It is so important, when advocating for social justice, to have the right enemies. It’s a lesson the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have taken to heart, as The Nation’s Lee Fang shows in next week’s issue. Like other alt-labor organizations, the CiW—which has made impressive and promising gains in securing for Florida’s tomato pickers higher wages, safer working conditions, and freedom from sexual, physical and verbal harassment—has been hassled by shadowy operatives and right-wing front organizations funded by the very industry it is trying to reform. Last fall, the spokesperson for an anti-worker group showed up at a CiW rally with a man hoisting a Soviet flag in front of the Immokalee activists, as the spokesperson took pictures. Similarly, as Fang writes, “Picking fights with restaurant workers has been good business for out of work Republican operatives.”
The fight to win decent and humane treatment for farmworkers in the United States is one that, until recently, had made scandalously little progress in the seventy-five years since it first became a topic of national conversation with the publication of John Steinbeck’s novels during the Depression. In 1936, the same year he published In Dubious Battle—about radical activists trying to organize fruit pickers in California—Steinbeck wrote an essay for The Nation in which he described the dire situation faced by Dust Bowl migrants looking for work in California’s fields and directly identified the parties responsible.
There are in California…two distinct classes of farmers widely separated in standard of living, desires, needs, and sympathies: the very small farmer who more often than not takes the side of the workers in disputes, and the speculative farmer, like A.J. Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, or like Herbert Hoover and William Randolph Hearst, absentee owners who possess huge sections of land…. These two classes have little or no common ground; while the small farmer is likely to belong to the grange, the speculative farmer belongs to some such organization as the Associated Farmers of California, which is closely tied to the state Chamber of Commerce. This group has as its major activity resistance to any attempt of farm labor to organize. Its avowed purpose has been the distribution of news reports and leaflets tending to show that every attempt to organize agricultural workers was the work of red agitators and that every organization was Communist inspired.
Some of Steinbeck’s essay can be read as a précis for The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. The following passage could be a description of the Joads.
Let us see what the emigrants from the dust bowl find when they arrive in California. The ranks of permanent and settled labor are filled. In most cases all resources have been spent in making the trip from the dust bowl. Unlike the Chinese and the Filipinos, the men rarely come alone. They bring wives and children, now and then a few chickens and their pitiful household goods, though in most cases these have been sold to buy gasoline for the trip. It is quite usual for a man, his wife, and from three to eight children to arrive in California with no possessions but the rattletrap car they travel in and the ragged clothes on their bodies. They often lack bedding and cooking utensils.…
It is fervently to be hoped that the great group of migrant workers so necessary to the harvesting of California’s crops may be given the right to live decently, that they may not be so badgered, tormented, and hurt that in the end they become avengers of the hundreds of thousands who have been tortured and starved before them.