General Otis didn’t have the public dialogue all to himself. There was vocal opposition from a small group of union activists and socialists. This group was led by Job Harriman, a young, idealistic and articulate lawyer who believed passionately that fairness in the workplace was crucial to Southern California’s future.
At the time Harriman arrived in Los Angeles in 1895, General Otis was on his way to dominating that city’s politics. Though he played only a minor role in the fight between employers and their employees, year after year, Harriman persisted, giving hope to the disenfranchised, encouraging everyone to become registered voters. Harriman understood that the reforms needed to protect workers’ rights could only come through the ballot box, and in turn, the adoption of laws more favorable to wage earners. He knew that Otis’s organization, M & M would test him every step of the way. Yet, after 15 years of struggling, as the year 1910 began, it seemed that history had smiled on Job Harriman. Help was on the way.
At the dawn of the 20th century, San Francisco was the center of the American labor movement on the West Coast. Seizing the opportunities created by the “Great Earthquake of 1906” in which nearly 3,000 people perished and 80% of the city was destroyed, the building trades’ organizers had turned the Bay City into a stronghold of unionism. Exploiting the urgent need for skilled workers to rebuild the city, “the building trades unions had taken advantage of the destruction …to fasten close-shop conditions on every phase of the construction work.” It wasn’t long before nearly every job in the city was a union job.
To the south, in Los Angeles, under the leadership of the A.F. of L., dozens of unions in Los Angeles – some with little more than a handful of workers – united themselves as the “Central Labor Council.” The A.F. of L. was “thoroughly alarmed by the furious anti-unionism rampant in Los Angeles [and] singled out the California city for special considerations.” It created the Los Angeles Fund and encouraged its national membership to help their struggling brothers in the City of Angels. To the delight of Job Harriman and his allies, San Francisco’s Central Labor Council spear-headed the effort to expand membership in southern California.
Harriman saw a door open. Maybe General Otis and his business allies had met their match. Union support for Harriman’s mayoral candidacy was immeasurable. Though only nominally a member of the defense team for the McNamara Brothers, Harriman played that role for all it was worth. At the November election of 1911 Harriman came in first in a three-person race, requiring him to square off against incumbent Mayor Alexander in a special run-off election in December. What he could never have imagined was just how tightly his fortunes were tied to those of the two brothers charged with murder of 20 people. In between the November and December elections, upon the recommendation of Darrow, the McNamara Brothers pled guilty. Labor was no longer excited about his candidacy. All the air went out of Harriman’s campaign and he lost his election to Mayor Alexander.