Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, urban reformers, haunted by the specter of labor unrest, sought to transcend class in the political sphere. Progressives attempted to forge "a common language that stressed the paramount need for social reconciliation" and "imagined 'the people' as a civic community in which class would lose its meaning." c In San Francisco, the limitations of such a reform vision, articulated time and again by Mayor James D. Phelan, became apparent when the forces of organized capital collided with those of organized labor at the turn of the century.
On June 20, 1901, the industrial capitalist and notorious recluse Andrew Carnegie addressed a letter to Mayor Phelan offering three quarters of a million dollars to the city for the construction of a public library system. Phelan, the embodiment of municipal reform, previously had solicited the funds and the city's Board of Supervisors quickly endorsed their acceptance in late July.
In the intervening weeks, however, the deal was repudiated by trade unionists. "Carnegie's money is unclean," wrote one labor leader, "it is the proceeds of methods that differ only in name from burglary, treason and other crimes." (2)
Indeed, Carnegie was the labor movement's enemy, an industrialist who had allowed the management of his firm to violently break the strike of union steelworkers a decade earlier in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Labor had "but one sentiment" toward Carnegie, opined the Coast Seamen's Journal, a union publication, "resentment deep and hot." His "scattering of endowments for libraries" bespoke "a mind too small to recognize that the public need of enlightenment is by no means as great as that of the donor." Unionists also bitterly denounced the mayor for "the disgrace he has brought upon this city," and the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution condemning the transaction. In an act illustrative of his substantial political abilities, Phelan publicized his view of the money as "restitution--a return to the people." Viewed in this light, the Labor Council could claim a "moral victory" and Phelan was able to defuse a potentially divisive political issue. (3)
Phelan, while ultimately dependent on Carnegie's money, nonetheless appealed to working-class San Franciscans in an attempt to harmonize class divisions and advance his specific conception of civic progress and the common good. As a conflict between capital and labor over the future of the city, however, the Carnegie affair foreshadowed momentous events. The debate over library funds quickly was submerged by another conflict.
The City Front Federation strike, judged by historians as the most important battle between organized labor and organized capital on the West Coast up until that time, shook San Francisco between July and October 1901. Though the strike ended on an ambiguous note for contemporary observers, one unionist proclaimed, "There probably never has been another such instance of the power of concerted effort among the workers." (4)
Mayor Phelan's cross-class reform coalition, fostered over the course of his three terms through class-based appeals and a political rhetoric of classlessness, was fractured by the conflict. The strike's settlement ultimately increased the power of organized labor both on the job and in the political arena, where labor partisans employed Phelan's rhetoric of "the people" to advance their own class interests. Although resolution was intended to constrain unions, it in fact prompted unionists to take the strike back to both the worksite and the ballot box.
Scholars have approached the City Front Federation strike in two distinct ways. Labor historians and those primarily interested in industrial relations have concentrated on its effect on San Francisco's labor movement. (5) Political historians and scholars interested in municipal politics have examined its impact on the city's development and political culture. (6) But while the episode took place during the final term of San Francisco's first self-described progressive mayor, surprisingly little has been written about the intersection of reform politics and class conflict during the strike. This article explores the relationship between class and the politics of reform in San Francisco, drawing upon recent historiography and previously unused sources to reconsider both Phelan's role and the strike's influence on the participating unions.
THE STORM GATHERS
At the close of the nineteenth century, San Francisco's white trade unionists could look back in triumph on a turbulent decade. They had weathered the successful employer assaults of the 1890s and the depression of 1893-94, both of which drastically reduced the numbers and power of organized labor. With economic recovery came impressive union organizing drives, swelling the ranks of the city's two central trade union bodies, the Labor Council and the Building Trades Council. Despite political infighting between them, both councils worked to institutionalize labor's power in the city throughout the last decade of the nineteenth century. The success of the Building Trades Council prompted the organizing of central bodies for other trades. One of the most significant came early in 1901, when the Labor Council recognized the City Front Federation, a central body for waterfront and transportation unions whose goal included "more amicable relations between employers and employees." (7)
The growth of the union movement inspired a general feeling of success in labor circles. But, according to the Coast Seamen's Journal, it also imbued "the employing class of the city with the spirit of organization for defensive purposes." (8) In April 1901, a group of San Francisco's largest merchants formed the Employers' Association, an organization of owner associations dedicated to maintaining the authority of capital during labor disputes. Trade unionists drew on their knowledge of previous employer offensives to make sense of the year's events.
A decade earlier, a group of employers had organized the Board of Manufacturers and Employers, a union of owners, to battle unionized workers in various industries. Pledging union nonrecognition and financial assistance to other members engaged in industrial disputes, the union of employers had ;truck a heavy blow to organized labor. (9)
The prospect of another employer offensive, one unionist now meditated, "must be seriously reckoned with, as will be acknowledged by every trade-unionist who remembers the history of the last ten-years." Though the political consequences of social conflict began to unfold in dramatic fashion at the start of the twentieth century in San Francisco, other cities across the United States also witnessed the political dimensions of social upheaval. (10)
In the months following the founding of the Employers' Association, a series of industrial conflicts came to involve the centralized authority of capital. Determined to make a stand against the onslaught of union labor, the association stepped into disputes involving metal polishers, hotel and restaurant workers, butchers, and carriage makers, threatening to stop the delivery of supplies to any company that acquiesced to union demands. In case after case, the association established a precedent for future anti-union action by putting downward pressure on smaller firms. In May, Teamsters Local 85, organized in 1900 under the leadership of Michael Casey, came to the aid of the carriage workers and dealt the Employers' Association its first defeat.
The Teamsters refused to haul non-union-made goods, threatening the total cessation of commercial traffic in that industry. By controlling the arteries of commerce, the union forced the Carriage Makers' Association to reenter into negotiations and displayed its potential power to the Employers' Association.
In order to break the growing strength of organized labor, the Employers' Association had to break the Teamsters. An opportunity arose to do just that in mid-July with the arrival of the Epworth League, a Methodist youth organization holding its convention in San Francisco. The Draymen's Association and the Teamsters had reached an agreement stipulating that the employers would hire only union workers and the union would move the cargo only of firms belonging to the association. Looking to instigate a collision with the Teamsters, the Employers' Association pressured the dray owners to break their agreement with the union and to lock out workers who refused to haul convention baggage for nonunion firms. "The Draymen's Association," remarked the Labor Council, "against its will, as it appears, had been forced in to the secret order of industrial assassins." (11)
In response to the lockout, the entire Teamster membership went out on strike, devastating commercial activity in the city. The Employers' Association's determination to destroy the Teamsters threatened the San Francisco labor movement as a whole. After reviewing the situation, the Labor Council decided on July 29 to call a strike of the City Front Federation of waterfront unions, effective the following day. Upon hearing the news, nearly two thousand union team-drivers rushed out of their meeting hall in excitement. (12)
Mayor Phelan wearily watched events unfold from the sidelines. The conflict threatened to tear apart the reform coalition he had successfully fostered over the course of three terms. In his first …