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  • Bleeding Edge:New Deal Farm Labor Mediation in California and the Conservative Reaction
  • Kathryn Olmsted (bio)

On October 18, 1933, George Creel alighted from his airplane and stepped onto the dusty tarmac in California's San Joaquin Valley on a mission from the president. Two weeks earlier, when some eighteen thousand cotton pickers left the fields in the largest labor strike in U.S. agricultural history, the growers had responded with violence, inciting vigilantes to attack strike meetings and murder three picketers. Creel, the National Recovery Administration chief for the West Coast, was determined to force the employers to the bargaining table and mediate the dispute before the valley's cotton crop went to seed, along with the New Deal's hopes for national recovery.

After visiting the strike camps, meeting with the leaders in jail, and threatening and cajoling the growers, Creel accomplished his task. In the end, the growers agreed to raise the workers' wages by 25 percent, the pickers harvested the cotton crop, and Creel resolved the crisis.1

Six months later, in March 1934, General Pelham Glassford traveled to a different valley in California on a similar mission: to end an agricultural labor dispute and force the growers of Imperial County, in the far southeastern corner of the state, to stop sponsoring vigilante terror against striking workers. Like Creel, Glassford plunged into the crisis, interviewing dozens of workers, growers, and Communist union leaders, as well as visiting farms, conducting hearings, and gathering facts for his bosses in Washington. Also like Creel, Glassford did not hesitate to advocate for the workers. In the end, he issued a public report accusing the growers of welcoming communist agitation [End Page 48] because it gave them an excuse to encourage vigilante attacks. He denounced local officials as "crooks" and "tools" who served the interests of the richest growers.2

And then, after concluding that the growers did not pay a living wage, after investigating the violence and determining that the growers were at fault, after accusing local government officials of depriving workers of their civil rights, General Glassford simply left. He excoriated the growers, proclaimed himself unafraid of the many death threats he received, and retreated to his horse farm in Arizona. Imperial remained in the hands of the same people, free to continue their previous policies, with no one watching. And the New Dealers in Washington let him leave—indeed, urged him to leave—without making any substantive changes.

The difference between these outcomes raises some important questions about the extent and consequences of employer opposition to New Deal labor policy. Historians have argued that these two strikes are examples of the New Deal's essential conservatism and its lack of concern for farmworkers. According to this view, the Roosevelt administration officials' intervention in the strikes ultimately worsened the laborers' plight because it helped the employers to destroy the communist-led union.3 This New Deal indifference to agricultural workers was not surprising, scholars say, considering that most farm workers could not vote and thus had no representation in Washington.4

But this standard narrative understates the revolutionary impact of the New Deal on agricultural labor—and, more important, it obscures the sources of anti-New Deal agitation in the West. In the 1930s, the federal government shifted from endorsing and even assisting employer violence against unions to endorsing or even assisting union organization efforts. To the dismay of industrialists, Roosevelt administration officials intervened in labor disputes all over the country. And in California, they intervened not only in industrial strikes but also in agricultural ones.

The timid, halting efforts of the Roosevelt administration to stop employer violence in the fields provoked virulent opposition from western growers—opposition that weakened the New Deal from the start. Employers hostile to New Deal labor policies used the fear of communism to manufacture grassroots opposition not only to the real reds, but to the Washington officials who "petted and pampered and fed the reds and their charges," as one San Joaquin Valley newspaper said.5 [End Page 49]

This story of grower resistance to the New Deal challenges scholarly interpretations of modern conservatism.6 In these strikes, we can see the Western...


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