We Have Fed You All For a Thousand Years
We have fed you all for a thousand years-
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago.
You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives,
And we're told it's your legal share,
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth,
Good God! We have bought it fair!
Written by "An Unknown Proletarian", 1908
We have not just been organizing and fighting for the last twelve years, but ever since farmworkers were first brought to cultivate the valleys of California.
As U.S. business expanded West after the Civil War, thousands of new workers were needed to mine the gold and silver, lay the railroad ties, and do back breaking labor in the fields and orchards.
At the same time, Western businessmen were searching all over Asia and Latin America for raw materials and new markets for the U.S.'s growing industrial production. They do not just bring back tea, silk and valuable minerals. Thousands of unemployed peasants were "recruited" to come to California.
Many of them, forced off their land to make way for large foreign-owned plantations. In the cities of these countries, there was little work because imported Western goods prevented industry from developing.
Chinese and Japanese Workers
In the late 1800's, thousands of Chinese and Japanese workers were brought to work in the fruit orchards and sugar beet fields. They were the first farmworkers, to form associations and strike for improved wages and conditions. But their victories were short-lived.
The growers were able to play them off against anglos and other immigrant workers, especially during the depression years of the 1870's and early 1900's - when Asian workers were blamed for taking away jobs from "Americans." The result was racist laws excluding the Chinese (1882) and Japanese (1920) from the U.S.
The IWW - First Multinational Union
In the 1910's, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized and led strikes in California among workers of all nationalities. The IWW believed in letting growers' crops rot until they paid a living wage. They pioneered direct action tactics, like chasing scabs out of the fields.
By 1917 the IWW had over 10,000 migrant field worker members, but the growers and government teamed up in the following years to jail their leaders and shut down their union halls in Fresno, Bakersfield, San Diego and elsewhere.
After World War I, California growers began importing farmworkers from the Philippines, which the U.S. had taken control of after a war with Spain in 1898. Laws were passed forbidding Filipino women from entering the U.S. In many rural towns it was a crime for Filipino men to associate with women of other races. The growers hoped to keep their expenses down by employing a work force of single men. But in the early 1930s, the Filipino workers responded by organizing into associations which led some powerful strikes.
1934-36 Salinas Strikes - Divide and Conquer
In 1934, Filipino lettuce cutters and mainly white packing shed workers (AFL) struck the powerful Salinas Valley grower shippers, demanding union recognition and improved conditions. They made an agreement between them, neither union would bargain without the other.
After several weeks of an effective strike, the grower-shippers agreed to bargain. The agreement was made on a Saturday night. "Send your workers back to work immediately," said the bosses, "and we'll negotiate on Monday." Sunday is not a work day and no one returned to work until Monday.
When Monday came the growers sat and negotiated with the packing shed representatives, while they refused to even talk with Filipino representatives because they had "violated the agreement to return to work immediately." So while the packers union was negotiating its contract, organized vigilante gangs were burning down Filipino labor camps, driving Filipino organizers from the valley and bringing in scabs to break the field strike.
Packingshed union leaders "forgot" their agreement with the Filipino field workers, and allowed field and shed workers to be divided.
Two years later, in 1936, the shed bosses took back the "favor." When the contract expired, they refused to re-sign it. They hired a vigilante army of 3000, and used police and sheriffs to arrest and beat workers while escorting scabs into the sheds.
Some field workers walked out in support of the strike, but unorganized, their sporadic support was not very effective. In a month the strike was broken, and the shed union was busted.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression brought a wave of displaced farmers to California from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. They joined the Mexicans and Filipinos working on the "factory ranches" of Di Giorgio and the other grower-shippers.
As the Depression deepened, the growers slashed wages and laid off workers. Between 1929 and 1933, wages dropped from $3.50 to $1.90 a day. A 3-year residency requirement disqualified most farmworkers from relief.
Farmworkers had no choice but to walk out of the fields (50 strikes in 1933 alone) telling the growers, "You can pick your own crops for $1.75 a day!"
Many of these strikes were led by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU), whose leaders included communists and other progressive workers. The CAWIU worked closely with the CUOM, a newly organized confederation of Mexican workers in the Imperial Valley.
The 1933 Cotton Strike
The biggest strike took place among cotton workers near Corcoran in the Central Valley. Wages in cotton had fallen from $1 to 40 cents per 100 lbs. picked. The CAWIU called for a strike and 1800 workers walked out in October 1933. Three-fourths of them were Mexican and 1/4 were white and black.
The growers started evicting the strikers from company owned labor camps, but this only concentrated the union's forces in one camp. The growers then called on the police and formed armed vigilante squads, which shot down 11 strikers, killing two. But the strikers resisted and held picket lines in front of the jail to demand freedom for the arrested strike leaders. In one farm, about 100 workers invaded the fields and drove off all the strikebreakers.
After 24 days on strike, the cotton workers won an increase in wages to 75 cents per 100 lbs., though they had also demanded union recognition and an end to the labor contractor system.
During the wave of strikes in 1933, which pushed wages back up, the growers were preparing to counterattack. The newly formed Farmers Association (which was controlled by the biggest farm corporations) pushed through anti-picketing legislation in 20 rural California counties and pressured courts and police to arrest CAWIU leaders under the charge of criminal syndicalism (union organizing). By the end of 1934, the CAWIU was smashed. The American Federation of Labor, its leadership dominated by sellouts, did nothing to help.
In fact, the AFL Teamsters Union, moved into many canneries and packing sheds after the militant CAWIU had been driven out. Many of the grower shippers saw that the cannery and shed workers would be unionized sooner or later and welcomed the conservative Teamster officials. They could be counted on to ignore the mostly Mexican and Filipino field workers, who were still unorganized.
So the 30's ended with the temporary defeat of unionism in California agriculture. While industrial workers were launching successful union drive under the CIO and were pushing through pro-labor legislation like the National Labor Relations Act (which guaranteed the right to have secret ballot union elections), farmworkers, increasingly Mexican braceros, remained unorganized and unprotected. The Farmworkers isolation from the new labor movement did not end until the 1960's.
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