1900 California And The Great Depression
For this assignment, compare California during the Great Depression and Great Recession. Provide historical details about California during the Great Depression. What did Californians go through? Think economic, social, political, etc., for the historical details. Describe (at least) one similarity and one difference between the two eras.
You may also compare the Great Depression to the economic problems caused by Covid-19 in 2020. Focus on California, not the United States.
Requirements: 500 words
Module 10 Notes: the Twenties and the Great Depression
Political Shift of the State
The Triumph of Conservatism
The 1920s witnessed the fall of progressivism in California (and the United States) because of the fear of radicalism, which many Americans saw as a byproduct of Progressivism (more complicated, but this was the simple answer). Nonetheless, the 1920s witnessed a transformation of California. Los Angeles emerged as the state’s largest populated city; a new highway system transformed Californians’ landscape and habits, another oil boom, Hollywood, and a fight to solve the growing population’s thirst for water.
The Rise and Fall of the Socialist Movement
Socialism reached its peak in the early 20th century, which alarmed conservatives and helped lead to a political shift in the Republican and Democratic Parties. In the 1880’s Gaylord Wilshire, a millionaire turned socialist, emerged as an influential figure. He had inherited a fortune from his father, then lost it (made money, then lost it again) truly experienced the benefits and negatives of capitalism. He made money during the boom of the 1880s by dividing up tracts of land (Blvd. Named after him). Everything went down the drain in 1888, and he turned to socialism in 1890, “Let the Nation Own the Trusts.” He represented an American brand of socialism, which emerged nationally around the same time.
There were some victories for California socialists. Job Harriman, a labor union leader who strongly opposed Otis’ tactics (LA Times), ran for mayor of the city. Most of the labor turned to socialism because of Otis. He could have won in 1911, but he put his reputation on the McNamara Brothers (the bombing suspects mentioned during the Progressive Lecture) and lost by 800 votes. He turned to create a socialistic experiment in the Mojave Desert. Another socialist, J. Stitt Wilson (“social evangelist”), ran in the state governor election of 1910, which secured 12% of the vote. In 1912, he got 40% when he ran for Congress. In 1914, two Socialist assemblymen and one senator were elected to the state legislature. California Socialists did not call for the public seizure of production and distribution, but they wanted better working conditions (very moderate). Nevertheless, conservatives warned for creeping socialism when the socialists fought for an 8-hour workday and liberal policies.
By 1919, the nation experiences the Palmer Raids (after anarchists mailed a series of bombs to prominent people, some exploded). In California, the state passed the Criminal Syndicalism Law to fight radicalism. Throughout World War I, the IWW maintained that soldiers were dying for the wealthy, which caused them to be branded as unpatriotic. In late 1918, 46 IWW people involved in strikes were arrested, most convicted, and sentenced to prison. Californians began opposing all radicals as they were viewed as internal enemies. In April 1919, California passed the Criminal Syndication Law, which stated: “any doctrine advocating unlawful acts of force and violence as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control or political change.” This act led to the decline of radicalism in the state.
The most famous case was Anita Whitney, a 52-year-old well-known advocate, and suffragist. While not a “true enemy,” opponents used it to silence her. Whitney’s family came on the Mayflower (1520) and was a Supreme Court Justice Stephan Field’s cousin. During the Mooney trial, she advocated for him and later attended a Socialist convention (which was why she was a radical). In November 1919, she was arrested after giving a speech at Hotel Oakland for violating that law (she was a member of the Communist Party). In 1920, she was convicted and sentenced to 1 to 14 years in prison. Her appeal went to the Supreme Court, and in May 1927, it upheld the conviction and California state law under the state police power. The Governor then pardoned her because he feared her imprisonment would revive radicalism. The law stayed on the books until 1968 when it was declared unconstitutional.
