Labor Day and The Grapes of Tom Joad
With all of the recent talk about immigration “reform,” stimulus spending, offshore drilling moratoriums and that ever-present bogeyman; “socialism,” it might be good to take another look at one of America’s favorite and revered family holidays: Labor Day,* and its connection to wine. Labor Day for many marks the end of Summer, and the return of Football to America. It’s not just another “Hallmark Holiday.” It’s not just a way to give bankers and government workers a day off. Or to allow Congress to take an extended break before returning to gridlock. In fact, it’s a holiday born from the concept of socialism – the organized labor movement.
Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest.
from The Ghost of Tom Joad, by Bruce Springsteen
To take a page from my friend Sonadora, I will add a disclaimer, and include a caveat: Most of what I learned about Labor Day came from my labor law professors and my clerkship at a law firm that represented organized labor. The caveat: before I went to law school, and before I lived in a city that has been pummeled by the weakening of labor unions, I disdained them. To me, unions only added to the cost of consumer goods, and weren’t really necessary. My beliefs were such because I was ill-informed; I had only heard management’s side of the argument. The same view that one particular “news” network seems to insist is the only one its audience needs to know. Fair and Balanced reporting requires this side of the story.
The Toledo Auto-Lite Strike
Attending law school at the site of the heartbeat and legacy of the labor movement gave me access to newspaper archives and oral history recounting the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike. Before labor was organized, workers could be chained to their work stations (literally) and forbidden to take bathroom breaks. There were no guaranteed hours, no vacations, no paid holidays. If you didn’t like the conditions you could quit. If you took days off to care for a sick child you could be fired; replaced. Unemployment in Ohio was 37% which was bad enough. In Toledo, where workers made up the business of auto parts, 80 out of every 100 men and women were out of work. Wages were cut, assembly lines were sped up. And so the people decided to strike.
Pickets lines were tear-gassed. And if that didn’t send you back to work, the company hired others, “scabs” to take your job. And if that didn’t break up the protests, they called in out-of-county National Guardsmen to gun you down. So to earn a decent wage to feed your family, you risked life and limb, either on the factory line, or on the picket line. The people of Toledo fought back. Blood was spilled. People died. And after months of bloodshed, the workers got the ability to form a union. To bargain collectively for basic worker rights.
This was the history of the city of Toledo, Ohio; the city of my husband’s birth.
What does this have to do with wine and Labor Day? Continue, dear readers and all will be revealed.
The Birth of the Labor Day Weekend
Prior to labor laws and the labor movement there was no “weekend” for workers. Men, women and children worked long shifts with few breaks. Thanks to church-goers and organized religion, workers were eventually given Sunday as a day “off,” from their succession of 12-16 hour work days. But in the beginning this kind of schedule wasn’t a “right,” but earned through struggle, injury and even death. With the influx of Jewish workers, whose Sabbath was Saturday, businesses stopped splitting the week with days off on Wednesday and Sunday, and created a two-day break from the work week — what we now call “the weekend.”
International Workers Day, or May Day is a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the international labor movement. May Day often includes organized street demonstrations and marches by millions of workers and labor unions throughout most of the countries of the world — though rarely do these same activities occur in the United States. Much of this has to do with the Haymarket Affair.
The Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket riot or Haymarket massacre) was a disturbance that took place on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, and began as a rally in support of striking workers. An unknown person threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians. In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were tried for murder. Four were put to death, and one committed suicide in prison.
The remaining three were pardoned by Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld in 1893. The Chicago Historical Society has a fascinating online digital history of the Haymarket Affair.
The United States’ Labor Day was first celebrated in New York City on September 5, 1882. It was organized by an American labor leader inspired by parades in Canada celebrating labor. President Grover Cleveland had put reconciliation with labor as a top political priority following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the 1894 Pullman Strike. Congress, fearing further conflict, unanimously rushed through legislation making Labor Day a national holiday, on June 28, 1894. It was signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. President Cleveland, concerned that aligning a U.S. labor holiday with existing international May Day celebrations would stir up negative emotions linked to the Haymarket Affair, chose to push for the U.S. celebration in September, rather than May. All 50 U.S. states have now made Labor Day a state holiday.
Labor and the Wine Industry
As a result of the Great Depression and record unemployment, a large number of Caucasians took over many migrant workers’ jobs in California. This left many Mexicans and Filipinos desperate and willing to do anything for money. Working conditions for the huge population of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants included horrible wages and exposure to toxic chemicals in the vineyards. These conditions evoked anger between workers and employers and set the foundation for large-scale wage strikes for the next 50 years.
