Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Blood Orange: The Orange County Citrus Strike Of 1936

The following excerpts are taken from a 1972 USC dissertation entitled "The Orange County Citrus Stikes of 1935-1936: The Forgotten People in Revolt" by Louis Reccow, some of which will be used in my forthcoming book The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton.


In 1936 the largest and most violet citrus strike of the depression took place in northern Orange County.  While many events in Orange County's past have been examined in considerable detail by the local historians, silence continues to prevail regarding the strike in 1936.  For much of the information on this minor civil war, one must search through the musty, sometimes incomplete, newspaper files, examine records held by government agencies and private organizations, and hold conversations with the few individuals who would permit interviews.

The strike offers a classic study in the use of anti-strike tactics: the deputizing of hundreds of growers, blacklisting, the eviction of workers from company homes, the cries that agitators and communists were responsible for the strike, vigilante attacks, the strict enforcement of an anti-picketing ordinance, the jailing of large numbers of strikers and the deportation of alien Mexican workers.

A union of, by, and for Mexicans, the Confederacion de Uniones Campesinos y Obreros de California (C.U.C.O.M.), the most active and effective agricultural union operating during 1935-36 in California, organized and led the workers in Orange County.  For almost seven weeks, the union and the workers struck the powerful citrus industry.  While the attempt at collective bargaining and union recognition failed, the workers did gain wage increases and other benefits as a result of the strike.

The citrus strike also contributed greatly to the revival of the powerful anti-union Associated Farmers of California, which had become almost inactive after crushing the communist dominated Cannery and Agricultural Workers and Industrial Union in 1934.  The strike also had a major impact on the conservative resurgence and growing hostility toward organized labor in Orange County.  In the minds of many people, organized labor, from that time, was associated with socialism, communism and unAmericanism, an attitude very much in evidence in the county today.

The Orange County Citrus Industry

The organization of the Southern California Fruit Exchange in 1893, which became the California Fruit Growers Exchange in 1905, and then "Sunkist" in 1952, has been judged by many, both in and out of the industry, as a watershed.  

By 1935, according to the agricultural census of that year, Orange County had a total of 70,000 acres in citrus…The land occupied by this acreage involved some 6,000 orchards, owned and operated by more than 5,000 farm families.  While the average grove consisted of some 15 acres, included in this number of rather deceptive-looking statistics were two of the largest landholdings in citrus anywhere, the Sunny Hills Ranch in Fullerton with more than 2,000 citrus acres, and the famous famous Irvine Company with nearly 3,000.  Put another way, in 1930, 115 commercial growers, who made up only 3.4 percent of the total number of citrus growers in the county, received 27.7 percent of the income from citrus in Orange County.

Much of the traditional meaning behind the word "farm" no longer made much sense in the citrus industry…In carrying out the processing operations, the packing house possessed all the earmarks of a factory and the grower was nowhere in sight…While the members of the (California Fruit Growers) Exchange continued to vote Republican, their business was 'conducted under a planned economy run by an elaborate but efficient bureaucracy'…Carey McWilliams, well known writer and keen observer of California society, concluded that the 'peculiar nature' of this organization in the citrus industry largely accounted for the communities in Orange County being 'complacent, conservative, functionless.'

The citrus industry offered few of its workers full employment throughout the year.  At the beginning of the picking season, the industry required workers for one or two days a week, or only two or three hours a day.  Between picking seasons, industry lay-offs for the pickers varied form one to several months…A large proportion of the total work force in the Orange County citrus industry, perhaps more than 50 percent, was made up of Mexican aliens.

Industry people interviewed agreed that picking oranges in the groves was an unpleasant job.  Pickers often had to stand on a ladder for hours carrying a 50 to 60 pound bag in their backs.  To add to their difficulty, the temperature in the groves often rose to 100 degrees or higher, and not a breeze stirred in the trees.  Growers apparently thought that one of the highest aims of the Mexican workers was to be a competent picker, that he liked picking oranges and was proud of it.

The "Forgotten People" of Orange County

The Mexican worker in the United States has been plagued for many hears with stereotyping. During the Twenties and Thirties, many Californians, in and out of the citrus industry, who had studied the Mexican agricultural worker and thought they knew him well, contributed to the stereotyping as evidenced by the following quotations.  'Mexicans, as a rule, work quietly and uncomplainingly, and are well-satisfied with wages and conditions." (California Cultivator, 1931).  "The Mexican peon, as a whole, does not organize well.  Like other unskilled laborers, he does not appreciate the advantages of labor unions.  He is not educated to the level of unionization." (The Mexican in the United States, 1934).  "He is the result of years of servitude, has always looked upon his employer as his patron and upon himself as part of the establishment" (California Citrograph, 1929).  In the years 1935-1936, the Mexican orange pickers of Orange County, formerly the "forgotten people" forced many, at least for a season, to revise their conception of the Mexican agricultural workers.

