The New York Times Book Review
NOW IN PAPERBACK An "arresting" (In These Times) new history of modern American conservatism, uncovering its roots in the turbulent agricultural fields of Depression-era California
In a reassessment of modern conservatism, noted historian Kathryn S. Olmsted reexamines the explosive labor disputes in the agricultural fields of Depression-era California, the cauldron that inspired a generation of artists and writers and triggered the intervention of FDR’s New Deal. Right Out of California, which received a full-page review in the New York Times when it was published in hardcover, tells how this brief moment of upheaval terrified business leaders into rethinking their relationship to American politicsa narrative that pits a ruthless generation of growers against a passionate cast of reformers, writers, and revolutionaries.
At a time when a resurgent immigrant labor movement is making urgent demands on twenty-first-century Americaand when a new and virulent strain of right-wing anti-immigrant populism is roiling the political watersRight Out of California is a fresh and profoundly relevant touchstone for anyone seeking to understand the roots of our current predicament.
|Publisher:||New Press, The|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)|
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REVOLUTION AND REACTION
In the winter of 1933–34, John Steinbeck drove to a sleepy fishing village on California's central coast. He and Francis Whitaker, a friend from nearby Carmel, found the house they were looking for and climbed to the attic, where two frightened men were hiding from lynch mobs. Steinbeck's friends were helping these men, and they thought the young novelist might want to hear the fugitives' story — and then tell it to the world.
The storytellers, who refused to give Steinbeck their real names for fear of reprisals, had recently fled the violence and terror of the largest farmworker strike in U.S. history. Beginning in October 1933, eighteen thousand pickers had walked out of the fields of California's cotton empire, which stretched a hundred miles up the San Joaquin Valley. The workers, mostly Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, wanted a raise. Their pay was 15¢ an hour, at a time when the national minimum wage for many industries was 25¢. When the local and state police could not break the strike, the growers recruited vigilantes. The vigilantes brought clubs, tear gas, and guns.
In the attic that day, the men told Steinbeck what they had witnessed during the previous few months: the rousing speeches by strike leaders around the workers' campfires, the assaults on picketers, and the murder of strikers by vigilantes. They told him of the families who participated in the strike and the man and woman who led it: a charismatic, thirty- three-year-old Irish American named Pat Chambers; and a remarkable twenty-one-year-old from Georgia, Caroline Decker, whose fiery speeches and attractive features prompted the newspapers to label her the "blonde flame of the red revolt." Without regular salaries and with bounties on their heads, these union organizers lived in tents, went to bed hungry, and risked prison, injury, and death to do their work.
The union leaders were eager to tell their story to their visitors. They knew that Whitaker, a blacksmith and metal sculptor, was helping raise money and awareness for the farmworkers by alerting his friends in the artists' colony in nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea, where poets, playwrights, authors, and painters gathered to learn about leftist causes.
Steinbeck, though, could potentially do even more for the cause. He had not published much of note by that point — a few historical romances and mythic tales — but some of the union's most prominent supporters saw talent in him. A native Californian, born and raised in Salinas, he could reach a wide audience if he could be persuaded to write about the West's real social dramas.
Steinbeck saw the dramatic potential in the strike: there were heroes and mobs, idealists and pragmatists, compromises and murders. Soon after the meeting in the attic, he wrote his literary agent that he wanted to write a first-person, nonfiction account of the cotton strike through the eyes of the men in the attic, whom he would pay for their story. The agent responded with enthusiasm, but suggested that he write fiction instead.
And so Steinbeck began to write his first great novel, the book that would transform him from an obscure regional writer into the one of the most acclaimed American authors of the twentieth century. With In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck became the "most versatile master of narrative now writing in the United States," according to the New York Times. In Dubious Battle would also lay the foundation for the monumental Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's novel about migrant farmworkers in California that would come to define the Great Depression for generations of Americans.
American readers loved Steinbeck's Depression novels, in part because they believed he was writing the history of their times — a view that Steinbeck encouraged. "In this book I was making nothing up," he wrote to his agent as he finished In Dubious Battle. "In any of the statements by one of the protagonists I have simply used statements I have heard used." A few years later, after he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he explained why he did so much research for his books: "I'm trying to write history while it is happening and I don't want to be wrong."
Steinbeck wanted to be more right than the facts allowed. In his fictional account of the great cotton strike, the cotton turned into apples; the comely blonde firebrand became a ruggedly handsome (male) firebrand; Pat Chambers became "Mac," a rigid, insensitive ideologue; and the male and female Mexican workers changed into white men. And thus the author transformed a tale of dark-skinned men and women striking under the leadership of pragmatic leftists into a story of a struggle among white men of various kinds — of brave white workers resisting rapacious growers and manipulative Communists.
