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Myth versus Reality in the Making of the Southern California Working Class, 1880-1903


In its final report in 1915, the federally appointed U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations portrayed a nation torn by industrial violence, unemployment, and social discontent. Everywhere the commissioners looked, from the New York sweatshops to the Pennsylvania steel mills, and from the southern textile towns to the western metal mines, class lines were hardening. Even the Socialists were gaining political support. Unless something was done, America seemed poised for a social revolution.

Yet the commission largely exempted Los Angeles from its criticisms. Except for the October 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, L.A. had never experienced industrial violence of the kind that exploded in April 1914 in Ludlow, Colorado, when the Colorado National Guard, acting on behalf of coal mining companies, massacred striking coal miners and some members of their families. Los Angeles leaders believed that the city's Mediterranean climate, its lack of heavy industry, and its location in the middle of a seemingly endless fertile plain enabled it to avoid the pitfalls of poverty, unemployment, and class conflict. Many of these beliefs still linger in people's minds today. Most residents of the city will acknowledge that Los Angeles has experienced major conflicts over race, urban sprawl, and public education. But if you tell them that it once had a strong socialist movement and experienced several episodes of serious class conflict, they will express surprise. Such ideas do not fit with the popular image of Southern California as the home of Hollywood, orange groves, plentiful opportunity, and perpetual sunshine.

The idea of Los Angeles as a consumers' paradise is attractive, and in some ways it reflects the reality of lived experience. But it is only part of the city's story. Many Angelenos today think that the city's white residents have always been middle class and that poverty has largely been confined to Mexicans and other immigrants. Yet until World War II the majority of the city's workers were native-born whites, not immigrants, and they were frequently forced to undertake strikes and other forms of protest to protect themselves against wage cuts and mistreatment by their employers.

These beliefs about Los Angeles are not just the result of historical amnesia. They were deliberately cultivated by a wide array of L.A. boosters who, from the 1880s to the 1920s and beyond, promoted Southern California as a paradise for settlers from the East. Members of the city's business elite continued to trumpet this belief to the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations when its representatives visited the city in 1914. For example, General Harrison Gray Otis, the belligerent and powerful publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Times, began his presentation of evidence before the commission by asserting confidently that most L.A. workers were "prosperous and contented."

The reason for this, said Otis, was that land in the area was cheap and readily available and that most of the white midwesterners then flooding into Southern California had brought enough savings with them to buy homes of their own. In addition, Otis added, the prevalence of the open shop (meaning that L.A.'s workers were not compelled to join labor organizations as a condition of employment) limited the formation of unions, organizations that Otis believed stifled employee initiative and interfered with the employers' right to hire and fire anyone they chose.

Otis's testimony before the commission was followed by that of Owen T. Rice, another L.A. booster who also hailed the virtues of the open shop. The weakness of the city's unions, Rice said, meant that any competent man could secure "a wage commensurate with his ability without the assistance of a union card." Realtor Edwin Janss took the open shop argument even further. He said that the absence of unions kept labor costs down, guaranteed the profits of the real estate industry, and enabled it to build single-family homes throughout the Southland.

At a time when unions are again in disrepute, some readers may find these arguments plausible. Do not unions, especially unions that enforce the closed (union) shop, raise wages to artificially high levels? Are they not often bureaucratic and corrupt? Do they not force workers to pay dues against their will? The debate about trade unionism is, of course, legitimate. But, in 1914, Southern California's open shop champions failed to mention that there was then-as there still is today-a price to be paid for the absence of unions. In that year, wages in Los Angeles were lower than in several other industrial cities; most workers lacked insurance and other union benefits; and many newcomers to the city found that, once they secured a job, they were at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. None of this fit the image of a settlers' paradise

It was not only white settlers who subscribed to the utopian image of Los Angeles. Many African Americans, seeing L.A. as a place where segregation was at first minimal, did so too. When black leaders from other parts of the country returned home after visiting the city, they often praised the superior opportunities it offered. "One never forgets Los Angeles and Pasadena," wrote W .E. B. Du Bois in The Crisis, official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in August 1913. "The sensuous beauty of roses and orange blossoms, the air and the sunlight and the hospitality of all of its races lingers long."

These early African American visitors were followed by generations of Mexicans, Japanese, and other migrants of color who were attracted to Southern California for the same reasons as whites. Mexicans first moved north across the border to escape the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution and later to look for jobs in a modern city with a reputation for opportunity and the largest Mexican community in the West. Immigrants from China and Japan, the Philippines, and Latin America did much the same. In some cases, their motives barely changed over time. In 1985, for example, a woman who had moved to L.A. from El Salvador to find peace and stability explained that there was "much danger because of the rebels and the army" in her homeland-the same reason that Mexicans had used to justify moving north in 1910.


It was not unusual for promoters of an ambitious American metropolis to exaggerate its advantages over those of rival cities. For years, upstart settlements on the western frontier had proclaimed themselves great cities of the future in order to attract settlers, secure political advantages, or persuade national railroads to run their tracks through town. It is also true that the warm, dry climate of Los Angeles was good for health and that land was at first plentiful and cheap. When land values rose, as they almost invariably did, the small bungalows built by the early settlers could be traded in for bigger and better houses with yards and picket fences. Once the Pacific Electric Railway (Red Car) system had been completed, and sufficient water had been diverted from the Owens River in 1913 to irrigate the San Fernando Valley, the fertile Southern California plain afforded wonderful opportunities for suburban living.

