Saturday, January 21, 2017

Right Out of California, by Kathryn Olmsted

By Kathryn Olmsted

On the surface, the 1930s might seem very distant from the California political scene today.  But if we look deeper, we can see that the decade of the Great Depression shares many similarities with our own time.  There was tension over immigrants and migrants; a polarized society; conservatives who believed that the government supported aliens and agitators; and savvy right-wing businessmen who discovered they could get mass support for their policies if they marketed themselves as populists.  The problems, and the solutions, of the 1930s can teach us important lessons today.

The years of the Great Depression were tumultuous across the nation, but especially in California. The unemployment rate approached 25 percent, while more than one in five Californians survived only because of public relief.  The state’s farm workers were among its most destitute residents.  Whole families picked fruits, vegetables, and cotton; children as young as seven worked alongside their parents for 12-hour days during the harvest season.  Families earned just enough to feed themselves and buy gas to drive their old car to the next picking job.  Some of these workers had lived in California their whole lives, but others had come to the state in hopes of finding a better life.  Mexican immigrants joined Southwestern refugees from the Dust Bowl – the so-called Okies – in searching for jobs in California’s fields.

Mexican farm worker picking melons in Imperial Valley, 1937.
Photograph by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress, prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

In 1933, many Americans hoped that things were about to change. Franklin Roosevelt had won the presidency and began to implement his bold policies designed to stimulate economic recovery. Roosevelt’s New Deal guaranteed the right to join a union and bargain collectively for better conditions and wages.

 The new laws inspired California farm workers to form unions and demand higher wages – even though, ironically, the unionization protections did not apply to them. The New Dealers excluded agricultural laborers because they did not want to antagonize powerful Southern plantation owners.  But California’s farm workers did not understand at first that they had been left out of these protections. And so they went on strike.

The largest farm strike in U.S. history hit the San Joaquin Valley in 1933 when growers refused to pay cotton pickers the national minimum wage of 25 cents an hour.  Almost 20,000 workers walked out of the fields in protest. Over the course of 1933, 50,000 California farm workers went on strike. 

            Roosevelt administration officials did not support the strikers, but neither did they support the growers’ violent efforts to break the strike. They threatened to withhold New Deal subsidies from the growers unless they agreed to mediation in the labor dispute. The growers saw the administration’s centrist position – support for mediation – as a great betrayal.  Although in the past these agricultural businessmen had supported a strong, expansive federal government, they now believed that the government, by declining to back them in breaking the strike, was encouraging workers to revolt.  The New Deal’s labor policies pushed many agribusiness leaders to embrace a new kind of conservatism: a conservatism that opposed, rather than supported, big government.

            For the state’s business leaders, the situation went from bad to worse in 1934 when socialist author Upton Sinclair won the Democratic nomination for governor with the slogan that he would “End Poverty in California” (EPIC).  For his own part, Roosevelt did not support Sinclair’s candidacy: the president never endorsed him, and his administration made a secret pact to support the Republican candidate near the end of the campaign. But Sinclair’s victory in the primary seemed to prove the conservatives’ greatest fears about Roosevelt’s programs: the EPIC campaign showed, they said, that the New Deal was nothing more than socialism in liberal clothing.

 To defeat Sinclair, the business leaders of California created new strategies we would recognize in the politics of our own time. They hired the nation’s first political consultants to run a campaign of mis-attributed quotations, faked newsreels, and outright untruths about Sinclairs proposals. Sinclair called the effort against him “the lie factory.” It was the advent of fake news. The consultants had figured out how to equate liberalism with socialism, and socialism with treason.

We think of California as one of the most liberal states in the nation. But it was also the birthplace of some of the most successful ideas and political strategies now used by conservatives.
Wallace Stegner famously said that California is like America, only more so.  The struggles in the California fields were similar to struggles that would take place elsewhere around the country, but they were ahead of their time, as well as more intense. The states multi-racial, multi-ethnic work force foreshadowed the coming transformation of American labor.  The battles over these changes would transform American politics and policy.

Additional articles about Right out of California by Kathryn Olmsted: 

Upcoming Event with Kathryn Olmsted

Katrryn Olmsted will visit the California Historical Society on January 31st to discuss her new book, Right Out of California. To learn more about this event, click HERE

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