Timeline of Agricultural Labor in the U.S.

1600s–1865
After 1848
1865–1866
Late 1860s–1870s
1860s–1930s
1882
1890s–mid-1900s
1914–1921
1930s
1942–1964
1943
1952
1960s–1970s
1980s
1990s
Late 1990s–post-9/11
2006
2013
2014
2016
Today

1600s–1865

Indentured Servants from Europe arrive in Virginia as cheap labor to help care for the land. They were guaranteed passage into the colonies in exchange for their labor.

When indentured servants weren’t providing enough labor, Black African people are brought to the U.S. as enslaved persons to work in the fields and as domestic servants. Between 1620 and 1866 almost 600,000 enslaved persons brought to what is now the U.S.

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After 1848


Following the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), tens of thousands of migrant workers from Mexico begin arriving in the United States. In many cases, they freely moved across the border for temporary jobs and then returned home.

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1865–1866


The Black Codes are created after the Civil War with the intention of limiting the rights of black people. The laws include required permits for black people who want to work in sectors other than agricultural labor, bans on raising their own crops, and required permission to travel. These laws were repealed in 1866.

The age of post-war Reconstruction begins. Indebted to landowners, formerly enslaved persons and their descendants continue to work in the fields.

The systems of tenant farming and sharecropping emerge. Tenant farmers typically paid landowners for the right to grow crops on a certain piece of property. In addition to having some cash to pay rent, they also generally owned some livestock and tools needed for successful farming.

Sharecroppers, on the other hand, were more impoverished than tenant farmers. With few resources and little or no cash, sharecroppers agree to farm a certain plot of land in exchange for a share of the crops they raise. The amount of crops the sharecropper gave over to the landowner depended on the agreement with the landowner.

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Late 1860s–1870s


During Reconstruction, the U.S. government passes laws to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude (13th Amendment of the Constitution, with an inculded exception for 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).

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1860s–1930s


Farming becomes a large-scale industry.

The U.S. begins importing Asian labor as African Americans move 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.

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1882


The Chinese Exclusion Act bans the employment of Chinese workers. It is the first major attempt to restrict the flow of workers coming to the U.S.

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1890s–mid-1900s


Segregation continues under the Jim Crow laws, which systematize inferior treatment and accommodations for African Americans.

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1914–1921


During World War I, migration to the U.S. from Europe declines, increasing the demand for Mexican labor to fill the void. Growers lobby to create the first guest worker program, allowing more than 70,000 Mexican workers into the U.S. The program ends in 1921.

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1930s


The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, a period of drought that destroyed millions of acres of farmland, forces white farmers to sell their farms and become migrant workers who travel from farm to farm to pick fruit and other crops at starvation wages.

Due to the lack of jobs during the Great Depression, more than 500,000 Mexican Americans are deported or pressured to leave during the Mexican Repatriation, and the number of farm workers of Mexican descent decreases.

The U.S. government passes a series of labor laws to protect workers, which exclude farm workers and domestic laborers,  jobs that were historically held by African Americans and immigrants. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRB) provides the right to organize without retaliation but again excludes farm workers and domestic workers. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLS) creates overtime rules and establishes the minimum wage, which does not cover seasonal workers. 

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1942–1964


Due to labor shortages during WWII, the government starts the Bracero Program in 1942. This program imports temporary laborers from Mexico to work in the fields and on railroads. The program is also seen as a complement to efforts against undocumented workers, or programs of deportation (such as Operation Wetback). Enforcement of regulations on Bracero wages, housing, and food charges is negligible. The Bracero program ends in 1964 due to these abuses. 

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1943


Sugar cane growers in Florida obtain permission to hire Caribbean workers to cut sugar cane on temporary visas through the British West Indies Program.

