Church Grape Juice Company field workers, in Kennewick, strike for higher wages on September 22, 1949.

  • By Elizabeth Gibson
  • Posted 12/03/2005
  • Essay 7543
On September 22, 1949, about 200 pickers for the Church Grape Juice Company, Vineyard No. 6, in Kennewick, strike for higher wages. J. G. Kelly, publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, owns the company, which arranges for two strikers to be arrested after they give a press interview. After five days, the company and the workers settle at a higher rate, 15 cents per lug (about 35 pounds) of grapes picked.

Two weeks prior to the strike, workers presented a signed petition to the company requesting wage negotiations. Company officials ignored the petition. C. L. Howe and John L. Wagner, representing the workers, explained that the fact the petition was ignored was what made the workers strike.

Workers at Church's Vineyard No. 6 complained about their wage, which was 12 cents per lug. A lug was a crate about the size of an apple box. This pay amounted to only about 50 cents an hour for the best pickers. Mr. and Mrs. Vurgal Engle told the Tri-City Herald that their combined paycheck the previous week was $58. Both worked nine-and-a-half hours a day for six days to earn this wage.

At first, the company declined to address the workers' grievances. Manager F. L. Ludlow refused to take action on the petition. He believed that agitators had initiated the strike and had threatened the workers if they went to work. He insisted that 12 cents a lug was the going rate that year.  Ludlow stated that if the pickers did not want to work for that wage, he could hire others who would. He did not appear to be concerned about the crop, claiming that picking was nearly finished for the year. 

However, 200 acres had not yet been picked. If the grapes were not picked soon, the crop would be lost. The firm made about $40 per ton, with each acre yielding about five tons.

The workers based their demands on the previous year's wage, which was 18 cents per lug. In addition, Church's paid them less than Concord grape pickers in the Grandview-Prosser area.  According to Charles McInnis, manager of the Yakima Valley Grape Growers Association, those workers received 16 to 20 cents per lug. Steady pickers received 20 cents, while transients and temporary workers received 16 cents. Church Grape Juice Company manager Ludlow claimed that the wage paid for Concord grapes was misleading because Yakima Valley pickers used larger lugs than those used in the Tri-Cities. 

Church's arranged for Howe and Engle to be arrested (on what charge was not reported in the press) after they talked to a Herald reporter. The authorities took the two men before a judge, who released them without bond or fine.

When workers showed up at the vineyard for the strike, the field manager told them they would be fired and removed from the payroll if they did not show up for work on Friday and Saturday.  Upon hearing that in the Yakima Valley, transient pickers received lower pay, a Church official, apparently, likened the local workers to transient workers. The strikers were not pleased to be compared to transient workers, since of them lived in the Tri-Cities area. 

On the second day of the strike, strikers vowed not to go back until the company agreed to talks. They demanded 18 cents a lug, the same rate they had received the year before. Manager Ludlow remained firm on 12 cents, insisting it was the going rate. He claimed that the workers had been overpaid last year. The company offered a penny per hour raise and a bonus, but the workers rejected this offer. They were even more adamant after learning that two of their co-workers had been arrested. 

The strike ended two days later when Church Grape Juice Company raised the pay to 15 cents per lug. Field manager Al Persinger told Lorine E. Sipe, Alda Keller, and Lucille Peterson that the company would compromise. Officials also declared that though workers were told they would be fired, this statement was a mistake. Apparently Ludlow did not realize just how many workers had walked out until the processing plant reported a lack of grapes.

Workers returned to work Wednesday, after being off work for five days.

Sources: "Church's Grape Fields Tied Up By Strike," Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), September 22, 1949, p. 1; "Vineyard Strike in 2nd Day," Ibid., September 23, 1949, p. 1; "Striking Grape Pickers Fired," Ibid., September 25, 1949, p. 1; "Vineyard Strike is Ended," Ibid., September 27, 1949, p. 1.

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