Class Struggle In Los Angeles

Debbs Hanford Socialist Party Poster

This is an excerpt from “Bread And Hyacinths: The Rise & Fall of Utopian Los Angeles,” available from Amazon’s Kindle bookstore.


The war between labor and management in Los Angeles became more intense and desperate during the last few months of 1910. There was an increasing sense that both sides, labor and management, were playing for keeps. Part of the reason was that the San Francisco labor movement had targeted Los Angeles for organizing drives. Labor became particularly entrenched in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, since it was organized labor that rebuilt the town. San Francisco was rich enough to help out its weak brethren in Los Angeles, and, more to the point, there were compelling economic reasons to do so. Wages were low, 30 to 40 percent lower in Los Angeles than in San Francisco, an important part of Otis’s plan for building a great city. The San Francisco labor movement feared, and rightly so, that ultimately San Francisco would lose work to Los Angeles because of its lower labor costs. The only answer was to organize Los Angeles to make the wages competitive.

Grace Stimson, in her book The Rise of the Labor Movement in Los Angeles, pinpointed the moment the mood became more dire as occurring precisely when the anti-picketing ordinance was passed and enforced. By 1910, nearly every trade had gone on strike, the butchers, the trolley car operators, the painters, the printers, the brewers, and of course the industrial giants ó the metal workers who worked on the bridges and early skyscrapers beginning to rise over the city.

On June 1, there was a metal-trades lockout, which led directly to the City Council ban on picketing. Since the metal workers were starting to win the strike, the anti-picketing ordinance was conceived as a way to slow them up, Harriman explained later. He also pointed out that until the ordinance was passed, there was little actual violence by the strikers.

The City Council had heard Harriman declare that the law clearly violated free speech and individual liberty at the July 1 meeting at which it was first presented. The City Attorney had spoken out against the anti-picketing law on the same grounds. But the law, written by Merchants & Manufacturers attorney Earl Rogers, was already being considered for the books. It became law on July 18. Rogers, a confirmed alcoholic, was a brilliant attorney. He was, however, never known as a lawyer with a social conscience.

As a result of the new law, Harriman and his partner, J.H. Ryckman, were kept very busy. (Ryckman would later become one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Southern California branch, along with Upton Sinclair during the strike and free speech fight in the L.A. harbor a decade later.) Hundreds of protesters against the anti-picketing ordinance were jailed and other union men went to visit them. The Los Angeles Times “reported” that the police went after the would-be visitors “stick in hand.” They described the anti-picketing legislation as putting “the ruffians on the run.”

Years later, during testimony in front of a congressional committee, Harriman told the story of City Councilman Marvin F. Patusky, who had voted for the anti-picketing ordinance but was regarded by the Otis-dominated city fathers as an ally of labor. Patusky had gone to the Los Angeles city jail and asked some of the imprisoned strikers if they had not realized they were violating the ordinance. Certainly, the men assured Patusky, urging that the ordinance should be rescinded. Patusky now looked around the jail and declared, “This place was built for animals, and when you act like animals we have to put you in here. If we give you fellows an inch, you will take a mile, and the first thing we know you will be down there with clubs. That is why we passed this ordinance, to keep you fellows away from there… . I am sorry to see you boys in here, but I hope you will have to stay. If you can’t behave yourselves outside I hope you will be good inside, anyway.” Obviously city fathers were missing the point.

Despite Otis, despite the Patuskys, within weeks of the passage of the ordinance, about 500 workers had been arrested. The stream of workers filling the jails faced stiff penalties: $50, or up to 50 days in jail. Hardly more than six or seven detainees were convicted, but many others were roughed up as a way to discourage them ó often an effective means of discouraging them.

By the last few months of 1910, the stage was being set for something even more sinister. Otis had recently discovered the philosopher Frederich Nietzsche, who propounded that Might makes Right, and the Times began turning up its daily barrage of anti-union propaganda even more. Still, pro-labor sentiment was growing. The anti-picketing ordinance also served to make labor more militant. The organized labor forces had become increasingly determined to bust Otis’s open shop campaign. Over 20,000 copies of Clarence Darrow’s pamphlet The Open Shop were distributed; the circulation of the Socialist and labor press increased dramatically. In June of 1910, as the metal trades strike began, more than 1,000 unionists met and organized the Union Labor Political Club. Fusion was no longer being hotly contested, unionists and Socialists were now fighting the same enemy. Job Harriman, Harriman’s former partner Fred Spring, W.A. Engle, Fred Wheeler, L.W. Butler, Charles Feider, W.A. Vanna, and Frank Sesma, all prominent Socialists and unionists, adopted a platform attacking the M and M, the Good Government Forces (whom they referred to as the “Goo Goos”), Democrats, and Republicans. By then, Frank E. Wolfe, the Los Angeles Herald’s talented managing editor, had joined the Socialists. (He later became a spokesman for Llano alongside Harriman.) Wolfe’s exposes had paved the way for the reign of the Progressive mayor George Alexander, who later proved to be as anti-labor as the previous mayor he had replaced, Arthur Harper.

