As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Discussion Guides - Labor, Reform, Industry, and Politics

Map of unionization in U.S. in 2014Graph of union membership


Introduction: Today we enter our third unit of study - "Bringing California Into the 20th Century." To do this, we begin with an understanding of several national movements that all spilled over into California and in so doing, dramatically influenced the political, economic and social development of the State. Each of these movements is related to our topic for today - "Labor, Reform, Industry, and Politics." As we move into this topic, it will become clear that California's issues of labor, reform, industry and politics were deeply tied to national issues. Indeed, at the end of the 19th and early in the 20th Century, the U.S. was locked in a class struggle between worker and capitalist classes, as well as a political struggle betweeen emerging supporters of socialism and the traditional forces of capitalism. And we will see these struggles played out in California.

Discussion Goals - Labor, Reform, Industry, and Politics

  1. To define the terms related to labor and capital.
  2. To learn about the background of early labor efforts in the state of California.
  3. To answer several questions about labor and capital during this early era of union politics.
  4. To carefully examine the rise and fall of progressive reform in California in the early 20th Century.

Cold Call: 13th Cold Call on required reading: Goals 1, 2, and 3 and "The L.A. Times Terrorist Attack" at

Goal #1: To define the terms related to labor and capital

Before we move ahead, it is important that we understand Capitalism vs. Socialism posterthe terms used in our reading and in the discussion that will follow.

Goal #2: To learn about the background of early labor efforts in the state of California

Beginning in the 1850s, craft workers in Northern California combined to protect themselves and keep their wages high enough to meet living costs.  Among those were the typesetters, brewers, building tradesmen, and some musicians.  However, because of the high turnover among workers, it was difficult to organize permanent unions.

However, employers immediately began to sabotage the new law by bringing in workers from the east to break the 8-hour day in San Francisco. Advertisements by the California Labor and Employment Exchange, a bureau supported by employers to find cheap labor, attracted many immigrants to California. After the Civil War and after the transcontinental railroad opened up, an influx of desperate, unemployed people were willing to work in San Francisco for as many hours as they could get. By 1872 few workers held to the 8-hour day, although bricklayers and plasterers held out until the late 1870s.

Another reaction Newspaper article about 1871 Chinatown War in Los Angelesto the failure of the 1868 bill to enforce the 8-hour day was anti-Chinese attitudes and actions.  Chinese immigrants who lost their jobs after the railroad was completed and who continued immigrating in large numbers worked for low wages and long hours. Thus, white workers began blaming the Chinese for unemployment and poor working conditions. Emotions were so inflamed in 1871 that a Los Angeles mob of over 500 white men swarmed through the city’s Chinatown and robbed or ransacked almost every Chinese resident.  At least 18 Chinese deaths were confirmed. Out of this racial and labor turmoil arose the first large organized union in California – the Workingmen’s Party. 

Using their slogan, "The Chinese Must Go!" the Workingmen's Party leaders argued that capitalists monopolized wealth and property, used their political influence to keep workers subordinate, and employed cheap Chinese labor to gain more wealth. They favored a workingmen's political movement to combat the wealthy capitalists and their corporate entities and to rid California of Chinese workers. To that end, they argued that workingmen had two major enemies: corporations and the Chinese.

By Thanksgiving of 1877, the WPC was able to muster 10,000 members to march in San Francisco's annual parade. Denis Kearney, the leader of the Workingmen's Party and an Irish immigrant, not only promised to drive all of the Chinese in California into the Pacific, he also promised to burn down San Francisco's City Hall in the name of the coming revolution that would sweep away capitalism and establish a workers' democracy. In an 1877 speech he declared:

Ticket for the candidates of the Workingmen's Party of 1877"The Central Pacific Railroad men are thieves, and will soon feel the power of the workingmen. When I have thoroughly organized my party, we will march through the city and compel the thieves to give up their plunder. I will lead you to the City Hall, clean out the police force, hang the Prosecuting Attorney, burn every book that has a particle of law in it, and then enact new laws for the workingmen. I will give the Central Pacific just three months to discharge their Chinamen, and if that is not done, Stanford and his crowd will have to take the consequences." (San Francisco Evening Bulletin, November 5, 1877)

By 1878, the WPC had won about a third of the seats to California's constitutional convention electing a state senator , some local officials in Alameda County, the mayor and a majority of the board of supervisors in San Francisco, and some other local officials throughout the state. These politicians, in turn, began adopting ordinances that discriminated against the Chinese in housing, employment, and city services - laws that were later ruled to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

By 1880, the WPC had largely dissolved. But it left behind a reliable and strong labor vote in San Francisco, which for many years had a large influence in state politics.

Goal #3: To answer several questions about labor and capital during this early era of union politics

In short, in the late 19th and early 20th Century, California unionization was strong in the highly urbanized portion of the state - San Francisco - and extremely weak in the rural, agricultural portion of the state - Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California. Because the state was so split and there were so many racial and ethnic divisions between its urban and rural workers, it was difficult for national union organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) to come in and unionize. Thus, unionization had only a small impact on the state during its first 50-60 years.

