Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in Californiaby Kevin Starr
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California, Wallace Stegner observed, is like the rest of the United States, only more so. Indeed, the Golden State has always seemed to be a place where the hopes and fears of the American dream have been played out in a bigger and bolder way. And no one has done more to capture this epic story than Kevin Starr, in his acclaimed series of gripping social and cultural histories. Now Starr carries his account into the 1930s, when the political extremes that threatened so much of the Depression-ravaged world--fascism and communism--loomed large across the California landscape. In Endangered Dreams, Starr paints a portrait that is both detailed and panoramic, offering a vivid look at the personalities and events that shaped a decade of explosive tension. He begins with the rise of radicalism on the Pacific Coast, which erupted when the Great Depression swept over California in the 1930s. Starr captures the triumphs and tumult of the great agricultural strikes in the Imperial Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, Stockton, and Salinas, identifying the crucial role played by Communist organizers; he also shows how, after some successes, the Communists disbanded their unions on direct orders of the Comintern in 1935. The highpoint of social conflict, however, was 1934, the year of the coastwide maritime strike, and here Starr's narrative talents are at their best, as he brings to life the astonishing general strike that took control of San Francisco, where workers led by charismatic longshoreman Harry Bridges mounted the barricades to stand off National Guardsmen. That same year socialist Upton Sinclair won the Democratic nomination for governor, and he launched his dramatic End Poverty in California (EPIC) campaign. In the end, however, these challenges galvanized the Right in a corporate, legal, and vigilante counterattack that crushed both organized labor and Sinclair. And yet, the Depression also brought out the finest in Californians: state Democrats fought for a local New Deal; California natives helped care for more than a million impoverished migrants through public and private programs; artists movingly documented the impact of the Depression; and an unprecedented program of public works (capped by the Golden Gate Bridge) made the California we know today possible. In capturing the powerful forces that swept the state during the 1930s--radicalism, repression, construction, and artistic expression--Starr weaves an insightful analysis into his narrative fabric. Out of a shattered decade of economic and social dislocation, he constructs a coherent whole and a mirror for understanding our own time.
"This book is a fascinating interdisciplinary social history. A war and peace story of 1930s California by one of the West's outstanding historians."William H. Goetsmann, The University of Texas at Austin
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The Left Side of the Continent Radicalism in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco
In order to understand the intensity of labor strife in California during the Depression of the 1930s, one must grasp a simple but elusive dynamic in the labor culture of the state, which was centered in and controlled by San Francisco. Radicalismas a program, a style, a mode of fiery rhetoric and symbolic gesturehad deep, very deep, roots on the West Coast. It also stood in a fixed relationship to organized labor. Time and again, radical leaders, appearing from nowhere, galvanized the labor movement in San Francisco with fiery, violent language, then disappeared or were pushed aside by more centrist successors. From the start, there was something volatile about San Francisco, something that welcomed radical dissent and warred against an equally persistent bourgeois style. Perhaps this tension arose from the extremes of poverty and wealth so evident in the city by the 1870s; perhaps it possesed even deeper roots in the uncertainties of the Gold Rush, when men were transformed by wealth or went to ruin side by side in sight of one another. Whatever the nexus of causes, San Francisco functioned as the left edge of America in more than its geography. By the mid-1930s many feared that radicalism had asserted not its dialectic with mainstream labor, but its dominance. But this is to anticipate history. It is better to begin with the Gold Rush.
During the first years of the Gold Rush, labor had the advantage. The Gold Rush created an instant need for workers of every sort to build cities and towns and to service the miningeconomy. A washerwoman could charge $20for laundering a dozen items of clothing. A carpenter could make a minimum of $14 a day in late 1849, and daily wages approaching $20were not uncommon. An unskilled laborer could make $8 or more per day in San Francisco. Of equal importance to these high wages, the Gold Rush restored the dignity of labor; for every miner, no matter what his education or occupation in the Eastern states, was by definition a manual laborer. In the mines and in the cities as well, social distinctions blurred as men of various backgrounds rolled up their sleeves and performed physical work. In later years, the memory of this physical labor survived as a cherished tradition, a badge of Forty-niner status in men who had remade themselves in the Gold Rush. A society which began as an epic of labor in the mines and prized labor so highly when instant cities had to be constructed, a society in which many of the bourgeoisie had begun their careers in shirtsleeves, however temporarily, created a subliminal affinity for labor that remained part of the local culture. For a few short years everyone had been a worker, and by and through physical work California itself had been established.
On a day-to-day basis, less subliminal realities asserted themselves. Sensing the power created by their scarcity, skilled and semi-skilled workers in frontier San Francisco organized themselves so as to control jobs and job sites. In-groups, nearly always white,, excluded out-groups, frequently Hispanic or foreigners, which also meant Australians. Such exclusion, enforced by violence, did not constitute trade unionism, but neither was it mere thuggery despite its basis in force; for workers were showing the rudiments of social organization, however crudely expressed. In November 1849 the carpenters and joiners of San Francisco organized a strike demanding $16 a day. They received $13 a day for half a month, $14 a day for the second two weeks. Their strike represented a quantum leap in social organization over the job-protection groups formed earlier that year. By 1859 there were two formal unions in San Francisco, the Typographical Society, the first trade union on the Pacific Coast, and the Teamsters Union, and these organizations were in turn followed by associations (unions would be too strong a term) of longshoremen, shipwrights, plasterers, bricklayers, hodcarriers, and others. Such protective organizations were becoming increasingly necessary, for the golden age of Gold Rush labor was passing. The more San Francisco grew in population, the more workers became available. By 1853 carpenters who had been making $14 a day in 1849 were working for $8; this was still a very high wage for the United States at this period, but already the suggestion was emerging that California's protected labor market would not last forever.
