Indian Collectivity * Spanish & Mexican Californios * The American Invasion * Union Cooperatives * Workingmen's Convention * The Grange and The Constitution * Sand Lots Uprising * Knights of Labor/IWW * Land Colonization * Cooperative Stores * Self-Help and EPIC * Counterculture: Diggers * Food Conspiracies * Work Collectives * Panthers Survival Program * Peoples Food System * Women's Movement * Livermore Action Group
Today the vast majority of people in America are employees,"wage earners," at least the vast majority of those who can find a job at all. This wasn't always the case. There was a time, not so long ago, when the vast majority were self-employed. Being an employee was considered a form of bondage; one submitted to it due to economic hardship, for as short a time as possible, then became once more "free."
Today the people who run this world speak about "capitalism," "freedom" and "democracy" as if they are all synonymous. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The central root of capitalism is the wage system of labor. Although individuals are "free" to take a job or quit it, for the vast majority there is no viable option to taking a job. Others own all the means of survival, so the only way to survive is to get money, and the only legal way to get money is to find a job. Becoming an entrepreneur, starting a business, is not a realistic option for most people, even in the "new" economy. The entire system is designed to make that impossible. The capitalist system needs a constant supply of cheap labor, and the economic system is geared to provide it. The wealth of the nation is distributed just enough to prevent a general uprising of the dispossessed. It is the need to survive that forces people into the "free" labor pool.
The Triumph of Capitalism is blazoned across the banner of this era. And yet, one need only open one's eyes a crack to see the dismal failure of the capitalist system to provide a decent life for vast numbers of people. It offers illusions and false promises. The only promise it really fulfills is endless wealth for small elites and endless despair for entire populations.
Today there seems to be no challenge to this system. Most people in America are unaware that there ever was a challenge to it, a challenge that involved large numbers of working people, a series of social movements involving cooperatives, inextricably tied to the early labor movement and "third" electoral parties. The development of the "two-party system" in America was specifically designed to exclude parties that might challenge the economic system; the development of "labor laws" was specifically designed to exclude unions that might challenge the economic system.
In earlier eras, American wage-earners understood that they were "voluntarily" submitting to a form of work bondage: they were neither obviously bond like chattel slaves nor truly free. But the wage-earners knew of course that it was "voluntary" only in a technical sense, since almost all were forced into it by economic need. Wage-earners commonly considered themselves "wage-slaves," meant in the most literal sense when they were forced to work long hours under oppressive conditions for almost no pay. In response to this situation, generation after generation of Americans organized visionary social movements to liberate themselves from their bondage, and to abolish wage-slavery.
How could society abolish wage slavery? The answer was, in a Co-operative Commonwealth.
This book is a chronicle of those social movements that challenged the capitalist system in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For thousands of years before European ships ever approached the Golden Gate, the area around San Francisco Bay supported a population of thousands of people living in a stable life system based on peaceful collectivity. The term "collectivity" includes all forms of cooperative and communal activity, all forms of sharing, freely entered into, equally and democratically.
Circling the southern half of the Bay, were the Ohlone or Costanoans. In the Marin headlands and along the northern bank were the Miwok. Further east from the Napa Valley to the Sacramento river delta were Wintun. From the delta south into the San Joaquin river valley were more Miwok. The Ohlone, Wintun, and Miwok languages were related, but about as mutually understandable as French, Spanish and English. The basic societal unit was not the tribe, but a smaller group, usually called a "tribelet," typically about 250 people. Most tribelets spoke different dialects. Among the Ohlone alone there were eight different dialects spoken around the Bay at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, each so unique that neighboring groups often had trouble understanding each other. Despite the relative isolation of each tribelet and these linguistic as well as other political and cultural differences, all the Bay Area Native people lived in very similar life patterns.
Look at a map of California. That long green slash down the middle is the Central Valley, one of the most fertile regions on earth. It is about four hundred miles long and forty miles wide, created by the eastern drainage of the Coastal mountain range, and the western drainage of the Sierra Nevada. The two ends of this enormous elongated basin are closed and tipped up, causing runoff from the northern mountains to travel south in the Sacramento river system, and the southern runoff to travel north, in the San Joaquin system. Storms whirl counter-clockwise in from the Pacific, sweep over the Coastal peaks and dump most of their loads on the mighty Sierras (and Cascades to the north), 150 miles inland. The run- off from the north flows about 200 miles south, and the runoff from the south flows about 200 miles north. Both turn abruptly west, meet, and empty into the upper reaches of San Francisco Bay, where their waters mingle with those of the Pacific, sluicing in at high tide from the opposite direction through the narrow Golden Gate.
By the way, the "Golden Gate" is not the bridge, but the strait that the bridge spans.
The Bay is about fifty miles long, extending about equally north and south of the Gate, on the average of five miles across and up to twelve miles at its widest, the world's largest natural harbor.
In Indian times, the Bay enveloped a much more extensive area than it does now (shrunken by landfill), and included extensive marshes filled with tule weeds, pickleweeds, and cordgrass. Meadows and plains spread out from the marshes, most covered by high bunchgrass, with occasional trees. The hills were forested with oak, bay, and redwood. Animals abounded in great numbers: deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, grizzly bear, mountain lions, bobcats, wolves, foxes, coyotes, beaver, otters, sea lions, even whales were commonly seen inside the Bay. Besides these were uncountable numbers of water birds, plentiful shellfish, salmon, and in the streams, trout. Food was so readily available to the Indian people that they lived entirely by hunting and gathering; despite the lack of agriculture, hunger was entirely unknown in the area. Acorns, eaten as mush or baked as bread, formed the basic staple, replaced by buckeye seeds in the rare event of a failed acorn harvest. These were supplemented by grass seeds, roots, greens and various wild vegetables. Native life revolved far more around the Bay than the ocean, for the fogs and desolate sand dunes offered an inhospitable environment except for an occasional trek.
There were perhaps thirty permanent villages scattered about the Bay, alongside every river and large creek. The houses were dome-shaped, framed with bent willow poles. The Ohlones covered theirs with bundles of tule rushes, while the Wintun and Miwok houses were covered with earth and were often subterranean. The typical village had about fifteen houses arranged in a circle around a plaza, with a communal sweat lodge. Each dome, between about six and twenty feet in diameter, housed an extended family of up to twelve or more people; the sweat lodges were usually twice as big as the family houses. Besides these main villages, there were other settlements used at different harvest seasons, and families and tribelets moved about throughout the cycle.
The year was a rich intertwining of harvests connected with ritual and social celebration; their dances and rites were almost entirely oriented to restoring the balances of the natural world and of the place of the people within it.
Their tools were of stone, bone, wood and shell: they used no metal. They tipped their arrows with flint or obsidian, using double fall-away shafts; their mortars and pestles were of stone. They were among the greatest basket weavers in the world, and these filled their every domestic need: they used no pottery and wove no cloth. They navigated the Bay in boats made of rule rushes, able to hold four or more persons, each with a double-barreled paddle. As to clothes, the men wore none or almost none; the women usually wore a short skirt of fibers or buckskin. They wrapped themselves in skin blankets in harsh weather. Unlike most other native North Americans, the men were bearded.
Politically they were unauthoritarian. Each tribelet had an elder in a chief-like position, but this position held mostly moral authority, and a "chief's" power varied with the respect commanded by deeds. A new chief was chosen by a consensus of elders, always however from the same family, and often the former chief's eldest son; but women chiefs were not uncommon. The chief's main job was to maintain the traditional balances within the village, tribelet, and with neighboring tribelets. This included seeing to the general welfare of the community, including economic. It was considered a great personal shame on the chief if anyone in the tribelet was needy. Cooperation and sharing were considered virtues, and competitiveness was not. People gained status in the community through generosity. "Private property" in land was unknown to them, as it was not conceived of anywhere in the Americas. Although families and tribelets had "collecting rights" to particular areas (seed and acorn groves, etc.), they were expected to be generous to their neighbors; should a harvest in one area fail, the unfortunate tribelet or family could traditionally share in the resources of adjoining areas. It was virtually unthinkable to let a neighbor go hungry. The elderly, crippled, sick, and children were well cared for by the village as a whole. A person's goods were not handed down in the family after death, but were dispersed and destroyed.
Some hunting and gathering was done by separate extended families, some by and for the larger communal group. Among the latter were rabbit hunts using long nets, into which the catch would be chased by beating the brush or setting controlled grass fires. Communal hunts were invariably followed by great feasts and celebrations. Catches were divided in a ritual manner, with, for example, different parts of a deer going to different family members, relatives and neighbors.
Sex roles were strong, but homosexuality, both male and female, was accepted. Role crossover and transvestism from male to female were not uncommon, although the reverse seems to have been unknown.
The Bay was also shared with tribelets having their primary villages inland, who made treks to the Bay in regular seasons for particular harvests.
Among the tribelets there was a complex network of trade, marriage, gift-giving, and ritual feasts. There were occasional "grudge wars" between tribelets or villages, but these were entirely limited to raids and ritual "line battles" in which there were few casualties; differences were almost invariably settled with gifts as reparations to wronged parties.
Within a short time after the Europeans' arrival, the abundant animal population of the Bay Area was almost entirely wiped out, and the native peoples' way of life disrupted and destroyed.
