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C. Curtiss

Armed Vigilantes Terrorize
Calif. Agricultural Workers

Tar and Feather Union Organizers in Desperate Attempt
to Stem Unionization: But Crops Rot in Field

(August 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. I No. 36, 31 August 1935, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SANTA ROSA, Calif., Aug. 23. – Santa Rosa is the chief town in Sonoma county from which come the big, red, juicy, Gravenstien apples and hops. The crops are ripening now. The trees are loaded ; the branches sagging to the earth. Labor is needed to harvest the apples and hops. The cry is for labor, labor.

Labor does not respond to the cry because the wages offered are not sufficient to maintain even the low standard of life the agricultural workers are accustomed to. The workers are organizing and forming into unions.

A few weeks ago there was a strike of apple-pickers in Santa Rosa. The workers called a meeting. Vigilantes crashed into this strike meeting, dispersing it, and beating up workers. From this period, the vigilantes have been terrorizing Sonoma county. The highest point to date was reached on the night of Wednesday, August 21, when two active militant workers, accused of being Communists, were tarred and feathered and then marched through town for eight hours.

Patriotism and a Drunken Mob

The night riders began their activities by taking Jack Green, a sign painter of Santa Rosa. Jack Green for many years was president of the Central Trades and Labor Council of Sonoma County, and up to two months ago was president of the local union of sign painters. He is at present a delegate to the Central Trades and Labor Council.

They then descended upon S. Nitzburg, a rancher. Shotgun fire met them at Nitzburg’s ranchhouse. The brave mob of 300 then fell back, and sent for tear gas. When the gas arrived it was shot into the ranchhouse, driving Nitzburg and his family out. They rounded up three others, manhandling women in their attempts to capture their victims. The five were ordered to kiss the American flag. Nitzburg and Green refused, while the others “acceded”. Finally they beat Nitzburg and Green into doing likewise, but as a reprisal for their refusal, they shaved the heads of the two and then dumped tar and feathers over them. Shouting, the triumphant mob, many of whom were drunk, paraded the two through the streets of Santa Rosa.

The vigilantes instructed all five to leave town immediately.

At present, the vigilantes, encouraged by the great feat of 300 vanquishing five, are mouthing threats of invading San Francisco and “cleaning up” on the waterfront unions. Their reception by the maritime unions will be warm. They will be met with open arms, and doubled fists.

The local police and authorities undoubtedly cooperate with the vigilantes. While the victims were being paraded up and down the main streets of Santa Rosa for a period of eight hours, the police did nothing The police of Santa Rosa have not yet been able to answer the question: how did the raiders get the tear gas bombs that were used against Nitzburg and others. No one else but the police had the bombs nor the guns to fire them.

Police Cooperation

Santa Rosa is not a large town and three hundred men could not organize themselves without police knowledge and connivance. It is definitely charged and proven that public officials, police officials and prominent “honored” citizens were active in the raiding.

U.S. Attorney General Webb, who had given sanction to the vigilantes, by refusing to act in earlier cases in Santa Rosa, had the following statement to make in reply to a demand of the Civil Liberties Union for investigation and action: “There is nothing to investigate.”

Let some strikers say “scab” to some strikebreaker and Mr. Webb will be sure to call out all the forces at his disposal to restore “law and order,” meanwhile beating and arresting workers by scores. This attack upon the lives of five workers evokes nothing out of him

but the implicit support of the vigilantes. Knowing the character of the capitalist state machinery, this need cause us little surprise, no matter how discomfited the San Francisco News, a liberal paper, may be by the declaration of Webb. The San Francisco News in its timid protest against the Vigilantes has the following to say:

“We have every sympathy for growers who see their entire year’s work menaced by a few agitators.”

How about some sympathy for the underpaid workers, with their substandard existence wages! The position of the News is summed up in the statement:

“Could the mob take a better way to arouse sympathy for its victims and to weaken any legitimate case there may be against them?”

The victims’ sole crime was that they took a position for the organisation of the field workers. To the capitalist class this is a heinous crime. And the News’ position is that the vigilante methods do not work in suppressing this crime – these methods merely arouse sympathy for the victims. The News prefers the more regular channels of suppression as offering a more efficient instrument of oppression. To the workers of the state, there is but little to choose between the News’ method of “sympathizing” with the growers and the vigilante methods.


Hearst-inspired vigilanteism which is sweeping the state is a Made-in-California variety of fascism. The terror practiced by the small growers, storekeepers, petty officials and hoodlum elements, in the interests of big business, will have to be met determinedly, or the cause of labor will be doomed. Vigilanteism has become a common occurrence Jackson, Pixley, San Francisco Richmond, Imperial Valley, Santa Rosa and other places have been scenes of raids by vigilantes against labor unions. The only way the workers can defeat the vigilantes is not to meet it with moans of anguish and appeals for sympathy but by having groups of workers ready and willing to fight for labor by all means – matching weapon for weapon with the vigilantes.

Contrary to the hopes of the master class the jailing of eight workers, at Sacramento, a few months ago has not stifled the labor movement. It continues. Struggles are developing in agriculture, mining, industry and on the waterfront We have recounted in brief the situation in Santa Rosa. Word comes that the Mexican Agricultural Workers Union of Los Angeles and surrounding counties is preparing to go out on strike. The Jackson miners are still holding out. On the waterfront the probabilities are that there will be a struggle with the expiration of the contract, on September 30. The river bargemen are on strike. Five locals of agricultural workers have been charted in one county by the Bakersfield Central Labor Council.

The capitalist class places a lot of hope in the vigilantes as a weapon against the workers.

* * *

P.S. The terroristic action of the vigilantes has resulted in creating a labor shortage in Sonoma County which may mean that the crops will rot unharvested. This was the announcement of J.A. Stellern, state director of national re-employment. Mr. Stellern said 1,500 men are needed for work at once in the harvest around Santa Rosa, and emphasized the point that only men active in fomenting labor trouble and strike movements are “in disfavor” there.

Behind all the obscene exhibition of flag-kissing and frenzy stands the economic interests of the growers. The motive behind this 100 percentism is cold profit. Patriotism is the refuge of all anti-labor forces.

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