Migrant Farm Workers 1929-1976

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Written by Kimberly Dennin

California has long been known for its agribusiness. With a mild climate allowing for long growing seasons and a diversity of crops, California is an ideal place for agriculture. However, this success in agriculture could not have been achieved without the work of migrant farm workers. Migrant farm workers were mostly Latinx or Asian, with a majority being of Mexican and Filipino descent. While Mexican immigrants had long been established as an integral part of agricultural production, many people associate migrant farm workers with migrants coming from the Dust Bowl states. People migrated from the Dust Bowl states (Midwest) to California for economic and ecological reasons. With the recession after WWI, there was a drop in the market price of farm crops. In response, farmers in the Dust Bowl states

Dust Bowl via Britannica

attempted to increase productivity through mechanization of farm methods and the cultivation of more land, which necessitated an increase in spending. When the stock market crashed in 1929, many farmers lost their land and tenant farmers were turned out. The increase in farm activity also put a greater strain on the land which led to the “Dust Bowl” and land that was no longer fertile.

These farmers were drawn to California because of the advantages of its mild climate which, when exaggerated in popular songs, made California seem like a promised land. There were also flyers advertising a need for farm workers distributed in areas hit hard by unemployment, and Highway 66 provided a direct route from the Dust Bowl to the area just south of the Central Valley of California. Migrants came from many different states in the Dust Bowl, but they were often referred to as “Okies” because about 20% of them came from Oklahoma. Unfortunately for these migrants, California was also suffering from the effects of the Depression. Infrastructures were already overburdened, and the Dust Bowl migrants coincided with an influx of migrants from Mexico in the 1930s, leaving California unprepared to receive all of these people. Many migrants were turned away at the border, or were “lent” to farmers to work off their fines under the Vagrancy laws of 1933 and 1937, which were eventually repealed in 1941 with Edwards vs. California. Los Angeles police had 16 checkpoints on the California-Arizona border to turn back migrants with no visible means of support, which was deemed unconstitutional in 1936. For the migrants who were able to find their way into California, they very quickly realized that the number of laborers were disproportionate to the number of job openings. Because there was such a large labor pool, farmers were able to significantly reduce the wage rate. Generally, a whole family working was not able to support themselves and “Ditchbank” camps started to form. “Ditchbank” camps were camps set up along irrigation ditches in the farmers’ fields. These camps had very poor sanitary conditions which led to public health problems.

Tensions and Strikes

Migrant farm workers tended to be seasonal farm workers. In order to receive a steady income it became necessary for workers to follow the harvest around the state. This added another level of hardship to migrant farm workers because there was no chance of an agricultural job ladder, where farm workers could eventually become family farmers with their own land. During this time, there began to be an increase in tensions between the migrant farm workers and the farmers. The government was providing extensive benefits to farmers and very little to farm workers, which meant that the migrants were the ones suffering. In the 1930’s migrant farm workers began to start organizing and striking. During this time, any form of strikes were associated with communism, which often undermined any efforts of the strike. From 1939-1940 two opposing Congressional committees held hearings in California. One was the US Senate’s LaFollette Committee, which examined the power of growers and their anti-union activities. The other was the US House Committee on Un-American Activities, which examined the “communists” who backed the farm worker protests.

Life in California via Esperanza Rising

One famous strike was the 1933 cotton strike. This was a four-week strike in October 1933 and involved between 12,000 and 18,000 workers. The strike was in response to growers’ prices being raised by federal programs aimed at helping agriculture while workers were still only being paid $.60 per hundred pounds of cotton. In response to the strike growers evicted workers from grower-owned labor camps. The workers moved into tents organized by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union. The media during this time was generally not favorable for strikers, either ignoring strikes or only printing the growers’ side. This changed during the cotton strike when at a rally in Pixley several strikers were killed by growers. This was the first time newspapers printed the strikers’ side, and they reported that it was the growers who were breaking the law. The cotton strike ended when the federal relief official George Creel and a three member arbitration panel were able to create a compromise between the workers and growers of $0.75 per hundred pounds of cotton.

There were many other people who became interested in the plight of migrant farm workers in the 1930s and 40s. One person was Carey McWilliams who headed the California’s Commission of Immigration and Housing between 1939 and 1942. During his time in this position, he was able to increase the inspections of grower-owned labor camps and forced growers to increase piece rates by changing the wage-relief formula, which was used to stop relief for migrants who refused to accept farm jobs at prevailing piece rate wages. Another important person who was influential in creating better conditions for migrant farm workers was John Steinbeck. Steinbeck visited government-run farm camps, which became the basis for his book The Grapes of Wrath. After reading the novel, and learning more about the plight of migrant farm workers, President Roosevelt was motivated to do something to help California farm workers.

Cesar Chavez

From 1941-1964 the “Bracero program” initiated another wave of migrants, bringing Mexicans to the United States to undercut domestic wages, impede union organizing, break strikes, and solve WWII labor shortages. This new wave of migrants experienced many of the same hardships as the previous wave including limited educational opportunities, poverty and poor housing conditions, discrimination and violence when seeking fair treatment, and unionization attempts being violently suppressed. In response to these conditions many people began to establish themselves as leaders in the movement for farm workers’ rights. The most famous of these leaders was Cesar Chavez.

Cesar Chavez via Los Angeles Times

Cesar Chavez was born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma Arizona to a family of migrant farm workers from Mexico. Bank foreclosures forced the family to move to California. Discrimination in school and poor pay lead to him dropping out after 8th grade to work full time in the fields. In 1939 he was exposed to his first unions in San Jose. In 1952 he worked for the Community Service Organization (CSO), which is a Latino civil rights group that organized communities around voter registration, immigration, and police abuse. He eventually became the national director and worked there for ten years until he resigned in 1962 because they would not endorse a proposal to form a farm workers union. He then formed the National Farm Workers Association (NWFA) in Delano and in 1965 began recruiting members in California. Chavez was inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and focused on leading nonviolent labor strikes and weeks-long fasts. This led to the famous grape strike, where the NWFA joined with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a Filipino American labor group, to strike against grape growers. In 1966 the NWFA merged with the AWOC to form United Farm Workers, and in 1967 they called for a nationwide boycott of non-union California table grapes. This lasted until 1970 when the union was able to secure broader rights including the right to organize and bargain collectively and better wages. As a result of Chavez’s and many others efforts, California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 which established and protected the rights of all farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and working conditions. Chavez died on April 23, 1993 and a year later was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom.


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“‘The Crusades of Cesar Chavez’ is a frank look at an imperfect leader.” The Los Angeles Times,