Spanish explorers had sailed past the Golden Gate as early as 1542, but the usual fogs and mists prevented the discovery of the Bay by sea; it was first stumbled upon by an overland expedition from Baja in 1769. At the northernmost frontier of New Spain, they quickly saw its strategic significance and moved to secure it against the Russians from the north and the English from the east.
Early maps of California depicted it as an island, and in a way it was. Cut off by rugged desert in the south, mountain ranges to the east and north, with head winds pushing ships away from the coast, and rocks and fog making close exploration hazardous, the entire area was largely isolated until the first transcontinental railroad.
Spain's plan of conquest and settlement was the same as in the other frontiers of Mexico. The main institutions used were military garrisons (presidios), towns (pueblos), and missions. The pueblos were farming communities, started by groups of poor working families from deeper in Mexico. The missions were a chain of communities, led by Franciscan monks, in which the Indians would "learn the civilized arts," which included farming, weaving, cattle raising, blacksmithing, masonry, as well as wearing clothes, eating with utensils, and of course, Christianity. In 1776 the San Francisco presidio and Mission Dolores were laid out by twelve Mexican emigrant families; the next year five families from San Francisco moved to the better climate at the foot of the Bay and founded the pueblo of San Jose and Mission Santa Clara. During the Spanish period, San Jose was the only town on the Bay.
San Jose was a typical pueblo. Unlike English and American settlers, the Spanish were not permitted to spread out individually and stake out claims to land. They had joint use of communal land for pasturage and farming; close community cooperation was the basic means of survival. The government started the settlers off with livestock, tools, clothing, and supplies which they had to repay by selling the government surplus crops. After six years each settler family got title to its home plot.
The missions were never planned to be permanent. The idea was to have each mission secularized into a pueblo after ten years, which was how long they figured it would take for the Indians to become fully adapted to European culture. Each Indian graduate would be given a farm near the mission, like the emigrant families. Out of this, according to the plan, a mixed culture world arise. The success of the first graduates would draw Indians flocking to the missions to join, or so the planners expected. When an area was close to total success, the mission lands would be secularized, the church would be handed over to regular priests, and the monks would move off further into the frontier wilderness and repeat the process.
The fly in the ointment was that the Indians didn't go for it. The missionaries foresaw this possible difficulty, and solved it by deciding that once Indians were baptized, they could be held at the mission against their wills. If they tried to escape, soldiers could be sent to bring them back by force. To make things even simpler, Indians need not be told all this before baptism, so that few knew what they were getting into. Children whose parents refused baptism could be taken from them to be raised at the mission; the kidnapped children's parents often followed voluntarily. Repeated escapees were punished by beating, whipping and shackling. It was a common sight at the missions to see men and women working in chains, often with logs shackled to their legs. They were forced to work from sunrise to sunset, and to sleep in crowded dormitories with the men and women separated, the various tribes and tribelets thrown together. They were forbidden to practice the old ways.
There were many Indian uprisings; the greatest was in Mission San Jose, led by Estanislao. (See my article, Estanislao's Revolt.) But every revolt was put down by the Spanish army.
In such depressed conditions, disease became rife in the missions; deadly epidemics of smallpox, influenza, measles, mumps, pneumonia, and syphilis swept through the missions, decimating the Indian population. In 1806 for example, a measles epidemic alone killed about a third of the thousand Indians at Mission Dolores. When the Spanish entered California, about 350,000 native people lived within today's borders, including about 10,000 each of Ohlone, Miwok, and Wintun. By the time the U.S. took over, about eighty years later, only about 100,000 remained. Meanwhile, the missions acquired great wealth by their Indian labor, and were the primary economy of the region. Besides Mission Dolores and Santa Clara, were San Jose (1897), and in the North Bay, San Rafael Arcangel (1817), and San Francisco Solano (1823).
There was little private land anywhere in California. Less than thirty land-grants were made to individuals during this entire era. In frontier areas, settlers were required to live in pueblos. But the land lent itself to cattle ranching, so a land-grant system was set up, under which a grantee could get a large tract upon agreement to settle on it, build a store-house and stock it with at least 2,000 head of cattle. Thus much of the East Bay, including the sites of Oakland and Berkeley, became part of Rancho San Antonio, granted to the Peralta family in 1820, scarcely a year before the declaration of the Mexican Republic. When the new republican government took over, it accelerated the land-grant program many times over, so there were over 1,000 holdings in the province by 1840. Many early grants were given to people with few resources, and stocked at first with animals borrowed from missions.
The first Mexican revolution began in 1811; after a chaotic decade, a revolutionary junta declared Mexico independent in 1821. At that time there were still only about 2,000 Spanish and Mexicans in all of California. Being the most distant province, considered of minor importance, California was largely unaffected at first; but in the 1820s it became the battleground of mutinous armies loyal to different leaders.
The new government declared the missions secularized in 1833-35, and ordered the monks to turn over all their land to the state and the Indians to be set free. Many Indians quickly took off to the mountains, in an attempt to return to their traditional ways. Much of the game now being gone, they took to hunting cattle, horses, and sheep, which got them pursued and killed by ranchers; others stayed at the missions or worked at ranches as hands and servants. Each "mission" Indian was to receive land and, according to the plan, become part of the secular community. But almost all "private" Indian land, as well as communal land, was quickly swallowed by speculators, and most Indians doomed to debtor slavery.
During the mission period, no secular pueblo developed on the San Francisco headland, as had happened near some of the other mission-garrison sites. This was due to the inhospitable climate and soil, compared with other sites not far down the peninsula: the same reasons that prevented permanent Indian settlements there and caused Mission Dolores to be such a death-trap for its captives. In 1835, a young English seaman named William Richardson was given permission by the Mexican governor to found a trading village three miles from the presidio towards the bay. Yerba Buena, as he named it, was the town that grew into San Francisco.
There were very few Anglo-Americans in California before 1840. Over the next six years about 1,500 entered the state, mostly in overland emigrant parties from the mid-west. Although the population of Californios of Spanish descent increased several times during the two previous decades of Mexican independence, it still did not exceed 7,000, so the new emigrants formed a sizable presence. These Anglo-American home seekers, beginning in 1841 with "Bidwell's Party" of 32 emigrant men, women and children from Missouri, were typically cooperative and collective en route in their wagon trains, with elected leaders. Although some settled together after arriving, most disbanded and each family went its own way. The establishment of a presence of expatriates from a quickly-expanding United States set the stage, as in Texas, for the conquest of 1846-48.
Almost simultaneous with the conquest, gold was discovered and "Americans" (as they called themselves), poured into California in huge numbers, thousands in emigrant parties, with San Francisco the dock to prepare for the jump into the gold fields. Over 100 parties entered overland in '49, and large numbers arrived from the east by sea, about 77,000 people in all, exploding the non-Indian population four times, then almost doubling it again the next year.
Yerba Buena, soon to be renamed San Francisco, was still a sleepy port town of 812 people, dealing mostly in cowhides and tallow. Almost overnight huge numbers of "Americans" from the mid-west and east flooded in, changing the entire fabric of Bay Area and California society. By the summer: of 1849, San Francisco had become a booming commercial center of 5,000, and by 1850, of 25,000. Besides the "Americans", about 20,000 people entered California from other countries, including Mexico, Britain, France, Spain, Chile, Peru, Hawaii, and China. The region and the city quickly took on an international character. By 1850 over half the population was engaged in mining. All routes to the mines started at San Francisco, and the gold flowed back through it. The Bay Area suddenly became the hub of the region.
Among the "Americans" in the mines this situation produced what many early historians described as a unique social spirit. "It is sometimes said," an historian wrote in 1886, "that the miners of 1848 and 1849 had the most interesting and efficient system of cooperation, successful for years, but finally broken down and destroyed by the encroachments of capital. They joined their labor, man to man, in many a company to turn the course of mountain streams and mine the rich gravel beds below. Hundreds of such organizations, most assuredly cooperative, existed during the mining days. . .but by 1856 most of the mining rights and water rights acquired by them had lapsed, or had passed into the hands of capitalists. Some of these simple cooperative groups fulfilled the purpose for which they were organized and then disbanded." (Schinn)
"Every man was a laborer," a later historian added, "whether or not he had previously been a teacher, lawyer, farmer, mechanic, preacher or sailor. Physical labor was honorable. Class lines and class distinctions were forgotten, and a universal spirit of rough democracy prevailed. This wholehearted democratic spirit of the mining days permeated virtually every phase of early California life." (Cross).
Another historian in 1910 wrote, "There were miners' unions in all the camps - meetings where the conditions under which the mines should be worked were freely discussed, and regulations binding upon the community agreed upon. They heartily approved of the prevailing regime of absolute democracy and equality of opportunity, and vigorously opposed all efforts to introduce any class of servile labor." (Eaves)
The roots of "the spirit of '49" can be found in earlier "American" history. As only a very brief outline of the context these "Americans" brought with them is possible here, I refer the reader back to my History of Work Cooperation in America for a fuller account of this and of many other of the movements touched on here.
Collectivity had been integral to the British settlement of North America, particularly among those immigrants seeking "freedom" from government repression in Europe. Frontier settlements and farming communities, throughout the north and in the southern mountains, were basically held together by close community cooperation. These "free" communities were in sharp contrast to the plantation culture, based at first on Indian slaves and British indentured servants and begun by British corporations, eventually localized in the Southern lowlands with Black slaves and ruled over by the "Southern Aristocracy." Among the slaves and servants, as among all oppressed classes, secret networks of mutual aid and collectivity were universal.
