The Oxnard Strike of 1903


by Eugene Kim '99

The Oxnard Strike of 1903 represented a historical moment in the American labor movement because it was the first time in American history that members of different racial heritages allied together to form a cohesive labor union.

Traditionally, the Japanese and Mexican laborers, as well as all ethnic groups, were pitted against each other. Such fragmentation kept wages artificially low and rendered workers powerless. The modest victory the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) achieved gave first notice to the notion that a multi-racial picket could in fact become a reality.

In 1897, three brothers Henry, James and Robert Oxnard formed the American Beet Sugar Company. The major labor contractor to the company, the Western Agricultural Contracting Company (WACC), was headed by Inose Inosuke. Constituting over 75% of the local work force, the WACC had a virtual monopoly over the workers at the company.

On February 11, 1903 the 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican laborer who constituted the JMLA opposed the WACC on the following matters:

1. They accused the WACC of paying less than they had promised

2. They opposed the subcontracting system because it forced workers to pay double commissions.

3. They called for the freedom to buy goods wherever the desired and avoid the unreasonable prices at the company store.

After a violent shooting incident on March 23, in which a Mexican worker was killed, a final agreement was reached. The WACC conceded to many of the laborers demands including a wage increase and a doing away with the subcontracting system.

Encouraged by this victory, the JMLA's secretary, J.M. Lizarras applied for an American Federation of Labor (AFL) charter under the name of the Sugar Beet and Farm Laborers' Union of Oxnard. Samuel Gompers accepted Lizarras' petition for charter under the condition that no Japanese or Chinese laborer be allowed to join the chapter. Lizarras refused to accept the charter under these condition stressing the importance of a united labor front. Gompers' obstinacy was consistent to the AFL's policy of anti-Asian policies.


The 1903 strike at Oxnard was significant because it's outcome had two strong implications. On one hand, there was the increasing awareness that perhaps picket lines should be categorized by class and not race. The humble victory at Oxnard clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of a multi-racial labor union. For years employers had taken advantage of the natural differences that existed between the many different racial groups in the fields. In some plantations, boarding was physically divided by race to heighten the distinction amongst the different groups. To divide was to conquer.

In decades to come, the idea of oppression being wholly a class issue opposed to an ethnic issue surfaced again during the Civil Rights movement. Working class minorities, as well as working class whites, became privy to the exploitive nature of capitalism and sought to ally with each other to fight their common oppressors.

The second and most immediate impact of the strike was the AFL's reaction to the coalition. The AFL stood firm in its resolution to exclude all Asian laborers from its union and maintain its exclusive policies. The AFL justification for such a stance reaffirmed certain stereotypes that till this day are reticent. Firstly, that America was and will always be a white nation. Therefore its resources should be allocated to serve the interest of white America before all other peoples. Secondly, that Asian are an unassimilable body of people who could only lead to the decay of American values and America's high standard of living.

The strike at Oxnard, in short, was a critical time for the early American Labor movement. With the optimism surrounding the issues of class solidarity, it is conceivable that the AFL might have changed its stance on Asian exclusion in an attempt to strengthen the overall movement. Unfortunately, the AFL was unable to overcome its biases and racist ideology in a move that would have surely consolidated labor by class and set into motion a number significant alterations to both American labor and civil history.