The female workers at the California Cotton Mills in Oakland did not wait until May 22, 1911, when the eight-hour day was to go in effect in the state.

They walked off their jobs May 10. Mill officials thought they had been fair to their workers. Several years earlier they had voluntarily cut the 60-hour week to 54 hours without a wage drop.

The new law, which applied only to women and children, had been signed by Gov. Hiram Johnson in March. Although the law did not apply to men, mill manager William Rutherford closed down the factory, and a payroll of $25,000 a month was lost to some 600 workers.

When the law was being debated in the state Legislature, Rutherford had asked that his industry be exempted. His statement was published in the San Francisco Call on May 12.

"I explained to the members of the last legislature that our industry should be exempt from this law, because our men operatives could not work without the women, and the enforcement of the law would mean that they were to be subjected to the same hours as the women, and that this would necessarily mean a cut in wages unless we could speed up the machines or secure efficiency in some other way.

"We can afford to let the mills lie idle for a time, and rather than meet the new demands will let them lie idle indefinitely," he said.

On May 13 more than 300 mill workers marched in the streets of Oakland.

"A large number of women and children were in line, some of the children carrying banners which read: 'Our Wages Are Sixty Cents a Day' 'The First Vacation We Have Ever Had,' " reported the Call.


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On May 18 the mill men's union pledged aid for the workers and donated $50 to their cause.

Then on May 22 Rutherford hosted a conference, inviting labor leaders, the state labor commissioner and school officials.

He had been under attack since the previous October, accused of hiring underage children. The Welfare League had said the mills employed 50 underage children. Rutherford contended that age certificates were required and the children had to attend night school.

The Welfare League responded that parents needing extra income lied so their children could get jobs. The league was asking that no children be hired unless they had completed the equivalent of fifth grade.

Rutherford insisted that all children at his mills were at least 14 years old. He also pointed out to the conference attendees that his mill couldn't compete with the mills in other states if the women insisted on getting the same wages even though they would be working only an eight-hour day.

On June 1 the strike ended. The women got their eight-hour day and a 10 percent cut in their wages.

Rutherford reopened the mills and joined the Welfare League. In his Oakland Tribune obituary on Feb. 23, 1915, he was praised for his work with the state Legislature raising the working age for children to 15.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.