Cultural diversity is one of the modern Labor Movement’s greatest strengths. Labor celebrates the richness of multiculturalism and recognizes that the united voice above all else is the fabric that holds this Movement together. But the Labor Movement has not always been a bastion of racial understanding. In 1903 in the beet fields of Oxnard, a battle came to a head, not only between the workers and the employer but between those wishing to create more diversity in Organized Labor and those wishing to protect the interest of the established unions.
The city of Oxnard began as one of the emerging “boom towns” in California at the turn of the century. The construction of an immense sugar beet factory run by the Oxnard brothers’ American Beet Sugar Company drew hundreds into the area, forming a new community. But as the city grew, the influx of Mexican and Chinese agricultural workers created racial tension between white farmers and merchants and the non-white laborers.
The agricultural workers formed the Japanese Mexican Labor Association (JMLA). The workers, as part of the JMLA, protested the high commission fees they had to pay to the company that contracted the work, the Western Agricultural Contracting Company (WACC) and they accused the company of paying less than what they had promised. Workers also demanded the freedom to purchase goods from places other than the company store.
On Feb. 3, 1903, 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican sugar beet workers struck against the company and their labor contractor ( also known as the Oxnard Strike of 1903). By March, the union had grown to 1,200 members and represented about 90 percent of the entire workforce.
On March 23, violence broke out. One Mexican worker, 21-year-old Luis Vasquez, was killed and four others (two Mexican and two Japanese) were wounded. An inquest into the death blamed the violence and shooting on the strikers, although witness after witness testified that armed Anglo farmers shot into the crowd. After the incident, the company conceded to the union’s demands for better pay and the abolition of an unfair subcontracting system.
The Oxnard Strike of 1903 was a significant historical event because some consider it the first time, in American History, that people of different racial backgrounds allied together to form a labor union.
“We are going to stand by the men who stood by us in the long, hard fight that ended in a victory over the enemy.”
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