Orange County's Hidden History of Labor Rights

Orange County has its humble beginnings in the agricultural industry. For decades, fruit and nut ventures brought prosperity to the county and its founders, creating a viable infrastructure for the growth and urbanization we enjoy today. May 1, celebrated around the world as International Workers’ Day, is an opportunity to examine the often unacknowledged contributions of the laborers, particularly migrant workers, who did the hands-on work of cultivating the farms of our past, and erecting the cities of our present.


International Workers’ Day (also known as Labor Day or May Day) is often colloquialized in America as a leftist holiday, because of its roots in Marxist-Socialist discourses, and a strong affiliation with socialist government entities like the Soviet Union. However, it marks an incident revolving around the American struggle for labor rights, the 1886 Haymarket affair. Our culture’s divisive relationship with labor rights is a reflection of its complex history, and an economy having subsisted on the forced labor of groups like enslaved Africans and their descendants and incarcerated peoples, and the exploited labor of undocumented immigrants. It’s no coincidence that these injustices take place mostly in the agribusiness sphere.


Internationally, May Day commemorates strides in labor rights unique to each nation; in America, the fight for the eight-hour workday is central to the holiday. The unsafe and strenuous working conditions experienced by blue-collar Americans in the wake of mass-industrialization garnered much criticism. While employers culled their wealth, employees more and more frequently lost their physical ability and lives to dangerous and unregulated workplaces, with no alternative for earning their wage.


To many, socialism, a newly-minted ideology coming to us from Europe, seemed an attractive alternative to the asymmetrical power dynamics of capitalist production. Many socialist activists and organizations championed the idea of a worker-controlled industry that de-emphasized hierarchical corporate control of the economic and political spheres. Bureaucracy and public office came under scorn for being ineffectual and skewed by bribery, prizing instead direct action through labor unions.


With Chicago as the epicenter and the infant American Federation of Labor as the spearhead, the fight for fair wages and reduced hours culminated in nationwide strikes and demonstrations in 1886. Nearly 100,000 employees walked off their jobs, and despite the hysteria prophesied by the press, the strikes remained nonviolent. That is, until conflict flared up between the McCormick Metal Workers Union and local police, who verbally and physically harassed picketers.


A public meeting in Haymarket Square was called to address the undue harassment. Here, tensions between demonstrators and police were at an all-time high, and when an anonymous protestor threw a bomb into police ranks, officers open-fired into the crowd. Eight civilians were killed, and eight officers (seven likely due to indiscriminate gunfire).


In the wake of this event, the fight for labor rights became largely homogenized with the radicalism that spurred the Haymarket affair. Socialist and anarchist ideologies that promoted collective bargaining and cooperative commonwealth were characterized as dangerous and fundamentally un-American, stunting large-scale reform and ensuring the continued exploitation of the working class.


Still, distinct ranks emerged even among laborers that underprivileged certain trades. For unskilled work, especially that which required extensive manpower (i.e. coal mining, garment-making, meat packing). The demographic makeup of these trades consistently conformed to racial and gender divisions, and Black, female, and immigrant laborers were systematically shut out from unions. The 1900s ushered in industrial growth on an unprecedented scale. As American civilization moved west, communication, transportation, and agricultural ventures required an inexhaustible, inexpensive workforce. Many entrepreneurs thought they had found these qualities in burgeoning migrant populations.


The specter of prosperous American life brought over 9 million immigrants to the US in the first decade of the 1900s alone.California played no small part in molding the social and legal attitudes toward mass migration, notably targeting Chinese railroad workers with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and its many reincarnations.


California’s Bracero program during World War I and the Great Depression brought millions of Mexican migrants to the US to work, primarily in seasonal jobs on American farms, for extremely low-wages and slave-like working conditions. Oftentimes, once they had fulfilled their labor contracts, they were deported en masse back to Mexico, even those who had been naturalized. This was facilitated by newly-installed border patrol offices along the southern border.


Orange County’s 1936 Citrus Strikes epitomize the contentions between laborers and law enforcement that were becoming increasingly mercenary. Citrus harvesters, a majority of them Mexican nationals, were striking for higher wages. Seeing this as a threat to their financial prospects, the land-owning citrus growers called on armed CHP officers and members of the American Legion to kill any striking workers discovered “trespassing” on their groves. They also organized vigilante groups to terrorize nonviolent picketers and raid their communities. Picketers retaliated by torching transport vehicles and sending bomb threats to prominent politicians and businessmen. The strike came to a head with a riot on July 6, which landed over 200 farmhands in jail, facing a jail sentence or deportation.


But this clash generated meaningful change. After negotiation, harvesters and growers agreed on a 20 cent per hour wage, and a nine hour workday. This agreement did not include collective bargaining power, but improved the immediate conditions of contracted workers. In 1962 the United Farm Workers Movement merged out of the Agricultural Workers Organizing committee, headed by Larry Itliong, and the National Farm Workers Association, headed by Cesar Chazes and Dolores Huerta. This brought the shelter and order of a union to many vulnerable farmhands, and gave them a new measure of bargaining and lobbying power with their employers.


With most of our titular citrus groves replaced by urban development, it’s not always readily apparent the struggle for equity that has taken place, and persists with migrant farm workers in the present. Even so, it's a struggle embedded into Orange County history that cannot be expunged.