By 1935 (Mexican workers) were supplying the overwhelming share of the pickers in the Orange County citrus industry, better than 90 percent of the approximately 2,500 men needed at the peak of the season.

Most of the Mexican pickers in Orange County lived in colonies, or "colonias."  Some of these were originally labor camps, others were expansions of pre-1900 colonies.  A number of new settlements were opened during the 1920s to accommodate the increasing number of immigrants from Mexico.  Carey McWilliams has described these Mexican settlements in Orange County as being "invariably on the 'other side' of something: a railroad track, a bridge, a river, or a highway" and that their location was determined usually "by  a combination of factors: low wages, cheap rents, low land values, prejudice, closeness to employment, undesirability of the site, etc."…Most colonies were just far enough from cities such as Anaheim, La Habra and Fullerton, to "enjoy" separate facilities such as schools.

One former picker likened the citrus industry to the antebellum plantation system.  Another person charged that the industry treated the pickers as chattels.  A third thought the arrangement in Orange County resembled the hacienda system of old (colonial era) Mexico.

The Pickers Organize

Recognizing that unified control and cooperation among ethnic groups was necessary if strikes and collective bargaining were to succeed over wide crop areas where growers were highly organized, C.U.C.O.M sponsored a meeting in January 1936 of representatives of several independent unions in Los Angeles.  They formed a temporary Federation of Agricultural Workers Unions of America (F.A.W.U.A.), consisting of Mexican, Filipino, and other groups.  The newly-organized Japanese Farm Workers Union joined a short while later.  C.U.C.O.M. furnished the chief leaders and most of the membership.

In March the F.A.W.U.A. sent the growers of Orange County two lists of demands.  The petitions called for an 8 hour day at 40 cents an hour; 7 cents a box above 30; time and a half for extra work; sixteen as the minimum age for employment; removal of the (unfair) bonus system; free transportation; and, most significantly different from workers requests of 1935, collective bargaining and union recognition…

Nothing came of the petitions except that the charges of outsiders and communism would be raised to befog the real grievances of the workers.

Meanwhile with the picking season underway, the citrus industry, as was customary, had to determine the wage scales for the workers.  On May 2, the Santiago Association Board of Directors discussed the workers' wage demands.  Evidently, all the associations, with the exception of one, had agreed to pay the pickers five and one-half cents per box, plus a half-cent bonus, the same rate paid the year before.  Apparently, the workers had not made much of an impression on the industry, if the Santiago situation were typical.

That the Orange County citrus industry had no intention of making any compromises or concessions to the workers' demands was made perfectly clear in a form letter circulated to the members of the Placential Mutual Orange Association on June 10, 1936.  The manager of the association informed the members of the association that the Sheriff's office and the District Attorney's office had promised the industry their support and cooperation.

The Strike Begins

On Thursday, June 11, 1936, the citizens of Orange County awoke to read this headline in the Santa Ana Register, "Mexican Citrus Workers Strike.'  What had been rumored, predicted, scheduled, and postponed finally occurred.

Undoubtedly, the first day of the strike was the most effective for the strikers, with estimates of the number of pickers on strike varying from 750 to 2,500.  Reports in the Santa Ana, Brea, La Habra and Yorba Linda newspapers verified the strikers' claim that not an orange was picked in northern Orange County that first day.

Confronted with the largest strike ever in the history of the citrus industry, the citrus growers hastily organized a defense committee, the first of a number of such groups…They also insisted on protection from the police authorities for their pickers, raised the cry of "outside agitators" and communists, stood pat on the wage scale and refused to have any dealings whatsoever with the union or its leaders.  In addition, the growers attempted to discredit the strike leaders, put pressure on the county government to refuse relief aid to the strikers and their families, hired and armed guards to protect the groves and packing houses, threatened strikers with deportation, initiatiated eviction proceedings, resisted every government effort to mediate the strike and distributed a "black list."

On that first day of the strike, June 11, Sheriff Logan Jackson's force had ballooned to approximately one hundred police officers patrolling the Fullerton, Orange, Anaheim, Placentia, Tustin, and Santa Ana strike areas.

