Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 7 : Far Cry from 'Forty-Nine

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(1896 - 1965) ~ Anarchist, Feminist Organizer and ILGWU Leader : anarchist, feminist labor organizer and vise president within the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Born Rakhel Peisoty in Derazhnia, Ukraine in 1896 to a family of grain merchants, Pesotta was well educated during her childhood and, influenced by People's Will, would eventually adopt anarchist views. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• "In the brief span of its life, the IWW produced men who became internationally known and whose names were torches of inspiration in many lands. Most of them paid a high price for their fame, some with their lives." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "I had no ambition to hold executive authority. Valuing my own freedom, I wanted to avoid getting into harness, and to keep from becoming enmeshed in inner-circle politics. Too, I felt that I could serve the cause of my fellow-unionists just as effectively as a rank-and-file member. And it was my contention that the voice of a solitary woman on the General Executive Board would be a voice lost in the wilderness." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "Soon after the 1929 stock market crash 30,000 persons in that city were jobless. Some organized the Unemployed Citizens' League, which set the pace for similar self-help groups all over the United States. Harvesting fruit and vegetable crops on a sharing basis, it set up various co-operative enterprises, which, however, were opposed by business men, who feared these would cut into their profits." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)


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Chapter 7

Rose Pesotta

Bread upon the Waters


Far Cry from 'Forty-Nine

CONFERENCES WITH EMPLOYERS and organization meetings now kept the union heads steadily occupied. Meanwhile our newly enrolled membership busied itself with the educational and recreational activities I had started. With the cooperation of Brownie Lee Jones, ever alert industrial secretary of the YWCA on Sutter Street, where I was then living, we were able to make use of the "Y" classrooms, gym, cafeteria, and even its mimeograph.

I visited Dr. Alexander Meiklejohn, director of the San Francisco School of Social Studies, and former president of Amherst College, who expressed a deep interest in what we were doing. His wife, Helen Meiklejohn, agreed to conduct a class in workers' problems and elementary economics, with emphasis on NRA Codes, union agreements and policies, and the reviewing of current literature on labor.

This class was popular from the start. A free discussion period followed the informal talk each week. Helen Meiklejohn's personality was such that the discussions were maintained on a high level, and were stimulating and informative.

Students enrolled in our classes included executive board members, shop chairmen, and members of shop committees. We tried to shape all lectures especially for the new rank-and-file members, who were eager to learn about their organization.

It was always inspiring to watch the impact of knowledge and a broadening process on untutored minds. Some of the younger girls fresh from high school who were half ashamed that they had to work in a garment factory, blossomed out as we portrayed the drama of the uphill struggle of labor in California, and brought home to them that they were now an intrinsic part of it.

The state history these girls had been taught consisted mostly of nostalgic, romantic bits about the '49ers and the Gold Rush days and lurid stories of the Barbary Coast. That there had been such a thing as a strike in the dear romantic days of the '49ers usually came as a shock.

In the period of the Gold Rush, as now, wages had not kept pace with the cost of living. San Francisco carpenters struck and won higher wages in 1849. On the day before Christmas, a fire broke out, spreading swiftly among the wooden buildings. Property valued at $1,250,000 was destroyed. It was charged that unemployed carpenters started that fire, to provide work for themselves, but this was never proved.

The printers were the first to establish a functioning trade union in 'Frisco, that same year. Unionization quickly followed among teamsters, building trades workers, ship-riggers, waterfront workers, and musicians. The community grew by leaps and bounds. By 1852 its population had risen from 860 to 42,000.

Gamblers, prostitutes, and gunmen naturally had flocked to California with the gold-seekers. Crime became rampant; robbery, slugging, and murder were daily occurrences. Australian hoodlums, many of them ax-convicts ("ticket-of-leave men") who congregated in Sydneytown, later known as the Barbary Coast, had their own special technique. They would set fires in various parts of town and rob homes while the occupants fought the flames.

Established law could not keep up with the constant run of crime. So civilians, in both the Bay City and the mining camps, found it necessary to make and enforce their own laws, informally but expediently, through "vigilance" committees. Vigilantes hanged men found guilty of horse-stealing, murder, arson, robbery, and other major offenses, and tarred and feathered culprits convicted on lesser charges.

Legend has haloed these committees, and the term vigilante has since been borrowed by anti-social groups which have flogged, maimed, deported, or killed individuals who insisted upon upholding their own right, or the right of others, to free speech, free assemblage, or-free press. Labor organizers often have been victims of such groups.