The Civil War postponed the inevitable. Cut off from the East by the conflict, the San Francisco Bay Area developed its own manufacturing capacity, as in the case of the Union Iron and Brass Works of San Francisco founded in 1849 as a blacksmithery and expanded as a full-scale ironworks in the early 1860s. By 1864 some 250 ironworkers were employed there at the peak of the season, manufacturing, repairing, or refitting the intricate iron and brass fittings necessary for the mining and ship-repair industries and constructing the boilers (one hundred a year) which were the main source of industrial energy in that era. Not surprisingly, the ironmoulders and boilermakers of San Francisco organized. In April 1864 they struck, successfully, for $4 for a ten-hour day. The previous year, the San Francisco Trade Union Council, the first citywide labor organization, was formed. The Council represented fifteen labor organizations and as many as three thousand workers.
Employers were organizing as well, beginning with a restaurant owners' association formed in 1861, which defeated a citywide waiters' strike in 1863. Thus encouraged, manufacturers formed an Employers Association in 1864 whose primary target was the militant and successful Machinists and Boilermakers Union. In an effort to break the strike of April 1864, the Association recruited skilled ironworkers from the East. The union sent representatives down to Panama to meet the newcomers before they took ship to San Francisco. By the time the strikebreakers reached the city, they had joined the union. Beaten in the strike, the Association began to target union leaders for discharge. By the late 1860s the Machinists and Boilermakers Union had been shorn of its leadership, and rollbacks and takeaways had begun.
The single most contested point of struggle in the 1860s was the eight-hour day. The radical nature of this demand is difficult to grasp in our era. The bakers of San Francisco, as an example, were working seven days a week, fourteen to fifteen hours a day, in October 1863, when they struck unsuccessfully for a twelve-hour day and no Sunday work. in June 1867 Chinese workers struck the Central Pacific for a twelve-hour day and $40 a month. (They were receiving $30.) In a world where such inhumanly long hours were acceptable, the demand for an eight-hour day posed a radical threat to the established order. The fact that the eight-hour day constituted a serious demand in San Francisco in the 1860s asserted the underlying radical tradition that was already forming. Caulkers won this concession in December 1865, followed by the shipwrights and joiners in January 1866. The printer unionist Alexander M. Kenaday and carpenter unionist A. M. Winn forged the eight-hour-day movement in the mid- and late 1860s into a well-organized crusade that helped send Irish-born Eugene Casserly, a Democrat, to the United States Senate in 1869.
Starting life as a carpenter, A. M. Winn had prospered in San Francisco as a building contractor and real estate speculator. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Winn won appointment as brigadier general in the state militia. Having thus crossed class barriers so dramatically, Winn kept his working-class connections in a distinctive blend of pro-labor activism and haute bourgeois prosperity that said something very important about San Francisco: a carpenter had become a contractor and a militia general while remaining a union activist. On 3 June 1867 General Winn led two thousand workers on parade in San Francisco in support of the eight-hour-a-day platform. By 1868 a league of fifty eight-hour-a-day organizations had been formed throughout the state. The league succeeded in getting an eight-hour expectation passed through the legislature. Without enforcement provisions, however, and with the labor pool expanding, this law remained but a prophetic gesture on the books: a tribute to the strength of labor in San Francisco.
With the transcontinental railroad approaching completion in 1869, employers predicted the influx of thousands of skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers into California, putting an end to San Francisco's protected labor market. In 1869 employers established a California Labor and Employment Exchange to encourage migration. The fact that thousands of Chinese and Irish, laid off from construction crews now that the railroad work was winding down, were pouring into San Francisco exacerbated the situation. In the late 1870s San Francisco erupted into class conflict that through mass meetings and incendiary rhetoric raised the specterand very nearly the substanceof revolution.
San Francisco novelist Gertrude Atherton described the 1870S as terrible, and for once she was not exaggerating. When the banking house of Jay Cooke failed on 18 September 1873, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, and the United States was plunged into the worst depression the country had ever experienced. A year later, the Panic reached California, putting an abrupt end to the boom ushered in by silver from the Comstock Lode. In late August 1875 the Bank of California, the premier financial institution of the Far West, closed its doors after a run on its deposits; and its secretary and presiding genius, William Chapman Ralston, who had been secretly making unauthorized loans to his many enterprises from Bank funds, swam out into the chilly waters off North Beach and died from either stroke, heart attack, or suicide. The Bank of California took a number of other San Francisco banks down with it, either permanently or for a period of time. Money dried up, and capital-scarce ventures, including Ralston's Palace Hotel, the largest hostelry in the Northern Hemisphere, went into remission.
