May your Saturday night be like Harold Lloyd standing on his head, risking his life for a stunt.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
Not that you needed another reason to oppose Lawrence Summers’ potential appointment to Chairman of the Federal Reserve, but Lanny Davis endorsing Summers gives you one anyway.
On August 3, 1913, the Wheatland Riot took place in California, leading to four deaths, including two workers and two law enforcement agents. A burst of violence caused by the police busting up a hopworkers strike, the event led to reforms for farmworkers and calls for increased state authority both to regulate working conditions and crack down on labor radicals.
Ralph Durst’s ranch at Wheatland, California was the largest agricultural employer in the state. An enormous hop farm, each summer, Durst sent flyers across California and the West advertising for hop pickers. By late July 1913, around 2800 men, women, and children had arrived in Wheatland to work on Durst’s ranch.
Durst’s flyers told of ample work and good conditions, but he lied. A common practice in agriculture, Durst recruited far more workers than the 1500 he needed, allowing him to lower wages to suit him. The daily wages changed depending on the available labor, but regardless, in order to keep workers malleable, he withheld 10% of each day’s wage to be paid at the end of the harvest. Durst provided no decent housing. You could rent a tent at $2.75 a week, but a lot of people lived in the open, with a pallet for a floor. Most workers received less $1.50 a day (about $34 today) for 12 hours of work in intense heat. There were 8 toilets for the 2800 people, with predictable public health results. Flies were everywhere and people got sick.
Work began on July 30. For the next five days, the temperature reached approximately 105 degrees. Durst refused to provide workers water. The nearest wells for workers to walk to were a mile away. Durst’s cousin sold a sort of lemonade drink to workers but it was disgusting and adulterated with an unknown substance. Durst banned all stores from selling supplies, instead controlling groceries through his own shop.
On August 1, workers began to agitate. After the disaster at Paterson, the IWW mostly abandoned the East and instead focused its resources on the American West. The Wobblies’ greatest areas of support were in the itinerant extractive industries of the West—mining, logging, and agriculture. So there were already Wobblies in the camp. The leader of the strike was Richard “Blackie” Ford, a veteran of both picking and agitation. Under Ford’s leadership, the workers created a list of demands for Durst. This included minimum wages that did not change by the day, free water, and better living spaces. Durst immediately rejected it. The small group of Wobblies began organizing the camp.
On August 3, the workers held a mass meeting to protest their conditions. Ford called for a general strike. The workers discussed it, with one mother holding up her sick baby and saying, “It’s for the life of the kids that we’re doing this!”
Durst panicked at the knowledge of the mass meeting. One of the most powerful men in Yuba County, he called on the police and quickly developed his own private army to eliminate the Wobbly threat. The police rushed to the scene and broke up the mass meeting. One cop grabbed Ford off the speakers platform and arrested him. Another fired his gun in the air to disperse the crowd. Instead, it turned an already angry group of people into a mob. Over the next few minutes, a fierce battle raged between the police and workers. Four people died. One was the Yuba County District Attorney E.T. Manwell. Another was a deputy sheriff. Two workers died as well, one Puerto Rican, one an English boy.
At this point, both sides left the field and the Wheatland strike, such as it was, was over. But the incident had major reverberations through California and radical politics. The police decided to conduct a statewide search against anyone suspected of being a Wobbly; as so frequently happened during the 1910s, civil liberties disappeared during labor struggles. The state charged Blackie Ford and Herman Suhr, another Wobbly, with murder, although the only evidence against them was that they were there and organizing farmers. The state’s newspapers conducted a long-term press campaign connecting the IWW with violence, sabotage, and murder. Ford’s attorney correctly noted, “None of the defendants took part in the shooting. None was seen with a gun in his hands. None advised or abetted violence. Nothing in the evidence points to a conspiracy — much less proves it.” This did not matter. Both Ford and Suhr were given life sentences at Folsom Prison. Two other strike leaders were acquitted.
The IWW tried to get pardons for the two men. Reformers from around the nation were outraged by the terrible conditions and railroading of the two men. There was a lot of support for a pardon. On the other hand, the actions of the IWW only hurt this cause. By threatening a general strike of agriculture throughout the state, the Wobblies only reinforced itself as a threat to public order to the general population. Governor Hiram Johnson agreed that justice was not served, but he refused to grant a pardon.
Johnson was a Progressive reformer and so he did have great sympathy for the plight of workers on farms like Durst’s, even if he rejected the IWW and all it stood for. Like other Progressives, Johnson wanted to improve the conditions of life for workers in order to undermine radicalism. In my view, these campaigns should be seen as real victories for workers; if not for the IWW, the government never would have intervened in the affairs of private industry.