The farm community cooperative networks formed the base of the resistance organizations of the American Revolution, and the slave mutual aid networks channeled the fires of their numerous revolts.
Communal and cooperative groups with a millennial religious base were widespread throughout the entire colonial period and the nineteenth century. These included the Pilgrims-Puritans, under whose early social system much of Massachusetts was "commons" or common land; the Quakers and the many German anabaptist groups (such as the Amish and Moravians); the Shakers (coming out of the Quaker tradition) at their peak at the time of the seizure of California with eighteen communes and 8,000 members; and the Mormons, who would establish an early presence in California. Most of these groups were hierarchical; the Quakers, in contradistinction, supported consensual democracy, and played an active role in the struggle against slavery. At the time of the American revolution, the overwhelming number of "free" Americans were self-employed farmers, and most of the rest of the male population were self-employed tradesmen or artisans. There were very few "employees", people working for a boss or corporation for wages, and most wage-workers considered the situation very temporary. But with the nineteenth century came industrialization under the capitalist system, which created a growing class of people who were forced to be employees indefinitely or permanently. These permanent employees usually thought of themselves as "wage slaves."
Immigration pushed the population double every twenty years between 1776 and 1848, from 2.5 million to over 20 million. There were tremendous population pressures building in the eastern cities, which resulted in that continual and relentless push ever further west looking for a better way of life in new lands, at the cost only of hard work (and genocide).
The American vision of "democracy" was encapsulated in Jefferson's dream of a "true republic" with a free and equal citizenry, based on the accessibility to every citizen of land, the basic means of survival. As the immigrants poured into the eastern cities, they became trapped in wage slavery for ever longer periods. While in 1780 it required several years to raise enough of a stake to move west and buy some land, it soon took an entire generation. Thus continual expansion into new territories further west was necessary to provide cheap land to use as a safety valve for the discontented trapped in the cities, yearning to get the payoff they'd been promised.
But wage earners were not passive while they waited out their slavery: they organized themselves into unions to fight back. These were mutual aid societies, usually secret, with aspects of today's unions, such as collective bargaining, but also often transforming themselves into worker cooperatives, commonly during strikes. This was easily possible as long as the tools in any particular trade were simple. From an early period they expressed their goal as raising their members out of the wage class entirely, into independence, through cooperatives. It was not long before they began to speak of the "abolition of wage slavery" just as they spoke of the abolition of chattel slavery. It was no accident that northern unionists were among the strongest supporters of the Abolitionist movement.
It was the National Trades' Union (NTU), America's first union federation, formed in 1834, which first formulated worker cooperatives as a practical strategy for broad social change. During their brief three year existence, they organized worker cooperatives in many industries in the northern and mid-western cities. Their plan can be seen in the report of the Committee on Co-operation at the Congress of 1836 which recommended that all unions investigate forming cooperatives because "until a system of co-operation is adopted by which the producers of wealth may also be its possessors. . .the burden of the evils of which we so justly complain, will never be removed."
The NTU, the cooperatives, and much of America's trade union movement were wiped out by the depression of 1837. But their vision and strategy would be reborn again and again throughout the century, on an ever larger scale. The NTU had made a qualitative leap, from thinking of worker cooperatives as an individual means of achieving independence and freedom from wage slavery, to thinking of a system of co-operation, a new economic order. This, coming a generation before the theorists of social revolution Marx and Bakunin, was nonetheless influenced by the Socialist movement in its thought. The first movement in the world known as Socialist was not led by Marx but was a communitarian movement led by Robert Owen, while Karl Marx was barely out of kindergarten.
Owen, risen from the English working class, was the most successful "social reformer" of his time. He thought that worldwide social justice could be brought about peacefully through cooperative communities. Amid much fanfare and publicity, in 1825 he opened a cooperative community called New Harmony, in Indiana, to any and all who wanted to build the "New Moral World" with him. Nine hundred flocked in from all over the United States, mostly urban unemployed. For a year the community flourished, and at least nine other cooperative communities were started. But then Owen convinced the residents to go further than a cooperative community, and jump into a total commune. The problems this entailed caused New Harmony to fall apart at its seams, and the national movement along with it.
But less than a decade later, the same vision of total social transformation through cooperation, gained a second life on a surer footing, in the union movement led by the NTU. From then until the end of the century, cooperatives, unions, and the socialist (and anarchist) movements were inextricably entwined, not only with each other, but with the farmers' organizations that became universal in rural America after the Civil War.
The next decade, the 1840s, saw the intentional community movement and the union cooperative movement repeat themselves on a larger scale. A new generation had felt the pangs of the wage system and the inequalities of society, and moved to change them. The Associationist movement was touched off in 1840 by Albert Brisbane, editor of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. Associations (or phalanxes) were a particular form of intentional cooperative community. Within a few years there were over 34 of them scattered from New England to the mid-west, with thousand of members. Then in 1847 the unions began forming cooperatives again; at the time of the Gold Rush, there were industrial cooperatives in every city that had a union movement. Greeley's newspaper encouraged these too. But the Mexican War exploded the social tension that had been building over the previous decades. With the discovery of gold in the California Sierras, the dam burst on California; these social reform movements were deflated, and soon collapsed.
The "spirit of '49" sprang from this ground, and renewed the dream of equality and democracy that had been promised to America's working population, but withheld. Yet by 1856 virtually all important mining operations in California were in the hands of capitalists. Corporations, machinery and hired labor replaced placer mining; the "spirit of '49" was dead.
The 1840s had been a decade of depression. The war and conquest created a brief boom. But after only two years the bubble burst. Very few miners struck it rich. San Francisco quickly filled up with thousands of ex-miners returning impoverished and often sick.
The mine workers' democracy of these early California years had an underside. Although the "Americans" in California were overwhelmingly against the importation of slavery into the territory, and stood with the North in the Civil War, still their treatment of Indians, Mexicans, and "foreigners" was strongly racist. As the mine sites became crowded, an "anti-foreigner" movement arose, and almost all except "Americans" were driven from the mines, except as hired labor. This was a prelude to the racism that accompanied the Chinese exclusion movement in the following decades. Although conditions for Indians were terrible under the Spaniards where they were relegated to a slave caste, in Anglo-American society things were even worse: there was no place at all for them. Many "Americans" treated them as vermin to be shot on sight. Indians could not even testify in American courts. Vagrancy laws permitted most Indians to be sold into virtual slavery to ranchers, where they were "paid" subsistence for forced work.
In 1848, there were still 100,000 native people in California; by 1858 only 30, 000. However, in the 1860's there was a native revival in the Bay Area and, in a series of regrouped inter-tribal villages in the East Bay that mixed Ohlone, Miwok, Wintun and Yokuts, they attempted to renew the old ways. But they were overwhelmed by sheer numbers of "Americans," and the last recorded dance of indigenous Bay Area Indians (until the revival of recent times) took place in the village of Verona Station, near Pleasanton, in 1897.
Inter-tribalism in the Bay Area did not totally die then, but has been renewed again in our own era; Native Americans of many tribes now reside here, and still practice traditions of collectivity and natural harmony, as much as they are able under present conditions.
In the fall of 1850, after just two years of boom, depression hit California hard.
Squatting was widespread, not only through- out the countryside but in settlements in San Francisco itself. Mutual aid played a predominant role in these settlements.
The squatters claimed that all land should be presumed to be public until legal title should be proven, and a Settlers' Party was formed to protect squatters' rights. In the East Bay the squatter town called Contra Costa (also the name given to entire East Bay at the time) founded in 1850, would develop into Oakland. Large numbers of these squatters were former miners trying to become farmers. There were squatter riots in Sacramento in 1850, put down by two militia companies. In 1856 the State legislature would pass a law recognizing squatters' rights, but it would be quickly struck down by the state Supreme Court.
By the treaty that ended the war, Mexican land grants were to be respected. This involved over eight million acres of the best land in California, held by about 800 Mexicans, most for only a decade or two before the conquest. Almost none of these land holdings were broken up for settlers, but remained intact, only taken over by Angle-Americans, many by fraud and swindle. Land speculators had a heyday. Over 20 million acres were granted to the railroads, which quickly came to dominate the state. Most of those who failed in the mines fell back on an attempt to stake out a small farm by squatting but found themselves stone-walled out of the farming areas just as they had been stone-walled out of the mines. Thousands of small holdings were snatched out from under settlers by false and forged claims. By 1870 the ownership of the land was firmly established in the pattern we have to this day.
In 1871 Henry George could write, "The land of California is already to a large extent monopolized by a few individuals" Indeed, sixteen men each controlled over 84 square miles, while the vast majority were landless; about 500 out of 600,000 owned half the farmable land.
With nowhere else to go, hundreds of impoverished people were living in the streets of San Francisco by 1850, including many whole families, scraping by on handouts since there was no work. Many took survival into their own hands, and turned to "crime." This, together with the work of the many professional criminals lured to the Bay Area by the smell of easy money, caused the city's business establishment to respond by organizing the first Vigilance Committee in 1851, led by a merchant, Wm. T. Coleman. It was in essence a military junta that declared extra-martial law, hanging four people, whipping one, deporting fourteen, and finally "handing over to the authorities" another fourteen before disbanding, having restored "law and order."
