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This Day in Labor History: March 24, 1934

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farmworkers-at-tomato-harvest-1930

On March 24, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Tydings-McDuffie Act. Better known as the Philippine Independence Act, Tydings-McDuffie initially sounds like a victory for anti-colonialist forces. However, a look at the history of law demonstrates that it actually came out of the deep anti-Asian racism of the West Coast who saw Asian populations both as competition for white labor and competition for white women.

From the beginning of Anglo-American occupation in California, white workers defined the state as a white man’s republic. This was basically repeated in Oregon and Washington. And yet from the very beginning, the polyglot population of the region challenged those assumptions. The arrival of Mexicans and Chinese along with whites into California freaked out the white population, which quickly sought to take over the diggings. The Chinese were pushed into menial labor, as well as the most difficult and dangerous labor, such as railroad building. White workers saw these workers as a direct threat, committed murderous violence against them, and lobbied for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major legislative victory for unions in American history. But California employers continued their search for cheap labor, turning to the Japanese. But the same anti-Asian sentiment rose up against the Japanese, especially as these workers began organizing as well, and the Gentlemen’s Agreement cut that labor off in 1907. But western employers now had a new source of labor: Filipinos. This was much more difficult for anti-Asian zealots to organize against, for Filipinos had the right to immigrate as colonial subjects of the United States since the 1898-1902 war of subjugation.

By the 1920s, Filipino immigration to California expanded rapidly, with over 24,000 coming between 1925 and 1929, mostly young men to work in the fields. In response, the San Francisco Chronicle editorialized, “There is a serious immigration problem involved in the introduction of large numbers of person who are unassimilable yet who are given a statue little short of full citizenship.” They lived in the same terrible camps that other workers suffered through in the fields, with housing that was basically chicken coops. The growers liked them because they worked hard and made little trouble on the farms. But the new arrival of non-whites infuriated many Californians. To make it worse for white Californians, many Filipino men, and men made up 94% of the migrants, ended up having sexual relationships with white women. This was not what their cheap, exploitable labor was supposed to do. Said Fred Hart, a farmer from Salinas, “The Filipinos will not leave our white girls alone…Frequently they intermarry.” That these new workers had status as Americans made their brazenness even more outrageous for white California.

So whites did what whites do so frequently in American history–they turned to violence against the people who color who dared stand up for human rights and labor rights. On January 21, 1930, about two hundred white Californians tried to raid a Filipino-owned club near Monterey where nine white women worked as entertainers. The mob expanded to about 500 people and the next night they started attacking Filipinos they found on the streets and in the orchards. On January 23, the mob killed a farmworker named Fermin Tobera, who had come to California in 1928 to work in the fields and send money back to his impoverished family. The bunkhouse in which he slept on the Murphy Ranch near Watsonville was set upon by whites who started firing into it. Tobera was shot in the head. This outraged the Filipino community working for the rights of their people in Washington, as well as Filipinos in Manila. Other violent incidents popped up around California over the next couple of days, leading to beating and a stabbing. On January 29, someone blew up the Stockton headquarters of the Filipino Federation of America. Although several people were sleeping inside, no one was killed. Given the trans-Pacific anger this violence caused, California law enforcement had to do something. Eight men pleaded guilty for incitement to riot; four of them served thirty days in prison and the rest of the sentences for all of them were suspended.

This violence is the context in which the U.S. considered granting the Filipinos their independence. Both supporters and opponents of Filipino migration to the U.S. thought independence was probably the best solution by the early 1930s. The Watsonville Evening Pajaronian editorialized that it hoped the Philippines would get their independence so Japan would invade them and turn them into a new Korea. Given the rapidly growing availability of white labor as the Great Depression deepened, the California growers wouldn’t struggle to find a new labor force either.

The law itself granted the Philippines independence after ten years. In exchange, Filipinos would have to abide by the racist immigration quota system of the 1924 Immigration Act immediately. A whopping 50 immigrants from the Philippines a year were allowed into the United States. They were also denied citizenship rights. A 1946 law, the same year that the Philippines actually received independence, doubled the quota to a whole 100 immigrants and restored the ability of Filipinos to become citizens. A year after Tydings-McDuffie, Congress passed the Filipino Repatriation Act that provided free transportation for Filipinos who wanted to return to the islands but could not afford to do so. The nation didn’t quite get to the point of rounding up these workers, but they can awfully close.

In conclusion, the United States was actually too racist and too concerned about interracial sex to remain a colonial power.

Of course, Filipino labor did not disappear from the United States after Tydings-McDuffie, even as new immigration did. These workers would play a critical role in the early farmworker movements that eventually led to the United Farm Workers, even as Latino workers supplanted the Filipinos in the movement.

I borrowed from Dorothy B. Fujita-Rony, “Empire and the Moving Body: Fermin Tobera, Military California, and Rural Space,” in Bender and Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism in the writing of this post.

This is the 212th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • busker type

    History teaches us two main lessons:
    1)shit has always been fucked up and bullshit
    2)shit will always befucked up and bullshit

  • Thom

    Erik, how did this relate to Filipino labor and immigration in Hawaii, where it seems to me that labor was crucial to both sugar and cattle ranching?

    • I don’t believe Filipinos could migrate to Hawaii any longer either, but I honestly know nothing about Filipino labor in Hawaii and I need to find this out.

