,000. The biggest losses occurred in the shipbuilding industry, which declined from 307,000 workers statewide in June 1943 to 25,000 by November 1946. As California's number one shipbuilding center, the East Bay felt these dislocations particularly hard, and the U.S. Employment Service reported increased unemployment claims for the area through 1946. Women, blacks, and other wartime newcomers faced the most severe layoffs, as employers sought to accommodate returning veterans whenever possible.[31]

Even those workers who kept their jobs after the war saw their living standards deteriorate. Despite record corporate profits in expanding consumer industries and services, the take-home pay of many workers declined as a result of reduced hours and the loss of overtime and bonus pay. With the termination of wartime price controls in the summer of 1946, consumer prices skyrocketed nationwide while real wages fell. Furthermore, the existence of a growing pool of unemployed benefitted local employers, who adopted an increasingly hostile stance toward organized labor. In Congress, Republican lawmakers attempted to roll back New Deal labor gains through open shop legislation and other anti-labor measures embodied in the Taft-Hartley Act. At the state level, California lawmakers initiated a similar anti-labor offensive. In reaction to these trends, labor discontent erupted in a nationwide strike wave in 1945-46.[32]

Oakland was one of six American cities that experienced a general


strike in this tumultuous period. The conflict began in October 1946 when some four hundred members—mainly women—of the AFL Department and Specialty Store Employees Union walked off their jobs at Kahn's and Hastings downtown department stores. Demanding employer recognition of the union as a legitimate bargaining agent, striking workers picketed the stores throughout the month of November with the support of the Teamsters and other AFL trades. On December 1, Kahn's brought in nonunion drivers to deliver twelve truckloads of merchandise to the store under the protection of two hundred and fifty Oakland police.

Police involvement in the action triggered a sharp outcry against city officials, and on December 2 the Central Labor Council declared a "labor holiday." The next day, 142 unions with over 100,000 workers took to the streets, successfully shutting down streetcar and bus lines, factories, shipyards, stores, restaurants, hotels, and three local newspapers. After two and a half days, as the strike threatened to spread to adjoining Contra Costa County, leaders of the AFL Teamsters' and Machinists' internationals ordered their members back to work. With the loss of these critical unions, local leaders reluctantly accepted an agreement with the city manager to end the general strike in exchange for the city's pledge to observe workers' civil rights in the future. The general strike thus ended inconclusively while the store workers' strike continued as a separate dispute. Within weeks, however, the city again deployed police to protect scab workers at the downtown stores.[33]

Angry and betrayed, labor forces rebounded into the electoral arena in 1947. Outraged by the brazen pro-employer sentiments of the mayor and city council, the labor coalition of 1945 reorganized as the Oakland Voters League (OVL) and revitalized their efforts to build a unified urban movement. In the May elections, the OVL ran a slate of five candidates for city council on a platform reminiscent of the 1945 UOC campaign. As they had two years earlier, the OVL dubbed the Knowland machine "obstructionist" and demanded that postwar public works projects begin immediately. "Two years ago, $15,754,000 was voted for parks and playgrounds, swimming pools and recreational facilities, health services, street improvements, and other needed civic projects," the OVL asserted. "Where are they?"[34]

The 1947 platform also added some new planks, giving the OVL a more radical edge. Specifically, the OVL called for city council neutrality in all labor disputes; repeal of anti-picketing and anti-handbill ordinances often used against labor; investigation of police brutality against black residents; the restoration of rent control; repeal of the sales tax; and more equitable tax assessment procedures to eliminate unfair advantages for downtown


property owners. The OVL also gave top priority to building public housing, establishing a city fair employment commission, and constructing new school facilities. Disputing Chamber of Commerce data on industrial growth, the OVL noted that the majority of new industries had located in suburban areas outside the city. In contrast to 1945, though, Oakland progressives talked less about attracting new business; their main thrust was employment, community services, and social justice.[35]

As in 1945, the OVL represented a broad spectrum of community interests—from Communists and left-wing CIO members to local veterans and church members. Labor remained the centerpiece of the coalition, and in the wake of the failed 1946 strike and the pending Taft-Hartley legislation, union forces closed ranks as never before. The AFL, the CIO, and the railroad brotherhoods all endorsed the OVL, and in early April they held a mass support rally of over 10,000 union members at the Oakland Auditorium. Labor support from West Oakland's black community was also strong; black unionists formed the United Negro Labor Committee, which played a particularly active and visible role campaigning for the OVL. Because of labor's outspoken concern with providing housing for returning G.I.s, the OVL won support from veterans groups as well. By supporting housing and other pressing community concerns, labor built a broad-based urban coalition in support of the OVL.[36]

