The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933

Berry Strike

Print by Alvaro Marquez

In May 1933, Hicks camp was nearing full capacity. More than 1,500 migrant workers were settling down to take part in the berry harvest, which would begin in May and last through August. Hick’s camp was, like the surrounding neighborhoods of Medina Court and Hays Camp, a migrant labor camp set up to house the families who worked on the local fields. Men, women, and children would quickly assemble homes of cardboard and repurposed box-carts on a non-descript tract of land that lacked paved roads or basic plumbing. Hick’s camp was not envisioned as a permanent neighborhood, but became one as people settled down to build a home and establish a local culture. Although by the time of the berry strike there were about 1,500 residents packed into the 22-acre plot of land, the population would drop only as low as 1,000 residents during the off-season.

A large, mostly Mexican labor force was settling down in an especially precarious economic time. Agricultural wages, historically meager and exploitative, were dropping throughout California as the market was gutted by arriving Dust Bowl migrants. Since wages were based on the type of berry picked, it was difficult to accurately calculate a market wage earned by any individual worker. According to Charles Wollenberg’s “Race and Class in Rural California: The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933,” The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce placed estimates as high as 25 cents while Mexican workers placed the average to 15 cents and argued that a low of 9 cents per hour was not out of the norm.[1] If anything, the variability of the wages hints at a constantly shifting and insecure work environment. Workers could not count on having a weekly or even daily guaranteed wage.

With the arrival of Depression era migrants, Mexican workers in the Hicks camp faced a labor market that had 185 workers for every 100 available jobs.[2] As a result, at the end of May 1933, a group of workers, Mexican, white, and Japanese, organized and presented demands to the Japanese growers association for higher, more consistent wages of 35 cents per hour that would allow them to have a secure and predictable income.[3] The workers, however, found little support among the Japanese farm operators and in response a general meeting was called for at Hicks Camp on June 1st.

Returning to Hicks Camp, the organizers called for a meeting and organized a strike. While over 500 workers at Hicks were present at the initial vote to go on strike, the work stoppage would grow and encompass more than just the workers of El Monte. The strike included workers from Chino, Medina Court, and La Puente, spreading as far as the celery fields of Santa Monica. According to La Opinion newspaper, over 2,000 workers were refusing to work by June 7th. A week later the figure had risen to 7,000.[4] The conditions affecting the El Monte workers were not unique and instead reflected the operations of the larger agricultural industry in Los Angeles area which sought to exploit the poverty-ridden labor force.

A total of 50 workers, a mix of Mexican, Filipino, and Japanese, and 2 Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ International Union (CAWIU) organizers comprised the strike committee. Workers took up the campaign by leafleting, posting bulletins, and organizing daily meetings to keep people up to date on the direction of the strike. CAWIU literature was disseminated in English, Spanish, and Japanese as organizers tried to recruit members to a farm workers union.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the strike was marred by controversy. Although the CAWIU is often credited as instigating the strike, their role was short-lived, a result of both internal and external pressures. By June 10, 1933 a large segment of the CAWIU leadership had been arrested and a Comite Pro-Huelga had been formed to support the region’s striking Mexican workers.   The Comite’s membership included leaders from local fraternal and mutualista organizations, the local Mexican consulate, and strikers themselves. As highlighted by Wollenberg, the Comite’s development provided an alternative to CAWIU leadership and sought to organize from an explicitly nationalist position. The ousting of CAWIU was facilitated and instigated by Los Angeles consulate Alejandro Martinez and vice-consul Ricardo Hill, who denounced CAWIU organizers as “reds” who did not stand for the interest of Mexican workers.[5] By June 13th, Armando Flores, a Los Angeles printer and chief spokesperson of the Comite, and Ricardo Hill, the Mexican vice-consul, had successfully ousted the CAWIU leadership and gained control of the strike and organization.

