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This Day in Labor History: October 1, 1910

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On October 1, 1910, International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers member James McNamara blew up the Los Angeles Times building because the paper’s publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, was spearheading the city’s effort to crush unionism and remain an open shop alternative to heavily unionized San Francisco. The explosion and fire killed 21 people and wounded about 100 more, giving a black eye to the entire labor movement, embarrassing the American Federation of Labor, and setting back the labor movement in Los Angeles for decades.

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles was arguably America’s most conservative city. An hotbed of anti-union extremism, organized labor was almost entirely nonexistent. No one did more to push this policy than Harrison Gray Otis. In 1896, Otis took over the city’s Merchants Association and turned it to an virulently anti-union organization. Using his powerful newspaper as a mouthpiece for antiunionism, Otis spent the next two decades as the nation’s most important anti-union advocate. Some of this was ideology, some of it was LA boosters trying to undermine unionized San Francisco as the center of the California economy.

The Iron Workers were a tough bunch of unionists, to say the least. Formed in 1886, the union remained weak until it won a strike against a U.S. Steel subsidiary in 1902. This opened the door to them and within a year had most of the nation’s iron shops under their control, even signing some collective bargaining agreements with employers. In 1903, US Steel struck back, organizing the nation’s iron industrialists for a concerted union busting campaign that included spies, state complicity, and violence against workers. It was successful and by 1910, the union was out of every US Steel facility and most others. Responding to this campaign, beginning in 1906, the Iron Workers started using bombs to force companies to the bargaining table. Mostly this was just showing companies what they could do–the total damage of all these 110 bombs was small. But they did know how to manufacture and detonate bombs, that was for sure. No Alexander Berkman were these men.

During this tumult, a pair of Irish brothers named John and James McNamara rose into the Iron Workers’ leadership. John became Secretary-Treasurer of the union in 1905 and was heavily involved in the bombing campaign. In 1910, the Iron Workers launched a major organizing campaign in Los Angeles. They wanted a minimum wage of 50 cents an hour and overtime pay. Otis led the opposition. He and his employers organization raised $350,000 to fight the strike. A court judge issued injunctions that banned picketing. The Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance banning picketing or “speaking in public streets in a loud or unusual tone.” The strikers refused to follow these absurd laws and 472 were arrested. The strike was going pretty well and the total number of union members went up by 60%.

John and James McNamara

Yet on October 1, a bomb went off under the LA Times building. It was supposed to explode at 4 a.m. in order to not hurt anyone but the faulty timing mechanism set it off just after 1, meaning people were still working, including a bunch of reporters finishing a story late. Most of the dead were killed by the fire caused by the explosion. The next day, unexploded bombs were found underneath Otis’ home, as well as other sites around the city, although many claim that these were probably planted by the police to frame the union, an entirely possible scenario regardless of who bombed the actual building.

Ruins of the Los Angeles Times building

Otis immediately claimed the unionists had blown up his building. He wrote in the Times, “You anarchic scum. You cowardly murderers, you midnight assassins, you whose hands are dripping with the innocent blood of your victims, have committed one of the worst atrocities in the history of the world.” Unionists on the other hand believed Otis dastardly enough to bomb his own building just to frame the union.

Samuel Gompers immediately denied that any union was involved in such a dastardly crime. But a spy placed in the Iron Workers Union found out that the bombing campaign had come straight from the union’s top leadership. A hotel clerk recognized a photo of John McNamara, confirming he had rushed in and out of the hotel just before the bomb exploded. On April 13, James McNamara and Ortie McManigal, a rank and file union member, were arrested in Detroit with bombing equipment on them. They were taken to Chicago where instead of going to the police station they were held for a week in the home of a police sergeant. McManigal finally spilled the beans and implicated the entire Iron Workers leadership in the bombing. John McNamara was also discovered to have bombed a local iron manufacturing plant.

