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October 2003, Volume 9, Number 4

Farm Labor in the 1930s

During the 1930s, some 1.3 million Americans from the Midwest and southwest migrated to California, which had a population of 5.7 million in 1930s. The arrival of Okies and Arkies set the stage for physical and ideological conflicts over how to deal with seasonal farm labor and produced literature that resonates decades later, as students read and watch "The Grapes of Wrath" and farmers and advocates continue to argue over how to obtain and treat seasonal farm workers.

Carey McWilliams once said that farm labor in California has "been lost sight of and rediscovered time and again." (quoted in Loftis, p191) Three recent books make important contributions to our understanding of farm labor issues in the 1930s. Interestingly, two of the three are not about farm workers: instead, they focus on the people who interpreted the California farm labor story of the 1930s.

Loftis has written a detailed and well documented 14-chapter book about the major figures who led efforts to publicize the plight of farm workers in the 1930s, the writers and photographers who interpreted the farm workers' story for the American public. She begins with the role of prominent Communists in the 1933 cotton strike, a four-week strike in October 1933 that involved 12,000 to 18,000 workers. Workers refused to pick the 1933 crop for the $0.60 per hundred pounds offered by growers, since the growers' prices had been raised by federal programs aimed at helping agriculture. Growers immediately evicted strikers from grower-owned labor camps, a tactic that backfired as striking workers moved into tent camps organized by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, reinforcing the strike's effectiveness.

California newspapers alternated between ignoring the strike or printing the growers' side until several strikers were killed by growers at a Pixley, California rally. The reporters and photographers who rushed to cover the strike generally reported that it was growers, not strikers, who were breaking labor and other laws. A politically ambitious federal relief official, George Creel, used a three-member arbitration panel appointed by the governor to force growers and workers to accept a compromise $0.75 per hundred pound piece rate, less than the $1 demanded by strikers, but 25 percent more than growers offered. Most cotton pickers were Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, but UC-Berkeley economists Paul Taylor and Clark Kerr selected a migrant from Texas and Oklahoma, Bill Hamett, to be the workers' representative in the final negotiations. Hamett remained a farm worker, but was blacklisted from jobs in the Pixley area.

Loftis interviewed Paul Taylor and Clark Kerr, both of whom grew up on family farms. Taylor believed in the agricultural job ladder, meaning that farm workers could become family farmers, and he encountered resistance at UC-Berkeley for his attacks on a California agribusiness that depended on seasonal farm workers who had little chance of becoming farmers. Kerr, UC president in the 1960s, spent several months in the San Joaquin Valley documenting migrant conditions for Taylor in 1933-34. A subsequent Taylor student, Stuart Jamieson, wrote the definitive history of farm worker unions between 1900 and 1950, as well as documenting the activities of the Associated Farmers, created in 1934 to prevent farm worker unionization.

Loftis emphasizes that John Steinbeck wanted to become a writer in the 1930s and interacted with artists and communists in Carmel. Steinbeck had a rare ability to fictionalize real situations, such as his account of a Watsonville apple harvesters' strike in the 1936 novel, "In Dubious Battle." Steinbeck worked summers on Sprekel Company farms in the Salinas Valley where he grew up, but always considered himself different from other farm workers.

Carey McWilliams was a corporate lawyer and aspiring writer in Los Angeles who was drawn into farm labor issues by his interactions with left-leaning Los Angeles writers, who were taking an interest in the plight of the oppressed during the Depression. McWilliams knew Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle), who ran for governor in 1934 with an End Poverty in California program (he lost) that included turning large farms into cooperatives, as well as literary critic Edmund Wilson. In the summer of 1934, there was a general strike in San Francisco called by the International Longshoremen's Association to obtain a union-run hiring hall to allocate work on the docks, and San Francisco newspapers falsely quoted the CAIWU leaders who led the 1933 strikes to say that farm workers would go on strike in support of the ILA, and that the fields would become battlefields in the struggle to bring communism to California. These statements, printed at the behest of farm employers, led to the arrest of 14 CAIWU leaders in Sacramento in July 1934 for vagrancy.

