Labor Politics in Action, 1901-1911: The Union Labor Party of San Francisco

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Hayden Perry

IN 1900 SAN Francisco had an organized labor movement that reflected the unique development of this metropolis of the West. San Francisco did not experience the slow and steady growth of Chicago and other cities of the plains, but became a city overnight in 1850 when thousands of gold seekers poured in from the East and every part of Europe, and beyond.

This tide of humanity flowed through the city to the gold fields, then ebbed back to San Francisco as the promise of riches faded. Those who were lucky enough to strike it rich also retired to San Francisco to invest in real estate, shipping, manufacturing, and general trade.

As a newly emerging capitalist class, the rich San Franciscans were unfettered by some of the restraints of longer established Eastern dynasties. When crime got out of hand in 1856, they formed a vigilante committee and hanged a number of miscreants without regard to courts or judges.

The Californian and San Francisco working class also differed from their more staid brothers Back East. Mark Twain, who visited California between 1861 and 1867, wrote in Roughing It of the generation of gold seekers as “an assemblage of two hundred thousand young men—not simpering, dainty kid-gloved weaklings, but stalwart, muscular, dauntless young braves, brimful of push and energy . . .”

A certain hyperbole here, but Twain recognized that those who overcame hardships and obstacles to get to San Francisco were likely to be young, energetic and ambitious for a better life.

As workers on San Francisco’s waterfront, and in her factories and shops, the only way to win a better life was to organize and wrest better wages and conditions from reluctant bosses. Union organizers were active throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, but many union drives were smashed.

Times changed in 1900 when J.D. Pierce was sent out by the American Federation of Labor. He was well received by working people. Soon 30,000 workers were organized in ninety-eight affiliated unions. One observer declared that workers were all absorbed in a three-stage process: “Organize, Demand, and Strike.”

Certainly San Francisco workers were the best organized and the best paid in the country. The bosses were willing to raise wages. They had little choice since there was no pool of surplus labor west of Chicago. But the workers wanted more. They wanted the security of union recognition and the closed shop.

Violent Class Struggle

Now the capitalists dug in and prepared to fight. They formed an Association of Employers that would pass on any union agreement reached by its members.

Union workers soon learned how serious a threat the association was to be. The cooks and waiters persuaded some leading restaurants to recognize their union and post a union card. The association ordered the wholesale bakers to refuse to supply these restaurants.

When the Carriage and Wagon Makers concluded an agreement, the association persuaded the employers to abrogate it. An associate-engineered lockout of union Teamsters set the stage for a decisive confrontation.

Waterfront workers allied in the City Front Federation struck on July 30, 1901 in sympathy with the Teamsters. This involved the Sailors Union of the Pacific, longshoremen, pile drivers and bridge builders. In all, about 100 union locals and 16,000 men confronted the employers’ association and the city government for two months of bitter struggle.

From the first, Mayor James Duval Phelan, a wealthy businessman, supported the employers. He assigned 200 city police to strike duty. He also deputized 246 thugs, to be paid by the association to terrorize union members.

The police chief made official policy clear. He told his cops, “The strikers must be driven off the streets . . . You have neglected your duty by being lenient with strikers. Drive the union men to their homes . . . and make them stay there.”

The cops executed these orders with brutal clubbings. When strike leaders called on Mayor Phelan to protest police brutality, he is said to have replied, “If you don’t want to be clubbed, stay home.”

Historians don’t believe he spoke so crudely, but workers at the time widely circulated the remark. It convinced thousands of workers they would never win until they controlled the city government. The defeat of the strike drove the lesson home.

Support for a labor party came from two unexpected sources. The Catholic Church, in the person of Father Peter C. Yorke, exhorted the considerable Irish population to break with the Democratic machine. William Randolph Hearst, through the San Francisco Examiner, not only sympathized with the strikers, but gave the paper’s editorial blessing to a labor party.

Founding the ULP

When a convention was called to launch the Union Labor Party on September 5, approximately 300 delegates, representing sixty-eight unions, were in attendance. There were some prominent absentees: The Sailors Union of the Pacific, and the powerful Building Trades Council. The Building Trades had long had a close relation with the contractors and felt less threatened by the bosses’ offensive. The Central Labor Council did not endorse the new party, although many of its members were delegates.

The bulk of the delegates represented the newly organized trades and younger workers: the cooks and waiters, ironmoulders, longshoremen, printers, barbers, and boxmakers, Mark Twain’s “stalwart, muscular, dauntless young braves, brimful of push and energy.” Their representatives were to dominate San Francisco’s politics for the next ten years.

