In the early 20th century, large-scale commercial agriculture displaced family farms, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers. Hand labor, however, remained more cost effective for harvesting certain fruits and vegetables. Farmworkers under this new system were hired only for seasonal work and had to travel frequently. The migratory experience left these workers—primarily Mexicans, Mexican Americans, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos—permanent outsiders and vulnerable to exploitation, low wages, and wretched working and living conditions. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 established rights of industrial workers to unionize. The Act omitted farmworkers, though, due in part to fears that the powerful farm growers’ lobby would prevent passage. Organized efforts by unions and others to rescind the exemption failed in subsequent years. In the 1960s, the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), led by Cesar Chavez, started a strike and boycott of table grapes that gained nationwide support. Although California enacted the first state legislation to protect farm labor union organizing in 1975, other states did not follow, and many union gains in California have since been lost. In the following testimony from a 1969 Senate hearing, Frank Pebeahsy, a Comanche Indian from Oklahoma, presented his experiences as a migrant farmworker. Since 1970, fresh fruit consumption in the U.S. has risen sharply increasing the demand for hand labor. Living and working conditions for migrants remain poor in much of the country.
PREPARED STATEMENT OF FRANK PEBEAHSY, COMANCHE INDIAN, CACHE, OKLA.
My name is Frank Pebeahsy. I am a Comanche Indian and live in Cache, Oklahoma. I was born and raised in Cache and have been engaged in farm labor as a migrant worker for the last twelve years. With your permission, I would like to relate to you the nature of my work and travels and also some of the problems which I have faced during these years.
Usually my travels begin with my family in May. Our first stop is in Colorado to work in the sugar beet fields. This lasts approximately eight weeks. At the conclusion of the work in the sugar beets, we travel to eastern New Mexico to labor in the broom corn fields. After approximately two weeks we return to Colorado to work in potatoes. By the time we are finished in the potato fields it’s Thanksgiving. It’s at this point that my family and I usually return to New Mexico for a brief visit with my wife’s family.
There are some years when we have saved enough money to travel from New Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona, in order to pick vegetables. More often than not, however, we have been unable to set aside enough money to migrate to Phoenix. In these years we stay in New Mexico and I attempt to pick up odd jobs in order to keep my family alive. This type of existence has been unable to yield me a living wage through the years. My family and I have worked long hours under the worst conditions imaginable and have nothing to show for our labor. You might ask me why I continue to work in the fields and travel the way I do when the yield is so low. There is a simple answer to this question. There is no other work available for me and my people and even if such was available, I do not have the training nor the education to undertake such employment.
Even though the housing which is provided for myself and my family has improved, it continues to be inadequate. The quarters are cramped and there is no such thing as sanitary facilities in your own living quarters. Last year I made a total of $2,500. This includes all of my income from both farm labor and the odd jobs I was able to pick up in New Mexico. This money was used for the support of five persons. I average working nine to eleven hours a day in the fields when I am employed. We are usually paid by the piece rate.
Because the employers are not required to pay a rate which would conform to minimum wage requirements, the older people who out of necessity must continue to work in the fields make less and less each year. Their plight becomes more hopeless each year as advancing age catches up with them.
I would like to illustrate for you through an incident which happened in my family just why it is so impossible for a migrant worker to make a living wage. This year myself, my wife, my 14 year old daughter, my brother-in-law and his wife were employed for seven days to thin, block, and weed a 5 1/2 acre field. We labored approximately nine hours per day for that week. The total pay for all five person was $85.25. This means, Mr. Chairman, that each of us worked 63 hours for a total pay of $17.05. This works out to approximately 27 cents per hour per person.
Not only are the wages intolerable, but the working conditions continue to be the worst in America today. We are provided no breaks during the day, no toilets in the field, and none of the other advantages that most American workers have come to expect.
Government programs fail to help us because we either do not know of their availability, or we are frightened to approach the people in charge, or we have been so frustrated in the past that we have become discouraged.
Because we are forced to migrate out of economic necessity, our children must leave school early every year and are not enrolled until late in the Fall the following year. Frequently they are assigned to the same grade year after year because they have not had the advantage of a full year’s education.
When sickness strikes a migrant family, it is only a rare occasion when we have the necessary funds to engage a doctor or to buy the proper medicine. We are not aware of health facilities nor are these facilities accessible to us when we do know where to go for places for treatment.
One could almost bear these frustrating and subhuman conditions if we were treated as human beings. But this is not the case—especially with my people. For instance, in the state of New Mexico in the past year the treatment of Indians has become worse. Indians are not allowed during the hours of 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. to go into town. If they do so, they are subject to immediate arrest by the constable. I have seen this happen with my own eyes. Once an Indian is jailed in this illegal manner, the constable calls the farmer who comes to town and pays the fine for the Indian. The farmer takes my brother back to the field where he is forced to work off the fine. Gentlemen, this is the town that calls itself “the town of 1,000 friendly people.”
This is only an example of the treatment received by my people and other migrant workers in the southwest. From the testimony I heard yesterday I am sure these kinds of incidents happen all over this country. How long must we endure being treated like second class citizens or no citizens at all before someone wakes up and begins to change our conditions?
I am grateful for the opportunity to appear here today. I only hope that those of you in power hear my cry on the part of the oppressed and use all the power at your disposal to rid us of this yoke of slavery.
Mr. PEBEAHSY. Well, to begin with, our treatment in the different States that we go to work, especially in Quay County, N. Mex., and in Phoenix, Ariz., where we work for a big producer of vegetables, the George J. Cobbs Farms. To begin with, in Quay County, we have—
(The witness cries.)
Senator MONDALE. Take your time. Don’t worry about it.
Mr. PEBEAHSY. Could I be excused for a few minutes, sir?
Senator MONDALE. By all means. I think what we will do, Mrs. Pebeahsy, is perhaps take another witness, and then when your husband is ready, we will start again. I think we will do that.
Source: Congress, Senate, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Powerlessness: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Migratory Labor of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United States Senate, 91st Congress, 1st and 2d Sessions on Who are the Migrants? June 9 and 10, 1969, Part 1 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970).