As strike activity increased, the police forces in the county were augmented by twenty "hard-bitten highway patrolmen, veterans of other labor wars."  Vigorously patrolling the highways, groves and Mexican colonies, the police forces made their first arrest of an "alleged agitator" on June 13 and charged him with driving on the left side of the road and driving without a license or registration.  Many such arrests on similar charges occurred during the strike.

Le Roy Lyons, a citrus grower and member of the County Board of Supervisors, offered some personal insights regarding the strike to the directors of the Fullerton Chamber of Commerce on June 18.  Insisting that that strike was the result of outside agitation conducted by a communist union, Lyon reasoned the packing houses therefore could make no concessions.

Civil War in the Citrus Groves

During the month of July (1936), northern Orange County experienced a kind of civil war.  Increased picketing, violence, armed deputies by the score, vigilante attacks, mass arrests and trials, shoot-to-kill orders, calls for State interference, along with California State Federation of Labor and federal government involvement--all contributed to the situation.  Eventually, however, the Mexican government's desire for a settlement, the last minute intervention of Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, growing disunity among both the strikers and the growers, and public pressure, led to an agreement of sorts.  Though the workers made certain gains, union recognition was not achieved.

In the late afternoon of July 6th, after reports of violence in the groves had reached headquarters, California highway patrolmen and sheriff's deputies arrested 159 Mexican strikers, who apparently were on their way in two caravans from Anaheim to Orange to attend a meeting.  Of the total, 155 were booked on charges of trespassing or state traffic violations.  

The incidents in the orchards gave the sheriff and the industry an excuse to embark on a big offensive to crush the strikers by force.  Sheriff Jackson issued a "Shoot to Kill" order to his forces and called for public support: "This is not fight between orchardists and pickers…It is a fight between the entire population of Orange County and a bunch of Communists."

Was the charge that a "reign or terror" existed in the county a valid one?  The deputizing and arming of hundreds of inexperienced men, the arrests of hundreds of strikers, the stopping of cars on the highway, the buying of additional arms, the command to shoot-to-kill, the possible call for national guard troops, the statement of the District Attorney that he had 500 blank warrants charging riot and would use them--would seem to constitute elements of a reign or terror, or at the very least intimidation.

The citrus industry, despite public statements which suggested total unity, contained critics of its policies.  The matter of Frank Spire was a case in point.  Long a critic of certain industry policies, which reduced the role of the individual, Spire…suggested that managers, directors, and citrus growers send delegations to the union strike headquarters in Orange and give the men a square deal based on a Golden Rule pledge.  (The "Golden Rule" being Jesus' statement: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you).  Spire tried to arrange a meeting of growers in Santa Ana on July 8.  Officers there charged Spire was assisting the strikers.  Spire denied the charge.

Undoubtedly on the lookout for Spire, the police finally apprehended him on July 13.  Stopped by two police officers, Spire had six charges placed against him, including that he had a faulty left front tire, that he had parked fifteen inches out of line and that he did not have a proper registration slip in his billfold.  Each time Spire reported to the court for trial his case was delayed.  It had not been heard when September ended.  But Spire had a defender in Fullerton, who appealed to the federal government to assist Spire in what was so obvious an effort by certain interests to intimidate him.

On July 7, a meeting of associated growers and packers took place at a Placentia American Legion hall.  Stuart Statham (PR man for the industry) later denied the meeting had any connection with vigilante activity.  Rather, he said, the men had determined to fight to the finish to protect themselves.

Whatever the connection with the meeting, vigilantes did strike on July 7.  Mexican strikers in Anaheim and El Modena were holding meetings when, according to early reports of the incidents, "white men nonchalantly pushed their way through the crowds and tossed tear gas bombs into the halls."

For the Mexican strikers, driving on an Orange County road during the strike made contact with the police almost inescapable, and contact often meant arrest.  Many incidents occurred, but one illustrates the problem.  Five Mexican strikers were driving near Brea, close by the Times-Mirror ranch, when they were forced off the road by a car stopping suddenly in front of them.  The men in the car asked the Mexicans if they wished to work.  They answered not until the strike was over.  They were arrested on the spot of trespassing.  Their car had stopped two feet into a cultivated grove.  The driver was sentenced to sixty days, the other four to forty.

For those Mexican pickers unfortunate enough to be arrested during the strike (and there were many), Salvatore Garcia's experience was probably typical.  Garcia spent five days in the Fullerton jail before he was taken before a judge and bail set.  There were seven to eight men to every cot, and most men slept on the floor without blankets.  The men were given a cup of black coffee in the morning and at noon time for the five days Garcia was there.  When friends tried to bring food to the strikers in jail, the police in charge refused to permit it.

