Excerpt from American Lightning by Howard Blum, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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American Lightning

Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century

by Howard Blum

American Lightning
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2009, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Kuhns

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Shrewdly, they recruited supporters. Otis gathered a well-heeled clique of bankers, merchants, and manufacturers into their own anti- union organization—the Merchants and Manufacturers Association or, as it became widely known, the M&M.

From its inception, the M&M was uncompromising. Either employers ran an open shop, or they would suffer consequences. Banks would summarily cut off the credit of offending businesses. Customers would be “persuaded” to go elsewhere. Organizers from the Citizens’ Alliance, a national open-shop group, arrived to help the M&M attract members. Within weeks six thousand dues-paying, militant, anti-union employers joined up. The M&M became a powerhouse, and Otis, to his great satisfaction, was its guiding eminence.

The San Francisco Bulletin accurately captured the organization’s spirit and tactics: “The Merchants and Manufacturers Association has one confession of faith, one creed: ‘We will employ no union man.’ The M&M also has one command: ‘You shall employ no union man.’ The penalty for disobedience to this command is financial coercion, boycott, and ruin.” Otis did not disagree with this analysis. In fact, it filled him with pride.

Meanwhile the unions took anxious measure of the threat aimed at them, and they responded. In 1903 Samuel Gompers’s American Federation of Labor (AFL) decided that an active and muscular central union organization was needed to confront the M&M. A Central Labor Council representing every labor group in Los Angeles was formed under the leadership of Patrick McCarthy, a San Francisco labor boss (and later mayor). McCarthy swore to re-create in Los Angeles what he had accomplished up north. San Francisco was a union town; its wages were on the average 30 percent higher than in Los Angeles. He vowed to go head to head against the M&M until workers’ earnings in the two cities were equal.

Dozens of strikes broke out. There was a laundry strike, a brewers’ strike, a bakers’ strike, a butchers’ strike. Each unfolded with its own bitter drama. Throughout the city buying a loaf of bread or a pint of beer became an earnest political decision. A customer’s sympathies were revealed in nearly every purchase; he was showing either solidarity with labor or support for capital.

The Times’s editorials were shrill and unyielding, each one another hurled epithet. “Friends of industrial freedom,” went one typically fervent manifesto, “must stand together and back the employers who are at present being assaulted by the henchmen of the corrupt San Francisco labor bosses. All decent people must rally around the flag of industrial liberty in this crisis when the welfare of the whole city is at stake. If the San Francisco gorillas succeed, then the brilliant future of Los Angeles will end, business will stagnate; Los Angeles will be another San Francisco—dead!”

Excerpted from American Lightning by Howard Blum. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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