Monday, April 20, 2015

MS Monday—PPIE Part 4: “broke, down and out, looking for work”

The Panama Pacific International Exhibition presented a vision of San Francisco, peaceful, harmonious, and resplendent, that did not always accord with the harsher realities of the day. One of the major social problems associated with the Exhibition was mass unemployment, as waves of migrants flocked to San Francisco during the winters of 1911-1912 and 1913-1914 looking for work. According to Michael Kazin (Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era), this “frustrated, incipiently rebellious mass” swelled to perhaps 30,000 in 1914. The following letter, from “a man who wants work” to Mayor James Rolph, Jr., provides a disturbing picture of the rage and desperation of some of these men:

Letter from a man who wants work to Mayor James Rolph, Jr., 1912 March 29, James Rolph, Jr. papers, MS 1818, California Historical Society
The man, after describing his plight as an unemployed migrant from Chicago, concludes the letter by threatening Rolph’s life: “If I do not get a job before next Monday, April 8th, so help me God, I am going to kill you. Now remember, I will run up to you and put four shots into your stomach, and then try to get two more of the family, so you see we won’t all be fooled. Now do not think I am crazy or a fool, I only want to eat.”

Some of San Francisco’s labor unions blamed the city’s business interests for deliberately engaging in “deceptive advertising” in order to lure migrants to San Francisco and undermine union wages. (The “man who wants work” echoes this complaint, writing: “there are thousands of men coming here just the same as I come, on false notices around Chicago about them needing thousands of men.”) The following resolution, submitted to the Mayor by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Millmen’s Union No. 42, protests the allegedly brutal actions of the San Francisco Police Department against the deceived masses of unemployed in San Francisco:
United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Millmen's Union, No. 42, letter to Mayor James Rolph, Jr., 1914 January 14, James Rolph, Jr. papers, MS 1818, California Historical Society
These letters can be found in the California Historical Society’s collection of James Rolph, Jr. papers (MS 1818), which contains a trove of manuscript material related to PPIE, unemployment, and organized labor.

Marie Silva
Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian
msilva@calhist.org
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