The Short-Handled Hoe Hearings: 1973- 1975

Date Published: 
Thu, 06/16/2011

Forty years ago, farmworkers in California’s fields were forced to stoop over for eight to twelve hours per day because the growers made them use short-handled hoes to tend lettuce, sugar beets, and other crops.  After only a few years in these factories in the fields, farmworkers suffered from chronic and debilitating back injuries.  The emergence of the United Farm Workers union gave new voice and visibility to their plight.

In 1972, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) petitioned the Industrial Safety Board of California’s Division of Industrial Safety to prohibit the use of the 12-inch short-handled hoe. They argued that farmworkers should be allowed to use a four foot long-handled hoe to reduce back injuries. 

Growers and agricultural industry lobbyists in the early 1970s predicted economic disaster for California agribusiness if the ban on the short-handled hoe was adopted.  Lettuce growers were among the loudest opponents. Hector de la Vega, a lettuce grower from Calexico testified at May 1973 state Industrial Safety Board (ISB) hearing that California would “absolutely do away with the industry if the short-handled hoe was outlawed.” Another lettuce grower, Tom Merrill from Salinas, testified to the ISB in March 1975 that “if you ban this tool, you will bankrupt California’s largest industry.”   He claimed that the California agriculture industry would be “put at serious disadvantage.”

Attorneys for the Salinas based, Bud Antle Corporation, the largest lettuce grower in the world, argued that banning the short-handled hoe would be disastrous for the industry and consequently the consumer because it would lead to fewer crops and higher prices.

In 1975, the ISB failed to ban the hoe, but, the CRLA appealed the decision. The California Supreme Court issued a ruling rejecting the arguments of the agribusiness lobby. Soon after Jerry Brown become governor (for the first time), the state Division of Industrial Safety issued an administrative order that banned the short-handled hoe.

The Salinas office of the CRLA had paper copies of the ISB Short-handled Hoe Hearings Transcripts.  We have scanned them and link to them here. We’ve split long documents to make easier loading.

1.    May 1, 1973 in Imperial California.
2.    May 3, 1973, Part I in Salinas, California
3.    May 3, 1973, Part II in Salinas, California
4.    March 24, 1975 in San Diego, California
5.    March 24, 1975, Exhibit 2, Part I, in San Diego, California
6.    March 24, 1975,Exhibit 2, Part II, in San Diego, California
7.    March 27, 1975 in Salinas, California