By Jim Miller
In my Labor Day column , I gave a shout out to Fred Glass’s seminal new labor history of California, From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement. As Glass notes in his introduction, his history of working people in the Golden State is much broader than a narrow chronicle of unions:
California labor history doesn’t begin and end with union membership. Forming and maintaining unions is one part of a broader story, repeated countless times–in coastal seaports, the Central Valley farms, the southern oilfields, and the Sierra foothills, in financial high-rises and bungalow classrooms—of workers journeys from isolation and powerlessness to community, strength, and hope. Their toolbox contains unions, to be sure, but also lawsuits, legislation, election campaigns, community murals, songs, demonstrations, and a mountain of dedication by ordinary people to shared ideas of fairness and social justice.
To learn more about this story and what about it is most important, I am pleased to present the first installment of my three-part interview with Fred Glass, author, teacher, union member, and long-time Communications Director for the California Federation of Teachers.
JM: From Mission to Microchip is the first significant history of the California labor movement in a long time. Why is it important for people to learn this history now? What lessons does it hold for us?
FG: Given the awful things happening to working people in many other states, I think the relative success of unions here defending workers’ interests—things like the highest minimum wage in the country, taxing the rich to fund schools—should be better known, and how we got here should also be better known.
Today in California one in six workers belong to a union, which is better than in most states, but just one-half the density in the workforce we had at the peak of unionization in the 1950s. One implication of this reduced footprint is that the oral culture of unionism that once thrived—in families, neighborhoods, workplaces—has been reduced as well, and the stories and understanding that used to be well known through personal experience about how unions have helped working people are no longer circulated to the same degree. This is unfortunate.
It’s been more than 35 years since the publication of the last overview history of the California labor movement. I think part of the reason it took so long for a new one to emerge is because there wasn’t anyone foolish enough to tackle the subject until I came along. It’s a huge, sprawling topic, or set of topics, really. Getting a handle on how you tell this story isn’t easy, because California is such a big, diverse state, and I’d argue—following historian Michael Kazin, and prior to him Carey McWilliams, the godfather of California social history—that it’s at least three somewhat distinct histories, more or less loosely tied together: northern California, southern California, and the central valley. Elsewhere in the country these might well have been three different states.
There are a couple more factors involved in how long it’s taken to do this. One is the increasing specialization of the academy. There have been plenty of really good books on aspects of California labor history: farm labor in particular, given its importance in California, but also books about individual unions, moments in labor history, cities and their labor history, and increasingly over the past thirty years or so, specific ethnic or racial histories within labor. There have also been some excellent biographies of labor leaders and organizers.
Just recently, for example, is Gabriel Thompson’s book America’s Social Arsonist on Fred Ross, who recruited Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to the organizing trade. You read it and realize, this guy was the Zelig of the California labor movement: he knew everyone and trained most of them, and yet outside certain circles Ross’s life had been an unknown story.
So there is no lack of great books on aspects of California labor. But the overview is a different matter, especially because of the long decline of unions. It’s kind of a depressing story, seen that way, and who wants to tell a depressing story? But more importantly for telling the story you have to figure out why that decline happened.
I had the great privilege for the last twenty years of teaching a course in California labor history at City College of San Francisco, and that class, one night a week, has given me the space to ponder these questions, and the imperative to find something my students could read. When I realized there wasn’t anything suitable I set out to write the book myself.
The last book on California labor, by the way, was by David Selvin, who for many years edited the newspaper of the San Francisco Labor Council, Northern California Labor. His book, Sky Full of Storm, came out in the 60s, and his revision in 1981, A Place in the Sun. He wrote at a very readable, popular level, and it’s just one hundred pages. But it’s quite dated now.
He wrote his book for the same reasons I wrote mine. California’s history is rich in lessons for how ordinary working people can achieve a measure of justice when faced with injustice. And virtually no one knows the stories anymore behind the victories working people have managed to win.
JM: Labor history is barely present in American schools and college labor history courses are an endangered species. Why is this and how do you think the lack of labor history in our schools, public discourse, and society in general affect our lives and our politics?