  • Cheerfull

    You note that the U.S. was too racist to remain a colonialist power. Two questions – was the immigration from puerto rico (the other large population colony that I can think of) seen as not so bad because absorbed into the larger population of the East Coast, as opposed to threatening the paranoia of West Coast whites?

    And there’s an interesting contest with other large colonial powers of the time, France, England, Portugal, The Netherlands, Belgium – they weren’t so racist, or at least racist in a different way, to worry about the eventual results in the hometown of colonizing large non-white populations.

    • rea

      other large colonial powers of the time, France, England, Portugal, The Netherlands, Belgium – they weren’t so racist

      That’s not exactly true.

      • Cheerfull

        My point was with respect to the claim made in the post – that US racism was a major factor in the withdrawal from the Philippines. The other colonial powers didn’t seem to have that problem.

        As for the question of comparative racism, I would argue that racism takes a different form when it is, mostly, a question of lording it over people in a different part of the world as opposed to on a daily basis justifying oppressing people living right next to you and who you will see on the street. The latter I think bites deeper and harder.

        • Basically racism operates in different forms. Americans were unusually obsessed with interracial sex in a way that the French, for instance, never have been. The stories of African-Americans soldiers in France during the World Wars for example and the reaction of white American soldiers to this is quite telling.

          • Murc

            There was a British witticism from WWII I’m reminded of: “I don’t mind the Yanks, but I can’t say I care for these white chaps they’ve brought with them.”

            This isn’t to say the Brits weren’t racist themselves, but they found American racism to be… something much different.

            • The real difference I think is settler colonialism racism vs European mother nation racism.

    • FMguru

      New York and the other big east coast cities were already polyglot mixtures of cultures and races. As Eric pointed out, California (and Oregon and Washington) were clean-sheet projects to build a new white republic.

    • I’m being a bit flippant with that remark, but as mentioned below, the West Coast states were seen by their settlers as a way to sort of start over as white man’s states without others getting in the way, thus Oregon banning free blacks when it formed as a state in 1859. Of course, it didn’t work out that way and that leads to a century of intense racial hatred, culminated in Japanese internment which should be seen as ethnic cleansing because that’s how western whites thought about it.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    In conclusion, the United States was actually too racist and too concerned about interracial sex to remain a colonial power do most anything well, other than blow shit up with accuracy and volume.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Do you ever get the sneaking suspicion that authoritarian white men are very, very worried that they’re lousy in the sack? What do those Filipino men know that I don’t know? etc etc.

    And for all we* know, it very well may be true.

    * Well, I’m in no position to know. Others may have more data.

    • Dennis Orphen

      All that pornography on the WWW is all the data anyone needs.

    • Murc

      This is a real thing. The equally ugly twin belief to “black men are barely controllable beasts who will ravish the pure white flesh of our daughters and wives if we don’t keep the boot firmly on their becks” is a belief that black men have a kind of raw, exotic, dare I say animalistic sexual magnetism and prowess that white women will just find themselves completely unable to resist, because their lady-brains and lady-parts don’t know any better.

      Basically, the intersection of “policing black bodies” and “policing women’s sexuality” leads folks to some places that are even uglier than those two things on their own!

      • Karen24 has frequently expressed the opinion that racism is, at its heart, sexism/misogyny, for exactly this reason. S’all about white men keeping their property white women pure and safe.

  • JR in WV

    One additional datum, perhaps. I was in the USN 1970-73 and the officer’s mess was staffed by stewards, all of whom were Filipino men. My understanding was that these guys all qualified for citizenship after completing their (6-year?) hitch, and that this was the case at least ever since the end of WW II, if not all along.

    Of course, back then Subic Bay Naval Station was the largest navy base in the world, until 1992. There was a political sea change, a volcanic eruption, AND a typhoon, which made the base a little less of a sure thing as far as physical security goes. The Navy wanted its stewards to be a little more obsequious than the average country boy from Alabama could manage, so colonialism was the perfect answer! Probably still the case…

    Anyway, that avenue would have been an access point into the US for a steady trickle of immigrants –> citizens for as long as it lasted.

    I wasn’t an officer (E-2 from the beginning to the end) I was just a drafted swabbie going into the Navy at the point of a gun to avoid the mud of SE Asia, so I could be wildly wrong about much of this hypothesis. And anyway, it would have been a trickle rather than a rush of people.

    In the 1960s literally millions of sailors and marines (Wikipedia: 4,224,503 sailors visit[ed] Subic Bay in 1967) passed through Subic Bay, so if only 1% were Filipinos, that would still be a lot of people.

    • Aaron Morrow

      My understanding was that these guys all qualified for citizenship after completing their (6-year?) hitch, and that this was the case at least ever since the end of WW II, if not all along.

      Loomis is right on the details above. The military-to-citizenship route is a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1965, so it would have been in place before 1970.

      I can’t speak for the Navy, but I’ve seen examples over the past 20 years that the Army and the Air Force have kept recent promises on citizenship.

  • los

    Watsonville Evening Pajaronian editorialized that it hoped the Philippines would get their independence so Japan would invade them and turn them into a new Korea.

    strange viewpoint…

  • paul.c.klos

    “Anglo-American occupation in California”

    As opposed to the Spanish-Mexican one??? That was poorly managed and ill run?

  • “Anglo-American occupation in California”

    As opposed to the Spanish-Mexican one???

    As, presumably, contrasted with (not “opposed to”) “the Spanish-Mexican one”, in which it surely was not the case that “white workers defined the state as a white man’s republic” (my emphases added to Eric’s words). This series is—after all—about labor history.

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