Farm Workers in Washington State History Project

Chapter 4

Asians and Latinos Enter the Fields

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by Maria Quintana and Oscar Rosales Castañeda

Until the late twentieth century, the majority of agricultural workers in Washington State were white, native-born, mostly single men under the age of 40. Therefore, early organizing strategies among farm workers usually involved male white migrant men. Organizing efforts that did involve people of color generally occurred separately from white labor struggles, as in the case of Filipino labor unionism in the 1930s.  

Despite the fact that there were enclaves of ethnic laborers in Washington State by the 1920s, initial efforts to organize and unite workers of color occurred mostly in the American Southwest, especially California, where the laboring population was supplemented early on with native and immigrant laborers.[1] In California, more readily than in Washington, the IWW did sometimes provide farm laborers “one big union for all.” In early 20th century California, various IWW newspapers attest to the presence of Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish surnames amongst the ranks of Wobbly members and activist circles.[2] 

In Fresno, California, organizers, including Mexican and Italian Wobblies, promoted a fusion of labor syndicalism and cross-ethnic and cross-racial solidarity.[3] As early as 1903, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) struggled in a bitter strike on the sugar beet fields of Oxnard, California.[4] Of concern to JMLA members was the artificial suppression of wages, the unfair subcontracting system, and the inability to buy goods anywhere other than at the company store, with its highly inflated prices. After a hard-fought struggle, the Western Agricultural Contracting Company conceded to most of JMLA’s demands, again lending to the organization’s pioneering mystique.[5] In subsequent years, the immigrant exclusion acts and the deportation of Mexican labor organizers led to the eventual demise of the JMLA. However, their cross-racial solidarity would later inflect the UFW movement in the Pacific Northwest.  

While white male migrant laborers were the majority in Washington farm fields prior to the 1980s, it is important to note that Native American men and women had always supplemented the farming workforce in Washington State, particularly in the hop fields and in fish farming.[6] For generations, despite the disruptions associated with American settlement, Indians not only subsisted on fish but also farmed and fished commercially. In addition, they joined the farm labor force, working for white farmers, harvesting crops such as hops.[7]  

The Chinese were the first group of nonwhite immigrants to work as farm laborers in the U.S.[8] Originally, most Chinese men found employment in railroad construction, but when the transcontinental railroads completed construction, thousands lost their jobs. Excluded from mine work by whites, they began to work in West Coast agriculture as farm laborers, aspiring to be farm owners themselves.[9] The Chinese were used by growers to compete with and discipline white workers. Paid less than whites (or Indians) growers hoped they would provide a means to prevent white worker’s strikes. The resulting racial antagonism helped to ensure a divided working class and a dominant employer class.[10] 

The California labor movement and racist elements in the electorate pushed for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. One exploitable labor force was supplanted with another when the immigration of Japanese workers began in the 1890s. However, many Chinese still continued working in agriculture, forming associations, or "tongs," to channel employment opportunities.[11] 

In the early 20th Century Japanese became the largest Asian group on the West Coast, including Washington State. Most were involved in agriculture, initially as farm laborers, then acquiring land and establishing small but highly productive fruit and vegetable farms. In the days before World War II when Bellevue, Washington, became a white suburb, it was sometimes known as “Jap Town” because of the many Japanese-owned farms in the area.[12] The Kent Valley and the region of Pierce County that Japanese Americans called Furusato also saw large numbers of Japanese-owned farms. Like their counterparts all along the West Coast, Japanese families in western Washington turned open land into productive, valuable farms, often making their living from small tracts and selling their produce in the city.[13]  

By the early 1920s, Japanese farming success had fed a racist reaction. White farmers, resenting the competition, demanded legislation to force Japanese out of the farming business.[14] A two-year-long xenophobic campaign resulted in the passage of the Alien Land Law in 1921, making it illegal for Japanese to purchase or own land in the State of Washington. Before the Alien Land Act, Washington state Japanese families tilled 25,000 acres. Two years later, they cultivated about 13,000 acres.[15] 