Neil Haggarty, Secretary of the Los Angeles Building Trades Council, A.F.L., filed an emotional report on the citrus strike…he insisted thugs visited a grocery store in Anaheim whose owner had been giving credit to the (hungry) strikers, and destroyed everything.  When the incident was brought to the attention of the Chief of Police and asked why police were not on guard, the chief answered that they were probably out to lunch.

Thirteen strikers held on rioting charges were led shackled in pairs to a chain before an Anaheim justice court.  A large crowd attended.  Deputy Sheriff James Musick patrolled the aisles carrying a loaded "Tommy gun," and he, in turn, was guarded by four other armed deputies who watched the spectators who apparently watched the deputies.  

On July 8 the 119 Mexicans arrested on rioting charges were arraigned in the open courtyard behind the Fullerton courthouse.  Guarded by some thirty-five California highway patrolmen and the sheriff's deputies, the men in the Santa Ana county jain loaded aboard two moving vans and a county truck.  Newspaper reporters, photographers, and newsreel camera men milled about, giving the scene the appearance of a busy movie set.  The caravan then moved down the highway to Fullerton.  Along the way, Mexicans by the side of the road waved and shouted "Hurrah for the strikers" and "Don't give in."  The strikers waved back.

On July 21, the 116 men were again transported to Fullerton.  The Odd Fellows Temple, selected by law officials as the site of the hearing for security reasons, soon resembled an armed fortress.  Men armed with submachine guns, riot guns, revolvers, and clubs guarded all exits and entrances.  

During the strike Sheriff Jackson, consciously or not, created an image of a strict or inflexible, arrogant, law and order man.  Some grew concerned that his attitudes and actions posed a greater threat than the Mexicans on strike.  What triggered the growing controversy was the open display of machine guns in the courtroom.  The Santa Ana Journal asked "Are Machine Guns Necessary?"  Citing the machine gun as a weapon designed for mass murder, the editorial suggested that mass murder was hardly necessary to maintain the peace.  Its advice to Sheriff Jackson: put the machine guns in the armory and return to the usual practices.  A citizen in the county wrote to the Santa Ana Journal and congratulated it for its criticism of the machine gun display, stating that Orange County almost had Fascism with Sheriff Jackson in control of police matters.

Other voices were raised, some in criticism, others in praise.  James Edwin Dunning, district superintendent of the Methodist Church, in a sermon delivered in Santa Ana's First Methodist Church, charged that the course the authorities were pursuing would make it appear they were deliberately trying to make communists of under-privileged workers.  He condemned the wholesale arrests of Mexicans on the basis or rumors, insisted that the church had a responsibility to "speak out for mercy and justice," and wondered why a conference suggested in a recent editorial had not taken place.  While he did not wish to take sides, Dr. Dunning insisted no one could be blind to the fact that the annual income of an orange picker was "totally inadequate to maintain his family above a bare subsistence level."

The Strike Ends

The tentative agreement hammered out by the two sides appeared in the daily press.  It provided for a wage of 20 cents an hour for a nine hour day; abolition of the bonus; free transportation; free equipment; adjustments of inequitable rent charges.  Most significantly, it did not provide for recognition of C.U.C.O.M., nor were any foremen to be removed, nor were any strike breakers to be dismissed.

Perhaps to insure a settlement, particularly since union recognition was the price the Mexican were being asked to pay, or merely to put him on "ice," deputies acting on direct orders from Sheriff Jackson arrested William Velarde, leader of C.U.C.O.M., in Fullerton on July 14 on  a charge of vagrancy.  Arrested with Velarde were Fred West, American Federation of Labor official, and Joe Esinoza, C.U.C.O.M. organizer from Harbor City.  Velarde had $15 on him when arrested, according to the reports.

The strike was over.  C.U.C.O.M.'s dream of unionizing the agricultural workers would have to wait upon other times, other leaders, other generations.  But it could have been otherwise.

The Bitter Heritage

Bitterness pervaded northern Orange County after the strike.  It affected Mexicans and growers alike.  Most of the strikers, bitter at the sacrifices made for so few gains, bitter at some of their compatriots for scabbing and informing, bitter at their leaders who promised so much, bitter at an industry which gave so little and took so much, returned to the groves.  Some, blacklisted, found other occupations, moved to other counties, or returned to Mexico.  

1 comment:

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