Johnson ordered the State Immigration and Housing Commission to launch a special investigation of the working conditions on California farms. Led by Carleton Parker, a labor economist and investigator of working conditions in the West, the commission suggested that the state set new standards of working and living conditions while advising private farmers that if they wanted to get rid of the IWW, they should treat their workers humanely. The U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, touring the nation in 1914 to collect information on the terrible working conditions of the American working class, interviewed workers from Wheatland, giving the plight of agricultural labor more publicity. Carleton Parker’s 1920 book The Casual Laborer provided an additional round of ammunition to reform these conditions.
The IWW built upon the Wheatland violence. First of all, the calls for better working conditions showed that even labor violence could improve the lives of other workers. It also radicalized additional workers. Said one Wobbly organizer, “Three or four years ago I had a hard time to get those scissorbills working stiffs to even listen to the IWW dope. Now it’s easy. They come around and ask for it.”
The state of California called for federal intervention to crush the IWW, claiming that the interstate threat of Wobbly organizing gave the federal government power to eliminate it. While this was not in the cards in 1913, it would effectively happen during World War I.
Blackie Ford was pardoned in 1924, immediately rearrested to try for murder, and was found not guilty. Herman Suhr was pardoned soon after.
This is the 70th post in this series. The rest are archived here.
Since the hippie post has so many people up in arms (and I’d like to mention that myself and an occasional LGM commenter and unionist who shall remain anonymous managed to have a lovely Eugene evening while avoiding all hippies, a real accomplishment), here’s a little followup in my head.
I want to get the crabs and sleep on Owsley’s floor.
I love Eugene, in spite of it being America’s top city for hippies. That’s a big “in spite of” though and it’s probably easier to deal with now that I don’t live here anymore.
Once again, we see illegal marijuana farmers in California causing a huge toll on the local ecology, including the death of threatened species. The only way to deal with this is to legalize marijuana production, submit it to a strong regulatory system that includes forfeiture for using pesticides that kill important mammals, and move law enforcement toward that regulatory system. Otherwise, more rare animals will die.
So I had my evening in San Francisco tonight (thanks for the suggestions by the way, had a good time in the Mission! Even got some authentic San Francisco prices at a bar, which was a joy.) Anyway, when I got off at the 16th St. station, a woman was handing out some material about the BART workers, who are going back out on strike next week after an impasse in negotiations. I figured it was a member of the union and grabbed it just to read later. Oh no. It was someone handing out pro-BART, anti-union propaganda. BART workers are currently working without a contract and have not received a pay raise in 4 years. The BART message seems to be that since all workers are getting screwed, their workers should get screwed too. Specifically, the agency is making a huge deal out of the fact that its workers are ONLY paying $92 a month for the health coverage, as if they are fleecing the taxpayers by this. Instead, it wants workers to pay 10% of healthcare costs. This is a classic 21st century corporate negotiating plan, turning everyone who has seen their economic stability fall apart against those who have managed to hold on to a standard late 20th century union contract package. The anti-union flyer also seems to think that people will be outraged that BART workers want more safety lighting and more restrooms in underground stations, which both seem like great ideas to me.
I did think it was a bit less than classy for a state agency to be handing out anti-union flyers outside a station. It’s clear that any BART strike will annoy commuters so it is operating from a position of strength. But just because they are annoying commuters (and I’m not underestimating how much a strike would suck if I was a commuter, but what are you going to do other than offer solidarity to people still holding onto a middle-class life) doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve our support.
On August 1, 1917, Frank Little, a veteran IWW organizer, was dragged out of his hotel in Butte, Montana by company thugs and lynched. His murder, one of the most famous killings of a labor organizer in American history, demonstrated the lengths to which mining companies were willing to go to keep their company towns under control.
Frank Little was born in 1879, a mixed race son of a white father and Cherokee mother. We know little about his early life, hardly an uncommon situation for a poor person. Little joined the IWW in 1906. He traveled the nation organizing workers in many of the IWW’s key actions. He was deeply involved in the IWW free speech campaigns in Missoula, Spokane, and Fresno. He organized the lumberjacks of the Pacific Northwest, the miners of Minnesota, fruit pickers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and the oil field workers of Oklahoma. Little rose fast in the IWW. In 1916, he was named to the IWW Executive Board, having gained the trust of IWW leader Big Bill Haywood.