But social peace didn't last long. Although the economy picked up for a few years, it crashed again in 1856, bringing great hardships on the working population (then about 40,000 in the city), and precipitating another "crime wave." A second Vigilance Committee rose to meet it, with 6,000 armed Vigilantes led by the same merchant as the first Committee. They again declared extra-martial law, hanged two and banished many.
The city of Oakland was incorporated in 1852 by Horace Carpenter, a squatter and land speculator, later to be its first mayor. He filed legal papers without telling the residents about it, changing the name of the town from Contra Costa and stealing all the waterfront property in the process. He quickly got himself a seat in the State legislature in an election that saw the three top vote-getters receive 519, 254, and 192 votes, while there were only 130 registered voters in the county. This was typical of the period and the people who were forming a layer of flotsam at the top of Bay Area society.
It was during these boom-and-bust times of the 1850s that trade unions were first formed in San Francisco, and along with them, industrial cooperatives. But these were fragile, off-again on-again organizations. It was not until the 1860s that the unions and cooperatives gained a firmer foothold.
While those who stayed in the urban areas formed production cooperatives, many others banded together cooperatively to escape from the city, to buy land and move onto it, usually with the idea of becoming small farmers. Land colonization was used to settle much of California, often to the advantage of developers and speculators.
In 1863 the San Francisco Tailors' Union struck for a wage increase. When the strike appeared lost, they rented a work space and organized a cooperative. To help finance it, they called on the other unions for support. This led to a meeting at which the first union federation in California was set up, the San Francisco Trades' Union, with 15 member unions and 3,000 members, with the general purpose of mutual aid. It was however disbanded due to internal disputes three years later.
Over the next three decades, there also would be union cooperatives of shoemakers, coopers (barrel makers), cigar makers, seamstresses, brewery workers, bakers, carpenters, mill workers, fishermen, and of workers in many other trades.
During this period cooperatives among the Chinese were strong and far-reaching. In the early '50's large numbers of Chinese were brought into the state through the "Six Companies" to work as contract labor, mainly on the railroads at first. But many worked out their contracts and stayed as "free" workers (although still under Six Company authority). Many of these belonged to Workers Guilds, with state-wide organizations in each trade, which organized cooperatives for their members, mainly in cigarmaking, shoemaking and laundries.
According to an early account, "All the skilled laborers among them are gathered into one or another of these (cooperatives). . .They have governing officers and boards of managers much after the Caucasian plan, but the rules are more strict as to enforcement of discipline, and also as to when, where and how business shall be carried on. The different cooperative groups in each employment cooperate with each other so as to avoid overstocking the market and preventing the lowering of wages and of profits. . .The final seat of power in each trade lies in a board of managers, numbering three, appointed from the groups. This board has the general oversight of that trade in California. It settles all questions of general policy, as for instance, how many wash-houses shall be allowed to exist within a given area, or how many men may be employed by a given company at a certain state of trade." (Schinn)
Many of these cooperatives however, took the brunt of the Anti-Chinese agitation which was connected with the "white" workers' organizations.
In 1864 the fishermen of San Francisco, mostly Italian, formed a cooperative distribution system, a union market. This was in reaction to an Anti-Chinese law which drove Chinese door-to-door fish peddlers out of business by high license fees. Before that, many fishermen sold their catch to the Chinese, bypassing the "white-only" merchants. The Anti-Chinese law was meant to force the fishermen to sell at higher prices to "white" dealers. The fishermen responded by organizing their own union cooperative market, undercutting the "white-only" dealers' scheme.
The first cooperative factories on the Pacific coast, according to an early historian, were probably the boot and shoe factories of San Francisco. "The work is in most cases by the piece, and the field of labor is so divided that it lends itself more readily than most others to the cooperative plan. The employers could not guard against the formation of such companies; they could not know at what moment their most skilled workers would leave their employ and engage in business for themselves. (Schinn).
According to the Evening Bulletin of June 16, 1870, the following cooperative boot and shoe factories existed at the time: the Journeymen's, started in September, 1867, with 12 men and 4 women workers; the United Workingmen's, begun January 15, 1868, with 60 men and 8 women; the St. Crispin's, started in October, 1869, with 30 men and 12 women; the Metropolitan, started July 16, 1868, with 30 workers; the California, started October 1869, with 120 cooperators. The Crispins, part of a national organization, eventually had five factories in San Francisco with over 300 workers.
But the employers undercut the "American" cooperators by turning to Chinese labor at much lower wages, pushing many "white" shoemakers into the Exclusion Movement.
Let us pause and examine in detail one shoe factory, The United Workingmen' s Cooperative Boot and Shoe Manufacturing Company of San Francisco, founded in 1867. The following account was written in 1886:
"The impulse toward organization came from the effort on the part of certain boot and shoe manufacturers to substitute cheap Chinese labor for the dearer white labor in certain branches of their work. The white laborers were notified that after a certain date prices on certain grades of piece-work would be reduced, and it was openly understood that Chinese would be taken to fill the places of any who quit through dissatisfaction. This was in the spring of 1867. There was a general protest from the shoemakers in all departments, but the manufacturers, believing that their interests required the proposed reduction, adhered to their first terms. The boot and shoemakers in these factories thereupon struck.
As usual in such cases, the strike was in the long run ineffectual. But out of it grew the Workingmen's Cooperative as a result of the discussion among the men thrown out of employment by the strike, of the different means available for bettering their condition. The moving figure of the plan was John Mahoney, and the first members comprised about seventeen of the company's employees. . .Mr. Mahoney had had some previous experience in such matters outside of the state. . .Before the work was commenced the membership had grown to thirty. These hired a loft, pooled their tools, paid in pro rata enough to purchase the stock necessary for starting, and commenced work without waiting for formal organization. For a long time they worked harmoniously, as they began, making no difference as to what class of work a man was doing, as long as he put in his time for the common good. . .Later they incorporated with a stock capitalized at $15,000, divided into 3,000 shares of $5 each. . . . A primary principle, however, was that none but stockholders should be employed. Another clause provided that each member should leave at least one-tenth of his earnings in the treasury for the purpose of building up the capital. No limit was placed on the amount of stock each member might hold, but in stock meetings, no man had more than one vote. Regular rates of wages were paid to all who labored, and at stated intervals the profits were reckoned and divided among the members proportionately to the number of shares held by each." (Schinn)
This account shows the organization to be typical of cooperative factories of the time. It was set up on the "Greeley formula," devised in the 1840's to permit cooperatives to conform to capitalist corporate law. The failing of this system is shown by the later fate of the United Workingmen's Cooperative:
"At the end of seven years it was found necessary to remove to more commodious quarters, and to increase the capital stock. At the same time it was found expedient to modify the constitution so as to admit the hiring of persons not holding stock. (This) has worked toward consolidating the stock into the hands of a few men, the number now (1886) being in the neighborhood of twenty, (while the factory) gives employment to a hundred and twenty-five men, women, and children." (Schinn)
Thus the pressures of a capitalist society forced the cooperative to deteriorate into the corporate mold, and it became almost indistinguishable from any other "enterprise."
In February 1867 over 140 delegates from 30 labor organizations came together in what was called "the first general assembly of the working class in California," the Workingmen's Convention. Their stated purpose was to "devise some plan for the promotion of the general welfare of the workers of San Francisco." The program they worked out included "the founding of cooperative stores and manufactures." But the delegates were split between supporters of two rival yet similar organizations, the National Labor Union (NLU) and the Industrial League. Both organizations called for the solution to the "labor question" through the cooperativization of American industry. The National Labor Union was the first truly nationwide union federation in America, led by William Sylvis, organized the previous year. The Industrial League was a California-based organization, with secret membership. A third force was the International Workingmen's Association (the IWA or "First International") to which many NLU members also belonged. The International, based in London, with largely autonomous branches in every industrializing country, was the first attempt by workers' movements to develop international cooperation and a world-wide perspective on solving their problems. They too looked toward collectivization as the solution and, in the following years, became an important force in the Bay Area.
The Workingmen's Convention met for several months, then took two actions: they moved to form an electoral party, the Workingmen's Ticket, and they called for a mass demonstration on June 8 of that year to inaugurate the 8-hour day. The 8-hour demonstration was a tremendous success. Over 2,000 unionists marched, and many won their demand. Most workers in the building trades won the 8-hour day; but the planing mill owners held out. In response, the carpenters set up their own cooperative mill "to guarantee 8-hour material to workers in the building trades." The mill owners were eventually forced to give in. The cooperative however did not shut down but continued successfully for many years. (This same tactic would be used successfully again by the Building Trades Council in 1901, but unsuccessfully in 1926, when for a decade, the union movement in the Bay Area would be all but destroyed.)
The Workingmen's Ticket won the 1867 San Francisco primary elections, but by that time the political split inside the Convention had wrecked the organization.
However, the union cooperative movement continued strong. By 1871 the movement had grown enough that a newspaper, the San Francisco Cooperator, was begun and soon merged with the Enterprise, a labor paper. But the crash of the stock market in 1872 and the following Great Depression forced many union cooperatives and entire unions to close shop, several as well as all of the area's worker newspapers.
The national land question had briefly seemed to be resolved when Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862, as an incentive to northern workers during the Civil War; but most of this "free" western land, and the best of it, in California as elsewhere, quickly wound up in the pockets of speculators and the railroads. Only a small percentage of those who poured into the west ever held onto any.
