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Farm Worker Organizing Collection, 1948-1996
MSS 027  
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Collection Details
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Organizational History
  • Scope and Content
  • Separated Material
  • Related Material at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Farm Worker Organizing Collections,
    Date (inclusive): 1948-1996
    Collection number: MSS 027
    Creator: Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research
    Extent: 4 legal boxes

    1 1/3rd linear feet
    Repository: Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research
    Los Angeles, CA 90044
    Abstract: This is a collection of reports, writings, correspondence, union documents, fliers and clippings from individuals and organizations involved in the struggle for equitable wages and decent living conditions for farm workers in the United States during the 20th century.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    Sam Kushner donated significant portions of the collections. Other materials do not have accession documentation. The library staff believes these materials were donated by activists who worked on farm worker campaigns.


    The collection is available for research only at the Library's facility in Los Angeles. The Library is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Researchers are encouraged to call or email the Library indicating the nature of their research query prior to making a visit.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research. Researchers may make single copies of any portion of the collection, but publication from the collection will be allowed only with the express written permission of the Library's director. It is not necessary to obtain written permission to quote from a collection. When the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research gives permission for publication, it is as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Farm Worker Organizing Collections, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Los Angeles, California.

    Organizational History

    Farm workers (as opposed to farmers) have been necessary to agricultural development in the territory that is now the United States almost from the first contact between Europeans and the peoples of the Western Hemisphere. As early as the seventeenth century, there was an insufficient supply of stable and cheap farm labor available domestically to fulfill the needs of mass (plantation) agriculture. The need was filled from populations outside of North America, beginning with the use of prisoners as indentured workers in the British colonies, followed by the importation of Africans for slave labor. Commercial farming created a subjugated underclass of farm workers that continues to the present day. In nineteenth century California, farm labor was imported from China, Japan and South Asia. Later, it became more expedient to use laborers who came from Mexico to work in the booming industrial agricultural farms of the valleys (San Joaquin, Salinas and Imperial) of California.
    The pay of these farm workers has historically been low and living conditions sub-standard. The work is seasonal, creating a migrant population of workers not tied to any particular community. Health care has often been virtually non-existent, let alone insured, and education for farm worker children often substandard when available. The children themselves have often been farm workers as well.
    Many organizations, governmental, religious, social activist, have been concerned with improving the circumstances of farm workers. In addition to legislation and providing social services, these groups have seen union organizing as the most effective way for farm workers to achieve lasting improvement in working and living situations.
    The abysmal conditions experienced by farm workers, every bit as bad as those of urban factory workers, would seem to be fertile ground for union organizing. Attempts to organize farm workers were made in the 1930s by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, in the 1940s by the National Farm Workers Union, and in the1950s by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO. These efforts were hindered by competition between unions, racism, and perceived competition between domestic and foreign workers. In addition, the sheer poverty of the workers made it difficult for them to financially support a union, and ignorance of the specific needs of migrant agricultural workers by union organizers more familiar with urban industrial workers reduced the effectiveness of organizing. There were also cultural misunderstandings between groups of workers and workers and organizers. The lack of a stable community was another exacerbating issue.
    The enormous influence of commercial growers with politicians at both local and national levels in preventing better working conditions for farm workers cannot be overstated. Unionizing activity was particularly abhorred. Beginning in the 1940s, growers in California and the southwest successfully lobbied for the establishment of the bracero program that brought in farm workers from Mexico to work during harvests and returned them to Mexico when their labor was no longer needed. The terms of the bracero program provided labor at extremely low cost and no requirements (in practice) to provide even the most basic housing, health services and education for children. This system effectively made it impossible for unions to recruit membership and demand fair wages and working conditions.
    Organization was finally achieved in the 1960s in California with the formation of the United Farm Workers National Union (UFW) under the leadership of Cesar Chavez. The early successes of the UFW were achieved by gathering sufficient support from the buying public to effectively boycott grapes and lettuce of California growers. These boycotts brought growers to the bargaining table. Throughout the 1970s the UFW made substantial gains in recruiting membership and obtaining better wages and housing for farm workers. The union worked to reduce the incidence of child labor in the fields, provide education to those children, and lobbied for legislation to control the use of pesticides in proximity to workers. Coupled with the sympathetic administration of California Governor Jerry Brown, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ARLB) was established to address the grievances of farm workers, unionized and non-unionized. The UFW, like unions in general, began to lose ground in the 1980s. A change in gubernatorial administration in California turned the ARLB into a hindrance rather than help in continuing efforts to organize farm workers. Most importantly, divisions within the UFW leadership caused that union to be less effective. The growers returned to dealing with labor contractors and recruiting labor from Mexico rather than deal with unions. After the death of Cesar Chavez in 1993, the UFW regrouped and refocused its activities. While many of the gains for farm workers in the 1970s were reduced or lost by the 1990s, the union itself remained a continuing force in the fight for farm worker rights.
    The plight of farm workers remains almost as dire at the beginning of the 21st century as it was in the 19th. The same underlying causes for this situation remain as problems for farm workers in their struggle to achieve equitable wages and decent living conditions. The words of Father James L. Vizzard, S.J. are unfortunately truer in the globalized economy of the 21st century than when he said them in the 1964, "They (the growers) need to be made to understand in what century and in what kind of economy and society they are living and operating. They must be forced to realize that to exploit the poverty of other nations in order to beat down and crush the poor of our own country is the grossest kind of immorality."

    Scope and Content

    The Farm Worker Organizing Collections are comprised of government, academic, foundation, and social service reports, testimony given to the U.S. Congress, correspondence and writings, fliers and newsletters, union documents, and clippings from newspapers and journals that relate to the conditions of farm workers in the United States and the efforts to organize this work force. The documentation comes from a variety of organizations including religious, governmental, social activist, and union groups. The documents give a sense of the situation for farm workers throughout the 20th century and the many kinds of people, organizations and activities that contributed to the eventual establishment of the first successful farm worker union, the United Farm Workers National Union, AFL-CIO.


    The collection is divided into 7 series: 1. National Sharecroppers Fund, 2. Emergency Committee to Aid Farm Workers, 3. Howard Richards, 4. Farm Workers Association, 5. United Farm Workers National Union, 6. Farm Worker Support Groups, 7. Other Documentation.

    Separated Material

    The following items were removed and added to the Periodicals Collection.
    Farm Labor: Equal Rights for Agricultural Workers , Berkeley, CA: Citizens for Farm Labor, [13 issues], 1963-1967
    Valley Labor Citizen, [3 issues], 1965-1966
    El Malcriado, nos: 3-5, 8, 13, 15, 19, 32, 4/26/67, 8/23/82, 10/4/82
    Ahora, v5 n2

    Related Material at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

    Title: Sam Kushner Papers
    Physical Description: 5 cartons
    Title: Farm Labor: Equal Rights for Agricultural Workers, Berkeley, CA: Citizens for Farm Labor,
    Physical Location: Periodicals Collection .
    Title: El Malcriado,
    Physical Location: Periodicals Collection.
    Title: Long Road to Delano, Kushner, Sam. New York: International Publishers,
    Date: 1975
    Title: Factories in the Field, McWilliams, Carey. Boston: Little, Brown and Company,
    Date: 1939
    Title: Mexican American Labor, 1790-1990, Gomez-Quinones, Juan. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press,
    Date: 1994