"In the Shadow of Society": Migrant Workers and Unionists Urge Congress to Enact Effective Federal Farm Labor Regulations
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“In the Shadow of Society”: Migrant Workers and Unionists Urge Congress to Enact Effective Federal Farm Labor Regulations

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 1969, two migrant farmworkers from Florida and a UFW organizer from Washington State discussed their experiences and proposed legislative remedies to a Senate subcommittee. 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.


Mr. BOONE. Mr. Chairman, and members of the subcommittee, I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to appear before you to relate to you some of the grievances of my people through personal experiences suffered by me during my many years as a migrant.

It is my sincere hope that after I am heard, you might be a little more enlightened and a little more able, and a little more eager to press for more decent migrant legislation.

All migrant workers, without regard to race or color, are continually subjected to illegal discrimination by their employers, landlords, governmental agencies, places of business, and even other members of their own races.

Even the word “migrant” has become a dirty word. It is deplorable that we work under the most depressing conditions for ridiculous wages, but we are, in addition, subjected to this special discrimination—adding even greater burdens on the lowly harvesters of this Nation’s crops. We are dejected and unwanted except at harvest time. No one claims us as citizens of his community or members of his society.

I have been in caravans, riding on the backs of open trucks covered with tarpaulin on voyages that took as long as a week to complete, and during the whole voyage being denied the use of a bathroom or being unable to purchase hot food—maybe because we were black, or maybe because we were migrants.

In most communities we cannot register and vote because of residency requirements. We live in the shadow of society.

Thousands of agricultural workers in Florida labor their entire lives in the fields with no hope of promotion, higher wages, or better working conditions. Agricultural work is considered to be one of the most dangerous kinds of work in the United States, yet this kind of work is exempt from the workmen’s compensation laws in Florida and in most other States.

In the areas from which I come, there is no such thing as equal employment opportunity. Labor camps containing blacks, Mexicans, or Puerto Ricans breed only fieldworkers, whereas labor camps containing Caucasians breed only bosses and foremen. These camps are segregated.

We have always been subjected to unfair trials and fines in the courts, especially on the municipal level. Police brutality is an accepted part of life.

There is no pesticide law to assure the laborer of maximum protection during its application. During the past year, in this are alone, there have been numerous cases involving pesticides that cause death. Yet no one seems concerned.

In the glades area of Florida, the power structure refuses to sell land to agricultural laborers, especially black people, for use as homesites. They wish, by this and other means, to perpetuate the downtrodden condition of our people and maintain the present economic and power gap in order to insure a captive work force. This is evident by the lack of industry in the area. . . .

Mr. LLOYD. I would like to go into the recruitment situation, exploitation in the recruitment system.

During the fall of the year representatives of northern growers tour the South, particularly Florida, to contact crew leaders for the next summer’s harvest. This system of labor recruitment enables the crew leader to exploit the farmworkers under him in the following ways:

One. Once aboard the crew leader’s bus the farmworkers are at his mercy. The trip north usually takes about 5 days.

Two. The crew leader loans money to his crew at the rate of 25 percent interest.

Three. The farmworkers are dependent upon crew leaders for meals, lodging, and even liquor, cigarettes, and soda water at a cost that you and I would refuse to pay. All liquor and wine sold in outlying labor camps by crew leaders is sometimes double the store price.

Four. Costs charged to farmworkers for meals and lodging are excessive.

Five. A good deal of the money earned by farmworkers ends up in the crew leader’s pocket—all deducted from his wages. It is not uncommon for a farmworker to return to Florida having nothing to show for a summer’s work.

Six. Social security taxes are always withheld even though not reported to the Social Security Administration and in some cases the crew leader never asks for the farmworker’s social security number. One man worked for 40 years as a farmworker and when farmworkers were covered, his earnings were taxed.

Yet at his death in 1968, his widow was told that he had not accumulated enough quarters' credits.

In another case, a crew leader shot a farmworker when he was asked why the social security tax was withheld but the farmworker’s social security number had not been obtained. Our social security system of reporting works only when the actual employer is responsible for this.

The eastern seaboard migrant stream needs at least 25 inspectors instead of the one who will be working this summer. Crew leaders have altered names, numbers, and wages earned in order to keep the social security taxes withheld.

Senator MONDALE. What they are doing, then, is telling the worker that they are withholding social security payments, but they are pocketing that money.

Mr. LLOYD. Yes.

Senator MONDALE. And the employee can no longer establish his eligibility, and the crew leader just takes that home with him.

Mr. LLOYD. Yes.

Senator MONDALE. Am I not right that occasionally the crew leader will take out more than the law will permit even if he were withholding for social security?

