Big Bill Haywood/An IWW Fable

I’m currently reading the autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, one of the founders of the militant American union orgs, the Industrial Workers of the World. This is NOT a great book, and offers almost zero insight into the actual personal life of one of the greatest labour activists in the world, but it is a wonderful peak of the horrific conditions of industrial labour in turn-of-the-century America, and the violent, deadly opposition workers faced when they attempted to fight back and form unions. Anyway, here’s a passage from the bio, a fable that Big Bill told fellow IWW internees awaiting trial in Chicago on trumped-up charges. The punchline is at the very end. Racial implications are rife in this story, so prepare yourself for some triggers.

The fruit-growing landowners of the golden state had determined to rid themselves of members of the IWW. The first move on their part was to introduce Japanese workers in the orchards and vineyards.

Some of the little yellow men joined the IWW which, unlike many other labour unions of America, admitted them the same as white or men of any other colour.

But the Japanese were not satisfied to work for small wages under the miserable conditions imposed by the Fruit-growers Association, so they formed co-operatives, saved their money, and began purchasing land for themselves, becoming serious competitors of their former employers.

Fearful that the Japanese would buy the entire fruit-growing region of California, having already bought most of the land in the Vaca Valley, laws were passed by the legislature forbidding the sale of land to the Japanese, and a Federal law was passed in Washington restricting their immigration to the United States. There was already a law restricting the immigration of the Chinese.

The fruitgrowers were again compelled to employ migratory white labour, until a wonderful idea developed at one of the conventions of the Fruitgrowers’ Association. One of the delegates got up and suggested that it would be possible to train monkeys to pick and pack fruit. This was decided upon without hesitation, and steps were taken to get a lot of monkey fruit pickers.

The Chimpanzee was decided upon as the most intelligent.

Splendid little houses, all nicely painted, were built and equipped for the monkeys. They were actually fed and taught to what they were to do. When the fruit grew ripe, the owners brought their friends from the city to see how ingeniously they were solving the labour problem.

The monkeys were restless in their houses, as the air was aromatic with the ripened fruit. When they were turned loose, they hurriedly climbed the trees. But instead of doing as they had been taught – to bring the fruit down and put it in a box – the mischievous little rascals would dart about, selecting the choicest fruit, take a bite or two, throw the rest away, and go after more.

Before the day was gone, and the monkeys with paunches full had gone back to their houses, much damage was done.

The wise fruit-growers had to seek another method. The next day, each monkey had a muzzle put on. They went up into the trees rapidly enough, but none of them would pick any fruit. They were busily engaged in trying to rid themselves of the frightful contrivance that prevented them from eating and enjoying themselves.

The fruit-growers were in an awful predicament with so many monkeys to feed which would do no work in return. They appealed to the Governor of the state, who regretfully replied that as the offenders were not men, they were not amenable to the law. If they were IWWs, he could have them imprisoned and perhaps have their leaders shot, but over monkeys he had no jurisdiction.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who had never interested itself on behalf of the IWW or the Japanese, learning that the monkeys were being neglected, threatened to prosecute the fruit-growers if the little animals were not properly  taken care of.

The chimpanzees came to be as disliked as much as the IWW. Some of the fruitgrowers owned cotton plantations in Imperial Valley on which they had trouble getting white and black wage slaves sufficiently docile for the work of picking cotton. It occurred to them that the monkeys could be made to pick cotton, and there would be no trouble about them trying to eat it.

So all the monkeys were shipped to the new location. Strange to say, they could pick cotton and at a speed that made their owners happy. Here was the solution to the labour problem as far as picking cotton was concerned. But their satisfaction was short-lived.

One day, while all the monkeys were at work, chattering while they gathered the white bolls of cotton, a gentle breeze wafted a white tuft from a monkey’s hand. It amused him to see it floating through the air. He tossed up another bit, and another. The other monkeys, catching the spirit of the fun, began to do the same. At first little bits and then handfuls, till the air was full of fleecy cotton. It looked as though the first snowstorm had struck southern California.

The overseers were alarmed.

There was no way to stop the monkeys in their eager playfulness, which, before they had tired themselves out, had almost destroyed the entire crop of that particular plantation.

In some peculiar manner the monkeys on other plantations learned of the fun, and their pranks caused the same disastrous result.

The fruit and cotton growers were at their wits’ end. They knew not what to do with the monkeys, until deportation was finally decided on, and the Chimpanzees were shipped back to the forests of Africa, where they now gather together, and the eldest, with a grin on his face, hanging by his tail, tells the younger generation how they won the strike in California.

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