1. DIVIDE & CONQUER
Workers were organizing on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. from the day the company came into existence.
In fact, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers had already organized seven separate locals on California Gas and Electric when that company merged with San Francisco Gas and Electric to form PG&E in 1905. It was an era when almost anything seemed possible for San Francisco’s workers and their unions.
In 1901, San Francisco voters elected Eugene Schmitz of the Union Labor Party as mayor, primarily because Schmitz promised to halt the use of police to break strikes. Another Union Labor Party candidate became mayor in 1909: P. H. McCarthy, president of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council.
But these impressive victories at the ballot box did not insure justice for working people in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. In 1907, Patrick Calhoun, head of United Railroads, imported strikebreakers and armed them with pistols to break a strike by the Street Carmen’s Union. That conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 25 people and another 2000 injured.
Business escalated its attack on organized labor in the second decade of the century when the Chamber of Commerce (with PG&E as one of its principal members) launched an open shop drive. The IBEW was a chief victim of this anti-labor campaign. The IBEW had become seriously divided in 1908 when a group of members known as the Reid faction seceded and formed a separate union. In 1910 the Reid faction, operating as the Pacific District Council, renewed the union contract with PG&E. It included wage increases, a closed shop and an expense allowance for keep of a horse and wagon.
In 1912, the merger of numerous unions, including the Reid faction of the IBEW, produced the Light and Power Council of California. But by this time PG&E was more interested in the open shop drive than in renewing union contracts. On May 7, 1913, the Reid faction struck PG&E. The International office of the IBEW sided with the other IBEW faction, known as the McNulty faction.
The strike was less than three weeks old when the McNulty faction and PG&E signed an agreement that contained less favorable terms than the previous contract. The new contract also specifically barred the hiring of members of the Reid faction.
However, the Reid faction continued its strike, drawing support from a number of local labor councils, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and a militant union organizer named Tom Mooney who had also assisted the street carmen’s strike. But the American Federation of Labor convention in November of 1913 failed to support the Reid faction’s strike and on January 14, 1914, the strike collapsed.
Already PG&E was becoming well-practiced in the art of divide and conquer.
2. PREPAREDNESS DAY BOMBING
The start of World War I in Europe in 1914 had serious consequences for the US labor movement. America’s workers in the beginning generally opposed the war, viewing it as a capitalist war over markets in which innocent workers on both sides were the victims. Business leaders, however, tended to favor US intervention and in 1916 they sponsored numerous Preparedness Day” parades around the country.
In San Francisco, the Preparedness Day Parade was organized by Thornwell Mullally, former counsel for the United Railroads and the man who had helped put down the 1907 street carmen strike. Business leaders hoped to whip up pro-war sentiment and use it to bolster their open shop ambitions.
Workers, not surprisingly, stayed away from the San Francisco Preparedness Day Parade, held on July 22, 1916. As a contingent of marchers passed by PG&E headquarters on Market Street, a bomb exploded nearby, killing 10 people. Perjured testimony was used to convict union activists Tom Mooney and Warren Billings of murder, despite the fact that photographic evidence positively placed them far from the scene of the crime at the time of the bombing. To this day some unionists believe that PG&E itself was probably behind the bombing, while others believe that anarchists were more likely responsible.
Whoever was responsible, Tom Mooney, the union organizer who had assisted PG&E strikers, and Warren Billings were the ones unjustly railroaded to prison.
The year after World War I, 1919, brought with it an explosion of labor activism. American workers staged 3,630 strikes involving more than 4 million workers. Industry and government reacted swiftly and violently to this unprecedented series of labor uprisings. Industrial leaders organized the American Plan”, an effort to identify the open shop with Americanism while identifying unions with the recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The Industrial Association of San Francisco, which led the open shop drive on the Pacific Coast, had a secret agreement that required employers to cease doing business with any businessmen who signed union agreements.
The US government jumped feet first into the anti-labor crusade. It had already wiped out the leadership structure of the IWW in massive raids conducted in September of 1917. In 1919, US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer organized a General Intelligence Division” and put a young FBI agent named J. Edgar Hoover in charge.
On January 2, 1920, Hoover launched massive raids on labor and political groups across the nation. Over 10,000 people were arrested, mailing lists were seized, membership records destroyed. A significant part of the labor movement, which had shown so much vitality in the wake of World War I, was destroyed virtually overnight. The part that survived was subjected to relentless corporate harassment under the so-called American Plan.
PG&E in 1921 seized this opportunity to cancel its agreement with the IBEW. For the next 12 years, unionism made no headway on the property, a fact that was reflected in the living standards of workers. In the middle of the roaring 20’s”, when American business elite’s were making millions, much of it in wasteful speculation, wages for linemen at PG&E were frozen in 1927 at $170 per month.
And they stayed at that level for several years.
