"Local issues shape national politics."
The Relevance of The San Francisco July 22, 1916
Preparedness Day Bombing
by Steven C. Levi
There is an old expression that "all politics is local." But not that many people realize that the flipside of this adage is true as well: "local issues shape national politics." A good example is the San Francisco Preparedness Day Parade bombing of July 22, 1916. At 2:06 p.m. a pipe bomb exploded on the west side of Steuart Street (which no longer exists) just south of Market Street near the Ferry Building. Ten people were killed instantly and more than 40 injured.
Because San Francisco was in the throes of numerous city-wide strikes, it was generally assumed that the bomb was union-inspired. This belief was crystalized when a handful of union members were arrested. Eventually the onus of the bombing fell on the shoulders of two men, both union activists, Thomas J. Mooney and Warren K. Billings. Both men were quickly convicted even though the evidence against them was both weak and questionable. Both were sentenced to death and it would take until 1939 for the men to be exonerated and released from prison.
The trial did not quell the hysteria created by the bombing. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and associated business organizations viewed the hysteria surrounding the act of terrorism as an excellent vehicle to end the union dominance of the San Francisco economy. San Francisco was closed shop and the business interests wanted a city-wide open shop. Harnessing the hysteria of the moment, the Chamber of Commerce formed the Law and Order Committee of 1916 to achieve a city-wide open shop. Raising money from its membership, the Law and Order Committee became involved in many of the local strikes and brought numerous of them a successful conclusion - successful if you were a businessperson and not a union member.
The national impact of the open shop campaign came the next month. Charles Evans Hughes, the odds-on favorite for beating then President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, came to San Francisco on his westward campaign sweep. California was a swing state and it was generally believed that Hughes would take the state easily and with it he would secure the presidency.
Then came the local issue which shaped national politics.
The Hughes visit to San Francisco was viewed by the open shop campaign as an excellent way to leapfrog their open shop campaign from a San Francisco confrontation to a national issue. So the Law and Order Committee booked a Hughes Luncheon at the San Francisco Commercial Club. While the Commercial Club had been an open shop restaurant, it was then on strike by the Cooks and Waiters Union. The Hughes campaign did not want the candidate dining in an open shop restaurant and the unions did not want to insult someone they considered to be, at the very least, a neutral on the closed shop/open shop issue. So the Cooks and Waiters Union agreed to serve the Hughes luncheon - at a struck restaurant - as long the strike-related plaque advertising the Commercial Club as an open shop restaurant - was removed from the front window.
Who was responsible and why the plaque was not removed is not known. But what happened next changed history. As the plaque was not removed, the Cooks and Waiters Union did not serve the Hughes Luncheon. That was done by strikebreakers and the union newspapers ravaged the Hughes campaign. Three months later Hughes lost San Francisco, perhaps the strongest union-dominated city in America, by 15,000 votes. Then he lost California by 3,775 - and Woodrow Wilson went on to a second term as President of the United States.
So next time someone says that what happens locally doesn't affect national politics, tell them the new adage: "local issues shape national politics."
Steven C. Levi is a historian and writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, his home for past 40 years. He has a BA in European History and MA in American history from the University of California Davis and San Jose State. He has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle.
Levi specializes in history and creative thinking including educational software.
He wrote this for his upcoming presentation on July 22, 2016 at ILWU Local 34 on the 100th anniversary of the Preparedness Day Bombing as part of LaborFest.