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1952


A temporary guest worker visa program is made an official law as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

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1960s–1970s

Post World War II, the African-American agricultural workforce disperses into other industries in search of better opportunities, creating a shortage of labor in the fields. By the 1960’s and ’70’s, the farm labor force is mostly comprised of immigrants, primarily, though not exclusively, from Latin America. Filipino farm workers organize around labor issues on the West Coast, as do Mexican American farm workers.

Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta join the organizing efforts of the Filipino farm workers, culminating in the landmark Delano Grape Strike of 1965.

The United Farm Workers (UFW) begins to form. Their worker-led movement draws national attention to farm workers’ struggles, and lays the groundwork for other farm worker unions and organizations, and the modern farm worker movement is born.

Influenced by the Civil Rights movement and by figures such as Mahatma Gandhi with an insistence on nonviolent actions, the organizing on the West Coast inspires many white Americans to join the farm workers.  An estimated 17 million Americans support the grape and lettuce boycotts of this period (United Farm Workers).

Another galvanizing moment for many white Americans is the airing of Edward Murrow’s 1960 television documentary, Harvest of Shame, which brings to light the modern-day slavery conditions of American agricultural labor.

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1980s

CATA (El Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas, The Farm Workers Support Committee) is founded in 1979 as a non-profit organization focused on organizing and empowering the immigrant community as they fight for justice for themselves, their families, and their communities. 

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 Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF) is 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 pay stubs). The act, however, does not guarantee collective bargaining or freedom of association rights.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act passes, intending for the increasingly Mexican farm labor population to be able to gain citizenship, thus qualifying them for the U.S. federal minimum wage. In fact, 1.1 million Mexican farm workers gained legal status through IRCA. The situation in the fields changes little, however, and with the late 1980s comes the rise of farm labor contractors (FLCs), who seek undocumented laborers in order to be able to pay them less. As a result, many of the intended beneficiaries seek work in friendlier industries (Migration Policy Institute).

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1990s

The farm worker movement continues to grow and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers begins to organize in South Florida in 1993.

Undocumented migrant workers and their families move together from state to state to work the various harvests. They 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 works for many farm worker families.

In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is established. Between 1994 and 2001, a flood of cheap, subsidized U.S. corn causes 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 lose their livelihoods, and immigration from Mexico into the U.S. increases.

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Late 1990s–post-9/11

Following the attacks of 9/11/01, the U.S./Mexico border becomes increasingly militarized.

In 2003, the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is dissolved and immigration is re-positioned as a national security issue. ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – is established in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security. Border crossings become more expensive and much more dangerous. As a result, it becomes riskier for migrant workers to travel with their families, with family separation a frequent and tragic result.

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2006

The Secure Fence Act mandates the construction of more than 700 miles of double-reinforced fence along the border with Mexico, through the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. It authorizes increased lighting, vehicle barriers, border checkpoints and requires the installation of more advanced equipment, such as sensors, cameras, satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles. 

The Agricultural Job Opportunities Benefits & Security Act of 2006 is introduced in the U.S. Congress, which would provide agricultural employers with a stable, legal labor force and protect farm workers from exploitative working conditions. Representing compromises after years of negotiations between the United Farm Workers (UFW), major agricultural employers, and key federal legislators, it would create an “earned adjustment” program. This program would allow many undocumented farm workers and agricultural guest workers to obtain temporary immigration status with the possibility of becoming permanent residents, and later citizens, of the U.S. It revises the existing agricultural guest workers program known as the “H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program.” The act did not pass. 

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2013

The bi-partisan Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act is proposed with included input from the UFW. 

The bill includes: 1) Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) and 2) Agricultural Job opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJobs). The act does not pass.

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2014

DAPA, or Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, is created by the Obama Administration to allow certain undocumented immigrants who have children who are American citizens to obtain 3-year renewable work permits and exemptions from deportation. This is halted in 2017.  

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2016

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is created by the Obama Administration to allow certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. This is halted in 2017 under the Trump Administration.

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Today

Today, most farm workers are immigrants from Latin America, with over 60% 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.

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