But this was only part of the story. Even during the early years of the twentieth century, much in the boosters' narrative was misleading. The downside of living in Los Angeles included political corruption, primitive working conditions, land grabs by investors intent on driving up prices to make a killing, and the spread of industrial blight to large parts of the downtown area. In addition, the city's leading employers were clearly willing to exploit workers to gain an advantage for themselves. While nominally supporting "industrial freedom" (an idea that in theory gave equal rights to both employer and employee), companies opposed any form of trade unionism and brazenly recruited members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to help them keep the unions at bay. Not until the U.S. Senate hearings held by the La Follette Committee, which investigated violations of free speech and the rights of labor in the late 1930s, was the extent of their illegal practices exposed.


By the early years of the twentieth century, Southern California's boosters had distilled their beliefs into three main myths in order to furnish believers with a "usable past"-a past that legitimated their view of what L.A. had been and what they hoped its future would be. The first myth derived from the then-fashionable "Garden City" movement, which was espoused by Progressive reformers as well as by the business elite. The idea was to perpetuate L.A.'s image as a spacious, semi-rural metropolis where most workers owned their own homes, regular work was available, and slums were few. In 1907 Protestant cleric Dan Bartlett claimed that in Southern California the "poor live in single cottages, with dividing fences and flowers in the front yard." He acknowledged that manufacturing was growing, but he argued that it would somehow develop in "the country" and that the city's factories would be hidden behind a "wealth of climbing vines and roses."

The promulgation of the Garden City image distorted reality in a number of ways. First, it neglected the efforts of Los Angeles Times editor General Otis and other members of the business elite to turn the city into an industrial dynamo that would replace San Francisco as the largest manufacturing city in the West. Although the Bay Area continued to boast more factories and workshops, by 1910 L.A.'s industrial sector had grown so fast that the proportion of the city's labor force defined as wage earners, at 79.2 percent, was higher than in San Francisco, as table 1 shows. By 1920 Los Angeles had outstripped San Francisco both in number of manufacturing establishments and in the number of white-collar employees.

Los Angeles boosters also exaggerated the proportion of the city's population who owned their own homes. Although the statistical evidence shows that L.A.'s rate of homeownership ranked high among U.S. cities, it did not rank high enough to justify the extravagant claims that were made for it. Table 2, which rank-orders rates of homeownership in the country's ten fastest-growing cities between 1890 and 1920, shows that whereas Los Angeles ranked fifth in 1890, it had dropped to ninth place thirty years later.

But the most misleading impression left by promulgators of the Garden City image was the idea that most of the city's residents, including its workers, lived in salubrious surroundings with no congestion, few uninhabitable buildings, and a fully developed infrastructure. While Los Angeles certainly did not possess as many slums and immigrant tenements as New York and Chicago, its downtown area contained numerous impoverished neighborhoods where Mexicans, Chinese, and Eastern European immigrants lived cheek by jowl and where rented housing, not privately owned homes, predominated. In 1910, for example, 113,673 people (36 percent of the city's population), the vast majority of them working class, lived in the districts shown in map 2, an area bounded by Sunset Boulevard on the north, Temple and Figueroa streets on the west, Vernon Avenue on the south, and Indiana Street on the eastern side of the city. By this time, downtown L.A. had been zoned into several discrete districts, some of them designated for industrial development, others for residences only.

By 1910 the so-called Industrial District, in the southwestern quadrant of map 2, contained over fifty major businesses. Of the households in the district, 24 percent were headed by unskilled laborers, and only 2 percent of the district's workers held white-collar jobs. Only 17 percent of the residents owned their own homes. The Commission of Immigration and Housing in California, reporting in 1915, attributed this partly to high rates of unemployment and partly to the presence of poor white Americans as well as low-income "Japanese and blacks" in the district.

The most degraded of the downtown districts was the Macy Street area, located in "De Bloody Ate" (the Eighth Ward), which included much of old Sonoratown, the original Mexican area of settlement. Besides Chinatown and the decaying Plaza area, the Macy Street District contained a large slum neighborhood of some sixty-seven hundred people, who hailed from no fewer than fourteen countries. Directly contradicting the boosters' claim of "no congested districts" were the Eighth Ward's overcrowded housing courts, where dozens of poor immigrant families huddled together around refuse-strewn open spaces, sharing outside toilets and an outside water supply. The 1915 commission report documented high levels of child labor, illiteracy, unemployment, and poverty in the area. Very few of the families in this district possessed any insurance or savings.

Extensive unemployment in the Macy Street District, as well as in the Railroad Yards area, also contradicted the myth about the "regularity of work." More than 200 of the 688 residents in the latter neighborhood worked in nearby factories, but many of them experienced unemployment for more than three months of the year. Periodic unemployment was also endemic in the downtown garment industry, because of seasonal changes in fashion, as well as among the cannery workers and farm laborers who cultivated stretches of open land all over the Los Angeles basin. A large minority of the Mexican men in the Macy Street District were employed digging ditches or laying track for the Pacific Electric Railway.

Not even the relatively attractive Temple Street District, the one district on the West Side of Los Angeles where a majority of the inhabitants were clearly middle class, lived up to the boosters' homeowning myth. Originally settled when the Temple Street cable railway opened in 1886, this neighborhood was for some years a genuine residential suburb. By 1910, however, numerous working-class German, Jewish, French, and Italian families had moved into the area. Most noteworthy, only 37 of the 294 "American" households living along Temple Street that year owned their own homes.


The second myth cultivated by L.A.'s business elite was that Southern California was the "white spot of America." This phrase had several meanings, but the most popular one was that Los Angeles was a racially pure space, a city built by white Americans for white Americans. Some of the evidence already cited here shows that this assertion was misleading, but it was frequently repeated by propagandists. For example, in the 1910 edition of his popular booster tract Land of Sunshine, Charles Lummis reiterated his claim that "our foreign element is a few thousand Chinese and perhaps five hundred native Californians who do not speak English." No one reading his account would have guessed that among the city's 319,000 residents in 1910 were 13,557 immigrants born in southern and eastern Europe as well as more than 30,000 Mexicans, Asians, and other people of color.

