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Labor Activism
Digital History ID 588

Author:   Governor C.C. Youngs Fact-Finding Committee

Annotation: In July 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, armed men in Cochise County, Arizona, under the direction of a local sheriff, rounded up 1,186 strikers at the Phelps Dodge copper mine. These workers, many of whom were Mexican Americans, the possee forced at gunpoint into boxcars without food or water and railroaded them into the New Mexico desert, 180 miles away. The Los Angeles Times editorialized: "The citizens of Cochise County have written a lesson that the whole of America would do well to copy."

For many years, there was a pervasive misbelief about the passivity of Mexican American workers. Mexican American workers have a long history of labor activism in the face of indifference or hostility from the Anglo labor movement.

Among the earliest efforts were those of stevedores in the port of Galveston who attempted to unionize immediately following the Civil War; and employees of central Texas cattle companies who tried to organize in the early 1880s. A Mexican American version of the Knights of Labor was known as the Caballeros de Labor. The mining industry was another early focus of Mexican American labor activity. The expansion of mining in southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and southern Colorado during the late 1880s led in 1896 to the formation of a number of Mexican unions.

Mexican Americans were at the forefront of efforts to improve wages and working conditions for migrant farm workers. As early as 1903, more than a thousand Mexican and Japanese sugar beet workers carried out a successful strike in Ventura, California. The Mexican Protective Association, founded in 1911 in Texas, was one of the earliest agricultural unions. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Mexican Americans had a leading role in the establishment of some forty agricultural unions in California.

Workers of Mexican descent could be found on opposite sides in labor disputes. Employers sometimes recruited Mexican Americans as strikebreakers, which led many union leaders to refuse Mexicans as members and to lobby for immigration restrictions.

In California's Imperial Valley in 1928, Mexican and Mexican American farm workers staged a strike against cantaloupe growers. The excerpt here from a state fact-finding commission discusses the conditions that gave rise to the strike.

Document: In compliance with your instructions, I visited the Imperial Valley to investigate the causes and conditions of employment which led to the strike of the cantaloupe pickers and to ascertain the facts surrounding the arrests of many Mexican laborers....

The picking of cantaloupes in the Imperial Valley begins early in May and lasts about eight weeks. Approximately between forty-five hundred and five thousand male workers are engaged in the harvesting of this crop. The preponderant majority of these men are Mexicans, but Filipinos and other Orientals are also working on some ranches....

Before the season's picking begins, the grower of the melons, who in most cases leases the land from an absentee landlord, enters into a picking agreement with a labor contractor. This contractor is usually a Mexican, but there are also Japanese, Filipino, and Hindu contractors....

The grower obligates himself to make weekly payments to the labor contractor...for all crates of melons accepted by the distributor, less 25 percent of the total amount of money.... This percentage is retained by the grower until the completion of the contract as a guarantee of the fulfillment of its conditions.... The contract further provides that the contractor, not the grower, must comply with the requirements of the Workmen's Compensation Act....

The difficulties with the contract usually start toward the end of the season. Sometimes the contractor absconds with the last payment he receives from the grower and leaves his workers stranded without the wages for their last week's work and minus the 25 percent withheld from the season's wages. If the contractor is honest enough and willing to pay his workers, his intentions are sometimes checkmated by the failure of the grower to make the last payment to the contractor. The growers are often financed by other persons, and a bad market, poor management, or an unsuccessful crop leaves them without funds before the season is over....

These defalcations are not infrequent, and the Mexican laborers in the Imperial Valley have suffered considerably on account of them.... Where the contractor absconds with the last payment received from the grower, it is almost next to impossible to do anything for the laborers affected. The grower cannot be held responsible because it was the contractor, not the grower, who hired them and who was supposed to pay them their wages. If a crop failure, a bad market, or poor management is responsible for the financial reverses of the grower and the contractor does not get paid, the workers are deprived not only of their last week's pay but also of the 25 percent of the season's wages. The perennial defalcations of the contractors or of the growers have resulted in genuine dissatisfaction with the contract system on the part of Mexican laborers. Not only do they complain that they often do not get their wages at the end of the season but they also claim that the contractor often shorts them and pays them for less crates than they pick.

Although the labor contractor is not a new phenomenon in the Imperial Valley, at least one of the provisions of the picking agreement, and of similar agreements, is probably illegal. It is very doubtful whether the contractor who hires the picker on a piece-work basis may legally withhold 25 percent of every week's wages.

Source: Report of Governor C.C. Young's Fact-Finding Committee, Mexicans in California (San Francisco, 1930).

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