Sugar Wars and the Bloody Streets of Crockett

By William Mero

"It was the best of times .. It was the worst of times." That famous quote from Dickens could also fairly describe Crockett in the late 1930's. The small, blue collar town of Crockett hugged the hilly shores of the Carquinez Straits, gateway for ocean going ships seeking the golden bounty of Calfornia's Central Valley. The Great Depression had caused an upheaval in the world's economic and social structure. Even tiny Contra Costa County was not immune to the vast changes and conflicts sweeping the United States.

The Contra Costa County's most famous labor battle took place in 1938 on Crockett's main street between rival CIO and AFL labor unions over control of the C & H sugar refinery's labor force. The conflict brought Crockett national attention. All roads into Crockett were sealed off by the California Highway Patrol and the Sheriff's Department in order to control the growing bloodshed.

The C & H sugar refinery struggled under the nation's economic collapse in 1929. Sugar prices fell dramatically. Pay cuts, reduced working hours and a shrinking work force hit the workers of C & H hard. These stern business measures kept the refinery operating, most workers employed and the Crockett population more prosperous than many communities around the nation. Nevertheless bad times and more liberal labor laws led the C & H employees to organize for improved rights and benefits. The CIO Sugar Workers Union and the ILWU Warehouse Union struck in 1935 and 1937. Then in 1938 an especially bitter strike tore apart the close knit Crockett community. The violent labor dispute eventually pitted neighbors against neighbor and brother against brother.

During the late 1930's, the C & H refinery operated under an AFL closed shop agreement. On March 11, 1938, the CIO Sugar Workers Union set up picket lines when their leaders were suspended under the terms of the closed shop contract. The CIO warehousemen, in the midst of negotiating a new labor contract, now refused to cross the new CIO picket lines. The sugar refinery shut down and all union members' pay checks stopped. Economic desperation began to infect the small community.

A week later on March 16th over 600 Crockett women met in the Crockett Community Auditorium. They passed a resolution petitioning C & H to honor the American Federation of Labor's request to reopen the refinery. However the CIO warehousemen's union refused to settle their wage dispute with C & H. The picket lines remained in place. C & H management decided it was safer to keep the refinery closed until the labor dispute was settled. The stage was set for serious conflict.

Patience exhausted, fighting between the two unions began on the evening of the 27th day of the strike. Chanting, "Let's go get 'em.," AFL union members marched down Winslow Avenue. Blood flowed as 400 members of the AFL charged the CIO picket line and severely beat many of the warehousemen and sugar workers blocking the refinery entrances.

The CIO members retreated to the CIO International Longshoremen's Union Hall on Loring Avenue. Badly outnumbered, the CIO warehousemen armed themselves with clubs and fought back. Contra Costa deputy sheriffs and California Highway Patrol officers repeatedly charged the rioters and fired volley after volley of tear gas bombs. Loring Avenue filled with choking clouds of stinging fumes. Fighting raged for over 40 minutes. Using clubs and fists dozens of men were beaten as the surge of battle flowed up and down the street slippery with blood. Some warehousemen, trying to escape in a car, crashed into the crowd, running over one AFL member and hitting another. Other men suffered stab wounds from rioters wielding ice picks.

As a result of the day's fighting, the AFL had driven the CIO strikers from the refinery. Now in control of the streets, the AFL demanded that C & H reopen the plant. Law enforcement officers sealed off Crockett in order to prevent both union factions from being reinforced. It was luck alone that no one was killed.

All access to Crockett was blocked. Cars and their occupants were searched for invaders and weapons. Railroad trains were also searched for intruding union toughs. Merchants along Loring Avenue barricaded their shops. Fortunately the sudden violence shocked many into reconsidering their actions. Cooler heads began to prevail and a shaky surface calm gradually returned to the little Contra Costa community.

With the picket lines now under total AFL control, the refinery soon reopened. Now virtually powerless, the CIO warehousemen voted two weeks later by 152 to 115 to accept the contract and return to work. Lost paychecks, vanished company profits, local business losses, and personal hatreds were the bitter fruits of the nasty 41 day strike. During the war, outsiders and women replaced most of the old employees. The CIO and AFL later merged ending their long standing rivalry. After World War II, the closed shop which caused the initial conflict in the C & H refinery was finally outlawed nationally. Even now after over 60 years, there still remain some who have not forgotten or forgiven the tragic circumstances surrounding the great sugar war of 1938.


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