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Farm Workers in Washington State

The IWW in the Fields


by Oscar Rosales Castañeda

Long before the United Farm Workers, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized locally and nationally through their farm labor arm: the Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO).1 The IWW’s AWO engaged in one of the first serious attempts in Washington State to contest growers’ hegemony over the farm labor force. Members of the IWW agitated for farm worker rights, seeking improved wages and working conditions for those toiling the agricultural fields. Their actions had profound implications for future attempts to organize farm workers, and would influence the eventual formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the 1960s.

Formed on June 27, 1905 in Chicago, Illinois, the IWW sought to organize workers along the lines of industrial unions rather than the specialized trade or craft unions of the America Federation of Labor (AFL). The IWW embraced revolutionary socialism and extended membership to all workers, regardless of race, color or sex, in departure from and as an alternative to the white male-dominated AFL.2 The group’s ambitious attempt to create a massive umbrella organization for laborers was tempered by a philosophy that stressed worker solidarity and a revolutionary class-consciousness above all else.3 This is seen in such sayings as “an injury to one, is an injury to all,” and in a preamble to the IWW’s constitution that noted “[t]he working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”

Soon after establishing the IWW, organizers sought to incorporate a two-method approach in unionizing farm workers. One method was to educate workers on the benefits of a cooperative commonwealth of workers, industrial unionism, and revolution; the other was to go to work sites and recruit members directly. Both methods initially met with little success. This would change as the IWW and the AWO refined their tactics. In Washington State, the IWW would partake in free speech battles in Spokane and other cities. Riding on the free speech victory in Spokane, the IWW would send organizers to the Yakima Valley and other major fruit producing regions to persuade laborers to agitate for better working conditions. Greg Hall examines the campaigns in his book, Harvest Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World and Agricultural Laborers in the American West, 1905-1930.4

As early as the summer of 1910, IWW or “Wobbly” membership extended to Eastern Washington, from Spokane, Walla Walla, and the Palouse Region to Yakima (called North Yakima until renamed in 1918), among farm workers who were predominantly white migrant workers.5 IWW activists arrived early for the harvest season, disseminating literature and stickers as a way of spreading their message.6 Conflicts soon erupted with local law enforcement, as many cities prohibited the IWW from meeting publicly on street corners, effectively denying the right to freely associate peaceably in public. The police would also jail organizers as a way of enforcing the city’s restrictive statutes. This led the writers and editors of the IWW publication Industrial Worker to encourage Wobblies to organize in the field as opposed to street corners.

However, their advice was not always followed. In July 1910, IWW members John W. Foss and Joseph Gordon held a street meeting on Front Street in Yakima’s downtown area. In spite of the fact that they had a permit to speak, both members were arrested for violating the terms of the permit.7 Yakima was known for including work on chain gangs as part of jail time, which Foss and Gordon refused to do. The Police Captain resorted to feeding the two men a bread and water diet and forcing them to carry a ball and chain. This harsh treatment, while supported by the local press, was a severe reaction motivated by farm owners’ own fear that the IWW would win over migrant workers, especially during seasons when labor was scarce. The brutality worked and initial IWW attempts at organizing in Yakima fizzled out.

Organizing began again after the Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO) was created in 1915. The IWW held an initial harvest workers’ conference in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 15, 1914 and soon launched the AWO as one of several industrial syndicates within the IWW. The AWO changed strategies and stirred a new burst of activism in the field. The goal was to shift away from the soap-boxing and revolutionary statements to which the IWW was prone. Instead, they concentrated on building a stable organization and improving actual work conditions for harvest workers.8

In the summer of 1916, farm worker organizing efforts were renewed in Washington in a campaign to establish the AWO in the Yakima Valley. With several hundred Wobblies in the region, AWO leadership sent job delegates to Central Washington to reach out to independent harvesters and other agricultural workers. Additionally, there was a move to incorporate sheepherders, lambers, and shearmen into the union. Initially the action was stifled by bickering between the ethnically diverse groups, which included several Mexicans, Spaniards, and native-born whites. Despite the rifts, they went on strike to demand better wages.

