The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1983, Volume 29, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers, 1870-1941. By Cletus E. Daniel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Notes. Illustrations. Index. 348 Pages. $8.95 Paper.

Reviewed by Lawrence J. Jelinek, Assistant Professor of History, Loyola Marymount University, and author of Harvest Empire: A History of California Agriculture (1979)

Cletus Daniel begins this now familiar tragedy by exploring the rationalization process used by California’s emerging industrialized farmers in abandoning the traditional ideal that agricultural laborers were humble but honorable neighbors. For these farmers, capitalistic efficiency dictated the existence of a wretched peasantry. Like many other labor historians, Daniel argues that unionization represented the best hope by which farmworkers could reenter the ranks of the honorable proletariat. Based upon extensive primary research, Bitter Harvest provides a penetrating analysis of why farmworkers remained acutely powerless on the eve of the Second World War.

This impotence is usually interpreted as the result of the callousness and vigilantism of the exploiters in combination with the economic vulnerability of the workers and their internal dissension based upon ethnic and racial diversity. Workers and concerned liberals were doomed in their quest to redress the power imbalance. Daniel argues that the paternalism of the liberal establishment and the hostility of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations meant that the only allies the farmworkers had were a cadre of Communist organizers. These organizers proved their mettle because they largely abandoned party goals for bread and butter unionism. Workers and Communists made impressive progress toward unionization in 1933-34, only to fail when liberals undercut them almost as effectively as growers opposed them.

The reason for this liberal culpability was that Progressivism and the early New Deal were based upon developing a benevolent state whose power would be used to protect workers against employer excesses. Fearful of labor radicalism, liberals viewed unions as the greatest obstacle to the emergence of a conflict-free capitalist order. When farmworkers attempted to organize and strike under Communist auspices, New Deal representatives such as George Creel and Pelham D. Glassford supported grower intransigence toward unionism and Communism in the belief that they could then elicit modest concessions from the growers. While the New Deal changed its position on urban unions, it either ignored agricultural workers or dealt with them in a paternalistic context that made them increasingly subject to grower dominance. For their part, craft and industrial unions ignored the plight of the workers and often sided with the growers to keep Communists from making inroads. Daniel’s analysis raises important questions about liberalism and organized labor that give Bitter Harvest a significance beyond that suggested by the title.

This sympathetic yet judicious study has three shortcomings. Daniel acknowledges the role of ethnic and racial antagonism among farmworkers, but he does not develop the impact of it fully enough either for individual strikes or in terms of an overview. Like many others, this study largely ignores the differing attitudes and values Mexican, white, black, Indian, and Asian workers brought to California’s fields and orchards. Finally, Daniel hints at the numerous tensions between smaller and larger growers during strikes, but his analysis is tied to a simplistic grower versus worker axis.

These drawbacks notwithstanding, Daniel has treated a tragic story with a thoroughness unmatched by anyone else.