Dark Sweat, White Gold

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Weber, Devra. Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. ix + 338 pages.

Summary

In Dark Sweat, White Gold, Devra Weber examines the relationship between economic structure, human agency, and state politics within the context of California’s agricultural industry from 1919 to 1939. Ultimately, Weber argues that the New Deal failed to improve conditions for California’s cotton workers.

Weber begins by tracing the development of the cotton industry and its work force from the early twentieth century. While an agricultural depression in the south initially opened the cotton market to western growers, the One Variety Act of 1925 (authorizing planting of only one strain of cotton and forcing planters to engage in specialization of the Acala variety, a superior grade of cotton) quickly led to monopolization of the cotton industry as smaller farmers were unable to compete. This consolidation of industry control, combined with the absence of strong political parties in California, created a powerful farm lobby in the state. This political machine consistently worked to impact New Deal agricultural policies.

As the cotton industry expanded in California, the increased demand for additional labor was met by Mexican workers. Weber argues that these Mexican workers maintained close familial and social ties, based on ideas of mutuality, reciprocity, and obligation and reinforced by the persistent forces of racism, segregation and economic hardship. These laborers did not seek to assimilate (as evidenced by low rates of naturalization) but identified themselves as “working-class Mexicans” (55). It is Weber’s argument that this class consciousness had a significant impact on the strike of 1933 as union officials were able to draw on these networks and to utilize their organizational structures to gain support for a mass stoppage of production. Further, Weber asserts that union officials were able to draw on traditions of radicalism as many Mexican laborers had recently participated in-either directly or indirectly- the Mexican Revolution.

When violence against the strikers brought national attention to the situation in California, the federal government intervened, threatening to cut off subsidies to growers unless they agreed to negotiations. With a wage increase established, workers in California were hopeful that the federal government would continue to act in support of agriculture and include farm workers in national legislation from which they had previously been excluded.

However, the strike of 1933 led to greater organization among farmer and grower interests who continued to lobby against any inclusion of agricultural workers in federal legislation. A stronger farm bloc in California politics helped to ensure that when the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) passed in 1935, it specifically excluded agricultural workers.

At the same time that growers were organizing, a new group of migrant laborers were entering California’s fields. White laborers from the nation’s depressed southern agricultural regions began to arrive in California in increasing numbers during the 1930s. Though growers feared that union activity would thrive among this incoming Anglo-American labor population, Weber demonstrates that this was not the case. Many of these new migrants were too desperate to surrender any wages, no matter how pitiful, and most saw the remedy to poor labor conditions not in protest but in politics. Thus, it was this new labor faction that helped elect a New Deal candidate to the governorship. However, when the new governor proved ineffective, thwarted by conservatives in the assembly, some migrants did turn to the union. But, unlike the strikers of 1933, the workers who would strike in 1939 were more localized and thus less able to organize an industry-wide strike. More divided, this labor force was defeated by a more unified grower interest. As Weber concludes, “Although the New Deal improved conditions for industrial workers, its programs had the opposite effect on agricultural workers…the destabilization of workers in the 1930s was the first phase of a process that helped destroy domestically based work crews, depressed wages, and undercut unionization for two decades” (209).

Commentary

Beth Garcia, Spring 2015

In Dark Sweat, White Gold, Weber examines how the forces of human agency, economic structure, and state politics interacted to shape the experiences of California’s agricultural laborers for two decades from 1919-1939. Before the influx of Anglo laborers during the Depression years, California growers relied on Mexican workers to meet labor demands. While institutionalized racism segregated Mexicans from California’s white population, Weber argues that this separation, combined with economic hardship, helped to strengthen bonds among Mexican workers and to create a working-class consciousness. Further, Weber argues that many Mexicans who had migrated to California to labor in its agricultural sector had directly or indirectly participated in the Mexican Revolution and thus had some experience with radicalism and organization. By tracing this radical tradition to California’s cotton fields, and by placing it alongside the working-class consciousness that emerged within California’s segregated Mexican communities, Weber offers a convincing argument as to why the cotton workers’ strike of 1933 succeeded. According to Weber, union officials were able to draw on the familial and social networks that sustained Mexican working-class communities as well as on this radical tradition to organize Mexican cotton workers.

It was these same forces of community organization and radical tradition- or rather the lack thereof- that ultimately led to the failure of another strike effort in 1939. The Anglo workers who had migrated to California during the 1930s remained more localized than Mexican agricultural workers had been. At the same time that the labor force was becoming more localized, industry interests were becoming more unified (partly as a consequence of the earlier strike’s success.) Moreover, unlike Mexican farm workers, these new migrants were not practiced in traditions of radical protest; rather, they sought change through the ballot box. Thus, all of these factors combined- divided labor force, united industry, and a powerful farm bloc that thwarted labor efforts- to ensure that the strike of 1939 would not succeed. In comparing the strike of 1933 to that of 1939, Weber does a nice job in showing how the forces of human agency, economic structure, and state politics interacted across time and how they worked to shape the laborer’s experience.

However, even as Weber presents an engaging argument and an interesting study, at times it seems to suffer the same mistake made by many early scholars of ethnic histories: her analysis of Mexican farm workers tends towards triumphalism. While many factors were indeed at work to influence the outcome of both strikes (and Weber does take these into account), the ethnic line is oftentimes drawn too hard. While Mexican laborers were undoubtedly a significant force in the strike of 1933, it is unclear what role they played in the strike of 1939 (though it is noted that many were deported or repatriated in the intervening years.) Though Dark Sweat, White Gold is a study of the relationship between human agency, economics, and politics (and a good one at that), in the end, it might exaggerate the element of ethnicity, leaving some readers to conclude that Mexican laborers triumphed in the strike of 1933 while Anglo strikers failed in 1939.

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