"The guvment takes all the money the rich people
makes and the little bit the poor makes and averages it
all tgether. An they call it th' American standard of livin',
'N that's the way a lot of furrin countries think we're
all so rich. I shore wish a bunch of them folks would come
over here and see a bunch of us folks. They'd change their
minds purty quick."
The speaker is a withered old lady with a peppery edge
to her voice. Dressed in an old black coat and red cotton
net kerchief tied under her wrinkled chin, she has spent
every day of the last three months on the 19-mile picket
line around the Di Giorgio Farm near Arvin, California.
She isn't as old as she looks though "it's that Oklahoma
dust that ages 'em fast" — and she has enough spirit
for five strikers. "Why shucks," she told the
other "Okies" and "Arkies" at a recent
strike meeting, "we ain't just a fightin' fer ourselves.
If we was, we might just as well gowan home to bed. We's
fightin fer all of those others gonna come after us."
That's the way nearly 1000 other fruit pickers feel who
have been out since October 1, 1947 against the largest
grape, plum and pear grower in the world in the longest
agricultural strike in history. The strikers, members of
the National Farm Labor Union and the Teamsters, I spoke
to in a recent two-day visit to Arvin, told me they are
determined to make Di Giorgio Farms sign a contract that
will be precedent making in the organization of farm labor.
They want more money than their average 80 cents an hour,
seniority rights, time and a half for overtime, better
working conditions. Most of all they want their union recognized
so that they may have the same collective bargaining rights
as other workers throughout the country.
Aside from a sprinkling of tough, old-time miners and
a few people who worked in industry during the war, the
majority of the strikers have never before belonged to
a union. The majority of them have never before bothered
to vote. Since the strike, hundreds have registered.
Pickets standing around a fire on a bleak and dreary Christmas
Day told me that they are just beginning to understand
who their enemies are. They name Sheriff John E. Boustalot,
who has hauled in strikers on the slightest provocation,
but never touched the scabs; Weed Patch Judge Parrish,
who has been setting bail at $500 for disturbing the peace
and $1000 in all cases of battery. On the other hand, a
constable who got drunk and brandished his gun threateningly
in public was let off on $25 bail.
All the strikers — from a tall, glamorous looking blonde
with two years seniority — to a chubby, grizzle-bearded old
man with 10 years seniority said they intend to vote for
representatives locally and nationally who would show that
they have the best interests of farm labor at heart by
voting for the extension of social security and the fair
labor standards act to cover agricultural workers. They
have started their political action by signing the AFL's
petitions for reapportionment of the state senate, which
has been dominated by industrial and large farm interests.
The Associated Farmers, who have bitterly fought farm
organization in some bloody, militant and short-lived battles
in the past, are today quietly backing Joseph Di Giorgio,
the 73-year old Sicilian who "rose from a lemon picker
on his father's farm" to chief owner of enterprises
carried on the books at about $21 million "but hardly
to be duplicated in 1946 at less than $80 million." Joined
by such friends of the big farmers as Sen. Sheridan Downey
and Congressman Alfred J. Elliott, they know that Di Giorgio's
is the key to union organization of farm labor in California
and its political organization as well.
It is understood that they are backing Di Giorgio fully,
but exactly what concrete form this support takes is difficult
to learn. Union leaders are certain that he is being helped
financially. A responsible former government official told
me, however, that the Associated Farmers have always resented
Di Giorgio for being the first to raise wages in the community.
He believes that the only support they are giving him now
consists of "slapping him on the back and saying 'Go
to it, Joe, we're with you.'"
When I visited L.W. Frick, past president of the Kern
County Associated Farmers and an owner of 12,000 acres
of potato, cotton and alfalfa land, he assured me that "anybody
who likes our democratic form of government is supporting
"Of course," he added with a you-know-how-it-is
smile, "a few Communistic small farmers who go for
anything red are against him." Frick who is now chairman
of the Arvin-Lamont Farm Labor Supply Camp, a government
camp turned over to private farmers when Congress killed
the farm housing program of the Farm Security Administration,
sadly shook his smooth, pink-cheeked, balding head at the
ingratitude of farm workers. "Why,"he said, "it
is the height of ambition of many of our California farm
workers to get steady employment on the Di Giorgio farms"
This line was echoed by Joe Lyttle, assistant superintendent
at the farm, who informed me that "only outside agitators" were
on strike, that operations were normal with 1000 people
at work. On a quick drive through part of the farm, Lyttle
pointed out the number of plum trees and grape vines that
have already been pruned. He claimed that approximately
half of the 1400 acres of plum trees and one-third of 8000
acres of vines have been pruned. However, I saw fewer than
200 at work in the fields and on a more complete tour of
the farm, little pruning finished. Strikers who have been
keeping a close check on the work say that
Di Giorgio is far behind on the pruning, which must be
completed by the end of March if the grape crop is not
to be ruined for the next three years.