Meanwhile, some Japanese continued to work as farm laborers as did members of another Asian immigrant group: South Asians, principally from India.[16] Growers hoped that South Asians would undercut the wage rates and organization potential of other workers. This did not always work, as Japanese, Chinese, and Asian Indian workers tended to arrive in the fields as a group, starting and stopping work together, lending to farm owner’s fear of a strike. In addition, many of the South Asian workers and some Japanese shared an interest in radical ideas and unionism. However, a coordinated strike was rare among Asian laborers in Washington prior to 1930.[17]

The passage of tough immigration restriction laws in 1920 and 1924 ended legal immigration from Asian countries, while creating new openings for immigrants from the Philippines and Mexico, whose citizens were exempt from the most severe exclusions. The new laws also helped reshape racial hierarchies for those nonwhites who were already in the country or who would come during the decades between 1924-1965, producing the “illegal alien” as a new legal and political subject.[18] With white superiority justified by immigration laws, immigrant labor would suffer continuing exploitation and workers of color would contend with new forms of exclusion.

 Filipinos Organize

During the 1920s, in part because of the shortage of Japanese and Chinese workers, U.S. farmers began to encourage the immigration of Filipino laborers.[19] The Philippines were by this time a U.S. territory and thus were exempt from the terms of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.[20] Because of their legal status and because of their interest in nationalist and radical politics, Filipino farm laborers often became more aggressive about their rights and more aggressive about organizing unions than the Japanese and Chinese workers who had preceded them in the agricultural economy of the West. Starting in the 1930s, Filipinos would organize a series of farm labor unions in California, Oregon, and Washington.[21]

The history of Filipino American activism in the canneries of Alaska and the fields of Washington State is detailed in a special section of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project: “Filipino-American Activism Across Three Generations.” Filipino men, among them the not yet famous writer, Carlos Bulosan, began to immigrate in significant numbers in the 1920s, many intending to enter the University of Washington or the University of California. The universities were somewhat accommodating, but Filipinos found that the only jobs open to them were in the usual Asian labor market. They could work as houseboys, farm laborers, cannery workers, and little else.[22]

Filipino workers were often part of migrant labor circuit that traveled the coast from California through Washington to Alaska in the summer canning season. Despite this transient existence, Filipinos still organized and resisted. According to historian Dorothy Fujita Rony, “[Filipino] Farm workers in Washington State also engaged in work stoppages and strikes. By 1930, the Filipino Laborers’ Association was organizing in Seattle, Joe de Guzman as its president.”[23]

Initially, the association was ethnically exclusive and was separate from cannery workers. As Fujita Rony wrote, “Laborers continued their efforts in the region around Seattle…In their first strike, laborers stopped working in protest, and the ‘big Seattle farmers’ called the police…[the laborers were] jailed for two days for striking, as were other leaders in the union. The agricultural organizers then met with the cannery worker organizers, offering to join their efforts.”[24]

The two groups merged in 1933, creating the Cannery Workers and Farm Laborer's Union, based in Seattle. As union officer Antonio Gallego (Tony) Rodrigo recalled, “There was need for us Filipinos to organize an independent union and force higher wages, better working conditions. When we started the organizational work, we looked upon each other as brothers. To me, it did not matter what island they came from or what dialect they spoke. They were all Filipinos like me. We needed to be united.”[25]

CWFLU quickly applied for an American Federation of Labor charter, becoming one of the first AFL unions to be led by workers of color. Its membership later included Chinese, Japanese, and a few White and Mexican workers, but the majority through the 1930s and 1940s were Filipinos as were the key leaders. The union has had a long and turbulent history involving bloody strikes, the assassination of two sets of leaders, several changes of name, jurisdiction, and affiliation. Today it survives as Local 37 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), representing workers in the Alaska canneries.[26]

Other unions emerged in California and Oregon and concentrated on Filipinos working in agriculture. Sociologist Stuart Jamieson recorded ten California strikes that Filipino workers participated in between 1932 and 1934. That year, Filipinos working in the lettuce fields near Stockton, California formed the Filipino Labor Union (FLU) and that summer launched a strike in coordination with a union representing the mostly white packing shed workers. It was briefly successful, but when the packing shed workers won their negotiations, they abandoned the field workers, leaving the Filipino Union to the mercy of growers and vigilante mobs. A labor camp was invaded and burned and 800 Filipino workers were taken at gun point and forced to leave the county.[27]

Yakima and other parts of Washington State saw similar examples of organizing, short strikes by Filipino workers, and violent responses by growers and sometimes white workers. In spite of the violent response from growers, Filipino farm workers would continue to form unions in the 1940s and 1950s. In California in 1965, the mostly Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Larry Itliong, would join with the Mexican-American based National Farmworkers Association to form the United Farm Workers (UFW), sparking decades of farm labor organizing. 

