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.
When he was beginning to research his major work, A History of the Labor Movement in California, early in the twentieth century, Ira Cross was startled to discover that current labor activists could not name the leaders on whose shoulders they stood. The pioneer organizers had been forgotten, just a few decades after their struggles to establish, preserve and extend the rights of California workers.
An explanation for this social amnesia can be found in the attitude of one early leader, Frank Roney. Cross approached Roney in 1908, when the aging Irish immigrant was working in the Mare Island naval shipyards in Vallejo. Roney, an iron molder, was then 67. The work of pouring hot liquid metal into molds was hard enough for a younger man. But he couldn’t retire because he had no money. He had served as president of union locals, as a vice-president of his national union and the Workingmen’s Party of California, and assisted in setting up unions in other crafts as well as founding and leading central labor organizations.
Modest to a fault, Roney didn’t think his life and work was of much interest to anyone. It took a decade and a half for Cross to convince Roney to write his memoir, and it only happened because of Cross’s tireless insistence and steady help.
In the era before the eight-hour day, few workers had the time to record their experiences, even had they been interested in doing so. Roney kept a diary for just two years, in the mid-1870s, soon after arriving in San Francisco. One of the things he did was to note the hours he worked each day. From his journal we find that iron molders worked at least ten hours a day, six days a week; when could he write?
Keeping a journal that survived the passage of time made Roney almost unique. While a growing number of workers in the nineteenth century were literate, not many had the habit of writing. And if they could find the time to write, why write about work?
In their few hours of leisure during the week, or perhaps during periods of unemployment, San Francisco workers might choose to participate in various cheap amusements. A ride on a railroad train from San Francisco to San Jose provided mid-nineteenth century thrill seekers with a diversion like no other, at once an expedient means of travel and a moment of awe at the wonders of modern technology. Even hauling a locomotive to its tracks could prove entertaining. When the first standard gauge engine produced at the Union Iron Works, the California, was ready to roll, in August, 1865, it weighed 29 tons. A newspaper reported,
Twenty strong drayhorses dragged her through the city streets some eight or ten blocks to the railroad. It was not an easy journey. Many times the heavy engine sank to the axles in the soft pavement and hydraulic jacks were called upon to lift her out and on her way. The delighted crowd, which included most of the small boys in town followed, shouting bits of unappreciated advice to the perspiring teamsters.
Or there was Woodward’s Gardens, an amusement park that opened in 1866. The Gardens sprawled over four acres in the Mission district, featuring the largest zoo on the west coast, exotic plants, an art museum, a salt water aquarium, a theater with shows and plays, and a small lake. Even Roney, suffering stretches of unemployment, could afford the twenty-five cents admission one Sunday in 1875.
But this was an unusual diversion for him. As with the working class activists who preceded him, time that he didn’t spend working—or looking for work—or sleeping, went to organizing. And despite Roney’s reluctance to take credit, these efforts made some important differences in the lives of workers and their families, even if progress proved slow, uneven, and didn’t always last.