The Struggle to Organize Farmworkers Has Been Going On for Decades

Despite high-profile victories in the 1960s and ’70s, farmworkers in the US have been poorly paid and heavily exploited for generations. They deserve the power of a union.

The struggle of farmworkers to form unions in the United States, especially in California, continues to this day. (Getty Images)

Last week, on the same day California governor Gavin Newsom announced he would not sign a bill that makes it easier for farmworkers in his state to unionize, the wine company Newsom co-owns purchased a 129-acre vineyard in Napa for $14.5 million.

The news came just as members of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and thousands of supporters completed a 335-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to demand Newsom’s signature. The march retraced the same route as a historic peregrinación (pilgrimage) led by UFW leader Cesar Chavez in 1966.

Some version of the legislation — which would amend California’s 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act by allowing farmworkers to vote by mail in union representation elections — may still be enacted, as Newsom has indicated a willingness to negotiate. But the governor’s reluctance to sign the bill, along with his vested interest in wine production, is only the latest episode in a long, frustrating history of growers and government conspiring to thwart farmworkers’ attempts to organize.

In his meticulously researched new book, Labor’s Outcasts: Migrant Farmworkers and Unions in North America, 1934–1966, historian Andrew J. Hazelton examines a relatively understudied chapter in this important history: the Sisyphean efforts of farmworkers to form unions in the mid-twentieth century, especially in California.

Hazelton reveals the numerous ways growers and their allies in government used the Bracero program — the guestworker agreement between the United States and Mexico that began during World War II but was repeatedly extended until 1964 — to mold a deportable, nonunion labor force in the fields. At the same time, he tells the often overlooked story of the chronically underresourced National Farm Labor Union (NFLU) or National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU), which experimented with a variety of strategies and tactics to organize migrant farmworkers and challenge employer-sided guestworker policy.

By focusing on this period, Labor’s Outcasts bridges the gap between the Depression-era Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the UFW’s heroic (if short-lived) victories in the late 1960s. As Hazelton writes, against all odds, the NFLU/NAWU “kept the embers of farmworker unionism glowing” during the years of the Bracero program, when most US labor leaders cynically believed organizing agricultural workers was a futile proposition.

Fighting the Bracero Program

The social and economic upheavals of the Great Depression and World War II destroyed the sharecropping and tenant farming that had characterized US agricultural labor since the Civil War. Agriculture became dominated by large-scale, capital-intensive farms reliant on migrant workers — a system strongest where it was first pioneered, in the Southwest.

The Southern Tenant Farmers Union, a biracial organization of small producers, established in the 1930s, in response to evictions, unsuccessfully tried to stop this radical transformation of the agricultural economy, eventually switching its focus to organizing the growing ranks of rural wage workers and changing its name to the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU) after the war.

Although the importation of Mexican guestworkers through the Bracero program was ostensibly meant to cover agricultural labor shortages, growers exploited the program’s decentralized enforcement mechanisms to simply replace US farmworkers (many of them Mexican Americans) with lower-paid braceros. By advertising wages at deliberately subpar levels that they knew local farmworkers would refuse, growers manufactured labor shortages. Then, with the blessing of friendly officials in state employment agencies, they used the Bracero program to contract guestworkers at those same low wage rates.

The NFLU concentrated its organizing efforts on Mexican American farmworkers in California, hiring the brilliant and indefatigable Ernesto Galarza as its chief field organizer. Galarza helped lead a series of farmworker strikes in the late 1940s and early 1950s that previewed some of the tactics later taken up by Cesar Chavez and the UFW, including the use of secondary boycotts to exert outside pressure on employers. But with few exceptions, these strikes ended in failure because growers always had a ready supply of replacement workers — not only braceros but also, in greater numbers, undocumented immigrants.

Hazelton doesn’t shy away from the NFLU’s uglier actions. The union deployed some of the same nativist arguments as Mexican American assimilationist groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens, decrying undocumented “wetbacks” for supposedly bringing low wages, poverty, and disease into the United States. The union played into Cold War national security fears that lax border security could allow “subversives” to enter the country. The NFLU even ran its own vigilante border patrol to forcibly turn back undocumented migrants, anticipating some of the most disturbing aspects of the UFW under Chavez.

