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Sunshine and blood.

October 10, 2009, 8:46 am

On this day in 1933, about 350 farm workers gathered in the small central California town of Pixley to listen to Pat Chambers, a 33-year-old Irish-American Communist union organizer.  Chambers’s union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers International Union, was coordinating the largest farmworker strike in U.S. history up to that point: a walkout by 20,000 mostly Mexican cotton pickers up and down the Central Valley to protest wages as low as ten cents an hour.

The young organizer, who was still recovering from a broken jaw he suffered from a vigilante attack in a recent strike, stood on a truck bed, urging the workers to remain non-violent, but to protect themselves if they were attacked. As Chambers spoke, a caravan of cars and trucks filled with forty growers roared into town and pulled up behind them.  The men spilled out of the cars, brandishing pistols, rifles, and shotguns.  Chambers told the men, women, and children to move into the union headquarters across the street.

As the workers and their families rushed to the safety of the building, the growers pursued them.  When one grower fired his weapon into the air, a striker angrily approached him and shoved his rifle barrel to the ground.  Another grower began beating the striker, and then shot him dead.  The vigilantes emptied their weapons into the fleeing crowd, killing two workers and wounding eight. Mobs killed another striker in the town of Arvin that same day.

The violence that day was not unusual for the California fields.  Infuriated by the increasing militancy of workers during the Great Depression, California growers and their allies responded with mob violence and official repression. Up and down the state, vigilantes beat pickets with axe handles and clubs, raked them with fire hoses, and smothered them with tear gas.  Police arrested strikers for vagrancy or loitering, federal officials cut off their relief payments, and landlords evicted their families.  Carey McWilliams used the term “farm fascism” to describe the response of corporate growers to the unionization of their workers.  In this dangerous atmosphere, only the Communists were willing to organize California’s field workers.  As one AFL organizer said, “only fanatics are willing to live in shacks or tents and get their heads broken in the interests of migratory laborers.”

Although federal mediators forced the cotton growers to raise wages, there was still no justice on California’s factory farms. After a local jury quickly acquitted the men charged with the Pixley killings, California officials then proceeded to decapitate the union, charging Chambers and 16 other union leaders with violating the state’s criminal syndicalism law.  Chambers went to San Quentin for his sins, but an appeals court set him free in 1937.  California farm workers were not so lucky: they would have to labor under miserable conditions until the 1960s, when Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers helped them win some protections and the right to unionize.

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