1913 Wheatland Hop Riot

IMG_0007 by Errant Ventures
IMG_0007, a photo by Errant Ventures on Flickr.

On August 3rd 1913 the small community of Wheatland California was transformed from a quiet farming community to the host of the largest uprising of agricultural workers that the state had seen up until that point in history. Under the ostensible leadership of the IWW the riot occurred on the third day of agitation by workers for improved working and living conditions. The riot wasn’t an unwarranted act of labor violence. The conditions leading up to the riot were part and parcel the result of truly deplorable conditions in the Durst Ranch in Wheatland. Durst was the largest employer of agricultural labor in California and in 1913 he advertised for 3,000 workers for the hop harvest. The large number of workers who heeded Durst’s advertisements found that Durst actually wanted to employ about half of the number he advertised. Aside from the poor pay the workers received, the large number of people, both those with jobs and those without, resulted in dire conditions in the camp. There was little clean water and only eight toilets to share between the thousands of workers. Disease was quickly becoming rampant among the families inhabiting the camp prior to the riot.

When the workers began to organize and make their demands known, Durst panicked. He immediately went to the nearby county seat of Yuba City and gathered up a posse of law enforcement and quickly deputized citizens and returned with them to the. As the posse arrived the workers were at a mass organizing meeting and singing Joe Hill’s “Mr. Block.” The Yuba County sheriff and district attorney, siding with Durst, ordered the workers to disperse. One member of the posse fired his gun into the air “to sober them” as he later put it in court.

What happened next is lost to history. Four men were killed in the resulting violence: two workers, the Yuba County district attorney, and a deputy. Numerous people were injured and immediately workers fled Wheatland in fear of more violence. When Jack London rushed north from San Francisco to write about the riot he claimed that the workers fleeing from Wheatland looked like the refugees of a natural disaster. The subsequent criminal trial found two IWW organizers guilty of murder, though no one had witnessed that they had taken part in any violence or even that they had been seen with weapons of any sort. They were sent to Folsom prison until their release in the early 1920s. While the IWW was mostly blamed for instigating the violence, a later investigation by the state found Durst’s negligence as an employer to have created a situation ripe for violence and for law enforcement to have acted recklessly. As Carleton H. Parker, the state’s investigator, put it in regards to the action of the posse, “Any romance which the far west had thrown around a sheriff’s posse was rudely stripped from the institution.”

All of this is preamble to the picture I’ve posted above and to the real impetus behind this post. The Wheatland Hop Riot figures briefly in my research and on a recent trip down to California I took the opportunity to stop in Wheatland and take a look at the historical marker for the riot in person. Who knows how many (or more likely how few) visitors come to the marker in a year or even a decade. After all, there doesn’t seem to be much to see. The idea to stop there mostly came about from the thought that it would be a nice photo to include in my dissertation. Upon reflection (and the always thoughtful insights of my wife) I’ve found that the marker and the area surrounding it to be particularly fitting for such a mostly ignored yet unforgettable episode.

When it was placed the marker looked out on an open field, or at least that’s what I can tell from old photos I found online. More recently the land immediately adjacent to the marker has been developed into an electrical substation. The marker’s is now nestled in a small alcove in the substation’s chain link fence, which has been rerouted around the marker. It’s a feature you can actually see on Google map’s satellite view. (I can’t help but note that the Google street view of the marker finds it neighbored by two portable toilets. Considering how significant poor sanitation was to the strike the picture is both fitting and a humorous sign of the marker’s insignificance.) What strikes me is the way that the marker is more prominent for its juxtaposition with the electrical substation. In the midst of electricity, that constant symbol of progress that feeds all of society’s technological wonders, sits a small stone reminder of labor, exploitation and violence. The marker disrupts the clean lines of the substation’s boundaries. It jabs into the side of the substation and metaphorically into the side of progress/industry/the community’s development.

Maybe I’m too invested in this particular historical event to keep from overemphasizing the symbolism at work here. There were far reaching ramifications from the riot for California, agricultural laborers and the IWW (and unionism in general). That history is fought over in texts with all the problems inherent to historiography in full display (indeed the marker itself since the nuance of the strike is overshadowed by the emphasis on the riot itself). Despite the problems with history, I prefer to have the past and events as inexplicable as the riot to stick out and frankly worry us through its prominence like this marker does. If nothing else, the marker’s presence now raises questions: What happened? Why here? (and even the inevitable) Who cares? Even when, like with the riot, the answers to these questions may never fully be answered (who killed whom for instance) they deserve to be asked and pondered over.

Or does he mean the car insurance company?

In catching up with the news this morning I was struck by this gem of a quote from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker via TPM:

What we’re doing here, I think, is progressive. It’s innovative. It’s reform that leads the country, and we’re showing there’s a better way by sharing in that sacrifice with all of us in government

And now, a rebuttal:

Links for Wisconsin Labor Issues 3/10

Here are some links I’ve been collecting. I’m afraid I have not been able to keep up with the fast pace of events in Wisconsin.

Via Huffington Post: An overview of the end run the Wisconsin GOP and Governor Walker used to move the anti-labor bill through the Senate as things stood last night.