FG: The schools and the academy are shaped by the social forces that surround them. Every one of the 113 community college campuses, or just about every one, has a Business department. In contrast, there are just a half-dozen Labor Studies departments or programs in all those campuses in California. That means, at the very least, that young working people are exposed to the ideas of the business world about the economy, but are not exposed to ideas about the economy from the point of view of unions.
I think daily life in our society produces a constricted view of the world, especially in regard to who makes history. We go to work and mostly accept the given conditions we find there. We have a sense that “that’s the way it is,” that perhaps reflects the fact that we live in a hyper-consumerist culture. It hasn’t always been that way. There have been times in our history when we have lived in a “producerist” culture, with an entirely different set of attitudes about what we can collectively do about things when they aren’t working out.
The difference between the way history is usually taught and portrayed, and the way that labor history does it, is profound. Most history in our schools, on television, in popular culture, is “Great Man” history, which reinforces the idea that history is not made by, and at least by implication, cannot be made by, working people. And indeed, much of the time, it is very hard, because Obama or Bill Gates or Ashton Carter can change the course of history with a phone call, while working people have to do it collectively. That’s harder and doesn’t happen as often, but just because of the difficulty, when it does happen it is all the more significant. And so most of the history books and films follow the path of least resistance and tell “Great Man” history.
This picture gets even more problematic in schools because the history textbooks are produced by large publishing corporations whose prime directive is to sell as many books as possible, regardless of what’s in them. So they strive, at best, to be as inoffensive and uncontroversial as possible, and labor history, told truthfully, will be controversial to powerful forces. Even worse, as a recent academic study showed, bias against unions riddles the most prevalent history textbooks. Unions are “violent.” Unions are “corrupt.”
The result is that we don’t learn about the efforts, say, by teamsters to resist a pay cut and an attempt to destroy their union by employers in San Francisco in 1900 that led to a strike of fifteen thousand maritime workers in solidarity with the Teamsters, with dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries and the formation of a Union Labor Party that ruled San Francisco for the first decade of the twentieth century. Or the origins of May Day in the 1880s, celebrated around the world in every country but the United States as a workers’ holiday, which is about the struggle by workers for an eight-hour day at a time when ten, twelve and fourteen hour days were common. Instead, we learn that there was a “riot” led by “anarchists” in Haymarket Square that killed police and workers, which caused a backlash against labor.
JM: You start your history of California labor in the Missions. Why start there? What do we learn?
FG: What happened to the Native Californians in the Missions was pretty close to a holocaust. The bottom line was that the Indians wouldn’t have been in those places if the Spanish hadn’t required their labor power. This was a pre-capitalist society. The workers did not get paid a wage inside the Missions in exchange for their work; they got room and board, and modest amounts of it. Nearby, however, as the pueblos grew into towns and farms and ranches began to require larger numbers of workers, some of the Native Californians began to receive wages, alongside European and American immigrants from the east coast and Latin America. The Missions were laboratories for the economy, putting in place building blocks for what was to come when California became the thirty-first state.
You can learn things about the norm when you study the abnormal. The norm in capitalism is free labor, but there is always, underneath, an element of coercion. Conservatives like to make a big deal about how a worker in our “free enterprise system” can always walk away from a bad job or a bad boss. Native Californians in the Missions, in fact, could not do that. They were basically imprisoned in the Missions, and all the worst abuses of a coercive work relationship could and did occur.
While most workers most of the time in California were and are free laborers, and can walk away, most cannot in fact walk away from work itself. That is what defines them as a worker: they have nothing to sell in the marketplace except their labor power. And when they have to put up with an oppressive or sadistic boss to put bread on the table and a roof over the heads of their family, or when they stay with a bad job because it has health benefits they need, that’s a coercive relationship too. So the Missions provide a point of departure in considering work and the relationship between freedom and coercion in California’s economy.
What the Missions also did was to provide the beginnings of the California Dream narrative that still holds sway today: people came here from other places to the land of opportunity and did better than they did where they came from. And they did it wearing colorful costumes, riding horses, and in an idyllic landscape. If you look at what actually happened in the Missions to the labor force, it’s harder to tell the story of California that way. My book is essentially a response to that narrative with a counter-narrative.