Through three decades the early San Francisco labor unions fluctuated in size, consolidating their strength in the Seventies when they joined forces to fight "cheap Chinese labor." In the Seventies, too, the Seamen's Protective Association was formed and headed by a young Fenian exile from Ireland, Frank Roney. One of the association's chief objectives was to put out of business the "crimps" who doped luckless sailors in saloons and "shanghaiied" them aboard "hungry" outbound ships with hard-boiled captains whose reputations made it difficult for them to get crews otherwise.

Eighteen Eighty-Five saw the establishment of the Coast Seamen's Union when ship-owners attempted sharp wage-cuts. Andrew Furuseth, valiant self-sacrificing Norwegian, who landed in 'Frisco as a youth on a British ship from Calcutta, emerged from that union's ranks and made the seafarers' cause his life-work. Later he widened his field greatly, and helped found the International Seamen's Union, which took in sailors, firemen, cooks, and stewards. And he led the movement which in 1915 resulted in passage of the Seamen's Act, sponsored by the elder Senator Robert LaFollette, and called the "Magna Carta of the Sea."

In 1893, a year of "hard times," when unemployment was rife throughout the land, an anti-union campaign was put on by the newly formed Employers' and Manufacturers' Association of San Francisco. With 35,000 workers idle there, union membership fell below 5,000.

But when the American Railway Union, under the leadership of Eugene Victor Debs, called a strike in 1894 against the Pullman Company in Chicago, railroad men in San Francisco and Oakland refused to move trains containing Pullman cars, and federal troops were sent into 'Frisco, as in Chicago, to break the strike. In the same year hundreds of jobless men, commanded by "General" Charles T. Kelley, left the Bay cities and moved eastward on freight trains to join Coxey's Army of the unemployed in its march on Washington to demand relief from the federal government.

By 1900 labor in San Francisco had reformed its lines, and was regaining strength. Unions were multiplying and expanding, and the Central Labor Council brought about the establishment of a State Federation of Labor.

Conflict between the teamsters' union and their employers tied up all Bay region freight traffic when the water-front men walked out in sympathy. For two months the opponents were dead-locked; until Governor Gage interfered. The seamsters' union gained greatly in strength, while the sailors won an improved contract.

Labor elected two San Francisco mayors÷Eugene Schmitz and P. H. McCarthy. Schmitz, put into office by the Union Labor Party, ended his political career in disgrace when corruption in his administration was laid at his door. Some of his political associates endeavored to make huge illegal profits on the rebuilding of the city after the 1906 earthquake and fire. On the other hand, McCarthy, president of the State Building Trades Council, served with credit. He engineered the erection of mills owned by the council to insure a continuing lumber supply, and set into motion a boycott against other mills throughout the state which paid less than union wages.

In 1916 the organized lumbermen struck, demanding a living wage. An employer-inspired Law and Order Committee then prevailed upon the City Council to pass an anti-picketing ordinance.

Following the Preparedness Day tragedy in that year, which resulted in the imprisonment of Mooney and Billings, 'Frisco employers organized an Industrial Association, designed mainly to combat the spirited buildings trades unions, and to oppose labor unionism generally. It set up its own employment office, and a training school for nonunion carpenters, bricklayers, plasterers and plumbers. Strongly entrenched, the association made itself detested in labor circles.

The 1929 slump hit the city hard, and with a multitude of men and women jobless no union dared push any new demands.

:But the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, and especially Section 7-a, guaranteeing the right to organize, aroused a keen sense of independence among workers there. Particularly along the water-front did labor now go into action.

For 14 years the city's cargo handlers, had been compelled to join the employer-controlled Longshoremen's Association to get jobs. Wages were low, hours long, and work went mostly by favor. An organization controlled by the longshoremen themselves was necessary to safeguard thousands of men whose livelihood came from loading and unloading ships.

Determined to achieve this end, a small militant group obtained a local charter from the International Longshoremen's Association, affiliate of the A F of L. San Francisco cargo-men readily joined up, and within six months the new local claimed to have enrolled at least 90 percent. At its meetings the cockney voice of Harry Bridges, hook-nosed, lean, Australian dock worker, was frequently heard.

Similar organization was going on in other ports, from San Diego to Vancouver, and in the spring of 1934 a coastal longshoremen's convention was held in San Francisco. A spirit of revolt against the conditions on the docks all along the West Coast seethed among the delegates. Demands included decent wages, reasonable hours, and joint control of hiring halls, the employment centers where waterfront workers got jobs on a day-to-day basis. The halls were a bone of contention between employers and longshoremen, for here discrimination was widespread.

