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Fourth International, May-June 1953 1953


Allen Winters

Problems of Farm Labor


From Fourth International, Vol.14 No.3, May-June 1953, pp.74-78.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This is the concluding article on peonage in the Southwest.

Solutions that have been offered to the bracero problem in the Southwest – or as it is commonly and incorrectly termed, the “wetback problem” – have come from two major sources. On the one hand are the corporation farmers, the farm associations, and all their representatives in government. The other major source, groups opposed to the growers and the government, includes social agencies, church groups, liberal writers and sociologists, and the US labor movement. Though different organizations with different purposes, they all desire reform and present much the same proposals.

The interests of the corporation farmers have been of course to maintain the bracero system – and they have defended it as they would their very lifeblood. In reality it is their lifeblood: their source of profits and the basis tor the expansion of their industry and for continued control over Southwestern agriculture. So they have not retreated in the face of the blasts of protest directed at them and the government. Instead they have gone on the offensive.

The Bracero System

While voicing their opinions and making their own demands on the government, the growers have continued their exploitation of the braceros and have ever more firmly entrenched the system in the Southwest. Since the first hue and cry over the traffic in illegals the growers have never slackened their use of illegals, but have instead expanded the system by ever greater use of contract workers. And the tactics of the growers – a continual howl about labor shortages and a constant use of illegals – have been successful.

As a basis for their other demands and as a counter to public sentiment against exploitation of Mexicans the growers have continually claimed a labor shortage and have demanded of the government ever greater supplies of cheap foreign labor. In November 1951 a convention of the California Farm Bureau Federation passed the expected resolutions favoring importation of braceros, and also passed one calling for a study of “labor pools of Japanese and Korean farm laborers at present unemployed” to be imported for field work in California.

The growers have also demanded an almost complete legalization of the existing system. To free themselves of the “burden” of guaranteeing minimum wages, providing housing, or paying for insurance and transportation, fees, they have invented the “crossing-card system.” This procedure would give the braceros crossing cards at the border, allowing the workers to come into the United States for work in specified areas for limited periods. Thus the bracero would not only come to the employer under his own power as does the illegal but he would be under government control and as easily deportable as is the contract worker. As the growers, themselves say, a more “practical” system cannot be imagined.

Most of the concrete demands made by the anti-employer groups have centered upon the findings and recommendations contained in the reports of President Truman’s Commission on Migratory Labor and Governor Warren’s Commission to Study the Agricultural Labor Resources of the San Joaquin Valley. The President’s Commission concluded among other things that the problem was one of large rather than small farms, that the growers were often directly to blame for the conditions suffered by the migrants, that government agencies were generally one-sided in favor of the farmers and aided them against the workers and unions, and that the government’s failure was due largely to the fact that social legislation exempted agricultural workers on the largely fallacious assumption that they worked on small family farms.

The recommendations of the President’s Commission were mainly for a program to coordinate rather than change or replace existing agencies, and for a series of reforms in agricultural legislation and its enforcement. The reforms they proposed included laws governing the recruitment of domestic and foreign workers and the suppression of hiring of illegals, the extension of collective bargaining rights to farm workers, new laws for minimum wages, social insurance, and unemployment compensation, for public housing programs and health and welfare facilities, and for the extension and enforcement of child labor and education laws.

Recommendations from non-government groups have stressed more strongly the exclusion of illegals and slowing or stopping the government recruiting program. The National Farm Labor Union of course approaches the problem from the viewpoint of union organization. But its proposals are based on the theory that if the government will only rid the country of illegals and enforce .a new set of farm labor laws, then the union can organize American and Mexican-American workers and thereby force the growers into providing higher wages and better working conditions. In actuality the government has done nothing and the American labor movement has been very lax in organizing farm workers, taking a “benevolent” rather than an actively organizational interest, particularly towards Mexican-Americans.

The NFLU Program

The NFLU has attacked the government for the USES’s hiring of illegals for use as strikebreakers, their authorization of labor shortages where they didn’t exist, and on the conscious deception of the union by government officials. Its main criticism has been that the government has done nothing to stop the hiring of illegals and continues to recruit Mexicans for the growers. At the same time the union has always relied on the government to stop the entry of braceros and has even asked the government to arbitrate union disputes with employers.