Mr. LLOYD. Very much, sir.

Mr. BOONE. I would like to clarify something on that before you go on. You are blaming a crew leader for the work of the contractor. A crew leader cannot deduct social security. He has to be a contractor. A crew leader is paid to deliver a certain number of people for a price. He gets a salary. The contractor is the one who takes the money. I wanted to make that distinction.

Senator MONDALE. Thank you.

Mr. LLOYD. Seven. Crew leaders and northern growers often contrive to get farmworkers out of the South and to the northern area weeks before the crops are ready for harvest to insure a full crew for the crew leader and the grower.

Eight. Crew leaders and farmworkers live under a double standard of justice: One standard for the crew leader, another for the farmworker. . . . Crew leaders are ignoring the Crew Leader Registration Act by leaving the Southern States in station wagons and private cars rather than labor buses. Thus, they claim to be units too small to be covered by the provisions of the act, while actually controlled by a single crew leader.

Therefore, we suggest a more orderly recruitment system be devised by the Labor Department, working with State employment service offices in which every grower, employer and user of farm labor must register his needs and his use of farmworkers. A uniform labor contract could be devised which would assure every farmworker of proper housing, safe working conditions, adequate wages and insurance coverage.

Thus, State employment service offices could become the chief recruiters of farm labor with a uniform contract benefiting all parties involved. This would eliminate the need for bad crew leaders. This would also result in a more efficient use of farmworkers and a more stable farm labor force.

Health conditions among farmworkers are deplorable. Syphilis, TB, and other communicable diseases are common in farm labor camps from Florida to California.

The present Federal Migrant Health Act which leaves initiation of the health service in the hands of local of State health units results in good health services in some States but poor health services in other States.

I would suggest that farm labor health services be administered by a Federal agency such as the U.S. Public Health Service. With portable clinics and utilization of local hospitals, farmworkers could be examined, treated, and issued a national health card yearly. Such an approach could make a real inroad into the health problems of the farmworkers for little more than what is now being granted to State and local health units.

Growers again this year have convinced the U.S. Department of Labor that a shortage of domestic farmworkers exists and thus offshore workers are needed. We see very little real evidence of such a shortage but rather that the introduction of offshore workers has greatly hampered the domestic workers and in some cases has resulted in foreign workers displacing U.S. workers in the labor camps and fields of this country.

With the foreign workers' arrival, harvesting prices for U.S. labor dropped. As a stable supply of labor was introduced, employers refused to negotiate prices to be paid to U.S. laborers. . . .

We suggest that more restrictive qualifications be imposed upon companies requesting foreign workers. I was assured by an employee of the Florida Employment Service that U.S. workers could handle the citrus crop this year, yet he admitted that many Florida companies were busy getting themselves qualified by the U.S. Department of Labor to use foreign workers.

It was admitted by a foreign worker to me that when they arrived at the labor camp in Florida, U.S. laborers were evicted from the camp to make room for the foreign workers.

As I speak, many of my brothers and sisters in Florida are sitting on street corners and front porches all across central Florida, displaced by foreign workers they do not know, victims of a cruel profit-motive system they do not understand and being powerless to change things, they sit and wait.

Of course, we support the inclusion of farmworkers under the NRLA, but this is only the beginning of what is so desperately needed. Farmworkers must some day be assured of the rights of all other elements of our country’s labor force including unemployment insurance, workmen’s compensation, and minimum wage and hour laws and especially the protection from being cruelly displaced by the importation of foreign workers.

Thank you. . . .

Senator MONDALE. How about discrimination in employment that exists in the area? Do you find that there are some jobs in the farmworker fields that are prohibited as a practical matter from black employment? We found in California, before the union got strong, a black or a Mexican-American was never able to drive trucks or handle tractors and so on. He had to stay in certain kinds of employment. Would you care to respond to that?

Mr. LLOYD. Yes, Mr. Chairman. The operation of citrus is handled by Negroes, picking from the tree, and bringing it all the way to the truck. Once it is dumped on the truck on the way to the packing house, it is handled by whites, all the way to the consumers.

Senator MONDALE. Do you have black truckdrivers?

Mr. LLOYD. No; not in citrus. It is lily-white from the roadside on. The black man only picks it and loads it on the truck.

Senator MONDALE. Is that still true today?

Mr. LLOYD. Yes; very much in citrus. We probably have a different situation where Mr. Boone is from.

