From the Politics of Polarity to the Politics of Hyperpluralism

Historical Essay

by William Issel and Robert Cherny

Although this study has concluded that San Francisco politics in the early twentieth century exhibited sharply etched polarities, students of more recent city politics have characterized them as pluralistic. Frederick Wirt, whose Power in the City: Decision Making in San Francisco appeared in 1974, characterized the city’s politics as “hyperpluralism.”(1) In 1980, Kevin Starr, author of Americans and the California Dream, described the city’s politics in the Examiner as “an unseemly, inefficient species of village squabbling.” The executive director of the San Francisco Charter Commission put it bluntly: San Francisco politics represented “pluralism run amok.”(2) What happened in San Francisco between 1932 and the 1970s to transform the polarized politics of the early twentieth century into the hyperpluralist politics of the later twentieth century? A complete answer is not possible without a full-scale study, but a brief survey can suggest the central elements of continuity as well as the most important forces of change.

Labor: From Polarity to Partnership

Basic patterns of labor’s involvement in politics have changed surprisingly little since the early twentieth century. Unions created the Union Labor party as a defensive move to prevent the use of city power against the emergent union movement. From 1901 through the implementation of the new city charter in 1932, labor rarely moved beyond a defensive approach to city politics. Although the city’s labor relations underwent a major revolution in the 1930s, the nature of the relationship between organized labor and city government changed very little. The major impetus for change in labor relations came not from within the city but instead from the federal government. When Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 and included section 7-a providing for collective bargaining, labor organizations in San Francisco, as elsewhere in the nation, launched organizing drives. Workers too read section 7-a as a call to organize, and groups of them walked the halls of the Labor Temple, the Labor Council’s building, looking for the proper union to join.(3) In 1934, Mayor Angelo Rossi used city police to protect Industrial Association trucks carrying goods unloaded from ships by strikebreaking longshoremen; a [July 5, 1934: Bloody Thursday|battle between police and strikers]] left two unionists dead. Labor responded with a brief general strike, and striking maritime workers were able to use section 7-a to force some concessions.

In 1901, the use of city police to protect strikebreakers had earned Mayor Phelan the enmity of labor and had brought to birth the Union Labor party. Labor launched no political demarche in 1934; instead Rossi won second and third terms in city hall. Because the Wagner Act of 1935 protected the gains made under section 7-a and allowed their extension at the same time that it established a regulatory body that gave a legal structure to labor relations, labors attention came to focus on Washington. Through the decade of the 1930s, San Francisco voters slowly changed their voting allegiances. In 1930, 82 percent of the city’s voters registered as Republicans; ten years later, 65 percent were Democrats.(4)

Although San Francisco’s union membership doubled between 1933 and 1940(5) and city voters moved from the Republican party to the party of Franklin Roosevelt, these changes produced no immediate impact in city hall. James Rolph’s successors seemed cast from the same mold, though most lacked his charming veneer. Angelo Rossi (1931—1944), Roger Lapham (1944—1948), Elmer Robinson (1948—1956), and George Christopher (1956—1964) were all moderate-to-conservative Republicans, and all but Robinson made their mark as successful businessmen. The resurgent labor movement elected supporters to the Board of Supervisors, as it had done throughout the 1920s, and sent others to Congress (including Franck Havenner) or to the state legislature. If San Francisco labor from 1901 through 1932 had engaged in politics for defensive reasons, its later goals remained much the same: defense of the gains made under protection of federal legislation.

By the mid-1930s, leading employers had moved from a policy of suppression to a strategy of assimilation, stressing the mutual self-interest of business and labor so long as labor limited itself to collective bargaining over wages, hours, and working conditions. Those who presented a broader agenda for labor often found themselves the targets of red-baiting and efforts to remove them from influence. Havenner lost his congressional seat through such maneuvers, and Harry Bridges spent years in court fighting deportation efforts.(6) If anything, the federal protections for collective bargaining contained in New Deal legislation made San Francisco labor less active than before in city politics, as some unions came to consider their previous defensive politics as unnecessary and others came to view politics solely in terms of their own jobs. By 1982, for example, the Electrical Workers, and the Building Trades more generally, provided strong leadership in committing the Labor Council against a proposition to study the feasibility of public ownership of electrical-generating and distribution systems on the grounds that federal protection of bargaining rights was preferable to that available to city employees.