The Bracero Program and Ethnic Mexican Laborers 

Mexicans had been part of Washington's population since the 19th century, but a small part. In very small numbers they had come to the cities and also to the farm areas, but until the 1940s their presence was rarely noted. This was in contrast to California and the Southwest where Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants had long been an important part of the farm labor force. Those areas, however, had witnessed the great "repatriation" campaigns of the 1930s, when up to 500,000 Mexicans, including US citizens, were persuaded or forced to return to Mexico.

 Manpower shortages during World War II triggered an abrupt change in immigration policy. The need for agricultural labor in the 1940s led to the agreement between the governments of Mexico and the United States that created the Bracero Program (term derived from the Spanish word brazo, meaning “arm”).[28]

The Bracero labor program ushered in a new era in Washington’s farm labor history. Mexico and the United States initiated the Bracero Program under PL-45 as a temporary contract labor program on August 4, 1942. It was designed in response to the need for farm labor during WWII, when many able-bodied laborers were away at war. The program continued beyond the war years and was not removed permanently until 1964. The Bracero contract agreement dispatched an immigrant Mexican workforce to work in the agricultural industry and on the railroads of the U.S., especially in the Southwest. 

 Like other U.S. states, Washington State was heavily reliant on agriculture production for war-time consumption. The pull of the emergent war industry in the Portland and Seattle areas resulted in an inadequate agricultural labor supply in the valleys, prompting the formation of community harvest committees. Upon implementation of the Bracero Program, approximately twenty-one percent of the 220,640 laborers who entered the U.S. under PL-45 were contracted to farmers in the Northwest. As a requisite for acquiring braceros, farmers had to organize farm labor associations so as to enter into contracts with Mexican workers.

 Despite positive commentary and the idealization of braceros by agribusiness farm owners, the program as a whole was hardly tailor-made for the region. Tensions between braceros and local workers ran rampant, especially in places like the Yakima Valley, where distrust of foreign workers had historically often led to violence. On top of the violence braceros potentially faced, growers’ self-interests put workers’ lives in danger. “In spite of the fact that the men were selected in Mexico for their good health, they soon developed illnesses, such as appendicitis, tuberculosis, arthritis, jaundice, or meningitis, and suffered serious accidents while in the Pacific Northwest.”[29] Poor working conditions, coupled with an overtly hostile environment in many cases often attributed to job desertion.

Consequently, the Mexican consul eventually solicited an attorney to sue the Eastern Washington Co-op Beet Growers Association in a case involving braceros. In addition, growers’ inability to adhere to the basic tenets of labor protections forced many work stoppages in the region. Unlike their contemporaries in other parts of the country, braceros in the northwest were not at all shy about initiating strikes. The stream of work stoppages was a consistent pattern from 1943 until the end of PL-45 in 1947.[30] Often times, strikes were accomplished by word of mouth, as braceros from different camps communicated their wages to other camps. Learning of higher wages in the other camps, they would strike to receive the same pay rate.

This caused great consternation among farmers during the war years, when work stoppages could imperil production. The distance from the Mexican border meant northwest farmers didn’t have the luxury of immediate replacements. They could only hope to get the workers back on the job as soon as possible. Bracero labor resistance ultimately led to the demise of the Bracero Program in the northwest. Growers shifted to ethnic Mexican workers from the southwest to replace the braceros, effectively ending participation in the program at the end of PL-45. 

