Long known as an agricultural center, Orange County owes its prosperity not just to the well-to-do, but also to the sweat and toil of farmhands working the citrus fields in days past (Items 27 and 28). Today, immigrant domestic workers (Items 37 and 38), janitors (Item 31), and groundskeepers (Item 36) labor often unseen and ignored as we go about our daily suburban routines. Throughout Orange County history, many workers have organized for their rights (Item 34).
Indeed, a tumultuous 1936 citrus strike ended the myth of "contented Mexican labor," according to UCI labor historian Gilbert Gonzalez, who called it one of the "most violently suppressed" labor disputes of the period (Item 32). County sheriff Logan Jackson, himself a citrus rancher, ordered his deputies to "shoot to kill" strikers. His order was emblazoned across the front page of the Santa Ana Register[vii]. The strike involved almost 3,000 citrus pickers in Orange County, with 400 arrested, most on flimsy charges, according to Gonzalez.
By World War II, citrus growers began to view contract labor recruited directly from outside the U.S. as more manageable. From 1943 to 1964, thousands of such workers were brought to the United States, some 70,000 of them arriving in Orange County. While Mexicans were the majority of these braceros (Item 29), the program also tapped Filipinos, Jamaicans, and Japanese. German POWs also were made to work. At the U.S./Mexico border, long queues of braceros waited to find work; they were not selected until after being forced to strip naked, take group showers, and be fumigated with DDT for lice, according to Gonzalez.
Countywide, labor issues continue today. At UCI a Worker-Student Alliance has focused on improving conditions for subcontracted food service and grounds workers. Even labor issues based in Florida have surfaced in Irvine, where Taco Bell has its headquarters. In 2001 the Coalition of Immokalee Workers from Florida began organizing a national "Boycott Taco Bell" campaign (Item 35); the organizers met with UCI students and were interviewed on a local radio show, "Alternative News," that I hosted on KUCI at the time. After a long struggle, the coalition successfully reached a settlement in 2005 for a slight (penny a pound) pay increase for Taco Bell's subcontracted tomato pickers.
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