Most historians who have written about the 1903 strike of Mexican and Japanese farm workers against the Oxnard, California, sugar beet growers have relied on John Murray’s first-hand account of the strike and its aftermath. Murray, a socialist union organizer, went to Oxnard after learning of the strike through newspaper accounts of strike-related violence and rioting. Along with fellow union organizer Fred C. Wheeler, Murray assisted the farm workers’ union, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA), in negotiations with the Western Agricultural Contracting Company, which contracted laborers for local sugar beet farmers. When the American Federation of Labor refused to grant a charter to the JMLA unless the union excluded all Asian workers, Murray wrote this article, “A Foretaste of the Orient,” as both a chronicle of the strike and as a biting criticism of the AFL’s refusal to accept Asian- and African-American workers as members.
He who may not agree with the conclusions arrived at in the telling of this bit of California’s history, should at least value the facts narrated—for they are surely pregnant with meaning to those who study the history of the labor world.
The town of Oxnard is in Ventura county, about sixty miles north of Los Angeles, and was founded by the American Beet Sugar Company, in which Henry T. Oxnard is the central figure. On the evening of March 24, of the present year, the Associated Press dispatches announced that there was “riot” in Oxnard—that the Japanese and Mexican unions were terrorizing the town, shooting and killing peaceable non-union men, whose only desire was to exercise the right of American citizens and work for any wage they chose. Being within a few hours' ride of the place, the next morning’s train carried me to the gates of the sugar factory. My only companions on the car were a parcel of drummers, who were quite naturally anxious to know just how peaceful a state the town might now be in. To this end anyone who might know, and especially the conductor, was cross-questioned in a most thorough manner:
“How many men were killed—could the sheriff control the situation—was it safe for a traveling man to go about his business on the streets?” were some of the queries that received apparently confusing replies.
“Yes, there was a man killed and four others wounded—all union men—and the town is now quiet.”
“How’s that,” said a salesman for a wholesale hardware firm, “union men start a riot and only union men shot? Something queer about that! I know a house that shipped revolvers here last week—who bought 'em, that’s what I’d like to know. Couldn’t have been the unions if all the dead men are on the other side,”—which was without doubt a common senseconclusion from a purely business point of view.
Certainly the town seemed quiet, as I walked up from the station, the only noticeable thing being a little squad of Japanese union pickets that met the train and were easily recognized by their white buttons labeled “J. M. L. A.” (Japanese-Mexican Labor Association) over the insignia of a rising sun and clasped hands. Oxnard was full of those white buttons—and when the first thousand of them had been distributed, and no more obtainable, hundreds of beet thinners put red buttons in their buttonholes to show that they were union men.
On the presentation of my blue card, I was warmly welcomed at headquarters by J. M. Lizarraras and Y. Yamagachi, secretaries of the Mexican and Japanese unions. They had a plain tale to tell and one which I found was fully borne out by facts known to all the towns folk—for even the petty merchants, strange to say, freely acknowledged that the men had been bullied, swindled and shot down, without reason or provocation.
The Beet Sugar Company had fostered the organization of a scab contracting company—known as the Western Agricultural Contracting Company—whose double purpose was to reduce the price of thinning beets from five to as low as four and a quarter dollars an acre, and at the same time undermine and destroy the unions. Not content with the lowering of wages, they also forced the men to accept store orders instead of cash payments, with its usual accompaniment of extortionate prices for the merchandise sold. These tricks, of course, are as old as the hills, and consequently when the men rebelled there was a great surprise among the labor skinners, who had no idea that Japanese and Mexicans would ever have wit enough to unite for mutual protection, or that if they did temporarily unite, their organization could possibly last for any length of time, with the obstacles of different tongues, temperaments and social environments to bring speedy wreck to such a union. But the men did organize, did hang together—in spite of the rain of bullets which were poured down upon them—and finally whipped Oxnard’s beet sugar company, with its backing of millions.
To Socialists it is needless to point out that to whip a capitalist to-day means nothing more than that you must fight him again to-morrow, but the significance of this particular skirmish, in the great class war, lies in the fact that workers from the Occident and Orient, strangers in tongues, manners and customs, gathered together in a little western village, should so clearly see their class interest rise above all racial feelings of distrust.
