On September 7, 1933, cranberry workers on Cape Cod went on strike to protest their terrible wages and working conditions. Threatening the ability of Americans to have some taste to their bland, mushy, dry, and overcooked Thanksgiving dinner, the strike did not last long, but is an important moment in the organizing history of the early New Deal period.
Cranberries became a part of Anglo-American New England cuisine pretty early in the colonial period. For the first couple hundred years, the cranberries were generally seen as a common, but in the 1840s, capitalists set about privatizing the best cranberry bogs. This was in the era of Yankee capitalist expansion, when the courts would back up anything a capitalist did in the service of “progress,” which meant making money. So taking a public good and privatizing it was exactly the kind of thing that would get court approval in this era. The capitalists then did what they do and marketed the berry around the country, creating new markets for something unknown in the South and West.
The expansion of intensive cranberry production thus required a labor force. Like many picked crops, there was no need for a permanent labor force. But you needed a ton of labor come picking time. Now, in the early years of the cranberry industry, this could usually be handled with a combination of family and hiring local people. But by the 1870s, as the industry grew, a temporary labor force became something that required hiring outside the community. What that would mean is exploitation. We don’t often think of agricultural labor forces in the 19th century, outside of chattel slavery and its successor, the sharecroppers. But in the North, this is almost always seen as family labor, at least well into the 20th century. However, while there was some truth to that, there were definitely transient agricultural labor forces by this time. Like today, this often meant the most unskilled workers. Even the masses of unskilled immigrants could usually get jobs in factories. So the workers hired by the cranberry owners were among the poorest around.
Like with any transient labor force, the employers had almost no incentive to do anything that would treat the workers like humans. Pay was abysmal and living conditions could be unspeakable. A variety of immigrant groups would work in these bogs through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Italians, for sure. Also Russians. Less common immigrant groups ended up here too. Hawaiians were one. The Hawaiians were part of the larger Pacific trade going back to the mid 19th century, but with connections between the sugar planters there and the big agricultural families in New England, it isn’t shocking that they would be recruited in larger numbers. As impoverished French Canadians came down in pretty big numbers from Quebec, quite a few spent at least some time working the cranberries. Then there was the Cape Verdeans. Southern New England became the home of the Portuguese diaspora in America and even today, there are large numbers of Portuguese, Cape Verdeans, even some Angolans. Not so many Brazilians in Rhode Island at least, but I know there are some Massachusetts towns where there are sizable numbers. A lot of these people in the Portuguese diaspora originally came to the U.S. to work in the fishing industry, but not all stayed there. In fact, the Cape Verdeans are the first African group to immigrate to the U.S. in large numbers voluntarily.
Up until about 1910, children were a huge part of the workforce, as migrant families picked. There were strikes in the industry going back to at least 1892, both on Cape Cod and in the smaller New Jersey and Wisconsin cranberry bogs. These were small in nature and brief. The Wisconsin industry was largely Oneida in workforce and so this is an early example of Native labor activism within white society.
By the early 1930s, the Cape Verdeans were the dominant part of the cranberry labor force. That they were non-white in a nation where whiter immigrant workers had more options makes this not surprising, even in Massachusetts. In 1929, with the Great Depression hitting hard, about half the Cape Verdeans lost their jobs. Ocean Spray was already the leader in the industry by this time and in 1931, that company faced a strike in Massachusetts. Again, this was brief, as the company president basically asked the workers where they were going to go and they didn’t have much of an answer to that, despite their desperation and poverty. But things just got worse and worse. Finally, in 1933, two farmworker organizers named Fred Wood and Daniel J. McIntosh started organizing the labor force. Even though they were white and the Cape Verdeans were not, many of the workers were quite interested. Moreover, the American Federation of Labor began showing greater interest as well in these workers. This was at the very beginning of the AFL being interested in any kind of farmworker organizing, which it had usually eschewed and left a big vacuum that the Industrial Workers of the World filled.
So in September 1933, about 1,800 cranberry workers were loosely affiliated members of the Cape Cod Cranberry Pickers Union. They applied for a charter with the AFL. They also demanded a return to 1929 wages. When the cranberry owners refused to negotiate, the CCCPU called a strike in some bogs and about 300 workers went on strike. So this was obviously a very small strike in the larger context of American labor history, but still important for this industry. The next day, 1,200 additional workers in the region joined the strike.
Of course, industry crushed the strike quickly. There was no shortage of unemployed labor who would take the paltry 40 cents an hour the employers offered. The cops happily protected the scab workers. Then the growers had Wood and McIntosh arrested for fraud. See, law enforcement decided it was fraud to have workers sign union cards when the AFL had not yet officially chartered the union. Quite a commitment to impartial law enforcement there! The two organizers were sentenced to sixty days in jail for their real crime of organizing workers. The press of course played up all sorts of supposed threats of violence and the fear of workers communicating in Portuguese, which was of course their native language.
So the strike only lasted about three weeks and Americans would get their topping to make Thanksgiving food marginally edible. Another organizing effort in 1934 faced the same state violence. Although New Deal labor law gave more workers a chance to organize, farmworkers were excluded from the era’s labor law so it could pass muster with the southern politicians refusing to vote for anything that could empower rural southern Black workers. Then in 1940s, canned cranberry sauce became popular and that massively undermined the labor force since the employers didn’t have to worry about damaging the fruit through machine picking since it would be turned into a jelly anyway. Most of the workers were let go and there was only a rump of workers left. Some of them even today though are Cape Verdean.
This is the 491st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
cranberries, farmworkers, labor, Massachusetts, This Day in Labor History