Mr. BOONE. We have approximately 10 sugar mills operating, and the highest job that the black man can get is driving a truck, and this is an actual fact. At a certain mill, a fellow went to work, and he asked a foreman, “How long will it be before I can work myself up to driving a pickup truck?” He was told “As long as you work here, you will never drive one.” He can drive a tractor, or cut the cane, or do all the dusty work. One mill used to have all black truckdrivers to haul the cane to the mill. Now, there are about 30-percent black and the rest are white. I think next year there won’t be that many. They want the black man out in the field. They want him to inhale the dust. As soon as the mills close, 95 percent or more of the crew that is left to run the mill is white. All the black labor is laid off immediately after the grinding season is over. No year-round jobs for the black men.

Senator MONDALE. What about farm labor camps, and the housing in those camps? Is there any segregation practiced there, or any preference in terms of choice and quality housing and so on?

Mr. BOONE. In my area, there are not as many camps as on the east coast of Florida. But in the camps that are there, those that have white laborers are completely white, and those that have black labor might be intermingled with Puerto Ricans, but they don’t live in the same area, even if the camps belong to the same man.

Senator MONDALE. What would you say about the housing provided for the farmworker?

Mr. BOONE. It is deplorable. In the glades area—well, I can give you a specific example. The Government built some housing in this area for emergency use back in 1942, and these same houses hold possibly more than one-third of the town’s population, even though they have been condemned for about 8 years. The housing authority took over this from the Government a long time ago, about 1947, and since that time they have not even put a coat of paint on the houses. They haven’t done anything to them. People are living there because there is no other place in the town to stay. They have to live in condemned shacks.

Senator MONDALE. Is that situation getting any better?

Mr. BOONE. It is exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.

Senator MONDALE. Except that the house is older.

Mr. BOONE. Some of the people even buy their own paint and try to fix them up, so that they will at least be presentable.

The housing authority is supposed to be nonprofit.

Senator MONDALE. When I was in Immokalee, I was surprised at the filth and the sanitation levels, things which the tenant can’t fix. You have to have plumbers to come in and fix it. What about the sanitation conditions in this housing?

Mr. BOONE. You wouldn’t believe it. You have to see it. You actually wouldn’t believe it. There is no sense in my telling you.

Senator MONDALE. I saw it. I don’t want to go back.

Mr. BOONE. You didn’t see the worst.

Senator MONDALE. I had to get out of where I was. I couldn’t stand it. . . .

Mr. LLOYD. Once a crew is recruited from the South to New York, about 80 percent of the money the workers make goes into the crew leader’s pocket.

Senator MONDALE. How much can a crew leader make a year?

Mr. LLOYD. We have seen crew leaders make as high as $20,000 a year. That is the highest I have known. They have an overhead investment, and the only way for them to really stay ahead of the grower is to exploit the people.

Senator MONDALE. We passed a Crew Leader Registration Act here a few years ago that was supposed to take care of that. I gather from your testimony that there are easy ways to avoid that legislation.

Mr. LLOYD. Yes.

Senator MONDALE. It is your impression that in fact the Crew Leader Registration Act hasn’t made much difference?

Mr. LLOYD. Not much difference. There was one thing about it, actually, that is not enforced. The agency that is in charge of enforcing the Crew Leader Act is actually the power structure, and it works more in favor of the growers than it does for the minority groups. I talked with a worker in the employment service, and he actually admitted that he had known of guys coming in and asking for crew-leaders license. He would turn them down, and later the boss, the white grower, would bring them back and would say, “Old John here is a good man, and go ahead and give him a crew leader’s license,” and that is it. This is true of many of the laws that have been passed for migrant workers. I would like to add that the migrant workers go into the smaller communities along the eastern seaboard. These camps are situated way out, maybe 6 or 8 miles from the closest town. In these small areas, the law is actually controlled by the grower. The grower could very well be the mayor of the small town, or have influence on this small city council or whatever it is. The crew leader reports to him on the migrant workers, so they get the worst of the deal.

Senator MONDALE. That gives the crew leader a chance to make a profit, because workers are in a remote area. If they want food, liquor, cigarettes, or anything, they don’t have their own transportation, and they have to buy it through him and he can make a big profit off that.

Mr. LLOYD. That is right. . . .

Senator SCHWEIKER. You said pesticides are used in the field indiscriminately, and that you are afforded little protection, and that persons are maimed and killed. Could you elaborate on this problem, and what we should be looking at?

Mr. BOONE. In my area, we grow a lot of vegetables that require insecticides. The insects are bad. Insecticides are applied indiscriminately by airplanes and field carts, even the day before harvest. I have known occasions last year where there were 12 men pulling corn in front of a mule train—that is a machine they build to go down through the field—and the whole 12 had to be rushed to the hospital, because the field had been sprayed with insecticide a few hours before. There was a case this year where a man was spraying in an orange grove, and he took the mask off for a second and inhaled, and died. But the bad thing about it was the problem of putting the responsibility on the grower. He said, “The worker should have kept his mask on,” and that was the extent of it. There was no compensation. . . .

