Through the Viewfinder With “A Camp of Cholos,” Los Angeles, ca. 1903, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Continuing with the second part of this post based on a circa 1903 stereographic photograph identified as “A Camp of Cholos,” or Latino workers, somewhere in Los Angeles, we continue the discussion of an attempted strike by laborers employed on the Los Angeles (LARY) and Pacific Electric (PERY) streetcar systems in downtown Los Angeles in late April of that year, though it is not known whether the camp was connected to this or not.

Regardless, the conditions of those residing in the tent camp whether it was established to house those working on streetcar lines, for agriculture or some other purpose was not likely materially different. These people, mostly Mexican migrants, were paid little for their “unskilled” labor and, if not residing in boxcars on rail projects, were generally forced to live in tents because of the economic conditions in which they were placed.

As the first part of this post noted, there were several references during 1903 to “cholos” and crime, with much of this sensationalized in claiming that such persons were fueled by “dago red” wine and brandy, as well as addicted to cards and gambling, when disputes erupted among them, including in the camps. Whatever truth there may have been to these reports, what was left out of the accounts were the dehumanizing environments in which so-called “cholo” workers were placed as if there was no connection between those conditions and tensions and frustrations that could lead to violence.

In reporting in the Los Angeles Express and the Los Angeles Times, there was agreement on the strong disapproval of the pair toward the strikes and the “agitators,” meaning the white union leaders, who were accused of taking advantage of ignorant and gullible “cholos.” The result, as observed in the first part, was the quick squelching of the strike by railroad tycoon Henry E. Huntington and his managers, Epes Randolph of the Pacific Electric and John A. Muir of the Los Angeles Railway (the PERY operated all of the lines built by Huntington, banker Isaias W. Hellman, and others, outside of the Angel City while the LARY was the intracity system.)

Los Angels Express, 27 April 1903.

When it came to post-strike coverage, however, the Express largely forsook the use of the word “cholo” and mainly turned its attention to concerns of larger streetcar system strikes and other labor conflicts, but the Times continued to vent its spleen at great length and much ink towards union organizer Lem Biddle and railed against the foolishness of “cholos” and “peons” in a series of lengthy articles, often illustrated to heighten the drama of its interpretation of events.

In its 27 April edition, the Express stated that “the strike of the Mexican laborers . . . was a prearranged detail that was to have involved a bitter struggle between Henry E. Huntington and the labor unions of the city.” There were reports that, by the end of the month, “the conflict is scheduled to take place in earnest” as trainmen, who were white, were to strike. Muir countered that long-serving LARY employees never were disposed to join in and it was “new operatives, who have not been long resident in the city, who, it is claimed, are at the bottom of the trouble.” This tactic of blaming interlopers and outsiders was a standard one for employers.

While the streetcar companies were told that the new union was comprised of more than 700 workers, “the real facts” indicated there were fewer than 100 members. Moreover, it was stated that motormen and conductors, while acknowledging they’d been approached about joining a union, were not interested “as they have no grievance” against the LARY or PERY. The article also observed that

In the event of trouble Henry E. Huntington says he will not compromise, but will hold out to the last. Mr. Huntington declares he does not object to organization of his employes [sic] for mutual benefit, but he will not consent to a labor union that will not permit him to conduct his business as he sees fit.

Tangentially, the same day, the Express reported that there was a bout of “bloodless fisticuffs” as “Col. J.K. Tuffree of Fullerton and General Manager Epes Randolph of the Pacific Electric Railway Company sparred several rounds in front of the Hotel Van Nuys yesterday afternoon” adding that “Henry E. Huntington was an interested spectator of the mill.”

Express, 28 April 1903.

John K. Tuffree, a St. Louis native and Confederate Civil War veteran who enlisted while living in Texas and was said to be a spy, settled in 1872 in what became parts of Placentia and Fullerton in north Orange County and farmed, mines and served as a deputy sheriff. Why he was in Los Angeles was not stated but the paper stated that Randolph claimed Tuffree “made himself officious in the strike of the Mexican laborers” while also interposing in the matter of the streetcar line work being done on Main Street outside the hotel.

While neither of the combatants, both said to be men of large frame and build, were injured, Tuffree had been known to get into violent tussles before and was acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon in 1880. When he committed suicide at the end of 1903, purportedly over domestic and business worries, it was reported that his doctor affirmed that Tuffree suffered from softening of the brain, which may have explained why a friend, Albert S. Bradford, told the press that he was “of a nervous and aggressive disposition.” Tuffree was also said to have been likely to shoot his wife, Carolina (who was half-Peruvian and half-American) or other family members, while he threatened suicide several times. Notably, Tuffree’s land, over which he got into disputes with his wife and which includes streets named for the family and a middle school bearing his name, bordered the town named for Randolph and which became the incorporated city of Brea in 1917.

