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5. Masculine Heroes   

12. Migrant

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Activities: Context Activities

Unionism and the Farm Workers Movement

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Field Laborers, on Strike in Cotton Picking Season, Apply to Farm Security Administration for Relief. Bakersfield, California

[5864] Dorothea Lange, Mexicans, Field Laborers, on Strike in Cotton Picking Season, Apply to Farm Security Administration for Relief. Bakersfield, California (1938), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018627].
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Industry, Perseverance and Frugality, make Fortune yield -- Benjamin Franklin
Our movement is spreading like flames across a dry plain. We seek our basic, God-given rights as human beings. We shall do it without violence because it is our destiny. -- Cesar Chavez
In some ways, social institutions like trade unions seem to stand in opposition to an American culture that praises hard-working individualism. The first European concepts of America envisioned this land as a new Eden, a place without toil or labor. The early Puritans and, later, the colonists and the citizens of the new Republic reshaped this naïve vision and wrote of the need for the American individual to work hard to tame and civilize a rugged and often hostile land. Benjamin Franklin's many pithy aphorisms about hard work remain engrained in the American consciousness, though the resonance of the agrarian ideal has faded. The capitalistic excesses of the Gilded Age and the rise of industrial robber barons, who benefited greatly at the expense of the common worker, helped to strip away people's confidence in their ability to prosper through hard work alone. Capitalism's excesses are represented in such literary works as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age (1873), Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), William Dean Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), Frank Norris's The Octopus (1901), and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906).

In the United States, the movement from an agrarian-based economy to an industrial one reflected a shift that had already occurred in much of Europe. Railroads, textiles, and the iron and steel industries all expanded in nineteenth-century America. The labor shortages and relatively good wages that resulted from this industrialization brought two major waves of immigrants from Europe. The first, arriving in the 1840s, included mostly Germans, English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish. The second, in the 1880s, consisted mainly of people from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. This second wave of immigrants was treated more poorly than their predecessors had been. By and large, their assimilation into mainstream American culture was more difficult, as illustrated in literature by the treatment of the Rudkus family in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. On the West Coast, Asian and Latino immigrants were arriving in great numbers and encountering racism as they sought work on the railroads and on large vegetable farms. Such writers as Carlos Bulosan, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Tomas Rivera explore the stories of these immigrants. On both coasts, many immigrants found themselves working in industries that devalued their humanity by treating them as easily replaceable commodities.

Trade unions had begun to rise in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century. However, it was not until the formation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886 that large organized union activities in America began. Union involvement and activity tended to increase during the early twentieth century, but also tended to fluctuate with the economic climate of the times. Originally, formally organized unions were made up almost exclusively of skilled workers. These unionized workers feared the influx of unskilled immigrants into the country and the workforce, and they sought to limit their influence. Early on, the AFL opposed unionization of these unskilled workers and in 1935 expelled a small group of unions that were trying to organize them. The expelled unions formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which later unionized the auto and steel industries. The AFL and CIO eventually merged in 1955.

Union activity in the United States often engendered violence and controversy. Influential industry leaders and large corporate farm owners went to great lengths to prevent or disrupt union activity through the jailing of leaders, the hiring of replacement workers, intimidation, and other legal and illegal means. They feared that unions would lead to higher wages and more benefits for workers, which would in turn make their products more costly and less competitive and thus cut into profits.

Compared to other types of union activity in the United States, the farm workers movement began modestly and relatively late. Led primarily by West Coast migrant workers who labored in fruit, vegetable, and flower fields, the movement attempted to address the harsh working conditions, low wages, substandard housing, and lack of benefits that existed for migrant workers. There had been attempts at addressing farm labor problems in the 1940s and 1950s. A small but active National Farm Labor Union attempted to expand in California in the 1940s and 1950s, but pressure from powerful corporate growers prevented more extensive union activities and membership. These growers relied upon 1951 legislation called Public Law 78, or the Bracero Program, to control Mexican agricultural workers who came to the United States seasonally. Despite union efforts, conditions in the field and wages remained poor. According to one history of the United Farm Workers:

No ranches had portable field toilets. Workers' temporary housing was strictly segregated by race, and they paid two dollars or more per day for unheated metal shacks -- often infested with mosquitoes -- with no indoor plumbing or cooking facilities. Farm labor contractors played favorites with workers, selecting friends first, sometimes accepting bribes. Child labor was rampant, and many workers were injured or died in easily preventable accidents. The average life expectancy of a farm worker was 49 years. (UFW History)
In 1959, the AFL-CIO formed the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which consisted of Filipinos, Chicanos, Anglos, and African Americans. In 1962, Cesar Chavez started the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). These organizations grew slowly, but in 1965 and 1966 a series of strikes finally led the two largest growers on the West Coast to recognize their employees as members of an organized labor union, especially when the two unions combined to create the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC).

