Labor Organizing and Uprising. 1928-1935

    This chapter will describe the sugar-cane worker's response to the sugar industries disregard for their demands and unwillingness to yield to any labor demand. It will illustrate the nature and patterns of the labor unrest. It will also explain the relationship between the sugar-cane workers and the labor union, the new forms of labor organization and the development of new ideologies amid times of confusion and turmoil.

 I-Crisis, Confusion and Rebellion.

1-The Labor Union and the Sugar-cane worker.- The Strange Couple.

    From its beginning, the F.F.W. fought to gain better wages, working conditions, and hours for the sugar-cane worker. Through its efforts and struggles many laws were enacted for the protection of workers rights. Although its enforcement was non-existent. In 1917 after the violent strikes of the year before, few labor laws were passed. These are some of them: Freedom to Strike (April 1917); Protection to be a Union Member (Nov. 1917); Right to Work Compensation (Nov. 1917). (see Compilation of Labor Laws in Puerto Rico 1902-1931. pp. 58-61, 67-70, 83, 135) Regardless of any improvement gained through the union the fact is that after the brutality of the 1916 struggle the sugar-cane worker began to lost faith in the F.F.W.

    Increasingly workers began to doubt the commitment of their leaders. After the Socialist Party (Labor Party) became a political contender, its leaders became more part of the political establishment and less part of trade unionism. It became obvious that some of the union leaders were ready to sacrifice the worker's interests to further their political careers. The role played by the union and its leaders before and after its political upsurge its best explain by Galvin's analysis of Iglesias' evolution:

"Iglesias, from the moment he arrived in Puerto Rico in 1896 until his death in 1939, personified the dominant trends in the Puerto Rican Labor Movement. From 1896 until W.W.I and shortly thereafter, the record was one of struggle and sacrifice but very few gains. From W.W.I and the coalition with the conservatives until W.W.II, the record becomes one of accommodation, compromise, corruption, and hollow victories."
    By 1920 the more radical elements of the labor union had been pushed aside. Furthermore the leadership began to accuse the sugar-cane workers of being: "too quick to strike, and the rank and file demands had an unacceptably radical flavor."  In the 1920s the labor union happily married the conservative political element of the island. This marriage allowed the labor union to position many of their members in the legislature and some municipal assemblies. As the F.F.W became more involved in the political arena its commitment to its allies became impossible to hide. Some historians argued that there was an implicit pact between the labor leaders, the conservatives, and the colonial government: "...the leaders of organized labor were permitted access to represent the working class in the legislature, but with the implicit understanding that none of the prior members of the dominant class be...disturbed."  Furthermore, Galvin found that when the coalition came to power in 1930, all the old bills pertaining to labor were swiftly pull out of the draw: "The bills, including wage and hour regulations...all of which had been bottled up for many years were amended and promulgated as soon as the coalition came to power...and then not rigorously enforced."

    The collaboration between the labor leaders and conservatives had a long history from 1917 labor leaders and conservatives were silent allies. And since the interests of the sugar industry were advocated and guarded by the conservatives, the labor leaders served the same purpose. This link between the labor leaders, the Republican Party (conservatives), and the sugar industry erected a wall between the union leadership and the rank and file. The sugar-cane workers did not trust the union leaders to represent, or for that matter safeguard, their interests in the face of the sugar industry. The relationship between the sugar-cane workers and the union leadership deteriorated after the 1932 elections. The Conservative Coalition won the elections, Iglesias was elected Resident Commissioner in Washington. This only proved to the workers that Iglesias had forsaken, again, the labor rank and file in pursuit of his political ambitions. On top of that the union's highest leader, Prudencio Rivera Martínez, was designated Commissioner of the newly-created Labor Department. In short, Rivera Martínez went to work for the enemy. In a document published by a labor organization the fraternization between the union leadership and the colonial government was described in this Manner:

"The work agents became the workers' representatives, taking charge of syndicate matters, weakening them as labor organizations. Its quarters turned alien to the worker's struggle and the labor organizers into functionaries for the Labor Department."
    Accurately one can say that after Iglesias and the F.W.W. started playing politics the union changed its aggressive defense for the rights of workers. This is how Gervasio García & Quintero Rivera explain the change in the union's philosophy:
"The F.F.W. and the Socialist Party emerged from the politics of the masses: the sugar field torchings and the labor strikes, the marches, the  "Maesellesa" and the protests...the dealings to pass legislation transferred said struggle behind close doors...The activity of the masses started to lose importance before their leaders."
    The seriousness of the problems between the leadership and the workers became painfully obvious during the strikes of 1933-34. These were the most fierce, intense, and widely-spread strikes in the history of Puerto Rico. The union leadership signed an agreement with the sugar industry to put an end to the strikes, but the agreement between the W.W.F. and the sugar industry did not satisfy the workers. The sugar-cane workers openly broke ranks with the union and went on strike one day after the W.W.F. signed the agreement. It has been estimated that at one point twenty nine out of the forty centrales went on strike at some time that year. The workers formed alternative unions and continued their struggle over the leadership's objections. (see Dietz. pp. 182-185 , García & Quintero. pp.102-105)

2-The Sugar-Cane Worker Vs the Sugar Industry.- The Fight for Survival.

