by Sam Kushner
Preface: We are recirculating an excerpt from The Long Road to Delano, which was written in 1975 by veteran labor reporter Sam Kushner. Kushner’s paper, the People’s World was the West Coast newspaper of the Communist Party, USA. Chapter 4 is relevant today because it chronicles the Communist organizing that was taking place in California’s rich agricultural fields from the Late 1800s through the thirties and into the 40s of the last century. It is very important to us that Communists know their history. Understanding our past helps us build a better future for all workers. Minor grammatical corrections have been made which improve the text’s readability without altering its meaning in any way.
While the 1920s were relatively quiet, they were far from entirely so. Farm workers were hard pressed, as was often the case, they attempted to organize.
There are indications that in September 1922, Mexican grape pickers in the Fresno area were attempting to organize and a union was formed in the Imperial Valley city of Brawley during the cantaloupe season. However, the inability of farm workers to form stable unions did not inhibit them from engaging in sporadic work stoppages.
Some historians persist in minimizing the role of Communists in organizing farm workers during this period. Some of them labeled the Communists “opportunists” seeking to capitalize on strikes initiated by others, Jamieson, on the other hand, indicates that the participation and influence of Communists on farm labor organizing predated the formation of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) and, it influenced some of the Mexican unions in the late 1920s.
“Radical labor organizers,” Jamieson reported,“ appear to have been working within the Mexican mutual aid societies during the late 1920s. Most of their organizing was sporadic and individualistic until the policy of revolutionary dual unionism was put into practice by the Communist Party in the early 1930s when the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) of the [TUUL] was formed.”
In November 1927, a stable organization that included farm workers was organized in Los Angeles by a committee of the Federation of Mexican Societies. It called on the many mutual aid and benefit organizations in the barrios to give financial and moral support to organizing Mexican workers in unison. Shortly thereafter, a number of local unions were established in Southern California and combined to organize the Confederación de Uniones Obreras Mexicanas (CUOM) — Federation of Mexican Workers’ Unions — patterned after the union movement in Mexico. It was the most important among Mexican labor organizations.
Jamieson noted that “its principles reflect in part the influence of American leftist organizations such as the IWW and the Communist Party.” Among the principles it adopted were the restriction of immigration and abolition of employment agencies and commissaries. It adopted the concept of class struggle and came out in support of “integration into a single union of all labor in the world to combat international finance.”
Partly because of the migratory nature of the workforce, CUOM — which at its peak had between 2,000 and 3,000 members in twenty locals — was reduced to an organization of a few hundred within 18 months.
At the same time, organizing of the unorganized was taking place on other fronts. One such effort began in 1925 by a group of southern California members of the Communist Party who organized the Japanese Workers Association. Since one of the main aims of the Communist Party was to organize the working people, including agricultural workers, this newly established group concentrated its efforts in this direction.
Two years later, in 1927, this association organized the Southern California Organizing Committee (Japanese) with Karl Yoneda, then a newly recruited member of the CP, as one of its key organizers. Yoneda, who was born in 1906 on a little Glendale farm near Los Angeles, had been taken to Japan at the age of seven in order to get his education there. His schooling in Japan was not that anticipated by his family. In his third year of high school, Yoneda was a “drop-out” who joined the Japanese labor and student movements. In 1925 he assisted in organizing the Hiroshima Printers Union and the following year was fined for publishing, without the permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs a monthly magazine called Tsuchi (Earth). “By then, I was already familiar with ‘kusaimeshi’ (stinking rice) — in other words, jail and police brutality,” he later recalled. (Interview with Karl Yoneda, 1974).
As an active anti-militarist who opposed the rule of the emperor, Yoneda, at age 20, refused to report for the draft in the Japanese Imperial Army and escaped to the United States where he joined the Communist Party and played a key role in organizing agricultural workers as well as in other struggles. He was among the more than 25 Communist Party members in southern California who were organized into what was then known as the “Japanese fraction.”
For four years, 1926 through 1929, economic struggles were organized throughout southern California among workers of Japanese descent. Other Communist Party members of Mexican and Filipino background also carried on organization among agricultural workers. Yoneda recalls the organizing done by many different groups of Communists as they worked side by side. In 1930 all of them joined into the Agricultural Workers Industrial League (AWIL).
Yoneda, as was the custom among many workers, used a pseudonym. His name was Goso Yoneda. He adopted his first name from Karl Marx. His name on the membership books he got from the Japanese Workers Association and the Agricultural Workers Industrial League was Karl Hama. (In Japanese Hama means “beach.”)