Although the change in leadership was chastened by the CAWIU, there was little change in the rhetoric and practices espoused by the Comite and the likes of Flores and other organizers. Flores and the Comite of El Monte followed the radical legacy of Mexican unionization efforts from the 1920s. Dating back to 1917, El Monte anarchist groups like “Tierra y Fraternidad” and “Luz Libertaria” were supporting the political groups of Ricardo Flores Magón and others. In 1927 the Confederacion de Uniones Obreros Mexicanos (CUOM) was formed as a combination of mutual aid societies and labor organizations that embraced a philosophy based on legal and non-violent principles. At its founding, the CUOM’s constitution highlighted it’s mission as follows:

  1. The exploited class, made up largely of manual labor, should engage its class struggle as a means to affect the economic and moral betterment of its conditions, all in order to achieve its complete freedom from capitalist tyranny.
  2. That in order to be able to oppose the influence of capital, the exploited class must organize, the base of its organization being the union of resistance, in accord with the rights which the laws of the country concede to native and foreign workers.
  3. Like corporations, possessors of the national and social wealth, being integral parts of the of industry, commerce and banking, the disinherited class must also unite into a single union of all labor of the world.[6]

Echoing the words spoken only ten years earlier by Ricardo Flores Magón, CUOM sought to focus on a vision of collective struggle that would propel the Mexican and working class community forward in a liberating tide, breaking the bonds of capitalist tyranny. These were not measured words, but instead gave voice to the manifestation of worker frustrations with labor conditions and inequality. More importantly, CUOM’s manifesto shows that the actions and rhetoric of the El Monte strike were not foreign forms of agitation, but instead presented an accurate portrait of the conditions of the Mexican labor community at the time. It was not the sole work of CAWIU organizers nor was it a reflection of influences from the Mexican consulate. Although the consulate provided ample aid and forms of support through Ricardo Hill, the berry strike was very much a homegrown movement of workers taking a bold stance to protect their interests and well-being.

While the CUOM’s radical influences can be traced back directly to Magón’s earlier organizing, its anarchist and socialist foundations that were inclusive of all working peoples often conflicted with aspirations to maintain the CUOM as a transnationalist Mexican organization. At its core CUOM sought to “organize all Mexican workers in the United States in unions according to Sindical principles,” but these principles were subordinate to CUOM’s belief that they should work with Mexico to “stop the immigration of unorganized labor into the United States which is harmful to the working men in both countries”[7] Ironically, to better the conditions of its members, which was a result of the degradation of labor caused by the evolution of capital, the CUOM also involved itself in propagating a classist system that denied “unorganized labor” representation and unionization. This position of labor organizing is not unique or particular to the CUOM but was also the practice enforced by the AFL which discriminated against “unskilled” workers and workers of color. If anything, the CUOM’s stance that they would “negotiate with the Mexican government so that the immigration of Mexican labor into the United States may be regulated” was representative of an organization that came into being and comfortably fit in the developing world of the agribusiness industry of the West. CUOM’s insistence to work “in accord with the rights which the laws of the country concede to native and foreign workers” limited its ability to fully agitate for the rights and well-being of its workers. Working within the limited confines of the established laws, written by the very forces that oppressed the workers in the first place, set the board for a protracted but limited ability for change.

This truncated manner in which the CUOM sought to reform working conditions was a direct result of the involvement Vice-consul Hill and members like Flores who were part of an increasingly conservative organizing platform that sought to move Mexican labor organizing away from its radical and anarchist origins. While the principles espoused by the Magon brothers were representative of early labor organizing in Mexico, Hill rose from a tradition in which labor was directly connected and influenced by national politics. The Confederacion Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM) was formed in 1918 in Saltillo, Mexico after then President Venustiano Carranza called for a labor congress. The formation of CROM was a direct result of the wave of strikes that had erupted throughout Mexico in 1915-1916 that had demanded higher wages and payment in metallic coin instead of devalued paper money. Out of these strikes was Article 123 which was affixed to the Mexican Constitution of 1917. Article 123 outlined a list of basic rights reserved for workers which included an 8 hour work day, 1 day of rest for every 6 days worked, overtime pay for increased work time, and the right to form a union. (citation needed). Through the formation of CROM, and it’s tie to the national government, labor organizing was moved in a manner to discredit and reduce organized struggle. With the codification of worker rights in the Constitution, and the federal representation of CROM official, labor demands were now to be made in an official capacity through the government. The radical principles and practices that had mobilized the population for collective struggle during the strikes of 1915-1916 were rebuked in favor of a labor movement that was to be based on concession and compromise.

