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‘Right Out of California’ Book Review: On the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism

Posted on Nov 13, 2015

By Gabriel Thompson

(Page 2)

Growers and their allies discovered another way to win: surveillance. One of the most fascinating characters in Olmsted’s book is Gen. Ralph Van Deman. A legendary figure in the history of military intelligence, Van Deman honed his skills fighting insurgents in the Philippines before retiring to set up a massive intelligence gathering operation out of his San Diego home. His files grew to cover some 125,000 “subversive” groups and individuals in California — which included the American Federation of Labor and the YMCA — and he collaborated extensively with growers, who created their own spying and surveillance arms to track down organizers and break strikes.

Growers were obsessed with two organizers in particular: Pat Chambers and Caroline Decker. Their names pop up in books about the period, but Olmsted fills in new biographical details about the pair, who were hounded across the state by law enforcement and often forced to operate underground. Both were white, spoke little Spanish, and were members of the Communist Party, though neither cared much for Marxist theory; they were interested in organizing farmworkers, and were willing to suffer for it. “These people seen that we didn’t have anything, we didn’t have ulterior motives,” Chambers said. “We had less than they had. If they went hungry, we went hungry.”

Chambers came out of the Irish-American working class, while Decker was from a middle-class Jewish family (her last name was actually Dwofsky). She had joined the Youth Communist League in Syracuse and organized coal miners in Kentucky before landing in California. Unlike the plainspoken Chambers, she was a gifted public speaker and, with her fashionable dresses and high heels, a curious presence on the picket line. While they were seen as the driving force behind the 1933 cotton strike, it was the mostly Mexican workforce that had pulled it off. But growers found it difficult to imagine brown-skinned workers acting on their own, and decided the two organizers needed to be taken care of.

They got their chance the following year. By now, Decker and Chambers had relocated the union’s office from San Jose to Sacramento — a lynch mob had strung up a San Jose man several blocks from their office, and they feared being the next target. The duo continued to organize small marches and protests. The district attorney ordered a raid of the Communist Party headquarters, arresting 24 people for vagrancy, including the two star organizers. Soon the charges were updated to criminal syndicalism. The resulting trial was front-page news for weeks, and Olmsted dedicates a chapter to this largely forgotten episode, in which growers essentially paid for a verdict that sent the organizers to prison for five years. “State has farm peace,” ran the headline in the Los Angeles Times.

For readers interested in the history of California radicalism — and reaction — Olmsted’s book covers fascinating new ground and offers an intriguing, and ultimately convincing, thesis. It is also something of a mirror reflected across eight decades. At a time of extreme inequality, even the government’s most modest policies on behalf of the poor — shipments of free food, the construction of a handful of labor camps — were met with hysteria by the right. There is a photograph in the book of four Los Angeles “churchwomen” holding pistols as they take target practice. The image is from 1935, and the ladies are identified as members of American Women, Inc., a group who believed that Roosevelt was pushing as “Communist a policy as the Russian government’s own economic program” and who were prepared to lay their lives on the line to save their country. As Wallace Stegner once remarked, “California is America, only more so.”

Gabriel Thompson has written for The New York Times, New York, The Nation and Mother Jones. His most recent book is “Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do.”


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