Los Angeles at the turn of the last century: How it worked when there were no labor laws

 This installment of the California labor history series is excerpted from the newly released book, From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement by California Federation of Teachers Communications Director Fred Glass. Available for purchase via the University of California Press website.


The Los Angeles Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association had always maintained that it wasn’t opposed to unions.  Unions were fine.  What the M&MA didn’t like were strikes, boycotts, collective bargaining, picket lines, and any legal restrictions on the power of bosses over workers.  Of course, if workers were deprived of the use of these tools, it would be difficult for them to function as a union.  So although the M&MA was usually careful to insist that it had no objections to unions, the only union it might have tolerated would have been unrecognizable to a unionist.

In 1903 the National Association of Manufacturers changed its purpose from promoting pro-business public feeling to an explicitly anti-union philosophy.  It created local anti-labor organizations around the country, which it called “Citizens’ Alliances,” mostly consisting of business owners and conservative public officials.  The Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association in Los Angeles eagerly embraced the new group.  The M&MA’s Felix Zeehandelaar agreed to serve as secretary for the local Citizens Alliance, and Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis stepped up to the plate as chairman of its board.  Henry Huntington, owner of the Pacific Electric Railway, pitched in with a financial contribution and his hearty endorsement.

Also in 1903, the giant United States Steel Corporation formed the National Erectors’ Association to fight union efforts of ironworkers, the men who assembled the skeletons of a new element in the urban scene, skyscrapers.  The Association soon became one of the most powerful of the employer groups.  It also stopped at nothing, including criminal tactics, to achieve its open shop* goal, and by 1906 had gained its objective everywhere in the country except Chicago and San Francisco.

Clarence Darrow defended labor leaders and wrote a pamphlet exposing the illegal activities of employers promoting the open shop.

Famed civil liberties attorney Clarence Darrow, who later declared that U.S. labor laws weren’t “worth a pinch of snuff,” wrote a pamphlet, “The Open Shop,” in 1909 outlining the characteristics of the open shop philosophy and its implications for a democratic society.  Twenty thousand copies were distributed in Los Angeles in 1910.  Some of the less violent anti-union devices the M&MA and Citizens Alliance utilized to fulfill their dream of an open shop paradise included firing union members; circulating “blacklists” among employers of known union activists so no one would hire them; establishing employment agencies for professional strikebreakers; responding to a unionization effort by locking workers out (refusing to let employees come to work); hiring labor spies, who pretended to be union sympathizers; and simply declaring that a union shop no longer was one.

The M&MA pledged financial assistance to companies with “labor troubles” and—interestingly, given its opposition to union boycotts—boycotted businesses that chose to negotiate with unions.  It helped design and circulate advertising to recruit workers from other parts of the country with lavish promises of non-existent jobs in order to swell the local labor pool, drive down wages and dampen organizing.

With their money, power and high level of organization in “the scabbiest town on earth,” the open shop conspirators elected politicians to do their bidding.  They influenced city policies and the hiring of sympathetic individuals to key positions in government departments.  The M&MA’s crowning achievement in 1910 was passage of a city ordinance that sharply reduced free speech and freedom of association for workers.  Written by M&MA attorney Earl Rogers in response to a metal workers’ strike, it banned all picketing within L.A. city limits.

To understand the real meaning of the “open shop,” however, we have to step down from the Olympian world of Otis, Zeehandelaar, and Huntington and examine its effects on the way workers lived in the first decade of the twentieth century in Los Angeles.

Conditions for workers in L.A.

Ironworkers needed strong bodies and steady nerves.  They made the least money of all building trades workers, working the most dangerous jobs.  Skilled craft workers often looked down on them, because ironworkers didn’t have to pass through the lengthy apprenticeship of a carpenter, electrician, or bricklayer. The members of Carpenters Local 158 were making four dollars per day with a five and a half day week by 1907 in Los Angeles.  On these wages they could support a family.

Ironworkers at the same construction site made only two dollars per day, working nine hours and six full days.  But as commercial buildings began to rise to greater heights, ironworkers gained a grudging respect from their coworkers.  For it was their job to tie together beams and girders in thin air to make the steel skeleton of the skyscraper.  They had to be tough, fearless, and maintain a necessary disregard for the danger they faced daily, perched high above the ground.

These men were not inclined to sit quietly while the National Erectors Association tried to smash their union.  When the Erectors’ Association hired gangs of thugs to break strikes with violence against picketers, ironworkers did not turn the other cheek.  When the employer fired and blacklisted union members, it was not uncommon for his construction site to be the target of dynamite, planted at night, destroying some or all of the work in progress.

John McNamara and Frank Ryan, elected to national leadership of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers in 1905, understood this situation as class war, plain and simple.  They encouraged members to fight back with all means at their disposal.  Since there were no national laws regulating labor-capital conflict (the National Labor Relations Act was three decades away), the vacuum was filled with violence on both sides. Between 1905 and 1910 dozens of construction sites across the country were wrecked by dynamite.  Remarkably, no one was killed in any of the explosions.  No one claimed credit, and no one was caught planting dynamite, either.

That’s how matters stood until 1910.

*Open shop refers to a workplace in which no one must belong to a union as a condition of employment, even if a majority of workers have voted to be represented by a union in dealings with the employer.

Read more about the ironworker’s fight in From Mission to Microchip:  A History of the California Labor Movement, by Fred Glass, and published by the University of California Press.