Blast from the Past – Farmworker Organizing Before the UFW

“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”

It’s pretty easy to guess where this quote is from – Cesar Chavez the famous farmworker organizer who brought unions to the grape and lettuce fields of California, well he didn’t do it alone, but that’s another story.  When the word farmworker is muttered an image that pops into a lot of people’s minds is Cesar Chavez and the organization he worked with, The United Farm Workers.  However, there had been farmworker organizing going on decades before their inspirational grape boycotts every took place.

I recently stumbled upon a wonderful collection of resources put together by the University of Washington that highlights the organizing of farmworkers that the International Workers of the World did in the pacific northwest in the beginning of the 20th century. You can check it out for yourself here: http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/farmwk_intro.htm.

The IWW was known throughout the US for their soapboxing, newspapers, and long political discussions, but this research highlights how their work organizing farmworkers, through the Agricultural Workers Organization, started to shift their organizing model to be focused on “building a stable organization and improving actual work conditions for harvest workers.” Their organizing lasted a couple of strong decades – although they were constantly facing state repression for a wide range of reasons – from diminishing production to their socialist ideology. Historians seem quite attached to going through the many reasons and incidences where the IWW was targeted by the police, but this seems to happen with all organizing and what we really should be focusing on is the great work they did and why they declined.

One of the best parts of their work was the relevance of their union organizing that was multiracial.  A little over 40 years after the abolition of slavery it was truly risky business to be doing interracial organizing, especially at a time where union organizing was often strictly white. The AFL was actively racially segregated in the early 1900s.  Furthermore, the idea of organizing rural workers was virtually unheard of.  The IWW was able to act on their ideology of true equality by attempting to organize a multiracial coalition of farmworkers that made tangible changes in their lives.  However, according to the research “Latino and Asian farm workers were not attracted to the culture and ideas of the AWIU, which were still largely rooted in the transient, white-male experience.” The IWW clearly wasn’t perfect – however it’s still was extremely relevant that they attempted and somewhat successfully organized non-white and white farmworkers together.

Although the IWW may not have proven to the most affective organizers for agricultural workers I think that they played a crucial role in paving the way for farmworkers to be recognized as people that deserve rights.  Most of us, myself included, make the mistake of believing that farmwork was truly at some point quintessentially just a bunch of family farms – but the reality of the United States is that there have always been large agricultural farms either farmed by slaves of by low payed workers.  Understanding both the history of organizing farmworkers and conditions for farmworkers throughout the history of the United States is extremely relevant and important for today.

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