In the Floating Army: F. C. Mills on Itinerant Life in California, 1914.
By Gregory R. Woirol. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 168 pages.
Reviewed by William Earl Weeks, Department of History, San Diego State University.
In the Floating Army: F.C. Mills on Itinerant Life in California, 1914 by Gregory R. Woirol presents a poignant and probing glimpse of migrant labor communities in California on the eve of World War I. Based on the observations of F.C. Mills, a twenty-two year old Berkeley graduate and investigator for the California Commission of Immigration and Housing, In the Floating Army chronicles the “world of the submerged” and the effects of that life on the conscience of a middle class young man.
Faced with mounting migrant labor unrest, the Immigration and Housing Commission dispatched Mills on a two-month fact finding mission. Traveling under the name “Fred Carr,” Mills “rustled oranges,” worked in a Sierra lumber camp, walked the roads, and rode the rails of California, all the while experiencing as well as observing the life of a migrant laborer. Hefting 500-700 50 lb. crates of oranges per day made a profound impression on Mills. He wrote in his journal “I no longer wonder why there are so many I.W.W.s” [Industrial Workers of the World] (p.28). The exploitative and degrading conditions endured by migrant laborers served as a new chapter in Mills’ education: “I wish some of the complacent philosophers who believe in the justice and righteousness of ‘Things as They Are’ could feel even for a few days the suffering some of these people live thru” [sic] (p.35-6).
Mills’s observations confirm the widespread popularity of the I.W.W. among the unskilled and unaffiliated workers of California. I.W.W. radicalism represented the only means of resistance available for a class of people shunned by craft unionists and employers alike. Mills wrote “I feel the force of the great social unrest that is boiling and seething on the underside of the thin crust upon which the whole social fabric rests” (p.127). Mills discovered that even the “hobo jungle” was subject to a color line which tended to divide the interests of white and non-white laborers.
Mills’ recommendations for reform were ignored, victim of a war fever that made the Immigration and Housing Commission more concerned with investigating anti-war sentiment than working conditions. Mills went on to a distinguished academic career as an economist, yet never forgot his two months in “the floating army.” Thanks to Gregory R. Woirol, Mills’ experience survives in our time.
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