‘Movements of Migratory Unskilled Labor in California’ by Austin Lewis from the New Review. Vol. 2 No. 8. August, 1914.

Austin Lewis with a fantastic look at the meaning of the ‘Wheatland Riot’ and the larger question of organizing migratory workers in California massive agricultural industry.

‘Movements of Migratory Unskilled Labor in California’ by Austin Lewis from the New Review. Vol. 2 No. 8. August, 1914.

The migratory laborer in California has come under the public notice of late by reason of the Wheatland hop pickers’ cases. The events at Wheatland, California, consisted in a revolt of the unskilled labor engaged in hop picking on the ranch of the Durst Brothers, and culminated in the killing of four men, among them the District Attorney of Yuba County and a deputy sheriff. The other two men were unknown hop pickers – one of them a Porto Rican and the other an English boy of about eighteen years. A trial resulted in the conviction and sentence to life imprisonment of two leaders of the strike, Richard Ford and Herman Suhr. The whole matter has been much discussed and Dr. Carleton H. Parker, of the University of California, and secretary of the state commission of immigration and housing, has issued reports on the matter to the Federal Commission on Industrial Relations as well as to the Governor of the State of California.

The people who constituted the crowd consisted of some twenty-seven different nationalities, unskilled laborers, aliens and Americans. Of the latter Dr. Parker says:

Agricultural laborers. Lodi, California, 1920.

“The Americans were in the main a casual-working migratory class, with an indifferent standard of life and cleanliness. They were recruited in part from the improvident population of near -by cities, in part from the poor of the country towns and in part from the impoverished ranches and mining camps of the Sierra foothills. A small but essentially important fraction were American hoboes.”

Leaving aside the conditions on the Durst ranch, which were admittedly atrocious and which can be best learned from Dr. Parker’s report to the Federal Commission on Industrial Relations, we are brought to the question why organization was so immediately achieved by this horde of migratory laborers made up of so many diverse elements.

The work on the ranch began on Thursday evening and by Saturday evening the hop pickers, embracing practically the entire working force of the ranch amounting to some two thousand four hundred people, were in open revolt. They had held a great mass meeting at which they had listened to speeches in seven languages and had in accordance with the request of Ralph Durst appointed a committee to present their demands. These demands they made through their committee on Sunday morning and at five o’clock on Sunday evening occurred the collision with the sheriff’s forces which resulted as stated.

This is the first instance in the State of California of any such spontaneous action on the part of the migratory unskilled. In fact it would be very difficult to find a parallel case. It must be remembered that there was no rioting, that the crowd, on the testimony of the sheriff, was orderly when he arrived, that such disorder as occurred was subsequent to the coming of the posse, and that up to five o’clock on Sunday evening this heterogeneous mass of strikers was an organized body capable of acting in unison.

The prosecution declared that all this was due to the energy and organizing ability of Ford and Suhr, but such a contention cannot be seriously regarded. Ford and Suhr were Americans and did not know any language other than English. Of the two, Ford was the speaker. It is impossible to conceive of any one man being able to infuse into that crowd of mixed nationalities such a spirit of law-abiding solidarity in their strike. Ford and Suhr were unquestionably leaders of the strike, but to contend that they could have brought it into being and could have controlled it when it occurred is absurd on the face of it.

Families gathering nuts after shaking walnuts from trees with poles, El Monte, Los Angeles County, Calif., 1920.

Dr. Parker finds the coordinating force in a body of about thirty men who constituted a camp local of the Industrial Workers of the World. He says “It is a deeply suggestive fact that these thirty men through their energy, technique and skill in organization unified and dominated an unhomogeneous mass of two thousand eight hundred unskilled laborers within two days.” He says that there were about seven or eight hundred hoboes of whom some four hundred knew roughly the tenets of the I.W.W. and could sing its songs, and that of these more than a hundred had been actual fighting members of that organization at one time and had served in the jails in free speech fights. When the fracas with the sheriff’s posse occurred the crowd was singing an I.W.W. song called Mr. Block, which it is obvious a large number must have known. This knowledge of I.W.W. songs, says Dr. Parker, is widespread among the hoboes and migratory laborers of the state and is a new phenomenon, certainly not more than three years old.

We now arrive at a more satisfactory solution of the question of the rapidity and power of the organization on the Durst ranch. It was not an isolated phenomenon; it belonged to a chain of events in the history of the migratory laborer in the State of California.