The Decline of Organized Labor
Business leaders did a great job linking radicalism to labor and continued pushing for an open shop policy. The gains made during the war frighten businesses throughout the country. In the summer of 1921, an unsuccessful strike prompted the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to begin pushing for an open shop, which became known as the American Plan (companies offered better pay, working conditions, etc.). Companies began withholding materials from employers that worked with unions (like LA). In Lose Angeles, employers were open about their willingness to destroy unions. They organized the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association in May 1920, which conducted a lobbying and propaganda battle against organized labor and progressivism. They sought to make open shop laws and abolish the regulatory agencies created during the first two decades of the 20th century. By 1929, national labor unions declined from 5 million to 3.5. California and the nation’s attitudes changed in the 1920s towards unions. President Warren G. Harding believed in “Less Government in business, more government business.”
A New Era in Politics
The Democratic Party began to collapse, which ushered in a new Republican era and realignment of California politics. Progressives from both parties (Republicans and Democrats both had progressive liberals and conservatives) lost their influence. Newer migrants came to California from the Midwest, which changed the demographics to a more conservative base. California Republicans outnumbered Democrats: 4 to 1 in voter registration. In 1922, out of 80 seats in the state legislature, Dems won 3 (very different to modern politics). Actor writer Will Rogers best describes the Democratic Party in the 1920s when he stated, “I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Even Hiram Johnson, the former Vice-Presidential Progressive candidate, changed his ways as he campaigned for the Republican nomination in 1920 on a nationalist platform (he opposed the League of Nations). Johnson supported the conservative candidate over the progressive in the U.S. Senate Race.
After 1922, the state began to defund many of the programs and agencies created by progressives. Education took a huge cut, and the belief was that “The school must teach and practice thrift.” Agencies that survived were given new leadership by people from the business they were supposed to regulate. In the 1926 election, a new progressive league supported Republican Clement Young for governor. They became uneasy when Young accepted support from A.P. Giannini (owner of the Bank of Italy, now Bank of America) and won the election. Giannini’s goal was to extend his branches throughout the state. Soon, restrictions were removed, and during 1927 the number of branches increased (98 to 289). In the next election, Young lost support, and progressives split the vote. This action resulted in a further decline in progressivism. During the same time, rural California successfully pushed through a new system. A new system implemented in 1926 helped the business to gain control over the state government. For forty years, the “Rural Dominated” Legislature, more conservative, held power over the state and the expense of the urban areas (Los Angeles and San Francisco) because it called for each county to have one member (LA county is huge with a large population, but they only had one member). Although called the “Rural” Legislature, farmers were exploited, and the power came from business conservatism.
New Industries for Southern California
Origins of the Oil Industry
Oil had been discovered in the 1860s, but a market for the product lagged until the 20th century. It became a substitute for coal (much cheaper), locomotives (western railroad companies used it), and ships became to replace steam as a power source. It was the “Age of the Auto” that changed everything. Besides the early discoveries in Ventura and Kern Counties, the state began to develop other areas like Santa Barbara and much more significant development in the San Joaquin Valley. Union Oil discovered the world’s greatest gusher in 1910, which had become a lake of oil when it turned into a crater had to be damned. Nationally, Standard Oil dominated the industry until it was ordered to be broken up in 1911 from an anti-Trust case, which created a highly competitive marketplace. Before this dissolution, Standard Oil created Standard of California, which became its own dominant company. The Southern Pacific Railroad entered the industry in 1909. By 1919, it controlled 19% of all proven oil land in the state and produced 18% of the oil, but the company began to divest itself from its oil interests—others formed (Shell, Texaco, and Mobil Oil plus more) to fill the vacuum.
The Oil Boom of the Twenties
Three discoveries in the 1920s changed Los Angeles and the oil industry. In 1920, a new field was discovered at Huntington Beach. In 1921, Signal Hill in Long Beach was discovered by Shell Oil. The same year, Whittier Union opened a field. During the decade, California produced $2.5 billion worth of oil, which was a lot more money than the discovery of gold ($2 billion since the 1850s). California became the nation’s leading producer for several years. The battle between the north and south (California) is also reflected in this industry. In 1919, 2/3 of the oil came from San Joaquin, so most of the refineries were in the SF Bay Area. By 1925, LA soon dominated the oil industry and was the largest export out of LA Harbor.