The platform embodied planks calling for public ownership of all utilities, for proportional representation, for the initiative and recall, a demand that all supplies the city bought bear the union label, and a free municipal market where farmers could sell their produce.

It was a call for reasonable reform, scarcely a socialist manifesto. A less admirable plank called for the exclusion of Chinese, and segregated schools, for “Orientals.”

Early in the convention proceedings, a dubious individual, who was not a delegate, exerted heavy influence on the convention and the party that emerged. He was Abraham Ruef, a native of San Francisco, a lawyer and political operator active in the Republican Party.

When denied admittance to the Republicans’ inner council, Ruef set up a faction, the Republican Primary League, to build a personal base. A number of union leaders joined the League.

The groundswell of support for a labor party drew Ruef’s attention. Here were possibly greener pastures for an ambitious politico. As Ruef himself wrote, “I saw that without strong outside leadership the Union Labor Party would never succeed, but if properly organized and handled . . . it might broaden out into an organization of importance.” He determined to be an important figure in that organization.

By influencing union members of the League who were delegates, Ruef was able to write the platform, elect his choice for permanent secretary, and his nominee for mayor. In a shrewd move Ruef pushed forward his friend Eugene Edward Schmitz.

Peculiar Road to Power

Schmitz was a union man, President of the Musicians Union. At the same time he was personally able to fit into the role of mayor. Tall, handsome and commanding, as conductor of an orchestra he was used to appearing before upper-class audiences. Ruef believed Schmitz could bridge the gap between business and labor.

What Schmitz lacked was political acumen or the ability to resist Ruef. He protested he was not qualified to be mayor. Ruef had to assure him that he was, and that Ruef would be there to help all through his two-year term. Buoyed by this assurance, Schmitz made an effective speech (written by Ruef) to the convention, and won the nomination.

Except for technical posts such as coroner, union members were nominated for the eighteen supervisors’ seats and various other offices. San Francisco is in the unusual position where city and county boundaries coincide. Residents have both a city police chief and a county sheriff.

Ruef may have wanted to minimize the question of class in the campaign, but facts on the ground brought class to the fore, and lead to the victory of the ULP. The press, except for the Examiner, cried in alarm, “The working class is trying to take over the city!”

This perked the interest of the average worker who thought, “Why not?” Their thinking was expressed by Andrew Furuseth, president of the Sailors Union, who had first opposed the ULP, but changed his position. He said, “We have a class government now, and a dangerous one, I think . . . In as much as we are to have a class government, I most emphatically prefer a working class government.”

Most union leaders who endorsed the ULP believed it would curb the power of the business class and rule as a neutral agent in the interest of all. Schmitz campaigned along these lines. But on the issue that lead to the birth of ULP he was dear. He promised, “If elected Mayor I assure you the spectacle of seeing policemen on trucks, acting as guides for scabs, will never occur in San Francisco.”

This brought the workers out to vote and gave Schmitz a plurality vote of 21,806, to 17,699 for Wells, the Republican, and 12,684 for the Democrat Tobin. Three ULP supervisors were elected but none of the administration officers.

Business interests could blame themselves for the ULP victory. While raising the red scare, they did little to unite conservative forces. They did not present a single fusion candidate who would have defeated Schmitz. The Phelan administration made no effort to placate enraged strikers clubbed by the police. This antagonized part of the general public who sympathized with the strikers.

The ULP Administration

This modest victory by workers in far-off San Francisco aroused concern in business circles across the country. A politician alerted President Theodore Roosevelt. “Labor Parties may be formed in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere, and next we will have a national Labor Party,” he warned.

Unfortunately no such blossoming of labor parties occurred as Mayor Schmitz settled into the routine of his office. A period of growth and prosperity made it easy for his administration to offer good government without much dissension.

In the area of labor relations, he fulfilled his election promise. A new police chief ended clubbings and harassing of strikers. Strikes were settled often through Schmitz’s pressure on employers.

There was growing criticism of Schmitz’s dose association with Ruef, especially as Ruef maintained ties to the Republican Party. The Building Trades Council maintained their hostility to the ULP. An official expressed it by writing, “The prattling parasite who preaches class hatred and scares away investors from this great and glorious city is a public enemy.”

This jeremiad did not shake Schmitz’s working-class base and he won re-election in 1903 with 26,016 votes to 19,621 and 12,578. Again only two ULP Supervisors were elected. And again capitalists could not unite on a single candidate who could have won.

A fairly uneventful two years followed. Merchants enjoyed prosperity, workers won strikes and improved their lot. By 1905, however, business interests decided two terms were enough for Schmitz and his union people. This time they would run a single fusion candidate against him.