Worse: some 154,300 immigrants had poured into California between 1873 and 1875, more than the total immigration of the 1856-1867 period. About a quarter of these newcomers were factory workers dislocated by the Panic in the East, and most of them soon found themselves milling about San Francisco looking for work, their presence ominously added to w Irish and the Chinese left unemployed by the completion of the transcontinental, railroad. The eight-hour day had long since become a thing of the past as thousands of unemployed men idled around fires blazing in the empty sandlots of San Francisco, passing a bottle if one were available, muttering desperately t(y each other about the lack of jobs. Elsewhere in the cityin waterfront sheds, in squatters' tents in the outlying districtsan increasing number of homeless women and their ragged off-spring kept shabby house as their men tramped the streets in search of work. In one short decade, a workers' paradise had become a wasteland of unemployment.
In late July 1877 the central committee of the San Francisco chapter of the Workingmen's Party of the United States called for a rally of the unemployed on the evening of the 23rd on the sandlots in front of City Hall. Eight thousand men showed up. A rally of such size in such dire times terrified the establishment. In and of itself, the Workingmen's Partyan American offshoot of the International Workingmen's Association, more commonly known as the First International, founded in London in 1864 under the leadership of Karl Marxraised the specter of revolution through its stated goals and its identification with the uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871. That incidentthe seizing of the city by radicals, the shooting of prominent citizens, including the Archbishop of Paris, the reseizure of the city by the army, followed by the mass execution of seventeen thousand communards, including women and childrenfunctioned as an overture, a chillingly prophetic paradigm, to a century of revolutions that was to follow.
If this suggestion of Paris were not disconcerting enough to the oligarchy of San Francisco, the Workingmen's Party of the United States was in sympathy with the railroad strike that had broken out in the East six days before the scheduled San Francisco rally, and many of its members had participated actively in the struggle. Never before had the nation witnessed such an effective walkout, bringing the railroad system in the East and parts of the Midwest to a halt, followed by the use of federal troops to suppress the strikers. The sight of blue-coated regulars marching against civilian strikers in Martinsburg, West Virginia; Cumberland, Maryland; Baltimore, Reading, and Pittsburgh, where most of the violence occurred, including a number of deaths, offered the nation a chilling reenactment of the suppression of the Paris Commune. In St. Louis, the strikers actually seized the city, governing it in de facto rebellion for two weeks before federal troops gained control.
All this was occurring even as the first San Francisco Workingmen's Party rally was in the planning stages. Rumors swept the city: the workers planned to set fire to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company docks, where Chinese immigrants landed, then bum down Chinatown. On the day of the rally, a group of workers was arrested for parading the streets with a banner advertising the time and place of the meeting. The San Francisco police and the state militia went on alert.
In its early stages at least, the rally itself threatened to prove anti-climactic. Sensitive to the fears gripping the oligarchy who controlled the city government, the Workingmen's Party officials on the flatform confined their remarks to expressions of support for the striking railroad workers in the East and to generic condemnations of the capitalist system. But then some young thugs on the outskirts of the crowdhoodlums they were called, a local term which soon entered the American languagebegan to beat up a hapless Chinese man who chanced to be passing by. A policeman arrested one particularly violent hoodlum, but his confreres seized him back. "On to Chinatown!" they screamed, and many followed. Never in its quarter century of American existence had San Francisco witnessed such rioting as the sacking of Chinatown which followed. Although the toll was relatively minorthe destruction of twenty Chinese laundries, some damage to the Chinese Methodist Missionthe specter of similar sackings elsewhere in the city drove the already edgy oligarchy into full alert. The day following the riot, businessman William T. Coleman, leader of the Vigilance Committees of 1851 and 1856, was asked to head up a hastily organized Committee of Public Safety. Four thousand volunteers were rapidly organized into public safety brigades, each man armed with a hickory pickaxe handle attached to his wrist by a leather thong.
The next evening, 24 July 1877, a thousand men gathered for a rally before the United States Mint on Mission Street. Only the presence of armed state militia prevented them from sacking the nearby Mission Woolen Mills, an important employer of Chinese workers. On the next evening, a crowd gathered in front of the Pacific Mail docks, where Chinese workers arrived from the Far East. Blocked from the docks and depot by the police and by the Committee of Public Safety patrols, the men set fire to a nearby lumberyard, then retreated to an adjacent hill from which they harassed firefighters with stones. The police and their pickaxe-handle auxiliaries charged the hill. Gunfire broke out. When it was over, four rioters lay dead, and San Francisco had its miniaturist replay of Paris six years earlier and a parallel to the strike-struck cities of the East.
Twelve hundred militiamen, 252 policemen, and four thousand pickaxe-handle vigilantes patrolled the city. The Army in the nearby Presidio was put on alert, and three Navy gunboats took up positions offshore. Not since the Civil War itself had so much governmental and para-governmental firepower been lined up, both in San Francisco and the East, against civilians in a state of de facto or threatened insurrection. More rioting followed on the evening of the 26th, but by then a well-advertised instruction disseminated to the militia and the police to shoot to kill anyone destroying property or interfering with firefighters took the momentum out of the rioters, who remained quiet and disbanded on the 27th. On 28 July, Governor William Irwin felt confident enough to telegraph the Secretary of the Navy and thank him for the gunboats, now no longer necessary. Within the next few weeks, the militia went home and the Committee of Public Safety disbanded its pickaxe-handle brigade.
