THE LEGACY OF JOHN STEINBECK
By Dick Meister
In celebrating author John Steinbeck's centennial this year, we should
not forget that he was one of the greatest advocates America's perpetually
oppressed farmworkers have ever had.
He played a vital role in the long history of attempts to bring a decent
life to them that were begun by radical union organizers early in the 20th
century and that the United Farm Workers and the successors of UFW founder
Cesar Chavez have continued to this day.
Few writers, if any, have better described the miserable conditions
endured by so many of those who grow and harvest our food. None have gained
them greater public support, sympathy and understanding. Steinbeck stirred
up the country to an extent unmatched until the coming of the UFW in the
1960s with its boycotts and other broadly-supported actions.
"The Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1939,
had the greatest impact. The dramatic, plainly written, stunningly
realistic epic of migrants who left their drought-stricken farms in Oklahoma
and other southern and southwestern states to seek work on California's
corporate-controlled farms was a run-away best seller. As successful,
popular -- and realistic -- was the film staring Henry Fonda.
The response to the novel by growers and their allies in politics and
law enforcement made clear that it was indeed an accurate depiction of the
flagrant mistreatment of migrant farmworkers. They denounced Steinbeck as a
liar and worse, threatened him with physical harm and had the book banned
and burned in several farm communities.
"The Communist Party wrote the outline and Steinbeck filled in the rest
of the crap," thundered the wealthy grower who presided over a book-burning
in Bakersfield. A congressman from a nearby county declared it "the most
damnable book that was ever permitted to be written."
The book's opponents feared, more than anything else, that it would
inspire support for granting farmworkers the right of unionization. That
was essential if they were to improve their abominable working conditions
and raise daily pay that was barely enough to buy a day's supply of food at
grower-run company stores. It amounted to as little as $1 for a l0-hour
Much of Steinbeck's earlier work -- short stories and journalism as well
as novels -- also effectively exposed the the workers' plight. That
included the violent suppression of the several strikes they waged in the
early and mid-1930s to demand union rights.
Public concern over their treatment reached a peak after the San Joaquin
Valley was hit by a disastrous flood in 1938. Steinbeck and others told the
country of thousands of homeless and starving families and of local
officials and growers who fought to keep federal agencies from bringing in
food and medical supplies for them, lest it decrease their willingness to
take jobs no matter how bad the pay and conditions.
In one of a series of widely-circulated articles for The San Francisco
News, Steinbeck reported that "the workers are herded about like animals.
Every possible method is used to make them feel inferior and insecure. At
the slightest possible suspicion that the men are organizing they are run
from the ranch at the point of guns. The large ranch owners know that
if organization is ever effected there will be the expense of toilets,
showers, decent living conditions and a raise in wages."
The articles and others in The Nation magazine and elsewhere led film star
(and later Congresswoman) Helen Gahagan Douglas to form The John Steinbeck
Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization. But grower allies in the
Republican-controlled State Legislature blocked the committee's attempts
and those of liberal Democratic Gov. Culbert Olson and his Housing and
Immigration Commissioner, Carey McWilliams, to grant farmworkers collective
There were hopes, however, that heightened public pressure would bring
farmworkers under the federal law that had granted union rights to
industrial workers a few years earlier. A U.S. Senate chaired by Wisconsin
Progressive Robert La Follette Jr. concluded, after a series of
highly-publicized hearings in California Inspired in large part by the
writings of Steinbeck and McWilliams, that the federal act should be
extended to agriculture.
But by the time the recommendation was formally issued in 1942, World
War II was on. Most of the migrant farmworkers were in military service or
working in relatively high-paying war plants, and growers were demanding
low-paid replacements as essential to the war effort. They got them through
the federal bracero program that provided an unlimited supply of temporary
workers from Mexico who were at least as poorly treated as had been the U.S.
migrants. Their easy availability raised a barrier to farm unionization that
was breached by the UFW only after the program was ended in 1964.
Steinbeck also went on to other concerns after the war broke out. But
he had provided invaluable aid to a key group of Americans who desperately
needed it and had inspired and helped lay down guidelines for those who
Copyright c 2002 Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, who's
co-author of "A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to unionize America's Farm