CROM’s belief in diminishing worker direct action and moving away from radical practices can be observed in Hill’s dismantling of the strike’s radical leadership. At a community meeting held on June 9th Hill called for the expulsion of Lino Chacon and J. Ruiz for “frequently urging militant measures against scabs” and for the distribution of communist literature. As noted by Gilbert Gonzalez in The Los Angeles County Strike of 1933, the fervor with which Hill sought the termination of the radical leadership was in keeping with his upbringing as a member of the upper class in Mexico which had viewed labor organizing as a controlled element of national politics. (Gonzalez 21). Further noted by the Los Angeles Times, Hill urged the strikers “to run the agitators out and were told that when that was done an earnest effort will be made to obtain a settlement.” (Gonzalez 22)

Hill relied heavily on the Los Angeles Police Department’s Red Squad in order to undermine and eventually dismantle the radical leadership of the berry strike. The Red Squad had become notorious for infiltrating and dismantling all types of leftist organizations, especially militant labor unions. On June 7th in a report prepared for Captain William F. Hynes, officers observed the following:

We went to 4065 Ocean Park Ave. and there found sixy or seventy Mexicans gathered, and in the midst of their group were two white fellows and a Jewish woman. We listened to their conversation and gathered there from that these three were communist organizers…After questioning these three subjects, I informed them that we knew [their] purpose in being among the field workers was not to lend aid and food as they had stated to the group, but that they really were there to create dissension and unrest among them. I warned them to stay away, owing to their affiliation to the Communist Subsidiary organization-Agricultural Workers Ind. Union. I then went to the group of Mexicans assembled there in the meeting and informed them that these three people were communist agitators. I asked if they wanted to be led or influenced by any such organizations and they immediately answered they did not and were not aware that the communists were taking part in the strike movement. I spoke to them regarding a rase in pay, saying they must also take in consideration that the grower himself was receiving very little for his product and therefore was unable to pay a very high scale of wages; told them that if their consul was advising and directing them, I was sure they would not get into trouble, but if they were communist led and directed, it might lead to trouble for them, such as deportation, etc.

The tactics of the Police Department were meant to move the strikers away from the radical union organizers to the leadership of the more moderate consul. The growers themselves understood that Hill’s priority was to win a compromise, and so to that end they moved to eliminate the radical union organizers as well. According to the local Japanese newspaper Rafu Shimpo, the growers believed that “if the radical element [were] weeded out of the union movement[,] the farmers [would] have a better chance to cooperate with labor.” (Gonzalez 18). At the center of the disagreement between Hill and the CAWIU style of organizing was a fundamental difference in tactics and vision. For Hill, as manifested through CROM, labor was not concerned with bringing about any type of proletariat revolution. The place of labor existed at the bargaining table and they were to move for a concession or compromise, but their concern was never to fundamentally change the relationship between labor and capital. For Hill and CROM, the power existed and would continue to exist in the hands of capital and they purposefully worked to maintain that relationship.

The labor struggle in El Monte pitted two racialized minorities against each other, although they were viewed in a similar light by the overarching white-anglo culture. Both the Japanese and Mexican communities faced historical discrimination that relegated both Japanese and Mexicans to a culture of the “other.” Although both peoples, for example, faced similar segregation that relegated them to Lexington Elementary of El Monte or the same side of segregated theaters, these similarities were obscured by an overseer-worker relationship that was carried out on a daily basis in the fields. As expressed by one of the laborers, Senora Torres, “They [the Japanese farmers] would work in the field, but you knew they were the boss.”[8] The Japanese, perceived by the community as the “boss,” therefore became a logical target for striking Mexican workers, who saw the Japanese farmers as the visible agents who could redress their concerns over wages and working conditions.

