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This Day in Labor History: April 24, 1903

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On April 24, 1903, Mexican rail workers on the Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles walked off the job over low wages and the unwillingness of the rail baron Henry Huntington to take their concerns seriously. This was a major moment in the history of Mexican-American organizing and a challenge to the dominance of whites over Mexican labor in the Southwest. No, they did not win. That would have been almost impossible. But this is an important early strike in the history of Mexican workers in the Southwest.

There was a fairly significant, if loosely organized, tradition of Mexican resistance to white domination int the Southwest, going back to Las Gorras Blancas in 1880s New Mexico, when armed groups of Hispano farmers went after symbols of white capitalist domination, especially the railroad, in night riding events. Historians have debated whether they had much class consciousness per se and I don’t know how important that question really is for us today, but it is true enough that it provided an example of Mexican-American resistance that other groups could build upon. It did not take long for these Hispanos to end up working on the railroad, as their ability to farm ended with the theft of their land grants by scheming American lawyers and politicians in New Mexico and Colorado. Most organizing around this declined around 1890 and in the aftermath, worker organizing was more in the fraternal organization than the labor union.

But there were exceptions to this relative lack of unionization and explicitly job-based organizing. The most significant of these was in Los Angeles in the spring of 1903. It was a good spot for it. The city and its Mexican population were growing rapidly with two major railroads located there. By this time, the railroad barons saw Mexican labor as they once saw Chinese labor, low-wage, easily replaced, always more to be had.

In March 1903, about 800 Mexican workers organized themselves into a union they called La Unión Federal Mexicana. The local American Federation of Labor, feeling less racist toward Mexican workers than they felt toward the Chinese or Japanese, helped out. On April 24, the union felt it was time to present their demands to their bosses on the Pacific Electric, which was part of Henry Huntington’s empire, and to the Los Angeles Railway, also owned by Huntington. They wanted a raise from 15 cents to 20 cents an hour for day work, 30 cents for nights, and 40 cents for Sunday. A bit perplexed, lower management at Pacific Electric immediately said yes, but the Los Angeles told them to “I will not give you a nickel and you can go straight to Hell.” Huntington immediately revoked what his underlings had given up as well. So they struck.

Huntington was furious. He ordered all the Mexicans fired and replaced them with whatever ethnicity he could find, then paying them more than the Mexicans demanded in the first place. Huntington has one of his toadies say about it all: “Mr. Huntington proposes to run his own affairs and can in no manner accept union dictation. While he is disposed to pay good wages, these peons would never have struck had it not been for Biddle [AFL official] and the agitators.” He followed: “They [Mexicans] are very much like a band of coyotes; they will follow a leader. I venture to say on my own authority that not one-fourth of these men knew what they were quitting work for.”

This pretty much says it all. Mexicans were not even seen as capable of striking and so it must be an “outside agitator.”

Of course the cops were completely on the side of the companies. Los Angeles was so violently anti-union that the leadership of the Iron Workers would bomb the LA Times building in 1910 over it, one of the great disasters of American labor history.

But the workers held strong. They flew Mexican flags as well, which many whites in the city saw as insulting. They worked closely with other LA unions. They printed fliers and distributed them along the railroads to tell other workers what they were doing and not to come to the city to take their jobs. The day after the strike began, around 30 Mexican women, mostly wives of the strikers, attacked scabs and took away their tools. This got a ton of media attention. It also worked. Within two days, the number of strikers had risen to about 1,400 and fewer scabs dared work.

But there was no way the workers could hold out against Henry Huntington. They just had no resources. Even support from other labor unions and the Socialist Party meant maybe $600 a week. Within two weeks, it had faded. But the UFM did remain an organization that attracted workers in the region. It launched a smaller strike a year later over wage rates and while it didn’t win that either, it still was an outlet for Mexican workers in Los Angeles to express some level of power, as limited as it was.

Other moments of Mexican workers striking would become more common. The Japanese-Mexican Labor Association in the field engaged in a pioneering cross-racial strike the same year, which in this case was partially destroyed by the AFL being unwilling to accept Japanese workers. Also in 1903, about 300 Mexican rail workers in La Junta, Colorado struck when their pay was late. Future years would see continued organizing as well. Mexican workers would play a small role in American labor history during the early twentieth century, but they had a long history of militancy that would inform and influence their growing activism after World War II.

I borrowed from Jeffrey Marcos Gracilazo’s Traqueros: Mexican Railroad Workers in the United States, 1870-1930 to write this post.

This is the 478th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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