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Farm Workers in Washington State

The 1933 Battle at Congdon Orchards

by Oscar Rosales Castañeda

In 1933, worker dissatisfaction and desperate economic conditions led to an explosion of IWW labor activism.  Deeply mired in economic Depression, 1933 proved to be a watermark year for labor activism both in the Northwest and in the Southwest.  California was the epicenter of much of this activity as it had one of the largest farm labor populations in the U.S.  In Washington State, the white male migrant labor struggle in the Yakima Valley in 1933 fomented a battle that would equal some California labor struggles in its strength.

The Yakima Valley 1933 conflict was one of the most publicized agricultural labor disturbances in Washington history.1  The central issue in Spring of 1933 was the question of low wages.  Growers enforced 10 hour workdays at 10 cents an hour for men and 8 cents an hour for women.  In May 1933, The Agricultural Workers Industrial Union No. 110, met for several days, deciding on May 15 to demand 35 cents an hour and an eight-hour workday.

Soon after, a wave of farm strikes on the hop fields near Moxee, Washington, just east of Yakima, initiated the campaign.  As a result of the disturbances, many members of the IWW were arrested and placed in the county jail.  Despite strong-arm tactics from local law enforcement, Local 110 was able to have those jailed released, due in large part to the work of Mark Litchman, attorney for the IWW.  Despite few tangible gains, the AWIU viewed the campaign as a success and as a catalyst for further action.

By August of 1933, the situation had intensified.  The local press verbally attacked the AWIU and newspaper editorials urged violent action against perceived troublemakers.  Farmers were in a much better position to present a unified front than were their laborers; not only were they acquainted with each other personally and in close contact with each other year round, their common interest was their farm enterprise.  Dangers to their enterprise brought rapid unified action from them.2  As a _Yakima Herald_ article noted: “[l]ike the vigilantes who brought law and order out of lawlessness in the California gold rush days of ’49, ranchers in five districts in the lower Yakima valley…are organized and ready to move at a moment’s notice to repel any invasion of labor agitators.”3  Almost immediately, the local media as well as the chamber of commerce antagonized the AWIU.  In spite of the efforts by the government and local media to thwart labor action, the workers would continue their campaign.

Wobbly efforts reached their height on August 23, 1933, when several workers congregated in Selah to make new demands from their employers.  They elected a strike committee of seven members, demanded an eight-hour workday, and a new pay rate of 50 cents per hour.  They also voted to strike at eleven o’clock the next day.  The following day, August 24, 1933, two contingents, one in Selah and the other at Congdon Orchards west of Yakima, started picketing.  Within a short amount of time, farmers armed with clubs, pick handles, and other weapons, approached strikers, forcing them to move their strike to a patch of public land nearby.  The farmers, nearly outnumbering strikers two to one, exchanged words with the strikers, catalyzing a violent fight.

According to the Yakima Daily Republic, “…farmers asked the agitators to move on, saying they were not wanted there. The men protested, saying they were free citizens and had a right to be there if they wanted to. They said they had not made any trouble and didn’t intend to…There is a question over who struck the first blow but the fight was on in earnest and a half dozen men fell within as many minutes.”4  The ensuing melee engulfed both camps as outnumbered workers fought against the farmers.  The larger group of farmers eventually prevailed and marched the strikers and their sympathetic bystanders to the stockade in downtown Yakima, built specifically to hold them.

Yakima sheriffs were sympathetic to the farm owner’s position.5  H.T. Armstrong, chief criminal deputy went so far as to say, “We’re going to stop this agitation if we have to string barbed wire fence all around the county…There will be no more picketing in the county…”6  Law enforcement agencies legitimized brutality against strikers.  The skull fracture of one of the farmers during the fight at Congdon Orchards was used as an excuse to forcibly repress any effort to unionize.  According to historian James Newbill, “for a short time, guardsmen had a 30 caliber machine gun mounted at the main intersection in Selah and two more at Yakima Avenue and Front Street in Yakima.  The evening of August 24, 1933, they used tear gas and displayed fixed bayonets to clear a large crowd out of the Front Street area.”7  That same day, law enforcement enacted martial law in the town of Selah, as well as a ban on all public meetings in the county, effectively denying people the right to peacefully assemble.