To combat the low turnout which hampered the UOC in the 1945 elections, the OVL established a grassroots community network organized around neighborhood precincts. OVL precinct workers canvassed Oakland neighborhoods in the weeks prior to the election, distributing thousands of copies of the Oakland Voters Herald , an OVL newsheet designed to counter the meagre and often biased coverage of the organization by the Oakland Tribune . In West Oakland, the United Negro Labor Committee sponsored a street dance and other activities to help turn out the vote. The campaign culminated in the dramatic torchlight procession described earlier.[37]

On election day, the OVL's organizing efforts paid off. With a record turnout of 97,520 voters—65 percent of the city's registered voters—OVL candidates Vernon Lantz, Raymond Pease, Joseph Smith, and Scott Weakley defeated the Knowland-backed incumbents despite a bitter redbaiting campaign by the Tribune . The other OVL candidate, former Richmond shipyard worker Ben Goldfarb, lost by a margin of less than a thousand votes. Although no precinct voting records have survived, local newspapers agreed that the OVL's strongest support came from the working-class districts of East and West Oakland. The latter, inhabited predomi-


nantly by blacks and white migrants, contributed the strongest support with residents voting three-to-one in favor of the OVL. The landslide vote prompted the Labor Herald to chide that the "Old Guard's Waterloo was in West Oakland."[38]

The triumph of the four OVL candidates was an unprecedented event in Oakland that demonstrated the power of an interracial labor coalition. But Goldfarb's loss was a damaging blow. The new city council still stood five to four in favor of the Knowland forces. On nearly every progressive measure, the OVL councilmembers would find themselves narrowly outvoted and their initiatives stalled. Machine forces, however, did not always act as a coherent unit. When selecting a mayor a few months later, feuding Knowland councilmembers could not agree on a single candidate. As a re-suit, OVL councilmembers elected their own favorite, Joseph Smith, in 1947.[39] As the mayoral contest indicated, OVL forces could win a council vote by trading favors with one of their opponents. This strategy would play a key part in what would become the defining issue of the postwar city—public housing.

Of all the troublesome legacies of World War II in Oakland, the housing problem topped the list. During the war, a severe housing shortage had prompted federal and local authorities to cooperate in building some 2,700 units of temporary war housing to accommodate incoming defense migrants. Under federal law, such housing was to be removed within two years of the war's end. The anticipated exodus of war workers, however, never occurred. Instead, the wartime phenomenon of chain migration continued, and thousands of veterans returned to the area, swelling the city's population to 384,575 in 1950. As an emergency measure, the city retained the temporary projects and added an additional five hundred temporary units for homeless veterans. In 1946, the Oakland Housing Authority estimated that at least 23,000 new units would be needed to accommodate families currently residing in temporary housing or sharing quarters with others.[40]

Minority and low-income families encountered the tightest housing conditions. While many middle-income white residents secured homes under G.I. loan programs in the suburbs, low-income families competed for a limited amount of older, central city dwellings. The housing options of black and Asian families of all income levels were also limited to certain urban areas because of racial covenants and biased lending practices. With the postwar institution of veterans' preferences and income ceilings, public war housing became the last refuge for what many city leaders saw as the area's least desirable residents—war migrants, minorities, and the


poor. Increasingly, then, city officials targeted war housing for removal and redevelopment.[41]

As with other postwar planning issues, business and labor representatives found some common ground on the housing issue. Both agreed that temporary housing was overcrowded, badly deteriorated, and beyond salvage. They sharply disagreed, however, over the fate of the land and its inhabitants. Business leaders argued that housing lands were prime areas for industrial development and that the private market could accommodate displaced housing residents. Labor and other progressive community groups insisted that redeveloped land be used for new public housing to rehouse the displaced tenants. Their opponents, they claimed, were simply trying to force these unwanted refugees out of the city.