The events of the week 22 to 28 July 1877 blended reality and gesture. The riots were real (four deaths, property loss); but the reaction from government and the oligarchythe police, the soldiers,, the vigilantes, the offshore gunboatswhile responding to a real threat, was also excessive, energized as it was by fears coming from the railroad strike in the, Easf-with its attendant suggestion of revolution. Throughout the week, San Francisco, was acting out a symbolic scenario of insurrection and repression. The strikes and repressions in the East were for real: real grievances, a very real work stoppage, a real commune in St. Louis, purposeful strikers, troops advancing with rifles and bayonets. In far-off San Francisco, by contrast, this Eastern struggle engendered in the very same week a clash which in terms of organizational sophistication, violence, deaths, property loss, or effect on the nation (no railroads ceased to run, no vital traffic halted in the harbor) should have been relegated to the status of a sideshow: except for the fact that the sideshow touched even deeper fears of revolt. Had American gunboats ever before been placed in position against an American cityother than in the Civil War? Had the rioting in San Francisco grown worse, would the Secretary of the Navy, with the governor's approval, have ordered the shelling of San Francisco? Something deeper was at work here: something about the role San Francisco was destined to play in the national encounter with the rhetoric of European-style revolution and the reaction such rhetoric provoked from the right.
In terms of the protestors, the acting out had been fumbling and inept: three disorganized riots, perpetrated by apolitical hoodlums bent on some anarchistic burning of laundries and bashing of Chinese. But now, in the aftermath of the week of 22 July 1877, the radicals would escalate their symbolic response to the police, the militia, the pickaxe-handle brigade, the offshore gunboats: first on the level of fiery revolutionary rhetoric, then later as an organized political party that, for a brief moment, assumed control of California itself.
Among the pickaxe-handle men patrolling that late July 1877 was one Denis Kearney, age thirty, a" native of County Cork who had settled in San Francisco in 1872 after a fourteen-year career at sea. Having risen from cabin boy to first mate on American vessels and, more important, having saved his money, Kearney sank his savings into a drayage business, which he managed meticulously. A sailor since the age of eleven, Kearney struggled manfully to make up for lost time. He spent the years 1872 to 1877 building his business and pursuing a course of self-improvement. At the public library he read Darwin and Spencer and newspapers from the great world and dreamed of a political career. On Sundays he attended discussions at the Lyceum for Self Culture, a reading and debate forum for working people bent upon self-improvement.
A small man, highly strung, with fierce blue eyes and a drooping mustache, Denis Kearney took himself very seriously, even when others considered him more than a bit of a fool. Kearney wanted desperately to lead, to play a role in the world, and he groped toward that goal with the ursine clumsiness of a sporadic autodidact, speaking over-loud in a thick b,rogue he never lost. At meetings of the Lyceum for Self Culture or of the Draymen and Teamsters Union, Kearney was wont to take the floor and deliver himself of harangues on innumerable subjects, rambling and pompous, which elicited catcalls and groans from the audience. His favorite topic, ironically, was the shiftlessness of working people. They smoked; they drank; they had irregular domestic arrangements; they lacked ambition. He, by contrastand Kearney frequently referred to his own situationneither smoked nor drank and had a respectable wife (the former Miss Mary Ann Leary), four well-cared-for children, a drayage business. Workingmen idled in saloons or at amusement parks in their off-hours. He read books at the public library. They were priest-ridden. He had seen through the sham of organized religion. No wonder employers preferred the Chinese, so orderly and diligent, so productive and self-disciplined! When the call came from the Committee of Public Safety for volunteers, Denis Kearney went on patrol with a pickaxe handle, protecting businesses which employed Chinese labor from irate white workers.
Two months later, on the evening of 16 September 1877, Denis Kearney was addressing a torchlight gathering of these selfsame workers in an empty San Francisco sandlot, telling them that the Chinese were taking their jobs. Five days later he was telling another gathering of the unemployed that they, all twenty thousand of them, should be armed and drilling so as to defy the police, the militia, the Committee of Safety. Within sixty days, the bumbling autodidact on the right had become a Jack Cade embodiment of revolution. Patrolling with his pickaxe handle in late July, Denis Kearney sensed not only the power of the oligarchy but the force of the irate workers as well. Wanting so desperately to lead, he saw in the unemployed a power which could be his as well, provided he could take proper hold. The very reason he feared and criticized the workersbecause he, too, was one of them: vulnerable, clumsy, and Irish despite his sailing master's certificate, his drayage business, his teetotalism, the long hours spent deciphering closely printed books whose language he could barely comprehendthis very point of identification now became an axis on which Kearney could rotate 180 degrees and head off in the opposite direction. The Yankee capitalist Coleman might tie a pickaxe handle to his wrist with a leather thong, but Kearney would never sit down to dinner in Coleman's dining room. As far as Coleman and his class were concerned, Denis Kearney, drayman, student of Darwin and Spencer, was just another disposable Irishman. As workers, cooks, and housemen, the oligarchy preferred the Chinese.
