In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) held its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers (UFW) and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community—people from different backgrounds coming together to create a socially just world. During the 1970s, Chavez struggled to maintain the momentum created by the boycott as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent, national union, their successes and strategies continue to influence movements for farm worker justice today.
The forced, coerced, and voluntary labor systems of the Spanish and early US–Mexico borderlands were as diverse as the territories where they predominated, and they evolved substantially over the course of three centuries. Spanish borderlands refers to an immense region that encompassed New Spain’s northern “interior provinces.” They were mostly inhabited and controlled by Indigenous peoples. In the 19th century, these provinces would become the modern border states and territories of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas to the north; and Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to the south. Thousands of Indigenous, Black, mulatto, and mestizo people worked in coerced and unfree labor systems that ranged from outright slavery to encomienda, repartimiento, and debt peonage. New labor forms emerged with expanding global trade, economic reform, and industrialization in Europe and the United States. Compensated labor coexisted alongside forced labor in the colonial period, until it came to rival and, in some cases, replace involuntary labor by the early 19th century. Yet debt peonage and chattel slavery grew in importance during the same period. Workers themselves struggled to maintain autonomy and resisted through means that ranged from flight, malingering, and migration to outright rebellion.
American Populism of the 1880s and 1890s marked the political high-water mark of the social movements of farmers, wage earners, women, and other sectors of society in the years after the Civil War. These movements forged the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, which campaigned against corporate power and economic inequality and was one of the most successful third parties in US history. Populist candidates won gubernatorial elections in nine states and gained some forty-five seats in the US Congress, including six seats in the Senate, and in 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver of Iowa, received over a million votes, more than 8 percent of the total. The Populist Party was not a conventional political party but a coalition of organizations, including the Farmers’ Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and other reform movements, in what the Populists described as a “congress of industrial orders.” These organizations gave the People’s Party its strength and shaped its character as a party of working people with a vision of egalitarian cooperation and solidarity comparable to the labor, farmer-labor, and social-democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere that took shape in the same decades. Despite their egalitarian claims, however, the Populists had at best a mixed attitude towards the struggles for racial equality, and at worst accommodated Indian dispossession, Chinese exclusion, and Jim Crow segregation. In terms of its legacy, veterans of the Populist movement and many of its policy proposals would shape progressive and labor-farmer politics deep into the 20th century, partly by way of the Socialist Party, but mainly by way of the progressive or liberal wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties. At the same time, the adjective “populist” has come to describe a wide variety of political phenomena, including right-wing and nationalist movements, that have no particular connection to the late 19th-century Populism.