After repeatedly emphasizing that farm labor could not
be organized, Lyttle left me with a copy of a 42-page slick
paper pamphlet called "A Community Aroused." Supposedly
an impartial committee's answer to the Thanksgiving Day
column by Harold Ickes in support of the strikers, the
pamphlet abounds in smoothly angled shots of shady lanes
leading to prim, clean, shining white farm workers houses.
Of the ten members on the "impartial" committee,
three are past or present officials of the Chamber of Commerce,
five are large farmers themselves, two large merchants
and the publisher of the Bakersfield Rotary Club or the
Kern County Farm Bureau. The booklet also shows tennis
courts and swimming pools for the use of the workers and
a picture of the Di Giorgio school to which Joseph Di Giorgio
contributed 40 additional acres of land and $150,000 for
improvements but Jim Price, chairman of the strike committee
and a foreman at the farm for nine years, dismissed the
slick publicity job as "a lot of bull." The workers
never get to use the recreational facilities. As for the
school, I learned that striker Beulah Watson has been asked
to resign from the Parent Teachers Association "for
conduct unbecoming a board member." The names of two
strikers' children were omitted from the school's Christmas
Day program without reason. The name of Constance Di Giorgio
was a prominent first.
A far more unbiased report was issued by seven Protestant
ministers from the Los Angeles area who visited the strikers
and recommended the encouragement of the farm labor organization
and the settlement of the strike by conciliation and negotiation.
Housing for the workers varies from the rare and comparatively
comfortable three-room clapboard house on which Elmer and
Hattie are paying off a $4000 mortgage to the one-room
sheet metal affairs in the former government camp to the
cockroach-infested, broken-down "homes" in the
Mexican quarter of the ranch.
Typical of the 23 strikers families still living on the
ranch who are now facing eviction are Mr. and Mrs D.F.Ford.
They pay $6 a month rent and electricity for a wooden shack
with no heat, cold water and they share an outhouse and
shower with about 15 other families. The parents and eight-year
old Betty sleep in the same room with a cardboard-patched
ceiling, cracked paper walls that offer little protection
from the damp. Four and six-year-old Carl and Jimmy sleep
in a tiny porch built by Ford next to the dilapidated kitchen.
Ford, one of the better-paid men , took care of cold storage
of fruit. He earned about $10.20 for a 12-hour night, worked
seven days a week. He said he went out on strike mainly
to help the workers who earn an average of 80 cents an
hour with a guarantee of a 40 hour week, but he would like
to have a shorter shift on his job with the help of an
Of the hundred Mexican-Americans on the ranch, Juanita
is one of the few out on strike. Her one-room hovel and
kitchen must also be shelter for five children ranging
in age from 9 to 15. She has sometimes earned as little
as $20 or $30 on a two-week pay check. During the picking
season when there is overtime, workers in the fields do
not receive time and a half for overtime because of the
14-week seasonal exemption that the powerful farm bloc
has always managed to keep in all protective legislation
for other workers. She and others like her must sometimes
spend from two to four hours in traveling time around the
ranch or just waiting for work without receiving pay for
Watching the expression on my face as I looked at the
cockroaches crawling up and down the kitchen walls, smelling
the escaping gas from an old stove which is lighted to
heat the house, she bitterly told me that she tried to
keep the place clean, but it was impossible. The others
of Mexican descent, she said, had been threatened with
eviction if they went on strike and were too frightened
to go out with the others.
One hundred and thirty Mexican nationals brought here
under the summertime agricultural labor immigration program
have been sent back to Mexico after repeated protests by
the union and Rep. Helen Gahagan against their use as strike
breakers. Other Mexican-Americans who were recruited by
the company in El Paso, Texas, with the promise of clean
places to live, hot water and good conditions have left
Di Giorgio's in disgust after they learned of the strike
and the miserable conditions.
Non-striking residents of "A Community Aroused," are
actually rather unconcerned about the strike. Although most
of the merchants feel that a raise for the Di Gorgio workers
would mean increased sales for them, they say that "Di
Gorgio has always been pretty fair to his workers." Several
small farmers believe strongly that he should recognize
the union, but others are afraid they will have to increase
the wages of their own hired hands.
Strikers themselves are determined to stay out no matter
how long it may take to win. They are filled with more
zeal and love for "the union" than many an old-time
union man. Most of them are like the elderly lady who told
about her experience at the Thanksgiving dinner: "I met a lady there helping out from the Los Angeles
AFL and I asked her how long she had been with the union
and she said 40 years and I said, 'God, what I missed!'"
San Mateo County Union Gazette January 9 , 1948
Postscript: The strike ended in failure in 1949 and Local 218 was crushed.