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April 2002, Volume 8, Number 2

Steinbeck at 100

John Steinbeck was born February 27, 1902 in Salinas, California. There were many celebrations of the life of the author of "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) around the US in 2002 Steinbeck is widely praised as an author with the ability to portray the downtrodden, or "the gathered and the scattered." Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962; the Nobel citation said Steinbeck "likes to contrast the simple joy of life with the brutal and cynical craving for money."

The California Council for the Humanities is encouraging Californians to read "The Grapes of Wrath" in summer 2002; libraries and schools are expected to host discussion groups in October 2002.

California had almost six million residents in 1930. The Depression brought 1.3 million people from other states to California, and at least 150,000 of these new Californians became farm workers, a huge increase for a farm work force of 200,000. Agriculture was not expanding rapidly, so many of the Midwestern whites sought jobs by driving up to farm houses and asking for work. They expected, based on the hired hand concept, that they would live and work alongside California farmers until they could save enough money to become farmers in their own right.

California attempted to keep Midwestern migrants out of the state, and farmers awash with labor did not intervene to prevent the Los Angeles police from opening 16 checkpoints, later found to be unconstitutional, on the California-Arizona border in February-March 1936 to turn back migrants "with no visible means of support." California also enacted vagrancy laws that aimed at keeping needy migrants out of the state. Some of those arrested for vagrancy-- standing around on street corners with no money and no fixed home-- were "lent" to farmers to work off their fines. California's vagrancy laws of 1933 and 1937 were declared unconstitutional in 1941 (Edwards vs. California).

Within California, there was a debate over what should be done to help Americans whose only job option seemed to be seasonal farm work. With no money for housing, many Midwestern migrants set up tent camps that became more permanent "Hoovervilles," and they gave California a white and English-speaking work force that, as the newest and most vulnerable additions to the seasonal farm work force, earned the lowest wages.

The "Big-4" farm labor reformers of the 1930s were economist Paul Taylor, lawyer Carey McWilliams, novelist John Steinbeck, and Senator Robert LaFollette (R-WI). Taylor, who grew up on a family farm in the Midwest, wanted to create a family farming system in California. He argued that a permanent class of migrant and seasonal farm workers was incompatible with democracy. Migratory farm labor, Taylor argued, was "an unwitting instrument in the breakdown of the traditional American ideal of the family farm" because migrants "slip through stable and often rich communities, of which [they] never an accepted part. [Migrancy] offers a breeding ground of social unrest. . .It lends itself readily to the development of a form of agriculture which is not a way of life, but an industry."

Taylor, a professor at UC Berkeley, championed land and water reforms to break up large farms. He recognized that many of the Midwestern migrants would need help to make the transition from non-irrigated cotton and grain farming in the Midwest to irrigated fruit and vegetable farming in California, and he urged the establishment of co-ops to train Okies and Arkies to become successful farmers. Taylor hired (and later married) photographer Dorthea Lange to accompany him as he studied farm worker conditions, and Lange's photographs of migrants, such as the photo Migrant Mother, helped to persuade the federal government to build a network of migrant labor camps.

Lawyer Carey McWilliams in the mid-1930s wrote series of articles entitled "Factories in the Fields" that argued the structure of agriculture was in part a product of government benefits--water subsidies, marketing orders and price supports. McWilliams got a chance to help migrants when he became head of California's Division of Immigration and Housing between 1939 and 1942, and increased inspections of grower-owned labor camps, which he disliked because on-farm housing made workers more dependent on their employers. McWilliams changed the formula that was used to deny relief to migrants who refused to accept farm jobs at prevailing piece rate wages, effectively forcing some growers to increase piece rates. Growers labeled McWilliams "California's number one agricultural pest, worse than the pear blight or boll weevil."

Many journalists, including John Steinbeck, began their investigations of farm labor conditions in the 16 permanent and nine temporary labor camps funded by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). White English-speaking migrants (Blacks and Mexicans were often excluded from the camps) were readily accessible to outsiders, and camp managers such as Tom Collins, director of the Weedpatch migrant camp in Arvin, made their notes on migrants available to writers. The Dust Bowl Historical Foundation is trying to raise money to restore the remaining original buildings at Weedpatch, which opened in 1936. Most of the Okies who migrated to the southern San Joaquin Valley have moved on. In 1950, 33 percent of the population in the southern San Joaquin Valley were whites from Dust Bowl; today, 10 percent are. The Weedpatch camp today is the Sunset Migrant Center, operated by the Kern County Housing Authority. It is being upgraded with $6 million in state and federal money. Weedpatch has 2,726 residents.

"The Grapes of Wrath" was written in six months in 1938, and its portrayal of Midwestern suffering at the hands of callous landowners brought Steinbeck death threats, an FBI investigation and charges of Communist sympathy. "The Grapes of Wrath" prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to say that "something must be done and done soon" to improve conditions for migrants in California. There were two Congressional committees with opposing agendas dealing with farm labor issues in California in the late 1930s, and each held hearings and developed recommendations. The House Committee on Un-American Activities focused on the communists who organized farm-worker protests, and called for more restrictions on communists.

A subcommittee of the US Senate's Education and Labor Committee, chaired by Robert LaFollette, Jr. (R-WI), examined the power and anti-union activities of growers, and recommended that labor relations and protective labor laws be extended to cover farm workers, or at least those employed on the largest farms. Economist Varden Fuller, whose history of farm labor was included in the LaFollette hearings, was convinced that California agriculture could be profitable with a professional work force paid well enough to keep it committed to doing farm work; he criticized farmers for relying on what he called "the residuals of other labor markets."

The LaFollette Committee recommendations were not implemented. World War II intervened. Some of the young men who may have become active union organizers in the fields joined the armed forces, while others switched from seasonal farm to factory jobs. Instead of a decade of turmoil leading to farm labor reforms, World War II was used to justify the importation of Mexican Bracero farm workers.

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