On October 10, 1933, thirty ranchers surrounded a group of agricultural strikers in Pixley, California. They opened fire and killed two. The massacre at Pixley culminated the farm strike that had gone on through the harvesting season and demonstrated the level of violence ranchers would resort to in order to keep labor as exploitable as possible.
With the Great Depression, the decline in commodity prices and the growth of a desperate labor force led California cotton growers to drastically reduce their wages, from $1.50 per 100 pounds of cotton picked in 1928 to 40 cents in 1932. Workers were increasingly angry and desperate. They were also increasingly white, as they began to replace the largely Mexican workforce the farmers usually relied upon. The Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, founded in 1930, stepped in to organize these workers. This was a communist-led organization seeking to organize the most desperate of workforces in the fields. It was in many ways a successor of Industrial Workers of the World attempts to do the same in the 1910s that had led to the killings at Wheatland, near Pixley, in 1913. The CAWIU engaged in a number of small strikes through 1931 and 1932. Like in Wheatland, the farmers routinely turned to violence to crush these strikes.
By 1933 though, the CAWIU had a strong cadre of experienced organizers who knew the fields and how to organize them. They developed sophisticated financial plans to help them plan for the upcoming strikes in 1933, gaining information about wage rates, crop prices, and when different crops would be ready to pick, all of which helped them coordinate these actions. The demands for these strikes were fairly straightforward–union recognition, higher wages, a shorter workday, no hiring discrimination based on union membership or ethnicity. In other words, these farmworkers were seeking dignity. They also avoided talking about their revolutionary aims, figuring it was easier to organize the workers if they didn’t scare them with rhetoric about communism.
The 1933 strikes began on April 14, when 2000 Mexican, Filipino, and white workers walked off the pea farms. It was once again violently suppressed. Then Mexican fruit workers sought to reject the communist leadership of the CAWIU, working with the Mexican consul to cultivate non-communist leadership. So things started very poorly for the union that year.
But they did win in the cherry orchards, as the pickers managed to withstand violent assaults and force an agreement so the farmers could get their fruit picked before it rotted on the tree. This emboldened the CAWIU, which then held a convention to coordinate the critical late season harvests. They attempted to expand the strategy to include embedding organizers within established unions to build alliances and to make connections with unemployed workers to provide a larger challenge to the farmers and hopefully to undermine scab labor. Even before this strategy was really put into motion though, the CAWIU started winning a bunch of strikes. In the beets and tomatoes, in the peaches and pears, hundreds and then thousands of workers walked off the job and won wage gains. Between the beginning and end of August, the standard wage in California fields rose from 16 cents to 25 cents an hour.
The CAWIU then went to organize the grape farms. This would prove incredibly difficult, as it would for the United Farm Workers three decades later. Growers and police used every force at their disposal, including the American Legion, which effectively operated as a neo-fascist organization committing anti-labor violence from its founding, to brutally beat back the organizers. The grapes would not be organized in 1933.
So they moved onto cotton. This was a largely Mexican labor force, with some African-Americans and whites. As mentioned above, wages had plummeted in recent years. Between 1932 and 1933, the price of cotton had rebounded from its early Depression woes, up 150 percent. The cotton growers did not pass a penny of that onto the workers. The CAWIU realized this was the most crucial crop and its success would be decided here. The union used roving pickets, only when they found workers in the field, which made it very hard for the anti-labor forces, as organized as they were in the grapes, to find the strikers and crush them. A violent attack on strikers in the town of Watsonville only led to greater worker solidarity and determination. Growers attempted to boycott stores that did business with strikers, especially those that gave them credit. This strategy was widely denounced and led to calls for mediation. The union immediately agreed to that. The growers did not.
By October 10, 12,000 cotton workers were on strike. But in Pixley, armed growers opened fire on an unarmed group of strikers. State policemen watched it all happen and did nothing. Two workers died. Eight more were wounded. Another shooting followed shortly thereafter, killing another striker. Local authorities then arrested strikers, accusing them of murdering one of their own. All of this led to widespread negative press for the farmers. Tulare County police were pressured into arresting eight farmers for their role in the Pixley murders, but then also arrested strike leader Pat Chambers as well. Both sides do it.
The Roosevelt administration had hoped to avoid this kind of labor violence. In the fall of 1933, it was just waking up to the extent it would have to do for workers if it wanted labor peace. In this case, it responded by offering relief to the strikers, the first time this had happened in U.S. history. George Creel, most famous for heading the United States Committee on Public Information in World War I, was working for Roosevelt at this time and attempted to intervene, noting that even if agricultural workers were excluded from the National Industrial Recovery Act, they fell under the jurisdiction of his own agency, the National Labor Board. Creel held hearings, hoping to bring the workers off the picket lines, undermine the communists, and create labor peace. He got the growers to go along by agreeing to a wage increase in exchange for cutting off the relief effort. But the CAWIU rejected the agreement. Yet it had few options. On October 27, it finally agreed to call off the strike, even though union recognition had not been achieved.
Around 47,500 people participated in at least one of these strikes in 1933. If anyting, it was a victory for the federal government. The CAWIU would not remain a major player in agricultural organizing but the farmers had been forced to give in as well. This was all predicated on federal intervention in labor struggles, so to be a hallmark of the New Deal.
This is the 195th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.