By the time the trial of CAIWU leaders began in January 1935, the charges against them had been changed to criminal syndicalism, or instigating violence. The Associated Farmers provided the prosecutors with evidence, and six CAIWU leaders were convicted and sentenced to prison after a four-month trial in April 1935. The actions and treatment of the CAIWU inspired some writers and poets organized under the Western Writers Workshop to prepare the US for the massive increase in federal expenditures for social purposes under the New Deal, under the theory that not doing so could lead to Communism (p106).

Loftis reviews state and local policies to cope with the arrival of Americans from other parts of the US in California during the 1930s. In Fall 1931, migrants were arriving in the state at the rate of 1,200 to 1,500 a day, an annual rate of almost 500,000 (p109). As the in-migration continued, studies concluded that migrants followed networks, and these networks were oriented to rail lines. One of those involved in the studies of migrant networks was lawyer Melvin Belli, who as a participant-observer was arrested for vagrancy on many occasions in 1933.

State and local actions aimed to keep needy migrants out of the state. The vagrancy laws of 1933 and 1937, under which many migrants were arrested and sometimes "lent" to farmers to work off their fines, were finally repealed in 1941 as unconstitutional (Edwards vs California). Similarly, the Los Angeles police operated 16 checkpoints on the California-Arizona border to turn back migrants "with no visible means of support" in February-March 1936 until the checkpoints were ruled unconstitutional. (Loftis, p126).

If government could not keep people out of the state, what could it do to provide assistance to needy residents? Instead of the "pioneer tradition" of giving the poor food and sending them on their way, reformers wanted a system of shelters that provided food, medical care, and counseling/training in exchange for one to three hours of work or community service (p111). However, these transient camps were not yet established when, in 1934, the Dust Bowl in the Midwest began sending migrants to California, the migration documented by Dorthea Lange. In 1935, Paul Taylor hired Lange to accompany him to study migrants, and Taylor credited Lange's photographs of migrant conditions in the privately created "Hoovervilles" with persuading government to begin, in the summer of 1935, to build the first two of what would become a chain of government-funded migrant labor camps in Marysville and Arvin. Lange and Taylor divorced their spouses, and married in December 1935.

Lange's most famous picture, "Migrant Mother," taken in March 1936 near Nipomo, Calif, was the stark symbol of a woman trapped in poverty during the Great Depression. The woman was Florence Owens Thompson, a migrant from Oklahoma. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service used the Lange photo in the Celebrate the Century series on a 32-cent stamp entitled "America Survives the Depression."

Economist Paul Taylor and lawyer Carey McWilliams were the dominant farm labor researchers/advocates of the 1930s, while photographer Dorthea Lange and writer John Steinbeck turned the story of the great migration to California into enduring parts of American culture. Taylor grew up on a family farm in the Midwest, and wanted to redistribute land and create a family farming system in California. Taylor recognized that many of the migrants arriving in California would need help to make the transition from the non-irrigated cotton and grain farming of the Midwest to irrigated fruit and vegetable farming in California, and he urged the formation of camps and co-ops that would train Okies and Arkies in the vagaries of California agriculture.

Carey McWilliams made his first extended trip through the Central Valley in 1935 with writer Herbert Klein, and their observations were published later that year in the Pacific Weekly in a series of articles entitled "Factories in the Fields" (p142). McWilliams argued that government was providing extensive benefits to farmers--water subsidies and price supports--and very little to farm workers, and urged government to do more for migrants. McWilliams went on to head California's Commission of Immigration and Housing between 1939 and 1942, where he increased inspections of grower-owned labor camps; the Commission had been established in response to the Wheatland hops riots of 1913. McWilliams also changed the wage-relief formula that was used to stop relief for 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." (p169)

The 16 permanent and nine mobile labor camps funded by the Farm Security Administration proved vital to the writing of farm labor literature in the 1930s. 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 in Arvin (later called Weedpatch and now the Sunset Labor Camp) often made their notes available to writers such as John Steinbeck, who used them in character development. (p146-48)

Steinbeck was recruited by the liberal San Francisco News to publicize the benefits of the fledgling government-run camps, and his first visit was to the Arvin camp. While there, local farmers threatened to disrupt the regular Saturday night dance--if they had succeeded, a precedent may have been established for local law enforcement to invalidate the authority of federal camp managers, who were far more sympathetic to migrants. Steinbeck, then 36, used this and other incidents from Arvin in "The Grapes of Wrath," the novel that opens with the Joad family being pushed off their farm in Sallisaw in eastern Oklahoma, and follows the family west for 1,200 miles on Route 66 through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to California. The Dust Bowl migrants captured the imagination of many Americans in part because readers could easily identify with them, and think, "there but for the grace of God go I."

