Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America

By Palmer, Susan L. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America


Palmer, Susan L., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America. By Zaragosa Vargas (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005 Pp. xvi, 375. Cloth $29.95).

Much has been written about the impact of the Great Depression/ New Deal and World War II on American workers and unionism.

For example, the story of how some New Deal farm programs (such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act) helped the more affluent and politically influential farmers at the expense of their farm laborers is a familiar story, as is the discriminatory way in which relief programs were implemented at the local level. It also is well known that World War II exacerbated racist feelings and provided additional occasions for discrimination in the United States while at the same time providing additional opportunities for the improvement of minorities' material lives.

What then does another book on these topics have to offer? The answer is-a lot. In his book, Labor Rights Are Civil Rights, Zaragosa Vargas takes these well-worn topics and, through abundant primary research, gives his readers a new perspective on them because his concern is how they affected not workers in general, but Mexican workers. This is a little known story.

After describing the utterly deprived working and living conditions of Mexican Americans/Mexican nationals in the American Southwest of the 1930s, he goes on to tell the story of how the Great Depression and the New Deal legislation that came out of it (like section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act with its protections for workers) energized Mexican workers into taking unprecedented steps-protesting, striking, and ultimately fighting to organize under the banner of the CIO. The organization of Mexican industrial workers was an important milestone, bringing significant improvements to workers' lives (at least until the late 1930s/1940s, when the CIO became less interested in combating racism in the workplace). However, as additional worker-oriented laws (like the National Labor Relations Act and the Social security Act) were rolled out in the second half of the 1930s, it became apparent that they did little to help Mexican workers (the above laws having exempted agriculture and domestic work, areas where Mexican workers concentrated). Likewise he documents how World War II affected southwestern Mexican workers, especially the extraordinarily high rate for the drafting of Mexican Americans by all-Anglo selective service boards, thus intensifying the drive to bring in Mexican nationals to work the fields. Finally, he shows how the conversion to a peacetime economy undermined and often destroyed the gains made by Mexican workers during the war and the ways in which these workers fought back. In his discussion of these topics, he concentrates on California, Colorado, and Texas, largely discussing agricultural workers, but also workers in some industries.

Vargas's thesis is clearly stated early on: "In the period encompassing the 1930s and World War II years, Mexican Americans initiated a labor and civil rights movement that was the precursor of the early civil rights movement of the postwar years, which formed the foundation of the modern Chicano movement." (6) In developing this argument, he documents the connections between the fight for workers' issues and the fight for social justice perceived by both Mexican Americans and Mexicans working in the United States. …

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