Farmers in the years before World War I faced thoroughly modern economic stresses and labor conflicts as the scale of their enterprises increased. By World War I, Midwestern and Great Plains farmers had come to rely on large pools of seasonal migrant labor, mostly unemployed urban workers from Chicago and other Midwestern cities, to harvest wheat or corn. Workers faced long hours and low wages, isolated in temporary camps without permanent homes or meeting places. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union attempted to organize these “harvest stiffs.” The radical “Wobblies” argued that wheat farmers were businessmen in a protected industry who, thanks to wartime government price supports, reaped large profits and returned none of that wealth to those who actually harvested their crop. E. F. Doree, an IWW organizer, described in detail the difficult conditions migrants faced and mocked the idea of rural work as wholesome and benevolent with the famous joke that in the wheat states, the “eight-hour work day” prevailed—“eight hours in the forenoon, eight hours in the afternoon.”
The great, rich wheat belt runs from Northern Texas, through the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South and North Dakotas, into Canada, and not a few will point with pride to the fact that last year we had the largest wheat crop in the history of this country. But few are the people who know the conditions under which they work who gather in these gigantic crops. . . .
The exceedingly long work day is the worst feature of the harvesting so far as the worker is concerned. The men are expected to be in the fields at half past five or six o’clock in the morning until seven or half past seven o’clock at night, with from an hour to an hour and a half for dinner. It is a common slang expression of the workers that they have an “eight-hour work day”—eight in the morning and eight in the afternoon. . . .
This is about the poorest section of the entire harvest season for the worker. The following little story is told of the farmers of Central Nebraska:
“What the farmers raise they sell. What they can’t sell they feed to the cattle. What the cattle won’t eat they feed to the hogs. What the hogs won’t eat they eat themselves, and what they can’t eat they feed to the hired hands.” . . .
The farmers in South Dakota do not believe in “burning daylight,” so they start the worker to his task a little before daybreak and keep him at it till a little after dark. If the farmer in South Dakota had the power of Joshua, he would inaugurate the twenty-four-hour workday. . . .
News has come in to the effect that the farmers are already organizing their “vigilance committees,” which are composed of farmers, businessmen, small town bums, college students and Y. M. C.A. scabs. The duty of the vigilance committee is to stop free speech, eliminate union agitation, and to drive out of the country all workers who demand more than goin' wages." . . .
Arrayed against the organized farmers is the Agricultural Workers' Organization, which is made up of members of the I.W.W. who work in the harvest fields. It is the object of this organization to systematically organize the workers into One Big Union, making it possible to secure the much needed shorter workday and more wages, as well as to mutually protect the men from the wiles of those who harvest the harvester. . . .
Source: E. F. Doree, “Gathering the Grain,” International Socialist Review (June 1915). Reprinted in Joyce L. Kornbluh, ed., Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964; 3d ed. 1968), 243–247.
See Also:Defending the Wheat Farmer: "The Farmer and Three Dollar Wheat"
"Harvest Land": A Lyrical Critique of John Farmer