The labor movement was infuriated with the treatment of the prisoners, hiding them in a private home and forcing a confession. McNamara and McManigal claimed they had been tortured by the private investigators. For labor, this felt like the 1906 case when IWW leader Big Bill Haywood and other labor leaders were framed for the murder of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. Clarence Darrow took the defense case. But it was so clear they were guilty that an ailing Darrow could do little for them. Muckraker Frank Norris got the brothers to confess in prison and convinced them to make their case that it was a justifiable bombing campaign. Seeing an inevitable defeat in court, Darrow got Otis and the AFL to agree to a plea bargain that would give the McNamara brothers light sentences in return for the end of the Iron Workers strike, which was ultimately what Otis wanted to begin with. But although Otis and the business community agreed to this, the prosecutor refused and the trial went forward with the stipulation that James would receive life and John a shorter sentence. That final plea agreement also stipulated a meeting between capital and labor and the end of the employers’ open shop campaign.


1911 Socialist Party pins in support of the McNamara brothers.

When Gompers found out the McNamara’s had pleaded guilty, he said they “had betrayed labor.” James McNamara received life in prison. John received 15 years. Thirty-eight Iron Workers were convicted of various crimes. The employers completely ignored their side of the agreement and continued fighting any unionization in their conservative town.

The bombing convinced national labor reformers to push for a greater government role in labor relations so that violence could be avoided. This led to the remarkable U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, created by President Taft in 1912, which will receive later coverage in this series.

The entire Los Angeles labor movement collapsed. Harrison Gray Otis almost couldn’t have asked for a better gift. Los Angeles remained a city with unusually low union density until the 1950s.

Ortie McManigal served 2 1/2 years as part of his plea deal. James McNamara died in prison in 1941. John McNamara served his full 15 years. Upon his release, he returned to union organizing, dying in Butte 2 months after his brother.

There’s a whole website dedicated to the bombing and those involved
, which is actually quite good.

This is the 77th post in this series. The rest of the series is archived here.

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  • One minor detail that may not have any influence on how you see this event: McNamara was a steel erector. That is, he worked putting up steel frames, not in a factory. Most or U.S. Steel’s workers (and pretty much all of Carnegie Steel’s workers, and Carnegie was the largest component thrown in the hopper to grind out the U.S.S. sausage) were mill workers. Both are honorable professions with long histories, but erectors work on construction sites and therefore have a larger degree of autonomy at work.

    There’s as much danger in job essentialism as in any form of essentialism, but it’s hard not to see some hint of mill workers = mass movement, erectors = small groups/individual action.

    • Erik

      This is a very important point, which Erik Loomis misses here. It makes the narrative a bit unclear. The International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers are involved in the construction of bridges, skyscraper structures, and the like.

      The union bombing campaign targeted job sites, not manufacturing sites, generally. Their tactics make a lot more sense in the history of the construction trades than they do in the history of steel manufacturing. Unfortunately, because Loomis seems to think they worked in iron extraction and steel production, it really confuses the narrative.

      A few more corrections, since Loomis had not responded to my email about them:

      The IABSIW was founded in 1896, not 1886.

      The strike in Los Angeles was not an “Iron Workers strike”, but a strike wave and organizing campaign. It was part of a long campaign to try to organize Los Angeles, funded to a large extent by the unions from San Francisco. The first to strike were unions in the Metal Trades Council, and later the IABSIW and other members of the Building Trades Council joined it (in the world of trade unions, the Iron Workers were a building trade, not a metal trade), but the IABSIW did not really have a huge stake here.

      The person who (according to himself) convinced the McNamaras to confess was Lincoln Steffens, not Frank Norris. Norris died in 1902.

      The whole story of the “plea agreement” is pretty shaky, but it is part of the standard narrative of this event. I believe the only first hand source is Lincoln Steffens’ biography, but I could be wrong. I wouldn’t trust him, but that’s a matter of judgement.

  • rea

    Is there an example in history of the propaganda of the deed producing a good result?

    • The Umkhonto we Sizwe attacks on the South African SASOL plants in 1980.

      • rea

        Did that really produce any result at all? Did the ANC eventually take power as a result of its bombing campiagns, or in spite of them?

        • DrDick

          Probably a bit of both. Many of the analysts of social movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, have argued that it was the presence of much more radical, and often violent, factions which allowed the moderates to gain success (i.e., the Black Panthers enabled MLK).

          • I never got that argument. The Panthers were founded shortly before King was assassinated and I don’t believe were nationally known until right around the time he was killed. It would also mean white people, who for hundreds of years regarded blacks with suspicion (at best), were sympathetic to King because he was less alarming than the Panthers or Nation of Islam. Bias doesn’t tend to work that way.

