Porter Chaffee: Labor Organizer and Activist, 1900-1977

115 pages

For the complete text [PDF] of Porter Chaffee: Labor Organizer and Activist, 1900-1977 (E-Scholarship). Includes complete audio (streaming or download) for the oral history. Note: Due to editing by the narrator, there may be some differences between the audio recording and the transcript. Please quote from the transcript as the record. Audio will be found under "Supporting Material."

Porter Chaffee's oral history offers valuable primary source documentation on the labor struggles of the 1930s, particularly from the point of view of a Communist labor activist and WPA writer. This interview is part of the Regional History Project's Agricultural History Series conducted in 1977.

Porter Myron Chaffee was born on November 26, 1900 in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. He was one of six children. His father, Grant Chaffee, was a miner and also a cook in mining camps in places such as the Anaconda copper mines. As a man with a strong working class consciousness, Grant Chaffee grew impassioned about the Knights of Labor and later the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Eventually he married and moved to Oakland, California, where he worked in lumber yards. A few years later he inherited a substantial amount of money from his father, the elder Porter Myron Chaffee (for whom the narrator of this oral history is named), who had owned substantial amounts of property in Oakland. This inheritance thrust Porter's father out of the working class and into a crisis of conscience and ideals. He still identified as working class, but his wife (Porter's mother) cherished middle class aspirations. This family conflict eventually led to the family's purchase in 1909 of a ranch in Napa County on Monticello Road, where they lived for a few years. But soon they returned to Oakland, where Porter finished grammar school and then attended Oakland Technical High School.

Instead of finishing high school, the restless Chaffee dropped out and joined the Merchant Marines, and spent the next three years at sea. It was there that Chaffee developed a respect for the intelligence of working class people and was exposed to Communist ideas. In 1921 Chaffee returned to California, where he harvested prunes and grapes at the Admiral Miller Ranch in Napa County. There he suffered a shoulder injury, developed tuberculosis, and almost died. In search of treatment, Chaffee, who then weighed and alarming 97 pounds, took a bus to Oakland, where he sought care from a chiropractor who may have been engaged in medical quackery. He spent that time fraternizing with Yugoslavian and Russian immigrant patients whose radical ideals further stimulated his interest in the Communist movement.

After his recovery from TB, Chaffee joined the Communist youth group Friends of the Soviet Union. In 1925 he moved to Santa Cruz with his family, where he attended Santa Cruz High School at age twenty-five. There he was relentlessly teased for his hump (a result of the TB) and after a few months he walked out of Santa Cruz High, and left Santa Cruz for what he called "the hobo part of [his] life", journeying across the United States and eventually ending up in New York City in 1926, where he wrote for the leftist The New Masses magazine. He wrote an unpublished memoir about this period entitled "The Journal of a Hungry Man", which is on deposit together with Chaffee's other papers at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

Unable to work because of his fragile health, Chaffee returned to Santa Cruz County, where his parents provided him with minimal support. There he continued to be active on the Left, and founded a branch of the Communist Party in Santa Cruz in 1929. He shares his recollections of some of the socialists in Santa Cruz County, many of whom were of German heritage. He recalls organizing a hunger march up Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, past the Santa Cruz County Court House. He also describes fascist reprisals against Santa Cruz socialists.

In 1933, Chaffee returned to Oakland, where he became involved in organizing for the Unemployed Councils. During this period he forged friendships with radical luminaries such as the muckraking journalist and editor, Lincoln Steffens, and the writer Kenneth Rexroth.

It was at this time that Chaffee became an organizer for the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU), whose offices were headquartered at 81 Post Street in San Jose, California. The CAWIU was a project of the Trade Union Unity League of the Communist Party (TUUL).

After a slow start, the CAWIU organized several successful strikes, including a strike in the peach orchards at Tagus Ranch near Tulare, California, which resulted in a wage increase for workers. The chief organizer was Pat Chambers. Chaffee worked closely with Chambers and discusses his recollections of him. He also talks about Sam Darcy, who was the California District Organizer for the Communist Party in the early 1930s, and organizer and speaker Caroline Decker [Gladstein], who served as secretary of the CAWIU during that period. Chaffee helped to organize a strike among the apple pickers of Watsonville in 1931 and 1932, and also founded a unit of the Communist Party in Watsonville at that time.

In 1936 Chaffee decided to leave the Communist Party because he was struggling economically. He went on to write a history of the CAWIU for the Oakland office of the Federal Writers Project. According to Anne Loftis, Chaffee's history was never authorized by the WPA or published. It is preserved in the Bancroft Library and on microfiche. This oral history does not cover Chaffee's years with the WPA, but instead focuses on the rich details of his colorful life and his years with the CAWIU.