By Justin Akers Chacón

Haymarket Books. 719 pages. £23.99/$27.95. ISBN 978-1-60846-775-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is truth in the suggestion that, despite the obvious importance of Mexican workers in any account of American working-class history, there have been few generally-available books about them. From that point of view Justin Akers Chacón’s Radicals in the Barrio may prove to be the essential publication that provides a broad picture of how Mexican American workers have organised in the factories and fields where they were employed, and how a variety of radicals helped them.

Because of the fact that Mexico, prior to 1848, controlled what later became American states such as New Mexico, Arizona, and California, there was always going to be a large Mexican physical and cultural presence in those states. The Mexican-American War of 1846-48 had ended in defeat for Mexico, with the result that the territories referred to became part of the expanding United States. Earlier, Texas had established its independence from Mexico, and in due course joined the Union.

The actual border was still not clearly defined, even in the late-nineteenth century. People came and went as they pleased, and American companies found it advantageous to employ Mexicans, whether those resident locally, or those who crossed the border looking for work. The reasons are obvious. Much of work was seasonal and workers could be hired and fired at will and according to circumstances. And Mexicans could be paid less than white workers, and had to accept worse working conditions. They were looked on as not needing decent accommodation, sanitation, and other facilities. These were factors that caused much resentment and anger. Troublemakers could easily be singled out and there was always a ready supply of people waiting to be hired at whatever rates an employer chose to offer.

Mexican miners did fight back in the early-1900s, organising strikes alongside Italian miners, another maligned group, and displaying a militancy which meant that they were prepared to arm themselves for defence against local police forces and company guards. It was invariably evident that judges and other representatives of law enforcement were likely to ally themselves with the employers, and attempt to break strikes. State governors also favoured employers, and would send in National Guard units if it looked like strikers were winning. The excuse was that they were there to preserve the peace, but their actions usually indicated that they were actually present to prevent the workers from gaining ground. At a push even Federal troops could be sent to troubled areas.

When Ricardo Flores Magón arrived on the scene as a refugee from a situation in Mexico where his advocacy of socialist ideas had attracted the attention of the authorities, he found that he had a sympathetic audience among radicals active in unions. Magonistas, as they were known, supported his general political aims, as espoused by his Partido Liberal Mexicano, in terms of establishing a socialist state in Mexico, but they also desired to improve the lot of Mexicans employed by American landowners and factory bosses. 

Magón was targeted by the American authorities, usually by citing the Neutrality Act which made it an offence to participate in political activity advocating the overthrow of a foreign government, while in America. There is no doubt that Magón and his followers were prepared to involve themselves in actions along those lines. On one occasion, when joined by sympathisers including members of the Industrial Workers of the World, they entered Mexico and occupied several small border towns. They held them, sometimes clashing with Mexican government forces, for several months before being driven out.

The United States Government, while not intervening directly against the Magonistas, had sent troops to the border region to stop them receiving supplies and reinforcements from Mexican American sympathisers. There were major American businesses interests and investments in Mexico, and the United States government was obviously more concerned about preserving good relations with the authorities there than in turning a blind eye to the activities of the revolutionaries. Magón and many of his supporters were imprisoned in the United States, and he died in prison in 1922. 

The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) had been seeking to organise miners in Arizona, but while militant, and increasingly inclined towards ideas of industrial unionism, it was bedevilled by a question that affected many attempts to develop unions in America – the question of race. Most white workers were reluctant to take joint action with those they considered their inferiors, such as Mexicans, blacks, Chinese, and other non-whites. The WFM was divided on the race question, a situation that helped to give impetus to the birth of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905.

The IWW, with its talk of “class struggle”, its acceptance of all nationalities and races, and its broad philosophy of “anarcho-syndicalism”, attracted members from the Mexican community. Its policy of direct action in pursuit of wage claims and other matters appealed to workers who came from a tradition of militant action, and who favoured the revolutionaries in Mexico. One of the Magonista newspapers was called La Union Industrial.  “Industrial Unionism” was a term often used alongside “revolutionary syndicalism” or “anarcho-syndicalism”, to describe IWW theories and tactics.

As mentioned earlier, some Wobblies, as members of the IWW were known, had participated in the failed invasion of Mexico. However, most of their activities involved organising among Mexican workers in the factories and fields of the South-West. One of the significant strikes that they helped start occurred in 1913 in Wheatland, California. A riot started when law enforcement officers attempted to intervene during a mass meeting, with the result that two of the officials and two strikers were killed. National Guards were sent to the site and many strikers arrested. Eventually, four of them were charged with murder and put on trial, though Chacón says that there was no evidence to show that they had any part in the deaths. But they were identified as strike leaders, and therefore held responsible for the riot. Two of them, Richard “Blackie” Ford and Herman Suhr, both Wobblies, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Another strike in which Mexican workers were involved took place in Colorado in 1913/14, where miners determined on direct action to further their demands. As Chacón says: “Over the course of the fifteen month conflict the strike evolved into an insurrectionary war, involving whole communities in and around the coal mines in open battle against a private, company-funded militia and forces of the state National Guard”.

