‘Among the Harvesters’ by Nils H. Hanson from The International Socialist Review. Vol. 16. No. 2. August, 1915.

‘Among the Harvesters’ by Nils H. Hanson from The International Socialist Review. Vol. 16. No. 2. August, 1915.

THIS is a great year for the men who gather in the crops. Never before has there been made so much effort in trying to organize the harvesters who are one group of the most important toilers in the world.

Few realize the immense amount of power possessed by the ragged “low-down harvest bums.” They don’t all know it themselves, but this may be said about the workers in any industry. Still we all agree that bread is one of the most important necessities of life. Sometimes we are forced to get along without almost everything else that is supposed to be essential to human life but if bread is also deprived us, we may as well say, goodnight, for good. Whether it be in the palace or in the hovel men must have bread, though it be in different quantity and quality. This reminds me that we used to be taught in the schools of Sweden of a terrible period when that country was so devastated by war that the people were compelled to exist for a time on bark bread and water.

Along the roads and in the slums, bread is actually the staff of life to millions of human beings. In the jails and penitentiaries the authorities sustain life in their victims by bread, and often by bread alone. Spirits are broken on the bread diet, but prisoners are required to suffer and not to disappear altogether, and, as bread is the cornerstone of life, it is given them in small quantities.


Most bread is made from wheat flour. And it is the harvesters of this immense wheat crop, estimated this year to be 930 million bushels, and which will probably sell at over a billion dollars, it is these harvesters, who are this year trying to get a trifle more of what rightly belongs to them.

Of course they are up against a hard proposition. In the past wages have been so low that. nine-tenths of the men have gone to the harvest fields in a half starved and miserable condition. For months they have depended upon the kindness of “good hearted” people who hold them in bread lines and feed them in soup kitchens in the winter. And these soft-handed charity bunglers can never seem to understand that the smaller the wage the sooner will the harvesters be forced back to ask for charity.

The U. S. Department of Labor has undertaken to supply “hands” to the farmers, whereby they have made things far worse than ever before. This department states that “workers are expected to pay their own expenses to and from the places of employment,” and expects that its kindly auspices will mean “larger profits to the farmers.”

When we read the following advertisement which was sent to innumerable newspapers and local agencies for posting in the large centers of population, it almost looks as though the Department of Labor was trying to make business for the railroads as well as to aid the farm employer:

“Wanted-Eighteen thousand men, willing to work at wages ranging from $2 to $3 a day and board; English-speaking white men preferred; persons other than English speaking apply to W.G. Ashton, Commissioner of Labor, Oklahoma City, Okla.”

Members of the department state further:

“We are to do our best to confine the labor army to men of industry and steady habits. Usually there gets into a crowd of this size a number of men of vagrant habits, who do much to demoralize the men who are disposed to be industrious. We want to weed out as many of that type this year as possible. C.L. Green, general inspector in charge of distribution work, department of labor, stationed in New York will go to Kansas City, from which place he will co-operate with state authorities in Oklahoma and Kansas. Men who are sent to the harvest fields from other sections of the country must pass inspection before Mr. Green and the state authorities referred to. Later Mr. Green will take up this kind of work with state authorities farther north.”

The following statement signed by J. Manzon, John Stewart and A. V. Azuana in Kansas City, Mo., on June 23rd shows how this government system works to clean out the harvesters and to the securing of low paid workers for the farmers:


“We, the undersigned, vouch that Antonio Hermoso, Jose Ruiz, and E. Saurez were in Enid, Okla., before the 20th of June and were run out of town with about 2,300 other men on that date, and came north with us. They landed here yesterday and shipped out for the Santa Fe Railroad to work on a section for $1.50 a day (they to board themselves).

They gave us the following story: In New York they went to the federal employment office; shipped to Kansas City, Mo., to there apply at the federal office. On June 6th, they were given a ticket for Enid and then paid the fare from New York to Enid, the amount being $27.75.

“Arrived at Enid on June 7th, and remained till June 20th, paying all their own expenses during that time. They told us they were sent to a farmer twenty-five miles from Enid on the 14th and paid their fare going to his place. They were compelled to walk ten miles more to the farm house and when they arrived the farmer advised them that he already had all the men needed. They returned to Enid, where they remained till the 20th, when we were all driven out of town.

On the 19th these three men went to the mayor of Enid and told their story. He said he could do nothing for them.

“Signed this 23rd day of June 1915 Kansas City, Mo.”

There is always a summer rush of thousands of men who come from east, and west, from north and south to earn some money in the grain belt. For a while the ratlroads are almost friendly and “riding” is rather easy during April and May while we flock toward the golden middle states. Hundreds may often be seen riding on one train. I was one of a bunch of one hundred and twenty-five men-all going east for the Kansas harvest.


