California History: Labor, Capital, and the Roots of Progressive Reform

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Read the following text. What story/figure/event most impressed you the most? Please describe what specifically you remember about the item that you selected.

Modernization and Its Discontents: Labor, Capital, and the Roots of Progressive Reform

California entered the 20th Century as state that displayed fantastic wealth, generosity and social promise. It was also a state that entered the 20th Century displaying fantastic inequality, racism, and a potential for social violence. Perhaps, the California labor movement best embodied this active tension. Workers played a leading role in trying to reform the state. Take for example the San Francisco experience. The city’s organized labor movement reflected the growing power (and, distinctiveness) of the American West. San Francisco became a city overnight in 1850 when thousands of gold seekers poured in from the East and every part of Europe, and beyond. Their children and grandchildren, however, were not prospectors. Rather, they became the backbone of California’s dockworkers, packers, and other manufacturing laborers.

In San Francisco's waterfront workers, and in her factories and shops, the only way to win a better life was to organize and wrest better wages and conditions from reluctant bosses. Union organizers were active throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, but many union drives were smashed. Times changed in 1900 when the American Federation of Labor sent out organizers that were well received by working people. Soon 30,000 workers were organized in ninety-eight affiliated unions. One observer declared that workers were all absorbed in a three-stage process: “Organize, Demand, and Strike.” Soon new state parties took form such as the Union Labor Party. Active in San Francisco, these citizens attempted to pressure elected officials and business leaders to recognize the power (both economic and electoral) rooted in the average workingman. Matters reached a boiling point in the summer of 1901. Frictions between union workers and owners resulted in a shutdown of activity across the society. This included most forms of public transportation. Some 16,000 people joined the action, increasing the potential for unrest. Violence indeed did take hold as a handful of people were killed and hundreds more were assaulted by policemen and private security personnel.

However, in this tragedy’s wake, Union Labor Party took off in power. Its officials soon controlled City Hall. Workers launched a series of successful strikes in 1902. The party’s leaders won re-election to the mayor’s office in 1903 and union power continued to hold sway. However, stories of graft led to the Union Labor Party’s decline. Newspaper reports, in both local and national periodicals, note what they saw as an inevitable connection between labor unions and official dishonesty. Men such as Boss Abe Ruef soon received lengthy prison sentences--at San Quentin--owing to their abuses of public funds. The damage to the larger image of unions across the state was clear. Open shop movements, diametrically opposed to unions, soon appeared in such places as Los Angeles. Harrison Gray Otis, the Los Angeles Times publisher, argued that true freedom denoted allowing workers to decide if/if not they cared to join unions. Banks and other businesses formed associations that punished unionized shops. In 1910, an explosion at the Los Angeles Times building killed 20 people and symbolized the anger between pro and anti union forces. Admission by union workers that they had caused the explosion demoralized the labor effort across California and the nation.

It was in this atmosphere that so-called good government movements, controlled by watchdog groups of private citizens, sprung up in cities spanning San Francisco to Los Angeles. Most notable among these were Lincoln-Roosevelt Republican Clubs. Founded in 1907, by Californians Chester H. Rowell, Edward Dickson, Marshal Stimson, and Russ Avery, the units expressed the state’s commitment to progressive ideals. One common idea was to curb the power of corporate interests in California politics. Other themes included calls for the outlawing of child labor, prostitution, promoting women's suffrage, and a minimum wage law. The leagues had a big role in motivating support for Hiram Johnson’s gubernatorial race in 1910. Johnson had first risen to prominence as part of a special prosecution team in San Francisco that saw the conviction of elected officials and political bosses (such as Boss Ruef). He went on to become the state’s leading Progressive figure.

In 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt decided to be the Progressive Party candidate, he selected Johnson as his prospective vice-president. Roosevelt and Johnson did not win that election. However, they won California owing to Johnson's record as a reforming governor. One area Johnson did not demonstrate compassion, however, dealt with non-white immigrants. In 1913, he signed the Alien Land Act into law. He rationalized that the measure was not discriminatory, since it was the federal government, not the state of California, which prohibited citizenship to certain races. This anti-immigrant sentiment persisted in Johnson, and his influence on the state. Following the Pearl Harbor attacks, for example, he played a leading role in creating the public outcry that made mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans possible.

Of course, evidence of Progressive influence in California passed beyond one figure. Take for example those involved with stewarding the state’s land and water resources. John Muir was America's most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. He is one of California's most important historical personalities. He has been called “The Father of our National Parks,” “Wilderness Prophet,” and “Citizen of the Universe.” As a wilderness explorer, he is renowned for his exciting adventures in California's Sierra Nevada. In 1892, John Muir and other supporters formed the Sierra Club “to make the mountains glad.” He served as the Club's first president until his death in 1914.

Probably no environmental issue symbolizes the Sierra Club’s role in protecting California’s natural wonders like its efforts to preserve and restore Hetch Hetchy Valley. Located in Yosemite National Park, near Wawona, CA, the episode centered on a plan to construct a dam and reservoir on the Tuolumne River. This action, it was planned, would provide San Franciscans its water supply and electrical power generation. Many Californians opposed this idea. Josiah Whitney, the former State Geologist of California, stated that Hetch Hetchy Valley “…if there were no Yosemite, the Hetch Hetchy would be fairly entitled to a world-wide fame.” Although the constructed water dam succeeded in its intention of providing civic areas with resources, the debate continues to this day with people still pushing to bust the dam and restore the region’s natural intention. This friction also manifest in the Central Valley Project of the 1930s. This construction project took form under the idea it was needed to improve navigation, regulation, and flood control of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. It also touched on issues of supplying water for irrigation and domestic as well as power generation. Smaller farmer opposed this measure, instead extolling the virtues of acreage limitations and public power. The issue also touched on new issues for California--namely whether or not the state government would accept federal monies to engage in water and land reclamation projects. Specifically for a state with massive resources, but also wide divergences of opinions and needs, the question of whether or not the state should join national programs percolated. Whether discussion land needs or immigration policies, the challenge Californians faced as during the 1930s and 1940s related to its role as part of the larger nation.

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Although, impressed may not be the correct word, I was amazed by the amount of issues and problems that faced Californians in the early 20th century that continue to face us today. Problems such as the labor union struggles and natural resource management could all be topics pulled from The Los Angeles Times in 1915 or 2015. Although more than a century has passed since the early organization of workers in California, we still face indiscrimination and low wages in the work place....

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