When Violent Union Dislike for Affordable Food Nearly Led to War with Japan


Fascinating and news-to-me history I came across today that reminds us that thuggish opposition to people who can outcompete existing businesses in price and/or consumer happiness is timeless (and alas continuing, as see the world of Uber and its competitors for one example) and that it once almost led to a violent international incident, from the site.

Seems turn-of-the-20th-century Japanese immigrant-run restaurants were outcompeting locals with good 10 cent meals. This obviously could not long stand while a proud union man draws breath:

Local 485 of the Waiters and Cooks Union [in Spokane] In 1902….organized a boycott of a ten-cent Japanese restaurant run by a Mr. K. Takahashi. Unfortunately, it was an imperfect tactic, one that did not succeed, mainly because it was hard for workingmen to turn down a cheap meal. So hard, that the union had to institute a $2.50 fine for any member caught entering a Japanese restaurant.

But there were some successes. In 1907, unions and American restaurant owners succeeded in convincing the Seattle city council to mandate a fifteen cent minimum price for a meal, erasing part of the Japanese price advantage….

And in San Francisco, in December of 1906, unions conspired…to get Japanese children banned from public schools.

On May 20, 1907, however, things blew up. A group of union men caught four of their fellow unionists eating at the ten-cent Horseshoe Restaurant at 1213 Folsom Street. Beatings were handed out to the two men who were foolish enough to exit the restaurant through the front door….

When the police declined an invitation to become involved, the fun spread to a Japanese bathhouse across the street. The demonstrations resumed again the next night, with less vigor, and four more nights after that….

For Washington, however, the most important thing happening in San Francisco was that the trashing of the Horseshoe had become an international incident.

Over the coming weeks, newspapers in both countries, including William Randoph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, whipped up the war frenzy. Opposition politicians in Tokyo called for war, while a group of high-ranking Japanese officers argued they could defeat the Americans in the Pacific (and probably could have).

Teddy Roosevelt dispatched special commissioners to investigate, and theGreat White Fleet to intimidate. It worked. The Japanese had second thoughts about war, and racial and labor tensions were calmed for a few years.

If you can eat affordable ethnic food in your town, thank labor unions, I guess, for failing to completely destroy them for all time, despite their efforts.