Summary: With over 10 percent of the nation’s population and an economy larger than that of France, California has loomed large in the nation’s politics and economy since the mid-20th century. For organized labor, few states have been more fertile for growth. A strong, long-standing Progressive tradition, a mid-century boom midwifed by post–New Deal defense industries, and governments historically and contemporaneously favorable to unionization across economic sectors have made the state golden for a labor movement whose fortunes vary vastly by region. California has the seventh-highest rate of union membership among the states and labor law favorable to union organizing in the public and agricultural sectors and to union-style wage and working conditions rules in the private sector. Perhaps unsurprisingly, organized labor today wields extensive power in California, beyond even what one might expect given the state’s partisan alignment.
California as a lost right-conservative idyll is a myth. Despite electing Ronald Reagan governor in the mid-20th century, the California Republican Party always had a strong left-progressive wing (epitomized by former Gov. Earl Warren, later an arch-liberal chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) that increased its electoral strength relative to the state’s level of conservatism. The state has not had a Republican “trifecta” of governorship and state legislative control since Reagan’s governorship over half a century ago.
Perhaps the clearest evidence that California has always been more left-progressive than its purple mid-20th century electoral results suggested is the strength of its organized labor movement. Since the National Labor Relations Act was passed in the 1930s establishing the modern private-sector labor relations regime, the state has never had a right-to-work law forbidding contract provisions requiring workers to pay union fees as a condition of employment. While not the first state to authorize collective bargaining for government workers, California has had government worker bargaining in some form since the 1960s, with state governments of both parties—including one led by Ronald Reagan’s Republicans—periodically expanding government union powers. And the state has among the strongest laws encouraging collective bargaining in the federally unregulated agricultural sector, a testament to the power of the United Farm Workers of America in California’s “purple era.”
The results are easily visible today. Federal statistics show that California workers are more likely to be members of or represented by labor unions than the national average of 10.3 percent. In 2021, 15.9 percent of employed Californians were labor union members. The most powerful special interest groups in the state include the California Teachers Association, the state teachers union; the state’s numerous sizable affiliates of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); and the California Labor Federation, the state AFL-CIO affiliate. These interest groups drive campaigns at the ballot box and in state and local legislatures to raise the state’s already steep tax burden and to expand the state’s oppressive regulatory regime targeting businesses.
Union power permeates the state’s government budget, with government worker pensions consuming an increasingly substantial portion of state spending. The state’s education policy is essentially designed to benefit the teachers’ unions. Its COVID restrictions on students were among the nation’s most oppressive, and its adoption of ideologically charged “ethnic studies” elements in its curriculum align strongly with the left-wing ideologies dominating the national teachers unions. Unions also use other left-progressive provisions of California law, like its extensive California Environmental Quality Act, as government frictions to secure additional concessions and powers.
There is a “great deal of ruin” in a state as large, wealthy, and powerful as California. Many a conservative has—prematurely so far—predicted the Golden State’s imminent economic or political demise, smothered by organized labor and a powerful Left. But turning California back from the precipice and minimizing the damage to the state and its people requires understanding it in full, and one cannot understand California without understanding California organized labor.
In the pre–New Deal era, California took a split-personality approach to labor organization epitomized by its two headline cities: San Francisco, which was and remains strongly tied to Big Labor, and Los Angeles, which was once a hotbed of enterprise freedom and the union-membership-optional (and in the era of the “yellow dog contract,” sometimes union-membership-prohibited) “open shop.”
When California was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War, it was mostly empty. By one estimate, its population consisted of 100,000 to 150,000 Native Americans and 14,000 other residents. But 1848, the year the war ended, was also the year prospectors discovered gold in the north of the newly American territory. The ensuing rush of forty-niners in the following years may have doubled the population of California. By 1850, the territory was admitted to the Union as a state. The population boom centered on San Francisco, a once-sleepy port town near the site of the gold strikes.
From its very beginning, the workforce of San Francisco engaged in union organization. Typesetters and teamsters formed labor associations and endorsed candidates in local elections, though these associations did not last. The city’s first labor council was organized in 1863 and lasted through 1866. Early labor unionism focused on limiting working hours, with a target of an eight-hour working day. These initial efforts were largely unsuccessful.
San Francisco’s labor movement was sufficiently strong that some scholars have called it “the first major seaport in the world to be thoroughly organized.” Strong early organization emerged from the seafarers’ trades and among longshoremen. Control over a substantial portion of the city’s economy allowed these organizations to wield power.
Complicating the situation in San Francisco during the late 19th century was a wave of immigration from China. California’s early labor movement was deeply involved in the effort to restrict Chinese immigration, which labor organizations of the era blamed for driving down the wages of white workers. Even following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigration from China for 10 years (later extended indefinitely) starting in 1882, organized labor aggressively campaigned for consumers to prefer products produced by native-born white labor associations, many of which were known as “White Labor Leagues.” These organizations aggressively promoted boycotts of goods produced by Chinese immigrant labor and promoted the first “union labels” for this racially discriminatory purpose. One history of California’s labor movement called anti-Chinese agitation “certainly the force that held labor together” at this time. With rare exceptions—most prominently the cross-ethnic Japanese American and Mexican American farmworkers’ association that led the Oxnard sugar beet workers’ strike—organized labor would oppose immigration from Japan after immigration from China had been closed off.
By the late 1890s, formal labor union institutions had formed at the regional and state levels. The Building Trades Council of San Francisco was among the most powerful, claiming to control the entire construction industry in the city from foundation to roof, with approximately all building trades workers being authorized to work by the union. Strikes and labor actions were often violent. In an 1896 strike by lathers, at least one non-union worker was killed by strikers.
In the early 1900s, San Francisco unionists organized a Union Labor Party with the goal of winning local offices and controlling the police department. In 1901, its candidate Eugene Schmitz was elected mayor. After the 1906 earthquake disaster investigations showed his administration to have been extremely corrupt, the Union Labor Party lost its organized labor support and collapsed.
While the Union Labor Party fell, the union movement in San Francisco did not. The power of labor unionism in the city, especially in its maritime industries, was demonstrated in 1934, when a longshoremen’s strike escalated into a general, citywide cross-industry work stoppage.
While San Francisco grew quickly and had a strong labor unionist tradition, Los Angeles grew more slowly and was more opposed to organized labor. Backed by what was at the time a staunchly conservative and Republican newspaper in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles–area employers organized into a Merchants and Manufacturers Association to promote the non-union “open shop” both through public advocacy and secondary boycotts of companies that agreed to union-exclusivity contracts.
Socialist politicians in Los Angeles and labor organizing advanced with the backing of the national American Federation of Labor until 1910, when a bomb detonated at the Times headquarters building killing 21 people. Two union activist brothers would plead guilty to the attack, and the political fallout kept L.A. in the “open shop” camp until the New Deal era.
In the next installment, the New Deal transformed labor relations nationwide.