    The sugar-cane worker had to fight for every little improvement gained through the years. The sugar industry never gave them anything willingly. When times were most prosperous for the industry the prosperity never reached the workers. And when times were not so prosperous some of the workers gains were taken away by the industry. But the workers, painful as it was, learned in 1915-16 that only through fighting could they achieve any change.

    From 1928 onward the confrontations between the sugar-cane worker and the sugar industry became more frequent and more violent. I have attempted to put together an accurate record of the struggle and its proportions, once again it is only fair to mention that the primary sources of information for this work are government records. Also that some of these sources, while acknowledging the incidents, may have not been thoroughly documented. I found that,for example, that during the years of dispute, some of the reports of the colonial Governors (1928-1935) make references to the incidents between the sugar-cane workers and the sugar industry, while others made no mention whatsoever. One thing is indisputable, the conflict between the workers and the industry set off an all-out war from 1928 to 1935. The outcome was so profound that it changed the outlook of industry and government alike.

    The struggle of the sugar-cane workers was manifested in two ways: La Torcha or the torch. Simply setting fire to the sugar cane fields. The other one was the strike. In 1928 the Insular Police of Puerto Rico reported that 112 sugar cane fields were torched, (see 28th Annual Report Insular Police of Puerto Rico. p. 71) and in 1929 40 were reported torched. ( see 29th Annual Report Insular Police of Puerto Rico. p. 71) Also in February 1928 3,000 sugar-cane workers went on strike at Yabucoa paralyzing the sugar mills of the area. As the sugar industry remained unresponsive to the demands of the workers the struggle intensified. From 1931 to 1933 90 strikes were documented by the Department of Labor and the Police. The tables below show the close relation of the strikes throughout the island. Demonstrating the organization and proportions of the strikes.

Strikes in the Sugar Cane Industry During 1931-32
  Town                    % of Strikes                   Date
  Aguada                    800                             Nov. 24, 1931
  Arecibo                   300                              Dic. 16, 1931
  Arecibo                     *                                Feb. 11, 1932
  Arecibo                     *                                March. 15, 1932
  Barceloneta             500                              Jan. 25 1932
  Caguas                 4,100                              Jul. 29, 1932
  Cayey                       60                              Nov. 21, 1932
  Ceiba                        *                                Aug. 1, 1931 
  Ceiba                        *                                April 5 1932
  Dorado                   193                              Jan. 29, 1932
  Gurabo                     73                              Aug. 12, 1931
  Gurabo                     *                                Feb. 6, 1932
  Isabela                    250                              Feb.22, 1932
  Las Piedras               *                                March 1, 1932
  Las Piedras             300                              Oct. 18, 1932
  Manatí                    130                               Feb. 1, 1932
  Manatí                    125                               Feb. 22, 1932
  Moca                      300                              Nov. 24, 1931
  San Lorenzo            300                              Jan. 25, 1932
  Vega Alta                150                              Jan. 22, 1932
  Vega Baja               500                              Jan. 13, 1932
  Vega Baja                *                                 Feb. 16, 1932
  Yabucoa                  *                                 Jan. 11, 1932

  Total Strikes           24 8,082
 * Number of Strikers not Available
 Source: 31st Annual Report Of the Governor of Puerto Rico


Total Strikes: 66  Total Workers: 42,870

*6,054 Workers on Strike
**No Specific Day Available
***17,258 Workers on Strike
****139 Workers on Strike
*****972 Workers on Strike

Sources: 39th Annual report of The Governor of Puerto Rico
    1932 Annual Report of The Insular Police of Puerto Rico

    The struggle of 1933-34 was extremely violent. Besides the reported strikes the police also reported 118 cane fields torched in the areas affected by the strikes. (see 1934 Annual Report of The Insular Police of Puerto Rico. pp.14-15) A closer look at the most affected mills, in particular, revealed that the Central Guánica was the main target (30.5%). And although the incidents affected the industry as a whole, American-owned plantations and centrales were the most damaged by far (45%). (see Annual Report of The Insular Police of Puerto Rico. pp. 36-37.) The information compiled in Table 3 will establish the relation between sugar cane fires and sugar-cane strikes. It will also show the huge magnitude of the sugar rebellion and its geographical extension.