Matters came to a head in April, 1914, when the company militia fired on tents occupied by the strikers and their families, and then set them alight. Two women and eleven children died from suffocation in pits that had been dug below the tents so that they could hide from gunfire. In a revenge attack a group comprising “Italian, Slavic, and Mexican miners” killed ten of the militia. The miners also “laid waste to two company towns and destroyed six of the most notorious mines”. By the end of “the ten-day war, a total of thirty-three mine guards and twenty-four-miners had been killed”.

The IWW began to decline in importance following the mass arrests and trial of over one hundred of its leading lights in 1918. There were divisions within the organisation in the early-1920s, and many Wobblies joined the newly-formed American Communist Party. By the late-1920s it was beginning to have an influence among some groups of workers. Party policy always followed a line laid down by Moscow, and in this instance it was asserted that dual-unionism was the action to be taken in opposition to American Federation of Labour (AFL) unions which largely favoured skilled workers. The Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) was formed in 1930 and lasted until 1935, when the Popular Front ideology, and joining Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) unions, was then deemed by Moscow to be the line to adhere to.

The CAWIU did achieve some successes during its period of existence, and Chacón says that: “In 1933 alone, there were 37 significant strikes in California involving 45,575 people workers, of which 24 strikes involving 37,550 people (or 79 percent of the total) were organised and led directly by the CAWIU. All told, twenty-one of the CAWIU-led strikes won wage gains for 32,800 workers, while only three ended in defeat, affecting 4,750 workers”. 

The Communist Party continued to be active in the Mexican American community, and in the 1940s they were prominent in the Sleepy Lagoon Defence Committee. This arose out of the trial of a number of Mexican youths who had been charged with the murder of another youth in a gang fight. There was little direct evidence to show that the teenagers in question had been involved in the killing, and it would seem that prejudice against them because of their life-styles played a part in their arrest and trial.

Known as “pachucos”, the youths attracted attention because of their “zoot suits,” a style copied from African Americans, and their use of slang. They were condemned by conservative elements in the press and among the local authorities, and were harassed by the notoriously-racist Los Angeles police. Shortly after the Sleepy Lagoon case, groups of sailors, many of them from the Southern states, who were stationed at nearby naval bases, went on the rampage, attacking zoot-suiters, both Mexicans and blacks, and stripping them, shaving their heads, and subjecting them to other indignities. The police often stood by and watched when such actions were taking place.

The post-war period brought investigations into the activities of communists in Hollywood (some left-wing screenwriters had worked for the Sleepy Lagoon Defence Committee), the unions, and government, both national and local. The blanket organisation, the CIO, which at one time had seemed to be a byword for militancy, began to expel communist-led unions from its ranks. One of them was the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW), usually referred to as Mine Mill, which had many Mexican and Mexican American members. The union had attempted to integrate its membership, so as to eliminate the possibility of management playing off one group of workers against another. White employees were usually paid more, and given better working conditions, than Mexicans.

In 1950, Mine Mill Local 890 began industrial action against the Empire Zinc Company in a strike that lasted from October, 1950, until January, 1952. Like so many of the strikes that Chacón discusses, it was marked by the prejudice that existed against the strikers from local authorities, the media, and law enforcement officials. In addition, the national political climate, with communists being hounded out of jobs and sometimes into prison, came into play. And, sad to say, other unions, anxious to show that they weren’t communists, and to take advantage of the situation, tried to entice workers away from Mine Mill. The United Steelworkers of America (USWA) appear to have been the leading guilty party in this respect.

What was notable about this strike was the role that women played in manning the picket lines, when the men were prohibited by injunction from doing so, and in helping to sustain enthusiasm in obviously difficult times. They defied local law officials, and the state governor had to send in the National Guard: “Strikers and their wives spent the equivalent of 1,100 workdays in jail, but nevertheless maintained the picket lines throughout”. An agreement with management was finally reached which the strikers claimed as a victory.

Chacón doesn’t mention it, but Salt of the Earth, a 1953 film largely made by blacklisted writers and others from Hollywood (among them, Michael Wilson, Paul Jarrico, and Herbert Biberman, all members of the Communist Party), was based on the Empire Zinc strike. Needless to say, the film didn’t get shown on the major film circuits. It did reach an audience largely comprised of sympathetic supporters of those fighting back against a combination of McCarthyism and anti-union employers.

I’ve moved around Radicals in the Barrio, selecting only certain parts of it to comment on, because it’s so well-researched, and thorough in its coverage of the subject concerned, that it would be impossible to deal with every aspect of the Mexican American experience in a review. Reading it was very much an education, not only in terms of the union struggles covered, but also in relation to the story of Mexican involvement in American labour history.

One point that Chacón raises, and which I haven’t touched on, is that many Mexican Americans could look back and see how they were deprived of their land following the United States seizure of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. In Texas, for example, they had been actively caught up in the revolt against the Mexican government (there were Mexicans in the garrison at the Alamo), but that didn’t stop them often being treated as second-class citizens once the Americans took over. Add that resentment to the way in which they were exploited by American employers, plus the racial prejudice they encountered on a daily basis, and it’s easy to understand why they fought for their rights as workers with such tenacity.