While Steinbeck, Taylor and McWilliams documented the plight of migrants in little-read leftist magazines and papers, Frank J. Taylor presented the growers point of view in the mainstream press. Taylor emphasized that some growers, including the 4,000-acre Tagus Ranch, offered free or low -cost housing as well as on-farm schools and stores for workers. Reformers such as McWilliams thought on-farm housing and services were feudalistic, with workers afraid to leave the ranch, or even consider other jobs, for fear of losing their housing. Growers sponsored monographs entitled "Plums of Plenty" and "Grapes of Gladness."

Taylor emphasized that growers established the San Joaquin Agricultural Labor Bureau to set standard piece rate wages so that workers would not "jump from job to job in the middle of the grape, peach, fig or cotton picking." (p160) Taylor also raised an issue that reformers did not discuss: California between 1935 and 1941 had "the most generous local and state relief program in the US" (p164), which may have helped attract migrants to the state.

The Grapes of Wrath was published in April 1940, and President Roosevelt was quoted as reacting after reading it that "something must be done and done soon" to help California farm workers. (p174) Many schools and libraries banned The Grapes of Wrath, and Oklahoma Congressman Lyle Boren denounced it as "a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind." Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.

In 1939-40, two Congressional committees with opposing agendas held hearings in California. The US Senate's LaFollette Committee was guided by McWilliams, among others, to examine the power and anti-union activities of growers in 28 days of hearings, with over 400 witnesses. The US House Committee on Un-American Activities, on the other hand, focused on the communists who backed farm-worker protests. Loftis concluded that Taylor and McWilliams were motivated by the injustices of a farm labor system they believed badly needed change and that the "chief impact of their writing was its...connection with the events of the time it appeared," that is, its impact has lessened over time. Lange and Steinbeck, on the other hand, "gave history a human face;" both are far better known sixty years later than the social scientists with whom they worked. (p192)

Shindo's six-chapter book aims to debunk myths about the 1930s by showing how four American icons used the Dust Bowl migration to California to further their wider aims. He notes that only a third of the Dust Bowl migrants were farmers in the Midwest who became farm workers in California--other estimates put the farm workers among the Okies even lower, at 150,000 to 200,000 of 1.3 million migrants to the state. He argues that photographer Dorthea Lange, author John Steinbeck, director John Ford, and singer Woodie Guthrie used the plight of the migrants to urge changes in California's rural economy, to either accept a system of factory farms, and regulate the farm labor market as nonfarm labor markets were being regulated, or to break up big California farms and give land to the workers.

Shindo argues that the plight of the small Midwestern farmers who lost their land to banks in the 1930s and migrated to California was "communicated" to Americans by people with agendas that included using the plight of the Okies and Arkies to fundamentally restructure the US economy and political system. They were very successful: Shindo concluded that "the role of the Dust Bowl migrant as the representative American victim has completely displaced the Dust Bowl migrant of historical circumstance. " (p216) Two institutions played key roles in Dust Bowl migration: government-funded migrant camps and federal funds for artists and writers. Many of the camp managers and federally funded researchers agreed on the need for fundamental agricultural and economic reforms, but the Okies and Arkies often did not, since they were more likely to want to become small farmers than to become union members, and as likely to break strikes than to honor picket lines.