On the 28th, amidst its reporting on labor disputes throughout the country, including in New York City where Italians were said to be recruited under a migration system not unlike what involved Mexicans in Los Angeles as well as Chicago, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado, the Express quoted Randolph as saying, “from our point of view the strike of laborers employed by the Pacific Electric Railway company was never serious.” He also denied claims that “Mexicans formerly employed by us” were sent to the Southern Pacific for line construction,” while also stating that he had plenty of laborers.

As to the Mexican Federal Union, it was asserted that “their members are as confident as ever that before many days their demands will be acceded to” and that “they will not return to work unless paid the wages demanded.” A backup plan seemed to have been to send these men to Ventura and Santa Barbara counties to work in beet fields.

Express, 28 April 1903.

Also of significance was the observation that

Santa Theresa [Teresa Urrea (1873-1906, known as Santa Teresa de Cabora), who will be the subject of an upcoming presentation at the Homestead and was residing in Boyle Heights at the time], whom several Mexicans regard as a divinity, has counseled them to remain sober, and victory may be possible for them.

It was added that “a large number of the cholos are being cared for in accommodations arranged on San Fernando street” in the Sonoratown district north of the Plaza and “are fed and lodged at union expense.” The LARY was taking no chances, the Express concluded, and was preparing for the possibility of a general strike “in sympathy with the Mexican laborers who have lost their employment.”

The Express of the 29th referred to the possibility of a general strike and it commented “that a serious attempt is being made to draw the men into a union is not to be doubted,” while it recorded that “the formation of such [a] union is being vigorously fought by the companies and it is more than probable that trouble will result. A letter was reprinted that was reported to have been issued by leaders of the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees, now the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Express, 29 April 1903.

The document referred to “the cause for which we have struggled so hard the past few months” and that the time was at hand for members to “have courage and nerve” for the presentation of demands that include the right “to organize and be allowed reasonable wages and hours [the 8-hour workday was gaining increasing momentum] to make our living and provide for our families.”

While there was concern that other streetcar lines, such as the Los Angeles-Pacific to Santa Monica, the Redondo Beach, and the Los Angeles Traction to San Pedro, would be affected in a general strike, it was stated by the paper that such a walkout involving LARY and PERY workers was considered to be a done deal. It was said that the locals were awaiting orders from union headquarters, but, in the meantime, Biddle was quoted as saying,

This is more than a laborers’ strike. We are highly satisfied with the condition of our affairs. The strikers are being fed and the food is paid for promptly. The companies have other crews at work for them, but all the men will not remain in their employ. Besides all our plans have not been made public. As I said, we are more than satisfied with the progress we are making, although we cannot reveal the extent of the work.

There was a rumor that a May Day strike was in the offing, but it was added that such an action was to be delayed by a few days, while an unnamed union official told the Express “there may not be much streetcar service in evidence during Fiesta time,” this being the La Fiesta de Los Angeles held by merchants and manufacturers for some two decades between the 1890s and 1910s.

Express, 29 April 1903.

Also of interest was the report that “there is a move on foot for the organization of a Japanese federal labor union” and it was added that “it is claimed that a large majority of Japanese laborers in the city and county will join.” Further, it was asserted that “the movement is made to call out those of the race now at work for the railway companies and to pave the way to discourage any Japanese crews which it is threatened will be shipped into the city.”

President Theodore Roosevelt was due to visit greater Los Angeles in several days and a strike was not planned for that time because he was considered a friend of unions and there was concern that a walkout “is certain to prejudice him against union men as a class.” Moreover, it was averred that “the talk of a general strike is being agitated by men whose sympathies are socialistic.”

Countering concerns of a broad walkout, Randolph pronounced that “it appears to me the height of absurdity that our operatives are dissatisfied.” While he acknowledged some reports of such claims, he averred that these were, upon investigation, determined to not be credible and he continued, “we have too much confidence in our men to believe that they will permit themselves to be swayed or guided by the influences that at times have been and now are seeking to make trouble for them, as well as us.”

Express, 30 April 1903.

The PERY general manager exhibited confidence that the company could meet all contingencies and he counseled the public to take any statements from the opposition with “a great deal of allowance.” Assuring the paper of the loyalty of “regular” employees, Randolph then offered this riposte to the unionists:

Those who have left our employ have done so voluntarily, and while it was their right, it is a peculiar commentary on the freedom of our institutions that ignorant foreigners, not citizens of our country, should have been led facing into a problem by scheming and evil-disposed adventurers, whereas, had they known what was being done they would not have attempted it. There should be some way for reaching [punishing] those responsible for deluding the Mexicans into the stand that was taken by them, and in the absence of such a remedy the failure in the present instance must some time cause considerable concern in unexpected places.

While a strike was ordered for the last day of the month, this did not occur and an unidentified union official was quoted by the Express as saying “there is but one explanation, the union conductors and motormen weakened and failed to walk out.” What was deemed “fine work” on the part of the LARY and PERY by the paper was that they learned of the location and time of a prior evening meeting at Spring and 5th streets for the call out of workers and “a squad of police also was on hand to obstruct the movement.”