The discovery of oil also led to scandal (like the Tea Pot Dome Scandal). California oilman Edward L. Doheny convinced Sec. of the Interior Albert Fall of the need for oil reserves in the West if there was a war in the Pacific Ocean. Fall looked at the Elk Hills field in Kern County, which was federal land. In return, Doheny agreed to build tanks and store oil on the coast and Pearl Harbor (which the federal government would pay him). To seal the deal, he brought $100,000 to Fall as a bribe. Later, Fall was convicted for taking a bribe, but Doheny got off because he stated it was just a loan to an old friend (Doheny was worth 100 million). The government canceled the deal because of the bribe.
The Automobile Revolution
The automobile transformed the landscape and provided an excellent market for oil when because of gasoline. Before this, gasoline served no purpose and was worthless. It was Henry Ford’s help who invented the Model T (standardized production by making all cars the same) and the assembly line. Henry Ford created the Model T in 1908, which lowered the car’s price and could handle the nation’s horrible roads (still city streets were cobblestone or drove on dirt roads). In 1909, the first car reached San Francisco 22 days from New York. This drive revealed how horrible the road conditions were everywhere. One problem is that counties were responsible for building and maintaining the roads, which was a problem because most counties could not afford to build roads. This led to a statewide movement (later, a national campaign). Two private organizations in California were formed in 1900 by business persons to promote better roads. In 1909 they successfully convinced the state to pass a bond on paying $18 million for a state highway system. Voters approved the bonds. The first federal highway bill was the Highway Aid Act of 1916. At the national level, this was passed to provide matching dollars the state spends. Also, a gasoline tax was created (it Makes sense drivers were the ones that used the roads) to maintain the roads.
No other city has been impacted by the car other than LA. Low prices, the climate, and the vast amount of land allowed the city to grow. Between 1920 and 1920, the population more than doubled, and the number of registered vehicles quadrupled (1 and three persons owned a car when the nation ratio was around 1 and 7). The city began to expand out even more because the car allowed families to live further away from downtown. An excellent construction boom of larger ration single-family homes occurred during the 1920s (not the modern suburbia, though). The modern supermarket (not the corner store where one walked to) started in LA to drive to the grocery shop. Moreover, driving impacted tourism because it allowed people to drive vacations, so service stations became a new industry. A pit that held prehistoric bones became a tourist site (the one from the movies).
The Rise of “The Industry”
Los Angeles is best known for its movies. Early movie production was scattered and located along the East Coast. The monopoly, held by Thomas Edison and a few others, controlled the patents for the cameras and projectors, but soon pirate film producers began to evade the law. Edison’s lawyers harassed many of these people. In 1908, producers started to search regions for new sites like Oakland, SF, and LA. In 1909, Edison convinced everyone who had a patent to pull together and created the movie trust to make the pirates go away, who, in turn, discovered Hollywood as a perfect location because of its close to the Mexican border could escape if authorities came. The plan was to break down all the equipment and bring it over the border, outside U.S. jurisdiction. The location also served as a perfect place because of the weather and lighting. The natural light was excellent for the early cameras because filming was done outdoors since the proper indoor lighting had yet to be invented. Thus, the neighborhood in Los Angeles, Hollywood (originally named Hollywoodland), gave rise to the major movie industry (America produced the most movies worldwide by 1929).
The early films were for the poor, but the price of admission was so low the poor could go, so the early movies catered to the working poor. Movie attendance numbered in the millions because they served as great entertainment and escaped from everyday life. Soon, producers started to target the more respectable class of people, and former Nickelodeon (cost was a nickel) owners like William Fox became producers and looked at making full-length movies. Moreover, producers created the Star System (which we have in the film, t.v. shows, sports, and other forms of entertainment). Certain actors became stars to sell movies. Within a few years, salaries increased from $15 a day to $1500 a week. One famous actress, Gladys Smith, got $500,000 a year by 1915 (“America’s Sweetheart”). Early movies were silent, but in 1927, the Talkies (with sound) revived the business. During the Great Depression, the Movie industry remained prosperous even though the country was economically struggling. People saw the movies as an escape. In 1941, there were more movie theaters in American than Banks.