As part of the farm workers movement, the Chicano movement was, and is, a force for socio-economic and cultural change in the Mexican American community. The movement generated a cultural renaissance in art, music, literature, and theatre. One of the most distinctive aspects of Chicano expression is El Teatro Campesino, or the Farm Workers' Theater. Founded in 1965 by Luis Valdez, El Teatro Campesino mounts productions that blend Spanish and English and often include music. Many artistic and political publications, including newspapers, magazines, and journals, arose out of the Chicano movement.

Union activity among farm workers continued to increase in the 1960s and 1970s. Aided by growing public awareness of discrimination against and abuses of minorities, fruit boycotts and other forms of public pressure, along with expanded union membership, eventually helped to provide relief from the worst problems faced by migrant farm workers. However, even today employers exploit migrant workers, and debates about immigration, housing, education, public services, citizenship issues, and discriminatory property ownership laws continue.

  1. Comprehension: Why does the concept of "unionization" sometimes seem at odds with the American Dream?

  2. Comprehension: Why didn't more widespread unionization of workers take place in the United States before the late 1800s?

  3. Comprehension: What conditions led to the need for trade unions? Why were businesses and corporations opposed to the unions? What did they fear?

  4. Comprehension: How did union activity lead to an artistic renaissance in some communities?

  5. Context: Chapter 21 of The Grapes of Wrath offers a snapshot of some of the economic and cultural issues associated with the distrust of migrants and suggests that the sudden influx of workers into California was dangerous. Identify the particular perspectives or "voices" that Steinbeck presents in this chapter. Were these voices justified in their concerns or not?

  6. Context: How does America Is in the Heart portray attempts to unionize Filipino and other minority migrant workers? What tactics do the local and state authorities and large farm owners use to try and squelch these efforts?

  7. Exploration: Why did the migrant workers see unionization as the best way to improve working conditions and wages? Why didn't some of the original trade unions for skilled workers want to help unionize unskilled workers?

[5864] Dorothea Lange, Mexicans, Field Laborers, on Strike in Cotton Picking Season, Apply to Farm Security Administration for Relief. Bakersfield, California (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018627].
The Farm Security Administration (1937-42) was formed under the Department of Agriculture. It provided low-cost loans and assistance to small farmers and sharecroppers, constructed camps for migrant workers, restored eroded soil, and put flood prevention practices into effect.

[5869] Dorothea Lange, Filipino Migrant Workers (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018671-D].
Large field with Filipino migrant laborers working in row. Filipinos migrated to the United States in three major waves. The first and second wave faced exploitative working conditions in agriculture, canneries, and other manual labor industries.

[6099] Cesar Chavez, Migrant Workers Union Leader (1972),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NWDNS-412-DA-1576].
Cesar Chavez speaking at a union event. Chavez organized the National Farm Workers Association in the 1960s to help migrant farm workers gain rights and better working conditions and pay. Lalo Guerrero composed his "Corrido de Cesar Chavez" after reading a newspaper account of Chavez's twenty-five day fast in 1968.

[6932] Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in S.E. Asia, Pull Him Out Now: Join with the Hundreds and Thousands of Students, GI's, Women, Unionists, Puerto Ricans, Gay People . . . (c. 1970),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Political poster protesting U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The antiwar movement linked and encouraged a number of other movements, including the civil rights movement, the Chicano movement, and the farm worker's movement. Many American poets protested the war, including Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg.

[8613] Vito Marcantonio, Labor's Martyrs (1937),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
Socialist publication describing the "great labor martyrs of the past 50 years." This pamphlet discusses the trial and public execution of "Chicago Anarchists" who organized the Haymarket bombing in 1887, as well as the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 and the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. The pamphlet goes on to talk about the thriving state of the 1930s labor movement.

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