General Otis and M & M

Between 1890 and 1895, sometimes with other newspapers, more often alone, General Otis waged war on the International Typographical Union, Local 174 (“ITU” or “Local 174”). Throughout this period, he viewed his showdowns with Local 174 as a death struggle, part of a holy war with the goal of remaining “masters of our own business.”

The General’s rallying cry for the next twenty years as leader of the city’s business community was “industrial freedom.” Otis ran a totally “open shop” and was the California labor movement’s most wealthy, powerful and articulate foe.  In time, the General became organized labor’s most hated person.  Otis reveled in his might, yet he was never content. In 1896, he reached out to other businessmen of like mind to form an association to promote their agenda. Their creation, the Merchants and Manufacturers Association (“M & M”), was to become their war machine against organized labor. In its prime, M & M was one of the business groups most hated by the American labor movement. Otis welcomed this hatred and assembled his allies for battle.

M & M’s executive secretary was Otis’s pal, Felix Zeehandelaar, known by everyone as “Zee.”  He was the honeybee who pollinated the growth of M & M.  Zee recruited new members and educated them in “systematically applying a host of anti-union strategies, including refusing to employ union members, making use of lockouts and backlists, hiring labor agencies to recruit nonunion workers, and offering financial assistance to firms that unions targeted with strikes or boycotts.” M & M also developed a cordial relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”), and “the chief of police routinely deputized private security men hired by the association [M & M] during strikes.” Once deputized, and with marching orders from M & M, people with little-to-no training were free to use strong-arm tactics against strikers and picketers.  Under M & M’s direction, and with anti-labor screeds appearing regularly in the Times, Los Angeles became known as “the most unfair, unscrupulous, and malignant enemy of organized labor in America.”

In managing the members of M & M, Zee employed the “carrot and stick.” M & M granted critical financial resources to help businesses combat strikes, but those considered weak or too friendly to organized labor sometimes found problems in obtaining credit at local banks. By early in the new century, M & M had secured the support of virtually all of L.A.’s leading shipping, lumber, oil, iron and steel, and haulage firms, as well as the citrus growers in the surrounding countryside. It was now one of the largest and most successful open shop associations in the country. By 1909-1910, nearly nine out of ten businesses in the greater Los Angeles were members of M & M.

Although few cities had the likes of M & M, its role in the life of the community was not unique to Los Angeles. Across the nation there existed a class of employers, unlike anything previously seen in U.S. history. They were largely a product of the industrial revolution and unbridled capitalism, whom historians refer to as the “robber barons.” The zeal, tactics and wealth of the robber barons set them apart from the people who had established the nation more than a century earlier. Emboldened by their financial success, the robber barons had a wicked notion of American freedom as the liberty to get away with anything in the pursuit of profits. They used their money in an effort to gain control of government. Generally, they succeeded.