Obviously these workers would be compelled to strike to better their situation. And strike they did÷in May.

Realistic stories of labor's vivid past in California were listened to appreciatively by those who attended our classes. But many union members never came to lectures. For these there were other activities, including gym classes at the "Y." On Sundays and holidays we frequently joined with the California Alpine Club in hikes and excursions "into trailed and untrailed areas," sponsored for the purpose of "bringing the people of the cities into the open, and to the full enjoyment of the natural wonders of the state."

Each year, at the end of its hiking season, the Alpine Club staged a play on top of Mount Tamalpais, in a natural outdoor amphitheater. In 1934 it put on a drama set in Gold Rush days÷David Belasco's The Girl of the Golden West, which afforded unintentional comedy.

Sunday, May 20, was swelteringly hot. A broiling noonday sun beat down. After the hard climb up the crooked mountain trails, many of the men had stripped off their shirts and sat in shorts, sweat glistening on their bodies. We women opened collars, rolled up sleeves, made ourselves as comfortable as possible.

When the tall Spanish screens which served as a curtain were folded back, we saw a simulated cabin (with no roof) set in a gold camp high up in the Sierras. The temperature was supposedly 40 or 50 below zero. Actors dressed as old-time gold-miners were coming into the cabin, wearing felt boots, and bundled up heavily in furs. They pretended to shiver with the "cold," and hastened to "warm" themselves at a property fire. The spectacle was so ludicrous that loud laughter greeted serious moments in the drama, and the actors were hard put to it to play their parts with straight faces.

In that spring of 1934 John Ribac and I went with Anna Mooney to visit her brother Tom in San Quentin penitentiary....

On July 22, 1916, while a war preparedness parade moved along Market Street, the famous four-car-track thoroughfare of San Francisco, a bomb exploded, killing ten persons and wounding many others. Among those arrested were Tom Mooney, member of the Molders' Union; his wife, Rena, a music teacher; Warren K. Billings, a shoe worker; Edward Nolan, president-elect of Machinists' Lodge 68; and Israel Weinberg, jitney driver.

Four spectacular trials stretched across months. Two of the five were found guilty. Mooney was sentenced to be hanged, Billings to life imprisonment. Mrs. Mooney and Weinberg were acquitted. Nolan was not tried.

Soon after the trials, the defense produced evidence showing that both Mooney and Billings had been convicted on perjured testimony, with knowledge and connivance of the prosecution, and that the case against them had been built up largely by Martin Swanson, a former Pinkerton detective employed by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. In 1913 Mooney had been active in a strike against that company.

The whole American labor movement was aroused. Special committees were appointed to work for the liberation of the two prisoners. Echoes of the case reverberated in Russia, and workers there, following their successful revolution in 1917, held demonstrations in front of the U. S. embassy in Petrograd demanding freedom for "Muni." Persistent agitation led to intervention by President Woodrow Wilson, and Governor Stevens commuted Mooney's sentence to life imprisonment.

Through the ensuing 17 years, the accumulation of new evidence unearthed by the defense was more than enough to convince any reasonable person of the complete innocence of both men. Repeated appeals to succeeding Governors and state and federal courts for their release or re-trial proved futile.

At the penitentiary Anna, then secretary of the Mooney Defense Committee, and I were permitted to take turns in talking with Tom, while John Ribac called out a friend sentenced in another labor case.

Despite long years of imprisonment, Mooney displayed amazing optimism about winning his freedom. He was confident that a new move in the courts which his lawyers were planning would liberate him.

Our visit cheered the two prisoners, but it left me thoughtful. After we had left Anna at the Ferry House in San Francisco, Ribac and I talked over Tom Mooney's case. I wondered how he would stand the outside world after all those years in prison when his thoughts constantly revolved about his own case and his ceaseless attempts to win liberty. I was afraid that Tom's lack of knowledge of what had been happening in the labor movement, and his intense preoccupation with his own case would make the readjustment hard when labor finally succeeded in getting him out. Yet I knew that we all must keep up the battle for the freedom of the man who had come to be regarded as America's outstanding labor martyr.

From : Anarchy Archives


November 30, 1944 :
Chapter 7 -- Publication.

February 09, 2017 15:56:10 :
Chapter 7 -- Added to

February 25, 2020 11:08:28 :
Chapter 7 -- Last Updated on


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