Had the 1906 earthquake not hit Santa Rosa, another crisis was likely to shake the town later that year — a paralyzing general strike.

Troubles started early in January. Lee Brothers, the largest drayage (hauling) company in Santa Rosa, was the linchpin of the construction industry in town, their drivers responsible for everything from carting away debris and garbage to handling raw and finished materials to and from the lumber yards. It was also a non-union “open shop,” meaning that that the company supposedly granted both union and non-union workers the same benefits and working conditions. To pressure Lee Brothers, the local Labor Council voted that all union workers were to take no new jobs until the lumber yards were completely unionized, including the drivers.

Property development — then, as now, Santa Rosa’s true primary industry — screeched to a halt. As the Republican newspaper editorialized, while carpenters were still busy on projects elsewhere around the county, “…inside of Santa Rosa [real estate] sales have been practically nil.” A stream of skilled craftsmen were also reportedly leaving the city seeking work elsewhere. After a week of negotiations, a deal was struck in January that maintained the open-shop status quo while giving the unions six months to organize the entire labor force. But while the Press Democrat crowed that labor troubles were settled, the Republican more accurately observed that the showdown was merely postponed until somewhere around August.

As the clock was ticking, tensions rose higher as another employer antagonized union workers by bringing in scab labor.

In brief: During construction of the Burbank School on Ellis Street (which is now the stretch of Sonoma Avenue west of Santa Rosa Ave), union bricklayers walked off the job in a wildcat strike because the contractor refused to hire union hodcarriers. Out-of-town bricklayers were brought in. Local tempers ran hot, and after a few days the scabs quietly left Santa Rosa without laying a single brick.

It was a tense three days in Santa Rosa, and the blame lies entirely with local contractor W. L. Nagel, who misled the out-of-towners that Santa Rosa was a tiny country town with no union presence. When scourged for hiring them, Nagel’s defense was that he couldn’t hire locals because there was only a single bricklayer in town, which was easily refuted as another lie. And, of course, along the way he blamed the problems he caused upon unnamed “outsiders.”

But what made this confrontation so potentially explosive was that all of the non-union, out-of-town workers were African-American.

To the Press Democrat, which always represented the town’s Southern Democrat old guard, the race of the men was the predominant issue, followed closely by the urgency for these Black men to get out of town ASAP. The rival Republican newspaper took the PD to task for hypocrisy, suggesting that the paper didn’t object to other scab laborers who apparently were White: “…the morning paper exploded yesterday over the presence in Santa Rosa of the four negroes, why does it not urge the employment of union men in a certain establishment in which the aforesaid establishment is operated, raised a great howl about imported negro labor in order to divert attention from the main issue and pose–pose, we say–as a dear friend of the union man[?]”

If the situation wasn’t already sticky enough, a scuffle between a local Black man and a group of Whites threatened to expand the conflict beyond a labor dispute. What exactly happened at ten o’clock that morning in a Fourth St. saloon and the hours that followed is uncertain; accounts in the two Santa Rosa newspapers are too different to be reconciled. Details continue in the following post.

Colored Contractor With Six Assistants Arrives Here From Los Angeles

Seven colored brick layers have arrived here from Los Angeles prepared to go to work on the new school building being erected on Ellis street, and their arrival has occasioned a great deal of discussion among the representatives of the local labor unions, as well as among a good many other people.

According to F. D. Grant, the colored contractor who brought the men here, representations were made to him that Santa Rosa was a small town and that there were no labor unions here. These representations, he says, were made by a man named Calimene, acting for Contractor W. L. Nagle, who has the contract to do the brick work on the new building. Grant is said to have expressed himself as being considerably surprised to learn the conditions of affairs here, but says he is ready to go to work whenever the weather permits.

Fred Forgett, a well-known local union brick layer, says that he offered to procure all the union men needed, but that Contractor Nagle said he did not want them. He says that the negro bricklayers have agreed to work for $5 pr day, while the union schedule is $6. The union bricklayers employed on the job walked out a short time ago because the hod-carriers were non-union men. There is no local bricklayer’s union here, but the men are affiliated with the San Francisco union, and also with the hodcarriers.

All the colored bricklayers imported from Los Angeles are non-union men, and it is believed by many that their employment will mean trouble, as they claim local men will not be apt to stand by and see the negro bricklayers doing the work without making some effort to prevent it. It is also not unlikely that allowing non-union men to lay the brick may result in a further tying up of the job when it comes time to do the carpenter and plumbing work, as union men will probably refuse to take hold of it when the brick work is finished.