These migratory laborers are of tremendous, indeed, of surpassing importance in the economic growth of that state. They are seasonal workers who, starting in the south, pick the fruit and reap the harvest. Without them California could not maintain its existence. They are in the lumber and construction camps; they build the roads, they perform that multiplicity of tasks by which California is being gradually transformed from the land of great ranches and large expanses of desert into a settled and prosperous modern community filled with great cities. But these migratory laborers work under the most disadvantageous conditions. They are badly housed. Their camps are unsanitary. Their pay is small and insecure. They are ill protected against the risks of their calling, for although the law has recently improved conditions, the ignorance of these workers and their distance from the state agencies are impediments to their taking advantage of the law.

It is, as Dr. Parker says, about three years ago since the agitation among these migratory laborers began. The first signs of such a movement arose in connection with the free speech fights which broke out at Fresno and later at San Diego.

The position of Fresno rendered that town a strategic point in the agitation of the unskilled. It is situated at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley and is the center of a rich farming country where there are also the great vineyards which supply the largest part of the raisin crop of the state. These vineyards are the typical working places of the seasonal migratory workers. The heat is intense here in the summer months, and the camp conditions have been and still are beyond description bad. The migratory workers began an agitation and used the streets for the propaganda of their doctrines. To this the citizens objected and hence arose a conflict between the nomadic agitators and the municipal government, such as had formerly occurred at Spokane.

The same tactics were employed at both places – a policy of sullen non-resistance on the part of the Industrial Workers and a wholesale jailing by the authorities. The latter were cruel and on one occasion the fire hose was brought into requisition and the men in jail were swamped under heavy streams of water. The campaign went on for some months and ended in a sort of compromise by which the Industrial Workers retained to a limited degree the right of free speech and the authorities prevented street speaking on the scale on which it had formerly been practised.

But from the point of view of the migratory workers, the Fresno free speech fight was a distinct gain. Large numbers of men had flocked into the town from all parts of the country. The attention of the state had been strongly aroused. Sympathy with the men began to appear even in the ranks of the American Federation of Labor, which was and is bitterly opposed to the propaganda of the Industrial Workers, and the Fresno local of the organization grew in power and importance. Moreover, large numbers were brought into contact with the propaganda of the Industrial Workers, and their songs and ideas became widely known throughout the rural districts of the state. Also, from this conflict developed another which, though but little known, has been a very important factor in the development of the movement. This was the Big Creek strike in Fresno County, which occurred in 1913 and to which reference is made later.

Following the Fresno free speech fight came that in San Diego. Superficially there was not the same inducement to risk imprisonment and ill usage in a contest at San Diego, as at Fresno. San Diego is not the center of any great farming or industrial activity. It stands at the extreme southern end of the state and is dominated largely by Los Angeles, so that even American Federation of Labor unionism has had hard work to establish a footing. There was some construction work going on, but not of sufficient importance to warrant the starting of a fight. Moreover, San Diego’s limitation on free speech in the street was confined to a comparatively small district.

But San Diego is the winter resort of large numbers of migratory laborers who come from the Imperial Valley and from many other sections of the southern country. So that the fight was precipitated and on this occasion the Industrial Workers were supported by their two greatest enemies – the Socialist Party and the local organizations of the American Federation of Labor.


The resulting contest was one of the most bitter and brutal in the history of such troubles. Each side employed the same tactics as formerly. The Industrial Workers who took the brunt of the jail-going followed the tactics of passive resistance, went to jail, sang songs in jail, “made battleships” (which means that they beat upon the bars of their cells with tin cups), and in many ways made themselves a nuisance to the authorities. The jails filled up and the expense to the city mounted. On the other hand, a number of citizens organized themselves into Vigilantes. These Vigilantes treated the prisoners with the utmost barbarity. They took them out of the jails with the connivance of the city authorities and subjected them to the most barbarous punishment. They beat them severely, stripped them of their clothes, and violated their persons in various disgusting and unspeakable ways. The scandal grew so great that the Governor of the State appointed a special commissioner, Harris Weinstock, at present Commissioner of the Industrial Accident Board of California, to report on the state of affairs in San Diego. Mr. Harris made a lengthy and complete report in which he denounced the acts of the Vigilantes and at the same time attacked somewhat vigorously the tenets and tactics of the Industrial Workers. He found, incidentally, that none of the men imprisoned had been charged with drunkenness or a breach of the peace.