Controversies over Land and Water
For half of the country’s history, the United States saw western land as an open range to settle and exploit. The first national park, Yellowstone, was created in 1871, but for the rest of the 19th century, the federal government did not go much further in preserving lands. In California, the creation of Yosemite Park occurred when President Lincoln signed over the area to California in 1864. John Muir arrived in Yosemite for the first time as a young man in 1868, and he never was the same anywhere else. He enjoyed the beauty and saw the place as a spiritual haven. Muir believed that nature was created as a place no to exploit but to enjoy. He once walked from Oakland to Gilroy, then eastward through the Central Valley. He studied geology and botany at the University of Wisconsin, but he was not a science man. Muir mixed theism and Transcendentalism (New England literature movement) and believed that only in nature, absent from all of the restraints from life in the city, could one experience true freedom.
In 1892, Muir founded the Sierra Club devoted to conservationism. Yosemite Valley, especially Mariposa Grove and Hetch Hetchy, were magnificent places endangered by business interest exploitation. Although the state-protected Yosemite Park, Muir fears the corporate control over the state legislature would change that status. Muir began to fight for the park, but for 15 years, the state ignored him. Already Congress had created national parks like the Sequoia National Park. When T Roosevelt president, an avid outdoorsman, Muir knew he had an ally. In 1903, Roosevelt requested the Muir serve as his guide for four days. President Theodore Roosevelt created the National Parks system and nationalized more acres of land (Texas) than any president before him; however, he and Muir had two different views. Roosevelt believed that only responsible persons should use the land (efficiency), while Muir wanted the land to be completely protected. Besides the difference, both successfully pushed the state to transfer the land to the federal government in 1905, and Congress designated it as a national park the following year. I recommend you go and visit, especially in the spring.
The Hetch Hetchy Controversy
The differences between Muir and Roosevelt came to ahead with Hetch Hetchy. Is it about beauty or practical use? In 1900, the new San Francisco city charter allowed for a municipal-owned water system, which picked the region as an excellent location for a reservoir to store water for the city. Mayor James Phelan asked the federal government if they could build there, but Muir pushed back and delayed the project for 13 years. The location is about 20 miles away from its sister valley Yosemite, and both are beautiful. Flooding it, Muir stated, would be like flooding a magnificent cathedral. Phelan argued that all other sites would cost too much money and were inferior in the landscape. Also, they could be controlled by private interests. Hetch Hetchy would be free. In the meantime, the corporation, the Bay Cities Water Company, was founded to build the damn and sell the water to the city for 10.5 million. This was a corrupt deal made by Ruef’s political boss (he received a 1 million lawyer fee). In 1913, the deal was settled. By that time, Muir died a few months later, and so did the resistance.
The Owens Valley-Los Angeles Aqueduct
The greatest thirst for water is from the south. The growth of Los Angeles led to searching for a reliable water source (which continues today). Although Southern California is idealized as paradise, much of it is dessert and lacks large water sources (remember, 2/3 of the annual rainfalls north of Sacramento). The city began looking for newer sources for water, and Owens Valley was their first of many. The man who conceived of the Owens Valley project was Fred Eaton, who held jobs for the city, even mayor one term, and spent a long time searching for a water source. He found out that the Long Valley (above Owens) would be perfect for taking the water, so he quietly began buying land (The Great Land Heist) to sell the water to farmers in the valley and move to LA. Between 1900 and 1905, the population doubled, but there was a drought. This led city engineer William Mulholland to ask his old friend Eaton more about this region. There were accusations of corruption. When the Times broke the news in June of 1905, the rival paper claimed that corruption was afoot. Two years before, Otis and others acquired a vast land in the northern San Fernando Valley. The new aqueduct would run through that land, allowing a city to be born and increase the real estate value (making them wealthier). This was a false rumor because they probably never heard of this plan to build an aqueduct, and they bought the land with insider information that Henry Huntington planned to build the Red Car line up there.
