Austin Lewis

The Drift in California

(November 1911)


Source: From International Socialist Review, Vol. 12 No. 5, November 1911, pp. 272–274.
Transcription: Matthew Siegfried.
HTML mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive (2022).
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2022). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


THE direct results of the activities of the unskilled proletarians may seem unimportant, nevertheless it is these activities that bring about the moral regeneration of this division of the working class,” says Kautsky, in somewhat patronizing terms, which, however, state but a small part of the actual truth. As a matter of fact, the activities of the unskilled proletariat never seem unimportant to the student of industrial movements, and the moral regeneration proceeding from them is by no means confined to their own section of the proletariat. To these movements are due all that is fresh, vigorous and strong in the labor movement.

This arises from a variety of causes, economic and otherwise, not the least being the fact that the great, rich and powerful trades unions tend naturally to become conservatives and static, finally, indeed, reactionary, and part of “the system” itself. Under such circumstances an “uprush from below,” as Ben Tillett described the last English demonstrations of the unskilled proletariat, becomes not only healthy, but necessary. It tends to put that zest into the fight which disappears so ignominiously in face of the sordid bargainings that mark an established trade union organization, as part of the capitalistic arrangement.

California, though by no means an industrial community, has for some time been in the throes of labor conflicts. These have produced distinct types. The result is that a perspective of the present labor struggle can be had in California perhaps more completely than elsewhere. Rich conservative unionism is in San Francisco; militaristic (in the sense of being organized from above), scrapping unionism is also well represented in the same city. The word “scrapping” is used advisedly for seldom does the aggressive element rise to the dignity of an actual fighting body, so that the struggles attendant upon the existing state of the labor fight are for the most part in significant and uninspiring.

An example of what is meant in the latter connection appears from recent occurrences in Oakland. There has been a strike in the mills of the Sunset Lumber Company which has employed armed scabs. The armed scabs were allowed to parade the streets of the city upon the ground that the constitution gave them the right to bear arms. This went on for some time until some half dozen or more union men were shot. Then the union decided to arm its representatives. It did so. Thereupon much public indignation and the scrapping union agreed to lay down its arms upon condition that the scabs laid down theirs. Some sixteen policemen were next detailed to protect the scab wagons and the Sunset Lumber Company gets its protection for nothing out of pocket; at least, that is how it appears. Such are the tactics of the scrapping unions, the chronicles of which would make many disgusting volumes.

Several manifestations of movement on the part of the unskilled proletariat have occurred during the past year in this state. A restless spirit has pervaded the masses who have hitherto been neglected by the American Federation of Labor. Men began to respond to the I.W.W. teachings, or to put it more correctly, the I.W.W. began to interpret the mind of the unskilled and nomadic laborers. Such practiced observers of labor phenomena as Andrew Furuseth and O.A. Tveitmoe sensed conditions and issued their famous call for the organization of the “Migratory laborers,” which was followed by the formation of the “United Laborers.” It is worth noting that both of the proponents of this notion are engaged in the California movement.

There arose, however, almost spontaneously, an organization of Mexican un skilled laborers, in Los Angeles. They came into being as the result of a street labor demonstration in that city last November and were subsequently marshaled in the United Laborers. They do not seem, however, to flourish in the A.F. of L. for reasons which will hereafter appear, and it may be noted in passing, that those responsible for the formation of the union were not members of the A.F. of L.

The point worth noticing, however, is that this unskilled union was practically the first movement of a particularly abject part of the population of a notoriously scab town. The movement has, however, not spread to any extent in the A.F. of L., the I.W.W. making a more direct appeal to the particular element and eliciting a more ready response.

For reasons which appear more fully in my pamphlet, Proletarian and Petit Bourgeois, I am inclined to think that the A.F. of L. cannot serve as a rallying ground for the migratory laborers and that such as are organized in the A.F. of L. may be used for factional rather than general ends. Already there is a complaint that Greeks enrolled in the United Laborers are scabbing on rates in the raisin fields in Fresno, and that they are actually volunteering to work more cheaply than the Japanese. In view of the active steps being taken by the I.W.W. to organize the nomadic laborers in farm and camp, the existence of the United Laborers may be regarded almost as a menace. The conditions in the Southern lumber mills where there is some fear that the A.F. of L. may supply the laborers which the I.W.W. refuses are in point, and the experience may readily be duplicated in California.

In fact the tendency undoubtedly inclines that way. Recently Italians who were employed in propagating I.W.W. views in San Francisco and in organizing the French and Italian bakers as industrialists were beaten by the police. Some reason must have existed for an act so unusual in San Francisco. The Italian colony was soon ablaze with indignation and such amends were made as could be made under the circumstances. Industrial organization was probably the source of the trouble, and with the advance of that form of organization among the Latin peoples there will probably arise a series of clashes between the two forms of organization. It would be much better all round and tend more to the steady advance of the labor movement if this friction could be avoided, but, as far as this state is concerned, present appearances seem to indicate that the A.F. of L. will not welcome any other organization and a sulky acquiescence in its existence is the best that can be expected.

Another sudden “uprush from below” was that of the child and women employees of the California Cotton Mills. This strike was as much a surprise to the labor world as to the employers. The extreme youth of many of the workers came as an unwelcome shock to some even of the middle class who, living in a state where it is uncommon, have a humane dislike of child labor. Even on this occasion the two economic working-class organizations made themselves felt and both the A.F. of L. and the I.W.W. took part in the struggle. This culminated in the defeat of the workers. The children were really defeated by their own parents, whose cupidity was seconded by the pressure of the capitalist and the persuasion of the priest. Actual want moreover in many cases compelled surrender and as there was no means of sustaining the strikers, abandonment of the struggle became necessary.

This manifestation while by no means of first-class importance is interesting as showing a spontaneous movement on the part of a portion of the population which has been most slow to respond to stimulus, the Portuguese. Many of the children have come here via the Hawaiian Islands and have practically been reared in the slavery system.

The above are only straws showing the trend of the current, and by no means dis play the great mass of work which is being accomplished in the organization of the unskilled. The work of the I.W..W. in the Sacramento Valley alone among the up-to-now hopeless farm laborers is worthy of an article, while the personal adventures of individual organizers in this field make some of the most fascinating stories.

N. B. – In view of the upshot of the Mexican revolution this picture of the Mexican unionists is exceptionally interesting.

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