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Farm Workers in Washington State

Toward a History of Farm Workers in Washington State

by James N. Gregory

Commercial agriculture has been one of the engines of Washington’s economy since white Americans conquered the region and seized most of the land from the original residents in the 1850s. Along with logging and fishing, farming produced most of the wealth and jobs that drew people to the Pacific Northwest during its first century as part of the United States. Since World War II, rapid industrial growth has changed the focus of economic growth, but agriculture remains critically important today, contributing more than $6 billion dollars each year to the state economy.

The work of agriculture—plowing, planting, tending, harvesting, processing, and shipping—has always depended upon two types of workers: operators and their families and farm workers who work for wages. Today some 30,000 farm operators depend upon more than 120,000 farm workers, some of whom work year round, but at least half move from employer to employer, and find work mostly in the peak season from June through October. Washington ranks sixth in the nation in the size of its farm labor force.1

Hired farm workers have faced special challenges throughout the state’s history. The work is often uniquely hard and the employment conditions often uniquely exploitative. Low wages, short terms of employment that dictate a migratory life style, inadequate housing and poor sanitation—these have been common conditions since the mid 19th century. Resistance to these conditions has also been common. Long before the United Farm Workers established the first permanent farm labor union in Washington State, farm workers had been organizing, protesting, and sometimes striking to improve their circumstances.

This ten part essay represents the first attempt to write an historical overview of farm workers and their activism in Washington State. There are many books on the subject of California farm workers and some important studies in other states. For Washington there are a couple of books and hopefully there will soon be more. See bibliographic essay

Farms push east

White men and Native families were the first farm workers to earn wages in Washington territory. In the 1850s and 1860s, members of many of the Puget Sound tribes worked seasonally for white employers on farms as well as in sawmills, joining single white men in the backbreaking work of clearing land or harvesting crops. Hops became the region’s first major cash crop in the 1870s and 1880s, and native peoples provided an important part of the harvest labor force. “Farmers recruited Indians by the hundreds for the brief fall harvest,” writes historian Alexandra Harmon. “Puyallup Valley hop ranchers expected fifteen hundred Indians to answer their call for help in 1876.” 2 While European-Americans were the most common farm laborers, Chinese men sometimes joined this early labor force, working both in hops and on farms that grew fruits and vegetables in Western Washington.

Large scale agriculture crossed the Cascades after the Northern Pacific Railroad connected Washington to rest of the United States in 1886. The railroad promoted Washington as a farmer’s paradise and sold off massive tracts of land in central and eastern Washington that had been granted by the federal government.  The Columbia Plateau proved perfect for winter wheat, and starting in the 1890s big farming operations spread across eastern Washington and eastern Oregon. These farms required a large labor force to handle the teams of horses and the heavy equipment for plowing and harrowing the fields. More men were required at harvest time, to follow the horse-drawn reaping machines and bag and haul the grain. Every fall from the 1890s through the 1930s when some of the work became mechanized, tens of thousands of men would tramp the migratory wheat circuit of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.3

Farmers and investors developed central Washington’s Yakima, Wenatchee, and Okanogan Valleys with the help of the irrigation projects built by the US Reclamation Service after 1902. Within a decade central Washington had become one of the most productive fruit and vegetable regions and the apple capital of the United States. Historian Erasmo Gamboa describes the region as a “cornucopia” and notes that by 1929, Yakima County ranked sixth in the nation in the value of its farm crops.4 A seasonal farm labor force made this possible, consisting of some year-round workers and an army of workers during harvest seasons. “Yakima Valley agriculture needed 33,000 hired workers at the peak of the 1935 harvest,” writes Gamboa, but during the winter months, “500 workers were sufficient.”5  Initially, local whites and indigenous Yakima natives made up the agricultural workforce, but seasonal workers were drawn from across the Cascades and from many other states. Ever since the 1920s, the Yakima Valley has proved to be an important gateway for newcomers to Washington State, many of whom have found their first jobs in that valley’s fields.