In 1905, the city held a special election for funds to acquire land and build an aqueduct, which the voters approved after another drought year. Afterward, the farmers’ campaign began to discredit the plan and claimed it was corrupt and exploited. President Roosevelt sided with the city because he was convinced the city’s future depended on access to the water, even though it was at the expense of a few settlers. The president ordered that the Sierra National Forrest eastward cover the right-a-way path to prevent homesteads. Under Mulholland, the 233-mile aqueduct began construction in 1908 and finished on November 5, 1913, where a large crowd witnessed the first rush of water. Nonetheless, the region farmers felt betrayed because the water was diverted from their use. The city built the aqueduct further north because the land was cheaper. In turn, it cut the water source for the farmers to the south of the project. If there were a storage facility in Long Valley, there would have been enough water for both the farmers and the city). Farmers began to sabotage the line by using dynamite, which lasted until throughout the 1920s. In 1941, the completion of a tunnel extended to Mono Lake (access to more water).
The Boulder Canyon Project
The previous projects only eased the pain, but there was still a problem: city growth in Los Angeles. Arthur Powell Davis, an engineer from the US Reclamation Service, wanted to develop the lower Colorado starting in 1903. The people of Imperial Valley wanted northern access to water and started their own Imperial Irrigation District. In the United States Senate, Senator Hiram Johnson, the Swing-Johnson Bill, proposed by California Representative Phil Swing, represented the House district. A debate dragged on for six years over the idea of the Federal government providing money for improvements. Finally, in 1928, Congress passed the Boulder Canyon Project Act to build a dam in the canyon to store water and create electricity (Hoover Dam and Lake Meade). Much of the opposition came from the states in the upper portion of the river. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (before he was president) got all six states to agree to a compact that promised to split the water. Other opposition came from the LA Times, where Harry Chandler, son-in-law of Otis, had purchased land in the region where the Imperial Canal existed. The Boulder Dam would ruin his chances of making money from the Imperial Valley project (yes, more corruption). Other opponents were private power companies, who opposed creating more electricity because it will lower the price. They knew that it would mostly go to LA, and the private companies would lose out. PG&E had a monopoly over power distribution in the state. In 1925, San Francisco gave the rights to distribute the power generated from Hetch Hetchy. PG&E had to price 2.4 million a year to the city, but in turn, the company sold the electricity at a profit ($9 million). The opposition was not enough, though.
The Colorado River Aqueduct
In 1928, LA and nearby counties organized and formed the Metropolitan Water District. These entities looked to the Colorado River to resolve the city’s demand for water. It was not just people that needed water. Farmers and companies use much of the water. For example, Goodyear Tire Company and oil companies used millions of gallons a day. San Diego, now becoming a large city, also needed water; however, they remained outside the District, and in 1915 a drought caused them to get desperate. They offered a man $10,000 to make it ran and fill the reservoir because he claimed to have a mixture of chemicals (top secret). During WWII, San Diego becomes a subgroup of the District, and in 1945, they tapped into the Colorado Aqueduct.
The Central Valley Project
Southern California and San Francisco were not the only Californians looking for more water. The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys became a farming empire. Plans to organize and make the valley’s water system more efficient go back to the 1870s, but it got support in the 1920s. The Marshall Plan Bill established more control over the water by creating three damns, five canals, and two power transmissions. Still, it was vague about how it would sell the generated electricity. PG&E fought every bill that gave the power to the state to sell electricity (socialism). In 1933, the state finally passed the bill, but it did not have the money to complete all of the projects because of the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt’s government took control, and it became part of the New Deal. Shasta Dam, the crowning achievement, was completed in 1944, but PG&E still fought it to socialize the power industry (the country saw the same fight with the Tennessee Valley Authority, also part of the New Deal). When Shasta began producing power in 1944, the state gave a lease to PGE for five years to sell the power because they had no choice. A compromise was made in 1951 to create a partnership. SMUD was created and sold power.
