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MIGRANT WORKERS by Ammon Hennacy - Catholic Worker odds & ends
January 21st, 2007
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MIGRANT WORKERS by Ammon Hennacy

MIGRANT WORKERS by Ammon Hennacy

“There’s only one way the poor class of folks can beat this system,” said the poor tubercular Oakie as we shivered together on the cotton truck on a dull February morning.

“What is that?" I asked.

“I could take my wife and six kids, rent me a few acres in Arkansas, away from the main highway, get me a mule, a cow and an old sow, and no one could boss me and starve me like they do now. I did it once and I’ll do it again one of these days if I ever get away from this damned desert.”

“I agree with you. Many professors have written books about just that way of life, but few have gone back to the land," I answered.

“Folks hereabout was talking the other day about breaking in the stores to get something to eat, but I told them they are beat before they start at that game. Got to get back to the land; that’s what I told them but they didn’t want to get too far from the dime stores, the shows and the taverns,” he continued as we came to the cotton field.

This field had been picked over before and now just the bolls here and there that had been missed and the few that had matured late were left. The Oakie went one way and I worked next to two young Negroes. We snapped of the bolls and all and went half a mile two rows at a time before we were back to the truck. I had but thirty-six pounds and when the girl paid me I found that two cents a pound was the rate instead of three. I mentioned this to one of the Negroes as we were picking and he said: “Lucky we gets the two cents. The other day they gave us slips of paper and told us to come the next day if it didn’t rain and they would have the money. I told them to go to hell with such paper. I wanted something that got me my eats and I walked off the field. But most of the others stayed on for they had families."

This reminded me that I still had the slips for $4.18 for cotton I had picked in November at the Jim Crow ranch fifty miles away in the desert. The Negro went to eat some lunch and his row was taken by a husky white man who had lost his job in a laundry when his boss had sold the plant in Phoenix. One of his sisters had married a Church of the Brethren man so he was receptive to my conversation about conscientious objectors and non-payment of taxes for war. Here the cotton was a little thicker and when we came back to the truck I had seventy-two pounds.

“Got to watch these belly robbers. They’ll doctor up the scales and cheat you of half the cotton. The other day I picked around a hundred pounds and the weighman said that he was only paying for fifty as he was not making much money on this second-grade cotton. I didn’t like it but I stayed for the day but did not go back the next day.”

“Yes," I replied, “I heard the fellows at the fire by the curb as we waited for the truck this morning talking about a cotton contractor who short-weighed and ticket-paid the pickers and made a thousand dollars a month from folks as poor as he had been a month before.”

He wanted to know if I was a Witness. I told him that I belonged to no church, for each one prayed more and did less than the other. I mentioned about the Oakie who had wanted to go back to the land and he replied that he was sorry he had gone out for day work for he had had more real income and satisfaction on the land. He spoke of several relatives who had made from $50 to $100 a week during the war and when they had lost their jobs had gone to live with his old father who had but $70 cash income a year but always had his cellar full of something to eat from what he had raised on the land.

“You can’t farm in this commercial valley though. Takes too much for machinery and if you lose a crop through lack of water, bugs, or poor prices then the big company grabs your land for what they want to give. Have to get in the sticks,” and added with a smile, “away from the places where you think you have to spend money.”

We then discussed unions, radical organizations, churches, and the different methods of making a better world. The aim of the Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God was there but so many things interfered to make us all forget it. All of these organizations came first and we forget our aim.

“And the more noise, the more traffic and the more big whirring machinery the more we seem to forget that the man next to us is our brother. I know folks back in the country who never saw a city who feud like the blazes so it isn’t where you are that counts but what you have inside, that counts but what you have inside,” my friend said as we quit for the day, as the work was nearly finished. He had picked 130 pounds and I had picked 111. It was 4pm and as he lived down my way I pocketed my $2.22 and rode with him eastward. On the way we saw some men forking cauliflower culls into trucks for their cattle and stopped to get some culls, but they were all gone and only the leaves cut from the top of the box as they were packed were left.

