Review by Herbert F Mintz II:
California in the Progressive Era


California in the Progressive Era was one of over 60 events featured in LaborFest 2017. This presentation was held at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), Local 34 Hall, a site of rich labor history in San Francisco. An audience of nearly 50 filed into the large meeting hall framed by colorful Union banners and placards on Wednesday, Thursday July 27, 2017.

The event tonight began with a solemn reminder by event organizer Steve Zeltzer regarding the purpose of LaborFest. “Unions are under attack by both political parties, a right to work agenda is spreading to California and privatization and outsourcing are commonplace. At LaborFest, we celebrate our working-class history and our struggles for justice. Working people have the power in their hands to transform the situation that surrounds them.”

Following Mr. Zeltzer, the moderator, San Francisco State University Professor Robert Cherney, shared with the audience a salient local labor history detail and provided some opening remarks on labor and politics in California in the Progressive Era.

Noting the several Ship Clerks banners in the ILWU union hall, Professor Cherney pointed out that these are the workers that record all the items that are loaded onto a ship. One vital piece of labor history where Ship Clerks had a profound impact was during the grape boycott organized by the United Farm Workers (UFW). Ship Clerks in California were able to inform the UFW of any shipment of grapes to Britain in time for them to contact British dockworkers who would honor the boycott and refuse to unload the grapes.

The Progressive Era in California and San Francisco was a period of widespread social activism and political reform from the 1890s to the 1920s.  In order to examine in detail this tumultuous period in San Francisco labor and working class history, presentations by two local historians were scheduled for the evening.

Professor Cherney then introduced history lecturer Professor John Holmes. He began his presentation with an overview of the impact of Socialism in our time.

In particular, before the collapse of the USSR, in Europe there were large labor parties, Socialist and Communist parties and in the Third world, there were numerous guerilla movements inspired by socialist ideas. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, interest in Socialism declined in America until recently with the Sanders presidential campaign.

Professor Holmes described that during the Progressive Era, before the emergence of socialism in the USSR, the Socialist Party (SP) in America was at its height. In San Francisco, the Union Labor Party (ULP) and the California Socialist Party (CASP) vied for political power. The ULP was the only successful American Labor Party and it dominated San Francisco politics for a decade. The CASP was best known for its successful 1911 Los Angeles election campaign. At the same time, Liberals thought socialism was foreign to America and radicals considered socialists elitists. Both agreed that Socialism was the radical flank of Progressivism.

Professor Holmes then noted that in the same time period, moderate Socialists like Upton Sinclair, social justice Catholic priests like Father Peter Yorke, and even members of the Chamber of Commerce espoused sympathy for the struggles of the working class.

He then narrated the details of the General Strike on the waterfront in 1901, led by the Teamsters. Supported by the San Francisco Labor Council and composed of workers from more than a dozen unions, this act set in motion the consolidation of union strength in the City that not only resulted in a trade unionist victory but brought to power a pro labor Board of Supervisors and Mayor aligned with the Union Labor Party (ULP).

Professor Holmes stated that today there is much debate on the nature of Progressivism in San Francisco at that time. He outlined the main points of two prominent writers. Walter Bean and his book, Boss Ruef’s San Francisco, posits that the graft prosecution of the Board and the Mayor served as a model for the Progressive Era’s attack on corrupt business-government alliances. Michael Kazin, in his book, Barons of Labor, has a more critical attitude toward Progressivism but acknowledges the accomplishment of the ULP as the strongest branch of the American Labor movement.

Further ironies prevailed. During the years that the ULP were in power in the City and even with a Mayor from the building trades, P. H. McCarthy, not many labor reforms were introduced. According to Professor Holmes, more labor reforms were implemented during the tenure of Hiram Johnson, Governor of California.

Professor Holmes then talked about the next major labor struggle in San Francisco, the Carmen’s strike of 1907. Calling it a ‘social earthquake’, the strike was no less than industrial warfare on the streets of San Francisco.

The strike occurred in the context of a pro labor civic administration and was supported by moderate labor leaders. Opposing the workers, Patrick Calhoun of United Railroads, grandson of a leader of the Confederate States, organized strike breakers from the East Coast. A vote by 1,500 streetcar men led to the strike of May 5, 1907. The workers called for an 8-hour day and $3 a day. Violence erupted two days later in a shootout that left two dead and many wounded.

The long strike was defeated when the company brought in armed men who shot strikers and their supporters. In total, 33 people were killed during the strike. In the aftermath of defeat, the Union Labor Party (ULP) and the California Socialist Party (CASP) engaged in political warfare.

Professor Holmes stated that Patrick Calhoun bribed the ULP friendly Board of Supervisors and the former head of a Musician’s Union and pro-labor Mayor Eugene Schmitz. Eventually, all were indicted and found guilty on corruption charges. The strike effectively collapsed in November 1907 and was officially abandoned in mid-February with the dissolution of Carmen’s Union Local 205.