At first John Farmer sees the big flocks come with a rather pleasant look upon his face, because he knows that the more men that come the less he can hire men to work for. He knows that it is supply and demand that regulates wages when men are unorganized. But when they continue toarrive his face begins to change. He realizes that the wholesale advertisements about a “bumper” crop have caused altogether too many men to move in his direction. The hell-of-it is that most of them are broke and have to eat. Then comes the problem of feeding the men who harvested the crops last season and who have gone hungry most of the time since then.

Then the town marshals and railroad bulls get busy to prevent any more men from landing. The railroads send out iron rules to their crews advising them that brakemen will be fired for transporting any more “hoboes.” All easy riding is stopped and in order to get a ride the harvesters have to travel in numbers so that they can force the train crews to take them along.

With some of the railroad men any kind of a union card entitles a man to a free ride; others refuse to recognize anything but a trainman’s card. If our brother railroad men realized that the man he puts off in the snow-covered mountains or sunbaked desert is an unemployed human being, a victim of the present social system, perhaps fewer of them would greet us with, “You can’t ride on my train.” You would think they were Jim Hill or Morgan coming along with a brake club in hand, condemning the poor, hungry devil who is trying to move to another place where he may get work and a chance to live.

“His train,” murmurs the “bum,” as he walks down the track, the track which he and his comrades have laid sometime before. And he hopes that the man who threw him off may too some day face the same fate along the “big, open road.”

The vigilantes soon got busy in the different towns and drove out the men for whom there was no work. At Caldwell, Okla., these armed brutes, led by a preacher, beat up several members of the I.W.W. and gave fellow worker Wilson and another would-be farm hand thirty days for vagrancy, the law that can always be used against the workers.

I happened to be in Salt Lake City at the time of the Joe Hill hearing, May 28th, and I heard the pleas put up by both sides. In company with thirty others I left the court room thoroughly convinced that Joe was innocent of the charges and that if he is convicted it will be because he is a member of a revolutionary organization, and the author of the I.W.W. song book.


Strenuous efforts are being made to prevent the migratory workers from organizing this summer. The farmers would rather see them living on handouts in Chicago, New York or Kansas City than pay them living wages. But the workers are saying to the farmers:

“You are expecting war prices for your wheat and you will have to pay war wages, too, or do the work yourself. Three dollars for a ten-hour day is the lowest wage we are going to accept this year, with fifty cents extra for every hour overtime.”

We have not only the slugging, hold-ups, and possible jail sentences to contend with while we ride the rod for thousands of miles in order to earn a “stake” for the winter. Some of us go up against the employment sharks. You have probably heard of the type of buzzard that will send workingmen off for several hundreds of miles where some accomplice will employ them for a day or two and then discharge them. This enables the employment shark to bleed every applicant with a few dollars in his pocket, of several dollars apiece. I know of cases where government employes have sent men several hundreds of miles (the men paying their own fares) to work for farmers who have been dead for several years.


But it is not only the employer and his servants, the public authorities, with whom we have to contend. The workers, themselves, are their own greatest enemy. It is the lack of solidarity, the lack of sticking together that causes all our unemployment and our wretchedness. Most of the “organized” railroad men are ready to obey the rules of their masters, and pitch in to us in order to hold their jobs. They stick to the boss instead of sticking to the workers of their own class. And next month when this same railroad man is in the fix we are in today, he will find other “organized” workingmen who will throw him off a train, or scab on him, or spy on him, at the commands of the boss.

But as the migratory workers learn to unite, to stick together, they will be able to ride, and to eat and to get more of the value of the crops they harvest.


What the workers need is CLASS solidarity- ONE BIG UNION OF ALL the workers. When they learn that by uniting together and sticking up for, instead of fighting, each other, they can win ANYTHING, can even abolish the present system wherein they are robbed of nearly all they produce, the workers will be the real Masters of the Bread. Railroad men will learn that the man who rides the freight is a workingman, a comrade in the struggle, and will lend him a hand. The mechanic will learn that the unskilled worker is as important as the skilled laborer, and that the skilled laborer must co-operate with him in a common struggle against the exploiting bosses. The driver of the engine who hauls the grain from the fields will learn that he would have no job if there were no “low-down bums” to reap and thresh the grain and he will unite with the dollar and a half a day man against the master class.

The harvest workers are being organized into the Agricultural Workers organization of the I.W.W. And in spite of the brutal methods used to prevent this organization, they are waking up to the fact that they have a weapon in their own hands before which the farmers will prove powerless. They are learning that when they unite with their fellow workers they will have the whole country at their mercy, for bread is the staff of life.

Organize with your comrades, you harvest workers, you railroad men, you mill and factory and mine workers-organize to take control of the plants, the lands and the roads and mines you operate. Organize to make this the world of the workers!

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v16n02-aug-1915-ISR-riaz-ocr.pdf

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