During this period, he met Eugene Dennis who was later to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States. At that time Dennis was working with the “Pacific Secretariat” of the World Communist Movement and was very familiar with the developments in the Communist Parties of Japan and China. “Whenever it was possible for him to do so, Dennis undertook working with the Japanese agricultural workers,” Yoneda said. (On March 23, 1942, Yoneda was among the volunteers” to go to Manzanar, the first of ten concentration camps for Japanese on the west coast. He “volunteered” in order to build a camp suitable for the Japanese people.” Imprisoned there with 10,000 others, he later volunteered to join the United States Army. He served two years in the Pacific. “We Japanese faced a bitter choice between the racism of U.S. imperialism and Japanese fascism and militarism”).
Aside from the continuous activity of Communists among field workers during the 1920s, there were some important factors they had going for them when they began the intensive period of farm labor organizing. By their work among the unemployed, the Communists had come in contact with large numbers of seasonal workers who were among the hardest hit in the depression. In this respect, the Communists emulated the Wobblies, who had made many of their initial contacts with migratory labor in the lumber camps and on construction jobs where these workers sought employment in between field jobs.
Communists also waged a public fight on all forms of racism against Filipino and Mexican workers. The continued activity throughout California and in other states by representatives of Workers International Relief and the International Labor Defense, both closely allied with the Communist Party, enhanced the prestige of the Communists.
The instrumentality which was to rock much of the state of California and the nation was the [TUUL], organized principally by the Communist Party, following the 1928 Sixth World Congress of the Communist International. That international meeting of Communist Parties concluded that many of the existing organizations in the capitalist world, including old-line unions such as the American Federation of Labor, were no longer viable instruments to pursuit of working class and revolutionary goals.
Referring to the establishment of the TUUL and its aim of organizing farm workers, Stuart Jamieson said, “It was the first nationwide labor union in established since.” (The IWW, however, remains organizationally alive today and has even attempted to organize shops as late as 1973. But Jamieson is correct in the wider sense that the Wobblies had by that time ceased to be a significant force in labor, industrial or agricultural.)
The TUUL organizing drive in the fields touched off a series of similar organizing campaigns during the greater part of the following three decades. Not all of these efforts, by any means, were under Communist leadership. Involved in these successive drives were the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the American Federation of Labor, and many independent unions, especially among Mexican workers. Some of the latter were either organized by Mexican counsels or aided by them.
Organizing efforts in the fields in the latter part of the 1920s followed the pattern utilized by the Japanese Communists. The demands were relatively simple, for wage increases and recognition of the ranch committee. The main economic demand was to raise hourly wages from 20 to 25 cents. In highly seasonal ranches, such as strawberries, the workers usually won their complete demands. However, most of the strikes were against small growers, who themselves were often at the mercy of the large produce merchants.
In the course of other struggles of that period, the Communists had some indication of the repression that would face them in future major struggles in the fields. In 1929, protesting the presence of Japanese imperialism in the San Pedro harbor, Yoneda and another Communist, Tetsuji Horiuchi, were arrested. They were both held for three days on suspicion of violating the criminal syndicalism law of California. By the time they were released the Japanese naval training ship had left port.
Later, at a meeting of Communist trade unionists, there was agreement on who would go to Imperial Valley to assist the large number of agricultural workers to organize. At that time, Yoneda recalls, there were 7,000 Mexican workers there. In addition, there were an estimated 1,000 Japanese and several hundred Filipinos. Very few Anglos were then employed in the Valley.
Indicative of the composition of the Communists who went to the fields to organize were the persons later arrested there on charges of criminal syndication. They were Horiuchi, Danny Roxas (a Filipino), Braulio Orosco, Eduardo Herrera, Lawrence Emery, Oscar Erickson, Frank Spector, and Carl Sklar.
Initially, in the early months of 1930, the TUUL succeeded in establishing the Agricultural Workers Industrial League with headquarters in Brawley, California, in the heart of Imperial Valley. This industrial union of workers in the fields embraced all farm workers — Mexicans, Filipinos, and Anglos. Shortly thereafter it became the Agricultural Workers Industrial Union and the following year a new name denoted its enlarged jurisdiction: Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU).
The early years of the great depression were a most difficult time for strikers. Nevertheless, Jamieson reports, TUUL affiliates were involved in a majority of farm strikes and in all of the large ones. In January 1930, he reports, TUUL was involved in a strike of 5,000 in the Imperial Valley. The following month the Communist-led union movement participated in another Imperial Valley strike. This one affected 700 lettuce shed workers. In July 1931, TUUL led a strike of 1,500 cannery workers in Santa Clara County and the following year it participated in another California strike, that of the 1,500 pea pickers in San Mateo County. The TUUL affiliate was also active in the strike of 400 fruit trimmers in Solano County at about the same time.