Due to the Great Depression and the crash of the grape market with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, jobs for vineyard workers became scarce. The problem was further exacerbated by the migration of workers from the Oklahoma and Texas dustbowls (epitomized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.)
The situation reversed dramatically during World War II. Just as the wine industry was coming back, it was faced with a manpower shortage. In 1942, the United States negotiated a labor agreement with Mexico instituting the Bracero program in response to the shortages, which allowed Mexican farmworkers to enter the country on a short-term basis to work the vineyards of California, as well as other farms. Under the Bracero Agreement, Mexicans entering the U.S. enjoyed guarantees of housing, transportation and repatriation established under Mexican Federal Labor Law. Under its terms, it also guaranteed Mexicans entering the United States freedom from discrimination. Growers liked the program because it provided them with a pool of cheap, legal labor to meet seasonal harvesting and vineyard demands. But organized labor hated it, believing it depressed wages for all winery workers.
Cesar Chavez, a young man from Arizona working in the Delano area of Central California, saw the benefits that workers in other industries enjoyed through affiliations with labor unions. Opposed to the Bracero program, Chavez began organizing farm workers, including those in vineyards owned by large corporate wineries. In 1965, when workers organized under the AFL-CIO walked out in strike against grape growers in Delano, California, Chavez and his organization joined them in an effort to gain changes through peaceful demonstrations. Eventually merging into the United Farm Workers (UFW) under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO, the union was successful in organizing and negotiating contracts with a number of growers. But this occurred only after five years of striking and a public boycott of Delano table grapes.
In 1973, Ernest & Julio Gallo Winery signed labor contracts with the Teamsters in order to block attempts by the AFL-CIO to organize the workers for the UFW. The UFW then went on strike and called for a boycott of E. & J. Gallo Winery. College students who had first learned to drink wine by passing around jugs of Gallo Hearty Burgundy at the beach and at concerts stopped buying wines sold under Gallo in solidarity with Chavez and the UFW. E. & J. Gallo eventually came to the bargaining table and the UFW claimed success.
In 1975, following the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the UFW sought to organize the vineyard workers of Sonoma and Napa counties. The Charles Krug Winery was the union’s next target. According to Carol Robertson in The Little Red Book of Wine Law: A Case of Legal Issues, Krug workers immediately voted to be represented by the UFW. But Krug fought the union with multiple court actions, and a contract was not signed until 1980 after Krug had exhausted multiple challenges. Acrimony between management and labor continued, and in 1983, eight years after the initial union vote, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board upheld a “make whole” remedy which required Krug to reimburse the workers for any lost pay or other benefits that they had suffered as a result of the delay from the time of the certification of the election in September 1977. Krug continued to appeal and filed a number of challenges.
In 1994, the the UFW unionized the farm workers at the Gallo Winery in Sonoma, and in 2000 announced a historic Gallo-UFW contract in Sonoma County. In late 2005, the UFW notified Krug Winery that it planned to extend their existing contract, set to expire in December 2005. In January 2006, Krug notified the UFW that it was “going out of the vineyard management business and was turning its winery and vineyard operations over to a ‘land manager’ an independent company that would not be using any union labor.” The UFW protested this as a subterfuge to remove the union in violation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. In July 2006, the Charles Krug Winery fired the 36 unionized workers in its winery and severed ties with the union. In the Summer of 2006, the UFW challenged the firings with the ALRB and announced a boycott of both Krug and C.K. Mondavi labeled wines.
In June 2007 Gallo workers voted to oust the union and the ALRB announced that it would bring formal charges about the Krug Winery for violations of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. A month later, workers at Kunde Winery in Sonoma County also voted to reject the union. In April 2008, the Krug winery workers were reinstated with back pay. The struggle between labor and vineyard management continues today. Last year California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill which would have required farmers to negotiate with a labor union if a majority of their employees signed membership agreements, a so-called “card check” rather than a secret ballot election. But card-check legislation isn’t limited to just farm workers in California. Arizona legislators have proposed an amendment to the Arizona Constitution that would bar workers from unionizing through signature drives.
There are a number of artists that have performed covers of Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. Some prefer that of Rage Against the Machine. Springsteen’s “official video” provides some hauntingly moving commentary of its own. But this live version we found on YouTube from the 25th Anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a great version featuring Rage’s Tom Morello along with Springsteen and the E Street Band.
The vineyards of California appear bucolic and serene, as if the grapes are harvested in harmony. But underneath there is an undercurrent of tension between labor and management that goes back nearly a century. A tension that gave birth to our Labor Day Weekend.
*Parts of this post appeared on Labor Day 2009. Full lyrics from The Ghost of Tom Joad appeared here.