History of Organized Labor In California

06 Mar

1904-cal-headerThe origin of labor organization in California is contemporaneous with, if it does not actually antedate the discovery of gold. Among the numerous fragmentary records of that early day we find suggestions of concerted action among the printing trades as far back as 1846, in which year the first newspaper was issued in the State.

The precarious conditions of journalism at that time are illustrated by the fact that in 1848 a half-sheet, issued by the California Star, announced the suspension of publication owing to the cry of “gold, gold, gold,” which had lured all hands–printers, subscribers, etc.–to the scene of the “diggins.” Prosperity killed it!

In 1849 an article appeared in the Boston Guide, announcing the formation in San Francisco of an American printers’ union. This was probably an allusion to the Pacific Typographical Society. At this time printers’ wages averaged $2.50 per 1000 ems, as compared with the present rate of about 40 cents. Time hands received $12.50 per day, and overtime at the rate of $2.50 per hour. Even the office boy, it is said, received $30 per week. These figures represented boom rates, and they did not last long.

As a result of the downward tendency, we find notice of a meeting, held in 1850, by the printing fraternity for the purpose of devising a plan to establish a general system of time work. Already the rate of printers’ wages had dropped to $2 per 1000 ems. Immediately after the great fire of 1853, wages fell to the comparatively low point of $1.50 per 1000 ems.

Evidently the latter figure represented what was then regarded as the “subsistence limit.” At this period, 1851, we note that the first strike in the printing trades, against a reduction from $1.50 to $1.25 per 1000 ems, proposed by the publishers of the Alta newspaper. A “stay away” notice was issued by the printers, advising the members of the craft in the “States”– that is, in the East–to refrain from coming to California. The strike was successful, and wages remained, for the time at least, at the rate of $1.50 per 1000 ems.

The Pacific Typographical Society was merged into the Eureka Union, which body was chartered by the National Typographical Union in 1855. In 1872, when the International Typographical Union was formed, the title of “Old Eureka” was changed and the union became known as Typographical Union No. 21 of San Francisco, which designation has since been held by that body. Thus the local Typographical Union enjoys the distinction not only of the longest consecutive existence but of being the first trade union in the State to form a national craft at large.

Although always conspicuous among the organized crafts of the State, the printers did not long enjoy sole honors in the work of organization. The excitement attendant upon the rush to the gold fields had hardly begun to abate when the enormous immigration of Chinese began to attract the attention of the pioneers. Anti-Chinese agitation spread throughout the State. Legislative measures of a local character were proposed and evidently with some success, since we read that in March, 1852 a bill to enforce contracts to labor was defeated upon the representation that it was a measure designed to facilitate the importation of cheap labor from Asia. About this time a commission was formed for the purpose of crystallizing public sentiment against the Chinese, which body may be regarded as the parent of all the subsequent agitation which culminated in the Chinese exclusion act of the present day.

The decade of 1850-60 was characterized by the growth of the organization among the various trades and callings then established as a result of the development of industry in the State. An interesting sidelight is thrown upon this phase of the State’s growth by the figures of the United States census for 1860, which give the professional and industrial callings and the numbers of persons engaged therein, as follows: Herdsmen, 801; innkeepers, 1404; laborers, 25,394; laundresses, 1918; lawyers, 894; lumbermen, 1051; mariners, 3078; mason, 533; merchants, 5087; miners, 82,573; packers 679; painters, 1023; physicians, 1122; printers, 621; ranchers, 751; refectory keepers, 1859.

In 1863, immediately after the publication of these figures of the State’s industries, we find unmistakable evidence of further rapid growth in the existence of a powerful union of tailors. In the same year a strike of tailors took place, against the large amount of fancy work put upon the coats of the period. This strike was successful at the end of several weeks. In other respects the Tailors’ Union demonstrated its ability to protect its members in the various matters of interest to the craft.

The first evidences of the organization in the building trades are found in the records of the House Carpenters’ Eight-hour League, organized in 1867. This bodywas formed, as its name implies, primarily for the purpose of establishing the shorter workday. In this connection it is interesting to note that much of the “spirit of the organization” prevailing among the working classes of those times was inspired by the same general purpose, to with., the reduction of the daily hours of labor.

The work of the House Carpenters’ Eight-hour League was not confined, however, to a single object. From the newspapers of the day we learn that this body met at Dashaway Hall on July 12, 1870, and adopted a resolution approving the course of the Knights of St. Crispin (presumably the forerunner of the Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union of today) in opposition to Chinese labor. Other measures were acted upon at this meeting which are of more than passing interest to the present generation. The league expressed itself upon certain political matters, declaring that the “only hope for justice is through the ballot; that individuals can be of little service to each other, except by uniting in associations and pledging ourselves to stand by and help in various efforts of reform.” Another resolution was adopted condemnatory of the course of the Messrs. Canovan, Winkle and Story in opposing the appropriation of $250 per month for the Mechanics’ Eight-hour Labor Exchange and declaring that the members would not in the future support either of these gentlemen for any public office.

The Clerks’ Early Closing Association was organized in 1870. At first this body met with much success. It was able shortly to report that merchants had determined to abide by the early closing rule. However, the movement met with a reverse two years later, due largely, according to all available records, to indifference and lack of harmony among clerks themselves.

In 1870 the Workingmen’s Protective Union was formed. This body adopted resolutions on the subject of Chinese; also petitioning the Southern Pacific Railroad to employ free white labor.

