‘Apples’ by AG-1351 from Industrial Pioneer. Vol. 1 No. 11. December 1923.
WENATCHEE, Washington, a main street town of 6,000, lies snugly in a crook of the Columbia River, one hundred and sixty-five miles east of Seattle. It is important only because of being the center of a large apple district — “the world’s famous apple orchards.” Wenatchee has 3,500 acres of orchard, along the valleys of the Columbia, Wenatchee and Okanogan Rivers, from which to draw its support. This does not include the Yakima district, which has approximately the same acreage of fruit.
The State Horticulture Department’s conservative estimate is that 18,000 cars of apples will be shipped from the Wenatchee district this season. Each car contains 756 bushel boxes.
Big Migratory Employment Aside from the local people and farmers’ work, at least 4,000 migratory workers are required to help harvest the apple crop. The local chamber of commerce looks after the publicity and advertising required and for several weeks prior to the harvest the daily papers of Spokane, Seattle and other nearby towns carry advertisements asking for workers to come to Wenatchee The result is that when the migratory agricultural workers arrive they find about 6,000 men and women workers thrown into a district that cannot furnish jobs for over 4,000.
This is intended and desired by the employers. The Fruit Growers’ Assn., which is nothing more than the Orchard Owners’ Union, sets the wages and determines the number of hours in a working day.
The Auto Tramps
Hiring is done through the government free employment office for the propertyless workers. The auto tramps drive over the district until they find a place to work and then make their camp. With more workers than jobs and only a minority organized, they become easy prey to the organized employers, who have previously held a business meeting, at which they set wages and hours.
The 3,000 or so auto tramps were given preference since they had their own camp equipment and could live very cheaply. Many stated that they could live on fifty cents per day for each adult. Many of the strictly migratory workers were forced to leave without going to work. This later proved to be very undesirable to the orchard owners, as there was evidence of an early winter and the auto tramps commenced to leave the valley, when the crop was only half gathered. Whether they went east or west, they were forced to cross a mountain pass, which closed early on account of snow.
All work is done on a ten hour day basis for workers employed by the day. But on piece work the pickers pick from daylight to dark and the packers work from ten to fourteen hours. Even the nailing on of the lids and making of boxes is piece work. Picking is mostly paid for at the rate of five cents per bushel box and this proves a great incentive to the unthinking workers, who set a speed that they themselves cannot even maintain. If a worker picking in good sized apples can earn what is considered a living wage, then the ones picking small fruit will be paid at the same rate. The workers who work at the highest rate of speed, for the longest number of hours act as a plumb bob for the owners when they meet to set the rate of pay for all workers employed by them. Many workers object to doing two men’s work, when there are men who cannot find jobs, while others find it impossible to turn out a large amount of work on account of their mind’s being bothered about union men being in jail for organization activities.
The pickers average about eighty bushel boxes per day, and while apple picking is not considered dangerous work, much of the picking is done from high ladders, and the piece worker, if he is to make a wage, does not have time to adjust his ladder securely to hillsides and irrigation ditches. Then, too, there is the time lost when it rains, and as most of the jobs are of short duration, this necessitates looking for another boss about every week. The campers, after picking ten hours, and sometimes more, go to their “jungle” home and cook their own meals.
The packing is all piece work. The bench packers pack apples that have been sorted into three grades, but have not been sized. These workers are paid about seven cents for each bushel box, as they have to take time to determine to which of the five or six different sizes the apple belongs. They pack an average of eighty boxes in ten hours . Each apple is wrapped separately. The ones who pack apples sized by a machine are paid five cents per bushel box and pack an average of one hundred and ten boxes.
The sorting is all speed-up work. Machine sorting is especially hard. Ten hours of feeding apples into a machine that never stops except an hour at noon! The bench sorters are always given more than they can do. Then they not only have the foreman driving them but the piece work packers are always crying for more apples since they can pack more boxes if the bins are kept full all the time.
The Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union No. 110 of the I.W.W. are discussing a constructive plan of action for next year. They consider that this is a fertile field for agitation against the piece work system and for an eight hour day. Conditions are bad and they hope to improve them by pointing out these things to the workers alongside of them on the job and combining with them to take better living conditions and shorter hours, the much despised philosophy of misery notwithstanding.
The Industrial Pioneer was published monthly by Industrial Workers of the World’s General Executive Board in Chicago from 1921 to 1926 taking over from One Big Union Monthly when its editor, John Sandgren, was replaced for his anti-Communism, alienating the non-Communist majority of IWW. The Industrial Pioneer declined after the 1924 split in the IWW, in part over centralization and adherence to the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) and ceased in 1926.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/industrial-pioneer/Industrial%20Pioneer%20(July%201924).pdf