These totals were not comparable to the hundreds of thousands of European immigrants who lived and worked in the industrial cities of the Midwest and the East, but they were significant. Nevertheless, Los Angeles civic leaders continued to promote the image of their city as a "white spot" by deliberately romanticizing-and denigrating-the role played by indigenous Mexicans, Chinese, and other subaltern groups in developing Southern California's modern infrastructure. This racially condescending image was promoted in the first "Fiesta de Los Angeles," which was held in April 1894. Invitations to Mexicans and other minority residents included a request that they dress in "native clothes." This rendered them objects of nostalgia instead of presenting them as they really were: urban workers with up-to-date skills who were often the victims of racial oppression.

Social mixing between Anglo-Europeans and residents of color in the years before World War I was also much more extensive than contemporaries believed, throwing further doubt on the boosters' claim that L.A. was a "racially pure" white metropolis. In his Street Meeting (2005), Mark Wild documents numerous instances of social interactions between white families and families of color, including racial friendships between children at play and even sexual relationships between couples of different nationalities. These contacts occurred most frequently around the original city Plaza. Here gossip was exchanged, friendships were made, and information was passed on about jobs and cheap places to stay, among a wide variety of people, including native-born whites, Mexican immigrants, Italian anarchists, transient farm workers, visiting tourists, and resident Chinese barrow boys.

Wild also uncovers a set of interethnic social, religious, and occupational networks covering a much larger number of downtown neighborhoods than is usually supposed. The most interesting of these networks was the one established by the Church of All Nations, a Methodist congregation founded in 1918 by social reformer Reverend G. Bromley Oxnam. Though Oxnam advocated the "Americanization" of immigrants, he supported trade unions and defined education for citizenship in terms of tolerance and social justice rather than conformity to a narrow set of patriotic goals. A 1920 survey of the twenty-one-block area surrounding the Church of All Nations showed that the neighborhood was 46.5 percent "white American," 18.5 percent "Spanish/Mexican," 12.6 percent black, 7.8 percent Jewish and German, and 5.2 percent Japanese.

None of this cultural mixing contradicts the fact that racial boundaries were cemented in place in much of the city by the use of housing covenants in the 1920s. Nor does it disguise the fact that most white trade unionists subscribed to the same racist ideas about L.A.'s minorities that their fellow white Angelenos held. What this evidence of racial intermixing does mean, however, is that Southern California's famous "white spot" was never as "white" as its advocates claimed, and that white workers were exposed to a much wider array of intercultural contacts than has been realized.


The third myth the city's business elite promulgated in their testimony before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations was that most workers in Los Angeles readily accepted the open shop and were contented with their lot. Otis and his supporters provided positive evidence from their employees to support this view. But it is clear from their testimony that many of the employees had been coached beforehand in what to say. For example, Mary Horgan, a saleswoman at the A. Fusenot dry goods store, told the commission that her fellow workers were "thoroughly satisfied with the treatment they received at the hands of the owners." Her statement directly contradicted a report in the Los Angeles Citizen that more than a dozen saleswomen had recently struck the Fusenot store.

Some of the other pro-employer testimony was genuine, and the commissioners were right to accept it at face value. But Commissioner James O'Connell (who was also president of the International Association of Machinists) invited several union leaders to testify, with enlightening results. C. F. Grow, a machinist at the Southern Pacific Railroad's repair shop, openly criticized the anti-union strategy of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, although he did not name the organization specifically. "The prosperous condition in this city is not enjoyed by those who toil," Grow said. "We have combinations of men ... who are very, very wealthy. They dominate all the railroad lines and everything [that] comes under their domination and power. If labor was only half so prosperous as these gentlemen, I think we would be very well satisfied."

J. W. Buzzell, business agent for the Metal Trades Council, who would later become secretary of the Los Angeles Central Labor Council, was more specific. He challenged booster assertions about labor prosperity by citing state reports showing that the wages earned by metalworkers in San Francisco, Texas, and Illinois were significantly higher than those earned by metalworkers in L.A. In San Francisco, Buzzell stated, metalworkers made $5 an hour for an eight-hour day; in Texas, they made from $3.75 to $5 a day for eight hours of work. But in Los Angeles, metalworkers earned only "$2.50 a day to $4.50 a day for the same class of work." In some nonunion metal shops, Buzzell added pointedly, "they work eight hours for whatever the boss can get them to work for."

Katherine Philips Edson and Frances Nacke Noel testified to the U.S. Commission on behalf of the white working women of Los Angeles. (No minority representatives were asked to give evidence.) At this early date, the number of female trade unionists in L.A. was small, no more than a few hundred garment workers, laundry employees, and waitresses. Most of the city's male unionists, caught up in the doctrine of separate spheres for men and women, were still ambivalent about organizing women, much as male unionists were all over the United States.

Nevertheless, both Katherine Edson and Frances Nacke Noel were well qualified to give testimony on behalf of the city's working women. Edson, a respected leader of the statewide women's suffrage movement, had recently been appointed by Governor Hiram Johnson to the California Industrial Welfare Commission. Noel, a feisty, German-born Socialist, was a protégé of Socialist Party leader Job Harriman and chairperson of the Women's Union Label League, which agitated for the sale of union-made goods.

In her testimony, Edson supported Buzzell's evidence about low wages. She cited official figures showing that wages in San Francisco for most working women were significantly higher than they were in L.A. Edson also testified that in Los Angeles a higher proportion of married women went out to work than was the case in several other cities. "From our ... experience," she added, "we do not believe that the married women are working in Los Angeles because of a so-called desire for independence, but ... because they actually must work." The reason, she said, was that the labor market in L.A. was too unstable and the level of men's pay too low for most male employees to earn a family wage.