Urban Development

Patterns of decision making in the area of urban development also showed little change from the 1920s. One union official in 1970 defined his union’s role in development controversies as only to “supply the workers and assure their rights,” but environmentalist efforts to limit high-rise development propelled Building Trades unions into a political coalition with the city’s business leadership, for they both adamantly opposed limits on growth.(7) The most ambitious proposals for urban development in San Francisco since the 1930s have followed the pattern marked by the Burnham plan advocated in 1905. For example, in 1953, the Board of Supervisors designated the South of Market area as a possible location for a redevelopment project. Real estate developer, hotelier, and Democratic party activist Benjamin Harrison Swig soon produced the San Francisco Prosperity Plan to transform the area into a convention, sports, and office complex. Discussion ebbed and flowed during the 1950s, but by the early 1960s the business community united behind the Swig proposal and converted city officials to their views.

Operating through both private organizations and government agencies, a revised version of the Prosperity Plan lumbered into being, generating more than a decade of lawsuits and political controversy, but ultimately producing the Moscone Convention Center. As the municipal redevelopment effort slowly neared realization, private capital transformed the environs of the convention center from a collection of hotels for transients, small manufacturing companies, and low-income residences into a high-rise extension of the Financial District.(8) By the time the Democrats met in Moscone Center in July 1984 to nominate Walter Mondale for president, new office structures stretched from the waterfront to the convention center, marking the transformation of fully half of the South of Market District. Similar initiatives from the business community, operating through private organizations and public agencies, produced both the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and an underground route for the Municipal Railway along Market Street.(9)

As San Francisco’s business community began to transform its central business district into a mini-Manhattan, critics of high-density development emerged and began to gain support. In 1959, a test of strength came when plans for a freeway across Aquatic Park and the Marina Green sparked a “freeway revolt,” which led the Board of Supervisors to halt the freeway’s progress. Six years later, neighborhood activists led a citywide effort to reject $180 million in federal highway funds, part of which was to have been used to build a freeway across parts of Golden Gate Park. Since the 1960s, three San Francisco freeways have ended in midair, mute testimony to the political prowess of those citizens unwilling to surrender their neighborhoods to concrete on-ramps or to live in the shadow of an elevated roadway.

Another test of strength came when a similar coalition of neighborhood activists, environmentalists, and political liberals blocked a proposed high-rise development adjacent to the Bay Bridge. Efforts to restrict building heights through the initiative process failed in 1971, 1972, and 1983, although voters in 1984 approved an initiative designed to prevent high-rise buildings from shadowing parks. These contests over the future course of urban development inevitably generated the same coalitions: the business community and organized labor (led by the Building Trades) opposed restrictions; neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and political liberals favored limits on development.(10)

While patterns of decision making on urban development in the post–World War II era had been forecast by those who produced the Burnham plan in 1905, the political coalitions of the postwar era proved very different from those of the 1920s. From 1901 through 1932, most issues that drove voter alignments derived from labor relations. The city’s politics polarized between business and labor, and those coalitions proved durable so long as business leaders clung to the hope of restoring the open shop in the face of worker commitment to unions. When New Deal legislation quashed open-shop hopes, San Francisco business leaders turned to reinforce those union leaders who defined their purposes narrowly, in terms of bargaining rights and objectives. By the time control of urban development emerged as a major political issue in the 1960s, business and labor had long experience in working together. The labor movement itself changed, as high-rise office buildings (housing nonunion workers) replaced machine shops and light manufacturing and as the introduction of containerized shipping made obsolete most of the city's piers. Machinists' and maritime unions shrank, but the growth of public employee unions kept total union membership from a sharp decline.

