The Power and Betrayal of Cross-Ethnic Solidarity in the 1903 Oxnard Beet StrikeNews at Home
tags: agriculture, labor history, Farm Workers, Mexican American history, Japanese American history, California history, Asian American History
Frank P. Barajas is a professor of history at California State University Channel Islands. He is the author of Mexican Americans with Moxie: A Transgenerational History of El Movimiento Chicano in Ventura County, California, 1945-1975 (University of Nebraska Press, 2021). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The American Beet Sugar Company plant at Oxnard represented the consolidation of capital in the beet sugar industry against which ethnic Japanese and Mexican laborers struck in 1903.
One-hundred and twenty years ago this March, the Japanese Mexican Labor Association achieved victory in a bitter strike that saw five of their brethren wounded, one mortally, during a “general fusillade” in the streets of Oxnard, California that pitted unionists against private agents and law enforcement, who escorted imported scabs to labor in the sugar beet fields of the growers.
JMLA betabeleros (sugar beet workers), in a rare instance of cross-cultural solidarity in U.S labor history, united in struggle after a capitalist dictatorship of merchants, financiers, and industrialists of the American Beet Sugar Company invented the Western Agricultural Contracting Company. The Company would slash by fifty percent the wage rate of sugar beet thinning (the spacing of plants to boost their sugar content) and topping (the slicing of the leaves as the crop was harvested). This not only shriveled the already penurious livelihood of betabelero families forced to collectively toil, stooped over ten to twelve hours a day, just to subsist. It also impacted the income of Japanese and Mexican contractors who recruited, supervised, and collected fees from both their crews and growers.
César Chávez, the founder of the United Farm Workers Union, who labored as a boy in Ventura County’s fields and orchards during the Great Depression, harbored indignant memories of his family’s slog in the thinning of sugar beets with el cortito, the physically detrimental short-handled hoe that California banned in 1975. Of all the work he performed, Chávez deemed thinning “the worst kind of backbreaking job.”
Since labor is one of the largest (if not the largest) costs of agricultural production, the division of labor by race and classification permitted this capitalist economy to realize its supreme goal—the maximization of profits no matter the abusive work conditions.
Consequently, the 1903 Sugar Beet Strike is even more exceptional. As today, labor contractors provided a buffer between the growers and the direct exploitation of workers through low wages, nonexistent benefits, dawn-to-dusk workdays, and substandard housing. The use of labor contractors allowed growers, especially big operators, to have limited (or no) interaction with the people who made them rich.
Dating back to the Spanish colonization of Alta California, missionaries, Californios (Mexican elites, many of whom fantasized about a European lineage), and Anglo-Americans treated as virtual helots Native peoples, mestizo, and Asian workers. To feed the smoke-bellowing, state-of-the-art ABSC factory of Oxnard (completed in 1898 to be the nation’s leading producer of refined beet sugar), racially subordinated Mexican and Japanese workers cultivated, then harvested this monstrous carrot-shaped crop.
Knowing the critical nature of each phase of cultivation and harvesting, before the strike, bilingual Japanese labor contractors, keiyaku-nin, often halted their crews to renegotiate the abstemious wage rate from which they received their kickback. Vexed by the power of Japanese contractors, capitalist sugar beet interests created the WACC not only to monopolize and stabilize the contracting of labor, demoting Japanese and Mexican labor agents to subcontractors, but also to maximize their profit margin.
Meanwhile, the betabeleros, the lowest group in this hierarchy, paid commissions to both the WACC and subcontractors of labor.
To facilitate this stratagem, the WACC formulated two segregated subdivisions: one for ethnic Mexicans and the other for the Japanese. On top of this, the WACC established company-owned stores from which workers were compelled to purchase goods at inflated prices in place of wages. Ethnic Mexican and Japanese employees managed both sides of this business.
As detailed by San Francisco State emeritus Ethnic Studies professor Tomás Almaguer in a trenchantly analytical 1984 Labor History article, 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican betabeleros of the JMLA elected as their representative officers Kosaburo Baba (president), Y. Yamaguchi (secretary of the Japanese branch), and J.M. Lizarras (secretary of the Mexican branch). In 1903, journalist John Murray of the International Socialist Review reported on the interpreted, multilingual meetings of intelligence and strategy of the JMLA to achieve its goal: the abolition of the WACC’s monopoly of the contract labor system and the company stores.
Once organized in early February, JMLA members refused to work for the WACC. And as the strike persisted into March, the size of the union grew to 1,200; this enfolded over 90% of the betabeleros in Ventura County, according to Almaguer. The JMLA leadership then declared in the March 28 edition of the Oxnard Courier its determination to protect on behalf of their families “the only property that we have—our labor.”
To undermine the JMLA’s power, the WACC created the Independent Agricultural Labor Union and imported strikebreakers. The JMLA then utilized its social network to discourage compatriots near and far from serving as scabs; members wearing JMLA buttons also met arriving replacement workers at the nearby Montalvo railroad depot to enlist them to their side of the struggle.
As the labor dispute intensified a twenty-minute melee erupted on March 23rd in the Chinatown district of Oxnard as JMLA protestors stopped a wagon loaded with scab workers. They draped it with a union banner with its initials, the rising sun of Japan, and clasped forearms representing worker solidarity. This fight in the streets resulted in five JMLA members being shot, one of them—Luis Vasquez—fatally.
Despite the violence, the JMLA remained militantly resolute. Ultimately, a committee of growers agreed to contract directly with the JMLA. They also settled on a minimum wage for the thinning of sugar beets that was double the WACC rate. The deal ended the strike on March 30, 1903.
Subsequently, Murray and Fred C. Wheeler, both socialist organizers who assisted in the negotiation of the settlement, successfully lobbied the Los Angeles County Council of Labor to adopt a resolution supporting the unionization of all unskilled workers regardless of race. In mid-May, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, only partially agreed; he extended a charter to only the ethnic Mexican contingent of the JMLA, renamed the Sugar Beet and Farm Laborer’s Union, to not upset rank-and-file unionists who were virulently anti-Asian.
In an eloquent reply dispatched the next month, Lizarras, on behalf of his ethnic Mexican associates, denounced Gompers’ charter, saying they would not betray their Japanese brothers with whom they struggled and sacrificed blood.
In the end, the 1903 unionization of sugar beet workers in Ventura County dissipated. But farmworker families would rise in an unsuccessful betabelero strike thirty years later, this time with Filipino workers. And many other Ventura County labor protests—in citrus, eggs, and strawberries—would follow for the rest of the twentieth century. Some of these strikes won increased wage rates; most, however, failed in obtaining collective bargaining agreements.
In recognizing a historical consciousness critical to the cementing of cross-cultural labor solidarity, the Central Coast Labor Council AFL-CIO of Southern California organized a commemoration this past March 18th celebrating the 120-year anniversary of the 1903 Betabelero Strike. Close to 200 unionized workers in agriculture, education, grocery, healthcare, and service industries gathered in Oxnard’s downtown plaza with students and elected officials to not only to honor the victory of los betabeleros but also learn from the important lesson of interracial labor unity as history is a prelude to the present.