The Contemporary US Right’s Roots in 1930s Union-Busting: Interview with Kathryn Olmsted

Historians in the News
tags: unions, conservatism, Great Depression, labor history

It’s often argued that modern US conservatism originated in the failed presidential bid of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. Historian Kathryn Olmsted suggests, however, that it should be located much earlier, in the intense labor unrest in the California fields of the 1930s.

In her book, Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, Olmsted argues that large growers and other members of the business class saw farmworker organizing and the New Deal’s pro-labor policies as fundamental threats to their power. While they had benefited enormously from government policies like infrastructure building and tariffs, California agribusiness bristled at the government doing anything to improve workers’ position. In their ferocious anti-labor campaign, they pioneered methods that have become hallmarks of the Right: the use of populist language to defend elite interests, the corporate funding of ostensibly grassroots organizations, and attacks on the Left as a threat to religion and the family.

Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California Davis and the author of multiple books. She was interviewed by radical journalist Sasha Lilley on the California-based progressive radio show Against the GrainTheir conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

To what degree was the New Deal a blow to big business, particularly in California and the West?

Big business had parts of the New Deal that it liked very much and others that it found very distressing, even revolutionary.

On the one hand, a lot of business leaders liked the parts of the New Deal that encouraged big businesses to get together and create cartels to raise prices. They also often liked the infrastructure projects, because the federal government was using tax money to improve roads, airports, and, in the case of California, build dams and canals that expanded their markets.

But what they, for the most part, really despised about the New Deal was its labor laws: because they threatened businesses’ control over wages and profits.

The biggest industry in California was agribusiness. In California, and throughout the West, there tended to be much bigger farms, more highly capitalized, and the land was more expensive. This dated back to the Spanish period, when they had the big haciendas and land grants, but it also had to do with the fact that in California, in particular, they needed irrigation to farm. If you need irrigation, then you need dams and canals, and that takes a lot of capital. Railroads and insurance companies and oil companies and banks owned these large corporate farms, especially in the Central Valley.

Up until the New Deal, corporate agriculture in California had been very statist because the government built the dams and the canals that made it possible for them to farm. It’s only when they decided that the New Deal meant their workers would try to organize unions and raise their pay that corporate agribusiness began to turn against the New Deal.

Now, agricultural workers were excluded from the New Deal laws. They did not get the protections that industrial workers did. But what they heard was that President Roosevelt wants you to form a union. They heard about all these industrial workers throughout the United States demanding the right to form a union and going out on strike when their employers refused to let them. The agricultural workers in California were among the most desperately poor people in America. When they heard that there were these labor laws, they decided to start forming unions.

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