On February 11, 1903, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association formed to build racial solidarity among workers against sugar beet farmers near Oxnard, California. This was the first major cross-racial, non-white agricultural union in California. The following strike and victory was a sign of the possibilities of cross-racial organizing in the United States, but the aftermath and its eventual defeat a sad story about how white racism within the labor movement has undermined labor organizing in American history.
On the West Coast, and especially in California, a complicated labor situation developed soon after the United States stole it in the Mexican War. With the discovery of gold, white men rushed to what soon became a new state. But so did other people from around the world. This created immediate tension, as the white working class preferred to labor for themselves than do the hard service labor required, but also deeply resented any competition to them in what they saw as a white man’s state. So while the Chinese and Mexicans soon became banished to service labor and the most dangerous labor such as building railroads, the state’s burgeoning union movement wanted to eject Asian labor from the state entirely. They succeeded with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. But employers, especially in the state’s growing agricultural sector, quickly found other sources of cheap labor, both from Japan and Mexico.
Japanese workers soon gained a reputation for breaking contracts to force wage increases. One farmer complained to an investigator with the Department of Labor, “Every Japanese gang is a trade union; they come and quit together.” When one farmer hired a group of Japanese to pick his almonds in 1901, he thought he had a great deal because he hired them for $1.25 a day when he was paying whites $1.50. But after being on the job for two days, the Japanese demanded a raise to $2.50 and had to find a new labor force for that year, switching to hiring Japanese contractors in the future so he didn’t have to deal with it. As a whole, Japanese laborers found themselves earning steadily higher wages each year after 1900.
In response, the farm owners formed their own organization to collectively push down wages. The Western Agricultural Contracting Company sought to take control of the labor situation by undermining the Japanese contractors, forcing them and all other non-white contractors to subcontract through the WACC. They had a Mexican Department and a “Jap Department” to do this with the individual racial groups. This was effectively a racist labor monopoly. The prices paid for the thinning of the sugar beets were reduced from $5-6 an acre to $3.75. The promised $1.50 wage a day the reality became a brutal piecework system. It was this that spurred the organization of workers, not only the Japanese, but the smaller number of Mexican workers caught up in this system.
On February 11, 500 Japanese workers and 200 Mexican workers formed the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. They named Kosabura Babo, a Japanese labor contractor, as president and then had a Japanese and a Mexican secretary for each ethnic group. The union soon grew to 1200 members. Their primary goal was eliminating the WACC. Believing the employer labor monopoly artificially suppressed wages, they wanted the end of the subcontracting system as it required workers to pay both the contractor and the subcontractor to work and they wanted to be paid in cash instead of company scrip, always a classic way employers sought to steal from their workers in rural areas. The one thing the workers had going for them, as farmworkers always do, is that crops must be planted and/or harvested within a short and very specific amount of time, before they go bad. In this case, the critical thinning of the sugar beet seedlings was just around the corner.
On March 23, white farmers struck back, as they would against organized labor so many times in their sordid history. A group of them shot into a crowd of strikers, killing a Mexican worker named Luis Vazquez and wounding four other workers, two Mexican and two Japanese. The media blamed the JMLA for this, even though the workers were innocent. The Los Angeles Times, ever an anti-union outfit in these decades, wrote that “agitation-crazed Mexicans and Japanese” had attacked “independent workmen.” Charles Arnold was soon arrested for Vazquez’s murder but even though he was obviously guilty, the all-white male jury was not going to convict him. So the JMLA upped the ante, engaging in more aggressive actions to win the strike. In one action, 50 Mexican strikers wearing masks went to a scab camp, cut down their tents, and forced them to leave the farm. They also managed to win a lot of the scabs being brought from elsewhere over to the strike by just talking to them.
In the aftermath of the violence, with the JMLA showing continued success and the beets needing their trimming, the farm owners finally agreed to a deal, which the union made more likely by threatening to take all their workers out of the county if they did not agree. On March 30, they signed the agreement. The wages for thinning were reset to $5 and then up to $6 an acre. The JMLA won union recognition and the right to represent workers on 5000 acres of farms through Ventura County, excluding only one large farm. Japanese and Mexican contractors retook control over the hiring process.
So this is a happy story, right? They even won union recognition at a time when that was pretty rare, especially for low wage, low skill workers. Nope. That’s because Samuel Gompers denied their AFL charter since the organization would not allow Japanese members. After the JMLA’s victory, J.M. Lizarras, secretary of the Mexican branch of the new union, petitioned the AFL for a charter. This would have made the JMLA the first agricultural union in the AFL. The California AFL was extremely anti-Asian. This was only a couple of years before the San Francisco population, including many unions, went ballistic over the idea of Asians going to school with white children and tried to institute a Jim Crow system of segregation that forced President Theodore Roosevelt intervene to avoid an international crisis with a growing power, leading to the Gentlemen’s Agreement that ended Japanese immigration. So the willingness of California white workers to accept even the idea of unionized workers of color was pretty fleeting. Some labor councils were better than others and the Los Angeles County Council of Labor adopted a resolution to favor the unionization of all unskilled workers regardless of race or nationality, even at the same time also opposing further Asian immigration. But most would not go this far. Neither would Gompers. He turned them down after heavy lobbying against them by the San Francisco Council of Labor. Without that official support, the JMLA declined quickly and there is little evidence of it existing even by the end of 1903. There was more agitation over labor exploitation in 1906, but no documents mention the JMLA. Once again, racism got in the way of an effective American labor movement.
This would be far from the last time the different races in the California fields and other agricultural sectors of the U.S. organized to help each other, although as the marginalization of the Filipinos within the United Farm Workers demonstrates, such cross-racial solidarity was never easy to maintain. It would not be the last time by any means that California farmers would resort to violence to bust a strike. It would also be far from the last time that white unionists hurt their own economic interests by opposing the unionization or employment of people of color.
I borrowed from Mark Wyman, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West and Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California for the writing of this post.
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