When her turn came to give evidence, Noel also pointed to the instability of the Southern California labor market as a source of employment anxiety. She attributed the fluidity partly to the impact of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, which had drawn an increasing number of Mexican immigrants across the border to work in the city, but partly also to an oversupply of labor in Los Angeles that exerted downward pressure on wages-an oversupply created deliberately by the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, who had advertised in the East for more workers than Southern California's employers could handle.

Noel also testified to the employers' growing practice of blacklisting male workers who had been on strike and also firing young female workers for joining unions. She cited the case of a group of female garment workers who, on applying to join the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), had promptly been dismissed by their employers. "If those girls had telephoned to the city hall to ask for the protection of their civic rights," she added, "what would our city fathers have done for them?" Nothing. And the reason that nothing would have been done to defend their union rights was that the city's favored employers had "only to press a button," as she put it, to have the girls fired. "What are we entitled to?" Noel asked the all-male panel angrily. "I ask you men to please decide that proposition from your commission work. It is a question of law and order."

It is obvious from this testimony that the myth of labor contentment among much of the Los Angeles working class in the pre-World War I period was exaggerated. Despite this, the Chamber of Commerce continued to distribute misleading pamphlets all over the country about the high wages and good jobs available in Southern California. Because its reach was much greater than that of the L.A. labor press, it was able to do so without much fear of contradiction. In April 1916, the chamber declared that eastern manufacturers should open branches in Southern California because workers who migrated to Los Angeles were "pleased with what they found." They had "left behind their old labor associations" when they relocated in the "home of the open shop."


In early August 1890, Los Angeles Times owner General Harrison Otis-a large and imposing figure with a walrus mustache-marched into the composing room of his paper on First Street and fired every member of his staff who had joined International Typographical Union Local 174. "Every man, get out of here! And get out quick!" Otis's sudden burst of rage was precipitated by his employees' refusal to accept a 20 percent wage cut, which he said was necessitated by the paper's loss of advertising revenue following the collapse of a recent land boom. By dismissing his union employees, General Otis fired the first shot in a bitter campaign to transform Los Angeles from a city where trade unions were accepted to one from which they would be excluded. The resistance he met with provided further evidence that the myth of universal labor contentment was just that-a myth.

Harrison Gray Otis had not always been hostile to organized labor. In 1856, as an apprentice on the Rock Island Courier in Illinois, he had endorsed a union contract. Several years later, as a journeyman printer in Washington, D.C., he had become a member of the International Typographical Union. What caused Otis to change his mind? There were two basic reasons. One was his large ego and authoritarian personality, which brooked no opposition and which probably derived from his successful career as a Union officer in the Civil War, causing him to view his conflict with organized labor in military terms. Otis labeled his mansion on Wilshire Boulevard the "Bivouac" and mounted a small cannon on the roof of his automobile to dramatize his intentions.

The second reason derived from Otis's passionate determination to transform Los Angeles from a rural backwater into an industrial giant that would displace San Francisco as the preeminent manufacturing city in the West. As Otis and his supporters saw it, the best way to do this was to keep labor costs low, develop a nonunion labor force, and turn the city into an exemplar of "industrial freedom." During the Gilded Age thirty years earlier, a union-free environment was a widely accepted idea. But during the Progressive period, when organized labor had greater support, it was more controversial, and Otis was somewhat exceptional among newspaper editors in pursuing it so vehemently.

In theory General Otis accepted a worker's right join a union as long as the employer did not have to hire only union labor-that is, as long as the employer could avoid a closed shop (and, consequently, a stronger union). In practice, however, Otis became increasingly determined not to employ any union members at all. He was equally adamant in opposing boycotts, strikes, and any other weapons unions might use to protect the interests of their members. Strikes were "a great evil," he believed. They "disturb industry [and] beget idleness." Strikes also "harmfully affected" the loyal workingman "by throwing him out of employment, frequently against his will, annihilating his pay envelope and driving him and his family in too many cases to undeserving poverty and distress."

Before he became exclusive owner of the Los Angeles Times, Otis had to move cautiously on the union front. In September 1886, for example, when Typographical Union Local 174 complained that the paper was discriminating against union members, he was forced to pay the union scale. It was only in 1890, when he had become an influential figure on the local scene, that he moved forcefully against organized labor by combining with three other newspaper editors to demand a 20 percent cut in his employees' wages. When Local 174 balked and threatened retaliatory action, his fellow editors backed down and signed a union contract. But Otis refused to do so, declaring angrily that had it not been for the "treachery" of the other newspaper editors, "we might today be complete masters of the situation." Instead, he fired all of his union staff and hired a group of nonunion printers from a scab organization known as the Printers Protective Fraternity in Kansas City to run his paper.

Local 174 retaliated by striking the Times. It also obtained financial support from other printers unions and declared a consumer boycott against both the paper and the People's Store, a large downtown emporium run by D. A. Hamburger, which advertised frequently in the paper and was patronized by a working-class clientele. The boycott was effective enough to force Otis into another compromise. An 1892 agreement with Local 174 resulted in the reemployment of four union members and a promise to hire more organized printers in the future. But General Otis never implemented this promise, so the strike and the boycott were renewed, supported this time by the entire Los Angeles Central Labor Council. Angered by this response, Otis denounced the strikers as a group of "reckless and vicious radicals" who had overruled the majority of Local 174's other members.

The relative effectiveness of the boycott against the Times demonstrated that, even though L.A.'s unions were still small, a spirit of community resistance to employer intransigence was available to be tapped. Otis's description of the union printers as "reckless and vicious radicals" also showed that he was now willing to employ red-baiting tactics in his disputes with labor. Incidentally, he made a poor choice in attacking the printers for their radicalism. Local 174 was composed of respectable, upwardly mobile artisans who supported the conservative wing of the Los Angeles labor movement. If Otis had intended to stigmatize the real radicals in the L.A. labor movement, he would have done better to go after the Machinists union, led by Lemanuel D. Biddle. Biddle was a skilled craftsman, an excellent speaker, and a longtime activist who ran for municipal office several times on the Socialist Party ticket.