Like an artillery barrage that softens up the enemy before an advance, the Dem-Rep alliance fired accusations of corruption at the administration. Everything from ballot stuffing to operation of a brothel was charged. This tactic was not very effective. The more egregious the civic sins alleged, the less were believed, as no evidence was produced.

Then the men of property resorted to overkill. They invited Herbert George, of Denver, to advise their campaign. He had lead the Denver Alliance of Businessmen in a campaign that crushed the labor movement in that city. He was feared and loathed by every worker who knew of him. Now he was in their midst!

The Herbert George tactic boomeranged so thoroughly that Union Labor candidates won every seat they contested. Now the ULP was in charge and responsible for anything that went on in city hall.

Members of the newly elected Board of Supervisors were union men but they did not go back to their unions for guidance. The Central Labor Council was not part of the ULP and the Building Trades were hostile. The ULP County Committee concerned itself mainly with political appointments and patronage.

Except when strikes and labor issues concerned city hall, the worker supervisors performed much as any city politician would. They governed under the motto, “Equal rights for all; special privileges for none.” In such times of general prosperity they were not going to shake up San Francisco.

San Francisco was soon shaken up by a far greater force: the earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906. Mayor Schmitz displayed his best qualities in this crisis. Day and night he was seen all over the city, mobilizing resources and minimizing panic.

An observer wrote, “He showed a gift for organization and command that heartened a people appalled by disaster and bowed with a great weight of woe.” In a few months he was fated to slide from this pinnacle of approbation to prosecution and prison.

The Fatal Disease of Bossism

The problem with labor supervisors running a city government much as a Republican or Democratic administration would, is that they could succumb to the endemic disease of political bossism.

Many big cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and New York were essentially controlled by shady figures who extorted bribes to gain franchises and other services from the city. Boss Tweed of New York was the most notorious of this period. Boss Abraham “Curly” Ruef played that role in San Francisco. “Go see Ruef” was the advice given to applicants for city permits and contracts.

Ruef, in the largest law firm in town. offered to represent the businessman for an attorney’s fee. The path from an attorney’s fee to a bribe to city hall personnel was carefully hidden, and hard to prove.

The press was pillorying Mayor Schmitz for every crime in the civic calendar: His appointments were bad, he was in bed with the liquor and sex trade interests, and he had a lavish life style his salary could not support.

No one directly raised the indictable offense of bribe taking. Many business men were profiting by access through Ruef to city hall, and did not want to shake things up. Some of the top echelon of corporate power, however, saw a chance to deal the Union Labor administration a fatal blow, and joined the national “Good Government” drive against city bosses.

Former Mayor James Phelan, Fremont Older, editor of the Evening Bulletin, and Rudolph Spreckels, wealthy member of the Spreckels Sugar interests, formed a committee to overthrow the Schmitz-Ruef regime. Finding only lukewarm support from local business interests, Spreckels said he would oust the ULP even if he had to do it alone.

Spreckels went to Washington and saw President Teddy Roosevelt. He persuaded the federal government to release its star investigator, William J. Burns, to head a team of investigators. It was understood that his expenses would be paid by the committee. Spreckels pledged to pay all expenses out of his own pocket.

Burns found plenty of evidence of civic malfeasance. A more titillating instance was the case of the French restaurants. Unlike the staid French restaurants of today, they maintained brothels on the second and third floors. Burns’ men found payment records made out to Ruef, Schmitz, and members of the board of supervisors to let them operate without inspection.

A more serious case was the overhead wire issue. A national company, United Railroads, applied for a franchise to operate a street car system with overhead power lines. Powerful interests wanted a system with underground conduits for power; more expensive, but better for the city.

When the Mayor granted a thirty-five-year franchise to United Railroads, a cry of payoff rose, and Burns dug for evidence. He found it, and more—unsavory cases involving a telephone company, a gas company, and practically any concern doing business with the city. It was time for the grand jury.

On November 15, 1906 a grand jury indicted Abraham Ruef and Eugene E. Schmitz on five counts of extorting money from the French restaurants. Five specific restaurants were named. Bail was set at $50,000.

Sixteen members of the board of supervisors were confronted with evidence of their personal payoffs. Under fear of serious consequences, they were persuaded to testify against Ruef and Schmitz.

In May, 1907 Ruef pleaded guilty to the charges against him, and Schmitz was convicted in June. The self-confessed supervisors were forced to resign, to be replaced by non-union party men.

A Tangled Web They Wove

This would seem the end of the road for the Union Labor Party. But it wasn’t. The ULP came back into power in 1909, thanks again to the contradictions and conflicts in the ranks of the propertied class.