The Civil War had enthroned the northern capitalists, and they proceeded to extend their system the full breadth of the continent. The question of labor vs. capital, pushed to a back seat while the question of slavery was being decided, quickly became the most pressing issue of the day. For the next quarter-century, during almost continuous economic depression, the labor issue would preoccupy the entire nation.
In rural areas in the east, the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry was formed soon after the Civil War, and spread quickly across the country. It was a secret mass organization of small farmers in opposition to the domination of capitalist bankers, middlemen, and the railroads. In 1872 the Grange reached California. Coming into the open in many areas, their first strategy was cooperatives and mutual aid. They organized a system of cooperative stores, supply-purchasing, produce distribution, and banking. The plan in California was essentially the same as in the rest of the country, using local autonomous control. The Grange was the first organization to use the British Rochdale organization system in America (although it was really little different from a number of early American-devised plans).
The Grange had a cooperative distribution and marketing-system in operation in California by 1873. However, it was ferociously attacked by the bankers and railroads, and forced to dissolve the next year. It was this failure, similar to defeats all over the country, that drove the state Grange, like the national organization, into politics. They organized and supported the Greenback movement for cheap, readily-available money (as did the National Labor Union and, later, the Knights of Labor and the Workingmen's Party of California). The Greenback Labor Party became a major national force in the following years. Their basic program would have provided the financial backing needed by the farmer and union cooperative movements to grow large and strong enough to take control of the economy from the capitalists and place it in the hands of the working population, thereby creating the conditions for economic liberation. In 1875 the Grange opened state headquarters in San Francisco. By the end of that year they had a cooperative banking system in operation, and five stores. They became a major force in the radical uprising that resulted in the new California Constitution of 1878, along with the Workingmen's Party of California.
The failure of the union-cooperative movement to solve the problems of the working population resulted in the Sand Lots Uprising of 1877-1879.
The country was at the bottom of one of its worst depressions ever. Business in the Bay Area was practically at a stand-still; almost all factories were shut down, and many stores. In the surrounding area, farming and mining were literally suspended. The great majority of workers were unemployed, with the exception of many Chinese who, because of their position as "temporary aliens" brought in as contract labor with almost no legal rights, were forced to accept positions working long hours for very little pay, far below what "Americans" had been receiving
In July 1877 the country exploded in the first national railroad strike, which quickly became an enormous confrontation between the government (supporting the railroad monopolies) and the working population, who flocked to the assistance of the strikers both in the cities and the countryside. In support of the strike, the San Francisco branch of the Workingmen's Party (USA), formed the previous year out of the old First International (IWA), called a mass meeting on the sand lots in front of city hall. Over 8,000 attended. Toward the end of the meeting, an "anti-coolie club" disrupted the meeting and led a part of the crowd off into a mob attack on Chinatown.
Most of the crowd from the Sand Lots Uprising did not attack Chinatown however, but turned against San Francisco's ruling businesses and stormed the factories and docks. The business community quickly formed the city's third vigilante junta, the "Committee of Safety," and organized a 4,000 member "pickhandle brigade" to protect their properties.
During the following four days of riots, the "pickhandle brigade" protected the factories and docks (letting Chinatown burn) and violently dispersed every outdoor meeting; the federal government sent three gunboats into the Bay to back them up. Another thousand "pickhandlers" patrolled Oakland.
The result of these confusing events was the formation of a new organization, the Workingmen's Party of California, which quickly grew to a formidable force, winning municipal elections in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, and the first ever held in newly-incorporated Berkeley.
A call was put out for a new constitutional convention, and in the election of delegates the Grange and the Workingmen's Party won a large number of seats. The new State Constitution of 1879 contained many radical clauses inserted by this coalition. As an early historian wrote: "The new constitution was framed to make the rich pay their share of taxation, to control corporations, to correct the revenue system, and to equalize the rights of the people altogether. In each of these designs, it failed." (Bancroft)
All the radical measures were either watered down by the legislature or struck down by the courts. The Workingmen's Party of California was split between one wing aligned with the Greenback Labor Party, and another wing aligned with the Democrats. The party was quickly entered into by professional politicians who lost their radicalism as soon as they were elected to office.
Worst of all, the party's primary founder, Kearney, was racist, dictatorial and opportunist; he was finally expelled from the party he started. These factors brought about the Workingmen's Party's final collapse shortly after its greatest triumph. When Kearney made Chinese exclusion the party's central issue, he spelled its doom.
The Greenback movement faded in the 1880's, never having grown large enough nationally to take power, and the Grange grew more conservative. A new farmers' cooperative movement, the Farmers' Alliances, took up much of the slack, and led to the formation of the radical Populist Party. The California Grange held on, but in 1893, at the bottom of another national depression, its banking system collapsed and 611 Grange copoperative stores along with it. The Grange however survived, and as a more conservative organization continues in California today.
The Knights of Labor first organized in the Bay Area in 1879. They had been a secret organization until the great railroad strike of 1877, and remained semi-secret. Within a few years they had over 5,000 members in this area. Their goal, as the San Francisco Assembly stated, was to "abolish the wages system, substituting cooperation therefore." They planned to build a cooperative economic system alongside the capitalist one, which would eventually supersede it. The many union cooperatives organized in the early 1880s were strongly under their influence. They were structured territorially, not by trade. Between 1884 and 1886 they grew to almost a million members nationally, and had almost 200 industrial cooperatives around the country and a number in the Bay Area. But the May Day National Strike of 1886 was their undoing, and the organization collapsed in the aftermath of nationwide arrests and police violence that followed the Chicago Haymarket "Massacre."
The Knights were the last major union movement to actually attempt to build a cooperative industrial system alongside the capitalist system. Thereafter the union movement either abandoned cooperativization completely (the AFL), or saw it achieved by taking over the capitalist industries (the IWW).
Although the Knights and most of their associated cooperatives collapsed, the Bay Area was not through with union cooperatives, many of which continued through the 1890s. During these decades there were trade union cooperatives in San Francisco run by the coopers (barrel makers), cigar makers, tailors and seamstresses, brewery workers, and bakers. Many of these were set up in connection with strikes, and continued afterward.
In 1901 the candidate of the United Labor Party won the mayoralty of San Francisco, and the new Building Trades Council (union federation) struck and won against the Employers' Association, due in part to a cooperative mill. For the next two decades, San Francisco was the only "closed shop" city in the United States.
In 1911 the Socialist Party elected the mayor of Berkeley and, shortly after, the mayor of San Jose.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), formed in 1905, looked to industrial unionism and national strikes to bring about the collectivization of industry. Over the next few years, thousands of unemployed industrial workers all over the country began "riding the rails" in search of work, carrying the IWW with them. In California they followed the harvests in the Central Valley and organized farmworkers, but were met with police and vigilante repression in Fresno (1910), San Diego (1912), Wheatland (1913), and finally in 1917 halls were raided in Fresno, Stockton, Hanford and other places, with hundreds of members arrested. Later the federal government stepped in and charged all Wobblies (as well as all members of the Socialist Party) with violating the Espionage Act for their opposition to World War I. Behind this issue, their enemies in government and business were able to destroy both organizations.
In 1922 the S. F. Industrial Employers' Association finally wrecked the Building Trades Council and abolished the "closed shop" in San Francisco. From then until the General Strike of 1934, the union movement in the city was virtually dead in the City. Irrepressibly, some worker cooperatives survived through it all. In 1920, 92 refuse haulers pooled their wagons and horses into a cooperative in San Francisco they called Sunset Scavengers, which was eventually turned into the company which continues to haul San Francisco garbage today.
From early times the Bay Area saw waves of urban workers organize cooperatively to form rural colonies in the surrounding region. Many early colonies planned to be collective only at first. Typically a time period was set up, often ten years during which the land was worked in common and all income from crops, etc., was devoted to paying for it and improving it; afterward the land was divided into individual plots. Many however had an aspect of land development schemes, and many speculators made killings through swindles. "Semi-cooperative schemes are abundant" a 19th century historian wrote, "temporary associations to buy and divide up land, or colonies where each purchaser agrees to certain mutual improvements, are matters of frequent occurrence." (Schinn)
One of the earliest colonies was Anaheim (1858). The site was prepared using Mexican labor; as soon as the workers moved onto it, it was divided, but continued to have many cooperative aspects for some time. There was a long string of colonies in the 1870's and '80's, many involving different immigrant groups: Kingsbury (Swedish), Selma (Danes), Rosendale (English), El Chino, Elizabeth, Citrus. The Italian-Swiss Colony, originating from a San Francisco credit union of immigrant workers, never divided their land, but became a joint- stock company revolving about their vineyard.
"The land-colonization project, as a means of solving the farm-labor problem dates from a very early period...Land colonization, on a collective basis, has a definite background in California. Most of the early settlements in the state were based upon group colonization; a large number of the rural communities, which later developed into cities, were settled by groups of settlers . . .For many years the practice was for a promoter to purchase a large tract of land, subdivide it into small acreage lots, endow the subdivision with a euphonious name and then proceed to interest some group in (it) as a community. . .Many cooperative and semi experimental "new life" colonies were established. . It is unquestionably true that land-settlement promoters exploited to the full the social idealism of prospective immigrants who wanted to found new communities in California. Some of these early land colonies were advertised as cooperative or semi-cooperative ventures. In fact, some elements of cooperation were to be found in many of the colony settlements .The older colony settlements were, by and large, successful, but as the state grew the colony idea was appropriated by unscrupulous promoters who worked great havoc with their pretentious swindles." (McWilliams)
A state legislature inquiry in 1915 of 32 land-colony settlements founded between 1900-15 found swindles connected with almost every one.
