Home / General / This Day in Labor History: August 3, 1913

This Day in Labor History: August 3, 1913


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.

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