 In the years since the Bracero Program’s demise, former participants have garnered national as well as international attention to a grievance never resolved with the U.S. and Mexican governments. In the 1940s, farmers had deducted pay from workers paychecks that they promised to return to them when they returned to Mexico at the end of their contracts. Many of these workers never received their pay. This debate came to a head in the 1990s and early 2000s, via federal court lawsuits on the West Coast. The lack of worker protections were highlighted in the proceedings and have also factored in recent discussions concerning renewed attempts to create a new “guest worker” program. As of 2008, the Braceros’ grievance remains unresolved.

The Bracero Program was not the only source of Mexican-American migration. Indeed, many of the families who came to Washington State in the decades after 1940s were not from Mexico at all, but rather from Texas. Before PL-45 was conceived, Latino/a migration northward was part of an already existent mass migration. Historian James N. Gregory writes, “Ever since it was taken from Mexico, Texas had been the heartland for Latin Americans living in the United States.”[31] Gregory further notes that by 1970 "26 percent of all Texas-born adult Latinos lived outside that state." Many had moved to California starting in the 1940s, but others had turned north, looking for work in the cities or farm regions.[32]

Some of the Tejanos moved to the Pacific Northwest, joining immigrant Mexicans in the changing farm labor force of the region. Many came from the sugar beet fields of Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana. Most had reached the mountain states after being recruited by agents from the sugar company, who paid train fare to the work areas. To keep a stable workforce, companies encouraged laborers to settle near sugar beet growing areas. As Jesus Lemos noted, “By the use of several kinds of contracts, such as selling the workers plots of company land with company financing or offering five dollars per acre of beets if the family agreed to stay, the sugar companies obligated the workers to the company and to stay in the area year round.”[33] This movement from the southwest, coupled with immigration from Mexico via the Bracero Program, shaped the ethnic Mexican and larger Latino communities in Washington State.

Next: Ch. 5 -- Mexican-American Struggles to Organize, 1945-1965

"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 (©) Maria Quintana and Oscar Rosales-Castañeda

[1] Greg Hall, Harvest Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World and Agricultural Laborers in the American West, 1905-1930 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001), 58. Traditionally, the farmhand had been an apprentice farmer who would eventually earn enough from his wages to purchase his own farm. This would change as agricultural work shifted from single-family farms to large industrial farms in California. These industrial farms would require a large number of temporary wage laborers and supervisors to manage the workforce. By the late nineteenth century, waves of immigrants supplied farm owners with inexpensive labor.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Oxnard Strike of 1903 is regarded as the first time in U.S. History that a labor union was formed by members of different racial groups. See Thomas Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 191.

[5] In spite of the group’s success, the AFL refused to grant the JMLA affiliation unless they excluded Asian laborers.

[6] Alexandra Harmon, Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998),171.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hall, 32.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1989), 29.

[11] Hall, 33.

[12] David Niewert, Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 42.

[13] Ronald E. Magden, Furusato: Tacoma-Pierce County Japanese 1888-1988 (Tacoma, 1998).

[14] See Nicole Grant, "White Supremacy and the Alien Land Laws of Washington State," Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project <>.

[15] Magden, 62-63.

[16] Hall, 34.

[17] Ibid., 45.

[18] Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 4.

[19] Takaki, 30. At this point, farmers were also importing more Mexican laborers. The Immigration Act of 1924 allowed some immigration from North American countries, but heavy restrictions would be imposed on Mexicans during the 1930s.

[20] Filipino laborers were exempt from immigration restriction policies because the Islands had become a U.S. colony as a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Immigration restrictions were imposed in 1935.

[22] See Carlos Bulosan, America is in the Heart: A Personal History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1946), which documents the migratory nature of Filipino/a existence in the rural West.

[23] Dorothy Bintang Fujita Rony, “You Got to Move Like Hell: Trans-Pacific Colonialism and Filipina/o Seattle, 1919-1941,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, 1996, 198.

[24] Ibid., 199.

[25] Fred Cordova, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1983), 73.