The NFLU’s organization policies have never been militant. The growers have of course accused union organizers of being “agitators and thugs,” but the facts show just the opposite. The growers have perpetrated the violence while the union has relied almost exclusively on legal procedures. It has offered to bargain and agree on wages in advance of the harvest, and has offered to submit disputes to arbitration. The union’s policy, when it has struck, has been to pull its members out of the fields and then appeal to the authorities to remove contract workers in accordance with agreement provisions. In most cases such tactics have resulted in loss of the strikes. By the time the “impartial” authorities have made arc investigation, have submitted recommendations, have received word to act, etc., etc., the crop has long since been harvested by braceros.

At one time the union did take direct action against illegals, but this resulted in three of their own members being arrested by the local authorities. During an Imperial Valley strike in 1951 the union began a policy of lawful citizen arrests. The union rounded up illegals and took them to Immigration Service Headquarters in El Centra for deportation. For this action the union men were in turn arrested on the charge of “kidnapping.”

The union’s policy with regard to foreign workers, illegals and contract workers alike, has been to demand that the government drive them out of the country. The union has made no attempt to organize the braceros, but has instead driven them into strikebreaking. This anti-bracero attitude has even resulted in the NFLU advising other AFL unions to “police their ranks” so that infiltration of illegals into organized labor could be stopped.

Before a solution to the bracero problem can be worked out the nature of the problem itself must be clearly understood. It is not temporary nor is it independent. It is one part of a larger social problem that has inevitably arisen from American agriculture: the problem of migratory farm labor. The exploitation of all field labor at presertt rests upon the super-exploitation of the braceros.

The economic causes of this situation, rooted in the Southwest’s agricultural economy, are being extended throughout all sections of the country. This fundamental change occuring in American agriculture, a change most clearly expressed in the farms of the Southwest, has produced as its social expressions first the migrant problem of the thirties, and today the bracero problem.

In general, American agriculture has been tending toward greater industrialization. It has undergone a large-scale invasion of advanced forms of capitalist production. These production methods, the same that have been used to organize industrial production, have recapitulated in another section of the economy the basic laws of capitalist accumulation. Capital investments are steadily increasing and becoming concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Production methods are being rationalized and adapted to the needs of the body of capital itself.

The process of farm industrialization has had striking results both in mechanizing production methods and concentrating farm ownership. Farming operations have become mechanized, but more important, they have been rationalized into a factory-type mode of production. The type of ownership that has accompanied this process is the same as dominates all sections of our economy, corporate ownership and control.

Under this system farms are not farms at all, but businesses, owned and operated like factories. Production on corporate farms is managed in the same manner as in corporate industry, for profits alone. Unlike the small family farm which produces directly for consumption as well as for the market, the factory farm produces only for the market. Competition, profit, market conditions, but never immediate use are the determinants of production. One of the most striking examples of corporate farming, the vast DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation of California, has grown into a $20 million enterprise today, and it rests in the hand’s of a single family group.

Farm Industrialization

But concentration in agriculture is not limited to ownership; it exists in forms similar to industrial cartels and trusts. Processing and shipping exchanges for particular crops usually exert almost complete control over the production of those crops. Under this system the largest growers dominate a protective or sales association which sets down policies for production, sales, and prices. While these associations are usually organized and controlled by the few large growers in any region, all the smaller growers are soon forced into the association or into compliance with its policies. The citrus fruit industry is almost completely controlled by this type of organization. The California Fruit Growers Exchange in 1950-51 made over 70% of all the fresh fruit shipments by the entire California-Arizona fruit industry.

Another type is the control non-agricultural industries exert over farming. Processing and shipping industries are monopolies or near-monopolies for many crops, and buy and sell almost the total produce of some crops. The control they exert over production is enormous, both in direct form over the growers and indirectly by pressure upon legislatures.

1945 Census Figures

While farming in many sections of the United States is not mechanized, and corporate farming is not universal, industrialization is the dominant force in farm economy. The following figures taken from the 1945 Census of Agriculture will illustrate a few aspects of this.

The dominance of large-scale farms – those farms whose production in 1944 was valued at $20,000 or more – is shown by the fact that for the United States as a whole large-scale farms, composing only 1.7% of all farms, own 16% of all farm capital and sell 24.2% of all farm, products. As in industry, large-scale production almost completely separates the owners from production. The Census showed that for all large-scale farms only 1.1% were managed by their full owners, while 28.4% were completely run by hired managers. The importance of wage labor in large-scale farming is illustrated by the fact that for the entire United States this 1.7% of all farms paid out 38.7% of all farm cash wages. Of the labor they used, 79.8% was hired.