What had a greater impact on the state's labor were the huge anti-immigrant attitudes that were brewing in California, most of which we previously discussed in Unit II. However, we did not bring our discussion of the long history of California's anti-immigration legislation into the 21st century when the tide gradually began to change. Indeed, by late 2015, as the political battles heated up in advance of the 2016 presidential election, Californians could look to at least three major efforts to combat its history of anti-immigrant legislation:

2001 - California begins passing a series a laws - over a dozen between 2001-2015 - known as "The California Package." According to the LA Times, "These various laws collectively produce a kind of state-level citizenship ... The California Package is innovative in several respects. Not only does it grant rights to immigrants that are restricted at the federal level, but it also tends to blur the distinction between citizens, authorized, and unauthorized immigrants - valuing everyone who lives in the state and contributes to society." (June 24, 2015) The various laws include:

2013 - California passed a law prohibiting local law enforcement officials from detaining immigrants for longer than necessary on minor offenses so that they can be turned over to federal officials for possible deportation.

2015 In April, the California legislature unveiled a sweeping package of bills that would dramatically expand protections for undocumented immigrants far beyond what's offered by any other state. The 10 pieces of legislation would:

Taken together - and considering the "California Package" of immigration bills passed between 2001-2015 - gives California the reputation of being a national leader on immigration policy.

Goal #4: To carefully examine the rise and fall of progressive reform in California in the early 20th Century

What is "Progressivism" and who were the "Progressives?"

Three Questions about Progressive Reform in California, 1880-1920

  1. What ushered it in?
  2. What were its goals and accomplishments?
  3. What brought about its demise?

What factors brought Progressive reform to California?

Two events ushered in the Progressive Era began in San Francisco: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that occurred in April was the first event and the second event was the Graft Prosecution that began in October 1906.

In the aftermath of the disastrous quake, San Franciscans did not want potential migrants or businesses to think that another quake could ever destroy their city again. So they argued that it was not the quake itself - a natural disaster that human beings could not control - that destroyed the city, but rather, it was the subsequent fire - which human beings could control with a better planned and constructed, publically owned water system. But to build a new city on top of the ruins and construct a new water system, many San Franciscans knew required ridding San Francisco of its corrupt city government - one that had been in power since 1901.

Goals and Accomplishments of California's Progressive Reformers

  1. Goal: "... the emancipation of the Republican Party in California from domination by the Political Bureau of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company and allied interests."
  2. Goal: Increasing the power of the voters and decreasing the powers of city bosses through the institution of the direct primary as well as the initiative, referendum, and recall. (The initiative, referendum, and recall had already been enacted in Los Angeles in 1904 in a historic vote - making it the first city in the nation to do so.)
  3. Goal: Regulating public utilities.
  4. Goal: Introducing the principles of scientific management used in private enterprise into government.
  5. Goal: Protecting what Progressives believed were the true interests of labor unions and once accomplished, the temporary evil of labor unionism would wither away.
  6. Goal for California women, but not for Republican Progressives as a whole: Adopting women suffrage.
  7. Goal for temperance organizations, but not for Republican Progressives as a whole: Banning saloons - the centers of prostitution and excessive drinking - in local areas at the option of the voters.

Factors contributing to the Decline of the Progressives in California, 1916-1920

  1. The 1916 election of Hiram Johnson, the leader of California's Progressive movement, to the U.S. Senate and his exit from state politics.
  2. The 1917 entrance of the U.S. into WWI that diverted national and state attention to the military effort and away from reform.
  3. The decline of the Socialist movement in the U.S. - a movement that had shown some clear support for the Progressive agenda.
  4. The decline of organized labor.
  5. The collapse of the Democratic Party.
  6. The triumph of conservativism. In 1922, Friend W. Richardson was elected governor. Advocating a program of "sweeping retrenchment," he drastically reduced funding for regulatory boards, education, and humanitarian agencies that had been supported by the progressives. Some of these efforts were reversed in 1926 when Clement Young was elected on a progressive platform. However, he lost in 1930 to James Rolph, a traditional Republican.

Conclusions - Labor, Reform, Industry, and Politics

  1. Three national movements spilled over into California at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century: the struggle between labor and capital; the anti-immigration campaign; and the battle for progressive reform.
  2. While union membership increased during this time period, union efforts on behalf of working Californians was met with fierce resistance from the industrial and agricultural sectors of the state.
  3. California has a long, ugly history of anti-immigration actions, policies, and violence - all of which reached a peak during this era. However, by 2015, a series of immigration bills both passed and proposed since the beginning of the 21st Century gave California the reputation of being a national leader on immigration policy.
  4. Progressive reform in California paralleled progressive reform in the nation - beginning at the end of the 19th century and dominating much of the first two decades of the 20th century.
  5. Muckraking journalists helped to expose many of the problems that progressive reformers sought to overcome.
  6. The era of progressive reform in California was ushered in by citizen reaction to two events that occurred in 1906: the San Francisco earthquake, and the public exposure of the excesses of Boss Ruef and the trials that ensued.
  7. Progressivism divided California's Republican Party between the progressives - those upper class members who favored divorcing the party from the control of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company and other corporate interests - and the traditional Republicans who were closely aligned with the business interests of the state.
  8. The Progressive Republicans met many of their goals while in power in California - especially in terms of increasing the power of the voters, regulating public utilities, meeting some of labor's demands for improving working conditions, and giving women the right to vote.
  9. While the Progressives accomplished a great deal between 1910-1920, their success was short lived - the traditional Republicans began to wrestle power away from the Progressives as the decade came to an end.
  10. By 1930, progressive reform in California ended for several reasons - especially the entrance of the nation into WWI, the demise of labor union membership and activity, the ability of the conservatives to link progressivism with socialism, the collapse of the Democratic party, and the ability of the conservative side of the Republican Party to gain more power and ultimately to destroy the progressive wing.