Table 3

List of Cane Fires occurred During the Fiscal Year 1933-34,
showing number of Cuerdas Burned, Name of Proprietor
and the Approximate Loss in each Case

(?) Stands for "Amount not Given"
Source: 1934. Annual Report of the Insular Police of Puerto Rico. pp. 36-37

    The confrontations between the sugar-cane workers, the police, and the strike breakers were the bloodiest in the history of Puerto Rico. By early 1934 the sugar-cane workers had called for a general strike over the disapproval of the union leadership. (Earlier the F.F.W. had signed an agreement with the sugar industry that was supposed to end the disputes.) At that time the strike movement had paralyzed three fourths of the industry. The Governor had to hire additional men to reinforce the police. It was documented that he also planned to call the National Guard and the Army if the strikes and the violence did not end. (see Santiago-Valle. pp. 189-191.)

    Although the strikes and fires inflicted considerable losses to the industry, it could not be sustained. In addition of those workers killed, maimed, and jailed, the rest were disheartened. The sugar-cane workers were driven back to work by exhaustion, lack of money, and disorganization achieving only marginal material gains. As in the past the price paid by the sugar-cane worker in his struggle for a better way of life was much higher than the returns. Nevertheless, their return to the fields and mills did not mean the end of the struggle and hostilities. In 1935 the police reported that 215 sugar fields were torched. The struggle continued through 1935, but to a lesser degree.


    From 1928 to 1935 what ever remaining link between the labor union and the sugar-cane workers existed, ended angrily. It was the inevitable conclusion to 25 years of conflict and dissension. The labor union failed the Puerto Rican workers when its leaders decided to become part of the system they were supposed to be fighting against. Despite its early accomplishments in favor of the workers, the union never managed to unite the Puerto Rican workers. That was the case in the sugar-cane sector. Throughout its brief history, the union failed to acknowledge how important the sugar-cane worker was to the success of the labor movement. In many instances the actions of the union helped the sugar industry accomplish its schemes against the workers. In the end the end the old adage "Divide and Conquer" was proven accurate. The union ceased to represent the sugar-cane worker,and the sugar-cane workers, without the support of the union, failed to obtain their objectives.


    One could say that Puerto Rico's history and that of the sugar industry is one and the same. And this assumption, while not altogether accurate, does have some virtue. Throughout time both have been closely linked. The prosperity of sugar meant the prosperity of the island. On the other hand, the misfortune of the sugar industry meant its impoverishment. It is Ironic, perhaps, that such prosperity never meant abundance or comfort for those that squeezed the sugar from the stalk.
 Sugar's legacy to Puerto Rico is the tale of two countries and the segregation of its people. The arrival of Spain and its avarice. With them the annihilation of one race and the beginning of slavery for another. Four centuries of pillage, rape, and decay for Puerto Rico. Its sugar sweetened the Spanish coffers and soured the lives of the natives.

    The defeat of Spain at the hands of the United States brought hopes, at first, and disappointment later. With the Americans greed developed into a civilized profession. Puerto Rico's sugar went to sweeten the new ruler's cup.
 Under sugar's supremacy Puerto Rico instituted a nation based on segregation and exclusion. From the beginning sugar foreordained the destiny of those that were touched by its wand. The story speaks of two peoples: those that enjoyed all of the wealth milled out of the sugar cane, without touching it; and those that with their sweat, blood, and sorrow fertilized and sweetened the stalk and never shared in its benefits.

    Under the United States' tenure the sugar industry grew beyond belief. The new master brought all the latest technology and the industry blossomed. But only a few shared the colossal revenues extracted from the plant. The sugar industry transformed itself into an inhuman cartel that only worried about its entourage. The United States chastised Spain for its barbaric-medieval treatment of Puerto Rico and its inhabitants, and pledged to Puerto Ricans the guarantees of American democracy. Thirty seven years later the island remained a colony, surrounded by the latest technology, but a colony nevertheless,and the segregation surpassed past levels. Now there were the rich natives and the rich, but absent, Americans sharing the wealth while the poor swelled like a laceration flogged by the sun.

    The last thirty seven years were the reverberation of the past, and the worst years for the sugar-cane worker now under democratic laws that were never carried out. The struggle of the Puerto Rican sugar-cane worker, from 1898 to 1935, was one of oppression, coercion, and bloodshed. Every gain had to be accomplished in the battle field and the price paid, in human lives and degradation, was so costly that the gains turned into losses. For thirty seven years the Puerto Rican sugar-cane worker strived and struggled, bravely and with dignity, for a better existence. It is a tragedy and disgrace that the plight, though long and painful, had no greater results.

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