A Way to Conserve Water
The Newland Act of 1902 passed Congress and provided federal water to irrigation districts, but there was a limit of 160 acres (360 for married couples). The purpose was to limit land speculation, but after 1944 the problems began to show. A coalition formed with PGE and large businesses (corporation farms) to support each other. For years, they claimed that the limit prevented a man from owning more land, which is false. Up to 160 acres of land, the government subsidized the water at $2.50 per ace-foot. Beyond that would cost $6.77 (average 1951 dollars). If they had more than 160 acres, the owners could still farm it with commercial water or buy from the federal government, but not at the discounted rate. In 1958, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the restriction, but commercial farmers kept fighting. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan successfully lifted the limit to 960 acres of land.
The Great Depression
The causes and the Great Depression are still discussed today, but we know that there were limitations from the 1920s that contributed to the worst economic crisis in modern history. The Roaring Twenties experienced significant economic growth, but in the profit margins for corporations and not wages for workers. For instance, store warehouses were full, but Americans reached their limits in 1927 in terms of spending. Moreover, there was a housing bubble in Florida and California that burst in 1926. The wealthy were affected when the Wall Street Crash occurred in October of 1929. Greed also tore down the, and within a matter of weeks, the market lost billions of dollars. The depression hit the main street within a matter of time. The number of Californians on public relief was 1/5 of the entire state population.
The depression was economic but also psychological. Many Americans were demoralized (anxiety and stress). California remained confused in its response (like Hoover). San Francisco Mayor James Rolph Jr. won the 1930 gubernatorial election. He had been mayor for 19 Years because of his folksy personality. Although a successful mayor, Rolph was a terrible governor for the state. For instance, since he was indebted to the banks in San Francisco, he favored them in taxation. Instead of passing an income tax, he pushed through a sales tax, which affects the ordinary person more than the rich. In turn, Californians and small business owners (who are not rich and rely on customers) disliked him. When an income tax did pass the state legislature, Rolph vetoed it to protect his wealthy friends.
Moreover, to regain his popularity, he openly supported a lynching. According to one historian, California experienced four lynchings per year between 1850 and 1935. Throughout the country, a wave of kidnappings occurred (like the Lindbergh baby). In November of 1933, two men in San Jose confessed to the abduction and murder of the son of a wealthy merchant. The governor promised not to send the national guard to protect these men if a mob arose. Within a few hours, a crowd broke into the jail and hanged the two individuals. Rolph stated that these men had pioneer blood running in their veins and promised to pardon anyone who might get arrested for doing their job. In the 1934 election, he campaigned with his leather boots and a red sash (folksy personality) but ended up dropping dead before one of his rallies. His Lt. Governor Frank Merriam, a wealthy real estate agent in LA, succeeded him as governor.
Californians became desperate because they knew they would not get help from governor Rolph or President Hoover. Most of all, the elderly Californians were desperate, and Los Angeles became the epicenter of this resentment because thousands throughout the country came to the city to retire in the 1920s. Before losing their life savings, many were living nicely and were evangelical conservatives. Sister Aimee attracted these people with her radio program and provided a relief organization for the needy. That was until she was caught having an illicit vacation in Carmel with the radio station director. She had claimed to be kidnapped and held for ransom in Mexico. This false story, plus the change in her listener’s preference, led to her decline as they shifted from religious to economic and political activism.
This movement wanted to use scientific management to create a perfect society. They moved their headquarters to LA in 1933 and pushed for a Utopian Society. They formed this and drew a flood of people to Hollywood Bowl that promoted Abundance over Scarcity.
Dr. Francis Townsend became an unemployed Long Beach physician. In 1933 he formed the Old Age Revolving Pension and a Townsend Plan after seeing two senior women searching in the garbage for food. The Plan: All Americans over the age of 60 were to receive $200 a month, which they had within 30 days. The reasons were that it provided these people a decent standard of living while at the same time increasing customer spending (therefore, create a demand for more employment). The money would come from a federal sales tax. Townsend became so popular, 1.5 million people throughout the nation claimed to be members of his clubs.
