By Jim Tortolano
The County of Orange was not named after the golden fruit, but in the time before the great post-war boom, it might as well have been.
Oranges, along with other citrus, were the lifeblood of the Santa Ana Valley in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties and California supplied one-third of the nation’s crop. It was big business and when a strike hit, it was big news, big tension and almost a big tragedy.
In the Thirties, the combination of a continued depression, racial divisions and an activist liberal President in the White House were the background against which farm workers, seeking better pay and working conditions, went out on strike all across California.
As many as 125 work stoppages were recorded among the primarily Mexican migrant workers (along with some Japanese and others) who picked the money crop. In 1936, the struggle between the growers and pickers crossed the line in the County of Orange.
The conflict, not well-remembered today, has been variously described as “riots,” a “war” and even a “revolution.” In the fevered atmosphere of the time, that might have sounded right, but compared to the big industrial disputes taking place in the North, the citrus strikes were small, er, oranges.
Orange pickers were getting 5.5 cents a box (which amounted to about 50 pounds), along with a bonus of an additional half-cent a box if they stayed the whole season.
The harvesters felt this was not close to a living wage. Reasoning that the growers could not afford to have their money crop rot in the orchards, the pickers – under the aegis of the Federation of Agricultural Workers Union of America (which sounds grander than it perhaps was) – walked off the job on June 10, about 3,000 of them.
Perhaps each side underestimated the resolve of the other. The growers, supported by local law enforcement, were able to rally an armed force of deputies, CHP officers and even civilians recruited from the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Strikers were depicted as Communist agitators or dupes, and a shoot-to-kill order was issued to prevent workers from crossing over into the orchards.
The workers, some of them literally veterans of the Mexican Revolution, were not shy about fighting back, setting fire to vehicles used to bring in strike-breakers, and one woman even bit a Fullerton police officer.
Hundreds of strikers were arrested in Anaheim, Orange, Placentia and Villa Park. There were injuries on both sides, and as the conflict raged on, it attracted widespread attention. The Mexican consul in Los Angeles tried to intervene on behalf of the strikers, and the federal government started to get interested in a labor dispute that rippled through other industries as well.
The crucial intervention came from an unlikely source. Harry Chandler, publisher of the anti-union Los Angeles Times, owned an orange grove, and was feeling the pinch. He helped mediate an agreement that called for a 20-cent-an-hour wage for a nine-hour day plus three cents for each box picked over 30. Workers would also get free tools and transportation and the bonus system (which workers said was abused in that foremen could fire workers before the season was over in order to save money) was abolished. But no union was recognized.
Despite the many fights and threats, no one was killed and few strikers went to jail for very long. The pickers won some concessions and the growers got their crops picked and their authority restored.
And, of course, in a few short years the war would come along which would, in turn, see those orange groves fall to bulldozers and sub-dividers. The groves are almost all gone, as is memory of the “war” that was fought over them.
Sources: OC Weekly, United Food and Commercial Workers, “The Orange County Citrus Strikes of 1935-36” by Louis Reccow, various newspaper articles.
Categories: Orange County