[26] CWFLU Local 18257 changed its name several times since its inception in 1933, becoming United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse, and Allied Workers of America Local 7 (UCAPAWA 7) under the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1937, Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union of America Local 7 (FTA-CIO 7) in 1947, International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union Local 7-C (ILWU 7-C) in 1949-50, and finally ILWU Local 37 in 1951. For a detailed look at the formation of CWFLU Local 18257 see: Crystal Fresco, “Cannery Workers' and Farm Laborers' Union 1933-39: Their Strength in Unity,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. 2004-2006 

[27] Stuart Marshall Jamieson, Labor Unionism in American Agriculture (New York: Arno Press, 1976), 129-32. Some important sources on the history of the Filipino community in Washington State, and specifically in Seattle during this time period can be found in the following sources: Fred Cordova, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1983); Dorothy Bintang Fujita Rony, “You Got to Move Like Hell: Trans-Pacific Colonialism and Filipina/o Seattle, 1919-1941,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, 1996; Dorothy B. Fujita Rony, American Workers, Colonial Power: Phillipine Seattle and the Transpacific West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

[28] During this initial mass-relocation, approximately 500,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were repatriated to Mexico by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). This largely forced migration included many U.S. Citizens who were ‘encouraged’ to voluntarily migrate south of the U.S.-Mexico border in the years following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequent economic depression in the U.S. In 1954, ‘Operation Wetback’ was initiated by the INS under the supervision of Gen. Joseph Swing. Swing coordinated the border patrol, state and local officials as well as police in an operation that captured over one million people, many of them U.S. citizens. Though intended to return “illegal aliens” to their place of origin, tactics used included massive police operations in swarming the barrios in the southwestern states in which all “Mexican-looking” people were detained. Fearing potential violence resulting from the increased militarized police presence, many voluntarily repatriated. Opponents of the operation on both sides of the border condemned the “police-state” methods used by agents, leading the program to be abandoned.

[29] According to historian Erasmo Gamboa, “The farmers’ lack of attention to the safety of the braceros in the work place resulted in senseless disabling and sometimes fatal accidents. In part, these mishaps stemmed from the fact that braceros had little experience with the types of agriculture machinery found in the Northwest.” Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest 1942-1947 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 69-70.

[30] Some instances of work stoppages include occurrences such as an event on June 17, 1946, where four hundred Mexican ‘Braceros’ from three labor camps near Nampa, Idaho, went on strike. Over six hundred additional workers from Marsing, Franklin, Upper Deer Flat, and the Amalgamated Sugar Company camps later joined in.

[31] James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How The Great Migrations Of Black And White Southerners Transformed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 34.

[32] Gregory, 35.

[33] Jesus Lemos, “A History of the Chicano Political Involvement and the Organizational Efforts of the United Farm Workers Union in the Yakima Valley, Washington,” Master’s Thesis, University of Washington (1974), 40.

(Click images to enlarge)

Kitaro and Sueko Arima dairy farm in Kent, Washington, ca. 1919. It was not uncommon for Japanese families to eventually own their own farms in Washington State.

Wheat Farmer, Whitman County, Washington, 1941. Library of Congress.

Native American and White Hop Workers pose for a photograph.

Ten boys and young men hoe a field in Spokane, Washington, 1910s. Northwest Musem of Art and Culture.

Native American woman with hop basket ca. 1900s. Museum of History and Industry, Seattle.

Puget Sound area hop pickers pose with baskets, Washington, ca. 1893. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

Puget Sound Area farm workers, both men and women, pose in a hop field in Washington, ca. 1890-1895. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

Chinese workers operating machinery in a fish cannery in Bellingham, Washington, n.d. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

Migrant Worker Camp, ca. 1930s. Library of Congress.

Filipino union activism was strong in Washington State by the 1930s. This photo shows the Cannery Workers' and Farm Laborer's Union's (CWFLU) founding members, 1933.

CWFLU members on Labor Day, 1936. For more, see Filipino Cannery Unionism Across Three Generations, 1930s-1980s.

Farm Labor Office, Yakima, 1947. Yakima Valley Memory Project, Yakima Regional Library.

The following U.S. Department of Labor photographs are from Erasmo Gamboa's seminal text Mexican Labor and WWII: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947

Final check by U.S. immigration officials before departing from Mexico. U.S. Department of Labor.

U.S.-bound Braceros at the Recruitment center in Mexico. U.S. Department of Labor.

Braceros being processed in Mexico. U.S. Department of Labor.

Braceros at lunch in a mess hall. U.S. Department of labor.

Bracero at work in an Idaho hop field. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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