That morning I had gone down to the highway to wait for the first bus to Coldwater where I had heard they took on cotton pickers. I had previously asked the colored family on the corner with whom I had worked and they said that cotton trucks did not come by on this highway since the holidays. And the trucks in town only picked up regular customers and did not bother with the “slave market” at 2nd and Jefferson in Phoenix. A young driver of a milk truck, which bore the sign “No Riders,” picked me up before daylight and took me toward Coldwater. His first pickup was way beyond Buckeye. After a time we noticed people gathered by the side of the road, and stopping, we saw a motorcycle tangled-up against a telephone pole and a young man whose brains were scattered over the ground. Later we found out that he had worked nights irrigating and by some mishap had swerved across the road and been killed as he came home from work. It was not yet daylight. The driver of the milk truck wondered why he stayed here for $75 a week when he had left a $125 a week job in Ohio. And the work of lifting heavy cans of milk onto the truck was strenuous. I remembered in 1943 in Albuquerque, when I had swung cans of milk onto the truck for a farmer where I worked. One morning a new truck came for the milk which was an inch higher than the one previously used, and I could not adjust my swing of the can to this higher level for half an hour. It looks easy to swing these cans. One sturdy driver picked up a full can of milk in each hand and held them out at arm’s length, but he was an exception.

When I got off the truck, a mile beyond Coldwater, I waited for an hour. A farmer was discing with his tractor. I refused offers of half a dozen lifts as I wanted to be sure to arrive at a cotton field. A young fellow who was walking along told me that a corner, a mile east, was where trucks picked up cotton workers. I had met the Baptist preacher of this small town at a recent Fellowship of Reconciliation meeting. He was a subscriber to the CATHOLIC WORKER and liked Ludlow’s articles especially. I had brought several pieces of pacifist literature along. In case there was no work I would visit with this preacher.

Coming to the fire, which consisted of an old tire burning and smoking, I discussed the prospects of work with young and old, male and female, white, colored and Mexican, who were there, One burly, middle-aged man, in a bright Mackinaw, came with his bedroll over his shoulder, a small package of clothing and a three-cell lantern in his hand.

“Can’t leave this stuff laying around. Folks will rob me. Damn working class is their own worst enemy,” he muttered as we stood with our backs to the fire,

“You talk like a Wob,” I said to him.

“Joined up with them during the free-speech fight in Fresno in 1910. But after the war they lost the old fighting spirit. Couldn’t beat them when they sang that old ‘pie-in-the-sky song, but now nobody sings. Have to keep moving these days to beat all the rules and regulations the master class try to enslave a fellow with,” he answered.

Joe Muller, who had done three years in Sandstone as a war-resister with my friend, Bill Ryan, came down from Chicago recently and is staying with me for a few months. For the first time in eighty years there has been a wet season in Arizona. I had but a day, now and then, chopping wood for the Old Pioneer, so when we saw an ad in the paper, asking for cotton pickers several weeks ago, we picked out a bright day, in between rains, and hiked ten miles north on Lateral 14.

We passed the Navajos at Deer Valley as they squatted in the carrot fields waiting until the carrot picker got out of the mud enough to prepare the way for their work. We saw three crews of cauliflower workers in a field but knew there was no opportunity for a day’s work. The view of the mountains to the north and east was magnificent and well worth the hike.

As we heard what we thought ought to be the advertised cotton ranch, a couple in a very ancient car, who were looking for the same work, picked us up and we four came to the ranch. We were informed that the cotton was picked several weeks before and they had forgotten to take the ad out of the paper. We rode back with our friends to the bus line and on into Phoenix where we got some groceries and some books at the library.

The night after I had made the $2.22 picking cotton it rained. The field boss had said not to come to work if it rained, for then the cotton would weigh more and he might get cheated instead of cheating us. So the next day I sawed wood into appropriate lengths for our small stove and Joe split it, for although it is mild here in the winter a fire is needed on rainy days. The next day we got up early and walked down the lateral by daylight, getting the bus to Coldwater. No one was here at the corner yet, so we collected some paper and wood. Just then two chunky, good-natured Negro women came up with their cotton sacks and we all started the fire. As the flames leaped up a dozen or more potential cotton pickers emerged from the alleys and shacks. Trucks of Mexicans and Negroes whizzed by from Phoenix destined a-way beyond Buckeye it seemed, but the drivers did not glance toward us. One lanky, red-faced, bleary-eyed and slobbery-mouthed individual danced around the fire and in jerky pantomime acted out this story he was telling.