There was little housing in rural areas for the migrants arriving in California. Federal government camps were seen by reformers as the places in which migrants could be turned into "class-conscious agricultural laborer(s)." The migrants, on the other hand, were trying to avoid permanent employment as wage laborers "by saving enough to become small farmers in their own right." (p22) Dust Bowl migrants did not fit neatly into either the farmer or reformer boxes, and Shindo concludes that "The disparity between the 'plain folk Americanism' of the migrants and the dominant California outlooks of 'business conservatism' and 'urban liberalism' further alienated the migrants." (p34)

Shindo reviews the life and work of Dorthea Lange, who grew up near New York City and was a portrait photographer in San Francisco. During the Depression in 1932, she was standing outside her studio and took a picture of men waiting in a bread line. UCB economist Paul Taylor saw the photograph, hired her as a photographer for his study of California agriculture, and married her in 1935. They collaborated on several projects that, Shindo argues, aimed to convince opinion leaders that migrants were victims who needed government support. Their 1939 book concluded, according to Shindo, that "the Dust Bowl migration [was] the result of the battle between man and machine...the power of large landholders and giant corporations is represented by the tractor, while the hard-working tenant farmers and sharecroppers become refugees in their own country." (p38).

Taylor said that migratory farm labor was "an unwitting instrument in the breakdown of the traditional American ideal of the family farm [because] it slips through stable and often rich communities, of which it is never an accepted part. It 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." Describing the peak 250,000 migrants who harvested wheat from Texas to Canada in the first 25 years of the 20th century by riding the rails, Taylor noted that "The major portion of the harvest in each State was performed by men who migrated only within the State." However, many of the migrant harvesters became members of the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies, and migrants without an IWW red card were sometimes prevented from riding the rails. Taylor saw the combines that replaced migrants during the 1920s as a way to reduce the appeal of radicals in rural communities. Taylor quoted an Oklahoma Commissioner of Labor in the early 1930s who said that "an oversupply of labor in any locality is almost as disastrous as a shortage and more so as far as the community in general is concerned." (Taylor, 1937)

The J. Paul Getty Museum purchased a print of the "Migrant Mother," photograph for $244,500 at Sotheby's auction house in October 1998, and the photo became a US postage stamp. Shindo notes that Lange, who was returning from a month-long photo trip and had only six shots left, did not talk to Florence Owens Thompson, the woman in the picture, or to other pea pickers in the camp. According to the now adult girls in the picture, the Thompson family was from the San Joaquin Valley, not the Midwest, and the reason they became farm workers was because their father died of an asthma attack, forcing the family to go on the road in search of farm work. The family stopped migrating in the 1940s, when Thompson found work in a state hospital in Modesto.

Shindo reviews John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." Steinbeck, born in Salinas to a father who was a high-level county employee, went to but did not graduate from Stanford, and was greatly influenced by biological theories in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The 1936 novel, "In Dubious Battle," shows how apple pickers striking for higher wages become something more than dissatisfied workers. The Grapes of Wrath, written between May and October 1938, borrows much, according to Shindo, from notes provided to Steinbeck by the manager of a federal farm labor camp near Arvin. The Joad family was forced off their Oklahoma farm, drove to California with all their belongings, enduring hardship along the way, and pulled into a "Hooverville" or federal migrant camp, which provided clean housing and democracy. However, there was no work available locally, so the Joad family moved on, breaking a strike at a peach farm. Vigilantes attack them, Jim Casy is killed, Tom Joad must go into hiding, and the family slides down hill, living an abandoned rail car where Rose of Sharon delivers a stillborn baby.

In his 1962 Nobel acceptance speech Steinbeck said that a writer must believe in "the perfectibility of man." Steinbeck's farm labor writings can thus be considered pleas for reform: alleviate the misery of migrants and teach them democracy and how to live correctly in government-run camps, and stabilize the labor force needed by large California growers. According to Shindo, the purpose of The Grapes of Wrath was to teach "a middle class, progressive audience its role in the shaping of American society," that is, they should answer the Joads' question of why there are not more government-run labor camps by demanding that the government build them (p69).

