The following is an edited version of a research project about the Trona Strike of 1941. The original project is an “Oral History” which includes a videotaped interview with Chuy Quezada father of the author. Considered original research on the experience of Mexican Americans and labor issues in California, the study is now part of the Ethnic and Gender Studies Library Collection at U. C. Santa Barbara.
Trona, California is an isolated town in the Mojave Desert where the temperature is known to reach 125 degrees in the summer months. In 1941 it was a company town owned and run by American Potash and Chemical Corporation. This company produced potash, boric acid and other chemical products by processing brine drawn from the the dry salt lake, Searles Lake. In 1941 the company functioned as as combination landlord and government service agency. Here practically everyone, including doctors, nurses, barbers, store clerks, and police officers were on the payroll of AP&CC. Services were operated under one of two regular departments of the company–the Village Service Department and the Mercantile Department.” (Allen) Research shows that the seeds of discontent were growing in Trona in the 1930′s. There was a thwarted attempt to begin a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Works, Local No. 414 began organizing and negotiating with American Potash & Chemical Corporation (AP&CC) in 1941. According to a union pamphlet the primary issues were: “Substantial wage raises, adequate housing, the closed shop and preferential hiring, provision for men taken by military service, the abolition of the scrip system, and the end of racial discrimination.”The closed shop demand was never conceded. A closed shop is defined as: “A Company operating under an agreement which specifies the no persons shall be employed who are not members of the union and that all employees must continue to be members in good standing throughout their period of employment.” (Peterson) Early correspondence between union headquarters and the local organizer warned against making closed shop a primary issue in early negotiations, but it was clearly a goal of the union: “In establishing your basis for the strike, you should do it on the theory that you are trying to better the wages and hours and working conditions of the men and leave the closed shop more or less in the background until such time as it becomes necessary to make it the major issue.” (Robinson) It is evident from correspondence that the local organizers’ emphasis on closed shop lead to the strike and eventually broke the strike.
“The strike lasted until July 2, 1941, three months.” (AAUW) Union correspondence, and newspaper articles show that this statement is not accurate. The strike was broken, but not over. On June 27, 1941 AP&CC issued a letter to Trona Workers stating: “The company has decided to open the gates of the plant Wednesday morning July 2, 1941 for the re-employment of workers who desire to return to their jobs.” The letter also says: “Workers have the legal right to join, or not to join, or to remain in a union as they may choose.” As a result of this letter 500 of 1200 employees returned to work.
The loyal union members considered them scabs. The union leaders sent a telegram to President Franklin Roosevelt telling him about the situation and asking that the government take over the plant because “The company has brought approximately one hundred fifty heavily armed deputies into company owned town.” (IUMMSW). Film footage of the strike shows a flyer stating the strike ended at 12 midnight on Thursday, July 29, 1941.
It is the period between July 2 and July 29, 1941 that caused tensions that stayed with the community for decades. “During this period close friends became enemies to the extent that some do not speak to each other today.” (AAUW) “Wives of working employees, strolling proudly down the shaded walks on the arms of their husbands, and strikers’ wives, walking equally proudly with their men, exchanged many fiery glances.” (San Bernardino Daily Sun) “Wednesday morning the returning workers gathered in the theatre patio before making their march through the gates. As they started for the gate, they were met with cheers from their wives and children.”
Marching four abreast they moved through the picket line on a path cleared by the deputies amid the catcalls, boos, and baa’s of the pickets…(On Thursday) the workers again made the march through the picket lines to return to their jobs. The picket line was still at the gate, but there was another picket line, composed of women and children, who were picketing the pickets.” (Randsburg Times)
Discrimination was a key issue for many Mexicans employed at AP&CC. Mexicans were only allowed to do the lowest form of physical labor in the Shipping Department. Mexicans were paid five cents an hour less than the men with whom they worked. They worked 12 hour shifts with only 15 minutes for lunch. There was no chance for advancement. Mexicans could only live in one isolated area of town and there were “No Mexicans Allowed” signs posted in some Trona establishments. A fundraising pamphlet distributed by the Union states: “Another AP&CC tactic has been that of discriminating against Mexican workers. They are kept at the lowest pay rates, do the most menial tasks, are not eligible for advancement, and must occupy quarters that are only seen in substandard slums. Until recently they have been refused privileges afforded other workers, such as the use of the Trona Club to dance, skate, bowl or play billiards. Against this form of Jim Crowism the Union has fought unceasingly. The Mexicans have responded by 100% Union membership.”
Mr. Quezada’s interview agreed with the research materials obtained. His comments added a dimension that is not found in newspaper articles, books, or union correspondence. This is a man whose life was dramatically changed by four and half months in 1941. At the time of the strike he was a young man who had experienced exclusion because of his ethnic heritage, who had been working hard physical labor for four years, and whose future was one of back-breaking work and subsistence poverty. The strike opened the doors of opportunity for him. Although he says that he was mislead by the union leaders to fight for a closed shop, he also says that the strike was worth hardships endured. The strike gave him the opportunity to improve his life and his standard of living. At the end of his career he was the highest ranking and highest paid Electrical Design Engineer in Trona.
Laura Quezada, May 1997
The Daily Times July 3, 1941: At Trona Calif. the American Potash and Chemical Company operated with a limited force which returned after a 14-week strike called by the United Mill, Mine and Smelter Workers union (CIO). Workers who remained on strike maintained picket lines. The company said 528 of 1087 employees returned yesterday to accept the management offer of a compromise wage proposal . The new wage scale ranges from 78 cents to $1.20 an hour compared to the union demands of $1.00 to $1.20.