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The Heyday of California Progressivism
The Governorship of Hiram Johnson, 1911-1917 

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“Give us a square deal ... for Christ's sake.” 1 With this prayer the chaplain of the legislature opened the 39th legislative session in 1911, one of the most productive in California history. The list of reforms was extensive.

Direct democracy was instituted, with the legislature incorporating the initiative, referendum and recall into the State's constitution, with approval of California voters (the Constitution of 1879 required voter approval for all new constitutional amendments). Of the three, the recall was the most controversial, as it included judges in the list of officials that might be recalled, causing critics to howl that the independence of the judiciary was under attack. Johnson pointed out that California never had a truly independent judiciary, and proclaimed it would be better if judges were beholden to the people rather than to the railroad.2

A tough new railroad regulation law was passed, drafted by the progressive railroad commissioner John Eshleman. The size of the railroad commission was increased from three to five members, and the powers of the commission to set rates and counter discriminatory practices was increased. The authority of the Railroad Commission was expanded to include the regulation of gas and electric companies and other utilities, and the railroad commission eventually altered its name to match its new role, becoming the Public Utilities Commission. State regulation of the railroads was both successful and popular, and even William Herrin, former arch-henchman of the Southern Pacific's political bureau and current company Vice President publicly conceded that “no railroad manager would agree to dispense with government regulation at the cost of returning to the old conditions.” 3

To help promote good governance, the State Board of Control was created, under the initial direction John Francis Neylan. Neylan and the Board introduced modern budgetary practices, carefully estimating revenues so that it might be know how much was available for expenditures. Neylan eventually saved the state $300,000 a year, and while he had entered during a deficit, he left office in 1917 with a $4.5 million surplus, a budgetary tribute to the efficient administration of the progressives.4

Perhaps the most controversial issue of the 1911 session was women's suffrage. Johnson himself was a lukewarm supporter of suffrage, refusing to comment about the issue during his campaign. However, Johnson's supporters feared alienating the well-organized progressive ladies circles in Southern California, and thus created a suffragist plank in exchange for the vast moral support these organizations could end Johnson's campaign. Many prominent female progressives stumped for Johnson. Once elected, the progressive Republicans made good their word, submitting the constitutional amendment to be approved by (male) voters.

The amendment barely passed with 3,500 votes in the majority. Conservatives had railed against the measure, believing it would destroy the family and possibly promote female sexual license. Even more ferocious was the opposition of the Irish immigrants in San Francisco, who feared that women's suffrage would give electoral teeth to the female-dominated temperance movement. Such fears were warranted, for many progressives hoped that giving women the vote would enfranchise the supposed moral superiority of the sex to be unleashed against “the saloon element, the gambling element and the selfish element.” 5

Temperance was an issue in which the two great cities of the state stood at odds. San Francisco had over 400 saloons in a 40-block section, whereas Los Angeles prided itself in having more churches than saloons. Much of Johnson's Southern California support was due to the fact that Johnson's party was dominated by anti-salooners and temperance advocates whereas Bell's Democrats pandered to the wet vote of San Francisco. Progressives in Los Angeles enacted an anti-saloon act, keeping the drink legal but forbidding saloons to be built on locations most convenient for working-class patrons—away from factories and residential districts. San Francisco remained as inundated in booze as ever. California did not become a dry state until the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed in 1919, the last great achievement of the nationwide progressive movement. The 18th amendment and subsequent Volstead Act were welcomed by many, but were ruinous to the booming California wine industry, which until then produced some 80% of the nation's wine. 6

Public morality was a top priority for the freshly empowered progressives. The legislature banned slot machines, with many lawmakers swayed by the presentation of a manufactures' guide explaining how the machines could be calibrated to improve the odds in the house's favor.7 Betting on horse racing was likewise prohibited. They cracked down on prostitution by making pimping illegal and re-defining pandering to make madams liable for prosecution.

Progressives always had an ambivalent feeling about organized labor. Starched collared sons of the middle class identified poorly with blue collared laborers. Many progressives downright detested the efforts of organized labor, fearing the roots of socialism in labor unions and seeing anarchy in strikes. Anti-labor sentiment was strongest in Los Angeles, where progressives allied themselves with Garrison Otis to enact anti-picketing and open shop ordinances that effectively derailed organized labor in the City of Angels.