Via Talking Points Memo: Gov. Walker states that the anti-union provisions are fiscal in nature. This would appear to be problematic since the method the GOP utilized to get the bill out of the Senate was a method that would be illegal if it’s a bill with fiscal . Also, the Senate Republicans declare that they did not need to provide notice for their surprise session to pass the anti-union legislation. Finally, a write up on the Wisconsin State Assembly’s passing of the bill.

A brief piece from Leigh Elion, a University of Wisconsin graduate student, about speaking at the Wisconsin capitol against the bill at the Boston Review.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports on the scene at the Wisconsin capitol after the surprise passage of the bill in the State Senate.

Links 2/27: Wisconsin Protests & Related Issues

I had to take a rather long hiatus from posting here over the last couple of days thanks to the increasingly hectic nature of the school term. Here are a backlog of links and stories in no particular order:

Via Huffington Post – Shep Smith on the politics of Wisconsin’s anti-labor legislation. As he notes, it’s not a budget issue. Also, Howard Fineman does the political math in the Wisconsin fight.

Meanwhile, TPM reports on the growth of the protests this weekend despite the bad weather.

At the New York Times Paul Krugman makes a compelling case about the Wisconsin legislation being a case of shock and awe that hides some disturbing trends regarding privatization. One of Krugman’s salient points is that the legislation and Walker’s handling of it suggests the cronyism and mismanagement that’s to come.

Closer to home, Saturday saw rallies of support for Wisconsin unions locally (via Matt).

Rick Ungar writes has a post  at Forbes covering how public employee pensions work in Wisconsin. The short version is that Walker and his supporters are being disingenuous in how they’re presenting the issue. Ungar does a good job walking through the issue and I highly recommend taking a look at the post.

Via Boing Boing: An infographic following the Koch Brother’s contributions to Scott Walker’s campaign for governor and the potential payoff for their support.

Links 2/22: Wisconsin & Related Labor Issues

New York Times reports on reactions in Wisconsin.

TPM reports on Walker’s “fireside chat.”

Here’s the video:

Huffington Post reports on a similar situation in Indiana where Democratic State Senators fled the state. TPM reports on Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels  pulling back on the anti-union legislation later in the day.

Rachel Maddow makes a case for how the dots connect in Wisconsin and nationally.

USA Today / Gallup poll shows that Americans oppose weaker unions.

Nate Silver writes about the issue of leading questions in a Rasmussen Poll showing support for Walker.

NPR on the state of the Ohio bill to limit labor unions.

Sam Stein at Huffington Post on the money Wisconsin could lose due to Walker’s proposition.

Statement of Purpose: Why I’m with Wisconsin Workers

As events escalate in Wisconsin it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to do away with collective bargaining rights for state workers is a blatant attempt at union busting. It’s different than much of the union busting that I study in the literary and historical work surrounding my dissertation. Nevertheless it amounts to the same thing. Even his briefing of the National Guard harkens back to the days when state governors called in the Guard all the time to quell labor unrest.

My work has led me to a number of conclusions about labor unions in the United States. Unions do not always work. They do not always win. Nor do they necessarily fully represent the views of all their members. That’s the nature of any representative organization (including our political system). What is important in the presence of unions in a democratic society though is the right to bargain and the right to debate. However, what is happening with Walker’s proposal in Wisconsin is not bargaining or debate. It is the legislating away of the right to organize whole cloth. When the government refuses to debate and negotiate in good faith with its own citizens in the form of labor unions we stand on a very deep and disturbing precipice. Walker has steered his state directly to that precipice this week by refusing to acknowledge or enter dialogue with Wisconsin’s public labor unions.

Mother Jones, agitator for the United Mine Workers and famously labeled “the most dangerous woman in America,” famously said “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Since I began studying labor and labor literature I’ve taken it as a constant reminder of why I focus on labor literature and why it has lasting ramifications and importance for our society today. Looking deeply into the work of authors and agitators of the 19th and early 20th century leaves one aware not only of their sacrifices, but of the vast gains made to our society and our national standard of living through the right to collective act and negotiate with employers. Let me be unambiguous in this: people have died for the right to organize in unions. Many people in this nation have faced oppression in the form of crippling poverty, unsafe and exploitative work environments, and outright violence from employers and government officials on both the state and federal level. The right to organize has been built on sacrifice. It’s a history that is bitter in its numerous setbacks and perhaps overreaching at times in its more radical strains. Yet the legacy of labor organizations in the United States has helped improve the living conditions of millions of Americans. More often than not the conflicts, sacrifices and work that have gone into making these improvements is overlooked or forgotten in our popular conscious until it strikes home or until it grabs our attention as a nation as the protests in Madison have begun to.

So, Mother Jones: pray for the dead, fight like hell for the living. What’s happening in Wisconsin has deep ramifications not only for the workers in that state, but for the rest of the country as well. For these reasons and many more, I stand in solidarity with Wisconsin workers who are fighting for their rights.


New York Times.

TPM on the Wisconsin’s ginned up budget shortfall. More on Wisconsin’s budget. Walker’s early signals for his current proposal.

Rachel Madow on the stakes in Wisconsin.

NPR’s John Nichols on how Wisconsin unions will win.

Salon explains the significance of Walker’s suggestion of  calling in the National Guard.

MSNBC reports on planned counter protests for tomorrow.