Al Norte

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

Ruben Auger

Al Node
by Dennis Noldín Valdés
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991) paperback, $14.95.

DENNIS NOLDÍN VALDÉS presents his book At Norte as one focused primarily “on the class struggle between capitalist employers and seasonal farmworkers.” His account of the history of the experiences of agricultural workers in the Great Lakes region is certainly a powerful presentation of the development of an important sector of the U.S. working class that has been much neglected in many historical works.

As Valdés himself states, this sector of our working class presents a rich and varied experience of labor struggles that should be the object of more attention by both activists and scholars. The rising heterogeneity in the composition of the labor force in all of the advanced capitalist societies demands that we engage in a continuous study and research about the historical circumstances surrounding the incorporation—and class struggle experiences—of the different groups that form today’s working class.

Most of the studies done about Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant workers has focused on the Southwest At the same time much of the research about working-class history in the Midwest has paid little attention to Latino workers in the region. Al Norte has the virtue of helping to fill those two vacuums at the same time.

Valdés starts by presenting an overview of the rise of the sugarbeet industry in the Great Lakes region and how Mexicanos came to be targeted for recruitment as laborers for an industry that was in need of a pool of cheap labor, especially after World War I.

The author points to the previous experience of MexicarLo workers in the Southwest and California as an important factor in the decision of the Midwestern corporations to recruit them. The presence of the Mexicano working class in the Southwest, going back to the annexation of the Mexican territories in the nineteenth century, was an important factor in the specific traits that agrarian capitalism manifest in the region.The discrinunation patterns and the conditions of reproduction of labor inthe region and in Mexico developed into a split labor market in the region, degrading the price of the Mexicano labor force and creating a pool of “cheap labor” that was funneled into the rising agricultural industries of the Midwest.

Valdés gives an extensive account of the miserable working and living conditions of the batabaleros, as the sugar beet laborers were called. The seasonal nature of their jobs contributed to their “poor’ position in the working class. Many batabaleros migrated in the winter season to the Southwest while many others moved to the cities in the Midwest lookingforjobs and shelter. Saginaw, Pontiac, Flint, and Detroit in Michigan; Lorain, Youngstown, and Toledo in Ohio; Chicago in Illinois, Calumet in Indiana, Des Moines in Iowa, Minneapolis-Saint Paul in Minnesota, and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, came to have a significant presence of Mexicanos. These “colonias” were the seed of the Mexican-American communities that were to develop in the Midwest, becoming an important segment of the region’s working class.

Valdés points to the resistance and struggles developed by the Mexicano laborers in the face of the terrible conditions they experienced in their jobs and daily lives. These struggles for better conditions were carried out under very constraining circumstances. Most batabaleros were Mexican immigrants lacking citizenship, with little knowledge of the language, culture and laws of the United States. They were easily singled out for discrimination and repression (including repatriation). Additionally, they were passed over by the major labor organizations, which concentrated their efforts and resources in sectors of the working class that were seen as having more strategic importance.

Initial Unionization in the Fields

The crisis of the Great Depression unleashed a drive for repatriation of the Mexicano workers both in industry and agriculture. The sugar beet industry underwent a major reorganization in terms of both the labor process and corporate organization. These changes had a deep effect on the composition and situation of the agricultural workers in the Midwest.

The region’s agricultural business turned to the recruitment of Mexican-American laborers (mostly Tejanos) instead of Mexicanos. They also recruited workers from Arkansas and Missouri, mostly Euro-Americans, but also a visible amount of African Americans. While the Tejanos went mostly into the sugar beet industries, the Anglos and African 0 Americans hired by the fruit crops industries as laborers.

During the 1930s agricultural workers in the Midwest started a drive toward unionization. Several important strikes in California and in the great plains states gave impulse to the struggles of the agricultural laborers elsewhere. The Midwest workers started to organize and by 1934 a militant strike broke out in the Scioto Marsh of Ohio. The workers organized the Agricultural Workers Union Local 19724 affiliated to tq the AFL. The strike was faced with violent repression and gained national prominence. But repression, plus the opening of new agricultural enterprises in other places in Ohio and Southern Michigan, ended the strike.

Both the AFL and the nascent CIO continued the efforts to organize the agricultural laborers in the region, but the bureaucratic and timorous policies of both ended in failure. For years it would be very difficult to initiate any serious organizational efforts. Workers lost any faith in the bureaucratic labor leadership and, by then, most were Increasingly migratory, non-European, culturally separated from urban union members, and unable to find allies to assist their challenge to the deteriorating relations they encountered in the fields” (50).

