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Latino Workers  

Emiliano Aguilar

Since the U.S. acquisition of Northern Mexico in the 19th century, Latinas and Latinos have played an ever-growing role as workers in the United States. The continued migration from Latin American countries has increased the importance of Latinas and Latinos across various economic sectors. As diverse as the Latina/o community itself, the array of jobs Latinas/os/xs have held has been enormously varied. As an increasing demographic of workers, Latina and Latino workers have also played a pivotal role in the labor movement in the United States. Their labor activism has been a response to the persistence of oppression and marginalization in the workplace. The presence of Latinas/os/xs in a variety of occupations offers a glimpse into the overall transitions of the U.S. economy, from agricultural to manufacturing to service work. Their movement from farm to factory to service work is of course not universal, as Latinas/os/xs still have a considerable presence in agricultural and industrial employment. Yet the transition from one kind of work to another remains a useful way of understanding the history of Latina/o/x labor over time. Latinas/os/xs have often stood at the forefront of shifts in the economy as they have followed the need for workers into new industries, which has placed them among some of the most vulnerable workers in American society.

Article

Latino Labor in the US Food Industry, 1880–2020  

Lori A. Flores

If one considers all the links in the food chain—from crop cultivation to harvesting to processing to transportation to provision and service—millions of workers are required to get food from fields and farms to our grocery stores, restaurants, and kitchen tables. One out of every seven workers in the United States performs a job related in some way to food, whether it is in direct on-farm employment, in stores, in eating/drinking establishments, or in other agriculture-related sectors. According to demographic breakdowns of US food labor, people of color and immigrants (of varying legal and citizenship statuses) hold the majority of low-wage jobs in the US food system. Since the late 19th century Latinos (people of Latin American descent living in the United States) have played a tremendous role in powering the nation’s food industry. In the Southwest, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have historically worked as farmworkers, street vendors, restaurateurs, and employees in food factories. The Bracero Program (1942–1964) only strengthened the pattern of hiring Latinos as food workers by importing a steady stream of Mexican guest workers into fields, orchards, and vineyards across all regions of the United States. Meanwhile, mid-20th-century Puerto Rican agricultural guest workers served the farms and food processing factories of the Midwest and East Coast. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Central American food labor has become more noticeable in restaurants, the meat and seafood industries, and street food vending. It is deeply ironic, then, that the workers who help to nourish us and get our food to us go so unnourished themselves. Across the board, food laborers lack many privileges and basic rights. There is still no federal minimum wage for the almost three million farmworkers who labor in the nation’s fruit orchards, vineyards, and vegetable fields. Farmworkers (who are overwhelmingly Latino and undocumented) earn very low wages and face various health risks from pesticide exposure, extreme weather, a lack of nutritious, affordable food and potable water, substandard and unsanitary housing conditions, workplace abuse, unsafe transportation, and sexual harassment and assault. Other kinds of food workers—such as restaurant workers and street vendors—experience similar economic precarity and physical/social invisibility. While many of these substandard conditions exist because of employer decisions about costs and the treatment of their workers, American consumers seeking the lowest prices for food are also caught up in this cycle of exploitation. In efforts to stay competitive and profitable in what they give to grocery stores, restaurants, and the American public, farmers and food distributors trim costs wherever they can, which often negatively impacts the wages and conditions of those who are working the hardest at the bottom of the national food chain. To push back against these forms of exploitation, food entrepreneurs, worker unions, and other advocates have vocally supported Latinos in the US food industry and tried to address problems ranging from xenophobia to human trafficking.

Article

The Late-19th-Century Economy  

Sean Adams

The United States underwent massive economic change in the four decades following the end of the American Civil War in 1865. A vibrant industrial economy catapulted the nation to a world leader in mining and manufacturing; the agricultural sector overcame organizational and technological challenges to increase productivity; and the innovations in financial, accounting, and marketing methods laid the foundation for a powerful economy that would dominate the globe in the 20th century. The emergence of this economy, however, did not come without challenges. Workers in both the industrial and agricultural sectors offered an alternative path for the American economy in the form of labor strikes and populist reforms; their attempts to disrupt the growing concentration of wealth and power played out in both the polls and the factory floor. Movements that sought to regulate the growth of large industrial firms and railroads failed to produce much meaningful policy, even as they raised major critiques of the emerging economic order. In the end, a form of industrial capitalism emerged that used large corporate structures, relatively weak unions, and limited government interventions to build a dynamic, but unbalanced, economic order in the United States.

Article

Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement  

Matt Garcia

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.