At this point we note a marked change in the condition of mining, as illustrated by a strike of miners in Amador County in 1871. The members of the Miners’ Labor League struck for the abolition of the prevailing system of dividing labor into four or five classes, and for the establishment of two rates of wages, i.e., $3and $2.50 per day for first and second class miners, respectively, and for the abolition of Chinese competition with white labor. The result of the miners’ strike is highly suggestive of the saying that “history repeats itself.” The militia was called out and the strike was compromised. A contemporary newspaper report informs us that “the San Francisco militia companies engaged in maintaining the peace and dignity of the law at Amador are deserving of credit.” From the same source we learn that the strikers “gained little and lost much.” although they “had the satisfaction of knowing that the mining companies were placed under heavy expense.”

The general conditions of the Stat at this time were described by the New York World as a “singular combination of circumstances–labor forever on a strike as it were, and land held almost in feudalism.” This condition, according to the World, “is quite enough to account for the decadence of California which for some years past her electoral figures present.”

In 1871 a branch of the National Labor Union League was formed. This body had political ambitions. It indorsed George W. Julien for President of the United States. A State convention of the same body met in June, 1872, but the records at hand do not show what if any action was taken to further the candidacy of Brother Julien.

The latter gathering was probably a phase of the politico-labor agitation that swept over the State in the year 1872. At this time a body known as the “Labor Party of the Pacific Coast” came into prominence. A State convention was held and a platform adopted, among the provisions of which were these: Eight-hour system of labor; anti-Chinese legislation, and the “disenthralment of labor by the equalization of the wages of labor with the income of capital.”

Another organization of this period, which seems to have had more practical, if less ambitious objects, was the Mechanics’ State Council, formed for the purpose of perfecting the eight-hour movement. All mechanics were eligible for membership upon signing the pledge, which read as follows:

“I have signed my name to this pledge and thus become a member of the “Eight-Hour League. I do pledge my sacred honor that when the Mechanics’ State Council shall fix a time for my trade to commence working eight hours a day. I will quite working at my trade until my employer shall accept eight hours for a day’s work, or until the council shall release me from this obligation. I will promptly attend all general meetings of the league that may be called by the council and will abide by and support its rules, regulations and by-laws.”

The year 1878 marks the beginning of the epoch of organization and federation upon purely labor lines. It will be noted that up to this time most of the labor bodies were formed as much for political as for economic purposes. In the latter year the Representatives Assembly of Trade and Labor Unions was organized. It was understood and ultimately declared that no subject of the political or religious nature should be discussed or acted upon at the meetings.

During the ten years preceding the establishment of this body a number of crafts had been organized upon distinctively trade union lines, among which may be mentioned the ironmolders, organized in 1869, and the cigarmakers, organized in 1874. A large number of these bodies affiliated with the assembly, which did much effective trade union work during the few years of its existence.

In 1885 a new central body was formed in San Francisco under the name of Federated Trades Council of the Pacific Coast. As indicated by its title, the new body claimed jurisdiction throughout the coast territory, a position which was justified by the then existing condition of labor organization in the Pacific Coast States. San Francisco was the headquarters of a number of unions having branches extending throughout the locality named. Among these were the Sailors’ and the Brewery Workers unions. Practically, therefore, the Federated Trades Council formed during the first years of its existence, the sole means of uniting the widely scattered labor bodies of the coast under one directing head.

Like its predecessors, the Federated Trades Council had its ups and downs. It carried on a persistent and in the main successful campaign for the advancement and protection of the white union labor interests, particularly in the cigarmaking and boot and shoe industries. A notable legislative achievement due to the work of the Federated Trades more than to any other body was the passage of the Australian ballot law. In general the Council of Federated Trades exercised a marked influence upon the character of the factory and other forms of industrial legislation enacted since the period of its establishment. In 1888 the council affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, a relationship which has been maintained continuously ever since.

Under the pressure of various circumstances the strength of organized labor now began to decline. The year 1891 was signalized by the establishment of the Manufacturer’s’ and Employers” Association, which body waged a vigorous warfare upon organized labor. In 1893 this body publicly announced that it had destroyed every trade union in San Francisco with the exception, namely Typographical Union No. 21. This claim, although an exaggeration, was justified in the sense that the labor movement had been forced to assume the defensive.

As a means of rehabilitating the unions the reorganization of the central body was determined upon. Accordingly in 1892 the present Labor Council was established. The history of that body is well known to the present generation of readers. Inheriting, as it did, a rich fund of experience, the Labor Council has sought, and with marked success, to avoid the causes of failure on the part of its predecessors, with the result that it is today probably the most effective central labor body in the United States. At present there are 122 unions affiliated with the Labor Council. These bodies contain membership of 40,000 and are represented by 365 delegates. These figures are of course, exclusive of the unions unaffiliated with the Labor Council, which probably number 100 or more, the membership of which would bring the total up to 60,000.

This sketch being primarily a review of the early stages of labor organization in California is necessarily confined in the main to the records of San Francisco. A detailed account of the conditions in this respect as they now exist or as they have existed for say twenty years past would, of course, include every considerable city and town in the Sate. The leading trades in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland and other localities have been organized for many years. The number of unions in the leading cities and the total membership of organized labor throughout the State is estimated by the State Bureau of Labor Statistics as follows: Number of Unions–San Francisco 272, Los Angeles 68, Sacramento 72, Oakland 50; total number of unions in the state: 305. The total membership of unions in State: 110,000.

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Posted by on March 6, 2015 in Uncategorized


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