Not all colonies were swindles though. Many thought of themselves as part of a movement for social change.
The International Workingmen's Association (IWA), organized in 1852 in San Francisco with the leadership of Burnette Haskell, J. J. Martin and Frank Roney, tried to renew the old First International, whose name they took, although that organization had been dead for six years. Haskell was a newspaper editor and a leader of the radical wing of the Knights of Labor. Martin would soon be the main organizer of the area's first successful Seamen's Union. Roney had been a leader of the anti-Kearney faction of the Workingmen's Party of California, and along with Haskell, would be one of the central leaders of the Federated Trades Council.
This new IWA met with a fair amount of success over the next several years, which was a time of rising radical worker movements around the country. But after the Haymarket Massacre of 1886, the IWA was dissolved, along with most other radical groups in America. Seventy of the leaders and members, including Haskell and Martin, thereupon formed Kaweah Cooperative Commonwealth, "To illustrate and validate the premises on which the labor movement is based." They homesteaded a tract of 600 acres in Tulare county. Rising at their peak to 300 members, by 1890 they had constructed an 18-mile road and a ferry, published a weekly magazine, operated a sawmill, besides building homes, orchards and gardens. They functioned under a system of labor-checks based on the amount of time worked; the checks were convertible for any item at the community-run store. But reactionary forces in the state soon took note and, at their initiative, the United States Congress quickly passed a bill creating Sequoia National Forest out of Kaweah under the false claim that their original homesteads filings had been technically deficient. Two years later the Kaweahns were driven from the land by U.S. cavalry and arrested.
The Cooperative Brotherhood of Winters Island, in the Bay near the delta, was begun in 1893 by Erastus Kelsey from the Nationalist Club of Oakland and Kate Nevins, an organizer from the Farmers' Alliance and Populist Party. All three organizations backed cooperativization of the economy; the Alliance organized the largest farmers' cooperative network in the United States, taking up where the Grange had left off. Winters Island began with 100 members, but probably no more than a third of these ever actually lived there. Their plan for intensive agriculture got underway, yet the entire operation remained dependent on outside members' support. Then the country hurtled into a deep depression and outside money dried up, strangling the colony. The last residents dwindled away about ten years after its founding.
Altruria community came out of the Christian Socialist movement, a powerful influence nationwide at the time; its name came from a utopian novel by Wm. Dean Howells. A Berkeley Unitarian minister, Edward Payne, sparked the idea for the colony in 1894. Cooperative Councils were formed on both sides of the Bay. They bought a plot of land near Santa Rosa and thirty people moved onto it, mostly working families, a majority of them artisans. They used labor-checks for their work and practiced equality of goods. There was an entrance fee. They were supported by a string of clubs as far away as Los Angeles. But they had financial problems. Although they had seven houses and a hotel built by the end of their first year, they had to fold. They broke into three smaller groups, which stayed together another year, then the entire project dissipated. Meanwhile, however, the Altrurian Cooperative Councils organized the first cooperative store system in the urban Bay Area (see next section).
Fort Romie community was begun in 1898 by the San Francisco Salvation Army as an attempt to create "a peasant proprietorship in California by settling the unemployed on the land." They bought a tract in the Salinas Valley, near Soledad, close to a sugar beet factory. The tract was cut up into smaller lots of 10-20 acres and distributed to poor families mostly from San Francisco. By 1903 there were 70 colonist families there, raising beets through collective irrigation and using many cooperative techniques. Although the plan never got beyond this first plot, it was widely held to be a very successful demonstration project. The EPIC movement of 1934 would again take up the idea of settling the urban unemployed on the land.
Japanese immigrants formed the cooperative colony of Livingston in 1910. They did so well that state planners began proposing that the government help organize colonies in the area. The planners also had the racist side motivation of limiting Japanese expansion in the area. With planning from the University of California, Durham and Delhi communities were set up in 1919. But the land chosen was poor and the post-World War I deflation brought the colonies to ruin; both finally disbanded in 1931.
Job Harriman was manager of the San Francisco Altrurian cooperative store in 1895, ran for Vice President of the United States as Gene Debs' running mate in 1900 on the Socialist Party, then came close to being elected the first Socialist mayor of Los Angeles in 1910. In 1914 Harriman led a large group of cooperators out onto land outside Los Angeles to form Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony. Like Kaweah, it grew out of a failed union activist movement.
Much of their support and many of their members came from the Bay Area, although the primary base was in southern California. A year after founding they had 150 members and by 1917, a thousand. They operated a printshop, shoemaker, cannery, laundry, bakery, cabinet shop, brick makers, and other industries. But they were constantly harassed by authorities for their radicalism, were beset with organizational problems (they were overly managerial), and found their water rights taken out from under them by the courts. They bought new land in Louisiana, and many moved there while the California bankruptcy court closed Llano. New Llano grew to a peak of over 300 residents during the Great Depression.
The first cooperative stores in the Bay Area were probably union-related buying clubs in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Although plans were made for full stores, it is uncertain whether any actually got underway.
The Grangers' store system in the surrounding rural areas (discussed in an earlier section), operated between 1875 and 1894.
The first real urban "consumer" cooperative movement in the Bay Area was part of the Altruria movement. In order to support the Altrurian colony, a network of local clubs was formed in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose (and as far away as Los Angeles and Pasadena).
Besides their support activities, these groups began to form buying clubs. In December 1894 the San Francisco Altrurian Council formed Altruria Exchange, a grocery store at 124 Eighth Street. The next year the Oakland Council opened a store at 13th and Market Streets, as well as a connected bakery and laundry, the Altruria Cooperative Union. The San Francisco store was soon absorbed into the organizationally stronger Oakland group. When the San Francisco store's first manager left to live in the Altruria colony, he was replaced by Job Harriman, who would go on to be the central organizer behind Llano del Rio community in 1914.
In 1899 the Pacific Coast Cooperative Union (PCCU) was formed in Oakland by representatives from stores around northern California. The local store was the Altrurian one which was quickly absorbed into the PCCU. In 1900 the PCCU set up Rochdale Wholesale Co. in San Francisco, and in five years this cooperative wholesale was servicing 51 stores and was the center of the strongest "consumer" co-op movement in the country. At its peak two years later, there were over 100 cooperative stores in the Union. An historian in 1905 wrote: "In no place (in the United States) is the cooperative movement so strong or successful as it is upon the Pacific coast." (Cross)
But then depression hit hard, and by 1912 there were only 12 stores left. The movement's collapse has been traced also to two other factors: an over-extension of credit and the fact that many PCCU stores were formed from the top down, were weak financially and had shallow roots in their communities. In an attempt to save the failing movement, a new organization, the California Rochdale Co. was formed, with central management, using the Rochdale Wholesale as supplier. They set up nine branches in the first year, but none lasted past 1912.
Then the Pacific Cooperative league (PCL) was set up in 1913 in San Francisco and began organizing grassroots buying clubs using the Wholesale. By 1919 they had 32 branches, stretching into Arizona. Some clubs became stores, and they sold many things besides groceries, including coal. In 1920 the League took over the Wholesale and began organizing stores on a large scale. By the next year they had 47 member stores in eight western states. But the Pacific Coast League was locked in an internecine war with the growing national cooperative organization, the Cooperative League of America (CLA). The CLA under the domination of James Warbasse came out for a program of a decentralized cooperative movement and attacked the PCL for its centralized structure. The movement on the west coast was also more radical than the east-coast based CLA, and when the co-ops helped the unionists in the Seattle General strike in 1919, the national organization disavowed them, while the PCL came to their support. The CLA attacked in 1920; their national congress refused to seat PCL delegates, and the entire west coast movement was cut off from the rest of the country. In 1921, without any national support in the depression of that year, the entire PCL went down. This was the end of consumer cooperation in the Bay Area (except for certain ethnic groups, such as the Finns) until a new cooperative store movement grew from the EPIC campaign of 1934.
With the almost total collapse of the economy in 1929, the Self-Help cooperative movement sprang forth among working people. (See my article, Living in the U.X.A.: The Self-Help Movement in the Great Depression.) The movement in the Bay Area was among the earliest. All forms of cooperation were carried on by these cooperatives. They were essentially barter associations; besides producing a variety of goods for trade and self-use, they organized exchange between city unemployed and farmers (food for labor). Money was scarce. Scrip was sometimes used. The first labor exchange was set up by a group reviving the name of the Pacific Cooperators League of Oakland in 1930. By 1933 there were eight Self-Help units in San Francisco, 21 in Alameda county, and five more in the rest of the Bay Area: 34 units in all.
In 1934 the Berkeley Unemployed Association, for example, had operating a mattress factory, a shoe repair shop, a conserving operation, a wood yard, a rug and quilt weaving operating, a machine shop, and also painter and carpenter teams. In 1935 there were some 250 Self-Help cooperatives the U.S., with about two-thirds in California, with over one-half million members. In the Bay Area and northern California in general, this movement had its highest development.
