by Paul R. Spitzzeri
During the Gilded Age, when American capitalists amassed enormous levels of wealth during the nation’s rise as an economic powerhouse, working people found themselves increasingly not keeping up with wage increases, job safety and other important aspects of labor. The development of labor unions through the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century was one frequently involving great turmoil and violence as most employers resisted efforts of their workers to unionize and strikes became more frequent and tense.
Los Angeles, unlike other major metropolitan centers, found that its business community, supported by a powerful chamber of commerce and an influential pro-business newspaper in the Los Angeles Times along with widespread public support, was able to implement and largely maintain an “open shop” environment in which labor unions had less of an ability to gain a foothold. There were some significant exceptions, including for printers, railroad employees, carpenters, electrical workers, teamsters and a few other professions, and there was a Union Labor Temple serving much like a union railroad station would, providing space for various unions to have offices, meetings and events.
The facility was located on Maple Avenue, between 5th and 6th streets, but, in 1903, a “Union Labor Temple Association” was formed with $75,000 in capital to raise funds for a larger structure at that site, which was acquired in November 1904 for just under $20,000. Notably and unusually, of the seven original directors, two were women, these being Lyda Mallett (whose husband was a teamster) and Mary Brand. Tonight’s highlighted historic artifact from the museum’s collection is a stock certificate, #1007, for fifty shares in the association issued to Ira W. Weirick, a Boyle Heights resident and teamster.
It took some years for the building project to gain momentum, but in July 1906 it was announced that architect Thornton Fitzhugh had nearly finished plans for the structure on a lot 80 x 125 feet “and designed for the exclusive use of the various labor organizations of the city.” Business offices for these groups were to be on the first floor, while other office space and a lodge comprised the second level. An assembly hall with a stage and a gallery were to be on the third floor, with the upper levels to have “twelve minor halls, ante-rooms, lockers, closets, etc.”
That Labor Day, there was a parade and march of some 10,000 persons, reported on by the pro-labor Los Angeles Express, while the Los Angeles Herald, also generally enthusiastic about unions, also covered the event. Not surprisingly, the Times did not give much attention at all. In any case, the parade terminated at the Union Labor Temple site, where the dedication of the cornerstone, which was carried on a float during the festivities, took place at about Noon with several thousand people said to be packed in proximity to the construction site.
Notably, it and the platform on which it rested were on the entry of the Women’s International Label League, which was festooned in purple and white, colors often associated with woman suffrage. The stone was inscribed “Union Labor Temple, Labor Day, 1906” and, as typical, various union records were placed in it for posterity. After the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, Stanley Wilson, former president of the city’s typographical union, and the president of the Union Labor Temple Association made speeches paying tribute to workers who made the structure possible. The Express noted that there was such a throng of people that one young man seeking to get a better view broke through a support on the stand for the dedication and tumbled twelve feet into the rough excavation of the basement, though, apparently, with little harm.
When, in March 1907, the association began publishing a newsletter called the Union Labor Temple Review, the Times lambasted the idea as “a scheme to separate the merchant, business man and employer of this city from his money” by getting subscriptions on the understanding that the magazine would have lengthy features promoting these individuals and “making him appear as a friend of the unions.” This, of course, was dishonest in the minds of the anti-union paper because it alleged that the publishers deceived their unwary prey in the terms and suckered them out of their hard-earned profit. Of course, the powerful Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association condemned the idea, as well.
In July, a rendering of the building, said to be costing about $120,000 was published in the Herald and it was noted that there would be club-like elements including billiard rooms., reading rooms, a barber shop, and baths, while the larger halls and auditorium would host dances, social events and other forms of entertainment.
By the end of September, the steel framing for all but the two upper floors was completed and bricklayers were beginning their work. The construction estimate, however, had doubled to some $250,000 and one of many reasons was the unusual tilting floor in the 1,000-person capacity auditorium, said to be unique. It could be raised on one end to up for five feet, though for what purposes was not explained. A large amount of structural steel was used to provide almost no visible support in the auditorium and the social hall below it. The use of ornamental iron, reinforced glass, two electric elevators and other elements likely added substantially to the cost.