            • DrDick

              King and the Panthers were intended more metaphorically here than literally. The argument is not that they liked King (or other moderates), but rather they seemed less scary and easier to co-opt.

        • DocAmazing

          Do you really think the apartheid government stepped aside out of a sense of decency?

          • rea

            “Propanganda of the deed” refers to the notion that a successful act of political violence will mobilize popular support in favor of the cause in support of which the violence was committed. When I say, “propaganda of the deed” never works, I don’t mean to suggest that a successful violent revolution never works–that’s a very different issue. But, as the oringinal post states, blowing up the LA Times building didn’t mobilize support for the strikers; instead, the result was “giving a black eye to the entire labor movement, embarrassing the American Federation of Labor, and setting back the labor movement in Los Angeles for decades.”

            As to whether “the apartheid government stepped aside out of a sense of decency’–the apartheid government stepped aside because it could not sustain its support. Imagine being a young white South African in the late 80’s. What kind of life did apartheid promise you? Not a very attractive one.

    • lawguy

      Was this really a propaganda of the deed? That doesn’t seem like it to me.

  • Joey Maloney

    Erik, many of the events you post in this series I had never heard of but for the most part they’re relatively obscure actions in relatively obscure places that follow a familiar pattern, i.e., labor getting their ass kicked.

    But WHAT? They BLEW UP A BUILDING? A NEWSPAPER? THE L.A. FUCKING TIMES??

    How on earth have I never heard of this?

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  • DrDick

    A nice reminder that “class war” is not just a metaphor.

  • Erik

    Given your ridiculous ignorance and dislike of anarchism, why did you not mention the two anarchists involved in the bombing as well?

    • I like how dislike=ignorance. You know, one can see an ideology, study an ideology, know about the ideology, and think the ideology is idiotic.

      • Erik

        Yes, you can, but in your case, ignorance and dislike go together.

        Still, I think it fair to not blame the bombing on anarchists. The McNamaras were pretty straightforward AFL unionists.

        • Yes, as someone who is not a scholar of the history and ideas of the American left at all, my ignorance of anarchism is clear.

          • Erik

            Well, you don’t write like somebody who has read the work of Paul Avrich, Richard Drinnon, Nunzio Pernicone, Kathy Ferguson, to name the better authors, on American anarchism. But if you say you’re not ignorant of the subject, ok, I’ll shut up about it

    • witless chum

      Hey, Not Loomis. If you think they’re important, mention them. Who were they? What was their involvement? Because as it stands, this is a pretty worthless comment for anyone else to read.

      • Erik

        David Caplan and Matthew A. Schmidt, both associated with the anarchist movement, purchased the dynamite used in the explosion from the Giant Powder Company near San Francisco. It was then transported down to the LA. They were connected with the bombing before the McNamaras, but were not arrested until 1915.

        Alexander Berkman headed up their defense committee.

        They were defended by the socialist movement at large, see, for instance, this appeal in the Intl Socialist Review, http://books.google.com/books?id=9VJIAAAAYAAJ&lpg=PA103&ots=AXPFgoGaaX&pg=PA102#v=onepage&q&f=false

        I have plenty more research on this if you are interested.

  • lawguy

    Interesting, I know of this mostly through various Darrow biographies I’ve read. If memory serves it resulted in charges against Darrow for jury tampering and a fairly spectacular trial for him.

    One result was that Darrow never again represented unions, thus leaving him free to represent high school teachers and to be portrayed by Spencer Tracy.

    • Yes. I left the Darrow trial out of the post for the sake of space and to keep the focus on the workers themselves.

  • Bruce Vail

    So, I’m confused. Were the McNamara brothers anarchists or not?

  • David T

    If not for the McNamara confessions, Job Harriman might have become the Socialist mayor of Los Angeles, as I note at https://groups.google.com/forum/#!original/soc.history.what-if/NJU07h0p_t8/nqgx9vYMaHUJ As I observe there, “What would a Socialist administration in Los Angeles be like? There were
    of course Socialist mayors elected in numerous American cities–Milwaukee, Reading, etc.–and in general their administrations were hardly revolutionary, emphasizing efficient municipal administration, not class struggle. However, in Los Angeles, with its reputation as a bitterly anti-union, open-shop town (the anti-San Francisco, in this and other respects), a Harriman administration might be “revolutionary” in a way simply because he was pro-labor.”

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