In Dubious Battle marked not only Steinbeck's first major literary success, but also the beginning of Americans' embrace of convenient myths about the Great Depression and the New Deal. Steinbeck's version of the strike is the one that we know today. He wrote fiction, but it has become history. It is this difference — between stories and histories, between documented facts and comforting myths about the Great Depression and the New Deal — that this book seeks to explore.
The cotton strike of 1933 signaled the beginning of massive, Communist-led labor struggles and the subsequent conservative reaction in California. There would be abductions, near-lynchings, and murders; imprisonments and trials and appeals; electoral campaigns and dirty tricks; movie stars who almost lost their careers over the strikes, and a Nobel Prize–winning novelist who made his. As Communists pushed for worker organization and, ultimately, revolution, reformers in Washington discovered new ways of responding to the radical challenge. California would become the battlefield of a labor war as liberals, conservatives, and radicals clashed over the best response to one of the greatest crises in the history of capitalism.
Just a short time earlier, no one would have predicted that California could become the birthplace of an important national political movement. When Bert Hoover stepped off the train in Menlo Park, California, in the fall of 1891, he found a bucolic farm removed from the nation's political and economic controversies. Stanford University, where he intended to enroll that fall, had just opened its doors and was so desperate for students that it accepted the lightly educated farm boy from Iowa even after he failed the entrance examination. The San Francisco peninsula at that time was both relatively uninhabited and isolated: there were no bridges linking San Francisco to cities across the bay.
Yet by the end of Hoover's life, in 1964, Stanford — thanks in no small measure to Hoover's promotion of it — would become a leader in higher education on the West Coast, and there would be seven bridges, including one authorized during his presidential administration, linking the peninsula to the rest of the state. The changes to Stanford and its surrounding area mirrored the progress of California as a whole. In one lifetime, the far West moved from the political and economic margins of the country to its center.
California owed its transformation in no small measure to agribusiness. A state founded on gold had become a state dependent on farms. In the 1920s, it moved into the top three states in terms of value of agricultural output. California had the most diverse agriculture, the most productive and profitable farms, the longest irrigation canal, the biggest winery, and the largest agricultural cannery. And much of the rest of the state's economy relied on agribusiness: from the processors who put the fruit and vegetables into cans, to the railroads and shipping companies that transported them, to the marketing companies that created the sun- drenched images that sold California farm products and the California dream around the globe.
On average, these farms — or "ranches," as Californians often called them — were much larger than those in other parts of the country. Only 2.2 percent of the nation's farms were in California, yet the state was home to more than 36 percent of America's large-scale farms, those with a gross income of more than $30,000 in 1929. There were, to be sure, many small growers in the state, but in certain crops and environments — cotton in the Central Valley, vegetables in Imperial Valley — the large growers wielded disproportionate power.
Because California farms were so large on average, relatively small numbers of farmers worked their own land or harvested their own crops. In California, about one-third of agricultural laborers worked on their own properties, while two-thirds were hired hands; in the nation as a whole, the proportions were reversed, with more than 70 percent of farmers working their own lands and only about 30 percent working for someone else. California author Carey McWilliams coined a phrase to describe agriculture in his state: "factories in the field." As the Federal Writers Project guide to California explained, "Farming here is not farming as Easterners know it; most of the ranches are food factories, with superintendents and foremen, administrative headquarters and machine sheds."
Some of these growers were individual owners, like Joseph Di Giorgio, a Sicilian immigrant who owned a forty-thousand-acre ranch in Delano and the largest fruit packinghouse in the world, or J.G. Boswell, known as the King of Kings County, whose cotton empire stretched over tens of thousands of acres.
Many of the largest ranches, however, were farmed not by individuals but by corporations, including the California Packing Corporation, which controlled twenty thousand acres of orchards and canneries in ten states, and mammoth conglomerates such as the Transamerica Company, the Kern County Land Company, and Miller & Lux, all of which owned at least one hundred thousand acres of prime California croplands.
For decades, California growers relied on immigrants to pick their crops. Waves of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, South Asian, and Mexican laborers surged and receded with the harvest seasons. In the 1920s and the early 1930s, Mexicans and Mexican Americans comprised the majority of workers for the largest growers, especially in the vegetable fields of Imperial County on the Mexican border and the cotton ranches in the vast Central Valley. When workers could not find jobs, they had no safety net: no unemployment insurance, pensions, or welfare.
Picking cotton and vegetables was grueling work, especially so in California. Pickers worked from dawn to dusk year-round. In the summers, the temperatures in the inland valleys routinely topped one hundred degrees; in the winters, thin clothing could not protect laborers from the chill of the thick ground fog that covered parts of the Central Valley. In flush times, they could earn enough to pay for gas to drive to the next job and for a dinner of canned salmon, corn bread, and onions. In difficult times, they were marooned in squatters' camps with no fuel to drive away. They gathered dandelion greens and ate them with boiled potatoes. Given the lack of nourishing food, children suffered disproportionate rates of illness and mortality. The specters of influenza, pneumonia, and nutritional deficiencies like pellagra stalked the workers' camps.
