Indentured servants were brought from England to work in the fields. They were guaranteed passage into the colonies in exchange for their labor.
When indentured servants weren’t providing enough labor, African people were brought to the U.S. as slaves to work in the fields and as domestic servants. The capture and permanent enslavement of Africans is both unsurpassed in U.S. history and a foundational institution of this nation. A failure to take seriously race-based chattel slavery in this nation will render our understanding of the situation facing farm workers today futile at best.
Following the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), tens of thousands of migrant workers from Mexico began arriving in the United States. In many cases, they freely moved across the border for temporary jobs and then returned home.
The Black Codes were created after the Civil War. Their intention was to limit the rights of black people. The laws included requiring a special permit for black people who wanted to work in anything other than agricultural labor, prohibiting them from raising their own crops and requiring that they seek permission to travel. These laws were repealed in 1866 because they were too harsh.
During the Reconstruction era, the U.S. government passed laws to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude (13th Amendment of the Constitution, though the exception was the provision of labor as punishment for criminals), give all men born in the U.S. – including African Americans – citizenship rights (14th Amendment of the Constitution), and the right to vote (15th Amendment of the Constitution).
Farming became a large-scale industry. The U.S. began importing Asian labor as African Americans moved into other industries and as the need for labor increased. By 1886, 7 out of every 8 farm workers were Chinese. Japanese and Filipino workers were also brought into the country.
The Chinese Exclusion Act banned the employment of Chinese workers. It was the first major attempt to restrict the flow of workers coming to the U.S.
Even though the constitutional amendments were passed, segregation was maintained under the Jim Crow laws, which systematized inferior treatment and accommodations for African Americans. Former slaves and their descendants continued to work in the fields because they were in debt with the landowner or by sharecropping (working the fields in return for a share of the crop produced in the land).
During World War I, migration to the U.S. from Europe declined, increasing the demand for Mexican labor to fill the void. During this period, growers lobbied to create the first guest worker program, allowing more than 70,000 Mexican workers into the U.S. The program ended in 1921.
Filipino workers started to organize, and Mexican workers were brought into the fields as farm workers.
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl (a period of drought that destroyed millions of acres of farmland) forced white farmers to sell their farms and become migrant workers who traveled from farm to farm to pick fruit and other crops at starvation wages.
Due to the Great Depression, more than 500,000 Mexican Americans were deported or pressured to leave during the Mexican Repatriation, and the number of farm workers of Mexican descent decreased.
Finally, in this period, the U.S. government also passed a series of labor laws to protect workers, but that excluded farm workers and domestic laborers, the jobs that were historically held by African Americans and immigrants. These laws specifically exclude farm workers from basic labor protections such as overtime pay, workers’ compensation, protection for unionizing and collective bargaining, workers’ compensation, and child labor laws.
Due to labor shortages because of WWII, the government started the Bracero Program. This program imported temporary laborers from Mexico to work in the fields and on railroads. The program was also seen as a complement to efforts against undocumented workers, or programs of deportation (such as Operation Wetback).
Sugar cane growers in Florida obtained permission to hire Caribbean workers to cut sugar cane on temporary visas through the British West Indies Program.
Temporary guest worker visa program was made an official law as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
The Bracero program was ended because of the abuses to which Bracero workers were subjected. The enforcement of regulations on Bracero wages, housing, and food charges was negligible.
As the African American agricultural workforce dispersed into other industries in search of better opportunities after World War II, there was a shortage of labor in the fields. By the 1960s and ’70s, the farm labor force was mostly comprised of Immigrants, primarily though not exclusively from Latin America. During this period, Filipino farm workers begin organizing around labor issues on the West Coast, as did Mexican American farm workers.
Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta joined the organizing efforts of the Filipino farm workers, which culminated in the landmark Delano Grape Strike of 1965. During this time, the United Farm Workers formed. Their worker-led movement drew national attention to farm workers’ struggles, and laid the groundwork for other farm worker unions and organizations. The modern farm worker movement was born (United Farm Workers).
Itself influenced by the Civil Rights movement and by figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, with an insistence on nonviolent actions, this organizing on the West Coast inspired many white Americans to join the farm workers. It is estimated that the grape and lettuce boycotts of this period gained the support of over 17 million Americans (United Farm Workers).
(Another galvanizing moment for many white Americans was the airing of Edward Murrow’s 1960 television documentary, Harvest of Shame, which brought to public light the modern-day slavery conditions of American agricultural labor.)
Farm worker organizing continues to grow across the nation, and in the ’80s, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) gains traction in the Midwest, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) organizes workers in the Northwest, and the Farm Worker Association of Florida (FWAF) was established in Central Florida.
The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983 passes, requiring employers to disclose occupational expectations and comply with proper documentation in the workplace (such as a pay stub). However, this act does not guarantee collective bargaining or freedom of association rights.
In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed, which intended for the increasingly Mexican farm labor population to be able to gain citizenship, thus raising farm worker wages. In fact, 1.1 million Mexican farm workers gained legal status through IRCA. However, the situation in the fields changed little and with the late 1980s came the rise of farm labor contractors (FLCs), who sought undocumented laborers in order to be able to pay them less. As a result, many of the intended beneficiaries sought work in friendlier industries (Migration Policy Institute).
With the 1990s came continued growth of the farm worker movement, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers began to organize in South Florida in 1993. By the 1990s, undocumented migrant workers and their families would move together from state to state to work the various harvests. They would then return to Mexico or stay near the border in the off-season. Despite less-than-ideal treatment by growers and poor working conditions, this system worked for many farm worker families.
In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement is established. Between 1994 and 2001, a flood of cheap, subsidized U.S. corn caused the price of the crop to fall as much as 70% in Mexico. Unable to compete with the subsidized imports, over two million small farmers in Mexico lost their livelihoods, and immigration from Mexico into the U.S. increased.
With the late ’90s, the situation at the border became more difficult. Following 9/11, the border was increasingly militarized.
In 2003, the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was dissolved and immigration was rebranded as a national security issue. ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – was established in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security. Border crossings became more expensive – and much more dangerous. As a result, it became too risky for migrant workers to travel with their families, and when they did, the result was often family separation.
Today, most farm workers are immigrants from Latin America, and it’s calculated that over 60% of them are undocumented (Southern Poverty Law Center). The vast majority of our nation’s farm workers are from Mexico and Central America, although many African Americans and immigrants from other regions of the world (particularly Asia) continue to work in the fields.
The agricultural industry claims that there is a labor shortage, but farm worker advocates counter that if wages and conditions were acceptable, this shortage would not exist. The perceived shortage has resulted in the exponential growth of the H-2A seasonal worker program. H-2A seasonal guest workers currently provide 8% of annual crop farm labor – up from 2% in the 1990s (Migration Policy Institute). In 2017, over 200,000 H-2A jobs were certified, and in 2018 this number is expected to be higher. Learn more about the H-2A program here.