History of the Labor Movement in the United States - Vol. 4

By Philip S. Foner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 21
The Agricultural Workers Organization

By the time of the harvest season of 1914, it was clear that I.W.W. agitational work among the harvest hands had reaped few permanent results, and that conditions in the Middle-Western grain belt -- Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, and parts of Canada -- were still intolerable. Wages of $2 to $2.50 for a day's work which began at 5:30 A.M. and ended at 7:30 P.M., plus inadequate board, was the norm. Harvest workers noted ironically that they enjoyed an "eight-hour work day -- eight in the morning and eight in the afternoon." An investigator for the Industrial Relations Commission reported that "fourteen hours a day was not unusual." Referring to living conditions in the grain belt, he noted: "They [the men] object to sleeping in granaries full of rats and mice, on the bare ground in tents or in barns where the odor of the stable is strong and where mattresses and blankets are infested with vermin." It was generally conceded that nine out of every ten workers left the harvest as poor as when they entered. Indeed, as one contemporary noted: "The best paying occupation in the harvest country is 'the harvesting of the harvester,' which is heavily indulged in by train crews, railroad 'bulls,' gamblers and hold-up men."1

"Living in Kansas is a perennial joy," editorialized the Emporia Gazette. But to the harvest workers, living in any of the states in the grain belt meant a perennial struggle to exist through the season, in the face of inadequate earnings, intolerable living conditions, tin-horn gamblers, hijackers, bootleggers, brutal policemen, and hostile townspeople. The latter's contempt for the workers in the grain belt was illustrated in an editorial entitled "The Harvest Hand," published in the Emporia Gazette: "The harvest hands are arriving, and, as usual, they are arriving hungry. But a harvest hand never gets so hungry that he forgets to be haug and stick for higher wages when offered a job."2

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