Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Imperial Valley 

71 Years Ago:
"...the old-fashioned farmer has been supplanted by a type to which the term can no longer be applied with accuracy. The new farmer is a grower. He is only semi-rural. Often he regards his farm as a business and has it incorporated. He belongs to a number of wealthy produce exchanges; he is a director of several "protective associations." Moreover, he has a hand in State politics. He employs a book-keeper, and, in sober truth, he looks rather like a banker. He dabbles in publicity and has learned the trick of mob-baiting. He will never be an ally of labor." ~ Carey McWilliams, 1934

What follows, reproduced here in it's entirety, is Carey McWilliams's October 1934 American Mercury story of immigrant farm labor, big agribiz, and conflict in California's Imperial Valley. McWilliams was a Los Angeles attorney and author of a biography of Ambrose Bierce.

From: The American Mercury, October 1934 / Vol. XXXIII - No. 130 Charles Angoff Editor, Alfred A. Knopf Publisher pages 241-245

The State of the Union: The Farmers Get Tough
by Carey McWilliams

Imperial Valley, California
THAT blissful liberal dream - a farm-labor alliance - has been violently dispelled by a recent outbreak of rural civil war in California. The alignment of forces in this conflict has left slight ground for the belief that the farmer is a potential ally, or even a friend, of labor. The most striking illustration of farmer-Fascism in California has been the revolt in Imperial Valley. For the Imperial Valley farmers have not protested: they have "revolted," in the Fascist sense. Community avowals and testimonials to the contrary, this great section of California has virtually seceded from the union.

To understand what has happpened in Imperial Valley, one must be able to visualize the region: an enormous inner-valley sink, reclaimed from desert and converted into a huge truck garden. A considerable portion of the valley is below sea level. Its southern boundary extends along the Mexican border. On July 11 of this year the mercury touched 123°—a fair average for the summer months in the valley. The current water shortage is so acute that it is planned to ship 200,000 gallons of water daily into the region for domestic demands alone. Naturally enough, the early settlers (and most of them are still alive) who conquered this forbidding land have, over a period of years, feverishly exalted their rights and privileges. It is even quite easy to sympathize with their vehement localism, "We suffered the torments of hell, "they say," to make this region productive, Why, now, should we let a lot of outsiders dictate to us? We'll do what we damn please in the valley." And they have. This strenuous country has no settled way of life. Social antagonisms stand forth, in sculptural simplicity, against a barren, harshly illuminated, background. Life is a hard business in the valley. Difficulties that might be appeased by the celebrated amenities of rural life elsewhere, break out as the clamor of class-warfare—ugly and tense—in Imperial Valley. Wealth has been wrung from the land at the price of unending, bitter conflict. Violence is what one somehow expects from the place.

Most of the valley's valuable crops, such as cantaloupes (over 35,000 acres), lettuce, peas (the current crop was valued at $300,000), are perishable. They must be harvested swiftly and marketed without interruption. Somewhat similar conditions throughout California have resulted in the creation of a floating army of "fruit tramps," inelegantly and indignantly described by the Los Angeles Times as "itinerant, ignorant, and irresponsible." Most of these workers have been, and are, recruited from Mexico. For years now the farmers of Imperial Valley have easily and profitably capitalized the seasonal character of their labor demands. When they needed pickers, the Mexicans were summoned across the line. After they had been used, they retreated into Mexico. In no small measure (and this is a circumstance usually overlooked by the impassioned farmers of the valley) Mexican labor - cheap, ever-available, plentiful - has made agriculture in the region both possible and profitable. Recently labor organizers have moved in on California agriculture, taking advantage of the perishable nature of its crops and the existence of an uprooted army of workers, and have sought to organize the fruit, vegetable, cotton, and cannery workers.

In the fall of 1933, the San Joaquin Valley experienced a serious and violent strike during the cotton-picking season. This was followed by the recent efforts of the Cannery and Agricultural Workers lndustrial Union, a militant organization with Communist leadership, to organize an effective strike in Imperial Valley during the harvest of the pea crop. The strike was violently suppressed; in fact, a state of civil war existed for about six months, nor has the terror entirely abated. The campaign of suppression launched by the farmers indicated careful planning. Its immediate objectives were twofold; an effective suppression of all constitutional rights; and, second, the organization of a smoothly functioning vigilante (ie., Fascist) unit. If any one thinks that the farmers have not read the signs of the times with care, let him visit Imperial Valley.