The decade of 1940s is seen by Valdés as one in which important changes in the capitalist economy opened a new era in the agricultural worker’s situation. Due to the international situation and its repercussions in the U.S. economy: “government agencies and private growers associations became increasingly involved in agricultural labor recruitment, hfrin& and employment.” (90)

The U.S. Employment Service expanded the recruiting efforts in the South. In 1943, the Emergency Farm Labor Program (EFLP) was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that same year Congress enacted Public Law 45 that authorized the bracero program. This program opened the way to the recruitment of thousands of Mexican laborers many of which made their way to the labor fields of the Midwest.

The Michigan Field Crops Incorporated, a private employer association, also formed in 1943, “through prodding and guiding on the part of the extension service of Michigan State College that dealt with all phases of recruitment, hiring, and employment of beet field labor in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana” (92).

Valdés points to the development of a segmented labor force starting around this time. The Mexican braceros were mostly employed in the sugar beet industiy while the newly recruited Jamaicans, Barbadians, Bahamians, and Bellzans, ended up in the canning crop fields. According to Valdés the Midwestern employers were reluctant to hire the English-speaking Caribbean workers, who were prompt to complaint about violations to the work contracts. The employers argued they were “too slow or inefficient with machinery” and were concerned with their “negroid appearance.” The mostly single men ended up in the most isolated camps.

Between 1943 and 1950 the number of seasonal workers swelled from 65,000 to 120,000. Valdés says that by 1950 there were 75,000 Mexican Americans, 30,000 southern Euro-Americans, 15,000 African Americans, 15,000 Mexican braceros, and 10,000 British West Indians, and that “the corporations’ success in maintaining this diverse and highly segmented work force was enough to stop most collective bargaining in its tracks” (100).

By the end of the 1940s some labor groups were asking the government to stop the bracero program, arguing it was taking jobs away from U.S. nationals. Many undocumented and hired workers were returned to Mexico, Texas and the Caribbean.

Puerto Ricans Come To the Midwest

The sugar beet companies, as well as other Midwestern agricultural business using seasonal workers, turned to a new source of laborers in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans seemed to be a good choice. They were U.S. citizens, thus avoidingthe possibility of repatriation efforts. They came from an island thousands of miles away in the Caribbean, with a different language and culture, thus with the advantage of making control over the work force more easy. Puerto Rico had some 700,000 agricultural workers with almost twenty percent unemployment, and depressed wages, thus it was a pool of available cheap workers. The Puerto Rican government was quick to accept and promote the recruitment of agricultural workers to work the fields in the Northeast and Midwest.

But soon, the farm growers found that the Puerto Rican laborers had a greater chance of work mobility and “were much more aggressive in defending their rights than were Mexican American? (133). This seems to have been true for two reasons: Puerto Ricans came to the United States as-citizens; and with a tradition of labor organizing, especially in the sugar cane fields. Additionally, the labor culture in Puerto Rico seemed to enable agricultural workers to move quickly from agriculture to industry. By the mid-1950s agricultural business in the Midwest was again looking for the Mexican American and Mexican braceros as their preferred source of laborers.

Mechanization and Unionization

The 1950s also saw a turn to mechanization in agriculture in the Midwest Many agricultural workers abandoned the fields for better jobs in the factories and service sectors. The situation brought also anew wave of struggles in the fields. The drive toward unionization and better working conditions developed to its highest points. As Valdés pointed out:

“As the workers’ struggle in the Midwest intensified in the 1960s, growers faced a work force that was increasingly Chicano. Euro-Americans, African Americans, and Mexican “braceros dropped out or were eliminated. The demographic change sharpened the struggle, as growers were less able to apply the traditional strategy of keeping  the workforce divided by playing off different ethnic groups against each other.” (198)

The policies adopted by government within the scope of the “war on povety” scheme helped to alleviate some of the worst conditions of migrant laborers. Some agencies targeted the migrants in terms of promoting education and welfare, community organizational work, and the forming of Chicano cultural and social associations. Some church activists also helped in promoting the interests of the Institution farmworkers and their families, but the situation, although improved, remained one of the worst for any sector of the U.S. working class.

The farmworkers began to further develop their struggles, now under the influence of labor organizations such as the California-based United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UPWOC) and the local Obreros Unidos (United Workers). These organizational drives did not succeed in part because they were ‘unprepared and unwilling to enter the fray in the Midwest” and because, in the case of UFWOC “it was an outsider” (198). Nevertheless, these efforts opened the way to more successful drives such as the one developed by Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Dennis Valdés’ account of the history and struggles of the farmworkers in the Great Lakes is an important source of learning for militants in the Midwest It is a book that faces us with the rich history of this sector of our working class. It helps in understanding the complexity of the class struggles that we still face in the near future, and of the importance of learning how to deal with the diverse nature of our working class.

January-February 1994, ATC 48