Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Violence in the Fields: California Filipino Farm Labor Unionization during the Great Depression. By Howard De Witt. Saratoga: Century Twenty One Publishing, 1980. Bibliography. Index. 139 pages.
Reviewed by Rizalino A. Oades, Assistant Professor of History, San Diego State University.
The total scope and impact of Filipino labor unionization, a significant phase of California agricultural history, has heretofore escaped notice, or at least scholarly analysis. In the recent past, it has been met with a general lack of understanding among scholars and a curious disinterest among surviving participants. Professor De Witt has made an honest, intelligent attempt to fill this deficiency. He cites “the reaction of the white community, the social stereotypes which played a key role in anti-Filipino sentiment, the employment barriers which prevented full use of educated Filipinos, and finally, the legal-political controls which placed young Filipinos in a social-economic vacuum” (p. vii) as reasons for Filipino workers’ strong commitment to labor union organization.
The book, developed out of four papers the author delivered to professional historical meetings, consists of five chapters and a valuable bibliographical essay. The introductory chapter gives a perceptive overview of the problems Filipinos encountered such as stereotyping, their early reactions to agricultural violence, and the genesis of Filipino labor unions. In subsequent chapters, the Watsonville race riot of 1930 and its aftermath, the relationship of Filipinos to the Communist organizers in the Imperial Valley, the organization of the Filipino Labor Union (F.L.U.), and the Salinas lettuce strike of 1934 are analyzed in detail. The final chapter summarizes the conclusions drawn.
Filipinos inherited the racial barriers against the Chinese and Japanese in California. They became targets of prejudice, political opportunism, greed, and extreme hostility. This hostile social climate and the sense of inequality and the residue of bitterness from the Great Depression may be regarded as a catalyst for Filipino unionization efforts. Anti-Filipino vigilante groups made their presence known during the 1930s. As built-in racist attitudes led to violent attacks, De Witt theorizes that Filipinos were inevitably driven to the arms of labor union ideas. He states that labor unions “laid to rest most of the racial stereotypes concerning Asian labor” (p. 111). The F.L.U.’s success in the Salinas lettuce strike was an early indication of the power possessed by ethnic labor unions. Though white political reaction toward Filipino labor activity increased, few agribusiness leaders recognized the full impact of ethnic unionization. Not until the 1960s was the full force of Filipino labor attitudes and ideas recognized in California fields.
By far the most interesting part of the book is the F.L.U. story which is treated at length. This reviewer found the activity of Filipino labor contractors of special interest. Many of them “played a dangerous two-sided game,” creating confusion and instability in the Filipino labor movement. De Witt’s discussion of the intriguing labor brokers was limited and definitely deserves further study; it is hoped that this will be done with the same insight as the rest of his work and be as well documented. De Witt’s careful and scholarly approach to his data is commendable; he rarely ventures beyond conclusions warranted by the material. Occasionally, organization is lacking but the style lends to the work’s readability and the narrative is very smooth.
The importance of studying the past to understand the present is exemplified in a book such as this.