Mexican and Japanese relationships had moved well past the creation of the Japanese Mexican Labor Association (JLMA) during the Oxnard Strike of 1903. Citing parallel concerns then, Japanese and Mexican laborers had come together and presented a united front in confronting the mostly white landowners.   JLMA’s membership was deeply committed to a unionization effort that embraced workers under class solidarity, and when the AFL offered JLMA a charter on the condition that the group expel its Japanese members, J.M. Lizarres, secretary of the JLMA and chief Mexican representative, declined Samuel Gompers’s invitation.

By the 1930s, however, worker demographics had changed, and Mexican laborers constituted most of the agricultural migrant labor force. The Japanese had shifted to owning and operating land leased from white owners. The San Gabriel valley was home to about 700 acres of berries, and 80 percent of that land was operated by Japanese growers. Although the Japanese had an established presence in the industry, most of the land operated was in fact owned by white landowners who leased the land to Japanese foremen. The land leasing system was a result of the California Alien Land Act of 1913, which imposed severe restrictions on Japanese ownership of land and restricted leasing agreements to three years. Although the California Alien Land Act of 1913 restricted the Japanese from owning land, these rules were circumvented by the practice of parents passing land onto the Nisei, second-generation immigrants who were exempt from the law because they were recognized American citizens. White perceived Japanese landowners to be an extension of the growing Pacific Empire of Japan and, consequently, a threat to American growth and prosperity.

Of further concern for the white landowners was the fact that the lease agreements they had contracted into with the Japanese operators were illegal in nature. The California Alien Land Act of 1913 had been strengthened through a statewide initiative in 1921 to completely prohibit Japanese ownership, leasing or sharecropping of land. These strengthened policies, however, were easily and systematically ignored by white landowners who used dummy corporations and second-generation Nisei lessees. The presence of striking Mexican workers therefore threatened an otherwise profitable enterprise with the added possibility that the strikes would spread to white-owned and operated farms in the surrounding valley. As stated by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce’s Agriculture Department, “…our interest is, of course, maintaining the integrity of our Mexican labor supply”[9]

As the Mexican strike organizers, the Japanese land operators, and white interests penned an agreement on July 6th, the berry strike came to an end leaving the labor organizers holding a quickly dissolving and pyrrhic victory. Although workers earned a substantial victory in acquiring a daily wage of $1.50, as well as agreements to hire back workers in an expeditious manner and prohibit reprisals, many workers had already lost a whole season of work. The Japanese community had organized family members to work in the fields, and children were excused from school in order to salvage the berry harvest. During the weekend of June 30-31, the surrounding community was also enlisted by initiatives that allowed them to harvest their own berries at discounted rates. The seeming benevolence of the Japanese land operators to allow people to harvest their own berries both alienated the striking Mexican workers and built a level of public sympathy for the growers.

Further diminishing the victory of the strike, on July 10th the Bureau of Industrial Relations announced that the July 6th agreement only applied to the vegetable farms of the coast and would not to be enforced in the berry farms of the valley. Although heavily protested by the Mexican unions, the Bureau argued that there was no lasting “binding agreement” and the Japanese growers were not held accountable. Further, in 1933, in an act of retribution, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, with the support of the white community, proposed that “Mexican farm labor strikes…be deprived of further county relief aid if found participating in any labor agitation…Deportation of foreigners implicated in such action is further recommended.”[10] Such threats were made after a season of striking in which a large part of the laboring community had earned no income to support their families. More than five-hundred people at Hicks Camp had no way to support themselves or their families.

It is hard to characterize the El Monte Berry Strike as a tangible victory for the Mexican and working class communities. The victories secured by the union were easily and quickly pushed aside by the Japanese growers and white land owners and many workers were not better off after the strike. The strike, however, was a clear indication of the mood of labor in the agriculture industry as thirty more major strikes would impact California during the next twelve months.   The unemployment ills of the community would be remedied by WWII, but the legacy of the El Monte Berry Strike can be viewed as one of empowerment for a community that was viewed as migrant in its physical and un-American in its mindset. Hicks Camp, and El Monte by extension, was a community with a history and a legacy. Outside forces were not a source of inspiration for the labor dispute, but a continued articulation of a radical tradition that had developed in Mexico, traveled with the Magón brothers and was further developed by El Monte unionists. The El Monte Berry Strike was the first shout of rebellion in 1933—a shot that thundered for the next twelve months and decades as labor continued its agitation for land and liberty.

