by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the labor movement in California grew, but with substantial resistance by much of the business world. Unions claimed that collective action by workers was necessary for reasonable work hours and days, improved working conditions, and many other desired goals, while much of the business community argued that unions turned workers against companies, disturbed the traditional direct relationship between laborers and employers, and affected productivity and profitability to the detriment of all.
Frequently, attempts by unions to gain a foothold among workers led to bitter and, sometimes, violent strikes and walk-outs, though, over time, unionization became a larger part of American economic life. Los Angeles was a particularly difficult place for unions to gain a foothold as the city’s “open shop” environment was, with some exceptions, virtually impenetrable well into the 20th century.
The Gilded Age of the end of the nineteenth century not only included some of the nation’s worst conflicts between labor and business, but was also an era in which extreme gaps of wealth and poverty were plainly in evidence. Cheap immigrant labor added to the situation and union leaders moved aggressively to advance the cause of workers, while expressing grave concern about Asian and Latino labor and the threat these groups caused to white workers.
These aspects and more present some of the backdrop against which today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection can be viewed on this Labor Day holiday. This remarkable large-format cabinet card photograph by Fred E. Vincent shows delegates attending the third convention of the California State Federation of Labor, held at Los Angeles’s Elks Hall, on Spring Street between 2nd and 3rd streets, over several days in January 1903.
The organization was formed at the beginning of the new century, in January 1901, and sought to unite a large and diverse variety of unions and their members to advance the general cause of labor. It is not surprising that the vast majority of those assembled at the conference were white males. It is hard, in scanning the large group, to find any person of color and there are but a handful of women (these latter gathered at the far right of the image.)
Press coverage of the gathering varied widely when looking at two of the major daily newspapers in Los Angeles. The Times, led by Harrison Gray Otis, one of the most powerful figures in the city, was staunchly pro-business, devoted to the “open shop” concept, and virulently anti-union. Not surprisingly, its reports were sparse and laser focused on internal dissension and wrangling among the delegates. The Herald, on the other hand, gave much more space in its editions to the proceedings and displayed a more liberal attitude toward the federation and its members.
So, the latter, in its coverage of the opening day, 5 January, of the conference, observed that “men who do things . . . gathered” for the convention and pointed out that, if anyone expected to see rough-hewn, poorly-dressed delegates, those in attendance were not only not “bosses” but “real workers,” but they were well-dressed and acted professionally.
The paper was also sure to point out that patriotism was in prominent and conspicuous display, with “Old Glory” everywhere in evidence and streamers of red, white and blue festooning the hall. Attendees were observed talking in a “can do” spirit and that injecting union goals into politics was a major feature of the conclave, which was said to represent some 30,000 workers in the state.
The more than 200 persons present were welcomed by an opening speech by L.W. Rogers, of a railroad union local in the City of Angels. He was sure to note that the delegates were offered welcome “from the heart of most of the reputable citizens of Los Angeles.” He added that millions the world over watched what was happening with the labor movement in America as an inspiration so “they, too, can break the bonds which have shackled them for ages.”
Locally, Rogers continued, what was wanted was a stronger state federation to represent all unions in California and push for the eight-hour workday, better education, safer working conditions, and the ending of blacklists for union workers and sweatshops for all laborers. He prophesied that, in five years, real political power for labor was to be achieved and decried “the guns frowning upon you from the stone castle” of anti-union forces.
When proceedings began, there was an immediate protest filed because two delegates from the typographical union in Oakland were not seated, ostensibly because that group did not become part of the Allied Printing Trades council. After it was learned that the union was nearing the end of negotiation to join the council, the two were allowed to take their seats.
Committees were formed and members selected and a San Francisco delegate, noting the paucity of unions in Los Angeles, and called for a resolution that anyone from Los Angeles present who was known to patronize non-union businesses be expelled. This aroused a protest from locals and the resolution died, though so did one from a local that called for a limit on resolutions so as not to slow the business of the meeting.
Notably, when discussion was had about best to bring about the federation’s control of all unions in the state, a specific resolution was requested by Los Angeles delegates “to bring all the power of the state to bear on the Los Angeles Times,” because of that paper’s power in the open shop world of the region. Also featured was the desire to publish the proceedings and publicize the federation and its aims and discussions about how much political lobbying and activity the organization was to undertake.
By contrast, the Times was far more concise in its coverage, doing so in just part of a single column compared to the portions of three in its contemporary. Rogers’ speech was summarized quite briefly. The organization of the committees and a short summary of the Oakland typographical union controversy was included, but little else.