In stark contrast, San Francisco was one of the most organized city in the nation. It was from the City by the Bay that Hiram Johnson hailed, and he had for years served as an attorney for the Teamster's Union. Johnson was thus inclined to be more sympathetic to labor than many of his progressive fellows. Likewise, in the legislature, there existed a strong block of San Francisco legislators, most of whom considered themselves progressives, all of whom could ill-afford to ignore the needs of their unionized constituents.8 Between the force of Johnson's political persona and the clout of these San Francisco lawmakers, complimented by the zealous activities of labor lobbyists, organized labor in California made some of its greatest legal gains during the Johnson years.

High on labor's priority was a Worker's Compensation Act. Previously, workers could only receive compensation for injuries suffered on the job if the employer was directly negligent. The negligence of another employee, or even a freak accident were not grounds under common law to require employers to issue recompense. Under the new law, employers were responsible for all injuries suffered by employees, unless these were due to the employee's own gross negligence. The Worker's Compensation Act of 1911 made such compensation voluntary; in 1913 the law was amended to require compulsory compensation. The freshly created Industrial Safety Commission established uniform standards for employers. A minimum wage was established for women, whose employment was also limited to an eight-hour day, thus giving in to the demands of female lobbyists that women workers be allowed enough off time to effectively raise their families. Notably exempted from this provision, however, was the canning industry, the biggest employer of female workers in the state. To enforce the wage law, the industrial welfare commission was established, with Katherine Philip Edson as its executive officer.

Johnson's support of labor was not absolute. Most notably he used his political clout to kill a proposed anti-injunction law, proclaiming privately "that's going too far." 9 Many progressives came to the conclusion that labor unions, like big corporations, were a reality that could not be discounted, but hoped to reduce the clout of powerful unions by giving the state an active role in looking after the welfare of workers.

Yet the class violence that the progressives so badly hoped to avert occurred nonetheless. The Los Angeles Times building exploded in 1910, killing 21 workers. Unionists and socialists blamed a faulty gas pipe, and charged that the notoriously anti-labor Otis should be condemned for forcing his workers to slave away in an unsafe environment.10 However, it quickly became apparent that the Los Angeles Times building had been bombed by two socialist agitators, who both readily confessed. The shocking crime ended the election hope of Socialist mayoral candidate Job Harriman and drove many formerly moderate progressives into the rabidly conservative camp on labor issues.

Labor unrest was not confined to the cities. In 1913, workers near the town of Wheatland rioted, railing against of the sorry plight of California's migratory agricultural workers. The unrest exploded after 2500 workers flocked to a Yuba County hops field, despite the fact that there was only work for 1500. The migratory camp that sprung up was overcrowded and lacking in basic sanitary facilities. Those lucky enough to be offered work were no given access to water during their toil in the blazing sun, even when they pleaded with their employer to allow them to hire a water truck out of their own pockets. Meanwhile, representatives of the International Workers of the World (aka IWW or “Wobblies”), a leftist organization of unskilled workers, began agitating the camp. When the Sheriff and District Attorney arrived to arrest the 'wobblies,' shooting erupted. A Sheriff Deputy, district attorney and two workers died in the exchange of bullets. Johnson immediately sent the National Guard to restore order. In response to the Wheatland riots, the Commission of Immigration and Housing was created, empowered to inspect agricultural labor camps, and a law was passed requiring employers to provide drinking water to their workers. 11

In 1916 a bomb exploded during the Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco, killing ten and wounding many others. Labor unions had long opposed preparedness for the raging European war, seeing it as a movement of bellicose bourgeoisie boosters who were eager to sacrifice the sons of the working-class to the European violence. The conservative element in the city acted quickly and dubiously, arresting several suspects without evidence and conducting a questionable trial that resulted in a death sentence for radical activist William Mooney.12 Governor Stephens commuted Mooney's sentence to life in prison, after some prodding from President Woodrow Wilson. Mooney and his assistant Billings were finally pardoned in 1937 by Governor Culbert Olson. The extralegal viciousness with which the defendants were arrested, tried, and sentenced suggested that with the increasingly paranoia of the approaching war, the attempts of the progressives to mediate in class struggle was coming to naught.

