History is about feelings, and in order to understand it, you have to understand people. British historian E.P. Thompson had a love affair with the working class (not classes); he believed it was the motivating force behind most economic and social progress. Thompson could have easily been Sol except for the fact that his love affair was with the English working class. In my case, I try not to romanticize the working class; at the same time, I consider many workers my teachers. I was very fortunate in the 1980s to have been part of the Keep GM Van Nuys Open campaign. I will never forget an auto worker who told me that the thing that he would miss most if the plant shutdown was the feeling that he got after his shift was done and thousands of workers would pour into the parking lot. He felt overwhelmed, he was powerful, and he had a union.
My research put me into contact with labor leaders. Exploring the Great San Joaquin Valley Cotton Strike of 1933, the name that kept popping up was that of Pat Chambers, the lead organizer for the strike. Pat had done oral interviews for the Bancroft Library, but if he was alive I wanted to see him. It was forty years after the fact so I sent out numerous emails. Chambers was a pseudonym; he was a communist who at the time were hounded. Pat did not like the party leadership, saying that they caused too many problems and cost resources to hide them. It was clear that he was not an ideologue; he got into the party because he admired the Wobblies.
The strike involved 18,000 cotton pickers and their families; 80 percent were Mexicans. It was a violent strike that saw three Mexican workers assassinated on picket lines at Pixley and Arvin. He described the Mexican women as the warriors who picketed and kept worker camps such as the one at Corcoran operating. The growers in collusion with the American Farm Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce kept the sheriffs and the elected officials pro-grower. To break the strike county and state officials denied workers relief and pressured the women to go back to work. Growers purposely starved at least nine infants to death.
The strike drew celebrities such as Ella Winters and Langston Hughes. John Steinbeck interviewed Chambers and others about the bitter Taugus Ranch and the Cotton strike. Steinbeck modeled the protagonist after Pat.
Yet although the overwhelming majority of the strikers were Mexican and a minority black, Steinbeck decided much as in The Grapes of Wrath to whiten the characters and make them White Oklahomans because he did not believe that his readers would be sympathetic to Mexicans or blacks. After this point Chambers dropped out of the Party and he went to work as a laborer. His last years were in the Local 51, San Pedro, California, of the International Pile Drivers Union.