The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945

The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945

The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945

The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945

Synopsis

In 1933 Congress granted American laborers the right of collective bargaining, but farmworkers got no New Deal. Cindy Hahamovitch's pathbreaking account of migrant farmworkers along the Atlantic Coast shows how growers enlisted the aid of the state in an unprecedented effort to keep their fields well stocked with labor.



This is the story of the farmworkers--Italian immigrants from northeastern tenements, African American laborers from the South, and imported workers from the Caribbean--who came to work in the fields of New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida in the decades after 1870. These farmworkers were not powerless, the author argues, for growers became increasingly open to negotiation as their crops ripened in the fields. But farmers fought back with padrone or labor contracting schemes and 'work-or-fight' forced-labor campaigns. Hahamovitch describes how growers' efforts became more effective as federal officials assumed the role of padroni, supplying farmers with foreign workers on demand.



Today's migrants are as desperate as ever, the author concludes, not because poverty is an inevitable feature of modern agricultural work, but because the federal government has intervened on behalf of growers, preventing farmworkers from enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Excerpt

Long before dawn on a winter morning in Belle Glade, Florida, white farmers drive from their homes or hotel rooms to 5th Street, where rows of flatbed trucks wait idling in the dark. There they are met by the bean pickers, some 2,000 black men and women who emerge out of the crowded, shedlike apartment buildings and ramshackle houses of the “Negro quarter.” Murmuring sleepy greetings to one another, men in rubber boots carrying leather knee pads walk alongside women wearing long-sleeve blouses over flowered dresses and pants tied at the ankle to keep out the dry dust of “the muck.”

As the pickers converge on the rows of parked trucks, the sound of the crowd grows louder. the rumble of voices stops only when a farmer, standing beside his truck, shouts the first offer of the day: “First picking! Bountifuls! Good stand! Fifty cents!” If this seems an attractive wage for picking a hamper of beans, and if the farmer is known to be honest and his foreman humane, a few men and women will hesitantly board the truck, keeping alert for better offers. Another farmer makes his bid: “Tendergreens, second picking, good yield! Sixty cents!” This is more money per hamper, but any picker knows that filling a hamper takes longer in a field already picked once. Shrugging off this offer, the pickers resume their conversations and wait for a better deal. More growers add to the din as they raise their voices to be heard over the engines of the trucks. As the flatbeds fill with workers, they roar off one by one into the waiting fields.

The crowd seems to hang back from the remaining trucks, so the growers begin to employ one of several schemes to reverse their fortunes. Black men hired for their gift of gab start to trumpet the glories of particular fields, using the truck beds as their stage. a farmer signals a picker in the crowd, paid off earlier, to climb enthusiastically into a particular truck and encourage others to follow. Another gives the go-

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