A related Self-Help group was the Unemployed Exchange Association (U.X.A.), which brought together 1500 into a producer-consumer cooperative beyond the Bay. They ran a foundry, machine shop, and lumber mills in Oroville and the Santa Cruz mountains. For exchange they used scrip. They provided members with farm produce, medical and dental benefits, auto repair and housing. (Beautiful photos of the U.X.A. were taken by Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham.)
Upton Sinclair's EPIC (End poverty in California) program proposed to use the Self-Help cooperatives as the base for an extensive program of urban and rural cooperatives that would take in all unemployed and form the embryo of a new economic system. In the countryside would be "land colonies whereby the unemployed may become self-sustaining;" and in the cities EPIC would procure "production plants whereby the unemployed may produce the basic necessities required for themselves and for the land colonies, and operate these factories and house and feed and care for the workers." These two groups, in the cities and countryside, would "maintain a distribution system for the exchange of each others' products. The industries will (constitute) a complete industrial system, a new and self- sustaining world for those our present system cannot employ."
EPIC would incorporate the existing Self-Help cooperatives into the plan. The plan's supporters formed EPIC Clubs; in less than a year they dumped the regular Democratic machine and took over the party with Sinclair as nominee for Governor. With the slogan "Production for Use" they waged an uphill campaign against the combined Democratic and Republican machines, who joined to defeat EPIC, along with almost every newspaper and radio station in the state. In the midst of this, San Francisco exploded in the General Strike (1934). The labor movement shut down the entire city in sympathy with the maritime workers' attempt to organize. In the election that followed, Sinclair got 38% of the vote (while a Progressive Party candidate, splitting the "left", got another 13%). After the defeat came a second blow from Roosevelt's Work Progress Administration (WPA). Although the New Deal at first gave some assistance to the Self-Help Cooperatives, the WPA bureaucracy refused to let Self-Help work count toward their program, which offered cash income. Sinclair pleaded personally with Roosevelt to no avail. As WPA offered cash income, which people desperately needed, many cooperators left Self-Help to enroll in it, with the result that much of the Self-Help energy was drained and the cooperatives forced to close one by one. Sinclair was soon calling WPA "that arch-enemy of Self-Help."
Still, out of Self-Help and EPIC sprang the next generation of the "consumer" cooperative movement. Self-Help participants in Berkeley and Palo Alto formed buying clubs, joined with a Finnish cooperative group in Berkeley to become the core of Consumer Cooperatives of Berkeley, which grew to become the largest in the continental USA during the 1960s and 1970s.
In the early 1960s a new community was growing in San Francisco, centered in the Haight -Ashbury district, primarily young people under 30, a community based on values directly opposed to the dominant system, values of peaceful sharing. By 1964 word began to spread around the country.
It was an era when large numbers of young people felt there was no place for them in American society. The schools taught that freedom and democracy had triumphed over fascism in World War II, yet where were they to be found? Millions of young Americans had the same experience, that the communities in which they were raised were rigid oppressive places. And now the country was hurtling into a new war in Vietnam. With nowhere else to turn, they turned to each other, and in the mutual aid and support they found there, was the embryo of a new society, where the promises of America might at last become reality. But people were too scattered and isolated around the country, and began to be drawn magnet-like into the Bay Area, where the conditions seemed ripe for a new consciousness to blossom and strength might be had through numbers.
By the summer of 1966 a community had grown to such proportions that it began to gather national attention in the news media. Communal households were widespread (rent was comparatively cheap). A newspaper expressing the new consciousness appeared, the 0racle. The first Human Be-in happened that fall in Golden Gate park. The Diggers appeared and began organizing free food, the free store, the vision of everything free. The Diggers helped channel the enormous energy that was exploding in the '60s into visionary revolutionary structures. The Haight was the hothouse in which the national movement called the counterculture was born.
The basic idea of the counterculture was to withdraw energy from the old system and use it to reshape society and the world.
But national attention brought a flood of people from all over the country in the summer of 1967, and it was this flood which overwhelmed the community and made it impossible to continue as it had been.
Meanwhile communal groups began to spin off from the city and form rural communes in the surrounding area, and around the country. Many thousands of people spun off from the Bay Area into rural communalism. Morningstar in Sonoma County, was "opened" in 1967, and nearby Wheeler Ranch followed. Many of those who stayed (or came back) to the urban area developed that creative energy into collective structures to provide for their survival. The Diggers were the first attempt to set up a survival system outside of the old society. But living off "waste" was limited, and people soon began setting up more organized structures.
The Food Conspiracy began as a buying club, and soon reached to hundreds of households on both sides of the Bay. It was organized around member participation. The Haight-Ashbury Food Conspiracy was started in 1968. It reached a peak of 150 members in 1973. But by 1976 it had collapsed down to 25. In the East Bay, the Organic Food Association was an umbrella for 21 conspiracies; there were many more independent ones. The Association got food from regional farmers as well as at the Farmers' Market. The Conspiracies were organized so that each neighborhood group was responsible for one job each month.
By 1970 work collectives began to appear. Most work collectives were small independent units of no more than a dozen people; in this smallness was a strength. They differed for the most part from earlier worker cooperatives in that they used the consensus system for decision-making instead of the majority-rule system.
Within a few years there were dozens of these groups, in almost every field. The first Collective Directory (1977) listed almost 150 collectives; but this revealed only a fraction of the groups, as many choose to not put a public face onto their collectivity.
Under consensus, the entire group must be willing to go along with any decision. If a minority feels strongly enough, it can block consensus. This can create a more unified group by preventing domination by the majority and insisting that all strongly-felt views have weight. Proponents of consensus claim that this direct and complete democracy is the only form possibility for real social revolution.
Collective consensus decision-making had precursors in America in the traditional councils of many Native American tribes, in the Quakers (Friends), in the 19th century anarchist movement, in the IWW. The consensus system had a rebirth in the early 1960s in the freedom rider groups of the Civil Rights movement; later in affinity groups participating in the Anti-Vietnam war movement; in the early counterculture rural communes. Work collectives applied the system successfully to small scale production.The feminist movement developed small-group processes to a high point. The anti-nuclear movement and the environmental movement developed large-group processes in a similar way.
Most work collectives were small independent units of no more than twenty-or-so people; in this smallness was a strength. Within a few years there were dozens of these groups, in almost every field. In Berkeley and Oakland, some of the collectives formed between 1970 and 1972 were Build (carpentry), Uncle Ho's Mechanix Rainbow, Movement Motors, Alternative Food Store, Taxi Unlimited and the Cheeseboard.
One of the most developed early work collectives was Bay Warehouse in Berkeley. Between 1972 and 1973 they ran an auto shop, wood shop and print shop, as well as a pottery studio, theater and food conspiracy. Due to financial problems Bay Warehouse Collective disbanded, but the smaller trade groups that made up each shop continued separately: Inkworks, Car World, Heartwood.
With the appearance of collective food stores, the Conspiracy began to fade. Some of its most active members became the organizers of the first collective stores. Food-related collectives and cooperatives on both sides of the Bay soon began networking and finally came together in 1973 to form the People's Food System, centered around the San Francisco Common-Operating Warehouse. Because food is so essentially a political issue, many of the most volatile of forces of the '70's met in the Food System, and clashed. (See later section.)
The "Food Conspiracy" was revived in the later 1970s by the White Panther Party (a somewhat hierarchical organization), no longer as a mutual-aid association, but as a communal business. It continued in this form into the 1980s, then it too collapsed
Meanwhile...the Black Panther Party, first organized in Oakland in 1966, about the same time as the Diggers, developed a whole "survival program" in the late 1960s and early '70's, which included a health clinic a shoe factory, a plumbing service, food and clothing, cooperative housing, job-finding service, transportation for elders a breakfast program for children, busing to prisons for visitors, and a prisoners' commissary. The program was to run "pending revolution." All goods and services were free. The Panthers considered their ideology "inter-communalism." They ran communal houses for full-time party workers.
The Berkeley Tenants Union organized a chain of cooperative-communal houses in the late 1960s stemming from a rent strike. In an altered form, a number of them continue today.
Numerous collectives of every sort came out of the women's and feminist movements. The Women's Center was begun in 1970-'71 by a small collective group. Over the following years numerous women, inspired by feminist ideology, came together spontaneously into small consciousness-raising groups. Out of these came many service projects, such as the Health Collectives and the Switchboard, to fill gaps not provided for by society; and many women's work collectives, such as Seven Sisters Construction, the Juice Bar, A Woman's Place. The San Francisco Women's Center today, housed in the Women's Building, is an umbrella organization of many collective projects. The collective structure has been the natural form for small women's groups, as it provides group empowerment for previously disempowered people.
Collective groups have also played important roles in the Bay Area's lesbian and gay, and disabled communities.
Collective and cooperative living groups remained widespread through the entire 1970s, '80s and into the 1990s. Kaliflower was probably the earliest magazine of communal living in the city. Put out in small editions monthly, hand-bound, and distributed only to communal houses free, it had tremendous influence in helping create the movement between 1969 until it ceased publication in 1972. Its successors included the Grapevine (1978-81) and the Networker.
There have been many newspapers in the Bay Area produced by collectives over the past decades. Two of particular note are El Tecolote, which has been an energy center for the Latino community since 1970, and Grassroots (Berkeley), which remained an open collective through a decade of consistent publication.
