Oxnard strike of 1903
Before the strike
In 1887, Henry, James, Benjamin, and Robert Oxnard sold their Brooklyn sugar refinery and moved to California to capitalize on the growing agricultural economy of the late nineteenth century. In 1897, following the enactment of the Dingley Tariff Bill that heavily taxed foreign sugar, Henry, James, and Robert Oxnard formed the American Beet Sugar Company. Although the seasonal Chinese and Mexican laborers already in place in the county easily satisfied agricultural labor needs early in the factory's history, decline in Chinese populations due to Chinese Exclusion Acts and use of Mexican workers in other agricultural efforts led to an increase in Japanese worker recruitment. By 1902 nine major Japanese contractors saw to the seasonal needs in the area.
Seeing how these contractors had already caused minor slowdowns and protests over wages, recently arrived bank owners and merchants organized an owner-interest oriented contracting company called the Western Agricultural Contracting Company (WACC). The WACC quickly replaced the Japanese contractors as principal contractors to the Oxnard Plain and even forced some of them to subcontract through the WACC. Comprising more than 90 percent of the work force, the WACC had a near monopoly of the workers.
The strike and the JMLA
On February 11, 1903, 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican laborers became the charter members of the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) joined together and formed their organization based on the grievances of the Oxnard laborers. Overcoming obvious language barriers between the two constituent groups, they immediately elected Kosaburo Baba (president), Y. Yamaguchi (secretary of the Japanese branch), and J.M. Lizarras (secretary of the Mexican branch); Baba and Lizarras were both labor contractors and Yamaguchi has been recognized as a boarding student recruited from San Francisco. Their immediate concerns opposed the WACC on three conditions:
- they accused the WACC of artificially suppressing wages;
- they opposed the subcontracting system arguing that it forced workers to pay double commissions; and
- they called for the freedom to buy goods rather than be subjected to the inflated prices of the company store.
In order to remedy these issues, the JMLA membership ceased working through the WACC (essentially declaring a strike). The strike came at a serendipitously precarious time in the sugar beet season, the staple crop of Oxnard Plain agriculture, since the labor-intensive and yield-defining work of thinning the seedlings needed to be done within the scope of a few weeks.
By the first week in March, the JMLA recruited a membership larger than 1,200 workers (over 90% of the labor force of the county's beet industry). The JMLA's increased recruitment pulled the WACC's former contracted workers from it and essentially brought the sugar industry to a standstill.
On March 23, 1903, the strike reached its turning point. Although an official investigation blamed the violence and sole death of Mexican laborer Luis Vasquez on the strikers, witnesses certify that Anglo farmers shot into a crowd of strikers thus killing Vasquez and wounding four others. With the highly negative press reaction to the incident, the WACC conceded to most of the laborers' demands.
Japanese and Mexican laborers, formerly pitted against each other, had unified to achieve their labor goals. The success JMLA achieved showed the effectiveness of a multi-racial labor front and showed that class, and not race, could be the unifier in labor organizing. Nevertheless the JMLA was unable to hold on to its victories as it lost authority due to the American Federation of Labor(AFL) under Samuel Gompers denying them a charter due to their large Japanese membership.
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