By the turn of the century, the conflict between the Times and Local 174 had escalated from a small, local trade dispute into a citywide struggle over the open shop, with ramifications at the state and even the national level. In October 1901, the Printing Trades Council launched a new offensive against the Times, and the national union sent in a new organizer, Arthur H. Hay, to try and unionize the paper. Ten thousand "I don't read the Times" buttons were distributed; effigies of General Otis were distributed on street corners; and the boycott of the People's Store, which was still one of the Times' biggest advertisers, was resumed.

Equally sinister, from labor's point of view, was the entry into the dispute of the strongly anti-union Merchants and Manufacturers Association, referred to as the MM. This organization had been founded in 1896 by a group of like-minded, conservative businessmen to boost the city's commercial and industrial enterprises. At first it steered clear of labor disputes. But not long after the MM was founded, the Union Labor News criticized local firms who advertised in the conservative Times and followed this up with a more general attack on the anti-union views of the association. Angered by this "presumptuous critique," MM president Niles Pease denounced labor's boycott of the Times as "un-American, unjust, unwarranted and illegal."

Soon after this, businesses affiliated with the MM began systematically dismissing their union employees and pressuring them to avoid all contact with labor organizers. Other businessmen started an "educational fund" to instruct employers in the evils of trade unionism. The most hostile employers hired industrial spies, enlisted the help of the LAPD to intimidate union activists, and put pressure on neutral employers to join the MM's ranks, going so far in some cases as to persuade sympathetic banks to cut off credit to backsliders. By early in the new century, the MM had secured the support of virtually all of L.A.'s leading shipping, lumber, oil, iron and steel, and haulage firms, as well as the citrus growers in the surrounding countryside. It was now one of the largest and most successful open shop associations in the country.

Growing tensions in L.A.'s largest manufacturing firms did not mean that labor relations deteriorated all across the board. The Los Angeles labor force also included a large and growing number of white-collar workers in the sales, real estate, banking, and leisure sectors. Few of these white-collar workers wanted to be unionized. In fact, it was not until female telephone operators struck during World War I that a serious labor dispute flared up among them. Employers also went out of their way to cultivate the loyalty of their white-collar employees. Their preferred method for doing this was to offer them welfare (benefit) packages containing bonuses, profit-sharing schemes, and insurance. Both Security Trust and Savings Bank of Los Angeles and Los Angeles First National Bank introduced pensions and group insurance schemes in the teens and twenties. This was common practice throughout the country during this period.

Nevertheless, it was the growing number of labor stoppages in manufacturing, printing, and the garment trades that seized the headlines, especially when Otis and his allies began exercising their political muscle to elect their supporters to the Los Angeles City Council. In May 1904, for example, Otis told Henry Huntington that he would back Owen McAleer, superintendent of the Baker Iron Works, for election as L.A. mayor, "without trumpeting it in the press." As it turned out, McAleer did not stand for mayor but was elected to the city council instead. Even so, Otis later expressed disappointment at his performance because, he said, McAleer had fallen under the influence of left-leaning Progressives.


The emergence of labor conflict in pre-World War I Los Angeles, and the challenge it posed to the city's image of itself, can be attributed primarily to the anti-union policies of the Los Angeles Times and the Merchants and Manufacturers Association. But to fully understand the dimensions of the struggle, the arrival of another major player on the scene must be considered. This was Henry E. Huntington, the nephew of Southern Pacific Railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington. Between 1901 and World War I, Henry Huntington acquired a far-flung business empire built around the Pacific Electric Railway, which turned him into an even more influential leader in the open shop campaign than General Otis.

Henry Huntington was also an extensive landowner and director of numerous businesses. But his main achievement was the creation of L.A.'s interurban railroad network, which gave him a stranglehold on the city's main transportation system. His methods for developing new branch lines for his Red Cars followed a relatively simple pattern. He began by purchasing a right-of-way across an outlying area where real estate companies and settlers had already begun to move in. He then built a single hotel or lodging house at the end of the projected line to accommodate tradesmen, land agents, and construction engineers. After that, Huntington hired a mixture of laborers, soil graders, and tracklayers to build the Red Car line itself. A labor force of several hundred Mexican and Eastern European laborers would be hired and housed in labor camps, which consisted of a jumble of tents, boxcars, and shacks set up alongside the tracks. As the line moved forward, the labor camp would be dismantled and reassembled farther down the tracks.

Some of these railroad labor camps, however, such as those established in Watts, Pasadena, and West Hollywood, subsequently became permanent settlements. The early establishment of these enclaves explains why some communities of color, surrounded by a sea of white suburban homes, survived even after racially restrictive housing covenants were instituted in the 1920s. South Pasadena, with its African American minority, was an example. Huntington also teamed up with General Otis in several investment schemes, culminating in the giant Owens Valley water project, which opened up the San Fernando Valley to settlement. In 1902 Huntington launched the Pacific Light and Power Company, which he used to supply electricity to his Red Cars as well as to the community at large. This development, like the Owens Valley aqueduct, later became embroiled in a prolonged debate about public versus private ownership of L.A.'s municipal assets, a debate in which the unions were also involved.

The first evidence of Huntington's anti-union views came with the defeat of the famous 1894 Pullman strike, which began as a boycott of Pullman railroad cars by the American Railway Union, led by future Socialist leader Eugene Debs. In Los Angeles, six ARU members were found guilty of tampering with the U.S. mails and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. The Southern Pacific refused to negotiate with the strikers. After the strike was over, Henry Huntington assured his Uncle Collis that "we have not taken an American Railway man back without his first resigning and severing his connection with the union."

