California by Kevin Starr: Making it Happen

california (1)I’m going to start by taking Mr. Starr to task.

Chapter 8 of California is a history of California’s labor movement up through the Great Depression.  California’s labor history could fill several volumes without a dull moment as Mr. Starr makes clear.  It’s my hope that one of the book in his longer series spends much more time on the topic than he does in this brief chapter.   As usual in the book so far, Mr. Starr is very good, but he makes one statement in chapter 8 that is beneath him.

Regarding the 1886 Haymarket bombing in Chicago and the subsequent trial Mr. Starr says that “Eight anarchist leaders were tried and convicted on no evidence whatsoever.”  This is demonstrably not true.  Some of the most recent scholarship on the topic, published after California went into print, suggests that those tried and convicted were really guilty, but even prior to this, any cursory search into the topic would reveal that the trial lasted nearly two months, that 118 witnesses were called, that “scientific” evidence linking the lead in the bombs to lead found in the homes of the accused was presented.  I can’t say how good or true any of this evidence was, but it was evidence.   That the Haymarket verdicts were a miscarriage of justice seems more than probable to me, but this bit of hyperbole struck me as unfortunate.

Other than this, Mr. Starr does a very good job of painting just how complex the picture was in California as far as labor goes.  For decades, the rest of America has seen California in terms of “hippies” “left-wingers” “extreme liberals” “Governor Moonbeam” all of which exist in California, thankfully.  But the state that gave America “Hollywood values” also gave it Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  This dichotomy played out on the ground in the struggle of the labor movement.

For all its seeming amiability, is self-propagated and self-authenticated image of itself as a free and easy society, California had at the center of its complexity a  tendency toward the hard right, evident as early as the San Francisco vigilance committees of 1851, 1856 and 1877.  This was a state, after all, in which a hard-nosed corporation, the Southern Pacific, exercised significant political and economic control in the the early twentieth century.  It was also an agricultural state in which farming was conducted on a quasi-industrial basis and most big farmers were living close to the edge.  It was also–outside of San Francisco and Los Angeles–a suburban and small-town state, characterized by conservative political values. On the other hand, ti was also a left-wing state, with a militant labor union tradition that, like the vigilance committees, dated back to the 1850’s.  In the 1870’s, again in San Francisco, it had nurtured a workers radicalism that Lord James Bryce, writing in The American Commonwealth (1888) would later describe as a form of Marxism running out ahead of Karl Marx himself. The IWW had found a receptive environment in California, and so in the 1930’s would the Communist Party.

Something for everyone in California.

We take so much of what the labor movement brought us for granted now, but it’s important to remember that the earliest labor struggles in California, and in America were for a six-day work week and a 12 hour work day.  Imagine that next time Labor Day rolls around.

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