An "Okie Subculture"
Historians recently have begun to analyze the inner dynamics and institutions of the "Okie subculture" in California. The term "Okie" encompassed not just displaced Oklahomans, but all those Dust Bowl refugees who fled the southwestern states hit by drought and depression.
The Okies who settled in California's Central Valley preserved their rural values and folkways, including their distinctive southwestern accents, food preferences, and country music. Thus, to a remarkable degree, the newcomers retained their separate identities and passed them on to succeeding generations.
The dance halls and honky-tonks of the Okies fostered positive social interaction and reinforced group identity. Country music stars, such as Gene Autry and Bob Wills, became important success symbols and sources of group pride. Known as "Nashville West," Bakersfield launched the careers of such notables as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Glen Campbell, and Ferlin Husky.
Historian Carey McWilliams once characterized the struggle between labor and capital in California as one of "total engagement." The struggle intensified during the 1930s as agricultural workers suffered the peculiar agony of watching food rot in the fields because the crops could not be sold for enough to pay the costs of harvesting and marketing. John Steinbeck commented: "There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success."
Workers formed new organizations to fight for improvements in wages and working conditions. Women were especially active in the formation of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). The union's vice president was a gifted Latina organizer, Louisa Morena. Cannery workers in the thirties routinely worked sixteen-hour days for fifteen cents an hour. When women cannery workers struck in the Santa Clara Valley in 1931, police responded by breaking up a mass meeting with tear gas and fire hoses.
Agricultural workers in the thirties, as in previous decades, turned to radicals for leadership. The Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union (CAWIU), formed in 1933, was an arm of the Communist party. The union organized strikes of farmworkers in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys. Farm owners responded with repressive local ordinances and acts of violence.
The San Francisco General Strike
Militant labor leader Harry R. Bridges led a long and bitter strike of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) in San Francisco in 1934. The ILA demanded improved wages and working conditions, coastwide bargaining rights, and the establishment of union-controlled hiring halls. The strike began in early May and continued through the summer.
Employers and local officials denounced Bridges as a dangerous radical. The Chief of Police declared: "This strike is just a dress rehearsal by the Communists toward world revolution." On the morning of "bloody Thursday," July 5, 1934, a thousand police officers attempted to clear pickets from the waterfront so that strikebreakers could do the work of the striking dockworkers. In the ensuing riot, sixty-four people were injured and two strikers were killed. The governor sent in the National Guard to prevent further violence.
The ILA responded by calling for a general strike, asking members of other unions to go on strike in support of the dockworkers. Virtually every union in San Francisco and Alameda counties joined in the strike which began on July 16 and continued for four days. The general strike alienated public opinion, but also demonstrated the strength of united labor. The original waterfront strike was resolved when federal arbitrators granted the ILA most of its demands.