3. ONE BIG UNION: THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD
Even with their leadership structure smashed by government raids, the Industrial Workers of the World (known as Wobblies”) continued to press for industrial unionism under the banner of One Big Union of All the Workers.” One Wobbly stronghold was the lumberindustry of the Pacific Northwest. In 1931 the IWW picked up a new recruit–a lad from Modesto, California named L. L. Mitch” Mitchell:
I was only about fifteen years old at the time. I went to work in the woods up above Fresno at Shaver Lake, Sugar Pine Lumber Company, and that’s where I got indoctrinated into the union. They had the IWW there. That’s where I really learned what union power was. This old guy I used to work with–he was funny–he would say, ‘You know, Mitch, there’s no way in the world that those bosses are going to hear you with that mill running. We’ve got to shut it down.’ And that was what they’d do. If that didn’t work, then they’d burn it down.
The IWW wouldn’t have a contract; that meant you were bound to something. So they wouldn’t sign a contract. Their way of getting things was job action. You asked for something. If you didn’t get it, you quit work. It was just that simple. When they got enough of what they wanted, they’d go back to work again. It happened almost daily. If the grub was no good, you don’t work the next day. If the beds are no good, you don’t work the next day. You know, just until they get new beds.
Their own strength was the thing,” Mitchell continues. You can one guy, the whole job walked off. They were united. And of course you’ve got to remember that loggers may log in Washington, they may log here, they may log in Canada. They were a real fraternity. They knew each other and they all had names like ‘Three-fingered Jack’ and ‘Broken-toed John’. There was a camaraderie that you don’t have now.”
The IWW believed that since workers were the ones who produced the nation’s wealth, they ought to be the ones to run the show. Unlike the American Federation of Labor, which believed that union membership should be restricted to skilled craftsmen, the Wobblies sought to organize all workers–skilled and unskilled alike.
The IWW was launched in 1905 by some of the nation’s most famous labor activists: Mary Mother” Jones, Eugene Debs, William Big Bill” Haywood, and Lucy Parsons, widow of one of the Haymarket martyrs. But much of the working class wasn’t yet ready for the IWW message of radical industrial democracy. That, coupled with the violent crackdown by federal agents, state militia and company goon squads, doomed the Wobbly dream of One Big Union” of all the workers.
As a result, unions during the 1920s continued to be organized largely along craft lines, while workers in the industrial sector were left to fend for themselves. But even as the Wobblies disappeared from the national scene in the 1930s, their message of industrial unionism took on fresh appeal to American workers as the nation sank deep into the Great Depression.
4. THE NEW DEAL AND THE CIO
In 1933, the Utility Gas & Electric Employees, an independent union, began organizing on PG&E property. It was the same year that Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as president, promising Americans a New Deal.”
And a new deal was certainly needed. Four years of economic depression following the 1929 stock market crash left America’s working class in a wretched state. Unemployment in the first few months of the crash increased almost ten-fold, from 492,000 to over 4.5 million in March of 1930. By March of 1933, unemployment had reached 15 million, approximately one-third of the workforce.
The National Industrial Recovery Act, passed shortly after Roosevelt took office in 1933, was a beacon in the darkness for the nation’s dispirited working class. Section 7a of the NIRA provided, for the first time, a legal basis for union organizing. However, the craft-oriented American Federation of Labor continued to resist calls that it begin organizing workers on an industrial basis.
Nonetheless, local unions of industrial workers in 1933 began to spring up seemingly out of nowhere. Among them: the Utility Gas & Electric Employees at PG&E, the first union activity on PG&E property since 1921.
Anger over the catastrophic depression–and hope that workers themselves could do something about it–proved to be a combustible mix. Labor activity escalated in 1934. Massive strikes hit Toledo, Ohio, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. A Longshoreman’s strike in San Francisco during the spring turned into a General Strike in July after two workers were killed by police in a day of fierce rioting remembered still as Bloody Thursday.
In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act”), which provided for union representation elections and created the National Labor Relations Board to administer labor laws. But still the AFL offered no plan for organizing industrial workers.
Finally, in late 1935, industrial labor agitation found a national leader when John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers called together like-minded labor leaders to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations. By the end of 1936, the CIO was pitted against the citadel of corporate capitalism, General Motors. Thousands of Michigan autoworkers staged sit-down strikes for union recognition. Lewis played a pivotal role in bringing General Motors to the bargaining table in February 1937. Less than a month later, another corporate giant, US Steel, came to the table to sign a contract with the CIO’s Steel Workers Organizing Committee. These well-publicized victories fired the imagination of America’s working class, prompting a wave of sit-down strikes.
It was in this highly-charged atmosphere that the Utility Gas & Electric Employees union at PG&E proceeded to affiliate with the United Electrical and Radio Workers (UE)–a militant national industrial union–and petitioned the National Labor Relations Board in April for a union representation election on the PG&E system. Assigned to assist their effort was the West Coast representative for the CIO: Harry Bridges, leader of the 1934 Longshoremen strike. For many PG&E workers it must have seemed that a union–at long last–was at hand.