In August 1877 Denis Kearney applied for membership in the Workingmen's Party of the United States. Flabbergasted that such a known baiter of the working class should be seeking admission to its ranks, the Party rejected his application. Kearney determined to found his own party, which he did, the short-lived Workingmen's Trade and Labor Union of San Francisco. It dissolved after two meetings. On the 21st of September Kearney made his first appearance as a sandlot orator before a crowd of two hundred. Seven hundred came to hear him two nights later. Time, place, the press of events, and inordinate ambition had transformed the fool with his rambling, bromidic monologues into the charismatic demagogue voicing the seething resentments of the unemployed with their angry cries of "The Chinese must go!"
Kearney's second attempt at forming a party met with more success. The platform adopted on 5 October 1877 by the newly organized Workingmen's Party of California seethed with high, if angry, moral,purpose. The United States, it argued, must become a workers' republicby means of the ballot box. The imperatives of religion, humanity, and patriotism demanded nothing less. The Chinese, unfortunately, had no claim on this moral commonwealth. For Kearney and his followers, "John," as the Chinese laborer was called, was strictly a dehumanized tool of the capitalist class, working longer hours for less money and making minimal demands on his employers. Brought in to do the servile work of Gold Rush California (there were fifty-four Chinese in California in 1848, more than twenty-five thousand in 1852), the Chinese were banned from the mines, frequently through violence. The construction of the transcontinental railroad, in which the Chinese achieved an epic of engineering and labor, kept them employedand socially neutralthrough the 1860s; but when the Chinese began to migrate into San Francisco in the depressed 1870s seeking industrial employment, trouble began. They were permitted to fish and to open laundries, for white workers had no desire to become fishermen until the Italians arrived in the 1880s; nor did whites want to go into the laundry business, with the exception of the deluxe specialty operations conducted by the French. But when the Chinese sought industrial, draying, or longshoring jobs, when they edged toward the periphery of the construction trades, their willingness to work for low wages and their high productivity threatened white workers, employed and unemployed alike. The first union labels in the United States appeared on cigar boxes in San Francisco in the 1870s: white bands to differentiate work done by members of the Cigarmakers Union from cigars made in Chinese shops. Union kilns stamped their bricks with a small cross to distinguish their product from bricks baked by "the heathen Chinee."
And now the anti-chinese violence of July, followed by the incendiary speeches of Denis Kearney and the 16 October manifesto issued by the Workingmen's Party which announced: "We have made no secret of our intentions. We make none. Before you and the world, we declare that the Chinamen must leave our shores. We declare that white men, and women, and boys, and girls, cannot live as the people of the great republic should and compete with the single Chinese coolies in the labor market. We declare that we cannot hope to drive the Chinaman away by working cheaper than he does. None but an enemy would expect it of us; none but an idiot could hope for success; none but a degraded coward and slave would make the effort. To an American, death is preferable to life on a par with the Chinese."(1)
At this point, the plot thickensand in such a way as to reassert and reinforce the expressive, mimetic aspects of far-Left/far-Right conflict in San Francisco. First of all, Denis Kearney, firebrand revolutionist, became an ongoing media event. In an effort to sell newspapers through sensationalism, the San Francisco Chronicle covered Kearney's speeches at great length. The more incendiary the speech, the more extensive the coverage. There was even a suspicion, later denied by Kearney, that Chronicle reporter Chester Hull helped the ill-educated drayman prepare his more incendiary harangues, which always managed to appear verbatim and at great length in the next morning's Chronicle as if they had been previously transmitted to Mr. Hull in written copy or prepared by him in the first place. Or perhaps Hull merely rewrote Kearney's incoherent harangues, polishing their language, heightening their ferocity, after they were delivered?
Whatever the sequence, the language is certainly not a verbatim transcript. Whether Hull wrote Kearney's speeches before or after they were delivered, the fiery demagogue drew much of his power not so much from his speeches as they were delivered, but as they were reported in the next morning's Chronicle. Like a modern celebrity, Kearney assumed an existence halfway between event and heightened, even fabricated reportage. Denis Kearney drew his strength not merely from the realities of his massive, incoherent resentments and his semi-literate preachments, but from the celebrity's ability to be real and unreal simultaneously: to become, that is, a symbolic presence removed from ordinary real' and allowed an extraordinary latitude of behavior and statement, like a figure in a dreamor a nightmare. How else could Denis Kearney say what he said, all those violent, reckless things, unless there existed a tacit agreement in his audience, including those he baited, that Kearney was not real in the same way that other labor leaders were real? He was, rather, a collective creation of a deeply divided community, allowed to say the unsayable so that language might suffice for action and true revolution be avoided.