Professor Holmes spoke about George Speed, a labor organizer in the state of California during the Progressive Era. In 1886, Speed assisted in the expulsion of Chinese from the timber industry. By 1907, he was an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer who became a multiracial labor organizer, denouncing the ‘Yellow Peril’ and exhorting workers to learn the organizing tactics of Japanese farm workers, thus, overcoming years of racist and racial prejudice in union organizing in California. Meanwhile, the most famous militant socialist in northern California, Jack London, had no interest in organizing non-white workers.

Following Professor Holmes’ presentation, moderator Professor Cherney returned to the podium to introduce San Francisco State University Professor William Issel who continued to talk about San Francisco in the Progressive Era.

First, he provided some demographic details. The population of the City in 1900 was 340,000 and was 94% white. San Francisco was the eighth largest City in the US. Within the City, there were three centers of power vying for moral authority and political power: Business, the Catholic Church and Labor.

James Phelan called for ‘Enlightened” business leadership for the emerging new San Francisco. Father Peter Yorke called for a Catholic faith-based populist democratic government, stating that the true interests of a city are found amongst those who have to labor for their daily bread.

According to Professor Issel, Catholic faith-based politics shaped the language and the outcomes of debates over how to define the common good and how to define and implement the public interest in the City. Such efforts followed the Pope’s letter to City workers in 1891 supporting Labor. At that time, the Catholic Church essentially supported Labor and condemned Laissez-faire capitalism. The Church also stated that there was “no automatic conflict between Capital and Labor”; there were only misguided Capitalists and Labor leaders”.

At the same time and competing with the Catholic Church, labor leaders and City Officials were the Revolutionaries, comprised mainly of Anarchists who also sought moral authority and political power based on an alternative agenda.

So, when the City Board of Supervisors, made up of members of the Union Labor Party (ULP) disgraced themselves and discredited their supporters during the ‘honest graft’ persecution trials which removed them from power, the social and political divisions in the city evolved from strong leaders.

Professor Issel identified several of these leaders. Olaf Tveitmoe, born in Norway, he moved to the City in 1897 and as a Socialist revolutionary, became active in union struggles, including the Cement Workers and the Building Trades Unions. He served as the editor of a weekly newspaper Organized Labor and condemned the Prosecutor’s removal of the Union Labor Party (ULP) from civic power.

Edward R. Taylor, mayor of San Francisco from 1907 to 1910, defended himself against charges that he, as an elected official, only represented the interests of capital. Patrick McCarthy won the mayoral election of 1909 as the candidate of a revitalized Union Labor Party (ULP). Then in 1911, James Rolph beat incumbent mayor Patrick McCarthy by promising voters he would better represent “all of the people.”

Professor Issel pointed out that Rolph’s election took place after the dynamiting of the L. A. Times building which discredited the efforts of the Revolutionaries and the Labor Left. Desperate union officials beset by labor spies, agents provocateurs, private detective agencies and strike breakers eventually turned to violence to counter the setbacks they had suffered. In fact, between 1906 and 1911 the Iron Workers Union was responsible for over 100 bombings. And then, J. B. McNamara of the Iron Workers Union, confessed to the bombing of October 1, 1910 that killed 21 people.

According to Professor Issel, many events in California at this time were fraught with violent actions accompanied by a public fear of violence: 59 people killed in bombings from 1914-1920; eight people blew themselves up accidentally, including two in San Francisco; and Alexander Berkman, a leading member of the Anarchist movement who made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate businessman Henry Frick, moved to San Francisco to edit The Blast, an anarchist journal.

On May 1, 1916, Anarchists and Socialists joined the Labor and Pacifist protests again the participation of the US in the Great War (WWI). Almost three months later, on July 22, 1916, during the San Francisco Preparedness Day Parade, a suitcase bomb exploded at Market and Steuart Street in San Francisco. Police suspected Alexander Berkman and members of the Gruppo Anarchico Volonta bombed the parade as “an act of antimilitarist protest.” There was no evidence against the Anarchists and ultimately the Police investigation focused on two local labor activists who weren’t anarchists, Thomas Mooney and Warren Billings. District Attorney Charles Fickert successfully prosecuted Mooney and Billings for the bombing.

Summing up his presentation, Professor Issel contended that economic class interests, political ideology, faith-based values, violent acts and fear of violence all played an important role in the Progressive Era in San Francisco. Furthermore, prosecutors used undemocratic means to remove the Union Labor Party from power, to hand-pick a new mayor in 1907 and to convict Mooney and Billings in 1917. Only broad public support for limiting the power and influence of the Labor Left and Radicalism, combined with widespread anxiety about violence, allowed prosecutors to succeed in their undemocratic prosecutions.

Links to additional resources:

Robert Cherney’s latest book, Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art

Union Labor Party (California)

Walter Bean, Boss Ruef’s San Francisco (full text)

Abe Ruef and the Union Labor Party

Michael Kazin, Barons of Labor (google books) – v=onepage&q=michael kazin baroh