Senator MONDALE. How many members of the school board do you have? Zero? How many members of the city council?

Mr. BOONE. None.

Senator MONDALE. Zero. So even though you have lived there for generations and you are citizens of that community, there are none of the duly elected officials who apparently feel that you amount to a strong enough political force that they have to be concerned about you for political reasons. How do you explain that?

Mr. BOONE. It is true. The reason is the illiteracy rate among the migrants themselves and the traditional way in which things have been done in the past, with due respect for the law in general. For instance, in the past years, in the small town of Pahokee, there has been no investigation into the handling of the city funds and the activities of the police department and the whole works.

As a matter of fact, there is an investigation going on now. Up until this time nobody had ever questioned anything. For example, a policeman will come down and arrest a migrant and charge him on the spot without even having any knowledge of the law or due process. He will just say, “You are fined $100, pay me or else go to jail.” So migrants have his fear.

Senator MONDALE. The policeman rules right there?

Mr. BOONE. Yes, on the spot. From what they have seen from experiences in the past, the migrants know that they are powerless. For instance, if a migrant goes out and gets drunk, and a citizen of the town, any white citizen, does the same thing, a policeman, black or white, will come along and take the white guy home and say “All right, Joe,” and take the migrant to jail and charge him $50.

Because of this, these people want no part of city government. They won’t even go near the city hall if they can get out of it. They are not going to register, they are not going to make any attempt to vote and become a part of it at all. It is a hard thing to try to indoctrinate these people.

Their only opinion is “I don’t know why you try? They are going to do what they are going to do uptown anyway.”

Senator MONDALE. Have you tried to get migrants active politically, to vote and so on?

Mr. BOONE. We have had registration drives and there are more voting now than there have ever been in the past.

Senator MONDALE. Do you see any difference in the attitude of the local public officials as you increased your political activity?

Mr. BOONE. Arrests have dropped about 50 percent, maybe more than that, and they don’t take people up there and fine them any more. For instance, there might be some legal aid lawyer in the area. If he comes with somebody who is being tried, nine times out of 10 they will drop the charges. Because they have been doing wrong for so long, they don’t even know what the law is themselves. They don’t know whether they are right or wrong and that is a fact, they don’t know. In all those little towns around there they don’t even have the cases presented right. The lawyer walks in the door, makes one statement, and turns around and the man is free. That is the way its been done but it is changing. That part is going to change. . . .


Mr. VILLANUEVA. Employment security departments are part of the migratory farmworkers' problems. Employment offices recruit vast numbers of out-of-State workers without even trying to recruit locally, resulting in overwhelming groups of workers.

They start recruiting in February, Senator. They start recruiting people from Texas as the biggest part. This gives the benefit to the grower and to the labor contractor in reducing wage prices.

This is an example not included in my statement. Last year, growers were paying on the basis of $33 an acre. By the middle of the season, there were labor contractors and growers paying $15 and $16 an acre, because of the tremendous number of farmworkers in the area.

The unfortunate part is that once a farmworker is in a labor camp, even the employment security officials are unable, and in some cases don’t care to do anything about the working conditions of the farmworker.

Last year I had one case which is a good example of the attitude of the employment security toward the grower and the farmworker.

Farmworker, family of eight: “Tom, we have been working with a grower in Harrah all week, and after we finished, he refused to pay our wages.” Harrah is a little town in Yakima Valley.

I asked the family, “Did you find that job yourself or did someone refer you there?”

Family: “We were referred by the local employment office.”

I then called the employment office and explained to them the situation. The answer I received was “I am sorry, Tom, that man is a pretty big bird.”

This upset me very much and I told them, “Since when is a State agency afraid of one grower.”

Employment security finally decided that they were going to do something about it. But this was up to the department of labor and industries. Labor and industries takes from 1 week to 3 months to come and look into the matter, they told me.

The amount owed to the family was over $300 and they were counting on that money to pay their payments and buy groceries for the following week. We decided to go and talk to the grower.

His argument was that “He didn’t like the work they did.” However, the grower was there with the workers every day of the week and never mentioned being dissatisfied with the work. It took a discussion of more than 4 hours, but he finally paid every cent he owned to the family.

These are typical actions from employment offices similar to the recruiting of labor for labor contractors.

Unfortunately the one to blame is not the growers but our own Government, since they have appointed an advisory board to State employment security, a board composed strictly of agri-businessmen. And, of course, employment security is not the only source for growers to obtain their labor. Prisoners in some cases happen to be a cheap labor pool accessible to the grower. . . .

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).