Impressive as they are, these figures do not fully indicate the importance of large-scale farming, particularly in the West and Southwest. Large farms are not equally distributed throughout the country but are concentrated heavily in the West. While these farms are less than 2% of the nation’s farms, they constitute 8.9% of all farms in the Pacific States. The statistics are also distorted by dilution with figures on the great number of farms which contribute nothing to social production. Of the 5,860,000 farming units upon which the figures are based, 1,590,000, or over one-fourth, are part-time and nominal units which produce almost entirely for home consumption.

Just as production in the factory is concentrated upon one particular product or series of products, so too is factory-farm production concentrated upon one crop. One-crop farming is efficient, and so it has become economically dominant. Today the production and sales costs of the large one-crop farm set the scale for all the smaller farms. But alongside specialization, industrial farming permits the most diversified system of crops over a wider but geographically similar area. Irrigation systems, machine cultivation, pest control – all made possible only by heavy capitalization – permit many crops to be grown in an area that once could only support a few crops. The agriculture of California is a classic example of this contradictory but unified form of agriculture.

Industrialization has not only revolutionized production methods, it has greatly changed the social position of the farm worker, with the same effects factories had upon the artisan of the middle ages. The artisan who once owned his tools and the product he created was divorced from both when he entered the factory. In the same manner today’s farm worker is divorced both from the land and the crop he produces. The organic tie which in the past bound him to the soil has been broken by large-scale farming.

But the farm-factory not only divorces the worker from the soil and its product, it also proletarianizes him. It makes him simply a wage worker, little interested in the land, the crop, or the success of the farm, but interested only in his paycheck and working conditions.

Migratory Labor

One of the most important consequences of mechanization, the demand for many manual workers for short periods of time, has resulted in the creation of a permanent migrant labor class. Unlike the small farm which employs a few workers for a long period, the large-scale farm demands many workers at one time, works them intensively for a short period, and quickly throws them out of work.

While he works, the migrant is subjected to the most intensive form of exploitation. This is particularly true of the foreign migrant, today the bracero, who is continually brought in to expand the domestic labor force. Profit from their labor is made from the long hours and starvation wages that earlier were associated with factory sweat-shops. The factory on the farm has recreated this brutal exploitation in its worst forms.

The theory that mechanization will automatically solve the manual labor problem is commonly accepted in both agriculture and industry. This theory is used by the growers who benefit from the dual process – mechanization associated with sweated labor – to rationalize their opposition to social benefits for farm workers. Mechanization, they say, will soon eliminate the need for manual workers. While this theory could actually be realized under scientific planning, at present under capitalism mechanization acts only to worsen the conditions of farm labor.

Mechanization has not been a uniform process. It is unbalanced today; that is, the various operations in fanning are unequally mechanized. Machines for pre-harvest work such as plowing have been invented and produced much faster than have harvesting machines. The inevitable result has been an intensification of the seasonal nature of farm work. Large numbers of workers are still necessary, but for shorter, periods. Mechanization also reduces the value of the final product. In general, the more machinery that is used in production the more cheaply can the final commodity be produced and placed on the market. The small farmer who cannot afford to mechanize experiences greatly increased competition. As a result he is forced to intensify the exploitation of his own workers, or is forced out of farm ownership entirely. This process results in ever greater advantages for the corporation farmer. The division between large and small farmers constantly becomes greater and the exploitation of the farm worker constantly becomes worse.

The problems of both domestic farm workers and braceros grow from the very nature of our agricultural economy. Any basic solution to the bracero problem can lie only in a change in this economy. But the change occurring in agriculture today is one of more and more concentration and mechanization. Under capitalism this process is irreversible. No matter how loudly the small farmer and social reformer cry for aid to small farms, a small-farm economy cannot become dominant nor even recover from the blows dealt it by the corporations. The small farmer cannot compete with the factory-farmer. He can exist only through government subsidies and by submitting to the policies of the farm associations.

American agriculture has completed the series of economic forms possible under capitalism, both in its main line of development and in possible combinations and variations. It has done this by adopting at various times the forms of other social systems, slavery and feudalism, as well as capitalism.

In its early history American agriculture took the form of small private ownership in the Northeast and slavery in the South. At the same time bonded labor was common in the East. In time slavery passed into the semi-serfdorn of sharecropping and the tenant farm system which is still prevalent throughout the country. But even before the whole country was occupied by small farmers, big farms and corporation farming were born. Today corporation farming dominates agriculture. And in the bracero system it has even created another form of serf-like exploitation.

