As we celebrate Labor Day, we can sometimes take for granted the benefits won by the American labor movement, like the fact that most of us have Mondays off.
But efforts to establish a minimum wage, 40-hour work weeks, safe working conditions and paid vacations have been accompanied by more than a few physical clashes between workers and management, and those that management has hired to work. protect its interests.
In the Yakima Valley, one such confrontation was the “Battle of Congdon Orchards”, when farmers fought with members of the Industrial Workers of the World over the union’s efforts to win better wages and hours. for agricultural workers.
The IWW, informally known as the “Wobblies”, were organized in 1905. The IWW sought to represent all workers, skilled or unskilled. They were known for their radical anti-capitalist politics and their militant positions on labor issues.
One of their most famous members was Joe Hill, an organizer who wrote many pro-worker IWW songs. Hill was executed at the Utah State Penitentiary in 1915 for a murder most historians say he did not commit.
Hill is considered a martyr by the IWW, who maintain that he was executed for his labor activism among Utah silver miners.
In Washington, the Wobblies found success among migrant workers who came to work in the fields and orchards. And they have raised the ire of producers and breeders, as well as local governments.
In Yakima, Wobblies were arrested for violating a city ordinance requiring permits for public speeches in the downtown core, an ordinance that would be overturned today on constitutional grounds.
In 1933, during the Great Depression, the Wobblies were looking for better wages for farmhands. The men worked 10 hours a day for a penny an hour, or about $2.17 when you adjust it for inflation. Women were only required to work eight hours, but they only received eight cents an hour, or $1.74 in today’s currency.
The 110 Farmworkers Industrial Union sought to have all workers paid 35 cents an hour — about $7.59 after adjusting for inflation — with everyone working eight hours a day.
This campaign began with strikes in the Moxee hop fields, which led to the arrest of some of the union leaders, who were freed thanks to the work of Mark Litchman, a lawyer hired by the IWW.
The arrests did not deter union organizers, who continued to press for better wages and hours. And the producers were ready to push back even harder.
“Like the vigilantes who brought law and order out of anarchy during the California Gold Rush of 1949, ranchers in five districts of the lower Yakima Valley . . . are organized and ready to act at any moment to repel any invasion of union agitators,” reported the Yakima Daily Republic on August 15, 1933.
On August 23, 1933, the union appointed a strike committee and renewed its demands for an eight-hour workday, this time demanding 50 cents an hour, or $10.84 in today’s currency. And if the demand was not satisfied, the workers went on strike the next day.
True to its word, the union has been picketing Selah and Congdon Orchards in the West Valley. Farmers, armed with clubs, pickaxe handles and other weapons, approached the strikers, forcing them off the orchard property.
According to the Daily Republic’s account, the farmers asked the ‘agitators’ to move on, while the union members said they had a right to be there and did not have the right to be there. intent to cause trouble.
But at some point, someone threw the first punch. It is unclear whether it was a farmer or a laborer. But the battle began and the farmers, who outnumbered the union members by a ratio of 2 to 1, prevailed despite the workers’ efforts to defend themselves.
The farmers then marched their 67 captives downtown, where a stockade was erected south of the courthouse specifically to house the Wobblies.
Fifteen people were injured in the melee, including a farmer who suffered a fractured skull.
The farmers received no punishment for their role in the fight. Instead, the authorities were on their side.
The sheriff’s chief criminal deputy, HT Armstrong, vowed he would stop civil unrest even if it meant putting up barbed wire around the county. National Guardsmen mounted a .30 caliber machine gun at the main Selah intersection, as well as Yakima Avenue and Front Street.
Guards with fixed bayonets also used tear gas to disperse a crowd on Front Street and banned all public meetings.
In December, Litchman and prosecutors reached an agreement to end the situation. Twelve strikers would plead guilty to vagrancy and agree not to return to the county for a year, while charges were dropped against the others if they agreed not to sue the county.
County officials entered into the agreement because they did not want to bear the costs of bringing the union members to trial in court.
The palisade remained in place, as a warning to other union organizers, until 1943, when it was finally dismantled.
A relic of the battle, a pickaxe-handled mace, was recently displayed at the Yakima Valley Museum.