Almost as soon as the union was formed, Major Driffel, manager of the Oxnard sugar factory, asked that a committee confer with him. It was done, and the following significant sample of conversation which took place was opened by the major with this question:
“I want to know the object of your organization?”
“The object,” said Secretary Lizarraras, “is to keep the old prices. The Western Agricultural Contracting Company cut prices to control the business and we could not compete.”
“You have a perfect right to do so,” replied the Major, "but I have heard that you have a scale of prices which is detrimental to the interests of the farmers, and the interests of the farmers are our interests, because if you raise the price of labor to the farmers and they see they cannot raise beets at a profit, we will have to take steps to drive you out of the country and secure help from the outside—even if we have to spend $100,000 in doing it."
With this ultimatum the union’s committee retired, and the war commenced in earnest. Secretary Yamagachi was arrested for holding an orderly street meeting and forced to furnish five hundred dollars bail—which he did, and was promptly acquitted by the jury that tried him. Two more Japanese were arrested for “disturbing the peace”—their offense being a successful persuasion of some thirty of their fellow countrymen to leave the company’s ranch and join the union. Failing in their attempts to break up the union by “legal” means, the union-smashers tried more forceful methods. Armed guards—drummed up from among the rifraf of the saloons—were stationed over the few non-union men that were still at work in the fields, and those who desired to quit the ranches, where they were “protected,” were not allowed to take their blankets, and, moreover, their pay was held up. Farmers sent orders into town for rounds of buckshot-cartridges, hoping with threats and intimidation to drive the men to their bidding. From the scab contracting company’s headquarters came rumors of the purchase of arms and ammunition in large quantities—and these were not false rumors, as the events that followed amply proved.
On Monday afternoon, of March 24, the employers played their last card and the crisis came. A farmer by the name of Arnold—notorious as a union hater—was deputized a constable, and, arming himself with two revolvers and considerable whisky, set about escorting a small number of scabs from the company’s boarding house to a nearby farm. A crowd of union men collected around the outgoing wagon, and, without show of force or violence, tried to persuade the scabs to join the union. The last scab to leave the boarding house for the wagon came out armed with a shotgun and revolver and the trouble commenced. The crowd tried to disarm him as he made his way through the press, and while a tussle for the possession of the shotgun was in progress, Deputy Constable Arnold stepped up behind a union man and shot him in the neck. This was the signal for a rain of bullets that poured down upon the crowd of unarmed union men from the doors and windows of the scab boarding house death followed the volley—one man being killed and four wounded.
All honor to the martyrdom of Louis Vasquez!—the first man to lay down his life for his mates in the town of Oxnard.
The unarmed union men were horrified but not frightened. They pursued and captured the fleeing Arnold and, after disarming him, handed him over to the police. Sheriff McMartin himself told me that if it were not for the protection afforded by the union leaders, Arnold would have been hung on the spot. In twenty minutes the whole affair was over. No arrests were made, because none but “strike breakers” were guilty of assault, and the next day the daily press all over the country broke out with scare heads telling of the “Riot in Oxnard.”
Proof of the complicity of the town and county officials was quick to follow. The place of holding the inquest was twice changed from one town to another—making the summoning of witnesses a most difficult feat—and the dead man’s body hurriedly given to the unions on two hours notice in such a decayed condition that immediate burial was necessary, thereby attempting to prevent the public demonstration of a big funeral. But in spite of this most vile scheme, nearly a thousand men escorted the body to its grave. Japanese and Mexicans, side by side, dumb through lack of a common speech, yet eloquent in expressions of fraternity, marched with uncovered heads through the streets of Oxnard. On the hearse was a strange symbol to Western eyes, a huge lotus flower—an offering from the Japanese union.
From the highest to the lowest, the officials of the county acted as one man in their attempts to suppress public investigation, the final proof of which culminated in the act of the district attorney, Selby, who refused to hold a preliminary examination of Deputy Constable Arnold, although nearly a dozen witnesses testified, at the inquest, that Arnold shot an unresisting union man in the neck and precipitated the killing.