Take, for example, Kearney's ferocious speech of 29 October 1877. Railroad magnate Charles Crocker, the construction genius of the Big Four, was in the process of consolidating his hold on an entire city block atop Nob Hill bounded by California, Sacramento, Taylor and Jones Streets, today the site of Grace Cathedral. One householder, however, refused to be bought out, so Crocker had the home of his obstinate neighbor surrounded on three sides by a high wooden fence that blocked out the sunlight. What a perfect place, Kearney and his colleagues decided, for a sandlot rallyatop Nob Hill within shouting distance of the Crocker, Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, and Flood mansion sites. Several thousand men crowded a sandlot on the evening0f 29 October to hear Kearney, his fierce eyes and mustache Hitlerian in the torchlight, give vent, according to the next day's Chronicle, to the most incendiary utterances thus far recorded on the Pacific Coast.
"The Central Pacific railroad men are thieves, and will soon feel the power of the workingmen," the Chronicle reports Kearney as saying. "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, bum 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. I will give Crocker until November 29th to take down the fence around Jung's house, and if he doesn't do it, I will lead the workingmen up there and tear it down, and give Crocker the worst beating with the sticks that a man ever got."(2)
If Kearney actually said all this a mere three months after San Francisco stood under de facto martial law, then how were such threats received by his audience? As realistic possibilities? Or as stylized rhetoric in a conflict that had already been removed to a symbolic level once the perceived threat of an actual revolution had been faced and put down the previous July? Kearney's threats evoked actions more horrible than anything attempted in the July riots. This was a call for revolution. Why, then, were not the pickaxe handles immediately issued to the bourgeois vigilantes, or the gunboats summoned once again to anchor offshore?
Recklessly, Kearney plunged ahead. "If I give an order to hang Crocker," he was reported to have told a rally at the corner of Stockton and Green a few nights later, "it will be done." Kearney's colleague, meanwhile, the marginally competent physician C. C. O'Donnell, was giving Kearney a run for his money. "When thoroughly organized," O'Donnell told a rally on 15 October, "we could plant our flag on Telegraph Hill, and our cannons, too, and blow the Mail steamers and their Chinese freight out of the waters"a threat he repeated on the 25th. "They have got to stop this importation of Chinese," ranted the doctor on 2November, "or you will see Jackson Street run knee deep in blood."(3)
By the evening of 3 November, after two weeks of such language, the oligarchy had had enough. The latitude tacitly granted Kearney and his followers in the matter of language collapsed. Kearney had pushed it too far. The verbal mimesis of revolution as a way of offering subliminal release had begun to sound too much like revolution itself. The militia was called out, and Kearney was arrested even as he was speaking to a mass meeting in front of Dr. O'Donnell's office. The next night three other Workingmen leaders were taken into custody. A fifth was arrested when he visited the other four in jail, where they remained under heavy bail. The militia continued to patrol.
If one considers American society inherently stable, these events hover on the edge of the comic: an opera bouffe of revolution in a provincial American city. But things suddenly did not seem so stable to San Franciscans in November 1877. The leadership of the Chinese Six Companies, among others, was now taking Kearney's language as an actual threat. The Six Companies politely informed the city that should the Chinese quarter be once again invaded, the residents-despite the fact that "our countrymen are better acquainted with peaceful vocations than the scenes of strife"were prepared to-defend themselves and their property to the death.(4)
Even Kearney and his colleagues realized that they had pushed street theater beyond permissible limits. Impressed by the austerities of the city jail, they wrote to the mayor claiming they had been misreported by the press and promising, somewhat contradictorily, to hold no more outdoor meetings nor use any more incendiary language. Despite two tries, the district attorney could not gain a conviction in Superior Court, and by Thanksgiving the San Francisco Six (there had been another arrest) went free, charges dismissed. The even-handedness of the court, dismissing two separate sets of charges on constitutional grounds, suggested that however frighteningly Kearney and his colleagues had bespoken themselves, fears of actual revolution had begun to subside in the community. As many as ten thousand workers paraded with Kearney and his colleagues on Thanksgiving Day, and in the evening they voted to nominate delegates to attend the State Constitutional Convention scheduled to meet in Sacramento in April 1879.
Thus the Workingmen transformed themselves into a bona fide party, committed not to revolution, but to the reform of California through an adjustment of its constitution. The rank and file of the movement had seen the dead end of revolution as Kearney and O'Donnell had luridly summoned it forth from the platform, and the leadership of the Workingmen's Party realized that it now had a chance to play politics instead of talking violence. Slowly, the leadership began to squee-ze Kearney out of the picture. Kearney was owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Chronicle, went one rumor. He had promised the oligarchy to fade from the scene, went another report, in exchange for $5,000.
In an effort to regain his position, Kearney reverted to that which had taken him from obscurity in the first place, violent language. "When the Chinese question is settled," he said in December, "we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot, or cut the capitalist to pieces." In January 1878 Kearney was reported to have said, among other things: "Are you courageous? How many of you have got muskets? Up hands, who have got muskets? How many of you have got about ten feet of rope in your pocket? Well, you must be ready and arm yourselves. This thing has got too hot. There is a white heat in this thing now, and you must be ready when I issue a call for 10,000 men."(5)
This last remark brought the Committee of Safety back into session, although patrols were not sent out. Kearney and five others were arrested and jailed. Several companies of militia were mustered, and the gunboat Lackawanna took up its accustomed position off the Pacific Mail docks. For Denis Kearney, the magic had worked. It was like old times. Once again, he was the imprisoned martyr, his name on everyone's lips.
