Sen. Bernie Sanders, a proud democratic socialist, has achieved a remarkable series of victories in this year’s presidential primaries. Equally remarkable, he’s brought socialism back from political irrelevance.
In Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century, the war of Capital and Labor seemed to be turning in favor of Labor, with socialists in the vanguard.
It was otherwise in Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century. Socialism then was a growing movement, attracting both working people and reform-minded members of the city’s middle class. The war of Capital and Labor seemed to be turning in favor of Labor, with socialists in the vanguard.
The unexpected outcome of that war is hardly remembered today. But the glum slab of the Times building on Spring Street remembers for us. The paper’s antiunion rallying cry of “True Industrial Freedom” is carved deeply into its granite façade.
The Los Angeles Times building is more than the memory of a crime in stone. It was intended to be a blunt assertion of the paper’s victory in bending the politics of Los Angeles toward conservative reaction.
Completed in 1935, the Times building is a cenotaph for the twenty-one press operators and linotype operators who were blown up in October 1910 and flung into fire and collapsing masonry by a union-laid bomb. But the Times building is more than the memory of a crime in stone. It was intended to be a blunt assertion of the paper’s victory in bending the politics of Los Angeles toward conservative reaction.
For the Times and the paper’s business allies in the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association, industrial freedom would mean freedom from organized labor.
Dynamite in Ink Alley wrecked more than the adjacent Times building in 1910. Reputations were wrecked, too, principally Clarence Darrow’s, the crusading lawyer who defended the two union organizers implicated in the Times plot. Also in ruins was a coalition of socialists and union members whose representative was the charismatic Job Harriman, who might have become the city’s first socialist mayor.
Part 1: “Organized wage-workers…should, and ultimately will, lead the Socialist movement”
Harrison Gray Otis, the Times’ belligerent owner, and Harry Chandler, his son-in-law and the paper’s general manager, led a decades-long campaign to keep organized labor out of Los Angeles. By 1910, they had made industrial Los Angeles militantly antiunion, enforced by a corrupt city administration and a compliant police force.
In reaction, union leaders made Los Angeles the focus of aggressive organizing. From 1901 on, union members rallied, struck, and picketed for shorter hours, better pay, job security, and a closed “union shop.”
The Socialist Party had other ambitions. The Los Angeles branch of the party campaigned for municipal ownership of utilities (including telephone, gas, electricity, and street railways), reservation of Owens Valley water for city residents, public ownership of the industrial property around the new Los Angeles Harbor, a graduated property tax for homeowners, and better services for the working poor.
Socialism in Los Angeles in 1900 was distinctly middle-class, nativist, and uninterested in union organizing. Although the socialist movement shaded into progressive reform at its less radical edge, the Socialist Party was initially opposed to “good government” reformers and their willingness to compromise with city hall. The party had grown out of political discussion groups; Marxist theory meant more than coalition building.
Inevitably, resistance to labor demands – backed by the Times’ fiery anti-Labor editorials – turned to repression: strike breaking, goon squads, police raids on union offices, and city ordinances that threatened union organizing. Repression radicalized union members and energized support for the political aims of the Socialist Party. In 1902, over the objections of some union officials, the Los Angeles Council of Labor adopted the Socialist Party program, and the socialists, still thinking of themselves as a radical vanguard, became ardently pro-union.
A new Union-Labor Party, a fusion of union members and socialists, ran a slate of mostly Socialist Party members in the 1902 municipal election. On Election Day, socialist supporters were out in force, but the election results were disappointing.
The Democratic candidate for mayor drew 9,000 votes; the Republican trailed with about 6,000. The Union-Labor candidate was a distant third with just over 3,000 votes.
Failure deepened a split within the Socialist Party that nearly destroyed the state apparatus. Purists in the Los Angeles branch rejected the economic aims of union organizers and saw the proliferation of competing unions as undermining working-class solidarity. Accommodationists (based in the powerful San Francisco branch) argued that support for union interests had won municipal elections for socialist candidates in San Francisco and elsewhere.
