1901 strike march on Kearny Street. (Courtesy of SF's Marine Firemen's Union)

On this Labor Day, I could talk about barbecue or advise you about some of the bigger parades and sales in California. But instead I’m going to take the opportunity to write about the early history of labor in California, beginning with the Gold Rush.

And what a history it is.

The smart money during the Gold Rush gravitated toward serving the miners rather than the mining itself. That was true for laborers as well as employers. It’s hard to picture now, but San Francisco was the shipping and manufacturing hub of the Western U.S. back in the 19th century. (OK, Puget Sound was also big.)

From the Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition 1900-11:

SAN FRANCISCO, the chief seaport and the metropolis of California and the Pacific Coast, and the largest and most important city W. of the Missouri river… Population 342,782 in 1900…

Commerce. Deep-water craft can go directly to docks within a short distance of their sources of supply, around the bay. … ample facilities of dry and floating docks. … Lumber, grain and flour, fruits … fish, tea and coffee…command of trans-Pacific and trans-continental commercial routes…

Manufactures. Sugar and molasses refining; printing and publishing; slaughtering and meat packing; shipbuilding; foundry and machine-shop products; clothing; canning and preserving; liquors; coffee and spice roasting and grinding; flour and grist- mill products; lumber, planing and mill products, including sash, doors and blinds; leather, tanning and finishing; bags; paints … The Union Iron Works on the peninsula is one of the greatest shipbuilding plants of the country.

San Francisco dock workers in 1901. (Courtesy of SF's Marine Firemen's Union)

This is where we bring in retired history professor Robert Cherny of SF State. He tells us unions rose and fell with the economy and boy, did they have a lot of booms and busts back then.

“They [unions] tended to grow and thrive in times of prosperity,” Cherny says, “when it was possible for employers to improve wages or to improve hours because there was such a demand.”

Then there were the recessions, and they were often so fierce that unions simply collapsed. New ones sprouted up only when the economy recovered. Employers also banded then broke up, with greater and lesser effect on the local labor market.

In the 1890s, employers had the upper hand, and they used it to quash labor unions, picking them off one by one. Few unions survived the decade, “but those that did,” Cherny says, “began to form central bodies.”

Building trade unions, for example, banded together. “The plumbers, the carpenters, the painters, the roofers and so forth.” That way, a strike by one union was a strike by all, and they could shut down – or threaten to shut down – the entire construction industry.

The City Front Federation pulled together the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific, the longshoremen’s unions, and a brand new local for the Teamsters. The Teamsters’ refusal to haul luggage from a non-union drayage firm caused the strike, but also provided a convenient focal point for the latest employer’s association – and for that matter, the City Front Federation. As foundsf puts it.

Company after company locked out their workers who refused to haul the non-union luggage. Soon hundreds of locked out Teamsters found themselves among others who had already been on strike: restaurant cooks and waiters, bakers and bakery wagon drivers, metal polishers, and all fourteen unions of the Iron Trades Council, who were part of a national strike.

A 1901 scab teamster with a San Francisco police escort. On the side of the wagon is the company name McNab & Smith. (Courtesy of SF's Marine Firemen's Union)

It was July, 1901, high summer, and Professor Cherny notes regional produce was ready to roll or rot. The employers brought in strikebreakers. The city brought in police. The employers brought in “specials” who acted like police with city sanction. Still, the strike dragged on. Picketing workers were clubbed and even shot. They threw stones at the strikebreakers,  in turn, and marbles under the horses pulling the carts.

The employers went to Sacramento to seek the aid of Republican Governor Henry Gage. Bring in the militia, they suggested. He didn’t do that, but he did come to San Francisco – and proceeded to meet with Father Peter Yorke, an Irish Catholic priest whose support was critical for Gage in the 1898 election.

“We don’t know what Peter Yorke said to Governor Gage,” Cherny says, “but what Governor Gage did was to bring in the Drayman’s Association and the Teamsters Union, and close the door on the employer’s association.” Alone at the negotiating table, the two principals quickly settled their differences.  Finally, the strike was over. It was October.

Thus was born the inspiration for the Union Labor Party, which nominated Eugene Schmitz, president of the local Musicians’ Union, as its candidate for Mayor. The ULP put up a whole slate of candidates that November and won three supervisors’ seats in addition to the mayoralty.

Thus began the reign of the ULP, which lasted through 1911. Even by labor accounts, there was a lot of corruption. In short, you had to go through one man, the Republican Party’s Abraham Ruef, to land a city permit or contract, and this quickly created a situation where everybody had too much at stake to complain openly. In 1911, a change in state law required that city candidates be non-partisan. Labor councils then endorsed candidates but didn’t run them in elections.

“When the AFL (the American Federation of Labor) was formed in 1886 as a nationwide, umbrella organization for unions,” Cherny says, “one of their guiding principles was ‘stay out of politics.’ The San Francisco unions, and the California unions more generally, never paid much attention to that, because they always saw politics as being crucial to the success of unions.”

Looking at the 1901 strike, he goes on, “you can see why unions felt that it was very important to have a friendly administration in city hall. Or if not a friendly one, at least a neutral one, not one that was on the side of the employers.”

All right, lesson over. Back to your barbecue.

Labor Day Special: The San Francisco Waterfront Strike of 1901 25 April,2014Rachael Myrow

  • John Spallone

    Thank you, Rachel, for bringing attention to this chapter in the struggle for the dignity of working people. It’s episodes such as this that have given us this holiday weekend, or any weekend, for that matter. Let us also honor those who gave their lives (or had their lives taken away from them) in the effort. I won’t equate their sacrifices with those of the persons who died fighting the wars that were necessary to establish and protect our freedom; I’ll leave it to history to make that value judgment. However, we would be remiss not to recognize that anything that adds to what dignity is left in the workplace has come at a price, whether or not one is represented by a union today.

  • San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park presents an afternoon of costumed living history depicting events during the 1901 San Francisco waterfront strike.


Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED’s Silicon Valley Arts Reporter, covering arts, culture and technology in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She regularly files stories for NPR and the KQED podcast Bay Curious, and guest hosts KQED’s Forum.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
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