Only now, he had pushed it twice too often and twice too far. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the California State Legislature each passed severe anti-incitement ordinances. Signed by the Governor on 19 January 1878, the state law authorized two years in prison and a $5,000 fine for use of incendiary language or any other form of incitement. The legislature also appropriated funds to expand the San Francisco police force and gave the governor a $20,000 contingency fund to deal with public disturbances.
More than ever, the growing anti-kearney faction in the leadership of the Workingmen's Party was realizing that it could not talk revolution and run candidates for office simultaneously. Although Kearney was acquitted for the third time on 22 January 1878, he went into rapid decline. In May he was deposed from the presidency of the Party. At the Constitutional Convention which met in Sacramento from 28 September 1878 to 3 March 1879, the fifty delegates from the Workingmen's Party (out of a total of 149) allied themselves with Granger delegates from the agricultural counties and helped fashion a document which won voter approval by a mere ten thousand votes, thanks mainly to Granger support. While placing restrictions on corporate power, the railroad especially, the new constitution was not a radical document. The delegates rejected such extreme proposals as a unicameral legislature and the banishment of the Chinese from most forms of employment and trade. With eleven state senators, seventeen assemblymen, and one member of the railroad commission in its ranks, the Workingmen's Party had made the transition to respectability.
Anti-chinese agitation flared up again in San Francisco in February 1880, with the familiar ritual of nighttime sandlot rallies by torchlight and, by day, harassment of industries employing the loathed Mongolian. Cowed employers discharged nearly a thousand Chinese workers in San Francisco and Oakland. Once again, the oligarchy formed a Committee of Safety, and there was talk of a direct appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes to send in federal troops to quell the disturbances. Kearney leapt into the fray with an incendiary speech that earned him six months in the county jail and a $1,000 fine. He served a few months before being released on appeal. Kearney made one last sandlot speecha cautious oneto the crowd of supporters who escorted him out of prison; but already, as the Workingmen's Party was being invaded and colonized by the Greenback Labor Party headquartered in Chicago and the renascent Democratic Party of California, Kearney's brand of politics as rhetorically violent street theater was becoming increasingly passe. Sensing this, Kearney allied himself with the Greenback Labor movement and was elected to the national executive committee in Chicago. Cut off from the sandlots, disciplined by the protocols of an earnest organization of Midwestern Protestant agrarians, Denis Kearney lost his role as rhetorical firebrand. He also lost his interest in politics.
A decade earlier, Kearney had entered public life comically, as a bumbling lyceum orator, and now he exited it in the same style, as the proprietor of a coffee and donut stand in a squatters' village, Mooneysville, at Ocean Beach. Largely organized by Kearney and Con Mooney, after whom the enterprise was named, the Mooneysville squatters attempted to occupy disputed beachfront property at the base of Sutro Heights by setting up concession stands there and claiming ownership. The fact that a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific, the Park and Ocean Railroad Company, claimed the property added to the opera bouffe of it all. Once again, Denis Kearney, this time behind the counter in an apron, dispensing coffee and donuts at ten cents a round, was taking on the capitalist establishment. "The news is painful in the extreme," gloated the town Crier column in the California Advertiser for 29 December 1883, "for w#en we look back on his glorious career from the time that be sold his horse and dray for a mess of agitation pottage up to the date he made trips to the East and posed as an Irish orator, utterly ignorant of the English grammar, we have always figured on Denis as either the next Vice-President of the United States or Poundkeeper of San Francisco. " On the morning of 31 January 1884, Golden Gate Park employees assisted by the San Francisco police dismantled Mooneysville. "Let the Romans do it!" Kearney exclaimed as the park workers tore down his coffee and donut stand. He was standing on sand as he made his last public speech.(6)
Not every workingman in San Francisco approved of Denis Kearney or, for that matter, the Workingmen's Party. Formed in March 1878 at the height of the Kearney agitation, the Representative Assembly of Trades and Labor Unions, known more familiarly as the Trades Assembly, expressed the distrust of mainstream unions toward Kearney's brand of agitation. Even Workingmen's Party activists such as vice-president Frank Roney were growing disaffected. For one thing, Roney was convinced that Chronicle reporter Chester Hull was ventriloquizing Kearney's outrageous speeches, which were bringing such discredit on the labor movement. When Kearney named himself Lieutenant General of the Workingmen's Militia, Roney considered the man more fool than demagogue. Kearney and his cohorts, Roney believed, launched anti-chinese attacks because they were too stupid to understand the real causes of industrial exploitation. When the Workingmen's Party took over San Francisco under Mayor Isaac Kolloch in 1879, Roney considered the city under the control of third-rate bosses.
