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 second installment of my three-part interview with Fred Glass, author, teacher, union member, and long-time Communications Director for the California Federation of Teachers. You can see part one of my interview with Mr. Glass here.
JM: Are there a few seminal moments in California labor history that stand out to you as particularly important and/or instructive?
FG: I didn’t really understand this until I was done writing the book and looked back, and it probably seems stunningly obvious, but there are two inescapable things about California history: immigration and the Gold Rush. They are the center of that mainstream narrative, which can be boiled down to four words: “Come here, get rich.” The Gold Rush was a validation of these ideas, even though as it turned out, few people actually became rich from the Gold Rush, or at least from gold mining.
But some did. And some did in each of the successive gold rushes that the state has experienced: nineteenth-century wheat farms; early twentieth-century oil; the movies; the WWII defense industry; and today, Silicon Valley. All these gold rushes drew people from across the country and indeed the world. And some people did very well, which further fed the mainstream narrative of “come here, get rich”.
But what my book is about is the people who came and didn’t get rich, which isn’t to say they all stayed poor either. The Occupy movement brought us the understanding of the one percent and the ninety-nine percent, and that’s a pretty good estimate of how these gold rushes have worked out. The difference now, and what Occupy was pointing out, was that alongside the one percent today we have the ninety-nine percent sliding away from, not toward, the American dream.
California for a long time did well in helping its immigrants to become middle class; that was the real upward mobility that happened for most people: to make enough money so that one’s family was comfortable, that most people could afford to own a home, and one’s kids got a good start, a better start than their parents had.
A critical component of that success story was the labor movement, which is all but invisible in the standard narrative. For about fifty years, between the 1930s and 1980s, a robust union movement gave working people the clout to rise together. It didn’t always work for everyone, and it was far from perfect as a democratic institution. But for a third of the workforce, which is what the labor movement represented during its peak years, it was the ticket to the middle class, to homeownership, to a better life, through economic and political advocacy.
Today California unions represent about a sixth of the workforce, and they still work hard to accomplish that feat of lifting working people up together. So if you’ve realistically only got a one in one hundred chance to become rich, a one in six chance to get at least comfortable works out better for more people. Then the narrative is revised: come here, do better working together.
Beyond the Gold Rush and immigration, though, the most important moment in California history that no one remembers anymore because it is just about beyond the reach of living memory, is the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. It was such an extraordinary event in so many ways. It changed the way that work was done in the maritime industry for tens of thousands of workers; it changed the labor laws of the country; it inspired generations of workers to understand just what was possible to accomplish together.
JM: What do we learn about San Diego in your book? Why is there so little on our region compared to other parts of the state?
FG: There is really no excuse for how little on your region is in my book. I mention the IWW free speech fight briefly and discuss in some greater detail the aircraft industry and unionization up through World War II and a bit afterward. But it’s not enough. I suppose one reason is that there is this book, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, that covers the labor movement in San Diego extremely well, already. Have you read it? You should.
JM: The chapters on the Oxnard beet workers strike and the San Francisco General Strike are arguably the most compelling parts of the book. What is so important about these struggles?
FG: The strike of Japanese and Mexican beet workers in 1903 demonstrates a couple of important concepts. The first is that farm labor struggles and successes did not begin and end with the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and ‘70s.
More than one hundred years ago, in what was essentially the wild west, two groups of workers who did not speak each other’s language or understand each other’s culture managed to reach across these divides to form a union in response to an assault by local business elites on their ability to make a decent living. Their momentary success in turning back this attack, supported by the local Socialist-led white labor movement, was then undercut by the racism of the national labor leadership, which was willing to accept the Mexican but not the Japanese membership of the union as permanent members of the labor community. It was stunning, the way that unity worked for these farm laborers against all odds. Equally stunning, to our eyes today is how the myopic exclusionary policies of the official labor leadership set back the cause of farm labor organizing.
The significance of the San Francisco General Strike of 1934 cannot be overestimated, as I noted above. General strikes are quite rare in US labor history. We’ve only had about a dozen city-wide general strikes and none since 1946. There were three in 1934, all bloody, with dead workers and huge numbers of injured trailing in their wake, but all three ultimately wins for working people.
More than a hundred thousand people stopped working in solidarity with maritime workers and to commemorate the deaths of two of their brothers at the hands of police. As a result of the San Francisco General Strike and the coastwide maritime strike out of which it emerged, industrial unionism was established on the west coast. The General Strike played a major role in the discussions that led to passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, establishing the ground rules for peaceful conflict resolution in the workplace. The story of the San Francisco General Strike should be baked into any meaningful history of California.