Social Conflict and the Politics of Reform: Mayor James D. Phelan and the San Francisco Waterfront Strike of 1901

By Elrick, John | California History, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Social Conflict and the Politics of Reform: Mayor James D. Phelan and the San Francisco Waterfront Strike of 1901

Elrick, John, California History

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.

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Social Conflict and the Politics of Reform: Mayor James D. Phelan and the San Francisco Waterfront Strike of 1901


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