The activity was met yet again with a brutal hand by local law enforcement. On September 16, 1916, police arrested eleven Wobblies at their rented rooms in downtown Yakima. The officers brought the men before Judge R.B. Milroy, who informed them that Yakima had no place for the Industrial Workers of the World. Area fruit growers apparently believed that the distribution of Wobbly literature among workers impeded recruitment of labor, and filed complaints against the local IWW.9

Repression had been common throughout the IWW’s early presence in the Yakima Valley. The local power brokers and commercial farmers used the justice system and other institutions to their advantage.10 State sanctioned repression was yet another layer added to the use of vigilante hostility. Valley newspapers not only sided with the status quo, but also encouraged vigilante violence against AWO organizers and workers.11

According to Hall: “The IWW found itself under attack as early as March 1917, when the state’s legislature passed a bill that would have made the ‘teaching of syndicates, sabotage or use of violence in industrial disputes’ a felony. With the IWW defined by the state lawmakers as an organization that adhered to such policies, members of the organization could now face arrest.”12

When the United States entered World War I a few months later, repression accelerated. The IWW opposed the war, considering it a capitalist war that wasted the lives of workers while allowing big business to profit. Federal authorities moved against the “seditious” organization, and in Washington, federal agents, in collaboration with local law enforcement, efficiently stifled AWO activity. Governor Ernest Lister solicited a group of spies to monitor and infiltrate the union. On July 9, 1917, federal troops raided the Wobbly Hall in Yakima, arresting 24 Wobblies and confiscating informational pamphlets. Spies fanned throughout the state, especially in the small towns where harvest hands gathered, reporting information to the chief of the Washington State Secret Service, C.B. Reed.13  Wobblies were never safe from arrest in Central Washington.

Wartime hysteria caused extra concern over workers organizing. Federal prosecutors launched a series of arrests and raids aimed specifically at the IWW in March of 1918. Federal agencies justified it as a crack down on “enemy aliens.” Postwar suppression continued well after the end of the war, most notably under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, with Department of Justice efforts collaborating in conjunction with the newly organized Bureau of Investigation and its General Intelligence Division.14 As Hall states, “…it became illegal to express ‘any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language’ concerning the United States government, the Constitution, the flag, or any armed services uniform.”15

The local press also served to foment antipathy toward the IWW and its members. The Yakima Daily Republic often misinterpreted the tactic of work slowdowns as sabotage and as pro-German disruptions. They maintained that the IWW intended to “spread poisons throughout orchards in the valley.”16

Despite the repression, the AWO retained a semblance of organization into the 1920s. As unemployment mounted in the post-war depression of 1921 and 1922, the organization renewed efforts to fight for farm worker’s rights under a new label. The AWO renamed itself the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union (AWIU).

Aware of the need to organize while maintaining a distance from the more controversial IWW, local workers organized the Fruit Workers Union of Yakima (FWUY), a group that soon affiliated with the white, male-dominated AFL. However, the fight against farm worker exploitation had declined. Growers circumvented negotiations with unions by making use of the ample non-union labor pool. It became foolhardy for the FWUY to take any strike action. So long as there was a sizeable labor pool, growers would have the upper hand by firing any laborer that dissented and hiring a new one.

Repression at the local and national levels slowly crippled the organization. The IWW and the AWIU accomplished little in farm worker organizing in the United States from the 1910s to the 1920s.17 Growers in the Yakima Valley and other major fruit-producing regions maintained their control by using the courts, the legislature, local law enforcement, print media, and violent action perpetrated by vigilante groups to destroy any attempt to contest the hegemony of the powered interests.

Ultimately, this had a debilitating toll on the organization, to the point that there were few resources to adequately aid organizational efforts. By 1924, many of the tacticians who had guided the IWW’s national rise were gone. Many of the foreign-born among them had been deported; others who were not imprisoned had either died or left the organization to work with the AFL or the American Communist Party.