Huntington's anti-union views naturally appealed to General Otis, and the two men continued to correspond with each other on a wide range of topics, ranging from the profits to be earned from land investments to which Republican candidates to support for political office. A turning point in their relationship came in January 1903, when Otis and other members of the MM joined David M. Parry's anti-union National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and appealed to Huntington, who lived mostly in New York, for financial assistance. Huntington came up with the money, and he also donated considerable sums to the MM and the Los Angeles branch of the virulently anti-union Citizens Alliance. Within two months of its founding in 1904, the L.A. branch of the latter organization had six thousand members, making it one of the largest affiliates in the nationwide chain of Citizens Alliances.

Henry Huntington's first direct encounter with unions came in 1901 when the platform men of the Pacific Electric Railway asked for a pay raise. On this occasion he accepted a compromise settlement. But in 1902, when union organizers from San Francisco tried to organize a branch of the Amalgamated Street Railway Union in L.A., Huntington dug in his heels. He fired all of his employees who joined the fledgling union and prevented others from joining by having an LAPD officer posted on each street car, to keep union organizers from approaching them. After hiring detectives to spy on members of the Street Railway Union, Huntington rewarded his loyal employees with a 10 percent wage hike. Soon after the 1902 strike, he wrote to Otis to thank him for the Times' support. "I do not need to say," Huntington added, "how thoroughly my sentiments on the labor subject agree with yours."

In this same letter, however, Huntington also wrote: "In time, education and good treatment will bring [U.S. workingmen] around to a right comprehension of their position." This qualification suggests that, despite his display of ruthlessness in the 1902 strike, he may have been more open to cultivating good relations with his employees than some of the city's other open shop employers. In 1930 Myron Hunt, one of the architects who designed Huntington's San Marino home and library, recalled that Huntington "derived much pleasure from talks on the back platform with conductors or on the front platform with the motormen while riding into town." Whatever the rationale, after the 1902 strike Pacific Electric established one of the most advanced employee welfare programs in California. Clubhouses containing libraries, restaurants, tennis courts, and even movie theaters were built at several of PE's divisional headquarters or next to its widely scattered car barns. Pacific Electric also organized an interdivisional baseball league to promote team spirit and raise company morale.

Another of Huntington's employee welfare policies was the establishment of the Los Angeles Railway Recreation Association, which put on monthly dances, picnics, and "smokers" to which all of PE's employees and their spouses were invited. Like many other U.S. employers, Huntington also offered his staff a voluntary medical insurance program. In return for dues of fifty cents per month, deducted from employees' paychecks, the medical plan offered "surgical treatment, medical and surgical dressings, artificial limbs and appliances, and treatment for serious illnesses." (The offer of artificial limbs was not surprising: accidents involving automobiles, pedestrians, and Huntington's Red Cars in downtown Los Angeles were quite frequent.)

However, to discourage immoral behavior, PE's medical insurance plan did not cover ailments that were considered to be anti-social in nature, such as venereal disease or injuries caused by fighting or drunkenness. Such restrictions were not, in themselves, unusual. Henry Ford's welfare benefit program in Detroit took the same approach. But because of Huntington's high profile in Los Angeles, when the restrictions included in his medical benefit program became publicly known, they sparked an intense debate between workers, Progressive reformers, and employers over the purposes of social and moral reform.


Before and after World War I, numerous evangelical Protestant ministers joined the migrant stream pouring into Los Angeles from the plains states of the Midwest. Anxious to combat social evils as well as political corruption, the ministers supported efforts by "Americanizers" and Progressive reformers to raise moral standards not only among Mexican and Eastern European immigrants but also among white working-class employees. When reformers addressed issues like slum clearance and unemployment insurance, they won the support of workers. But when they criticized saloons and other rowdy forms of public entertainment, they provoked popular anger and resentment, which added to the class tensions building in society. As the Los Angeles Record, a working-class paper, put it: "The saloon is the poor man's club, where he finds warmth, and light, and society, and a chance to look at the papers or play a game of cards."

This negative response on the part of the Record did not necessarily mean that all, or even most, of L.A.'s workers opposed the regulation of drink and private clubs. What it did show, however, was their distaste for the arrogant attitude of upper-class reformers who tried to use their position at city hall to impose their values on the rest of society.

As the century came to an end, lower-class discontent continued to grow, prompted by the hostile attitude of the MM, by Henry Huntington's refusal to provide ticket transfers from one part of his Red Car system to another (thereby increasing the cost of travel for working-class riders), and by workers' anger at the city council's decision to permit the building of noxious slaughterhouses and gasworks in the eastern parts of town. At the same time, the first of many evangelical revivals swept the city, reinforcing the desire of middle-class Progressives to pursue their campaign against purveyors of vice. In 1903 the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) allied with several fundamentalist churches to propose a new city ordinance that would have abolished all the city's saloons.

This time a much broader section of trade unions and workers expressed anger at the Progressives' attitude of moral superiority. The proposal to abolish saloons, the Record stated, was "an act of class legislation and unjust discrimination against the poor, since the rich would still be able in the restaurants and private clubs to indulge in liquor." When it was put to a citywide vote, the ordinance against saloons was voted down by a large majority. In the 1902 mid-term elections, a half-hearted attempt was made by disaffected workers to unite with the city's small number of Socialists behind a United Labor Party ticket. But the unions were divided on the issue, and the ticket garnered few votes. In that year, however, fifteen new amendments to the city charter, including civil service reform and a system of direct democracy that established the initiative, referendum, and recall, were adopted by the Los Angeles electorate. This marked the beginning of the high tide of Progressive reform.

