Labor, agricultural and migrant

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Author: Sarah Wald
Editor: Kathleen A. Brosnan
Date: 2011
Encyclopedia of American Environmental History
Publisher: Facts On File
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Labor, agricultural and migrant

Humans have long performed agricultural labor in the United States. Native Americans from New England to the West Coast engaged in agricultural activities prior to the European colonial presence. A central paradox at the nation's founding can be seen in the Jeffersonian idealization of the nation as made up of small farmers whose landownership would result in economic independence, fostering the political independence necessary for DEMOCRACY alongside the reality of the nation's economic reliance on PLANTATIONS in agriculture and on slave labor.

Environmental historians have established that slaves contributed Native knowledge to the development of American agricultural techniques, that slaves often had a more intimate understanding of the landscape than plantation owners, and that the knowledge of the landscape slaves garnered from their agricultural labor assisted in their resistance. After the CIVIL WAR (1861–65) in the late 19th century, many freed blacks became sharecroppers, leasing small plots of land from former plantation owners in exchange for a percentage of the crop.

Today, large-scale industrial agriculture has for the most part replaced small family farms. Yet the paradox remains between Americans’ admiration of family farming and the economic and environmental realities of corporate agribusiness, including the exploitation of migrant farm laborers.

Agricultural laborers, especially migrant farm laborers, include a diverse range of groups, whose presence has often had links to global migration trends and U.S. foreign policy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, significant numbers of agricultural workers originated from China, India, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines. According to the 2001–02 National Agricultural Laborers Survey, 75 percent of current agricultural laborers were born in Mexico. Historically, immigrants often introduced specialized knowledge with them or developed skills that transformed the industry. For example, Japanese Americans’ IRRIGATION methods in the early 20th century allowed marginalized lands in California to become productive.

These laborers often faced harsh conditions. Many were migrant workers. They worked in the FORESTS, the fields, and the FISHERIES. In 1939, the plight of migrant workers was called to national attention with the publication of JOHN STEINBECK'S The Grapes of Wrath and CAREY MCWILLIAMS'S Factories in the Field. These writers focused on the injustices facing DUST BOWL farmers who lost their tenant farms through ecological and economic crises. With WORLD WAR II (1941–45), many of these white migrants were pulled into the defense industries while Japanese American farmers and farmworkers along the West Coast lost their livelihoods as they were forced into internment camps. During the war, MEXICO AND THE UNITED STATES negotiated a guest worker program, the Bracero Program, justified largely through a perceived farmworker shortage. The program lasted from 1942 through 1964, during which time at least two million braceros entered the United States. The National Farm Labor Union opposed such guest worker programs, arguing that they increased worker vulnerability, lowered wages, and inhibited unionization.

Farmworkers had fought to better their treatment through strikes and other organized actions throughout the 20th century. One of the best-known organizing efforts was launched by the United Farm Workers (UFW) shortly after the Bracero Program's conclusion. One of their earliest victories was gained through a coalition with environmental groups concerning workers’ exposure to DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). Farmworkers’ health remains a key ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE issue today.

PESTICIDES offer just one example of the connections among workers’ health as FOOD producers, communities’ health as food consumers, and ecological health and SUSTAINABILITY. Food provides an intimate connection among ecological systems, economic systems, and the HUMAN BODY. While not all food originates in agricultural acts, and not all agriculture results in food, there is significant environmental overlap between the two. Food offers a tangible link between production and consumption. From the UFW's boycott of table grapes in 1967 to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Page 812  |  Top of Articleboycotts of Taco Bell in 2005, farmworkers have utilized food to enlist consumer support for their workplace struggles.

This spread from the August 20, 1939, issue of Look magazine shows ruined croplands, abandoned houses, automobiles loaded with household goods, and people living in destitute conditions in migrant labor camps. This spread from the August 20, 1939, issue of Look magazine shows ruined croplands, abandoned houses, automobiles loaded with household goods, and people living in destitute conditions in migrant labor camps.Library of Congress

The neoagrarian movement emerging in late 20th century and early 21st-century writings by Michael Pollan (1955–) and WENDELL BERRY and embraced by the slow food movement and the local food movement remains focused on a romanticized vision of small family farms. Yet such visions need also to take seriously the continued substantial presence of migrant farm laborers in the United States and their struggles for fair working conditions. The health of the farmworker and the health of the communities who consume farm products are inseparable.