The worth of the Japanese and Mexicans as labor organizers was now put to proof. At the Japanese headquarters there was system like that of a railroad office or an army in the field. They had a well-trained corps of officers—secretaries, interpreters, captains of squads, messengers, and a most complete system of information. A map of the valley hung on the wall, with the location of the different camps of beet thinners plainly marked. Yards upon yards of brown paper placards were constantly being tacked up, giving in picturesque Japanese lettering the latest bulletins, directions or orders. Meetings of the executive committees from the two unions were constantly being held for agreement as to mutual action. I was intensely interested at the manner in which they got over the difficulties of language at the conferences. The joint committees would gather around a long table—at opposite ends sat the respective presidents, secretaries and interpreters—and first the question to be discussed would be started in English, then each nationality in turn would listen to an explanation of the affair in its own language and come to the conclusion, then the results would be again stated in English and the final agreement recorded by the secretaries. Respect for order was a marked feature of these meetings, each nationality keeping politely silent while the other had the matter before it for discussion and decision. The innate courtesy, which is always found in Spanish blood, was fully equaled by the decorum of the Japanese.
Seeing that there was no law for their personal protection in Oxnard, the unions organized a patrol to cover the town. Squads of little Japanese and Mexicans relieved each other all through the night and day, for no man knew what the next murderous action of the strike breakers might be. On every hand troubles began to multiply. Many men were without a cent of money, and the unions opened a restaurant where those who were broke could get their meals. Funeral expenses, care of the wounded, and assistance to men who had families, were met by collecting the few dollars left in the pockets of the union men. To all of which the Japanese, being the richest, were the largest contributors.
A few days after the shooting, the unions published the following:
“STATEMENT TO THE PUBLIC”
"Owing to the many false statements printed in the Los Angeles Times and other daily papers about our organization and the murderous assault made upon the union men last Monday afternoon, we ask that the following statement of facts be published in justice to the thirteen hundred men whom the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association represents:
"In the first place, we assert, and are ready to prove, that on Monday afternoon, and at all times during the shooting, the union men were unarmed, while the non-union men, sent out by the Western Agricultural Contract Company, were prepared for a bloody fight with arms purchased, in many cases, recently from hardware stores in this town. As a proof of the fact that the union men were not guilty of the murderous violence, we point to the fact that the authorities have not arrested a single union man—the only man actually put under bonds, or arrested, being Deputy Constable Charles Arnold.
"Our union has always been law abiding, and has in its ranks at least nine-tenths of all the beet thinners in this section—who have not asked for a raise in wages, but only that the wages be not lowered, as was demanded by the beet growers. Many of us have families, were born in this country, and are lawfully seeking to protect the only property that we have—our labor. It is just as necessary for the welfare of the valley that we get a decent living wage, as it is that the machines in the great sugar factory be properly oiled—if the machines stop, the wealth of the valley stops, and likewise if the laborers are not given decent wage, they too, must stop work, and the whole people of the country will stop with them.
"We assert that if the police authorities had done their duty many arrests would have been made among the occupants of the company’s house from which the volleys of bullets came. In view of the fact that many disorderly men have lately been induced to come to Oxnard by the Western Agricultural Contract Company, and that they took part in the assaults of Monday afternoon, we demand that the police do not longer neglect their duty, but arrest those persons who plainly participated in the fatal shooting.
(Signed) J.M. LIZARRARAS,
Secretary of the Mexican branch of the Japanese-Mexican Protective Association.
Secretary of the Japanese branch of the Japanese-Mexican Protective Association."
Frightened at the turn things had now taken, Major Driffel, of the Beet Sugar Company, asked for a joint meeting of committees from the unions, the farmers and the company. The first day’s conference came to nothing, but at the second meeting the employers realized that they were facing a labor trust that had cornered all the available labor power in the valley, and so the men’s scale of prices was agreed to, with an additional pledge that all the idle union men would be immediately employed.
Twice, after this, the company tried to import a carload of scabs from Los Angeles—even going so far as to lock the last shipment in its car and receive them at the station with armed guards—but each time the new men joined the union as soon as they reached Oxnard—the last lot escaping from the car windows.