In 1981 the anti-nuclear movement swelled to large proportions, using the collective structure of organization. The Diablo Canyon action of October 1981, organized by the statewide Abalone Alliance, set the stage for the formation of the Livermore Action Group (LAG). Through a decentralized system of affinity groups and delegate "spokes council" meetings, hundreds of people were able to participate in consensus planning culminating in mass actions and a blockade of the nuclear laboratory in Livermore.
The Rochdale-structured Consumer Cooperatives of Berkeley pulled through the hard times of the 1940s and '50s and revived in the '60s. It reached a height of prosperity in the mid 1970s, with over 100,000 members and stores in Berkeley, Oakland, S.F., Marin, Pale Alto, El Cerrito, and a number of other locales, the largest "consumer" co-op in the continental USA. Besides these supermarkets, the Rochdale system was used successfully in this era for buying and marketing specific items, such as camping and recreational equipment (REI) and books (Books Unlimited).
The enormously successful credit union movement also uses this structure.
The Rochdale system is distinctly different from the structure used by most of today's work collectives. Under the Rochdale system system, a large membership usually elects a board of directors, which hires managers who hire workers who "run the store;" under the collective system, the workers themselves are the management. The Rochdale system has been modified in some instances (as in Arcata) to permit the overall membership to retain control of larger decision-making, while the worker collective is responsible for day-to-day decisions. During the last years of Consumer Cooperatives of Berkeley, there was a movement to change the Berkeley Co-op over to this system too.
The Berkeley Co-op was torn between one faction that tried to steer the organization as part of the larger movement for radical progressive social change, and another faction that saw it as simply an alternative way of marketing under the capitalist system. The conservative faction gained the upper hand in the mid-1970's, and led the organization into a financial and ideological crisis. Offering virtually no financial savings to members, they nonetheless relied on member spirit, while at the same time undercut this by making Co-op management-dominated and in many ways hardly distinguishable from the supermarket chains. This faction saw success in quick expansion and, in order to achieve that, purchased failing supermarket chains in outlying areas.
The recession of the 1970s hit Consumer Cooperatives of Berkeley hard. The Berkeley Co-op had recently expanded into several new neighborhoods, but most of these never got off the ground and resulted in huge losses. The organization finally collapsed in 1987, and was disbanded after 50 years. (See my article, The Rise and Fall of the Berkeley Co-op.)
The union movement has continued to be involved with co-ops.
The largest housing co-op in the Bay Area is probably St. Francis Square in San Francisco, with 297 units for low-to-moderate income people, founded in 1964 by the International Longshore and Warehousemen's Union. There are also a number of other large housing co-ops in the Bay Area.
Among the very first projects of the United Farm Workers' Union were several community mutual aid associations in the 1960s in Delano, including a co-op store and credit union. During their long boycotts, they ran communal houses around the state for boycott workers. Down in the Central Valley in Salinas beginning in 1973, a group of Chicano families, many of them former farmworkers displaced by mechanization, formed a semi-cooperative organization marketing strawberries. They grew to become California's largest farm production cooperative, The Cooperativa Central, made up of 75 Chicano families, with a large diversified collectively worked vegetable farm.
The largest cab company in San Francisco, Yellow Cab, went bankrupt in 1977, and the workers organized a cooperative to take it over. After long negotiations with banks for financing, it was set up under the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, a profit-sharing system with much of the control unfortunately relinquished to the bankers; today only about one out of four workers are members.
It was in the San Francisco People's Food System that the collective movement made its greatest impact. The Food System was a real and serious attempt to actually provide a large-scale collective alternative to the corporate food system. The Food System was the first serious attempt to stack worker-run production units into a larger organism since the Knights of Labor tried to build their Co-operative Commonwealth in the nineteenth century. It met a similar fate.
The Food System movement in the Bay Area was not isolated in the country, and had parallels in collective food systems in many areas, notably Seattle, Portland, Austin, Minneapolis, Tucson and New England.
In early 1975 Food System workers began gathering in regular All-Co-op meetings ("the Forum") to try to develop and better organize the system. By 1976 the Food System was growing large and strong, with member collectives and co-ops on both sides of the Bay.
In April 1976, it was decided that there would be an elected Representative Assembly. Simultaneously, the System was instrumental in organizing the People's Bicentennial celebration, and was active in materially supporting a number of progressive struggles. Internally, there was a stress on dealing with racism and sexism. By the end of the year, the Representative Body (RB) had drafted a Basis of Unity, which was approved by all the collectives, and in January 1977, the RB elected a steering committee. But at this point internal disagreements and problems rushed to a head.
The Common-Operating Warehouse was organized on the "democratic-centralist" model, and it was not long before this system of limited representative democracy and central committee power collided with the autonomy and consensus system of many of the member work collectives.
The steering committee proceeded to rewrite the Basis of Unity over the heads of the collectives, de-emphasizing the politics of food and declaring Leninist "democratic-centralism" to be the organizational structure of the Food System. There was an outcry of opposition from many of the collectives; many thought that the steering committee was usurping power. "Democratic-centralism" places extraordinary power in the central committee, and discipline upon the membership to carry out their decisions. Many thought that the System had been being "entered" into by "Marxist" grouplets. Most of the collectives wanted to return to the all-worker Forum or set up a delegate assembly with limited powers as the decision-making group.
But factional strife was also spilling over from struggles in the prison movement, and perhaps instigated by outside forces trying to wreck the Food System. At the time there was an "indeterminate sentence" system in California prisons. A prisoner who had a job waiting on the outside could often get an early release. Some collectives in the San Francisco People's Food System began working with prisoner organizations and taking in former prisoners, particularly people in prison for political reasons. But in the prisons there were rival and mutually-antagonistic prisoner groups and organizations, often accusing each other of being infiltrated by police agents. Their feuds spilled over into the Food System.
An All-Worker conference was called for April 1977 to discuss these issues. The fate of the Food System was at stake. On the first day the conference was disrupted by a small group that included some Food System people and some outsiders. Physical violence and a gun battle followed. There was a shoot-out in one of the most successful stores, Ma Revolution, on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Dwight Way in Berkeley. Ma Revolution immediately folded, bringing the entire San Francisco People's Food System down. (The warehouse, however, held on until 1982.)
Most participants were convinced that the Food System had been a target of government undercover agents, had been infiltrated, disrupted and destroyed by Nixon's Cointelpro operation, which had done the same to so many other progressive groups in that decade.
With the collapse of the Food System, the numerous small autonomous work collectives and communal houses again became the main base of the collective movement. In the summer of 1980 workers from a number of collectives began gathering in open monthly meetings. These meetings developed into the InterCollective, with no centralized leadership or permanent organization. The InterCollective was simply an association of people working in collectives, cooperatives and communes exchanging ideas and information, promoting networking, and striving to develop the collective movement.
But the decade of the 1980s resulted in slow attrition of the work collectives. One by one many of them folded: Taxi Unlimited, Uprisings Bakery, the Brick Hut. The InterCollective flourished for several years, bringing together dozens of collectives, but faded in the mid-'80s as the movement declined, and finally it too disbanded. Still, some of the collectives continue today.
Every defeat of cooperation and collectivity has set the stage for a rebirth in a different form. Like uncounted generations before them, young people in the 1990s have found their own structures to express their collective energies.
"Beneath the apparatus of government, under the shadow of its political institutions, society was slowly and silently... making for itself a new order which expressed its vitality and autonomy." Proudhon
The unearthing of our collective tradition is still in its early stages, so this is by no means a complete or definitive history.
Cecil, K. & Connell, K., Groundswell, SF: Center for Rural Studies, 1979
Cross, Ira B., A History of the Labor Movement in California, Berkeley: UC Press, 1935; The Coop Store in the US, 1905
Eaves, L., A History of California Labor Legislation, Berkeley: UC Press, 1910
Forbes, Jack D., Native Americans of California and Nevada, Healdsburg: Naturegraph, 1969
Heizer, R.F., & Wipple, M.A., The California Indians, Berkeley: UC Press, 1951
Hine, R.V., California's Utopian Colonies, NY: Norton 1973
Kerr, Clark, Self Help: The Cooperative Barter Movement in California 1932-33, (MS) Stanford, 1933
Knapp, J., The Rise and Advance of American Cooperative Enterprise (2 vols.), Danville; Interstate, 1969, 1973
Kornbluh, J.L. (ed), Rebel Voices, An IWW Anthology, Ann Arbor: UM Press, 1964
Los Trucaderos Collective, Beyond Isolation, Oakland: Free Spirit, 1975
Margolin, M., The Ohlone Way, Berkeley, Heyday, 1978
McWilliams, C., Factories in the Fields, 1935
Shinn, C.H., "Co-operation on the Pacific. Coast" in History of Cooperation in the United States, Adams, H.B. (ed), Baltimore: Hopkins, 1888
Sinclair, U., Co-op (a novel), 1935; EPIC Answers: How to End Poverty in California, LA: End Poverty League, 1934
Sweat lodge: Forbes, Alexander, A History of Upper and Lower California, 1839; Pueblo: A.F. Harmer, L.A. County Museum of Natural History; Diggings: British Museum; Sand Lots: Harpers Weekly, 1880; Kaweah: Bancroft Library, U.C.; Others: Unknown
Copyright © 1982, 2009 by John Curl. All rights reserved.
This history was originally published by Homeward Press in 1982.