Because the growers knew that many of their workers were foreign, and because they saw them as very different from themselves, they felt justified in paying them abysmal wages. "What a Mexican should be paid is just enough to live on, with maybe a dollar or two to spend. That's all he deserves," one Southwestern grower told economist Paul Taylor. A cotton grower explained to Taylor that he preferred Mexicans to Anglos because "you can't tell the whites so well what to do." Whites could vote and could not be deported, while Mexicans and even Mexican Americans lived in fear that they could be sent over the border if the growers decided they were agitators.
Farm organizations lobbied fiercely to maintain a lax immigration policy, arguing that they could not find Anglos to take the backbreaking, low-paying jobs they offered. "We, gentlemen, are just as anxious as you are not to build the civilization of California or any other western district upon a Mexican foundation," Parker Frisselle, the owner of a five- thousand-acre raisin farm in Fresno, testified to Congress in 1926, arguing against one of many ultimately unsuccessful bills to limit immigration from Mexico. "We take him because there is nothing else available." Another grower contended that Anglo workers refused to perform painful, tedious work in the fields. "You can not get white labor to go in the beet fields and on their hands and knees, chop out the plants; you can not get them to dig in the mud for celery; it is not the kind of work that white people engage in." And if they did, there was something wrong with them: the only whites who picked fruits and vegetables in California were "derelicts" who were "physically, mentally, and temperamentally unfit," one grower spokesman insisted.
After the Great Depression began in 1929, however, there were many apparently fit white people willing to take these jobs — because they had no other choice. Throughout the Great Plains and the Southwest, plummeting crop prices and a series of environmental disasters brought misery to farmers. Hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas began to drift to California in hopes of finding work in the Western fields. These desperate Americans competed for scarce work at low wages. In 1932, there were 142 would-be farmworkers in California for every 100 jobs.
The growers took advantage of the labor surplus by cutting workers' pay. From 1930 to 1931, wages dropped from $3.45 per day on average to $2.78 (or even less if the workers needed "board," or a residence in a tent or shack provided by the grower). If the pickers worked all year long, they would earn about $868 annually, or a little less than the poverty line in California. But most farm laborers worked less than 60 percent of the time and earned only $300 to $400 a year. In 1932, the average wage plunged to $2.14 a day and reached its nadir in 1933 at $1.91 for a twelve-hour day.
To feed their families, men and women worked in the fields alongside their children. In contrast to the gendered images of the American family farm, with the "farmer's wife" safely ensconced inside the home, California crops were picked by parents, grandparents, and children as young as six years old. The working families often lived in huts made of packing crates, scrap tin, and cardboard scrounged from a nearby dump.
The largest growers had an impersonal, industrial relationship with their workers. "The old fashioned hired man is a thing of the past. He has left the farm," said George Clements of the agricultural department of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Clements believed that growers who paid their workers more than the market would bear were wasting their money, and, by extension, in the case of corporate growers, stealing the shareholders' money. The farmer "who does not wake up to the realization that there is a caste in labor on the farm," he said, "is sharing too much of his dollar with labor."
Western growers built powerful wage-fixing organizations to ensure that competition did not force them to share too much with their workers. During World War I, farm employers colluded to set maximum wage rates throughout the American West. The push to keep prices down was justified as an essential part of the war effort. After the war, many growers decided to keep these wage-fixing organizations or start new ones. Supported by farm bureaus, chambers of commerce, and growers' protective organizations, these labor bureaus recruited workers when they were needed, sent them away when they were not, and pressured farmers to pay them all the same wage. Because the finance companies supported the labor bureaus, growers could not get loans if they paid more than the wage set by the bureau. Through these agencies, farmers discovered the power of their own collective action while they denied it to their workers.
As farmers continued to slash wages through the early years of the Depression, many workers grew increasingly restive, and some struggled to form unions. But the workers were rootless, impoverished, and divided, and thousands of strikebreakers stood ready to take the jobs of any who dared to walk out of the fields. The growers intimidated strikers and hired vigilantes to assault them. In this dangerous atmosphere, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) declined to organize California farmworkers. As one AFL organizer said, "only fanatics are willing to live in shacks or tents and get their heads broken in the interests of migratory laborers."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Right Out of California"
Copyright © 2015 Kathryn S. Olmsted.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Revolution and Reaction,
2. The Great Strike,
3. A New Deal,
6. Crooks or Tools,
7. Seeing Red,
8. Campaigns Inc.,
9. Making History,