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This Day in Labor History: April 18, 1905

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On April 18, 1905, sugar workers in Puerto Rico went on strike in a coordinated action of 20,000 workers that build connections between agricultural and urban labor. Although this did not transform the Puerto Rican labor movement long-term, it was an important early step in its construction and as a response to the new realities of American colonization and the big sugar monopolies developing on the island with American owners.

Puerto Rican workers created a labor movement shortly after American colonization. It formed the Federación Regional de Trabajadores (FRT) in 1898 and then dissenters created the alternative Federación Libre de Trabajadores (FLT) in 1899. The FLT was openly socialist at first, but managed to make good ties with the American Federation of Labor and its leader Samuel Gompers, who came to Puerto Rico in support. It would become the more important of the two federations. Gompers was concerned about having Latin Americans in the labor movement and urged the FLT to embrace colonialism and engage in the new colonial legislature as part of an Americanization program. In any case, the two labor unions battled constantly, with in-fighting that was all too typical of the labor movement of that day.

The FLT knew it needed to establish itself as a real movement with connections to workers. The agricultural industry was a great place to advance those goals. The FLT was almost exclusively based in San Juan and other cities and given the importance of agriculture to the island’s economy, any union that really wanted to become a power was going to need to go there. But there really wasn’t any history of industrial and agricultural workers uniting in Puerto Rico. The urban workers had their unions and there was a reasonable agricultural strike there in 1891, but they did not work together. Nor were there much in the way of preexisting connections between them.

In January 1905, there was a small strike in the northern sugar fields. The FLT had some involvement here too, but the real consequence of it was to build on experience to do a better job organizing and coordinating the southern fields, where the big strike that spring would take place. For several months, FLT organizers worked in the south, organizing and building up local capacity for action. Importantly here was the Unión Obrera Federada Local 9874, which had already received a charter from the American Federation of Labor. It did a ton of the early groundwork, including creating propaganda efforts among the workers. Led by a carpenter named Leonardo Pacheco, who had lost most of the fingers on one hand in an accident and turned to the union to both make a living and organize other workers, the union was a forward-thinking operation appealing to workers both in Puerto Rico and the mainland United States for support.

The workers had several concrete demands. First, they wanted a nine-hour day. Second, they wanted pay raises to 75 cents a day for both men and women. Third, they wanted the elimination of child labor from the fields.

A lot of what Pacheco and his fellow workers did was hold public meetings that would inform and educate. An orator would give a speech and other workers would then hand out written materials to those who stopped to listen. These became places for sugar workers to talk about their place in society and from the perspective of the unions, to even learn about capitalism and their role in it. In March, the FLT did surveys of the sugar workers to understand their problems and to urge workers that if the plantation owners did not accede to their demands, to prepare to strike.

Workers responded to all of this and began to take initiative. In the town of Arroyo, the workers conducted a meeting after owners refused their demands and for not paying their weekly salary on time and declared themselves on strike. These were wildcat actions that gave the FLT the space to call a strike. The FLT officially declared the strike on April 18, two days after police in Ponce had broken up a large rally.

The FLT did really important solidarity work here. Unions representing bakers, sailors, dockworkers, shoemakers, and other industries educated their members around the issues facing the sugar workers and distributed literature urging solidarity. Children engaged in fundraising activities, running around asking for change from supporters. The strike headquarters were in Ponce, but local committees in the little towns where the workers lived effectively organized and ran the strike on a daily basis.

The FLT also used the power of colonialism for its own purposes. It basically wrapped itself in the American flag. The Stars and Stripes was all over these rallies. It also invoked the First Amendment to protect itself from repression. Basically, if colonialism was the order of the day, might as well use the discursive power of America for workers’ sake. Plus this was the kind of thing that Gompers and the AFL liked. Of course, the courts were not pro-labor and the union quickly realized this, with the colonial government and planters getting things such as injunctions issued against the FLT and other unions and prohibitions on union leaders speaking publicly about the strike. Samuel Gompers and AFL unions in the U.S. stepped up here and sent telegrams to politicians, raising pressure at home to treat labor in the new colony with respect.

The planters however at least partially caved soon enough, particularly on the issue of pay. Workers did receive substantial pay raises. Immediately, the FLT planned for further strikes in 1906. But that didn’t work out. Over the long term, the FLT did not successfully organize the agricultural workers. Part of this had to do with the migratory process of the work, which led to people moving between different jobs and different crops all the time. The inability to have a stable labor force has always been a difficult challenge for unions.

Some historians and analysis thus considered the strike a failure, but that’s not quite right. First, workers did get that pay raise, even if they did not get union recognition. Second, it legitimized the FLT as a legitimate labor federation and that put it into more complex negotiations with the colonial government and employers, thus building toward a more solid labor movement in Puerto Rico. It got some of its members elected to the colonial legislature as well. No, that didn’t change the world and create some kind of workers’ paradise in Puerto Rico, but as an important moment in Puerto Rican labor history, the 1905 agricultural strike remains important.

I borrowed from Jorell Meléndez-Badillo’s article “Imagining Resistance: Organizing the Puerto Rican Southern Agriculture Strike of 1905,” published in Caribbean Studies in 2015, to write this post.

This is the 514th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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