After the Congdon strikes, law enforcement continued its efforts in ridding the valley of “agitators,” combing and fanning out in search of “suspicious” elements either directly involved or sympathetic to the Wobblies.  On August 27, 1933, a group called the United Farmers League was denied access to the Central Washington Fair Grounds by the state patrol, in spite of the fact that the group had a permit to be there.  According to the Yakima Daily Republic, “Communist party posters and radical literature were taken from delegates to the United Farmers League conference…state patrolmen stationed at the state fair grounds, where the meeting was to have been held, stopped all arrivals, explained to them that they would have to call off their meeting due to existing disturbances in Yakima and advised them to return immediately to their homes. More than 300 were turned back.”8

Law enforcement also pursued the communists that had supported the IWW in the Yakima Valley, three of whom had been arrested for their labor activism.9 These three included Charles Goold, his son Clifford, and his daughter, Mary.  Other communists became involved through front groups such as the United Farmers League and the Northwest Congress of Farmers and Workers.10  Although small in numbers in contrast to the IWW, communists took part in some of the activity in Yakima.

After the brutal suppression of the Congdon strike and months of litigation by IWW attorney Mark Litchman, the IWW and the local government reached a compromise by mid-December.  Under their agreement, twelve of the strikers would plead guilty to the charge of vagrancy and would be forced to leave Yakima for the duration of a year.  It was also agreed that the county would drop all criminal charges if the strikers signed a statement pledging not to take civil action against the county.  Although the strike was brutally crushed and achieved few, if any, tangible results, the IWW was able to free many of the participants from incarceration.

However, one symbol of farm worker suppression in the Yakima landscape remained standing:  the stockade that was built in the center of town immediately after the fight between workers and farmers erupted.11  This stockade, which held farm strikers prisoner after the strike, remained standing until WWII.12  Not until 1943, when the urgency of the war effort made labor militancy among farm workers unthinkable, did county officials decide to remove it from the courthouse grounds.  Beyond the initial usefulness it had to farm employers in the valley, the stockade served for a full decade the still more useful function of standing as “a visible threat to organizers” who would unionize the workers of the Yakima Valley and a silent reminder to future malcontents that the spirit of repression made evident in 1933 remained alive in the region.13

Next: Ch. 4, Asians and Latinos Enter the Fields

“A History of Farm Labor Organizing, 1890-2009” includes the following chapters:

  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 (©) Oscar Rosales-Castañeda

1 Cletus E. Daniel, “Wobblies on the Farm: The IWW in the Yakima Valley,” _Pacific Northwest Quarterly_ 65 (1974):  167.

2 Stuart Marshall Jamieson, Labor Unionism in American Agriculture (New York:  Arno Press, 1976), 439.

3 _Yakima Daily _Republic, 15 August 1933.

4 “Ranchers Battle Mob of IWW,” Yakima Daily Republic, 24 August 1933.

5  According to Historian James Newbill, “Several people who witnessed, took part in, or interviewed participants in the event believe that sheriffs officers were near the scene.”  James G. Newbill, “Farmers and Wobblies in the Yakima Valley, 1933,” _Pacific Northwest Quarterly_ 68 (1977):  84.

6 Newbill, 85.

7 Ibid., 86.

8 “State Patrol Bans Meeting of Agitators” Yakima Daily Republic, 28 August 1933.

9 Daniel, “Wobblies on the Farm,” 172.

10 Newbill, 86. On Goold’s arrest, see the Yakima Daily Republic, 9 August 1933.

11 Robert Justin Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America from 1870 to 1976 (Champaign:  University of Illinois Press, 2001), 224

12 The memory of the stockade is kept alive in the 1939 Dorothea Lange Photograph “General Caption No. 31,” in Daring to Look (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2008), 160.

13 Daniel, “Wobblies on the Farm,” 175.