Sarah Wald

Further Reading

Guthman, Julie. Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: César Chávez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Sidebar: HideShow

Pesticides César Chávez (1989)

In 1988, César Chávez, president of the United Farm Workers, undertook a debilitating 36-day hunger strike to protest the use of pesticides in farmwork and broaden support of his union's grape boycott. A few months later, in March 1989, he spoke of tragedies associated with pesticide use. The speech was rich in details on the number of pesticides used, but greater rhetorical success was found in linking the dire plight of the farmworkers to the fears of consumers.

What is the worth of a man or a woman? What is the worth of a farm worker? How do you measure the value of a life?

Ask the parents of Johnnie Rodriguez. Johnnie Rodriguez was not even a man; Johnnie was a five year old boy when he died after a painful two year battle against cancer. His parents, Juan and Elia, are farm workers. Like all grape workers, they are exposed to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Elia worked in the table grapes around Delano, California until she was eight months Page 813  |  Top of Articlepregnant with Johnnie. Juan and Elia cannot say for certain if pesticides caused their son's cancer. But neuroblastoma is one of the cancers found in McFarland, a small farm town only a few miles from Delano, where the Rodriguezes live.

“Pesticides are always in the fields and around the towns,” Johnnie's father told us. “The children get the chemicals when they play outside, drink the water or when they hug you after you come home from working in fields that are sprayed. Once your son has cancer, it's pretty hard to take,” Juan Rodriguez says. “You hope it's a mistake, you pray. He was a real nice boy. He took it strong and lived as long as he could.”

I keep a picture of Johnnie Rodriguez. He is sitting on his bed, hugging his Teddy bears. His sad eyes and cherubic face stare out at you. The photo was taken four days before he died. Johnnie Rodriguez was one of 13 McFarland children diagnosed with cancer in recent years; and one of six who have died from the disease. With only 6,000 residents, the rate of cancer in McFarland is 400 percent above normal.

In McFarland and in Fowler childhood cancer cases are being reported in excess of expected rates. In Delano and other farming towns, questions are also being raised. The chief source of carcinogens in these communities are pesticides from the vineyards and fields that encircle them. Health experts believe the high rate of cancer in McFarland is from pesticides and nitrate-containing fertilizers leaching into the water system from surrounding fields.

Last year California's Republican Governor, George Deukmejian, killed a modest study to find out why so many children are dying of cancer in McFarland. “Fiscal integrity” was the reason he gave for his veto of the $125,000 program, which could have helped 84 other rural communities with drinking water problems. Last year, as support for our cause grew, Governor Deukmejian used a statewide radio broadcast to attack the grape boycott. …

Our critics sometimes ask, “Why should the United Farm Workers worry about pesticides when farm workers have so many other more obvious problems?”

… Because there is something even more important to farm workers than the benefits unionization brings. Because there is something more important to the farm workers’ union than winning better wages and working conditions. That is protecting farm workers—and consumers—from systematic poisoning through the reckless use of agricultural toxics.

There is nothing we care more about than the lives and safety of our families. There is nothing we share more deeply in common with the consumers of North America than the safety of the food all of us reply upon.

We are proud to be a part of the House of Labor….

Farm workers and their families are exposed to pesticides from the crops they work. The soil the crops are grown in. Drift from sprays applied to adjoining fields—and often to the very field where they are working. The fields that surround their homes are heavily and repeatedly sprayed. Pesticides pollute irrigation water and groundwater.

Children are still a big part of the labor force. Or they are taken to the fields by their parents because there is no child care. Pregnant women labor in the fields to help support their families. Toxic exposure begins at a very young age—often in the womb.

What does acute pesticide poisoning produce? Eye and respiratory irritations. Skin rashes. Systemic poisoning. Death.

What are the chronic effects of pesticide poisoning on people, including farm workers and their children, according to scientific studies? Birth defects. Sterility. Still births. Miscarriages. Neurological and neuropsychological effects. Effects on child growth and development. Cancer….

The misery that pesticides bring farm workers—and the dangers they pose to all consumers—will not be ended with more hearings or studies. The solution is not to be had from those in power because it is they who have allowed this deadly crisis to grow.

The times we face truly call for all of us to do more to stop this evil in our midst. The answer lies with you and me. It is with all men and women who share the suffering and yearn with us for a better world. …

Thank you. And boycott grapes.

Source: “Address by César Chávez, President, United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, March 1989.” United Farm Workers Web site. Available online. URL: Accessed November 28, 2008. (Credit: TM© the National Farm Workers Service Center )

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1981000458