Considerable indignation was expressed on the streets yesterday regarding the matter, and this was voiced by non-union men as well as by union men. The matter appears to be entirely out of the hands of the school board, as that body has let the contract for the constriction of the building and accepted a bond for its completion. Entirely aside from the question of unionism or color, it is pointed out that the work is of a public nature and if it is done by men living here the money paid out in the form of wages will remain in Santa Rosa, while if it is paid to outsiders it will be carried away with them when they return to their homes, and a good many people have expressed themselves as being of the opinion that for these reasons if for no other some way should be found to adjust the situation without having to call in the assistance of the outsiders.

– Press Democrat, March 21, 1906
Will Continue to Work as Long as Contractor Nagel Is Satisfied

The four colored men who were imported from Los Angeles to this city by Contractor W. L. Nagel were reported today to have consented to return to their homes, providing their fares were paid by the local members of the Bricklayers Union…[who] have been raising money today for that purpose.

It is understood that some of the contractors believe that Contractor Nagel displayed poor judgment in importing colored men here when he had white men, for the negro issue further complicates the labor situation, and makes it even more difficult of solution.

Contractor Nagel paid a visit to the Republican office this afternoon and ashed that space be given him for the following statement: “There are not seven colored men; there are only four; these men thoroughly understood the local conditions before coming here. I have worked my men for the past two years paying $6 a day and allowing them union hours, and when I accepted the work on the school building I undertook to employ union men, and gave them the first chance; they saw fit fo quit after a day and a half of work. I gave them two other opportunities and waited two weeks but they still refused. There are no resident bricklayers here except Fred Forgett. The outsiders on the ice plant are creating this trouble. I had six other bricklayers here ten days ago. They were intimidated so they left. On the second day two were turned out of a local hotel without breakfast. These colored men are mechanics and will work for me on this building and on other work. I have seven other white bricklayers here besides who will also work for me. Three of the four colored men have families.”

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 21, 1906
Fred Forgett, Contractor Nagle and Foreman Grant Discuss Bricklayers’ Trouble

Several conferences took place yesterday between the colored bricklayers recently imported from Los Angeles to work on the new Ellis street school and representatives of the local union bricklayers relative to quiet arranging for the return of the former to their homes, but nothing came of it.

The negroes appeared willing to go if their fares were paid, and the sum of $85 was finally agreed upon as a proper sum, but before the time agreed on for the second meeting word reached here that four more non-union bricklayers were on the way from Sacramento, so the local men decided that to send the colored men away would be an unnecessary waste of money.

The above information was furnished a Press Democrat representative last night by Fred Forgett of this city, who also took issue with a statement made by Contractor W. L. Nagel to the effect that he (Forgett) is the only local resident bricklayer in town. Forgett stated that Ed Pow, Joe Griffin, Obe Snow, Harry Snow, Ed Bennett and Harry Bennett, in addition to himself, all of whom live in Sonoma County, had been working for Nagel for the past year or more, some of them for a number of years. Forgett also stated that the only action he had taken in connection with the present difficulty had been in response to orders from union headquarters in San Francisco, and exhibited several telegrams to back up his claims. “We are not trying to make trouble,” said Forgett, “and we do not want to see any trouble here; but we belong to the union, and as long as we do we have to live up to the rules.”

F. D. Grant, foreman of the colored crew, stated yesterday afternoon that he and his men were here to work and expected to remain as long as Contractor Nagel wanted them to. “When he says go, we will start,” said Grant. It appears that Nagel paid the men’s fare to Santa Rosa. Grant also said that as far as he knew no misrepresentations had been made to his men regarding union conditions in this city. He said they had been told that there was no bricklayer’s union here, which is the case, although the local bricklayers are affiliated with the San Francisco union. He claimed that his men were to receive $6 per day and not $5 as has been reported, and also stated that while they did not belong to any union they had worked on some of the best buildings in Los Angeles alongside of union men without having any trouble.