The reign of terror began in January. Acting upon the advice of Capt. "Bill" Hynes of the Los Angeles Police Red Squad - "Clean 'em out first and then arbitrate" - the farmers opened the campaign by arresting eighty-six workers and jailing them for no offence other than attempting to organize a union. Field meetings of workers throughout the valley-were routed with the aid of clubs, guns, and tear gas bombs. On February 19 the strike was crushed when an armed force, composed of the sheriff, local police, State police, and vigilantes, "under instructions of the County Health Officer," cleaned-out a desert camp of strikers. The shacks of the strikers were burned and over 3,000 men, women, and children were forcibly evicted. An attorney for the International Labor Defence was arrested, and told to get out of the valley when released and to quit defending arrested strikers. An attorney from Arizona was promptly arrested, on entering the valley, charged with vagrancy and held for thirty-five days in jail. On January 23 A. L. Wirin, an attorney, was kidnapped from a hotel in Brawler, California, beaten, and "escorted" to San Diego; his car was dumped over a bluff and ruined. Although Mr. Wirin was scheduled to speak at a meeting which had theoretically been sanctioned by an injunction issued by Judge Kerrigan in the United States District Court, Federal officials did nothing to investigate the kidnapping or the indirect violation of the injunction.

On February 18 a delegation of Southern California liberals was trailed through the valley by an armed caravan. On February 21 Miss Emma Cutler ot the I. L. D. was convicted of vagrancy and sentenced to six months' imprisonment, although she had been in the valley only for a few hours prior to her arrest. Vigilantes tried to force a belligerent visiting minister to kneel on the desert sands and repent for his liberalism. The Rev. Beverley Oaten, a demure Y. M. C. A. secretary, was searched at the point of twenty-seven guns in front of his hotel. Police protection was refused every unidentified visitor to the valley. On March 15 Dorothy Rae and Stanley Hancock, union organizers, were sentenced to jail for six months, under a fancy ordinance making it unlawful for two people to stop and talk on a street when, in the opinion of the chief of police) they have no business to be talking. Bond in each case was set at $3,100; defense witnesses were arrested, intimidated, and then released.

An investigator for the American Civil Liberties Union, fleeing from a mob of several hundred people, had to seek refuge in the county jail. On March 28 Attorney Grover Johnson, after he had obtained the release of two strikers on writs of habeas corpus, was beaten by "vigilantes" in front of the county court house. The intimidation campaign worked without a hitch at the outset. But the farmers, having a hilarious time brandishing pistols at women and throwing tear gas bombs at children, forgot the Federal government.

The National Labor Board sent a commission, consisting of Professor J. L. Leonard, Simon J. Lubin, and Will J. French, into Imperial Valley. The Leonard Commission made some interesting findings, It found that constitutional rights were openly disregarded by law enforcement agencies within the valley; that workers had been indiscriminately arrested; that the right of free speech and free assemblage had been wholly suppressed; that excessive bail was demanded of arrested strikers; that the State vagrancy law had been prostituted; that firearms had been dangerously and unnecessarily displayed by valley officials; and that a Federal court injunction had been flouted in the local press. One of the commissioners in a subsequent speech observed: "They [the farmers] are paying less than a starvation wage. I have a tabulation of the pay checks of 204 pea pickers showing an average daily wage of 56 cents. The earnings were somewhat larger at the peak of the harvest; but never were sufficient to satisfy even the most primitive needs." A reporter for the Illustrated Daily News, of Los Angeles, found that families of ten were making but $2.00 a day.

The Leonard Commission Report provoked a great uproar. The farmers promptly appointed a commission of their own to make a counter-report. And then, to the detriment of their blood-pressure, came word from Washington that Brigadier-General Pelham D. Glassford had been appointed Conciliator of Labor and Agricultural Disputes in Imperial Valley. After this announcement was made, the Secretary of Labor was deluged with wires of protest, demanding that the appointment be canceled. Said the Los Angeles Times: "There is nothing to conciliate, and if there were, General Glassford would not be the man for the position; he has had no experience in that sort of work, nor is his record one to qualify him for it." It is interesting to note that the publisher of the Times is, indirectly, one of the largest land-owners in Imperial Valley. The late Governor Rolph, now a saint in the hierarchy of California heroes, obligingly protested the appointment.