The housing fight came to a head in 1949-50 when new national housing legislation mandated the removal of war housing and provided federal funding for the construction of new projects. Labor representatives on the city council responded by drafting a request for three thousand units of federal public housing. With OVL forces occuping four of nine council seats, they needed only one defector to pass the measure. By trading their support for the mayoral candidacy of one of the Knowland-backed council-members in 1949, OVL forces gained the additional vote needed to pass the public housing resolution.[42]

In the meantime, the anti-housing Knowland forces found support for their cause from the newly formed Committee for Home Protection (CHP). Composed of the Oakland Real Estate Board, the Apartment House Owners Association, and other local development interests, the CHP had formed in 1948 to spearhead a drive for an anti-public housing referendum in Oakland. Attacking public housing as "socialistic," the CHP appealed to voters' patriotism, fiscal conservatism, and belief in free enterprise. In the midst of an economic upswing and growing anti-Communism, such rhetoric had strong appeal, particularly among the white middle class. The initiative won, defeating public housing in principle but without force of law. CHP forces were thus outraged when the city council later voted five to four in favor of three thousand new housing units on August 20, 1949.[43]

Infuriated, CHP leaders waged a fierce campaign designed to thwart pro-housing forces. Filing affidavits for the recall of three of the five pro-housing councilmembers (the other two had not yet served six months and were thus ineligible for recall), the CHP launched an elaborate media campaign associating the labor coalition with "socialized housing" and "CIO communism." While the use of redbaiting tactics had been


largely unsuccessful in past elections, a rising tide of anti-Communism made the public more suspicious and susceptible to such appeals. In a special election held in February 1950, two members were reelected, but a third, Scott Weakley, was ousted. Losing his job as a radio announcer as a result of alleged employer blacklisting, Weakley committed suicide shortly thereafter. In a low turnout election the following year, OVL councilmembers Joseph Smith and Raymond Pease also lost to CHP-backed candidates running on an anti-housing, anti-Communist platform. The remaining OVL representative died in office.[44]

By 1951, then, the liberal challenge in Oakland had run its course—defeated over the housing issue that had come to symbolize the future of the city. Conservative forces regained firm control of the city government and rescinded the federal housing contracts signed by their predecessors. Between 1945 and 1965, the city constructed a total of only five hundred public housing units. During these same years, the city leveled one temporary housing project after another, displacing thousands of migrants, veterans, and low-income residents. While most white tenants managed to find housing in nearby suburbs, minority residents found themselves limited to deteriorating, overcrowded urban neighborhoods.[45]

What had happened between 1947 and 1951 to so shift the course of Oakland politics? Most critical, the pervasive climate of Cold War anti-Communism worked to the advantage of conservatives who used redbaiting to discredit liberal forces. But the internal divisions that wracked the labor coalition were even more damaging. Under the impact of Taft-Hartley loyalty oaths and the bitterness of the 1948 presidential election, CIO forces were torn by raids, ousters, and in-fighting. With the most progressive labor forces in disarray, the behind-the-scenes leadership of the labor coalition fell to the AFL contingent led by Central Labor Council Chairman J. C. Reynolds.

Reynolds' leadership was damaging to the coalition in several ways. Most obviously, Reynolds' 1951 federal indictment on bribery and conspiracy charges critically harmed the credibility of the labor coalition. The Tribune's age-old cries of "labor bossism" now seemed disturbingly close to reality. In the political arena, Reynolds scorned any attempt to enlist the support of the local black community. From their perspective, black leaders had little cause to back labor candidates. Those elected in 1947 had not delivered on their campaign promises to pass a fair employment practices act and to deal with police brutality against minority citizens. Certainly, the conservative council majority had derailed their efforts to do so, but progressives had also defected on other issues such as the city sales tax increase.


In the conservative climate of postwar Oakland, labor representation was not the progressive panacea that many had hoped it would be. As the CIO Labor Herald explained, the defeat "was a tragic lesson in the cost of disunity and political opportunism."[46] Indeed, the internal effects of anti-Communism on the OVL proved more damaging than the external ones, as a feuding labor movement lost the ability to mobilize the community-wide coalition it had struggled so hard to build.

The devastating effects of postwar conservatism were by no means unique to Oakland. Particularly on the housing issue, progressive urban coalitions in many cities unraveled under redbaiting attacks by local conservatives. Under the coordination of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, local anti-housing groups formed around the country to fight public housing and its supporters. On the West Coast, where the fate of thousands of war housing tenants hung in the balance, anti-housing groups in Portland and Los Angeles launched successful referendum campaigns against public housing construction in the early fifties. On the heels of these victories, conservatives then used anti-housing appeals and redbaiting tactics to oust incumbent mayors Fletcher Bowron in Los Angeles and Dorothy Lee in Portland. As in Oakland, these cities then dismantled temporary war housing projects, displacing thousands of poor and minority residents into deteriorating, overcrowded neighborhoods.[47]

We should not, however, allow the bitter experiences of the 1950s to blind us to the accomplishments of progressives in the 1940s. In many ways, the activities of labor coalitions in the 1940s were a dress rehearsal for the urban liberalism of the 1960s and '70s. In Oakland and other Bay Area cities, labor demands such as civil rights legislation, district elections, rent control, and other urban social programs were eventually implemented. Public housing, with all its accompanying problems, would also reappear as a major urban program in the sixties and seventies. While many of these issues date back to the New Deal or before, it was World War II that was the springboard for an effective political mobilization on the municipal level.