Despite a national depression, work continued and, at the end of the year, an article in the Herald observed that all seven levels were framed and brick work was just about done, so that the roof would be completed early in 1908. Stock sold at $1 per share and C.N. Hughes, business agent for the machinists’ union, promoted investment for two reasons: it would make the unions stronger and better able to fight for higher wages for its members and it would also be a paying investment because of the dramatic increase in value of the property with the ornate building on it and the rents for ground-floor stores not used by the unions.
By late January, a soft opening of sorts took place as several unions moved into their new quarters, though finish work remained to be done in many of them. Others took occupancy of temporary spaces but “though scarcely completed, the big Temple has somewhat the appearance of a real industrial beehive.” There was anticipation that more formal events would take place in coming weeks to celebrate the completion of the structure.
Always glad to make note of problems with unions in the city, the Times noted, likely with some glee, in a March article that, when it came to finishing the interiors, the locals had a tough time of it when it tried to secure a union a planing mill by promising plenty of work in the temple interior, only to be rebuffed as the owner was a member of the Mill Owners’ Association, which was steadfastly anti-Union. After a small local shop could not provide what was needed, the association had to bring in someone from San Francisco.
In early April, however, the Herald reported that there were nearly 2,400 shares of association stock sold at a meeting at the new temple with about 1,000 persons present, probably filling the auditorium. It was, however, almost two years later before a grand opening of the temple was held and it seems likely that much more subscriptions of stock had to be secured before the interior was completed. San Francisco Mayor Patrick McCarthy came down in a special train to assist as president of the State Building Trades Council. A reception, music and dancing, and “dedicatory exercises” were on the agenda.
As for the Times, it chose to cap its very brief reference to the three-hour event with the headline “‘Pinhead’ Coming,'” this being its nickname for the mayor. The Express reported that 2,500 persons attended the dedication and the structure was “brilliantly lighted” and decorated with potted palm trees and ferns as guests took the elevators to the seventh floor and were given tours and enjoyed light refreshments, while speeches and other events took place as noted above. It was observed that McCarthy called the temple “perhaps the greatest monument to organized labor in the United States.”
In an editorial on 27 February 1910, the Herald proclaimed that
“Workers have good cause for rejoicing over the dedication of the Union Labor Temple in Los Angeles. The building represents the grit, perseverance and good citizenship of the wage earners of Greater Los Angeles. It puts into concrete form an expression of the fact that if some of the republic has been created and maintained by ‘the man who bosses the job,’ a great part of it has been created and is being maintained by the man who DOES the job.
We owe our civilization to the working people. Society exists because they are willing to sell work for wages. If they refused to work the effect would be as disastrous as that of an armed revolution. On their good will, therefore, the prosperity of the nation depends; and no nation has been even fractionally as much benefited by the good will of its workers as has our republic, the United States of America.
Nothing that history records has been as marvelous as the clearing up, the cultivation, the building over, the agricultural, industrial and transposition [transportation?] development of this continent; and so great a part has the willing toiler taken in every phase of this development the republic may well be called the workingmen’s country. The Union Labor temple is one of the most typically American buildings in Greater Los Angeles.”
Obviously, as in the president’s remarkable review of American history in his nomination acceptance speech at the White House at tonight’s closing of the Republican National Convention, this statement neglects to mention the systematic “clearing up” of the indigenous Americans, the centuries of slavery, the cheap labor provided by Asians, women, and children, among others, in its evocation of the importance of working class contributions to the development of America.
Later in 1910, the horrific bombing of the Times building was conducted by radical labor union members and public sentiment, largely supportive of many elements of unions, shifted significantly. Unions were boosted by the support of desperate Americans during the depths of the Great Depression and grew during the postwar years, the greatest economic expansion in the nation’s (and, perhaps, the world’s) history.
In recent decades, however, unions have been increasingly scrutinized and frequently criticized, sometimes for good reason and at other instances for plainly ideological and political purposes. In what some call the new Gilded Age, controversies over unions and their role in American labor continue and the telling of their history remains highly contested and emotionally charged.