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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Organized Workers and the Making of Los Angeles, 1890-1915


Three social forces set out to grow Los Angeles as the 19th century ended: free- market capitalists clustered around L.A. Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, a coterie of entrepreneurs and professionals who called themselves "progressives," and organized workers. Each group strove to direct the rewards of growth to classes it favored, and each pursued a competing vision of the city. The story of Otis and his free-market allies has often been told. So has the story of L.A.'s progressives. Both celebratory accounts have been shaped by the hardy American mega-narrative that privileges elites as the makers of history. Skewed by the same mega-narrative, the story of L.A.'s unions has also been told and retold as a tale of defeat, inconsequence, and woe. The conventional wisdom about progressive-era Los Angeles thus overcredits elites for the city's achievements, submerging the equally powerful role of organized workers.

This dissertation resurrects the political legacy of wage-earning men and women in 1890-1915 Los Angeles and offers a more realistic view of the progressives with whom they contended. Through thick archival research, it identifies and presents the voices of individual workers and progressives, reconstructs their conflicts, and assesses their impact on key growth elections and the capacities of the modernizing city.

Three revelations flow from this revisionist history of Los Angeles during its reign as "the citadel of the open shop": First, for better or worse, California owes its predilection for direct democracy (initiatives, referenda, and recalls) to the L.A. workers who fought longer and harder for this reform than any other group—precisely because it was an outsider's weapon.

Second, organized workers were the most consistent and effective campaigners for the municipally-run systems of water and power that benefit Angelenos today.

Third, the political struggles of L.A.'s unions a century ago fundamentally reshaped their city, forcing it into the market as a manager of great enterprises and making it much more democratic than it otherwise would have been. In so doing these unions demonstrated that the capitalist state, which constrains workers as a matter of course, has at times been sharply constrained by them.

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