Violence toward migrant workers in the 1930s

Updated April 17, 2017

In times of economic uncertainty and depression, workers often may elect to migrate from one region to another in search of better wages, employment opportunities or sheer survival. One of the largest and more turbulent worker migrations in U.S. history took place during the Great Depression of the 1930s, which sparked labour unrest and violence as millions of desperate people migrated to new regions of the country in search of work and subsistence.

The Great Depression

Millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes and businesses during the Great Depression, which lasted from approximately 1929 through 1939. After a massive stock market crash in October, 1929, dozens of banks went under and financial assets plummeted. Banks began foreclosing on farms and homes purchased on credit, and many Americans were forced to migrate to other areas of the country, especially from the Dust Bowl in the nation's heartland.

The Dust Bowl Migration

Exacerbating the economic depression in the U.S. was a prolonged drought during the 1930s, caused by decades of farming without utilising techniques to reduce soil erosion. As a result, thousands of people were forced to flee states in the Great Plains, which became known as the Dust Bowl. It is estimated that by 1934 approximately 100 million acres of farmland had been destroyed, forcing thousands of destitute people to migrate elsewhere in search of work. During the 1930s more than one million people migrated to California alone.

Violence Against Migrant Cotton Workers

The influx of migrant workers into California caused social and economic disruption. Due to the surplus in workers, produce and cotton growers slashed the wages of their employees resulting in several labour strikes, some of them violent. In October of 1933, between 12,000 and 18,000 cotton workers, many of whom were Mexican migrants, went on strike to protest the declining wages. Two farmers were shot and killed by growers as they left a union hall in the town of Pixely. A farm worker was also murdered that same day in nearby Arvin.

Violence Against Asian-American Migrant Workers

In 1930 an angry mob in Watsonville, California beat a group of Filipino American migrant workers, killing one of them. Several days later a Filipino American clubhouse in Stockton was bombed and destroyed. In 1936, Filipino and other workers in California's Salinas Valley were beaten by armed men and police while they were on strike for better working conditions.

Forced Repatriation of Mexican Migrants

From 1929 through 1937 it is estimated that approximately 450,000 Mexican migrant workers returned to Mexico. These workers had previously held many of the agricultural jobs in California and the American Southwest, but many were forced to leave because of violence from vigilante groups or repatriation drives that were organised by local governments and the Federal Bureau of Immigration.

"The Grapes of Wrath"

John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" describes the challenges and violence encountered by a family of workers who had migrated from Oklahoma. After arriving in California and settling in a labour camp, the Joad family witnesses several violent episodes between striking workers and security forces of the growers. While Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer prize for the book in 1940, it was later criticised by some for its alleged espousal of Communist ideas.

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About the Author

Kelsey Mowatt is an experienced writer who has contributed to various sports and news publications since 2003, including Beyond Robson, "Full Contact Fighter" and "Grappling Magazine." Mowatt holds a Bachelor of Arts in history and a Master of Arts-Integrated Studies in global change from Athabasca University.