At this point, the reigning city administration, led by Democratic mayor Meredith P. Snyder, had lost most of its popularity. As a result the balance of political power shifted toward the Republicans, who were divided between a conservative business element, supported by men like Huntington and Otis, and a larger group of middle-class Progressives, including various subgroups of suburbanites, skilled artisans, and white-collar workers. In the 1904 mayoral election, this moderate reform element put together a new coalition around the candidacy of Owen McAleer, the Republican councilman from the First Ward. McAleer campaigned against Huntington's efforts to secure a monopoly over the city's transportation system. He also tried to reverse the city council's decision to award the city's official printing contract to the unpopular Los Angeles Times, even though its bid had come in higher than that of several other papers.

McAleer won the 1904 election. Soon afterward he backed a successful effort to recall Councilman J. P. Davenport, who had been instrumental in awarding the city printing contract to the Times. As a result of the recall, Davenport was replaced by Dr. A. D. Houghton, a liberal and a former electrician who was supported by organized labor.

These political campaigns displayed the same swirl of competing interests that characterized most U.S. municipal elections at the time. Nevertheless, in the anger that working-class voters displayed over the saloon issue, over Huntington's intransigence concerning Red Car ticket transfers, and over the Los Angeles Times printing contract, we see signs of a distinct struggle emerging between employers and employees in which class differences played an increasingly important role.


In the spring of 1903, Henry Huntington defeated a third attempt to establish a union on his Pacific Electric Railway much as he had done in previous years-by firing the strikers and refusing to meet with their representatives. Despite its brevity, this strike provides the first clear evidence of a willingness on the part of L.A.'s white trade unionists to help Mexican workers establish a union of their own. Given the ambivalent, if not outright racist, attitudes that most white workers displayed toward Mexicans during this period, the event is worth examining with some care.

The story of the strike itself is quickly told. In April 1903 several hundred of PE's Mexican employees were busy laying track along Main Street in downtown L.A. They were doing the work in haste, preparing for the city's spring Fiesta and for a projected visit by President Theodore Roosevelt. On April 23 Lemanuel Biddle, who was secretary of the Central Labor Council at the time, announced the formation of a new union for the Mexican tracklayers, known as the Unión Federal Mexicanos (Mexican Federal Union), with A. N. Nieto as its executive secretary. Two days later the union claimed a membership of nine hundred tracklayers and a bank balance of nine hundred dollars, suggesting that the organization had been planned for some time. On April 25 the men asked for a wage increase. When Huntington rejected it, all the Mexican tracklayers struck, leaving about sixty Irishmen, African Americans, and a few other workers on the job. The Los Angeles Times immediately denounced the walkout, claiming that "radical agitators" were behind it and that they had "deluded the poor, ignorant peons employed in laying track ... into forming a 'union'-stupid fellows, these peons, who don't know what a union is."

A Pacific Electric spokesman claimed that money was not an issue in the strike and that Huntington would raise the tracklayers' wages if it were not for the presence of union agitators. Nonetheless, Huntington hired Mexican, Japanese, and African American strikebreakers from out of town to take over the tracklayers' jobs. The strikers held out for several more days. At one point they even managed to disrupt tracklaying operations and prevailed upon fifty of the strikebreakers to lay down their tools. But Huntington responded by bringing in a large number of police from the LAPD's downtown headquarters. By April 27 full crews were again laying track, and a few days later both the strike and the Unión Federal Mexicanos collapsed.

The methods employed by PE to break the 1903 tracklayers strike were by now standard practice among most of L.A.'s big employers. But the collaboration between Mexicans and white trade union leaders from the Central Labor Council (CLC) in creating the Unión Federal Mexicanos was intriguing because it was so rare. Did it occur because Socialist Lemmy Biddle happened to be secretary of the CLC at the time, or because the CLU was trying to resuscitate the white-run Amalgamated Street Railway Union and thought that organizing the Mexican tracklayers would further that goal? Or did it happen because A. N. Nieto, a talented labor organizer, happened to be in the right place at the right time?

We have no precise answers to these questions. But the Times was wrong to suggest that the Mexican tracklayers did not know what a union was. Granted, some of the Mexican strikebreakers that Huntington brought in from rural areas inside Mexico knew little about modern industrial life. But they were not necessarily typical of the Mexicans who stayed in the city. Most immigrant workers migrated north in stages, often in roundabout fashion. They picked up work along the way as farm laborers, metal miners, or section hands on the Santa Fe or one of the other railroads that fed into L.A.'s train depots. It is likely that during their travels they came across fellow migrants who knew about the United Mine Workers organizing campaigns in Texas, had joined a railroad workers' protest, or had met with men who worked alongside unionized metal miners in Colorado or New Mexico.

Most Los Angeles employers, on the other hand, knew nothing about these traditions of cross-border solidarity. They continued to underestimate their Mexican employees, labeling them "docile and tractable" because they appeared to be willing "to work for lower wages." One newspaper reporter, however, writing about the 1903 tracklayers strike, said of the Mexican workers: "Their suspicions of the fairness of their employer seem easily aroused," and he noted that they were "very tenacious of their rights."

By striking and joining the Unión Federal Mexicanos, the tracklayers exploded the myth of the "passivity" and "tractability" of Mexican workers. Unbeknownst to most whites, they were drawing on a tradition of resistance to oppression that went back for generations. This tradition enabled the 1903 strikers to become pioneers in a century-long struggle for the rights of L.A.'s Mexicans and other immigrants of color, which has continued to this day.


This examination of L.A.'s historical reality has exposed the set of myths, or half truths, about the city's early industrial past promulgated by the civic elite to boost the image of Los Angeles and encourage hundreds of thousands of white settlers to migrate to Southern California from the Midwest and the eastern states. The practice of exaggerating local attractions was not confined to Los Angeles; other cities did it, too. But, because of the depth and longevity of Southern California's appeal, L.A.'s utopian myths acquired a nationwide significance greater than those of any other U.S. city.