Changing Ethnic and Social Patterns

Just as federal legislation in the 1930s helped to bring an end to the class divisions of earlier years, so the population movements of World War II and after brought new ethnic and social groups into a city that had experienced nearly a half-century of ethnic stability. During the war, black neighborhoods developed in the Western Addition and near the shipyards of Hunters Point. Following the war, Irish Catholics moved out of the Mission District to suburbs or to new neighborhoods in the Sunset District. Hispanics from Central America and Mexico replaced the Irish as the largest ethnic group in the Mission District. Immigration from Asia resumed in the late 1960s, and Chinatown began to expand into erstwhile Italian areas of North Beach; parts of the Richmond District became a second Chinatown. By the 1970 census, the city had become 14 percent Asian (Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Korean, with Vietnamese to be added in the 1970s), 12 percent Hispanic, and 13 percent black. By the early 1970s, some sections of the city had already become “gay ghettos” as the city’s reputation for tolerance attracted men from other parts of the nation.

Former lines of political polarity weakened or disappeared, and many new lines of political cleavage appeared, along lines of class, neighborhood, race and ethnicity, and sexual preference. A politics of pluralism emerged from the city’s new ethnocultural mix and from the changes in political loyalty deriving from presidential and congressional divisions during the 1930s. Political analysts in the 1960s and 1970s tracked the emergence of identifiable, although sometimes overlapping, blocs of voters: blacks, Chinese, Hispanics, gays, environmentalists, labor supporters, business supporters, liberals, conservatives, and others, many of them organized into political clubs for the purposes of endorsement, fundraising, and mobilization. Since the late 1960s, running for city office has become an exercise in collecting endorsements from the city’s many political organizations, including the Black Leadership Forum, the Mexican-American Political Alliance, the Labor Council’s Committee on Political Education, the Chamber of Commerce, the Republican County Central Committee, and a host of Democratic clubs, including neighborhood clubs, the Feminist Democrats, the Chinese-American Democratic Club, and several gay clubs, especially the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club and the Harvey Milk Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club.(12)

The Politics of Pluralism

In 1963, newly arrived ethnic groups (especially blacks) joined with liberals and labor to elect the city’s first Democratic mayor since James Phelan.(13) John Shelley, liberal member of Congress and former secretary-treasurer of the Labor Council, served from 1964 to 1968. His successor, Joseph Alioto, also a liberal Democrat, was a lawyer and successful businessman. George Moscone, a liberal Democratic state senator, followed Alioto into the mayor’s office in 1976, winning an election that sharply divided the city; unions joined blacks, environmentalists, liberals, and gays to give Moscone a narrow victory over John Barbagelata, an arch-conservative Republican real estate broker. Moscone’s assassination in 1978 made Dianne Feinstein mayor; a moderate-to-liberal Democrat, Feinstein won election on her own in 1979 and 1983, drawing much of the support Moscone had garnered and adding support from business interests.(14)

Although politics affecting urban development showed little change from the patterns of 1905, recent mayoral elections reflect coalitional alignments that have made recent charter reform movements seem light-years removed from those of the 1890s or 1920s. Earlier charter revision efforts had been marked by the polarization characteristic of the city’s politics more generally during those years, but charter revision efforts in 1968–1969 and 1979–1980 exhibited the full-blown political pluralism that emerged after World War II.

During the closing days of Shelley’s administration, the Board of Supervisors created a Citizens’ Charter Revision Committee (CCRC) to study and propose revisions in the 1932 charter. Unlike charter revision groups in the 1890s and 1920s, when the business community took the lead in developing charter proposals for consideration by an elected Board of Freeholders, the CCRC was created by the supervisors and the mayor. Each supervisor appointed one member, and incoming mayor Alioto appointed ten. The result was the most politically balanced charter revision group in the city’s history: the CCRC contained men and women, representatives of labor, business, and all the city's major ethnic groups. The voters received CCRC’s first proposals in 1969 and defeated them by almost a two-to-one margin; although the CCRC package, in good pluralist fashion, seemed to offer something to every major political group in the city, it also had something that every major group found objectionable. With the defeat of the CCRC proposals, the drive for charter reform moved to grassroots levels.(15)