Thanks in part to the NFLU’s lobbying, in 1954 the federal government launched a crackdown on undocumented immigration — the notorious Operation Wetback — which primarily sought to convert undocumented workers into legal braceros. The Bracero program was further strengthened, and would persist for another decade.

Cross-Border Organizing

One of Labor’s Outcasts most intriguing contributions to the history of the Bracero program is its exploration of the attempts by the NFLU and American Federation of Labor (AFL) to organize across the US-Mexico border.

At the same time Galarza was leading strikes in California, he was visiting his native Mexico to build alliances with various unions in the hopes of organizing braceros — sometimes angering Mexican American farmworkers who wanted nothing to do with bracero labor.

Meanwhile, at the urging of the NFLU, AFL representatives held a series of meetings in the early 1950s with leaders of the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM) — Mexico’s main labor federation — to coordinate efforts to unionize braceros and restructure the Bracero program.

Ultimately, such discussions failed to translate into tangible action. As Hazelton argues, this was in part due to the machinations of Mexico’s ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which increasingly dominated the country’s labor movement.

The PRI favored the Bracero program because it relieved pressure on Mexico’s rapidly growing urban labor markets, particularly as the government’s abandonment of 1930s land reforms and the introduction of mechanized farming displaced campesinos. Worried that allowing braceros to form unions might jeopardize the program’s future, the PRI ensured the NFLU’s attempts at cross-border organizing went nowhere.

Labor’s Stepchildren

As if taking on the power of a transnational labor market controlled by the growers and backed by two national governments was not enough, Hazelton details how the NFLU — renamed the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU) in 1952 — also had to struggle from the margins of the US labor movement.

While the New Deal laws of the 1930s had allowed industrial unions to achieve unprecedented growth and security, agricultural workers were excluded from such reforms. As Hazelton notes, the same congressional farm bloc of southern Dixiecrats and southwestern Republicans that made sure farmworkers were excluded from the New Deal was also responsible for keeping the Bracero program alive long after World War II ended.

The AFL reluctantly subsidized the NFLU/NAWU for several years, but its leaders believed farmworkers were unorganizable, and the union had to constantly beg the House of Labor for more resources and political support. As NAWU president H. L. Mitchell wrote to Galarza in 1958, “We are and always have been the stepchildren of Labor or at best its poor relations.”

Representing a workforce that was legally and structurally excluded from organized labor, and unable to win traditional union organizing campaigns, Hazelton argues that the NAWU ultimately found some success in relying on research, publicity, and coalition-building. In many ways, this seems to have presaged today’s worker centers, which use the same strategies to advocate on behalf of some of the economy’s most marginalized and excluded workers.

Hazelton specifically describes the impact of a 1956 NAWU report called Strangers in Our Fields, which, through interviews with 345 braceros, exposed some of the Bracero program’s worst abuses. The report galvanized a national reform coalition that included religious leaders, civil rights activists, and government officials.

As the plight of farmworkers entered the national conversation by 1959, the NAWU succeeded in pressuring the recently merged AFL-CIO to launch a well-funded farmworker union drive — the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which would later transform into the United Farm Workers. Yet NAWU organizers like Galarza were sidelined in the new AWOC, and the NAWU itself soon disintegrated. “The future of farmworker organizing belonged to new movements,” Hazelton writes.

Labor’s Outcasts concludes on an ambiguous note. While arguing that the NFLU/NAWU’s activism laid the groundwork for the termination of the Bracero program in 1964 and the birth of the UFW in 1966, Hazelton reminds us that little has actually changed. Growers simply replaced braceros with undocumented immigrants, and despite the UFW’s famous victories over fifty years ago, the nation’s 3 million farmworkers are still highly exploited and almost entirely nonunion.

As in the past, workers in today’s US food system, including farmworkers, tend to be immigrants. Despite being deemed “essential” at the height of the pandemic, they are treated as disposable, enduring extreme heat and other unsafe conditions for poverty wages. They desperately need the power of a union.

For those looking to make that a reality, Hazelton’s history of the NFLU/ NAWU provides a worthwhile example of a movement that chose persistence and innovation instead of surrender.