Depression and Deportation
The Great Depression caused a resurgence of xenophobia and scapegoats in the state. For example, Anti-Filipino sentiment was on the rise because they worked the jobs nobody wanted in the 1920s (this is a common trend that California has seen against the Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican laborers). White workers began to complain the Filipinos were incapable of assimilation and became an economic threat. Riots broke out in rural counties and San Jose and San Francisco. In 1930, Watsonville saw the worst riot where one was killed, and others severely beat. In 1935, Congress passed the and Filipino Repatriation Act offering to pay the cost of anyone wanting to return to their homeland; however, they could not return if they wanted. More than 2,000 left under these terms.
Another group of people that became a target were Mexican Migrant Workers. During the 1920s, an estimated 459,000 people immigrated from Mexico to work in the fields. They were charged with taking good jobs away from hardworking Americans. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce developed a slogan, “Employ no Mexican while a white man is unemployed.” Nativists (anti-immigrant Americans) also argued that many were illegal and must be deported. Between 1931 to 1933, the United States removed more than 400,000 Spanish-speaking persons from the United States. Some were born (60%). Federal, state, and local governments encouraged it (voluntarily), while some forced deportations did occur. California witnessed 75,000 to 100,000 voluntary and involuntary removal.
The depression brought new life to the labor movement, which was weakened during the 1920s. One of the worst sectors of the labor force was agricultural working conditions. California agricultural workers had always faced difficult situations (remember the earlier modules); however, the depression destroyed much of the farm regions and made things worse than ever. Workers went unfed and suffered watching the fruit rot since nobody could buy the product.
The canneries, where women did the peeling and cutting of the fruit, experienced worse working conditions. These jobs were excluded from the current labor laws, so they worked 16 hours a day for 15 cents an hour. Therefore, they sought to start a union, and the women did most of the organizing. In 1931, Santa Clara Valley women went on strike and were greeted with a brutal police force (fire hoses and tear gas). Half of the newly created Union (United Cannery Agricultural Packing and Allied Workers of America were women.
These conditions opened the door for radicalism (and even communism) in the fields. One union (CAWIU) was an arm of the communist party that tried to abolish the capitalist system in agriculture. They helped lead a strike in Lodi’s grape fields, cotton pickers in the San Joaquin Valley, and vegetable pickers in Imperial Valley. Employers formed vigilante groups, sometimes deputized to give them legitimacy, to use any means necessary to stop the strikes. Over time, they wore down the communist party by arresting the leaders.
California laborers saw support from the Federal Government to unionize during the Great Depression. For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt secured the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. Section 7a of the law recognized the right for labor to organize. With this support, unions in the San Francisco Bay Area became more aggressive to unionize all workers. When employers resisted and did, the state witnessed class conflict where business owners used police and the national guard to break up a strike on the waterfront, the San Francisco Waterfront Strike. Led by labor leader Harry Bridges and the International Longshoremen’s Association, California dockworkers fought to secure better treatment and working conditions. From 1919 to 1934, the only longshoreman’s union was the Blue Book controlled by the employer. Hiring was done by the “shape up” system where managers would pick men each day, which contained bribery, favoritism, and blacklisting. A local ILA was formed in SF in the summer of 1933 and successfully destroyed the conservative Blue Book Union. Harry Bridges led a militant group to force employers to adopt their demands: hiring halls, better wages and working conditions, and overtime pay. In turn, employers labeled Bridges a communist because of these demands (from Australia, where he was influenced by trade unions that held these views before the communists).