In 1973, a coalition of neighborhood political activists, including veterans of the freeway revolt, used the initiative process to propose changes in the election of supervisors, advocating election from individual districts instead of at large. The measure drew opposition from business, labor, and most city officials and lost by two to one. In the next few years, city employee strikes produced punitive actions by the Board of Supervisors, urged on by the business community. In 1976, when a new effort at district election surfaced, the Labor Council allied itself with neighborhood activists to pun¬ish incumbent supervisors for their antilabor measures. The proposition passed by a narrow margin, with voters aligning themselves almost exactly as they had in the Moscone-Barbagelata election the year before. A repeal measure two years later failed, again by a close margin.(16)

In 1978, San Francisco voters elected a Charter Commission to rewrite the 1932 charter. The 1978 Charter Commission showed the pluralism characteristic of the CCRC a decade before; among the commissioners were Asians, blacks, women, a gay man, liberals, conservatives, labor representatives, businessmen, and professionals. The outcome in 1980, when voters passed on the commission’s work, was also a replay of 1969. The same year, the voters repealed district elections and returned to the at-large election of supervisors.(17) It was this turn of events that prompted the commission's executive director to condemn the process as “pluralism run amok.”

From this brief survey, three elements emerge as central in understanding the post-1932 evolution of San Francisco politics from polarity to pluralism. One is the role of federal legislation and regulation in removing labor relations from the agenda of city politics, except f or municipal employee labor relations. A second is the emergence of issues focusing on the desirability of unrestricted growth and development. A third is the arrival of new sociocultural groups carrying noneconomic political objectives. Together, these factors have transformed the nature and process of city politics.


1. Frederick M. Wirt, “The Politics of Hyperpluralism,” in Culture and Civility in San Francisco, ed. Howard S. Becker (New Brunswick, N.J., 1971); Wirt, Power in the City, p. 350.
2. Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915 (New York, 1973); Examiner, Aug. 21, 1980; Carol Kroot, “San Francisco: ‘Pluralism Run Amok,’ ” San Francisco Progress, Aug. 15, 1980.
3. David F. Selvin, A Place in the Sun: A History of California Labor (San Francisco, 1981), p. 42; Selvin cites a former union official for his account of workers walking the halls.
4. Data on voting registration from the San Francisco Registrar of Voters office records.
5. David F. Selvin, Sky Full of Storm: A Brief History of California Labor, rev. ed. (San Francisco, 1975), p. 52.
6. Havenner, “Reminiscences.”
7. Dick Meister, “Labor Power,” San Francisco Bay Guardian (Dec. 23, 1970): 2, 3, 25.
8. Chester Hartman, Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco, 1974); and Chester Hartman, The Transformation of San Francisco (Totowa, N.J., 1984).
9. J. Allen Whitt, Urban Elites and Mass Transportation: The Dialectics of Power (Princeton, 1982), esp. ch. 2.
10. Wirt. Power in the City, pp. 197 — 213; Bruce G. Brugmann et al.. The Ultimate Highrise: San Francisco's Mad Rush Toward the Sky (San Francisco, 1971): John H. Mollenkopf, The Contested City (Princeton. 1983), esp. chs. 4, 5.
11. Meriel Burtle et al., The District Handbook: A Coro Foundation Guide to San Franciscos Supervisorial Districts (San Francisco, 1979), esp. p. 14.
12. See Wirt. Power in the City, p. 90; and Manuel Castells and Karen Murphy, “Cultural Identity and Urban Structure: The Spatial Organization of San Francisco’s Gay Community,” in Urban Policy Under Capitalism, ed. Norman 1. Fainstein and Susan S. Fainstein (Beverly Hills, 1982), pp. 237 — 259.
13. Some might claim Edward Taylor (1907—1909) as a Democrat, but he was elected primarily as a nonpartisan.
14. San Francisco Registrar of Voters voting data; see also Wirt. Power in the City, p. 175; Burtle, District Handbook, p. 27.
15. For a succinct summary of the Citizens’ Charter Revision Committee, see Wirt, Power in the City, pp. 142 — 154.
16. Robert W. Cherny. “San Francisco's Return to District Elections: The Role of the Labor Council.” paper presented at the Fifth Annual Southwest Labor Studies conference. California State College. Dominguez Hills, 1979.
17. “Charter Commissioners—Biographical Notes,” mimeographed. Charter Commission. 1979.

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From San Francisco 1865-1932, Postscript: “From the Politics of Polarity to the Politics of Hyperpluralism”