At this juncture, the Los Angeles County Council of Labor passed resolutions favoring the organization of all Asiatics now in California. This was done upon the recommendation of Comrade F. C. Wheeler, organizer for the A. F. of L. in Southern California, who had visited Oxnard, organized the two unions, and was much impressed by their fighting qualities.
So far everything was well with the beet thinners, the company whipped in the first battle of the local class-war and the field hands unionized. But a most unexpected and disheartening blow capped the climax of their struggles—a blow from behind. Samuel Gompers, while granting the Mexicans all rights and privileges, refused to grant the Japanese union a charter, and in his letter to Secretary Lizarraras made the following remarkable statement:
“It is further understood that in issuing this charter to your union, it will under no circumstance accept membership of any Chinese or Japanese. The laws of our country prohibit Chinese workmen or laborers from entering the United States, and propositions for the extension of the exclusion laws to the Japanese have been made on several occasions.”
In making such an extraordinary ruling, President Gompers has violated the expressed principles of the A. F. of L., which states that race, color, religion or nationality, shall be no bar to fellowship in the American Federation of Labor. California, alone, contains over forty thousand Japanese who, if unorganized, will be a continuous menace to union men.
“Better go to hell with your family than to heaven by yourself,” said the speaker whose stirring words decided the Mexican union to send back its charter to President Gompers, along with the following letter:
OXNARD, CAL., June 8, 1903.
"Mr. Samuel Gompers, Pres. American Federation of Labor, Washington, D. C.
"DEAR SIR: Your letter of May 13, in which you say: ‘The admission with us of the Japanese Sugar Beet & Farm Laborers into the American Federation of Labor cannot be considered,’ is received.
"We beg to say in reply that our Japanese brothers, here were the first to recog- nize the importance of co-operating and uniting in demanding a fair wage scale.
"They are composed mostly of men without families, unlike the Mexicans in this respect.
"They were not only just with us, but they were generous. When one of our men was murdered by hired assassins of the oppressors of labor, they gave expression of their sympathy in a very substantial form.
"In the past we have counciled, fought and lived on very short rations with our Japanese brothers, and toiled with them in the fields, and they have been uniformly kind and considerate. We would be false to them and to ourselves and to the cause of Unionism if we, now, accepted privileges for ourselves which are not accorded to them. We are going to stand by men who stood by us in the long, hard fight which ended in a victory over the enemy. We therefore respectfully petition the A. F. of L. to grant us a charter under which we can unite all the Sugar Beet & Field Laborers of Oxnard, without regard to their color or race. We will refuse any other kind of charter, except one which will wipe out race prejudices and recognize our fellow workers as being as good as ourselves.
"I am ordered by the Mexican union to write this letter to you and they fully approve its words.
Sec’y S. B. & F. L. Union, Oxnard."
The Japanese are publishing two papers in San Francisco, and another will be printed in Los Angeles by Mr. Shibuya as soon as the expected type arrives from Japan, so it can be easily seen how important their members would be to organized labor in the West. To Socialists they are particularly attractive, as the Japanese have proven themselves to be apt students of the international working-class movement that believes in a common ownership of the means of production and distribution. Their leaders in California—I speak of those whom I have met and talked with—one and all regard Socialism to be the logical conclusion of the trades union movement. The Opposition of their entrance into the A. F. of L. can only be temporary, as the unions of Southern California are practically unanimous in their favor, and I hear that since the writing of Gompers' letters, the National executive is reconsidering its action.
But the interesting phase to the student, in all this, is the evidence offered by the Oxnard episode to the effect that labor like capital, knows neither race prejudice nor national tradition when the class struggle is on. Even the Chinese in Oxnard—there were very few of them—aligned themselves with the unions, for they, too, wished to better their material conditions—a desire international, within the breast of man.
I cannot avoid the conclusion, forced on me by my contact with the Japanese and Mexicans in California—where they have of their own volition been organizing—that a social revolution is as possible among these people as any in the world, providing their immediate environment is the same. In fact, there is history making in China, to-day, that must lead a sound Marxian to feel no surprise if the conquest of private capital may not be first accomplished in Cathay.
John Murray, Jr.
Source: John Murray, “A Foretaste of the Orient,” International Socialist Review, 4 (August 1903): 72–79.