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
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.