As Greg Hall argues, the key factor in the IWW’s eventual downfall was that harvest Wobblies and the AWIU organizers “could not satisfactorily overcome [their] work life culture. [The] cultural bond that had acted as a powerful draw for migrant agricultural laborers in the 1910s and early 1920s ironically came to be an isolating force, creating a gulf between harvest Wobblies and other workers.” Stationary workers would ignore the union’s message. Latino and Asian farm workers were not attracted to the culture and ideas of the AWIU, which were still largely rooted in the transient, white-male experience.18 Even though some IWW members or “Wobblies” had initially sought to part from the AFL by including the racially and ethnically mixed mass of unskilled labor, that goal remained unachieved.

The AWIU’s eventual demise and the ensuing dissolution of the IWW as a whole can thus also be attributed to the IWW’s failure to recruit a more diverse laborforce. The IWW found the experiment of organizing harvest families, non-white workers, and the few AFL fruit union workers nearly hopeless. Even though the organization had extended membership to all workers, regardless of race, color or sex, it was unable to appeal to the social and cultural attributes of the workforce.19 Thus, during the 1920s and 1930s, living and working conditions of many migrants remained substandard.

Harvest “Wobblies” eventually disappeared entirely from the agricultural industry after the 1930s. Nevertheless, the AWO/AWIU would have a profound impact as one of the first major industrial unions to make an effort at organizing thousands of farm workers. During a period when exclusion of members based on race and national origin was commonplace with AFL-affiliated unions, the IWW had offered a unique and innovative approach for agricultural laborers.20 The Yakima Valley would remain largely quiet for the next two decades, except for one great flurry of activity in the Yakima Valley in 1933.

Next: Ch. 3, The 1933 Battle at Congdon Orchards

“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 The AWO was later renamed the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union (AWIU).

2 Prominent members of the IWW included the likes of William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, Carlo Tresca, Emma Goldman, Mother Jones, Joe Hill, and Ricardo Flores Magon (one of the intellectual progenitors of the Mexican Revolution of 1910).

3 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), 67-68. As Hall notes, the IWW encountered several obstacles to organizing in the Yakima Valley and struggled to create an effective strategy.  This was one of them.

4 Ibid.

5 The city of North Yakima was established soon after the Northern Pacific Railroad announced its decision in 1883 to bypass Yakima City and build its station four miles northwest of the town.  In 1884, 100 buildings were moved to the new site, where they would create the core of the new city, which became the seat of Yakima County in January of 1886.  By 1918, North Yakima shortened its name to “Yakima,” with the original Yakima City town site also changing its name to “Union Gap.”

6 Hall, 144.

7 Hall, 65-66. Opting not to pay the fines, Foss and Gordon instead accepted jail time as a way of paying off the fines.

8 Ross Reider, “Lumber Workers Industrial Union, IWW, holds founding convention in Spokane on March 5, 1917,”  _HistoryLink,  14 June 2005.  Electronic edition available online at:// cfm&fileid=7345._

9 Hall, 102.

10 Hall, 141.

11 The local paper printed editorials that played up the alleged Wobbly penchant for violence as well as the Wobbly tactic of accepting any wage offered by a farmer until reaching the field and then demanding a higher wage.  The local news noted that the IWW expressed such slogans as “more wages, shorter hours, better food or sabotage,” “abolition of the wage system,” and “good pay or bum work.” The press defended growers by arguing that local growers were not a capitalist elite, downplaying worker’s grievances.

12 Hall,128.

13 Ibid.,126.

14 This office was the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

15 As Hall notes, “federal officials jailed antiwar activists and those they considered a hindrance to the war effort.”  After the war, many states continued unrelenting campaigns aimed at suppressing dissident viewpoints by way of repressing radicals.  Hall, 157.

16 The _Yakima Daily Republic_ often convicted the Wobblies of pro-German sentiment, of having pockets filled with gold of suspicious origin, and of having plans to poison Yakima citizens.  Hall, 43.

17 Hall, 231.

18 Ibid., 232.

19 Ibid., 167.

20 According to Hall, a leaflet written by Seattle Wobblies and published in the Industrial Worker noted that “[n]ot only must your union take in the Negro, the Japanese, the Mexican, the foreign-born worker, the woman and the child, as well as the adult citizen, but it must make common cause with the rest of the workers.”  Hall, 180.