John Ford was the director who made "The Grapes of Wrath" into a movie in 1940, starring Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell. Ford was especially well known for making films about the myths of the American frontier, showing "the world--its good side through its bad." (p154) Ford said he was attracted to the challenge of making a film that would show the Joad "family going out and trying to find their way in the world." (p160) The Joad family endures hardships on the road to California, finds happiness in the government-run camp, and then unites with other Okies against the very low piece rates paid to peach pickers at the Keene Ranch. Tom, wanted for killing a vigilante, leaves the family, and Ma Joad says that "we're the people" and will survive, as the Joads truck joins a parade of other trucks going on the road in search of farm work.

Woodie Guthrie, the singer and song writer who turned folk songs into a vehicle to express the Okies' concerns to themselves and other Americans, was born into a relatively well-off Oklahoma family, and lived in a frontier oil-boom town. He left his wife and baby in Oklahoma and traveled to California, where he had a radio show that appealed to Midwestern migrants who wound up in Los Angeles. In 1938, he traveled through California, seeing first hand the conditions of Okies and Arkies, and writing songs that accused greedy bankers and agribusiness of taking advantage of "ordinary folks." In 1940, Guthrie moved to New York City, where he achieved his fame as an interpreter of the Okie experience for Americans. Always flirting with Communism, he began to write the Woody Sez column for People's World, which he described as "a Hillbilly's Eye-View of the hole (sic) Migratious Labor movement from the South to the Pacific Coast." (p176). Guthrie during this period wrote his best-known song, "This Land is Your Land," which ended, "this land was made for you and me." Shindo contrasts Steinbeck's belief that the Okies had to become modern to effectuate reform with Guthrie's use of traditional values in support of change. (p186)

Shindo next turns to the uses of American culture, quoting Frederick Jackson Turner that the frontier, with new land to settle, led to an American social development marked by fluidity, new opportunities and, in the west, reminders of connections with "savage nature." (p196) California in the 1930s had government-run labor camps filled with Americans who had experienced considerable hardships, and government-funded researchers went from camp to camp collecting stories and songs. Shindo argues that, in several cases, government funds offered outsiders a chance to collect "their version" of the Okie experience, so that, the "Songs of the Okies" broadcast in New York City over three weeks were structured to reflect the reform goals of their producers, such as the hardships of the migration west, the goal of owning a small farm, and the clash of traditional values and the realities of California agribusiness.

Shindo's book raises questions at two levels: what are the facts, and how have those facts been assimilated into American history. Shindo argues that reformers wanted to use the plight of the migrants to further their own causes, or to educate Okies in government-run camps. Most analyses concluded that farm worker strikes were protests over low wages, especially the failure of farmers to raise wages as their own prices rose because of government farm programs. But conservatives in California argued that, given the often radical leadership of unions attempting to organize farm workers, farm worker unions risked revolution in the state, and thus farm worker strikes needed to be crushed.

Labor historians often distinguish between types of farm workers but lump all farmers together as distant entities out to exploit workers. Historian Vaught argues that turn-of-the-century "horticulturists" saw themselves as producing unique crops while building healthy and prosperous communities. Over time, Vaught shows how labor relations, market imperatives, and changing political conditions undermined the growers' horticultural ideal in four central and northern California agricultural communities.

Loftis, Anne. 1998. Witnesses to the Struggle: Imaging the 1930s California Labor Movement. University of Nevada Press.
Shindo, Charles J. 1997. Dust Bowl Migration in the American Imagination. University Press of Kansas. McWilliams, Carey. 1939 (reprinted 2000). Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California. University of California Press. McWilliams, Carey. 1976. Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States. Lange, Dorthea and Paul S. Taylor. 1939. An American Exodus. A Record of Human Erosion. New York. Reynal and Hitchcock.
Taylor, Paul S. 1937. Migratory Farm Labor in the United States. Monthly Labor Review. March. Mitchell, Don. 1996. The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape. University of Minnesota Press. March. Igler, David. 2001. Industrial Cowboys. Miller & Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850-1920. Berkeley. University of California Press. Stoll, Steven. 1998. The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California. Berkeley. University of California Press. Vaught, David. 1999/2002. Cultivating California: Growers, Specialty Crops, and Labor, 1875-1920. Johns Hopkins University Press. Garcia, Matt. 2002. A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 Univ of North Carolina Press.

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