California Agricultural Strike 1933

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The largest agricultural strike in California history, involving more than 18,000 workers, occurred over the course of the 1933 harvest in the California agricultural industry. Strike actions moved across the state through the harvests of cherries, pears, peaches, sugar beets and grapes, culminating in the cotton fields of the San Joaquin Valley in October.

Organized in large part by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ International Union among workers protesting pay cuts at the height of the Great Depression, labor actions grew throughout the summer. The Cotton Strike saw 12,000 workers walk off the job. Striking workers were evicted from company housing, and growers were deputized. A violent attack left two workers dead and eight wounded in the town of Pixley, California.

CAWIU organizers Pat Chambers and Caroline Decker were arrested and charged under the California Criminal Syndicalism Act for their labor organizing activities. When the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935 by the Roosevelt administration, agricultural workers were excluded from protection.

Culmination: The Cotton Strike, October 1933[edit]

An article written on October 3, 1933 in the Los Angeles Times noted the official beginning of the strike with the gathering of workers taking shifts picketing at the work site: “At the Camp. West and Lowe ranch, the pickets were uncommunicative, but it was learned through their captain that the picketers are organized for shifts continuing throughout twenty-four hours. All wore signs reading ‘This ranch under strike.’” The Los Angeles Times article continues by announcing the reasoning behind the strikes: “The purpose of the strike is declared to be a rate increase of 40 cents a hundred pounds for picketers over the rate established at the recent meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Bureau, and which cotton growers throughout Kern county agreed to support. The rate as established is 60 cents per hundred pounds.” The workers did not agree with their rate of pay, causing them to unionize. Ramond P. Barry, an editor for the Federal Writers Project in Oakland, California in 1938, explained this in more detail: "Cotton had always been a cheap labor crop, its development depending largely upon keeping the labor cost low. While the California wage rate had been somewhat higher than in other states, wages of cotton pickers had declined steadily with the price of cotton; and in four years (1928-32) the picking wage had dropped from $1.50 to 40¢ a hundred pounds. In 1932 this low point was reached when the Agricultural Labor Bureau, an employers' organization, set the official picking wage for the San Joaquin Valley cotton at 40¢ a hundred. The scale seems to have varied from 40¢ to 60¢ in 1932. A slightly higher rate is always paid for second and third pickings, when picking is slower and more ground must be covered."

By October 6, 1933, only three days into the protests, the cotton growers began to show much concern for their crops. With fewer workers to pick the cotton, there would be a loss. Not only were the growers concerned that the cotton was not going to be picked as quickly at its peak, but they also were concerned that angry workers would destroy their crops or harm other workers in an attempt to stop their picking. An article in the Los Angeles Times on October 6 discussed the issue: “As strike conditions steadily grow worse the cotton growers of Kern county took steps today to protect their crops and what pickers remained from any possibly damage.”

Raymond P. Barry noted that: “Ninety-five percent of the cotton pickers in the San Joaquin in 1933, it has been estimated, were Mexican.” This union wanted change, and according to Raymond P. Barry: "At the opening of the 1933 cotton picking season we find the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union providing militant leadership for the Mexican pickers, drawing up and presenting their demands to the growers, and threatening a valleywide strike if these demands were not met. The demands of the union were three-fold: 1. - A wage rate of $1.00 per hundred pounds of cotton picked. 2. - Recognition of the union. 3. - Abolition of contract labor.

The demand for higher wages was the major demand. Further demands, union recognition and abolition of the contract labor system were included in practically every agricultural strike."

It only took a matter of days for the events of the strike to go from bad to worse. The growers were determined to make the striking stop and the strikers became more and more determined to get their way. As the strikes expanded, more attempts at stopping the strikes came about. Workers families were driven from their homes on the work site. On October 9, 1933, the New York Times posted: “Violence flamed in the cotton strike areas covering four California counties today, with Tulare growers running agitators out of the county, following a free-for-all right, and farmers in other counties ousting pickers and arming themselves for further trouble […] In Kern county alone today it was estimated that 200 strikers and their families had been ousted from their cottages. Their belongings were dumped on the road and they were told to ‘get.’” Tensions reached there ultimate peak on October 18, 1933 in Pixley when a gathering of protestors and ranchers led to the deaths of a few strikers. An article in the New York Times states that " Ranchers who heard of the proposed meeting [between strikers] organized a caravan of about thirty automobiles, drove into Pixley and surrounded the meeting. Suddenly there was a shot from the caravan, then a volley. Three men fell dead and many were wounded [...] but bloodshed at Pixley did not break the strike."

Near the end of October, the cotton strike reached its final days. The demand of one dollar vs. forty cents did not reach its goal. The New York Times posted an article on Oct 26, 1933 that highlighted the strikes closing results: “The state of California, cooperating with the Federal Government, tonight ordered the cotton strike officially ended. The order was issued with the mailed fist of authority behind it. Cotton picking is to be resumed under armed protection of State authorities. Agitators must leave the area. All strike unemployment relief work is to be discontinued and violence must cease. Eighty percent of the growers have acceded to the suggested wage of 75 cents per 100 pounds.”[1]

Although the ultimate goal of the unionized cotton pickers was not reached, they still gained more pay, and although this was a gain for the workers, the striking process led to many evicted families and many Mexicans were led back to Mexico. The pure mass of strikers was what made this strike so memorable, along with that it shows an example of how workers came together to unionize due to the effects of the Great Depression. However, even more unfortunate for all agricultural workers, when president Roosevelt created social security in 1935, he excluded agricultural workers. According to Larry DeWitt of the U.S. Social Security Administration, "The Social Security Act of 1935 excluded from coverage about half the workers in the American economy. Among the excluded groups were agricultural and domestic workers"


  • Devra Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal University of California Press, 1994
  • Anne Loftis, Witness to the Struggle: Imaging the 1930s California Labor Movement University of Nevada Press, 1998
  • Kevin Starr, Endangered Dreams, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 74–83
  • Cletus E. Daniel, Bitter Harvest, University of California Press
  • Eric Arnesen, ed. Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History
  • Helen Hosmer: A Radical Critic of California Agribusiness in the 1930s
  • Raymond P. Barry (Editor), "The California Cotton Pickers Strike-1933" Federal Writers Project, Oakland, California, 1938
  • "Union Successes, 1933–1934." Social History of the United States. Ed. Daniel J. Walkowitz and Daniel E. Bender. Vol. 4: The 1930s. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009. 173-194. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 23 May 2013.

Document URL Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2454700469

  1. ^ "California Forces End Of The Cotton Strike". New York Times. October 26, 1933. 
  • New York Times, "STRIKE WAR FLARES UP", Oct 9, 1933
  • New York Times, "CALIFORNIA CLASH CALLED 'CIVIL WAR'", Oct 22, 1933
  • Larry DeWitt, U.S. Social Security Administration, "The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act"