Here is one of the interesting facts in connection with all this agitation. The participants in the violation of municipal ordinances who go to prison for their offenses and who, when driven out of town and beaten by Vigilantes, return again and again to subject themselves to the same treatment, are not criminals or inebriates; on the contrary, they seem to be exceedingly manly types. The same thing was observable during the course of the trial of the hop pickers at Marysville. A body of young I.W.W. came to watch the trial. They were about eighty in number. During the whole of the three weeks spent by them in the town not one of them went into a saloon, and the library at Marysville was hard beset to meet their demands for books.

Hand-treating apricots. B. D. Co., Banning, Calif. 1915.

It may be mentioned in passing that the Industrial Workers, in spite of the strictures of Mr. Weinstock upon themselves, yet considered him so fair and impartial an investigator that they desired his appointment by the Governor to investigate the conditions and occurrences at Wheatland.

The San Diego free speech fight aroused general attention to the organization of the migratory workers. The excesses of the Vigil antes caused a feeling of indignation throughout the whole coast, and the unions of the American Federation were drawn more closely into sympathy with the struggling organization. This led not only to the actual donation of money for carrying on the fight, but also provoked much individual interest in its tenets. At least the effect has been that while the official element in the American Federation of Labor is opposed as much as ever to the Industrial Workers, the sympathy of a great portion of the rank and file has caused the unions to be liberal of their support when the organization is actually engaged in conflict. An additional impetus in the same direction arose from the fact that the State Federation of Labor was itself endeavoring to organize unskilled and migratory labor, and while not practically successful itself had nevertheless done much to prove its necessity to the mind of the average union member.

The results of the San Diego free speech fight were apparently entirely to the disadvantage of the migratory workers. The restriction on street speaking was maintained by the authorities; many men had been beaten and cruelly used; many had been confined to jail for months; well-to-do supporters of the movement were arrested, tried and sent to prison for conspiracy to violate the ordinance, and the whole movement would seem to have collapsed ignominiously.

Hop pickers at the Durst Ranch in Yuba County, California. 1913.

This conclusion does not, however, appear to be sustained when we come to consider the actual significance of these free speech fights. They were but incidental to a much more important and broader campaign looking towards the organization of unskilled and migratory labor throughout the state. As such they cannot be overestimated. It is very problematical if an organization could have been effected in any other way, and they were, in all prob ability, a necessary precursor to the unskilled campaign. At all events they had the effect of acquainting large bodies of men with the idea of the organization of the unskilled. They showed that the men had the grit to stand up against the worst sort of treatment and that they could preserve an organization in face of the most terrible odds.

With the close of the San Diego free speech campaign that particular phase of the organization activity ceased in California. Organization on the job succeeded and henceforward the organizers made every effort to get unity of action and co-operation in the actual course of employment. This was by no means an easy task, for the elements which were brought together in this fight were not accustomed to united action. To convert the migratory laborer into a fighting unit was and still is a most arduous undertaking.

But the inside history of the last year or two shows that many of these migratory laborers had taken the lessons of organization to heart and were putting them into effect. Little groups of two and three organized for better conditions on the individual ranches. They began to complain of the food, to resent the uncleanliness of their surroundings; and in a multitude of ways, they let it be known that they were engaged in improving their conditions. This action was by no means without its effects, which soon began to be manifest throughout the agricultural districts.

The first bold attempt, however, to come into actual economic conflict was at the Big Creek, where one of the largest electric power plants in the West was being installed. The strike was not well timed, being in the winter, and was lost after a struggle. It resulted, however, in considerable improvement in the camps of the Stone and Webster Company, the employing firm. This strike is notable from the fact that this was the first time the migratory laborers formulated their demands for a change in camp conditions. These demands were as follows:

  1. Reinstatement without discrimination of all men discharged for partaking in expelling the cook from Camp No. 3.
  2. Abolishment of employment office on works, men to have the right to rustle their own job in any camp they may desire.
  3. Strictly an eight-hour day for all tunnel work, no overtime.
  4. Wash houses with bath included, supplied with hot and cold water, night and day.
  5. Improvement of conditions of bunk houses, such as lights in front of each, and no overcrowding.
  6. Blacksmiths and helpers can go home at eight hours, provided they sharpen all steel used on shift. Helpers to have 25 cents raise, from $2.75 to $3 per day.
  7. Reading rooms furnished with light and heat.
  8. Change of cooks to be made when the majority of men so request, five days’ notice of such request to be given.
  9. An increase of 25 cents a day for mule skinners in the tunnels, from $2.50 to $2.75 a day, same as muckers.
  10. Each individual to be supplied with his own rubber boots.
  11. Strictly eight hours for all men working outside, no reduction in wages.
  12. A general hospital at the Basin and a hospital at Camp No. 2. A doctor in attendance at each hospital.
  13. No discrimination to be made against men presenting these requests.