Born in Belfast in 1841, Frank Roney personifies the trade unionist intellectual committed to militant but mainstream organizing. Only in the matter of his Irish birth and San Francisco situation did Frank Roneyliterate, self-effacing, understated in his leadership stylehave anything in common with Denis Kearney. Educated as an articled clerk, Roney left a fitful career as a real estate agent when he found himself unable to evict people behind on their rent. He turned instead to ironworking as a moulder's apprentice and to active membership in the fledgling moulders' union in Belfast and to the underground Fenian movement on behalf of Irish independence. Imprisoned in Dublin's Mountjoy Prison by the British government, Roney was released on the condition that he emigrate to the United States. He spent the late 1860s and early 1870s working his way westward as a moulder via St. Louis, Omaha, and Salt Lake City, sharpening his skills as a union activist and a journalist capable of strong prose on behalf of the movement.
The San Francisco to which Frank Roney arrived in April 1875 ranked ninth among the manufacturing cities in the United States. It also had an unemployment rate of 33 percent. As Roney looked for work, be kept a diary which reveals the details and texture of working-class life in the depressed 1870s. Returning to his South of Market rooms after a futile day of walking the streets in search of employment, Roney is shocked to see a furniture store owner fighting with the pregnant Mrs. Roney over a chair, which the shopkeeper wishes to repossess. Tormented by bitterness and a sense of shame and failure, he fights the temptation to drink. He envisions San Francisco engulfed by a great earthquake in retribution for the misery it has caused him. When Roney does find work as a moulder, it is intermittent: at the Pacific Iron Works, the City Iron Works, the Union Iron Works. Intermittent as well are the couple's South of Market lodgings: Clementina Street, Perry Street, Margaret Place, all within a two-month period while Roney is laid off twice. Roney ends 1875 in debt: $13.50 to the grocer, $7.75 to the butcher, $15 in personal loans, and back rent. Even when he is working, he must borrow against his salary to retire past obligations. He works the entire month of January 1876, six days a week, ten hours a day, at the Union Iron Works to clear 47-50, which is barely enough to cover his indebtedness. A man of reading and intelligence, aware of larger issues and better things, he is forced to measure his victories and defeats alike in $2 or $3 increments. On Sunday, 2 May 1875, Roney does not have the money to attend the moulders' picnic; yet he does manage, a visit to Woodward's Gardens with his brother-in-law and son. Returning home from the Gardens, he notes in his diary that a man might find much mental. improvement and inspiration in the many fine paintings on display at Woodward'sin the natural history museum as well, and the aquarium and deer park. When his job at the Union Iron Works proves steady, Roney manages a Saturday evening with his wife at Maguire's Opera House, where they enjoy a minstrel show.
The job at Union Iron proved steady because Frank Roney learned an important lesson about employment in an unorganized shop: the foreman hires and fires; please the foreman and you work; displease him and you are back on the street. Roney was surprised by the ever-accelerating pace of iron moulding in the United States, its constant tendency toward speed-up because of the payment of wages per piece of work, and by the status consciousness of American workers. Moulders, for example, looked down on the unskilled workers who assisted them. With no solidarity of either sentiment or organization, Roney observed of the five hundred workers at Union Iron Works, with each person vying for the foreman's favor while struggling to maintain his own uncertain status, indeed his very job, against everyone else in the foundry, life became a Darwinian nightmare of brutal competition which favored only the foreman and, beyond him, the owners the foreman served.
Having become an American citizen, Frank Roney turned to the Workingmen's Party of California in search of an answer. joining the Party cost him his job at Union Iron Works temporarily, and he spent some months shoveling coal on the wharf before persuading the foreman to take him back. Tiring of Kearney's demagoguery and racism, Roney resigned from the Party in order to devote his best efforts to the organization of unions by trades, beginning with his own moulders. In 1879 he organized a short-lived (six months) Seamen's Protective Association, forerunner of the Coast Seamen's Union, which would emerge in six years' time. As leader of the Moulders Union, Roney played an important role in reviving the San Francisco Trades Assembly in 1881 and served two terms as president. By the end of 1883 some fifty trade unions were active in the Assembly. Two years later, Roney was elected president of an even larger umbrella organization, the Federated Trades and Labor Council.
By this time Roney was working as a stationary engineer in the basement boiler room of City Hall, which became the hub of labor activism in San Francisco as representatives of unions or would-be unionistsmoulders, cigarmakers, laundry workers, cooks and waiters, seafarers, and otherssought Roney out for decisions and guidance. In his five-year emergence from newcomer to labor leader, Frank Roney resisted two temptations: German (which is to say, Marxist) Socialism and self-employment. After his break with the Workingmen's Party, Roney associated briefly with German Socialists but decided that he preferred higher wages and improved working conditions through militant trade unionism over endless talk of class struggle and revolution. He also resisted a number of opportunities to rejoin the petit bourgeoisie as a shopkeeper, preferring to remain a wage earner and trade unionist instead. In 1886 Roney turned down the presidency of the International iron Moulders Union headquartered in Chicago because he did not want to relocate his family and accepted the vice-presidency instead, which allowed him to remain in San Francisco.
Meet the Author
Kevin Starr is State Librarian of California, contributing editor of the Los Angeles Times, and a member of the faculty at the University of Southern California. He is the author of a number of books, including Americans and the California Dream, Inventing the Dream, and Material Dreams. He lives in San Francisco.
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