With such intimidation tactics at play, small wonder that only a dozen or so men walked off the job in what was planned as “the sympathetic strike, ordered in support of the Mexican working crews, who threw down their picks and shovels several days ago.” Another Amalgamated Association figure asserted “we are not discouraged . . . we have had similar experiences many times before and simply will re-organize the union here.” It was added that it took several tries before success was achieved in San Francisco, so it was proclaimed that “history will repeat itself in Los Angeles as it has in many other cities.”

Express, 30 April 1903.

Despite the expressions of confidence, an unidentified LARY conductor told the paper, when asked how many of his colleagues had officially enrolled in the union, “I certainly would know if many had joined. I am of the positive opinion that but few belong to the union. The movement has proved unsuccessful in Los Angeles.” Notably, it was reported that there was dissension in the ranks of the unionists about when to strike, with some wanting to wait until the Fiesta to make a maximum impact. Biddle, however, told the Express

There is no desire on the part of unions to inflict hardship upon the public. A strike at Fiesta time . . . would have resulted in turning public sentiment against union organizations. We have no grievance against the people. In all our affairs it is our policy to proceed quietly and to bring about an amicable understanding without the necessity of strikes, if possible.

LARY manager Muir told the paper that there were no more than 100 union men in the “Huntington-Hellman system” and only a fifth of those supported a strike and the company issued a statement thanking its loyal workers for rebutting efforts “brewing for months” by “the agitators who have sought to annoy us.” A few motormen who took car controllers to prevent their use “will be arrested on a charge of petty larceny and they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Three men were fired and a dozen others deserted their posts, but the firm said that it was “overwhelmed with applications from volunteers,” so that those few positions could have been filled within an hour.

It was added that, with the several streetcar systems, the number of “tainted” unionists was 42, seventeen of which worked for the LARY and those were either discharged already or were soon to be dismissed. The statement concluded “we have had no trouble anywhere today, and anticipate none in any direction, and the men who permitted themselves to be seduced to walkout will never again be employed by us.”

Express, 27 April 1903.

Two San Francisco union representatives were handed the blame for the matter and it was recorded that “the men who will suffer because of the fiasco are loud in their denunciation,” but it was also stated that “a committee of safety may be organized from among the business men of the city, in order that all undesirable agitators may be requested to leave Los Angeles in a given time,” not, perhaps, unlike the vigilance committees of the 19th century. This was rumored to be possibly effectuated before the Fiesta.

Deemed a side-note was the report that 20 linemen walked off the job demanding a 25 cent increase in the daily wage from $2 with the companies given until the following day to answer. It was said that these employees asserted that “there are no linemen to be secured in the city, outside of union men.” Also in its edition of the 30th, the Express offered an editorial under the heading of “To Strike Now Were Folly” and it expressed the view that it was fortunate for the other 750 or so LARY employees that only a dozen of their colleagues walked off the job.

This came down to a principal reason, the paper strangely reasoned, namely, “Los Angeles, it must be remembered, has a climate that attracts young men” who may have come to the Angel City to recover their health, so that, even if they could not work the long hours found in the eastern cities, “their slight invalidism does not prevent their working eight, ten or twelve hours a day under these beneficent skies.”

Continuing on with this line of argument, the Express opined that “open-air work is just what these quasi-invalids desire” and the firing of hundreds of striking workers “will be a godsend to the semi-loiterers.” Besides, it was observed that unions only had about a tenth of American workers on their membership rolls, with this percentage far smaller in “open shop” Los Angeles, so “striking street car employes [sic] may fairly estimate their chances of a successful termination of their cause.”

Express, 30 Aprli 1903.

The paper claimed the issues weren’t about pay or hours or being “ground down by a soulless corporation” only concerned about increasing shareholder dividends and insisted that the matter was solely about union recognition. It also asserted

While the Express believes in the unionism of labor, it concedes the right of an employer to say whether or not he will recognize unions. That is his affair . . . In the matter of strikes . . . the tendency is more and more away from democracy of expression . . . the wishes of the majority do not rule; the masses are not consulted . . . if unionism is to be perpetuated and respected, the system should be changed forthwith.

To strike as the Fiesta and President Roosevelt’s visit were nigh would bring public indignation against unions and it counseled, again claiming to be friendly towards them, to wait until after the president left town. There was a mild piece of advice for “an absence of bitterness on the part of the employing company,” but stronger words were offered concerning the possibility of violence that would presumably be fomented by laborers and the unions. The Express reiterated that only by having majority votes could unionism find success, otherwise, “the average non-union man is better off than his shackeled [sic] brother.”

We’ll return tomorrow with the concluding third part of this post, looking at the more virulent vilification of the union “agitators” and their manipulation of their “cholo” charges, as expostulated by the Times, so check back then.

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