From this time forward the campaign for better camp conditions has proceeded until at last the state authorities are awake to the importance of this movement. The Commission of Immigration and Housing has begun to issue its notices that the camps must be cleaned up.

Dr. Parker says in this respect:

“The employers must be shown that it is essential that living conditions among their employees be improved not only in their fulfillment of their obligations to society in general, but also to protect and promote their own welfare.”

And with respect to the employees, he declares:

“On the other hand, the migratory laborers must be shown that revolts accompanied by force in scattered and isolated localities, not only involve serious breaches of law and lead to crime, but that they accomplish no lasting constructive results in advancing their cause.”

Considering the foregoing, it is not surprising that when the people on the Durst ranch found themselves confronted by the conditions which there existed, they rose in revolt. These conditions were admittedly filthy in the extreme. There was an insufficiency of drinking water, the toilets were disgusting and few in number, dysentery had already made its appearance, and the menace of typhoid was in the background, for this latter disease afterwards manifested itself in the families which had been on the Durst ranch. Yet the strike was orderly. There was no violence until the first shot of the sheriff’s posse precipitated trouble.

Therefore, if the organization of the unskilled and their steady propaganda on behalf of decent camp conditions was responsible for the rising, there is little doubt that their capacity for organization acquired through many painful experiences in the last three years was also the main reason for their admirable behavior and discipline.

Workers from many nations picking grapes, Rutherford, Napa County, Calif., c. 1910.

In his minority report on the Wheatland Hopfields Riot, Paul Scharrenberg, secretary of the commission of immigration and housing of California, says: “There have been other sudden strikes among unorganized workers in this State – strikes in which I.W.W.ism was not even heard of.” The strike of unorganized alien workers at the McCloud Lumber Company’s Camp in June, 1909 (which by the way also brought out the state militia), showed conclusively that in California as elsewhere unorganized labor will revolt if sufficiently oppressed. Revolt in such instances grows out of the facts without reference to any question of leadership.

Austin Lewis (1865-1944) is now largely forgotten but played a central role in theorizing the Left-Wing position in the pre-War years. Indeed, he may called the chief theorist of this country’s revolutionary left before World War One. A translator and expert on Engels, his books and articles analyzed the rise of industrial unionism and the shape and agency of the working class as that movement challenged not just capital, but the existing workers movement. A ‘anti-revisionist’ combatant, The ‘Militant Proletariat, and 1907’s ‘Rise of the American Proletariat’, place Lewis as the foremost advocate of the new unionism’s material and social roots and its revolutionary challenge to the parliamentarians leading the Socialist Party. His work deserves an honored place on the bookshelf of our class. Austin Lewis was born into a Jewish family in London, moving to the US as a young man. Settling here a radical San Francisco labor lawyer, translator, writer and researcher, and a revolutionary activist for decades. He defended trade unionists, labor organizations and fought government injunctions. For many years he was Tom Mooney’s lawyer and a founder of the ACLU. A member of the Socialist Party, he would become a key theorist for the growing syndicalist movement in the US and was an important figure in the SP’s Left Wing. He and Louis Fraina moved the New Review to the left during the World War and Lewis became an editor of the early pro-Bolshevik Class Struggle magazine. In his later years he focused on his work as a lawyer defending class war prisoners and union drives.

New Review was a New York-based, explicitly Marxist, sometimes weekly/sometimes monthly theoretical journal begun in 1913 and was an important vehicle for left discussion in the period before World War One. In the world of the Socialist Party, it included Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Herman Simpson, Louis Boudin, William English Walling, Moses Oppenheimer, Walter Lippmann, William Bohn, Frank Bohn, John Spargo, Austin Lewis, WEB DuBois, Maurice Blumlein, Anton Pannekoek, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Isaac Hourwich as editors and contributors. Louis Fraina played an increasing role from 1914 on, leading the journal in a leftward direction as New Review addressed many of the leading international questions facing Marxists. The journal folded in June, 1916 for financial reasons. Its issues are a formidable archive of pre-war US Marxist and Socialist discussion.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/newreview/1914/v2n08-aug-1914.pdf

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