The problem lay in the scope of the prosecution. It took long protracted months of legal struggle to convict Ruef and almost as long for Schmitz. Then they had to go after the bribe givers. This meant officials of United Railways, the telephone company, real estate developers; some of the most prominent citizens of San Francisco.

It was estimated those indicted possessed personal and corporate wealth worth $600 million: three times that in today’s money. It would not be easy to put these folk in jail.

It took two years and twenty-two days after his indictment to find Abe Ruef guilty. More years would pass trying to put some of the corporate crooks behind bars.

Francis J. Heney, the prosecutor, pushed doggedly. Patrick Calhoun, CEO of United Railroads, was the first of more than a dozen bribe givers scheduled for trial. High-priced lawyers pursued delaying tactics at every step; a procedure that might take hours was stretched, by delays, into days or weeks.

When the case reached the jury, they could not agree. The case had to be tried over again. Then a higher state court reversed the conviction on the most specious grounds. It was obvious the well connected would not go to jail.

Meanwhile, dramatic events put the public’s nerves on edge. Fremont Older, the crusading editor, was kidnapped on a train to Los Angeles. Another figure in the case jumped off a boat in San Francisco Bay. More dramatically yet, Prosecutor Heney was shot and badly wounded in his court room, by an ex-juror.

The public was getting weary. More important: the “better” class of people were getting alarmed that some of their own might actually go to jail! It was noted that the indicted corporate executives did not lose their social standing when charged with crime. Giving bribes was part of doing business.

The prosecutions must be called off! This cry was echoed by state forces lead by the Los Angeles Times, declaring in a scarcely restrained editorial that Heney “is a busted stinkpot . . . an ignorant, noisy cowpuncher … a product of the slums of San Francisco. . . a public calamity . . . who would keep San Francisco in a perpetual boil of passion.”

The 1909 election centered on the prosecutions. The ULP equivocated. They wanted to jail the wealthy bribe givers, but they hated Heney who put the Union Labor administration out of business. Heney, recovered from his wounds, was now running for district attorney.

The ULP Convention nominated Patrick Henry McCarthy, president of the Building Trades Council, for mayor, and a full slate of union members for the rest of the ticket. Labor issues were not stressed at the convention, nor in the platform.

This evoked sharp criticism from the Sailors of the Pacific. Their paper said the platform was “a blunt appeal to the narrowest and most selfish interests of the merchants and business interests . .. as an expression of the interests of labor it is an insult and a crime.”

There was no excuse for slighting the interests of the workers. Labor was still a potent force. Over 45,000 marched in the 1909 Labor Day parade. True, voter registration was 10,546 ULP to 47,945 Republicans—yet the Union Labor Party won.

Obviously thousands of Republicans voted for the ULP to defeat Feney. With his defeat, and the realization the corrupt state courts would reverse convictions, the reformers lost heart and prosecutions were dropped.

The McCarthy administration pledged an honest government that would erase the stains of the Schmitz-Ruef era. It was a conservative regime concerned mainly with bond issues to finance rebuilding projects. Labor gained little.

McCarthy prevented a lockout when hog carriers demanded an eight-hour day. Then he blocked the Building Trade Council’s demand for higher wages. He said wages were as high as business could afford. This “even handed” policy practically erased the label “union labor” from the McCarthy administration.

When the 1911 election came round the ULP lost every office. A new state law eliminating party labels in municipal elections, and the loss of workers’ interest, sounded the death knell for the Union Labor Party.

ULP: What Kind of Party?

The Sailors said the ULP was not a true labor party. It is not clear whether they meant it had never been a labor party. Certainly it was founded by union members, supported by union members, running union members for office on a prolabor platform.

It did not, however have the initial support of two powerful institutions of labor: the Building Trades Council, and the Central Labor Council. If these forces had played an active role in 1901 the scoundrel, Abe Ruef, would never have been able to take over.

It was the fact of the class struggle that kept the ULP going for so many years. In the elections when the propertied class openly threatened labor, workers demonstrated their strength.

The Union Labor Party was unable to spread beyond San Francisco. They ran some state candidates but these were mostly on joint tickets with Democrats. Then the ULP forces operating on the state level feuded with the San Francisco County Committee, so that tactic did not get very far.

The San Francisco experience demonstrates that workers will react when the class enemy pushes too hard. At the same time, it shows that to succeed a labor party must have the active support and participation of the union movement and its organizations.


“Union Labor Party 1901-1911.” Doctoral Dissertation by Edward Joseph Rowell 1937; University of California.

A Debonair Scoundrel, by Lately Thomas, 1962.

My Own Story, by Fremont Older, 1926.

“A Corner in Labor, What is happening in San Francisco,” by Ray Stannard Baker; McClures Magazine, February 1904.

ATC 81, July-August 1999