Toward Social Ownership

Qualitatively, American agriculture has completed its development. The middle-class development of agriculture which is being partially skipped over, partially rushed through in backward countries such as Russia, has gone through a natural and complete evolution in the United States. Today, American agriculture can move forward only into collective ownership of the land and its crops. As in industry, the period of social ownership of the means of production is at hand.

But even though fundamental economic change is necessary to a complete solution of the farm labor problem, and the bracero problem, possibilities still exist under capitalism for a partial solution. The only immediate possibility for achievement of better conditions lies in the struggle of the farm workers themselves. As the growers, the government, and the social reformers have all proved incapable of even slightly bettering conditions for the mass of domestic workers and braceros, the task falls completely upon the farm workers. As in industry, there is the possibility of achieving better conditions through unionization.

The fundamental requirement for solving the bracero problem is the conscious union of both braceros and American farm workers in a common struggle. This union is a necessity; a solution to the bracero problem can only be part and parcel of a solution to the American farm labor problem. The braceros today constitute the best anti-union weapon the farmers possess. If unions are to exist and grow in the field of farm labor this weapon must be taken from the growers.

But the present policy of the unions, the NFLU in particular, is to seal the braceros out of their ranks and to drive them off the fields and out of the country. This policy plays directly into the hands of the growers: it antagonizes the braceros, drives them to the growers and the government for protection, and thereby increases their usefulness as strikebreakers. The unions can aid the braceros only by reversing their policy, only by bringing the braceros into the unions. Only in this way can the unions protect themselves.

The economic prerequisites for militant industrial unionism, the only type that can be successful in the Southwest, exist in this area today. Though industrial production and proletarian farm workers do not exist throughout the country, nor to an equal degree throughout the Southwest, these conditions are dominant in the economy and provide the necessary base for successful unionization.

Industrial production has socialized farm work, has created for the farm workers conditions qualitatively identical with those of factory workers. It has separated the workers from the land and its product, has made them simply wage workers, and has concentrated them at the point of production. Despite the short period they work together, despite the prevalence of migrancy, the workers come together in large numbers under conditions which create a strong consciousness of class interests.

Without a general upswing in the US labor movement and a militant struggle by the farm workers, unionization cannot succeed in the Southwest. American farm workers alone, even if joined by the braceros, are hardly strong enough to successfully combat the growers. The long history of employer violence against farm unions indicates the type of struggle the farm workers will be forced to conduct. All the enormous forces of the growers, their wealthy associations and vigilante groups, the controlled legislatures, the sheriffs and their hoodlum deputies, the newspapers, and even the National Guard and the Army have been used in the past to crush farm unions. They will be used again.

When unionizing does begin in earnest the most militant type of organizing will be necessary. The growers and their police allies will drive the workers, as they have done so many times in the past, into the most militant struggles. To create their unions and protect them the workers must first defeat the vigilantes, and this is impossible without organs of self defense.

Difficulties of Farm Unions

The failure of militant unions in the past to successfully organize farm workers has long been used as an argument against such unions. But the truth is otherwise; the successes which they did achieve were due only to their militant radicalism. The two most important radical farm unions were the IWW locals which grew between 1910 and 1915 and the Communist Party-influenced unions of the thirties. In the reasons for their failure clues can be found for tackling the job more effectively today.

Poverty and migrancy have always been the major weaknesses of the farm workers. Failure to remain in one place for any extended period and inability to financially support long strikes have always hindered the growth of permanent and strong locals. The isolation of the radical unions from the main current of American unionism was another factor in their failure. They were radical when most American workers were conservative. Not only did they receive no aid from the mass unions but they were in fact bitterly opposed by them.

The internal faults of these unions, isolation and the migratory character of the membership, made them difficult to build. But they were built. They failed because they were physically broken. The most vicious forms of violence, jailing, beatings, and even murder, were employed wholesale against the workers and their leaders. Not only physical violence but legal violence, criminal syndicalist laws, was directed against them.

It will take the big forces of the organized US labor movement to support farm labor organization and build unions that could only painfully and over a long period be built from below. Geographical instability can be overcome by providing union halls and hiring halls, wherever migratory laborers work. To successfully combat the anti-labor forces the entire organized labor movement will have to join the struggle and support it. But such action can hardly be expected from the present union leaders. The conservative heads of the CIO and AFL have shown in practice that they will not lead an uncompromising struggle against the growers. A rank and file upsurge which will replace the bureaucracy or force it into militant action, is the only hope of the farm workers.

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