Butte was controlled by the Anaconda Mining Company. One of the most powerful corporations in American history, Anaconda basically controlled Montana by 1917. It produced 10% of the world’s copper. It also hated unions. In the late 19th century, Butte was arguably the nation’s strongest union town, known as the “Gibraltar of Unionism” for its closed shop. But in 1903, Anaconda completely crushed the union and ran Butte with an iron hand from then on. After 1912, no one could work in the Butte mines without the rustling card, effectively a permit granted to individual workers by Anaconda. It used this card to drive out anyone suspected of union organizing.
While Butte miners were strong AFL members during their heyday, the post-1903 situation was precisely the kind of thing the Industrial Workers of the World looked for: desperate yet proud workers who could be roused toward radical action. And by 1917, Butte workers were ready to strike. In June, a fire in the Speculator Mine, actually not owned by Anaconda, killed 164 miners, the worst hard-rock mining disaster in American history. Workers walked out in a spontaneous strike. They formed the Metal Mine Workers Union, demanding the end of the rustling card, collective bargaining rights, observance of state mining laws, free speech rights, discharge of the state mine inspector, and a wage increase. This soon expanded into new demands for safety instruction for miners and construction of manholes in the mines. By June 29, 15,000 men were off the job. The companies responded by blaming the IWW (which was not involved as an organization at this point, although there were maybe 500 Wobbly members in town at the time) and indicted the workers for radicalism and pro-German sympathies during World War I.
On July 18, Frank Little arrived. He was on crutches, after having hurt himself in an accident organizing miners in Bisbee, just before the famed the Bisbee Deportation, where mining companies rounded up over 1100 other workers up and dropped them in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Not yet recovered, he boarded a train for Butte, his final destination. Little’s arrival and especially his outspoken opposition to World War I threw the mining companies into a frothy fury. They reprinted his anti-war speeches and accused him of promoting revolutionary and pro-German beliefs in the middle of an industry necessary for wartime production. Labor spies reported Little calling for revolution during union meetings. The truth of this is impossible to ascertain given that the spies had incentive to report things like this, but given Little’s fervor, it’s possible. In any case, the companies were inclined to believe the most incendiary reports about Little.
On August 1, six masked men came to his hotel room. They tied him up, took him to the edge of town, beat him, and hanged him from a railroad trestle. On his chest they pinned a note that read “3-7-77,” a code used by the local vigilante committee to take credit for the murder. A few days after Little’s lynching, Montana declared martial law against war opponents, rounded up radicals of all stripes, and engaged in a massive state-sponsored violation of civil liberties.
3000 people marched at Little’s funeral. The funeral was filmed and showed around the country. Other strike leaders tried to rally labor around Little’s lynching. But in the end, Anaconda won the struggle. On August 10, U.S. troops arrived to “protect” the mine from radical agitation, but in fact they were used as a strikebreaking force. The strike itself was never all that strong. The unions outside the mines that had walked off were offered better contracts and quickly accepted them, leaving the miners isolated even before Little’s murder. The strike collapsed, although the IWW remained active in Butte until 1920. Two weeks after his murder, governors of northwestern states met in Portland to discuss a coordinated response to IWW agitation, which was strong in timber, agriculture, and mining and would lead to massive violations of civil liberties and murders of unionists over the next three years, including at Everett and Centralia.
No one was prosecuted for Little’s murder. Even today, we aren’t sure who precisely did it, although there’s no question it was interests close to Anaconda. He was buried in Butte.
You can see the physical impact of Anaconda’s operations in Butte:
Anaconda opened the famous pit in 1955. It closed in 1982, immediately began filling with water, and today is one of the nation’s most toxic and dangerous Superfund sites.
This is the 69th post in this series. Other posts are archived here.
Black lung is returning with force to the miners of Appalachia. Coal companies have fought against meaningful reforms (or even recognizing it exists) for over a century, and longer if you go back to the coal mines of 19th century England.* The only time workers have ever managed a major breakthrough was with the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, which coincided with a larger move toward meaningful workplace safety reform at a time when social tumult (including grassroots activism against an unresponsive union leadership) combined with economic prosperity to create a new set of demands for working people. The Mine Safety and Health Administration made real progress against black lung. But new technologies have increased exposure to the increasingly few workers in the mines and black lung rates are rising again. The MSHA hasn’t done anything to stop it because the coal industry cares far more about stopping meaningful reform than any equally powerful consistency does about pushing it through.
*Read Alan Derickson’s Black Lung, if you are interested in this issue. Which you should be.