The San Francisco Waterfront Strike began May 9, 1934, when dockworkers along the Pacific Coast went on strike protesting the conditions. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and San Francisco Industrial Association met and agreed to use strikebreakers. They claimed the longshoremen were controlled by communists, which worked during a similar situation in 1919 when they labeled those leaders as radicals (it worked). On the morning of July 5, 1934 (“Bloody Thursday”), 1,000 SF police officers cleared 5,000 pickets from the Embarcadero to enable the strikebreakers to enter the port. The violence occurred when pistols were fired on both sides, which resulted in 64 people injured and two strikers killed. Governor Merriam sent the National Guard, even though the mayor did not ask. One thousand seven hundred men with bayonets occupied the waterfront, which intensified the situation. Virtually every union in the region joined in a General Strike on July 16. William Randolph Hearst (owner of the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle) used his media empire to label it as a communist conspiracy. The editorials were written to give that impression, which encouraged men to join vigilante groups to attack the headquarters of the Communist Party in Oakland and SF. The results were mixed because the strike was called off after four days due to public opinion. Never again did the labor try another general strike. Although unions were to blame for the chaos, Employers could no longer enforce the open shop policy because President Roosevelt sent in arbitrators to deal with the situation. The board ruled on October 12 to provide hiring halls and complete control to the union, which made employers bitter because of federal intervention and radicalism’s triumph.
Upton Sinclair and the Socialist Party
1934 was disastrous for the Republican Party. Two years before, Hoover lost California (home state) and even Santa Clara County in 1932 because they experienced the worst depression. As things slowly got better on President Roosevelt’s administration, the 1934 election was open to anyone to win. A socialist writer, Upton Sinclair (author of the Jungle), had previously run for governor in 1926 and 1930 as the Socialist candidate. He decided to run as a Democrat in 1934 to increase his chances of winning. His platform was called End Poverty in California (EPIC). He wrote I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future in 1933 as a precursor to his campaign. The books focused on how he could put the unemployed back to work. If he were elected, new agencies would have been created to control the economy’s parts directly. His first program, California Authority for Land (CAL), would purchase all the farms sold for taxes and establish cooperative agricultural colonies. The second program, Cal Authority for Production (CAP), would acquire all the factories that had been idle so the state would directly control those factories. His third program, Cal Authority for Money (CAM), would issue bonds to finance the lands and factories’ purchases.
Although it seemed like the Democratic Party had a chance to win the election, Sinclair’s radical ideas were unfortunate for the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party wanted to save capitalism by reforming it, not a complete overhaul. FDR would not endorse Sinclair and refused to comment on the election. Nevertheless, political change was in the state, and Sinclair’s prospects were good because thousands of men could not provide for their families. In August, Sinclair won with the highest vote that a Democratic candidate for governor ever received in a primary (more than 2/3 voted for him), which pitted him against Frank Merriman, who defeated three progressive Republican candidates. The fear of socialism sparked significant opposition to Sinclair. For example, his writings provided opponents with enough material. Sinclair attacked the clergy in the Profits of Religion, colleges, and universities in the Goose Step, public schools, and the press (in other books). Louis Mayer, head of a studio company, organized public relations, advertising, and movie industry to oppose Sinclair. In a fake newsreel, a group of tramps (movie extras) were shown debarking from a freight train to give the impression that all the country’s poor would be in California due to his policies. They also charged him as an atheist (which is detrimental in American politics).
Moreover, Sinclair lacked the support of liberals. The Communist Party (because he advocated a compromise with capitalism) and Socialist Party both denounced him. He also lost the support of Townsend Clubs because he called the plan a money scheme. Therefore, Merriman won the election.
Frank Merriam to Culbert Olson
Merriam knew his reelection resulted from conservative New Deal Democrats that voted for him, so he began to institute a few modest reforms. He abolished the sales tax and created a new small income tax. In 1935, the state adopted the Old Age Security Program, but it did not make things better for the elderly. A person must have no income or family member to help them receive the $35 a month, which led to some embarrassing investigation in personal finances and families. His “Ham ‘n’ Eggs for California” Plan became a new pension scheme. The next governor, Democrat Culbert Olson, was elected in 1938 and only had some minor accomplishments before he collapsed from exhaustion and died a month later. He would not have achieved much because Republicans still controlled the Senate, and the Democratic majority in the assembly was split up into factions. Olson’s reforms in the penal system and care for the mentally ill were his only accomplishments. In short, the state of California was less successful in helping people through the Great Depression. It was left to the federal government (FDR’s New Deal) to help those still suffering during the hard times. It was not until World War II when the situation improved.