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Di Giorgio Strike

Arvin, Ca.

"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 Di Giorgio."

"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 additional man.

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 it.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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