The result, until fairly recently, has been the perpetuation of a misleading narrative about Southern California's industrial history that either downplays the effects of class conflict on the city's development or ignores it altogether. It would, of course, be possible to go too far in the opposite direction and claim that L.A.'s workers displayed the same level of class consciousness as their counterparts in Pittsburgh and Chicago. That too would be an exaggeration. Nevertheless, additional evidence suggests that, despite their misleading testimony to the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations in 1914, which described harmonious labor relations, L.A.'s manufacturing elite had been aware of workers' unwillingness to accept employer domination for at least a decade. Henry Huntington admitted as much in a letter he wrote to General Otis in December 1902: "I have been at pains to provide my men with all they could possibly need. Yet they are unwilling to settle down-something else must be done."

That "something else" turned out to be Huntington's participation in building a "model factory" community outside the city limits, designed to be-or so he hoped-beyond the reach of trade union militants. In March 1903 Huntington formed a partnership with Alfred Dolge of New York to build a felt mill and factory in Alhambra, which was then in a rural area several miles outside L.A.'s city limits.

Influenced in part by the Garden City movement, Huntington and Dolge hoped that by locating their new factory in the barely settled countryside, they would reduce production costs, improve productivity, and-most important-convince their employees that unions were unnecessary and that they should accept the open shop. The Alfred Dolge Manufacturing Company opened in the spring of 1904. For a time it appeared to be a commercial success. The manufacture and sale of felt slippers and piano board covers began, and three hundred workers were hired to deal with rising demand. But these hopes proved to be short-lived.

Aware that the practice was unpopular with most workers, Huntington and Dolge rejected the idea of building company-owned housing for their employees. Instead, they relied on the efforts of a local Alhambra land company, in which Huntington himself had a stake, to persuade their workers to buy lots of their own and build houses on them. But the idea never took hold. By 1910 only sixty-two felt mill employees lived in Dolgeville, and only fourteen of these owned their own homes.

The Dolgeville housing experiment collapsed partly because of weaknesses inherent in the Dolge Manufacturing Company itself. Equally important, however, was the unwillingness of the employees to buy property from a land company controlled by their employers. The workers preferred to continue living in cheap rental housing in downtown Los Angeles and commuting to Alhambra daily on the Red Cars. The failure of this experiment did not undermine the boosters' belief that most Los Angeles workers wanted to purchase homes of their own. What it did show, however, was that they were unwilling to commit themselves to land and housing schemes concocted by those upon whom they depended for making a living.

This hostility was even more evident in the workers' response to a second, more elaborate, model industrial community, which was conceived in the aftermath of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in October 1910 and was intended, once again, to regain the loyalty of the workers after a period of industrial turmoil. This new community was the brainchild of Jared Sidney Torrance (after whom the Los Angeles suburb is named) and of shareholders from the Llewellyn Iron Works, the Union Oil and Tool Company-later Union Oil-and, once again, Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric Company.

The Torrance community included a park and separate residential, civic, and industrial neighborhoods. It also contained a Red Car station for the convenience of employees, and its factories were located on the northeastern edge of the settlement, where prevailing winds blew noxious chimney smoke away from residential housing. But the workers demonstrated a distinct lack of enthusiasm for buying homes in the area, even though most of them would have owned the houses themselves. By late 1914 only 170 frame and concrete houses had been purchased, out of several hundred available, and Union Oil and Tool had run short of resident employees.

As in Dolgeville, a number of factors help to explain the workers' unwillingness to buy the houses, including the price of the homes and the recession of 1913-1914. But it was Frances Nacke Noel, chairperson of the local branch of the Women's Trade Union League, who identified the most important reason why so few working-class families bought houses in Torrance: they had "become wise to some of the eastern garden cities, like Pullman"-a company-owned town inside the city limits of Chicago-"and a few of those. They refused to be corralled into a territory where, when a strike breaks out, they can be surrounded by the militia or the armed guards of the companies and simply kept there."


This picture of class relations in L.A.'s industrial life at the turn of the century differs markedly from the portrait the city's boosters presented in their pamphlets and in their testimony to the Commission on Industrial Relations. Contrary to their vision, pre-1914 Los Angeles was not just a privileged haven for oil speculators, real estate dealers, and white suburban retirees. As a rapidly industrializing city, it possessed a flourishing harbor, several infant movie studios, numerous metal and food-producing factories, and a large and rapidly growing construction industry that employed several thousand blue-collar workers. Inevitably, it also contained an ethnically mixed labor force and many of the same blemishes and social injustices that marred industrial cities in the East.

The workers who migrated west to take jobs in these industries, especially those who were employed in the central manufacturing district in the downtown area, were no different, in principle, from America's other industrial workers. As they developed social networks at home and at the workplace, they also developed a growing awareness of their social, cultural, and class interests and of the need to protect those interests against an increasingly aggressive business class.

The printers' struggle against the Los Angeles Times, the hostility of many downtown residents toward PE's control over the city's streetcar system, and the failure of "model factory" experiments to impose industrial discipline on a savvy labor force all suggested that, instead of improving, relations between L.A.'s employers and workers were growing worse. Rather than deploring this state of affairs, however, Times editor Harrison Gray Otis welcomed it. In October 1903 he issued a new rallying cry to the city's business leaders to reject unions altogether. Anti-picketing laws should be strengthened, strike leaders should be denied jobs, and union members should be "blacklisted and their names posted in every place of employment as dangerous men who are not to be tolerated."

General Otis's appetite for industrial conflict would not go unsatisfied. In the years from 1904 to 1916, the level of class antagonism between workers and employers in the workplace, in the political arena, and in L.A.'s public life would reach greater heights than ever before.