The progressives were the standard bearers of conservationism. Across America, many progressives felt that the greed of corporations and industry was fecklessly depleting America's natural resources, which they believed should be carefully conserved and scientifically managed so that they might last to benefit future generations. One of the foremost California conservationists was William Kent, a resident of Marin Country. In 1908, Kent, disturbed that a local utilities company was planning to cut down a stand of redwood trees near Mt. Tamalpais, purchased the trees with his own funds and then donated them to the State of California. The park was called Muir Woods, in honor of the noted California naturalist John Muir.13 In 1909, Kent successfully led the fight to save the waters of Lake Tahoe from being tapped and diverted into private hydroelectric dams. His victory placed him in the national spotlight, and he ran successfully for Congress in 1910. However, while Kent proved the expemplar of Western conservationism in Congress, he was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Hitchhikes reservoir.

Progressives like Kent prided themselves as being rationalists and pragmatists, and at the heart of the conservationist movement was the notion that natural resources should be used to benefit the most people possible. Although Kent and other conservationists readily agreed that the nation needed to preserve vast tracts of wild so that weary urbanites might go there seeking solace and refreshment, they did not hold the wilderness sacred. Indeed, Hetch-Hetchy promised to be a fulfillment of a major progressive goal: the reservoir was to be controlled by the city of San Francisco rather than by private interests, freeing the city of private water companies. Once more, few people were able to make the rugged hike required to enter the remote Hetch-Hetchy Valley, and the reservoir while destroying the aesthetic fulfillment of the rugged few, would have practical benefits for thousands of thirsty San Franciscans.14 Thus in 1913, the long delayed construction of the dam was approved by the federal government (the Secretary of the Interior under freshly elected President Woodrow Wilson was San Francisco progressive lawyer Frank Lane, who expedited the delayed process), much to the distress of John Muir, who had lobbied hard against the proposal, and succeeded in postponing it for several years.

By far the most dubious measure passed by the progressives was the 1911 Alien Land Law, which prohibited those aliens not eligible for citizenship from purchasing or leasing land in California. It was targeted directly at the Japanese, the only major immigrant group in the state ineligible for citizenship (the Chinese were banned from entering the country all together). The law was actually keeping with the core values of the progressives, whose vision of a reformed America was decidedly Anglo-Saxon. The California progressives retained old California prejudices, as Asians had endured rabid discrimination since the time of the Gold Rush. Incoming Japanese immigrants quickly found themselves the target of the same hatred that had previously been reserved for the now excluded Chinese. In 1906, the San Francisco school board banned Japanese students from attending regular public school courses. This provoked outrage in Japan, and Japanese diplomats vigorously protested in Washington on behalf of their citizen's abroad. President Roosevelt, not wishing the decision of a local school board to explode into an international crisis (American gunners on Corrigidor were placed on around-the-clock alert), intervened. He convinced the San Francisco school board to allow Japanese students to attend the same classes as white children. However, he exacted on California's behalf a "Gentleman's Agreement" from Japan, which tacitly agreed to severely limit the issuance of emigration visas to the United States. With Japanese immigration curtailed, the progressive lawmakers now used the Alien Land Law to lash out once more in a fashion popular with California voters. For Johnson, the act also had an edge of sweet political vengeance, as Wilson had campaigned in California on a staunch anti-Japanese platform, attacking the Roosevelt-Johnson ticket for appeasing the Japanese in 1906.15 Now, as Wilson's Secretary of State traveled to Sacramento to warn that the bill would endanger United States relations with Japan, Johnson haughtily thumbed his nose at the President and signed it into law.

Yet the legislative accomplishments of the progressives, when taken in balance, were positive and impressive. With direct democracy, woman's suffrage, labor legislation, and railroad and utilities reform the progressives tackled the state's problems with an energy and enthusiasm that has seldom been displayed in the history of California politics.


Go To: The Wane of Progressivism



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