This proved to be how the distinct coverage of the Herald and Times was handled throughout the remaining several days of the confab. Much was made about the desire of northern delegates to pass a resolution specific in its support and praise of Eugene Schmitz, the pro-union mayor of San Francisco, who took office a year prior and immediately was targeted by conservative factions in the City by the Bay.
Within the Los Angeles convention, debate raged about whether to give Schmitz overt support (no doubt as a signal to Los Angeles and a message to the state broadly) or, as moderate members argued, to avoid becoming too specific or overtly political. Ultimately, no resolution on Schmitz was passed and the mayor, who won reelection in 1905, was tried and convicted on extortion charges. He lost his seat and was jailed during an appeal, which overturned the lower court’s ruling and this was affirmed by the state supreme court. Schmitz ran for mayor in 1915 and 1919, but lost both campaigns, though he did serve as county supervisor (the city and county share boundaries) from 1921 to 1925.
Elsewhere, a resolution was offered which stated that $30,000 was to be appropriated “for the purpose of waging a vigorous and unrelenting war against the Los Angeles Times” for its dedication to preventing unionization of its workers, such as typographers. Moreover, it was stated that the Los Angeles Council of Labor and the International Typographical Union were to receive all support from the state federation necessary “to compel Harrison Gray Otis to refrain from his malignment and malicious attacks upon those who toil.” The Times made reference to the offering of the resolution, but otherwise avoided addressing it, while, again, being very brief in its coverage of that second day when it was brought forward.
When there was a nomination for local union official James Gray as president of the state federation, however, the Times did devote more attention to that matter, referring to him as “Czar Jimgray,” and seemed to mildly exult when Gray’s effort narrowly failed. On the third day of the conference, a resolution was put forward that called upon the federation to “recommend to all the Unions of this State to unite in solid political action to gain control of the government” and, in so doing, “gain complete control of the means of production and distribution” and “get the full product of our labor.”
If this sounds like how Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels talked and wrote, it should be remembered that socialism, which is used interchangeably with communism by many on the right as the 2020 presidential election nears, was making some significant inroads in American politics during the first part of the twentieth century. In fact, the socialist candidate for governor in the last election was a prominent delegate at the gathering.
While moderates sought to have the resolution postponed indefinitely, a roll call was held and the measure lost by 171 votes out of many thousands (each delegate represented a large number of union members), though there were claims that 800 votes were recorded against the resolution even as the delegate protested he voted for it (this is somewhat reminiscent of recent electronic voting machine problems in Georgia’s statewide election in fall 2018.)
Other interesting matters coming before the conclave included recommendations to the legislature to ban the reuse of bottles for products; the matter of direct legislation (which came to fruition in the dramatic changes in state politics in 1911); and requiring free textbooks for all public school students.
At the end of the conference an amended pro-Schmitz resolution was offered specifically referring to his involvement in a streetcar workers strike and toning down the rhetoric from the original. While proponents argued that the resolution was legitimate federation business and that Schmitz’ election was critical for the labor movement and opponents claimed it was too directly political and outside the bounds of the organization’s charter, the time to adjourn was at hand, so that matter was unresolved.
As for the photo, it is unfortunate that someone later decided to affix permanent labels identifying the organization, the event, the date, and a specific delegate, especially because the first three items were inscribed on the original negative and are clearly visible at the bottom below the labels.
The delegate identified by the fourth label, though, happens to be one of the two Oakland typographical union members who were almost not allowed to take their seats. Michael A. McInnis (1862-1947), a native of Prince Edward Island in the eastern extremity of Canada, migrated to Oakland about 1890 and became a well-known printer and president of his union.
With regard to the federation, it continued to operate for many years. Locally, it became notorious in the aftermath of the horrific bombing of the Los Angeles Times building on 1 October 1910, which killed over twenty workers. While rumors swirled about who perpetrated what was the city’s first major domestic terror attack, the federation appointed a three-man commission to study the matter and offer its views.
That group claimed the explosion was due to a fault gas line, but, later, the McNamara brothers, extremist union members, admitted planting sixteen sticks of dynamite and destroying the structure. The aftermath of the attack likely led to the failure of socialist mayoral candidate Job Harriman, who looked to be on the cusp of winning the race, shortly afterward. A commenter to this post noted that Harriman may be the man seventh from the right on the bottom row of the photo above where it reads “Jan. 7” on the label third from the left.
Approaching sixty years of existence, including the annual conventions of which the Los Angeles gathering in 1903 was the third, the federation, at the end of 1958, became the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, which remains an active force in the state.