Contractor Nagel called at this office last night and made the following statement: “It is not true that I have brought in seven colored bricklayers. There are only four of them. They are going to remain here and do my work, because it has to be finished. I held off some two weeks trying to get my old men to come back to work, and gave them several chances, but they [illegible microfilm] half a dozen non-union men, all white. They were intimidated and in other ways [illegible microfilm] working only a day or so. Then I got another white crew and the same thing happened again. No misrepresentations were made to get these colored bricklayers to come here. They will be paid the regular scale of $6 a day, and do not come to cut down prices. Fred Forgett never offered to ‘get all the non-union men I wanted.’ What he did was to call my men off, and then help get the others to quit. I am under contract and have given bonds to complete my buildings and must do it. These colored bricklayers are good workmen and with other men I have got are going to go ahead and do my work. The report that they agreed to return home if their fare was paid is not correct.”

– Press Democrat, March 22, 1906


The importation of the four colored bricklayers to assist in the work upon the Ellis street school house has caused a great deal of stir in union circles, for it has served to accentuate the efforts being made to break down labor unionism in Santa Rosa.


In the present conflict our contemporary grows red in the face over “black men” being imported and orders them to pack their kits and go. Yes, but if it were true to its pretended faith, why didn’t it say that to all imported men?

Why doesn’t the mayor’s organ urge the cause of union men generally, instead of lambasting a quartet of good-natured negroes brought here under apparent misrepresentation?

For instance, and speaking politically, for it was certainly in that sense that the morning paper exploded yesterday over the presence in Santa Rosa of the four negroes, why does it not urge the employment of union men in a certain establishment in which the aforesaid establishment is operated, raised a great howl about imported negro labor in order to divert attention from the main issue and pose–pose, we say–as a dear friend of the union man.

Unless we are greatly mistaken, people will see through this campaign bluff in the shape of a roast on the four negroes who don’t amount to a drop in the bucket compared with the other situation alluded to…

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 22, 1906

Return to Their Homes in Los Angeles Without Having Done Any Workin This City

The quartette of colored men who were imported to this city from Los Angeles by Contractor Nagel, to work on the Ellis street school building, departed for their homes on the Southern Pacific train this morning. They purchased tickets straight through to Los Angeles, and will probably remain there indefinitely. Two days ago it was reported they had agreed to leave, but this was denied by the men at that time, they declaring they had come here at the expense of Mr. Nagel, and expected to got to work for him just as soon as the weather would permit.

Before leaving the city the men declared to city officials who called upon them that they were brought here through misrepresentations, that they had no idea they were coming to take work that any others had been engaged on or had refused to do. Contractor Grant made these statements for himself and his men to a city official who had absolutely no interest in the controversy between Nagel and his men who had left his employ, Grant further stated that he was informed that Santa Rosa was a little country town, not exceeding a couple of thousand in population, that the work he was to do was absolutely “fair” from a union standpoint, and that there were no unions in the city. Grant felt that he and his men had been imposed upon, and they were greatly surprised when they arrived here and learned the true conditions.

Grant was chagrined that it should have been reported that he and his men intended to work for five dollars per day while here. They were hired, he said, at a wage of six dollars per day. They are not cheap laborers, but insist on getting the highest wages paid to men in their calling.

The fact that these men have returned to their homes is a source of gratification to others who do not concern themselves with affairs of labor difficulties. It is believed to have been an unfortunate episode that these colored men were brought here for the purpose of taking work that should have been done by mechanics of this city and vicinity, men who pay taxes here regularly every year.

Four men have arrived here fom Los Angeles to work for Contractor Nagel, and they are declared by the union men to be “unfair,” and some are said to be notorious strike breakers. Efforts will be made by the union men to have them leave Santa Rosa in preference to going to work on the building, and in this they may or may not be successful. [This paragraph was obviously part of a rejected draft from the first story written two days earlier, and was included here by mistake. Of interest is that the labor-friendly Republican paper was first preparing to label the Black workers as “notorious strike breakers.” – je]

As the result of an altercation which occurred Thursday night, Paul Anderson swore to a warrant charging Fred Forgett, a local bricklayer, with making threats. Anderson had trouble with another man, recently from San Francisco, and alleged that Forgett assisted the other man in an attempt to batter him. Forgett has a number of witnesses to prove that he was trying to hold the man with whom Anderson was having trouble, and prevent if possible a personal encounter. Forgett is striving hard to maintain the most harmonious and peaceable relations between the men, and it was while thus engaged that Anderson believed he was assisting the other man, whose name is unknown.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 23, 1906

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *