California's Labor History Has Lessons For Today's Silicon Valley Economy Everywhere

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For a limited time we are offering a sneak peek at an incredible article by Fred Glass featured in our latest Unionist Issue Number Four. Join us for clever analysis of all the factors contributing to worker strategy. 

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In From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement, I try to present a usable, accessible history of the California labor movement, highlighting the lessons that have allowed union density and power to remain considerably higher in the Golden State than elsewhere in much of the country. From Mission to Microchip challenges the standard California “Come here, get rich” narrative, dominant since the Gold Rush, instead telling the stories of the mostly unsung working people and their institutions that have made California what it is. Labor history is a window onto the myriad possibilities for action that we often forget—or never heard about— today. To force violent and recalcitrant employers to pay attention to community needs, California workers actually shut down entire cities, not once but twice (San Francisco in 1934 and Oakland in 1946). 

The first lawsuit filed by a woman for equal pay for equal work was that of educator Kate Kennedy, a member of the Knights of Labor, in the 1880s. The first union in California’s fields was not Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s United Farm Workers, but the Japanese-Mexican Labor Alliance, formed in Oxnard’s beet fields in 1903 by immigrant workers who didn’t speak each other’s languages. What, you might ask, does all this have to do with workplace struggles today? After all, San Francisco’s docks during the Great Depression or even the sprawling Southern California aerospace/ defense industrial complex of the late twentieth century don’t much resemble the hi-tech gig-labor world of Amazon and Apple, Uber and Lyft in the services-based economy of today. But in crucial respects, they do. One of the few private sector industrial unions still standing strong is the West Coast’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which in the 1930s organized the casual manual labor force on the docks and crafted a union-run hiring hall that still dispatches workers today to their highly automated workplaces. 

Today, though, it is the solidarity that unions have built with immigrant workers in the workplace and at the ballot box that has made California an epicenter of resistance to Trumpism. 

The union also created a model automation agreement in 1960 employers to move forward with labor-saving and world-changing technology (containerization) while sharing the economic benefits with the work force. Web platforms like Uber or Taskrabbit are ways that employers, not workers, organize and control work. It may not be enough for workers in these new industries to know about how workers reorganized their unsatisfactory work lives into more equitable arrangements in the past in order to accomplish the same thing today. But without awareness that such changes are possible, they are far less likely to occur. Shiny Silicon Valley inventions and superrich tech titans may grab the news, but recent labor-led political campaigns have reversed decades of conservative anti-tax, small government policies that harm working people. “Tax the rich” ballot measures in the last couple of statewide general election cycles have stemmed the destruction of the public sector so prevalent in other states. Immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries initially produced a toxic and divisive xenophobia that prevented working people from recognizing their common interests. 

Today, though, it is the solidarity that unions have built with immigrant workers in the workplace and at the ballot box that has made California an epicenter of resistance to Trumpism. These things happened. We would be even farther down the road toward destruction of unions and our fragile democracy today than we are, had it not been for the risky and often astoundingly courageous achievements of the worker activists who came before us. I’ve told their stories as a necessary corrective to the pervasive cynicism about both history and collective action by working people peddled by right-wing billionaires and their poodle politicians and media outlets. Stewards are indispensable links between union leadership and the members, and it should come as no surprise that they played key roles in many of the struggles outlined in From Mission to Microchip. 

Pete Beltran, leader of United Auto Workers Local 645 in Van Nuys in the 1980s, fought to keep a GM plant open when the corporation wanted to close it. He served as chief steward before he became president of the 5,000 member local. His connections all over the giant car factory, painstakingly built through his work as steward, not only became the base for his successful run for union office. When the union had to wage an all-out war to prevent GM from closing the still-profitable plant, the skills he had honed as a steward came in handy in constructing a broad coalition outside the plant with civil rights groups, faith groups, other unions, students, and political organizations in the community. “We need to look to other activists and shop stewards outside of our immediate circle for support,” said David Harlan, UNITE HERE Local 2 shop steward. “The labor leaders in your book were not isolated. They built coalitions and relationships with other organizations and movements. For me, the book was an inspiration to not give up or get discouraged. It showed others just like me as a role model and an example.” Harlan added that the “book also makes it clear that workers cannot become complacent, lest we lose what we have fought for. Whether you are a nurse, firefighter, teacher, or laborer—we are only as good as our last fight.” 

 —Fred Glass was communications director for the California Federation of Teachers for 28 years and currently teaches labor history at City College of San Francisco. Readers of this publication can take a 30% discount on From Mission to Microchip at by entering 16M4197 at checkout. 

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