During the January and February 1930, Imperial Valley strikes TUUL succeeded in enrolling hundreds of farm workers despite the fact that its organizers were constantly harassed, kept under surveillance, and arrested on trumped-up charges during the work stoppages. At the conclusion of those strikes which faded to win the objectives of the new militant union, a conference was scheduled in El Centro for April 20 to map further union strategy in opposition to the contract system, speed-up, and unemployment.
To prepare for this important meeting a rank-and-file conference was called for on April 14 in El Centro, which was attended by more than 100 Mexican, Filipino, Black, and Anglo workers. Among those in attendance was Frank Spector, Los Angeles District Organizer of the International Labor Defense and a charter member of the Communist Party, who was among those subsequently arrested on a charge of criminal syndicalism and sentenced to a 3-to-42-year jail sentence in San Quentin Prison. In an article in the (ILD) Labor Defender of December 1930, written while he was serving his sentence in prison Spector gave a vivid account of that meeting as well as other developments in Imperial Valley. His description underscored the important role played by the Communists in the Imperial Valley’s bitter battles at that time. In describing the April 14, meeting he said:
“One after another the workers spoke, each in their own language. They told of starvation and the sickness of their wives and children, of constant wage cuts, of the long hours of bitter toil under a scorching sun. Each one spoke of the readiness of the workers to fight under their union’s militant guidance. Suddenly the door burst open. Into the hall rushed an armed mob of policemen, deputy sheriffs, and privately hired thugs, with revolvers and sawed-off shotguns which they trained upon the assembled workers. Out of this mob stepped Sheriff Gillette, chief gunman of the Imperial Valley bosses. Ordering the workers to throw up their hands, a frenzied search of the 108 workers was put through; then they were chained in groups. Then the mob, with a brutal display of force, threw them into huge trucks. The entire 108 were then handed under heavy guard and thrown into the El Centro County jail.”
During the ensuing two months, some of the Mexican workers were deported, others released. It was a time, Spector wrote, when the Imperial Valley “assumed the appearance of an armed camp. Along the railroad tracks, packing sheds, bridges, warehouses, in the fields, and on the ranches, before the government offices, armed guards were placed. Newspapers told fantastic stories of ‘plots’ to blow up bridges, and railroads.”
Such was the atmosphere on this front of struggle, one of many throughout the nation at that time, for the revival of prosecutions under California’s Criminal Syndicalist Law, under which 32 workers in “recent strikes” were being charged. Between its passage in 1919 and the middle of 1930 about 500 Californians had been arrested for violation of this law.
Bail for each of those held on criminal syndicalism charges in Imperial Valley initially was set at $40,000. Following grand jury indictments the authorities were forced by various pressures to reduce the number of persons charged and to lower bail to $15,000 each.
Tetsuji Horiuchi, a TUUL organizer, and Carl Sklar, organizer for the Los Angeles Communist Party, were found guilty and sentenced to 3-to-42-year terms in Folsom Prison. Guilty verdicts and similar sentences were imposed on Oscar Erickson, national secretary of the Agricultural Workers Industrial League, Lawrence Emery of the Marine Workers Industrial Union, Danny Roxas, Filipino secretary of the AWIL, in Imperial Valley, and Spector. They were sentenced to San Quentin. Two Mexican workers, Eduardo Herrera, and Braulio Orosco, originally held for deportation, were later imprisoned at San Quentin to serve 2-to-28-year sentences.
Spector declared that “The indictment returned was drawn upon the testimony of three stool pigeons, all operatives of the scab-herding Bolling Detective Agency, in the hire of the growers. The trial was conducted with a frenzy of prejudice and class hatred, fanned by tales of ‘plots.’ Needless to say, the defendants were convicted and railroaded to prison, on the basis of a ‘guilty’ verdict brought in by the jury of ranchers and businessmen.”
In their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on June 14, 1930, the Imperial Valley prisoners, as they were popularly known, spelled out the case against them. They said, “eight of us, of whom all were members of the [TUUL], some of whom were members of the [TUUL], some of whom were members of the Communist Party and some not; rank and file members of the Agricultural Workers Industrial Union as well as those who were organizers of any of the above-mentioned organizations in the Imperial Valley — all were convicted of nothing less than the intended overthrow of the present government of the United States and the entire existing economic system — this to be accomplished by using the workers of the Imperial Valley as a lever.”
They charged that “it made no difference that outside of the testimony of three undercover men who were paid for their testimony.” Nothing remained in evidence of fact to substantiate the wild charges that were made.” They further claimed that not a scintilla of evidence was turned up against them despite “the criminal inventiveness and ingenuity of the anti-labor spies….”
Roxas and Herrera distributed leaflets and copies of the Daily Worker and Labor Unity, the defendants reminded the U.S. Supreme Court. Orosco was shown to be present at some meetings at which cited literature was kept and sold, and Sklar was placed as being in Imperial County.
