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Sunday, November 10, 2002

Pruners’ Strike still evokes unease

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Wage dispute fueled workers dismay in 1932

All communities have darker episodes in their history. For Vacaville, one of these periods occurred during November and December of 1932 and into early 1933. Mentioning the Vacaville Pruners’ Strike, also known as the Vacaville Riots, still evokes unease in many residents, though 70 years have passed since then.

This two-part article is based on an interview by Ed Uhl on January 12, 1977 (Vacaville Museum collection); Ron Limbaugh, Vacaville, The Heritage of a California Community (1978); and numerous contemporary articles in the Vacaville Reporter. I am especially grateful to Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University for faxing me her article on the Vacaville Tree Pruners’ Strike published in “Labor Conflict in the United States, An Encyclopedia (1990),” which provided the union side of the conflict - Editor.

The year 1932 was a difficult one throughout the nation. For local orchardists, it meant a steep decline in the fruit industry, coupled with a severe rise in rural poverty.

One of the phenomena of that year were so-called “hunger marches,” sometimes organized by the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial League. One such march was planned for Winters on June 12, 1932, “in which 300 destitute residents of the Putah creek camp were to have taken part…” Instead, the leaders, Darwin and Bebel Alonzo of Vacaville and Donald Bigham and Luther Mincy of Sacramento were arraigned. The Vacaville Reporter wrote about their trial July 22, where the Alonzo brothers and Donald Bigham were found guilty of “inciting a riot.”

Affiliated with the “Red International of Labor Unions,” the communist-led Agricultural Workers’ Industrial League began to organize farm workers in the area throughout the summer and autumn. Though interested more in higher wages and better work conditions than in communist ideology, local pruners welcomed the union’s support.

In late summer, they founded a local chapter of the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial League. Its membership quickly rose to about 200, many of them of Spanish or Filipino descent.

By autumn, voters had tired of their current government officials, voting to install Roosevelt and other New Deal Democrats into office. Locally, Frank H. Buck Jr. was running for Congress on the democratic platform. Among other goals, he promoted public work programs to reduce unemployment, farm relief by tariff reductions and “Maintenance of American wage and living standards.”

According to Kate Bronfenbrenner in the encyclopedia “Labor Conflict in the United Sates,” Frank H. Buck had raised wages for the pruners on his ranch during his campaign to $1.40 for an eight-hour day, with the promise of a further increase should he win the election.

Farmworkers around Vacaville strongly supported his bid for Congress. To their dismay, two days after the election Frank H. Buck announced a 20 percent wage cut, down to $1.25 for a nine-hour day, starting on November 14, 1932.

The farm workers were enraged, and on November 14, 400 mostly Spanish and Filipino tree pruners laid down their pruning shears. Two other large orchardists, Edwin Uhl and Clement Hartley, were also affected by the strike.

Members of the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial League quickly organized the strike. The Vacaville Reporter published their demands on November 18, 1932: “A local branch of the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial League was organized here last week and a committee appointed to present the following demands: 1. That a daily wage be paid all workers on ranches, the lowest $1.50 per day. 2. That a working day do not exceed eight hours. 3. That all families now living on ranches be not evicted pending settlement of a strike. 4. No discrimination by employers to workers, regardless of race or color. 5. That free transportation be provided to and from the job by employers. 6. That tools also be provided free by employers. 7. That the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial League be recognized as the official union of the workers, and that all grievances and disputes between workers and employers be settled with the union.”

Orchardists, town and county officials, who feared the impact these demands would have on the already shaky fruit industry, refused. Negotiations broke down.

The strikers set up picket lines and barricades to prevent non-union workers brought in by orchardists to go to work. On November 25, officials ordered police to arrest the strike leaders picketing near the Souza ranch. The Vacaville Reporter wrote about the ensuing clash on December 2: “... A crowd of men and women had assembled at the entrance to the ranch and when the truck bringing the workmen arrived, trouble began. The truck had been halted by a barricade and a free-for-all battle was immediately started. During the melee a number of participants were injured.

“Constable Stadtfeld received the most serious injury. He was struck on the side of the head by a rock, which nearly severed his ear, and he also received numerous bruises on his body. ...

“Donald Bingham of Sacramento, an organizer for the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial League, was placed under arrest. ...

“Friday afternoon the strikers assembled at their meeting place (located southeast of Main Street) and about two hundred of them, including a number of women and children, who led the parade, marched up town and held a meeting in front of the city hall, which was addressed by several speakers. ...”

Strikers later that day traveled to the Fairfield courthouse to demand the release of Bingham and other strike leaders from the county jail, to no avail.

In the same Vacaville Reporter edition of December 2nd, Frank H. Buck ran a statement to counteract the national attention the strike was garnering. It said that “recent accounts in certain newspapers have given the impression that there is a strike of farm labor in the Vacaville fruit district and that it is directed chiefly, if not solely, against the Frank H. Buck Company. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the company is less concerned with or affected by disturbances credited in and around Vacaville by professional agitators than other individual or corporate ranching concerns.

” ... The company now has and has had for many weeks only a few white citizen laborers on its payroll. These men constitute a more or less permanent staff. None of them have quit work as the result of attempted intimidation by agitators who are attempting to organize resident farm labor of the district as a unit of the so-called Agricultural Workers’ Industrial League.

“The Buck Company announced its scale for orchard pruning this season several weeks ago as 15 cents an hour, a rate slightly higher than was being offered other growers of the district. No pruners were employed, however, as agitation by professed Communist agents was begun before the company was ready to put crews to work ...

“Many of the growers decided to hire pruners this season because of realization of a duty to their community… and the scale of wages was made somewhat higher than the disastrous fruit season of 1932 justified because of this desire. The going wage for pruning is two cents under that paid during the harvest season. This reduction for winter work is always made and is not objected to by bonafide workers of the district ...”

The statement continued to blame “... aliens and other Communist leaders, ... chiefly from Sacramento and San Francisco…”

Both sides had declared their intentions, and further violence seemed inevitable.