When Glassford first entered the valley, he gave every indication of having succumbed to its high-pressure propaganda. But, judging by his statements to the press, the longer he stayed, the madder he got. Shortly before his departure, he even intimated that a threat had been made upon his life. In a report released on June 26 he scored working conditions and wage levels in the valley. But, going beyond the genteel limitations of the generality of such reports, he spoke a few unpleasant truths. "After more than two months of observation and investigation in Imperial Valley, it is my conviction that a group of growers have exploited a Communist hysteria for the advancement of their own interests; that they have welcomed labor agitation which they could brand as 'red,' as a means of sustaining the supremacy of mob rule, thereby preserving what is so essential to their profits - cheap labor; that they have succeeded in drawing into their conspiracy certain county officials, who have become the principal tools of their machine." The report continues: "Spread upon the pages of recent Imperial Valley history are certain lawless and illegal events which have been suppressed or distorted in local news accounts, and which have not been investigated by officials who are charged by law with that responsibility. Reputable clergymen, lawyers, business men, and other citizens of Imperial Valley have informed me of their personal knowledge and observations, in insisting upon a promise of confidence, so great was their fear of retaliation, boycott or actual violence."

The strike in the San Joaquin Valley taught the Imperial Valley farmers a timely lesson. From this experience they reasoned somewhat as follows: because our crops are perishable, we must market rapidly; no strikes can be tolerated. The established law enforcement agencies, no matter how subservient, cannot function efficiently in their constitutional harness, although they may go so far as to flout the first principles of constitutional government. Therefore, it is necessary to set up an organization outside the constitutional framework to do the real business at hand. We, the farmers, never did get our money's worth out of the constituted authorities; occasionally they tried us for murder, as they did in the San Joaquin Valley, and, while our men were acquitted, the experience was a warning. Vigilantes, on the other hand, never place their sponsors on trial. Hence, using the regular officials as a blind, we can function efficiently through our vigilante organization. For this reason the liberals were playing into the hands of the growers by securing a Federal court injunction; they were, in effect, giving the sheriff an alibi.

Before the pea pickers had been on strike a week, the Imperial Valley Anti-Communist Association had been formed. The growers were assessed to sustain its activities. Its membership, in so far as the "good people" of the valley are concerned, is all-inclusive. So sharply are class lines drawn in the valley that the Anti-Communist Association takes on the superficial appearance of being the community, and the threat of the workers a blow at society itself. For the workers have never been regarded as a part of the community. With this organization functioning, the sheriff could go on a holiday.

It is interesting to see who it was that the growers got to form the storm troops of the new unit. The Calexico Chronicle of January 12, 1934, reported the "mobilization of the American Legion reserve - to keep down the rising tide of strike sentiment." The Brawley News of January 11 commended the American Legion for its readiness "to go to the bat," Said Chapin Hall in the Los Angeles Times of January 15: "It's a secret, but the vigilantes are really Legionnaires, and do they have fun!" And the American Legion Weekly Bulletin, published in Los Angeles, in its issue of February 3, indiscreetly carried "The Inside Story of the Imperial Valley Lettuce Strike." The article reported a speech made by a past commander of the El Centro Post, who was quoted as saying: "The veterans of the valley, finding that the police agencies were unable to cope with the situation, took matters into their own hands and solved the situation in their own way. Now the valley is free from all un-American influences."

How "American" were the forces used to accomplish this pious end? One of the first tricks of the growers, after the strike had been suppressed, was to induce Mexican Consul Joaquin Terrazas to form the Mexican Workers Association, the equivalent of a company union, "legitimate and without Communistic tendencies." As originally organized, membership was limited to Mexican citizens. Realizing that this was going pretty far, even as a strike-breaking gag, the rules were later relaxed to include members who were Mexican by birth, American by naturalization. The growers now announce that they will give preference in employment to members of this organization; and valley workers are complaining bitterly that they are being forced to join it. As to the Americanism of the Anti-Communist Association, a quotation from a speech made by Charles E, Nice, its commander, is illuminating: "Our organization does not intend to go out and string up anybody, but it wouldn't affect my eye-sight if they did."