“There is a certain kind of a bullet and it only fits into a certain kink of a gun. When a fellow shoots with it (just like this) then he turns into a dog and right away a big eagle comes down and picks him up and carries him away and eats at him as he carries him. Now if they only made more guns like that…”

“Have another drink of muscatel! Get a soapbox! I don’t want to listen to such silly stuff. Get a soapbox I say,” spoke up an unshaven man by the fire, He of the imagination saw a truck stop for the two Negro women and ran over and jumped on. We saw him hanging onto it as it disappeared.

“No use of going on that truck. They just pick what cotton lays on the ground----can’t make more than 70 cents a day,” remarked the man of the unshaven countenance, and continued:

“Last night the Chief-of-Police knocked on my window and wanted to know my name. I told him to get the hell away, that I didn’t care for his kind, and did he go!”

A huge, fat man, with whom I had picked cotton in November, winked at me as we listened to this braggadocio, He told of an ad the day before asking for 300 women to sew parachutes in nearby Goodyear. When hundreds of applicants arrived he sorted them out and hired but 25, which was all they wanted in the first place. Any who were over thirty or under twenty or weighed more than 120 pounds were not wanted. He added:

“A fat woman who is about my size and has had thirty years’ experience in sewing could not get a lookin’ there. Getting’ so people’s got to be all one size and one age and I suppose pretty soon they’ll want them to look just alike.”

A farmer came along in car and picked up two women who had worked for him before. This was all he wanted. Joe had been talking to a young man who lived in a shack for which he paid $30 a month. He received a soldier’s pension of $90 a month so life was not so tough for him as for many others. My Oakie friend told of his wife giving the last of their food the other night to a big man who asked for a handout. After he had eaten he explained that he had just been on a binge and had spent his $70 pension and would now have to mooch until his next cheque came The Oakie had been in the store the day before and a poor woman with two small children asked for bread, saying she had nothing to eat for today and there was no cotton to pick because of the rain. The store-keeper, who charged from 10% to 30% too much anyway, had answered that he was not running a charity and would not help her.

It was now after 9am and no trucks came. People drifted away slowly. I asked where the bridge was that went over the Salt River to the Pima Reservation, intending to visit by Pima friend Martin with whom I had worked in the lettuce fields last year. There was a bridge at Lateral 20, I was told, so Joe and I walked down that way. After a few miles one young fellow, who had been standing around the fire, drove by and stopped, giving us a ride for the remaining four miles. He spoke about not liking to stand around a fire with colored folks and remarked about how he would like to shoot one just as well as to look at one. We did not ask him how many notches he had in his mythical gun but tried to insert a word against such bigotry. I doubt if it did any good. We walked toward the river for a few miles and finally came to a dead-end road. It seems that the bridge was two miles up on Lateral 22 and no one knew if the reservation was there or further west. So we walked back toward home, stopping to pull a few carrots and sugar beets from the fields for out dinner.

We met some Oakies clustered around a woodpile in their yard enjoying the sun. The subject of continued rain here and snow further north came up. One young man remarked that it wasn’t fair to drop food to the Indians while the white ranchers got nothing. How much he knew of white ranchers was another thing. The inference seemed to be that no airplanes dropped anything on that particular woodpile. All the poor kid knew was depression and war so for him to think of an All Time Santa Claus was understandable.

Nearing home we were picked up by a colored man, partly Indian, whom I had known before when he came to visit me in my cabin last winter when he was irrigating near the Molokon’s where I lived. He was, as he described it, “A Witness, for they gives and they don’t take, and they are not Jim Crow.”

(from the CATHOLIC WORKER, June 1950)

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