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Labor Action, 5 September 1949


Hazel Whitman

The Wetbacks

Mexican Labor in U.S. Exploited by
Yellow-Dog Peonage System


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 36, 5 September 1949, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following is a section of the official report to the board of directors of the National Sharecroppers Fund by its executive secretary, Hazel Whitman, on The Conditions of Farm Workers in 1948. It deals with one of America’s least known and most disgraceful systems of labor exploitation and minority oppression. Confined to the Southwest, it has never received the attention it deserves from either the labor movement or the general liberal and socialist movement.Ed.


A problem which became acute in 1948 was the importation of illegal and legal Mexican farm workers to insure a “controlled labor force.”

Mexican workers may be divided into three groups: first, those who are settled here permanently and have been here for as long as 300 years, antedating “American” settlement; second, those workers brought here temporarily under a contract between the Mexican and U.S. governments; third, illegal Mexicans or “wetbacks” (so called because they get wet crossing the Rio Grande).

Promises Draw Them

The contract workers are temporary residents who have been brought here to relieve an alleged labor shortage. About 35,000 of these workers were here during the past year. Contract workers are induced to come by their own low standard of living and by the glowing promises made to them by U.S. growers.

Once here, they are forbidden to leave a job for higher wages or better working conditions under threat of deportation. Usually they are isolated on large ranches and this, plus their language difficulty, renders them helpless.

On September 22, 1948, H.L. Mitchell, president of the National Farm Labor Union, charged the Mexican government with 22 violations of its constitution and labor code in connection with the contract and further charged that enforcement was non-existent. The charges received wide publicity in the Mexican press and President Aleman sent a special investigator to the U.S.

A border incident on October 19, 1948, brought the situation to a head. On that day, U.S. immigration authorities opened the Texas border and allowed 15,000 Mexicans to enter this country illegally without work permits. The illegals were met at the border by cattle trucks and carried off to work on ranches; In one instance, 4,500 Mexicans were kept in a bull-pen for three days with little to eat and then released to rush desperately across the Rio Grande.

News of this incident was received with consternation in Mexico City. By agreement, the Mexican and U.S. governments were controlling agricultural immigration through the contract system. A strong protest was made by the Mexican Foreign Minister who charged the United States with violating the Good Neighbor Policy. As a result of this incident, Mexico abrogated the contract.

Yellow-Dog Pact

A new agreement is now being negotiated by the Mexican and U.S. governments. The final terms of this agreement are not yet available. But the proposed terms are hardly an improvement.

As before, there is no protection for either Mexican or U.S. workers, and enforcement machinery is entirely inadequate. Two provisions give an idea of the general tone of the proposed agreement. The United States Employment Service would be the agent of the employer and is also authorized to use its good offices to settle differences between the employer and the Mexican national.

It also provides that the Mexican national is forbidden to join an American trade union or to be represented by any outside agency other than the government. Strong protests have been made by the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

While a relatively small number of workers is imported under contract, a very dangerous precedent is being set both by bringing in workers under such discriminatory terms and by bringing in workers at all when most responsible authorities agree that there is no general farm labor shortage but only occasional shortages in specific areas. To handle these shortages, the National Farm Labor Union wants to channel migration within this country to the places where workers are needed; to inform migrants fully on need, wages, hours, housing, and working conditions in all areas where migrants are needed; to formulate and enforce minimum standards of wages, hours, housing and working conditions on farms using migratory labor.

‘Wetbacks’ Victimized

The third group of Mexicans, the illegals, or “wetbacks,” are completely helpless. Between two and three hundred thousand came across the border in 1948. Such an enormous illegal immigration means, at best, that immigration officials are looking the other way and, at worst, are actually conniving at illegal immigration.

The illegals do not speak English and any complaint which they make is met by deportation. They are generally isolated on large ranches. It is a fairly common occurrence for them to be put out on the country road for deportation when the grower has no more need of them.

The presence of such a large group of helpless illegals inevitably depresses the wages and working conditions of U.S. farm workers, including those of Mexican extraction. They regularly displace thousands of U.S. workers, adding to the already indescribable confusion in migration. Out of no narrow nationalism, but out of human consideration both for Mexican and U.S. workers, this illegal immigration must be stopped. There is no question that the large majority of U.S. growers who employ illegals do so knowingly, as part of a deliberate effort to have available a “controlled labor force.”

NFLU on Job

At the instance of the Inter-American Confederation of Workers, representatives of the National Farm Labor Union and the National Proletarian Confederation of Mexico met at Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on October 17–18, 1948, to work out a joint plan for protection of farm workers on both Sides of the border.

The unions agreed to press their respective, governments for an agreement whose most important provision would be; (1) an American grower’s request for “Mexican nationals shall not be granted unless the NFLU certifies that there is an actual labor shortage in the area”; and (2) if such a shortage exists, a tripartite wage committee consisting of representatives of government, growers and unions shall fix the wage. The proposed contract also deals with such grievances as housing standards, medical facilities, dangerous transportation, etc.

The two unions agreed that members of the Mexican union or its designated affiliates will become members of the National Farm Labor Union with full membership privileges while in this country. This is an important step forward in the U.S. labor movement and is particularly significant because Mexican and U.S. workers have so often been set against each other. The meeting set up a joint committee to meet regularly along the border and to exchange information.

The situation of Mexican farm labor in this country is of tremendous importance in working out a more orderly and humane approach to farm labor in general. It is fortunate that the National Farm Labor Union, with its long history of non-discrimination and of successful integration of minority groups into its organization, is taking the lead in this matter. As the result of its efforts, and of the efforts of other interested organizations and persons, the problem of Mexican farm workers is starting to be known and considered on a national level.

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