The political arrangements of wartime cities offered labor representatives a new voice in municipal affairs and encouraged them to expand their political horizons from the workplace to the city at large. The formation of CIO-PACs gave this impulse an organizational coherence, while defense migrants provided an expanded working-class constituency. After the war, recessionary pressures served to galvanize labor and other progressive forces, helping them defeat business-backed incumbents. Labor unity, a willingness to build bridges to other community groups, and a commit-


ment to grassroots organizing were the key ingredients in the success of these urban movements.

Labor's role in forging a progressive coalition was not limited to Oakland; labor forces in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Richmond also spearheaded the organization of progressive community movements in the 1940s. As in Oakland, the Allied Berkeley Citizens, the Richmond Better Government Committee, and the San Francisco Voters League all grew out of wartime CIO activities, with many of their leaders drawn from the same unions. The Los Angeles Voters League, founded in 1948, was a direct descendant of the United AFL Committee for Political Action organized in 1943 as an AFL counterpart to the CIO-PAC. Like the OVL, the Los Angeles and San Francisco Voters Leagues worked to bring labor together with other progressive groups in the community to pursue a broad-based, multiple-issue program. Explicitly rejecting the role of political lobbying groups, the Voters Leagues organized from the precinct level up, stressing grassroots political participation and leadership development among rank-and-file union members and community activists.[48]

While further research is needed on labor politics in California cities, the early experience of the Oakland Voters League reveals an innovative and exciting experiment in grassroots democracy and urban coalition-building—an experience that contrasts favorably with labor's increasing rigidity and conservatism on the national level. The experience of the OVL in the 1940s also suggests a kind of organizational bridge between the class-based movements of the 1930s and the cultural or community-based social movements that have emerged since the 1960s (i.e., civil rights, women's liberation, community organizing, etc.). While the conservatism of the 1950s posed a historical chasm between these two types of movements, it is clear that the new social activism did not emerge full-blown in the sixties; the urban movements of the 1940s provided important precedents.[49] Unfortunately for the newer movements, the demise of the OVL and other labor-led coalitions in the 1950s caused later activists to distance themselves from their predecessors. In the process, they have had to relearn the difficult lessons of organizing, coalition-building, and ideological development that are essential to effective social action.

Further Reading

Baisden, Richard. "Labor in Los Angeles Politics." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1958.

"Fortress California at War: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego, 1941-1945." Special issue. Pacific Historical Review 63 (August 1994).

Douma, Frank Hartzell. "The Oakland General Strike." M.A. thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1951.

Hayes, Edward C. Power Structure and Urban Policy: Who Rules in Oakland? 1972.

Issel, William. "Business Power and Political Culture in San Francisco, 1900-1940." Journal of Urban History 16 (November 1989): 52-77.

———. "Liberalism and Urban Policy in San Francisco from the 1930s to the 1960s." Western Historical Quarterly 22 (November 1991): 431-450.

Johnson, Marilynn S. The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II . 1993.

"Labor and Labor Relations on the West Coast." Special issue. Monthly Labor Review 82 (May 1959).

Lotchin, Roger W. Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare . 1992.

———. "World War II and Urban California: City Planning and the Transformation Hypothesis." Pacific Historical Review 62 (May 1993): 143-172.

Nash, Gerald D. The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War . Chapter 4. 1985.

Scobie Ingrid G. Center Stage: Helen Gahagan Douglas, A Life . 1992.

Taft, Philip. Labor Politics American Style: The California State Federation of Labor . 1968.

Verge, Arthur. Paradise Transformed: Los Angeles During the Second World War . 1993.

Weir, Stan. "American Labor on the Defensive: A 1940s Odyssey." Radical America 9 (July-August 1975): 163-185.

Wolman, Philip J. "The Oakland General Strike of 1946." Southern California Quarterly 57 (1975): 147-178.


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