By 1905, the north/south rift had hardened into inflexibility. Socialists – at least the leaders of the tightly disciplined Los Angeles branch of the party – stepped back from the union cause.
In 1908, the cause came to the socialists. A city ordinance already outlawed unpermitted street meetings and gave the Los Angeles police commission, packed with Merchants & Manufacturers’ Association sympathizers, authority to issue permits to whomever the commissioners chose. During the panic winter of 1907, when the New York Stock Exchange fell 50 percent and some Los Angeles banks failed, worried commissioners chose to silence those who argued on street corners for better wages and workers’ rights.
The Salvation Army was permitted to preach redemption in the old Plaza and at Pershing Square (then called Central Park). No permits were issued to union members or socialists to advocate their beliefs in the same places.
On July 1, 1908, 2,000 Socialist Party supporters gathered at the intersection of 7th and Grand to demonstrate their opposition to the commission’s no-permit policy. Jack Wood, a local party leader, was arrested for speaking without a police permit. On July 17, 6,000 free speech advocates marched, and more Socialist Party members were arrested, some of them women. On July 18, 2,000 Socialist Party and Democratic Party members, among them many union members, joined in a march for free speech down Broadway to city hall.
The crowd arrived to hear Job Harriman, a leader of the statewide Socialist Party, declare that party members who had defied the commission were not agitators, but martyrs for constitutional rights.
Trials of those arrested followed, as did daily demonstrations in front of city hall. By August, the city council was ready to concede that the police commission’s restrictions on street meetings had failed. Council members withdrew the permit requirement.
Victory had several outcomes. Unions and the Los Angeles branch of the Socialist Party were again political allies. Socialists gained a measure of Democratic Party support. “Good government” reformers now saw moderate socialists as protectors of constitutional rights. In defense of free speech, the Socialist Party had made its brand of socialism politically respectable.
The free speech fight also made Job Harriman an attractive future candidate for mayor of Los Angeles. Harriman was photogenic, still youthful, and a passionate orator in an era when that was an essential political skill. He was college-educated, trained for the ministry, and a lawyer.
Arriving in San Francisco in the late 1880s, Harriman gained a reputation as an advocate of workers’ rights and racial equality. In 1898, and living in Los Angeles, he became the gubernatorial candidate of the Socialist Labor Party. He campaigned across the state from the deck of a horse-drawn caravan, built to his design to display projected "steropticon" slides that illustrated the spread of economic inequality in California.
In 1900, as a representative of the Socialist Party, Harriman was chosen the vice-presidential candidate in a coalition ticket with Eugene V. Debs, who ran as the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party. Harriman now had a national following for “fusion” politics that blended working-class economic aspirations with socialist ideology. It was “the organized wage-workers,” Harriman wrote in the Los Angeles Socialist in 1902, “which should, and ultimately will, lead the Socialist movement.”
In representing speakers jailed under the city’s anti-meeting ordinances, Harriman had stood up to Otis and the Times and impressed both “good government” progressives and conservative union officials. In 1907, he defied Otis again in seeking the release of Ricardo Flores Magón, Mexican journalist and exiled leader of the Mexican Liberal Party, whose arrest in Los Angeles on trumped up charges of murder and inciting to riot had been partly engineered by Otis, friend of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz and the owner of nearly a million acres of Mexican land. (Held in the county jail as Harriman and a small circle of sympathizers worked to free him, Magón eventually served time in the Arizona territorial prison for violating United States neutrality laws.)
Harriman was the face of socialism that the Socialist Party wanted Angeleños to see. But celebrity would not have been enough to make him mayor in the election of 1911. The violent events of 1910 nearly did.
In part two of Red Flags Over Los Angeles, bombs and ballots decide the future of socialism in Los Angeles.
The USC Digital Library, particularly its collection of dissertations, provided research materials for this two-part series. The header image, from a poster by Rudolf W. Heinisch, appears courtesy of the Library of Congress.