Similar organizations have been formed throughout California. The Fillmore Herald of February 23 announced that the sheriff of Ventura County had formed a county-wide vigilante group "for the purpose of handling emergencies as they arise." The Western Growers Protective Association, and the Imperial Valley Shippers and Growers Protective Association, have announced their intention of "coordinating" activities with those of the Anti-Communist Association. All this agitation has crystallized in the formation of the Associated Farmers of California. The purposes of this State-wide organization are, first, to fight Communism (ie., any form of labor agitation) in and out of season; and, second, to create strong-arm methods for crop protection. The propaganda released by this organization is infantile: a Communist, so called, has been induced to confess the plans and schemes of the party in California. This ruse has been used for over a decade.

Then, also, the American Institutions, Inc., an affiliated organization of Associated Farmers, has been formed. Its secretary, Guernsey Frazer, has been active in American Legion affairs and State politics for years. American Institutions, Inc., proposes to "legislate" against Communism; immediate deportation of radical aliens, dismissal of all "Communistically inclined school teachers," and similar measures are advocated. Incidentally, the Teachers Tenure Act of California has been amended so as to make "the commission or aiding or advocating the commission of acts of criminal syndicalism" a ground for the dismissal of a teacher with permanent rating. "Acts of criminal syndicalism," of course, is broad enough to include nearly any expression of undesirable opinion. The Associated Farmers have announced that they intend "to furnish what assistance the farmers may require," and they make no attempt to conceal the fact that this necessarily includes the mobilization of specially deputized armed forces to move and protect crops.

And, finally, it is amusing to detect the whiskers of the farmers protruding from behind the war-paint and head-dresses of California Indians. The Improved Order of Redmen issues militant anti-Communistic manifestoes, and the Old Glory Braves, a patriotic order formed "in the Santa Barbara Mountains to fight Communism," is a Farmer-Fascist group.

To those who have watched the swift movement of recent events in California, it is apparent that the modern farmer is no friend of the laboring man. On the contrary, he is the best-organized enemy that the working man has to fight. Even by taking advantage of crop conditions, it has been extremely difficult to organize an effective strike of farm workers in California. But what is still more significant is this: the old-fashioned farmer has been supplanted by a type to which the term can no longer be applied with accuracy. The new farmer is a grower. He is only semi-rural. Often he regards his farm as a business and has it incorporated. He belongs to a number of wealthy produce exchanges; he is a director of several "protective associations." Moreover, he has a hand in State politics. He employs a book-keeper, and, in sober truth, he looks rather like a banker. He dabbles in publicity and has learned the trick of mob-baiting. He will never be an ally of labor.

Big-Ag trys to put the big gag on Farm

Farm Aid a Target for Agribusiness by A.V. Krebs | Progressive Populist, Oct 15, 2005:
Corporate agribusiness, not content with simply using and abusing family farm agriculture to satiate its own voracious appetite, is now turning its sights on those groups and organizations who not only seek to help family farmers cope with natural disasters -- such as the recent Western drought and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita -- but man-made disasters such as the current US farm and food policy.

Judging from its current vicious attacks on Farm Aid, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a star-studded concert in Tinley Park, Ill., agribusiness and its corporate paymasters and lackeys are wasting no time going for such groups' jugulars -- their pocket book and finances.

With Farm Aid, this corporate agribusiness hatchet job moved into high gear in the editorial pages of the August issue of Feedstuffs, long recognized as the mouthpiece of agribusiness' multi-billion dollar input industry.

[1] - Farm Aid addresses the gross inaccuracies in the Sept. 17 [2005] Chicago Tribune cover story...
[2] - Farm Aid Financial Information
[3] - Farm Aid's Grants Program
[4] - A Declaration for a New Direction for American Agriculture and Agricultural Trade - September 7, 2003: ("This statement, signed by 30 leading U.S. organizations representing farm, labor, religious, social justice, environmental and consumer interests, was released at Farm Aid 2003, on the eve of the WTO negotiations in Cancun, Mexico.")



Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augered the earth and some said they'd heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what? And if the dried and blackened shell of him is found among the sands by travelers to come yet who can discover the engine of his ruin? ~ Cormac McCarthy Blood Meridian

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