Architects of Change: Reconstructing Society
The Abolition of the Short-Handled Hoe
personal interviews and an examination of existing legal documents, sociologist Douglas
Murray analyzed the process by which a simple farm tool, the short-handled hoe, came to
symbolize the exploitation of California farm workers and served as a focal point for a
successful social movement.
early 20th century, the short-handled hoe became the principal tool used by farm laborers
for thinning and weeding crops. Growers claimed that it was more accurate and efficient
than the long-handled hoe.
laborers saw another motive in the growers' preference. With the long-handled hoe,
supervisors sometimes couldn't tell when workers were working or just leaning on the hoe.
With the short-handled hoe, supervisors could more easily see when workers were working,
because the workers had to stand up to rest.
Use of the
short-handled hoe came to be called "squat labor" or "stoop labor"
because of the bent-over position required to use the tool correctly. Numerous physicians
and medical experts pointed out that use of this tool over long periods caused a
degeneration of the spine, leading to permanent disabilities. According to one farm
When I used the
short-handled hoe my head would ache and my eyes hurt because of the pressure of bending
down so long. My back would hurt whenever I stood up or bent over. I moved down the rows
as fast as I could so I could get to the end and rest my back for a moment.1
As early as
the 1920s farm workers were engaging in isolated protests and work stoppages over the use
of the short-handled hoe. During the Depression, though, the poor people from Oklahoma,
Arkansas, and elsewhere who flocked to California were willing to do any work, including
using the short-handled hoe, for lower wages. Hence the protests of the 1920s were
Not until the
early 1970s, when the civil rights movement was in full swing and the United Farm Workers
union had been organized, was the issue of the short-handled hoe resolved:
Late one afternoon in the
spring of 1973, farm workers leaving the fields of the fertile Salinas Valley in Central
California gathered beside the buses which would take them to the nearby labor camps for
the night. They moved nervously about a large pile of short-handled hoes which they had
been using that day to thin and weed long rows of lettuce. One farm worker quickly doused
the hoes with gasoline; another tossed a match, setting them ablaze. Cries of protest
swept through the crowd as the farm workers served their bosses with a defiant notice: no
longer would they work with "el cortito," the short-handled hoe.2
protesters were finally able to mobilize state-level organizations to bring the growers to
court, and farm worker strikes soon drew national attention. With the help of national
labor unions, government agencies such as the Office of Economic Opportunity, and legal
assistance agencies for the disadvantaged, the short-handled hoe was eventually declared
to be in violation of federal worker health and safety protections.
short-handled hoe was banned, farm worker conditions have improved, and growers report
fewer worker compensation claims for back injuries. Moreover, the success of the case,
along with the powerful organizational structure that developed to represent farm workers,
encouraged labor protests over other conditions, such as exposure to dangerous pesticides.
In sum, the
protest over one little tool, buttressed by the participation of government and legal
organizations, spawned the farm workers movement that exists to this day.
1Quoted in Murray, D. L. 1982. "The
abolition of el cortito, the short-handled hoe: A case study in social conflict and state
policy in California agriculture." Social Problems, 30, 26-39. p. 29.
2Murray, D. L. 1982. "The abolition of el
cortito, the short-handled hoe: A case study in social conflict and state policy in
California agriculture." Social Problems, 30, 26-39. p. 26.
Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday
Life, Fifth Edition
by David M. Newman.
Copyright © 2004 Pine Forge Press, an Imprint of Sage Publications, Inc. http://www.pineforge.com/newman5study/