This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Here’s What John Steinbeck Would Have Thought of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Here’s What John Steinbeck Would Have Thought of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Here’s What John Steinbeck Would Have Thought of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

For seventy-five years, industry has tried to paint organized workers as “red agitators.”


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.

It is interesting to note that Steinbeck’s essay came a few months after Mary McCarthy’s scathing review of In Dubious Battle, from the March 11, 1936, issue of The Nation. She called the novel “academic, wooden, inert…. Mr. Steinbeck, for all his long and frequently pompous verbal exchanges, offers only a few, rather childish, often reiterated generalizations.”

* * *

Of course, the closest farmworkers in the United States came to genuine progress was the movement led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, which first achieved national prominence in the mid-1960s. It was neither a perfect nor an especially successful movement; as Marshall Ganz recently wrote at “California farm workers today are in even worse shape than when Cesar’s struggle began. There is no union to speak of any more, nor has there been for years.” Nonetheless, Ganz adds, “The significance of the farm worker movement was quite real for a period of some fifteen years, enhanced by its role as a crucible for training a new generation of organizers who contributed to the progressive movement more broadly, and, in particular, as a spark for the broader Chicano movement.”

In 1978, the UFW initiated a campaign to convince the University of California to set aside for the farmworkers a portion of its research funding devoted to agricultural mechanization, arguing that the university and the state had a responsibility to help out the workers whose lives would be upended by increased automation. In “The Farm Workers’ Next Battle,” in the March 25, 1978 issue of The Nation, Chavez explained his thinking:

History will judge societies and governments—and their institutions—not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and powerful but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and helpless.

In our boycotts, we always assumed that supermarkets and other corporations must take seriously the needs of society, and especially the needs of the poor, even though they are answerable only to their stockholders for the profits that they earn. We often asked, if individuals and organizations did not respond to poor people who are trying to bring about change by nonviolent means, then what kind of democratic society would we become? And some corporations did respond by joining with millions of Americans in honoring the farm workers’ boycotts.

If corporations and other social institutions can recognize their moral responsibility, how much more should we expect from a great university that is supported by all the taxpayers, including the farm workers, particularly when that university is a direct cause of hardship and misery for the poorest of the poor in our society? It is appropriate for the people to expect that an institution responsible for educating their children will be an example to the young by demonstrating through its policies and deeds its commitment to a just and peaceful world. How can the university teach justice and respect for the freedom and dignity of all people when it practices the opposite with its money and its people by refusing to live up to its own moral and social obligations?

* * *

In a more recent example of The Nation’s coverage of the farmworkers struggle, former Nation poverty correspondent Greg Kaufmann profiled the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—first discussed in The Nation by Mica Rosenberg, a former intern now at Reuters, in “The Trouble With Tomatoes” (April 1, 2002). In his article on “How to Build an Anti-Poverty Movement, From the Grassroots Up,” from this past February, Kauffman wrote:

If you want to see what is possible through grassroots organizing by those who are most affected by poverty—or what it means to set a seemingly unreachable goal and persevere, or understand your opposition and find new ways to challenge it—look no further than the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

When the CIW was founded in 1993, it was as a small group of tomato farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, trying to end a twenty-year decline in their poverty wages. Who is historically more powerless than farmworkers? Yet today, most major buyers of Florida tomatoes have signed agreements with the CIW to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes. These agreements have resulted in over $11 million in additional earnings for the workers since January 2011.

In addition, through its Fair Food Program, the CIW has persuaded corporate buyers to purchase tomatoes only from growers who sign a strict code of conduct that includes zero tolerance for forced labor or sexual assault. As a result, the majority of growers (those accounting for 90 percent of the tomato industry’s $650 million in revenue) have agreed to that code. If major violations occur but don’t get corrected—and there’s a twenty-four-hour hotline for worker complaints—corporations will not buy from those growers.

The Fair Food Program serves as a new model of social responsibility, and its influence is clear in the recently signed agreement between retailers and factory owners in the Bangladesh garment industry. Follow the CIW not only to get involved with farmworkers but for a sense of what can be achieved through strategic, fearless organizing.

In the roughly seventy-five years since farmworkers began organizing for their rights, the nature and tactics of the opposition have, in their essentials, never changed. Neither should the determination of the farmworkers’ friends. “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat,” Tom Joad promises his mother in The Grapes of Wrath, “I’ll be there.”

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