Since the 1940s, farming and farm work have become less important to the economy of western Washington, while remaining critical to eastern and especially central Washington. These days more than half of the state’s farm labor jobs are concentrated in Yakima and other central Washington counties, both in winter slack season and the summer harvest season when employment doubles.6

Changing composition of farm labor force

Some famous people have worked in Washington’s fields, along with many more that did not become famous. As a young man in the 1910s, later-to-be Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas joined the harvest tramps working the wheat fields of eastern Washington. Before she became the “Queen of Nashville,” Loretta Lynn and her husband made a living throughout the 1950s working on farms near Lynden, Washington. Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino writer; Bernie Whitebear, who led United Indians of All Tribes and launched the Daybreak Star Cultural Center; Federal District Justice Ricardo Martinez and many other prominent Latinos in Washington started in the fields of Yakima and other rural counties.7

These names suggest the varied origins of Washington’s farm workers. Over the generations, many different peoples have contributed to this work. Poorly paid, backbreaking, and low in status, farm work has usually drawn those with few options, including some of Washington’s oldest residents (tribal people) and its newest. Immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Latin America have been at various times disproportionately represented, as have been white Americans from rural and disadvantaged parts of the country. The mix is in some ways surprising. Unlike California, where workers of color and especially Mexican-origin farm workers have been a continuous and growing farm presence, until relatively late in the 20th Century nonHispanic whites dominated the labor force in Washington.

To the right are three tables based on data from the federal census. Here is some of what we learn from them:

A History of Struggle

Resistance to the harsh conditions of farm labor is as old as the work itself. The Native workers who were persuaded to, or, with some frequency, compelled to help clear land and harvest crops for white settlers in the early years of American rule, showed their displeasure in many ways, from running away to theft and violence. In 1878, whites in the Puyallup area organized a “military company of 64 men to be known as the Sumner Guards…for the purpose of maintaining order during the hop-picking season.”8 Surviving sources also suggest that conflict between workers of different origins was not uncommon. An 1875 headline from the _Washington Standard _shows the tension: “Chinese receive 90 cents a day and Indians $2.50 a day for picking hops in the Puyallup Valley.” 9 But our understanding of this early history of farm work is limited to occasional glimpses in territorial newspapers.

We also have an imperfect understanding of farm labor activism in the 1880s and 1890s, the transitional era that brought statehood, the railroad, the Alaska gold rush, several hundred thousand new people, and organized labor. The labor movement that took root in Tacoma, Seattle, Spokane, and the railroad and mining towns across the state, apparently made no serious gestures towards farm workers. Most of the unions founded in those decades affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and typically concentrated on skilled workers in urban trades and transportation.

It is not until the early 20th century and the arrival of the Industrial Workers of the World that organized labor made its first concerted effort to reach out to farm workers. That is where this report on the history of farm worker activism in Washington State begins. In the nine chapters that follow we examine several generations of farm worker activism in Washington State beginning with the IWW, moving to the 1930s campaigns and Filipino led farm labor unionism, then developing in detail the story of the Chicano-led movement since the 1960s.

Next: Ch. 2, The IWW in the Fields, 1905-1925

“A History of Farm Labor Organizing, 1890-2009” includes the following chapters. Most were written by Oscar Rosales Castañeda with substantial contributions by Maria Quintana who designed the pages and their illustrations.

  1. Toward a History of Farm Workers in Washington State
  2. The IWW in the Fields,1905-1925
  3. The 1933 Battle at Congdon Orchards
  4. Asians and Latinos Enter the Fields
  5. Mexican-American Struggles to Organize, Post-WWII
  6. El Movimiento and Farm Labor Organizing in the 1960s
  7. UFW’s Yakima Hop Strikes, 1971
  8. Radio KDNA: The Voice of the Farm Worker
  9. Resurgence of the UFW of WA State in the 1980s
  10. The Struggle Continues, 1997-2006
  11. Bibliography

Copyright (©) James N. Gregory 2009

1 Washington State Employment Security, _Agricultural Workforce in Washington State in 2003_ (n.p, June 2004), esp. Appendix 1, 50; Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust, A Sustainable Bounty: Investing in Our Agricultural Future (July 2008)  accessed August 26, 2009

2 Alexandra Harmon, Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities Around the Puget Sound (Berkeley, 1998), 106.

3 Carlos Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretative History(Lincoln Neb., 1989), 166-71;

4 Erasmo Gamboa, _Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947_ (Austin, 1990), 2-3

5 Ibid., 4.

6 Washington State Employment Security, Agricultural Workforce in Washington State in 2003, Appendix 1, 50.

7 Douglas: Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, _Hard Traveling: A Portrait of Work Life in the New Northwest_ (Lincoln Neb, 1994), 28; Lynn:  James N. Gregory, _The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migration of Black and White Southerners Transformed America_ (Chapel Hill, 2005), 175-78. See the interviews in this section.

8 Washington Standard, August 17, 1878 as listed in Pacific Northwest Regional Newspaper and Periodical Index, UW Special Collections Library

9 “Chinese receive 90 cents a day and Indians $2.50 a day for picking hops in the Puyallup Valley,” Washington Standard, September 11, 1875 as listed in listed in Pacific Northwest Regional Newspaper and Periodical Index, UW Special Collections Library