Thursday, October 10, 2013

Today in Labor History


Six days into a cotton field strike by 18,000 Mexican and Mexican-American workers in Pixley, Calif., four strikers are killed and six wounded; eight growers were indicted and charged with murder - 1933 
The largest agricultural strike in California history, involving more than 18,000 workers, occurred over the course of the 1933 harvest in the California agricultural industry. Strike actions moved across the state through the harvests of cherries, pears, peaches, sugar beets and grapes, culminating in the cotton fields of the San Joaquin Valley in October.

Organized in large part by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ International Union among workers protesting pay cuts at the height of the Great Depression, labor actions grew throughout the summer. The Cotton Strike saw 12,000 workers walk off the job. Striking workers were evicted from company housing, and growers were deputized. A violent attack left two workers dead and eight wounded in the town of Pixley, California.

CAWIU organizers Pat Chambers and Caroline Decker were arrested and charged under the California Criminal Syndicalism Act for their labor organizing activities. When the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935 by the Roosevelt administration, agricultural workers were excluded from protection.

Raymond P. Barry noted that: “Ninety-five percent of the cotton pickers in the San Joaquin in 1933, it has been estimated, were Mexican.” This union wanted change, and according to Raymond P. Barry: "At the opening of the 1933 cotton picking season we find the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union providing militant leadership for the Mexican pickers, drawing up and presenting their demands to the growers, and threatening a valleywide strike if these demands were not met. The demands of the union were three-fold: 1. - A wage rate of $1.00 per hundred pounds of cotton picked. 2. - Recognition of the union. 3. - Abolition of contract labor.

It only took a matter of days for the events of the strike to go from bad to worse.
On October 9, 1933, the New York Times posted: “Violence flamed in the cotton strike areas covering four California counties today, with Tulare growers running agitators out of the county, following a free-for-all right, and farmers in other counties ousting pickers and arming themselves for further trouble […] In Kern county alone today it was estimated that 200 strikers and their families had been ousted from their cottages. Their belongings were dumped on the road and they were told to ‘get.’” Tensions reached there ultimate peak on October 10, 1933 in Pixley when a gathering of protestors and ranchers led to the deaths of a few strikers. An article in the New York Times states that " Ranchers who heard of the proposed meeting [between strikers] organized a caravan of about thirty automobiles, drove into Pixley and surrounded the meeting. Suddenly there was a shot from the caravan, then a volley. Three men fell dead and many were wounded [...] but bloodshed at Pixley did not break the strike."

Oct 26, 1933 The strikes closing results: “The state of California, cooperating with the Federal Government, tonight ordered the cotton strike officially ended. The order was issued with the mailed fist of authority behind it. Cotton picking is to be resumed under armed protection of State authorities. Agitators must leave the area. All strike unemployment relief work is to be discontinued and violence must cease. Eighty percent of the growers have acceded to the suggested wage of 75 cents per 100 pounds.”

Although the ultimate goal of the unionized cotton pickers was not reached, they still gained more pay, and although this was a gain for the workers, the striking process led to many evicted families and many Mexicans were led back to Mexico. 

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