5. THE UE ELECTION OF 1937
When Mitch Mitchell left the woods in 1935 to go to work for PG&E, he brought with him a lesson he learned from the IWW: unity was strength. To succeed, workers had to stick together.
But Mitchell did not share the Wobblies’ scorn for contracts. He believed some sort of structure was necessary to build stable labor relations with employers and produce long-term gains for workers. When the UE launched its organizing drive in 1937, Mitchell chose to back the IBEW, which at that time was still primarily an old-style craft union. Mitchell would later make his peace with CIO activists in the utility industry, but the UE organizers in 1937 were too militant for his tastes:
I think that was one of the reasons I was AFL; I’d seen too much of that militancy in the old Wobbly organization. [Militancy] was a good thing, but there was just no rationalizing anything. You just walked off the job and you got what you wanted: no compromise, no negotiations, no nothing. It was either black or white. I felt in order for stability to occur you had to have some kind of an agreement, a contract…”
The IBEW briefly joined the 1937 union election campaign on the PG&E system, but dropped out before the vote. However, another union entered the contest in May of 1937 and won a place on the ballot: the California Gas and Electric Employees. It didn’t take real unionists long to figure out that the CG&EE was nothing but a front for PG&E, a company-sponsored union. By promoting the CG&EE, PG&E hoped to divert support away from legitimate unions.
PG&E’s action coincided with a nationwide counter-offensive by corporate America against the rising tide of industrial unionism. The CIO’s initial victories in the auto and steel industries had been due in part to the political influence of CIO President John L. Lewis. Both Gov. Frank Murphy of Michigan and President Roosevelt were indebted to Lewis for past political support, debts that Lewis called in during the auto strike. In Pennsylvania, the center of steel organizing, Lewis had a well-situated ally: the lieutenant governor was also the secretary-treasurer of Lewis’s union, the UMW!
By the late spring of 1937, however, the CIO found itself losing its second campaign in the steel industry–the so-called Little Steel” strike against the smaller steel companies. By the end of 1937 the nation was suffering another economic downturn, unemployment soared once again, and the CIO lost momentum across the nation.
The UE finally got its system-wide election in December of that year, but the historical moment had already passed. The fledgling union was no match for PG&E’s organizational clout. The company made clear to its employees that they were expected to vote for the CG&EE, the company union. Mitchell, who was on vacation at the time of the election, remembers being instructed by PG&E to come back and vote for the CG&EE. Faced with such blatant corporate subversion of the election process, the UE drive went down to defeat.
6. PG&E DEFIES NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD
Shortly after the election results were in, the UE filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, charging PG&E with illegally promoting a company union.
Two months after the election, on February 16, 1938, the NLRB refused to certify CG&EE. On August 12, the NLRB issued a complaint against PG&E, charging the company with promoting a company union. It was a serious charge. The National Labor Relations Act, after all, was passed in 1935 for the purpose of giving employees the right to democratically choose a bargaining representative. For the company to interfere in that process by promoting a phony union secretly controlled by the company would be to make a mockery of the most important labor law ever passed in the United States.
The following year, 1939, was a turning point in the long struggle to organize PG&E. Tom Mooney–the man who had assisted IBEW members during the 1913 strike at PG&E and who was framed by open shop forces for the 1916 Preparedness Day Parade bombing–was granted a full pardon by the governor of California after spending 23 years in prison. Gaining freedom for Mooney had been a cause for two decades among trade unionists around the world, including the UE organizers at PG&E. His vindication closed an important chapter in the history of labor organizing at PG&E. At the same time, the National Labor Relations Board was opening a new one.
On June 14, 1939, acting on its earlier finding that PG&E was promoting a company union, the NLRB ordered PG&E to cease and desist discouraging unionism and to post notices announcing it was doing so.
It was the beginning of the end of the open shop at PG&E. But PG&E clearly was not yet ready to wake up and smell the coffee. Instead, the company preferred to sleepwalk into the next decade, clinging to the phony patriotism of the open shop and scorning the National Labor Relations Act.
PG&E’s belligerent attitude was best revealed in a statement made by its vice president and general manager, P. M. Downing. After waiting the full 10 days allowed for a response to the NLRB order, Downing replied as follows: We advise you that the Company does not intend to post any notices of cease and desist, pursuant to your order.”
Downing’s defiant words made a lasting impression on the trade unionists struggling to organize PG&E. He became the embodiment of PG&E’s open contempt for the workers and for the law. Mitch Mitchell remembers Downing this way:
He was really anti-union. He said as long as he was head of PG&E there would never be a union on the property. And there never was. He finally croaked. He kept his word.”