In July, the Socialist Party moved its headquarters into the new Labor Temple. For Harriman, who had fought so long and hard for labor-Socialist fusion, this was an important moment.

A big rally was in the works. Twenty-five thousand were expected to attend the parade planned by the state labor movement to protest the anti-picketing ordinance. Harriman had already orated to the nation’s labor leaders that “You must make Los Angeles the battleground where the victory of the Pacific Coast will be won.” Harriman reported to Hillquit that the Socialist Party was signing up as many as 100 men a night. Many of the old Socialists were upset at some of the trade unionists coming in, men whom they felt had an appalling lack of theoretical knowledge about class consciousness, and were hardly much better than thugs. But the battle lines had been drawn, and with a foe like General Otis to vanquish, the socialist-labor “army” needed all the help it could muster.


Detective William J. Burns, who worked with General Otis of the Los Angeles Times, was not above highly questionable practices in getting his man, either. Herbert S. Hockin, for example, was not only a top union official, but on Burns’s payroll while plans for the Los Angeles Times bombing were underway. Hockin was a member of the executive committee of the International Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. John J. McNamara was secretary-treasurer. Burns insisted that Hockin decided to cooperate with him after J.J. McNamara admitted to him that his purpose “was to sacrifice human life for the purpose of bringing about the results he hoped to obtain” in the Times explosion. Hockin’s desire to cooperate with Burns may also have been helped along by the fact that Burns was in possession of details about Hockin’s past that he might not want to get out. Apparently, Burns inferred, Hockin had an old problem with a rape charge. In any event, it was Hockin who recruited Burns’s star witness, Ortie McManigal, to the plot. All through 1910, when the Times bombing was being planned, Hockin was meeting regularly with steel industry representatives and telling all he knew about union plans and activities at the same time he was planning the targets. He even met with an executive of the Marshall-McClintock Company before the Times and Llewellyn incidents, and warned him that explosions would be forthcoming in Los Angeles. He should have known, people like the McNamaras and McManigal were just his tools; he was the mastermind. For Burns, Hockin would later carry a concealed dictaphone into meetings of the union’s executives and record them for management to listen to. Despite the fact that Hockin was an agent provocateur, he did spend six years in prison. He was finally pardoned by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This, then, is the backdrop to the most apocalyptical battle between labor and capital that may have ever been. The ironworkers had a tough union, its members were mostly roustabouts, hard-living men without wives or children. They were the riggers, who put up the steel-skeleton structures of the “skyscrapers” which were beginning to dominate the skylines of large American cities by the early 20th century. The work was dangerous but paid well, solely because the union was a tough one. These men were nothing if not loyal to their union. Certainly, the law wasn’t on their side. Life was especially short and brutish for most laboring Americans at that time ó there were no child labor laws, no occupational safety laws, no workers’ compensation. Dynamite, they felt, was the most effective way for them to get their point across to the construction companies: contracts got signed. Little ideology was involved ó this was just the way things got done.

As tough as the iron workers were, Burns was even tougher. The manner of the arrests in what soon came to be known as “The McNamara Case” violated extradition procedures and startled the nation. No matter. Already Otis and an attorney, Oscar Lawler, had met secretly in Los Angeles with President William Howard Taft and convinced Taft that a gigantic national conspiracy was afoot within the labor movement. Taft didn’t need much convincing: overnight, the feds were everywhere, beefing up the police forces.

In turn, Samuel Gompers and Eugene Debs made the case a cause celebre. Men and women from across the country sent their dimes and quarters to the McNamaras’ defense fund because they believed that the two brothers were being framed. The renowned attorney, Clarence Darrow, was recruited to the defense. His initial reaction was not to take the case since he was not in good health, and he didn’t feel up to the task. But Samuel Gompers prevailed upon Darrow, shaming and pressuring him. When Darrow objected that the case would cost a lot of money to defend, Gompers assured him that the money would be provided. Darrow had performed so brilliantly in previous labor cases, such as that of Big Bill Haywood in Idaho in 1907, that he was labor’s unanimous choice to defend the McNamaras.

At first glance, the McNamara case seemed almost a duplicate of the Haywood case. McManigal’s testimony even had the same ring to it as had that of Harry Orchard, who had offered evidence against Haywood in 1907. Darrow had shown that Orchard was a paid informant against Haywood. Now it appeared that the most predatory forces of capitalism were trying to make another grandstand case against labor.

Job Harriman shared in the spotlight of the 1911 case because he had been the attorney who represented the McNamaras from their arrest until Darrow arrived in Los Angeles. Following his arrival, Darrow moved into offices just across the hall from Harriman’s in the Higgins Building, at Second and Main streets. Harriman remained part of the defense team, but he had little time to work on the case because he was beginning his campaign to become mayor of Los Angeles.

About Lee Boek