Such was the nature of the testimony at the trial of the Imperial Valley Eight.
Another view of the same trial was given in a speech by F.A. Thaanum, then commander of El Centro American Legion Post No.25. He said, “The way to kill the Red plague is to dynamite it out. That’s what we did in Imperial County. The judge who tried the Communists was a Legionnaire; 50 percent of the jurors were veterans. What chance did the Communists have?” Labor Defender, December 1930).
Why did the Communists concentrate a major effort on the Imperial Valley fields? In the first instance many of the workers in these fields who had contacts with the Communists in other areas, such as the unemployment movement and in battles against racist discrimination, sought out Communists they knew and called on them to assist the farm workers in their struggles. Then there were the objective conditions; the short seasons of big lettuce yields in January and February, cantaloupes in June and July, and watermelons in July and August led to brief intensive work seasons, with the speed-up followed by long periods of unemployment. While the majority of workers were Mexican, there were also many Filipino, Black, and Hindu workers among the estimated 10,000 harvesting the crops. Packing and shipping jobs in the packing sheds were done almost entirely by the 2,000 Anglo migratory workers.
The Communists also saw the growing resistance of the workers in Imperial Valley as further vindication of their policy of establishing radical unions among the most oppressed people, since the established labor leadership failed to react to demands for help.
Wages were between 25 and 35 cents per hour and housing accommodations in company camps forced large families to live in a single tent or shack with a brush-covered roof. The irrigation ditches were a source of drinking water as well as for washing up and the stench from the ditches on the edge of the camps that were the only available toilets was unbearable. Disease and a high mortality rate were the common fate of the field workers.
It was conditions such as these that generated many strikes in the Imperial Valley. Especially brutal terrorism put down the strikes in 1917 and 1922. The 1928 strike was the most significant in point of the number of workers, as well as in their militancy” Spector commented.
It was the January 1930 lettuce pickers strike that saw the entrance of the TUUL into Imperial Valley. Following the unsuccessful lettuce picker strike, during which hundreds were jailed and many were beaten while incarcerated, the shed workers struck, also unsuccessfully, against increased speed up and wage cuts.
The terror of that period extended far beyond the agricultural communities. In Gastonia, North Carolina, 7 militants faced a total of 117 years in jail, and in Atlanta, Georgia, 6 organizers faced possible electric chair execution, charged with “inciting to riot and insurrection.” Attempts in Los Angeles and elsewhere to protest these unbelievable persecutions were met with equally severe police attacks against those demanding the release of the jailed.
More than four decades later, the California Supreme Court ruled the Criminal Syndicalism Law unconstitutional. The last of the jailed Imperial Valley organizers to be released from San Quentin was Lawrence Emery on Feb. 21, 1933. For many years afterward he was a Marxist journalist.
Also active in the 1930 Imperial Valley strike was Eugene Dennis, then a TUUL organizer, who later became General Secretary of the Communist Party, USA. Dorothy Ray (Healey), who began her activity in the labor movement as an activist in the CAWIU and who later became chairperson of the Southern California District of the Communist Party, said that in the early drives of the CAWIU organizers came in to help lead strikes that had been initiated by Mexican unions. This was true of the 1930 Imperial Valley strike, she said, despite contrary accounts by virtually all historians who, long after the strikes had taken place, alleged that the Communists had tried to displace the indigenous leaders of these walkouts. Even McWilliams in his Factories in the Field writes about how the TUUL “seized upon the strikes as an occasion to attempt the consolidation of the agricultural workers into a union.”
As a matter of fact, the Mexican workers in many areas had already formed unions of their own, some of which worked very closely with the CAWIU’ and often came to either the Communist Party or the TUUL seeking assistance.
A 20 percent wage cut at the California Packing Company in San Jose provoked a walkout at one of the company’s plants on July 30, 1931. This was the first strike in a cannery since 1919 and it was the second CAWIU strike.
Like so many other members of the Young Communist League, Healey, then a 16-year-old high school student, joined with the workers in their struggles. She went to work at Cal-Pac and was among those who struck the plant in that early CAWIU strike. Alex Norel, also a Communist, was one of the strike leaders. (He later became active in the left-led unemployment organizations.)
Like so many other CAWIU strikes, this one ran into brutal opposition from the police. Strike meetings of representatives of various canneries were held in the union headquarters but there was no hall large enough for the union to hold mass meetings of all the strikers. Every time the union called a membership mass meeting in St. James Park the police would attack with tear gas and beatings.
The union was demanding 40 cents an hour, 10 cents an hour more than pre-strike wages, plus time and a half for overtime, free transportation, union recognition, and rehiring of all employees without discrimination against strikers.
The strike was lost because of the inability of the leadership to keep in touch with the workers as a result of the police brutality that prevented membership meetings.