About the Author

Melqui Fernandez was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Brooklyn, NY.  He graduated from Columbia University with a degree in 19th Century American History and is currently a community organizer in Virginia working on immigrant rights.  

East of East Series

1. SEMAP, “Making Place: Mapping South El Monte and El Monte”

2. Yesenia Barragan and Mark Bray, “Ricardo Flores Magón & the Anarchist Movement in El Monte, California”

3. Nick Juravich, “‘City of Achievement’: The Making of the City of South El Monte, 1955-1976″

4. Vickie Vertiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra”

5. Michael Jaime-Becerra, “1181 Durfee Avenue: 1983 to 1986″

6. Jude Webre, “I’d Know Where to Find You: Art Laboe’s Charmed Life On Air”

7. Maria John, “Toypurina: A Legend Etched in the Landscape”

8. Jennifer Renteria, “The Starlite Swap Meet”

9. Wendy Cheng, “A Brief History (and Geography) of the San Gabriel Valley”

10. Eric Frith, “The Rebellion against the Mission of the Saintly Prince the Archangel, San Gabriel of the Temblors, 1785″

11. Alexandra M. Landeros, “Toni Margarita Plummer: Writing Her Way Home in  The Bolero of Andi Rowe”

12. Carribean Fragoza, “Rush”

13. Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis, “‘The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue’: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Scene”

14. Polo Morales, “Punk and the Seamstress”

15. Daniel Morales, “Hicks Camp: A Mexican Barrio” 

16. Toni Plummer, “10911 Michael Hunt Drive”

17. Andre Kobayashi Deckrow, “A Community Erased: Japanese Americans in El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley”

18. Michael Weller, “El Monte’s Wild Past: A History of Gay’s Lion Farm”

19. Juan Herrera, “¡La Lucha Continua! Gloria Arellanes and the Making of a Chicano Movement in El Monte and Beyond”

20. Melquiades Fernandez, “The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933”

Further Reading

Hoffman, Abraham. “The El Monte Berry Picker’s Strike, 1933.” Journal of the West. no. 1 (1973): 71-84

Lopez, Ronald W. “The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933.”Aztal-Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and Arts. no. 1 (1970): 101-114.

Modell, John. The Economics and Politics of Racial Accomodation: The Japanese of Los Angeles 1900-1942. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Ruiz, Vicki. From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Spaulding, Charles. “The Mexican Strike of El Monte, California.” Sociology and Social Research. : 571-580.

Weber, Devra Anne. “The Organizing of Mexicano Agricultural Workers: Imperial Valley and Los Angeles, 1928-1934: An Oral History Approach.”Aztal-Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and Arts. no. 2 (1972): 314-316.

Wollenberg, Charles. “Race and Class in Rural California: The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933,” California Historical Society, 51, no. 2 (1972): 155-164, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25157372 (accessed January 22, 2014).

References

[1] Charles Wollenberg, “Race and Class in Rural California: The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933,” California Historical Society, 51, no. 2 (1972): 158, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25157372 (accessed January 22, 2014).

[2] Ibid 157.

[3] Ronald W. Lopez, “The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933.”Aztal-Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and Arts. no. 1 (1970): 103.

[4] Ibid 158.

[5] Ibid 105.

[6] Devra Anne Weber, “The Organizing of Mexicano Agricultural Workers: Imperial Valley and Los Angeles, 1928-1934: An Oral History Approach.”Aztal-Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and Arts. no. 2 (1972): 326.

[7] Ibid 327.

[8] Vicki Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 76.

[9] Wollenberg, “Race and Class in Rural California,” 161.

[10] John Modell, The Economics and Politics of Racial Accomodation: The Japanese of Los Angeles 1900-1942. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977, 124.

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