Chapter 14

Architects of Change: Reconstructing Society

Sociologists at Work


Douglas Murray

The Abolition of the Short-Handled Hoe

Through 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.

During the 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.

However, farm 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 worker:

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 rendered ineffective.

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

The 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.

Since the 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.