This is an unusually valuable book, for several reasons. First, the author accomplishes his stated objective of reevaluating the current literature and its primary emphasis on the urban Latinos in the Upper Midwest, where the sugar beet industry hired more people of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent than did any other industry. In addressing this neglected history of Latino farm workers, the author challenges the conventional wisdom that labor relations in agriculture lagged behind those of industry, that farm workers’ lives were more traditional and changed slowly, and that farm workers were helpless victims of unscrupulous employers because of political powerlessness and a passive culture.
Second, this book presents an important historical basis for understanding the forces that eventually led to the establishment of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee as well as other labor organizations from within the community, often in the face of opposition or benign neglect from other unions, including the California-oriented AFL-CIO.
Third, this work is important to the scholar for its 54 pages of notes, 21 pages of bibliography, and list of archive locations. Of course, these aids support the text’s historical analysis of the forces that affected the lives of farm laborers during the age of mechanization and built the incestuous bond between the land grant colleges, the large corporate farms, and the government agencies charged with the regulation and protection of workers.
The author moves deftly between overall analysis of exogenous forces (for example, the shifting of employer labor pools to new and exploitable sources whenever the prior work force reacted to unacceptable wages and working conditions) to specific examples of resistance by the farm workers. The new sources of workers included people of Mexican birth and descent, southern Euro- and Afro-Americans, German and Italian war prisoners, Nisei, Puerto Ricans, and contract workers from the British West Indies. The book illuminates the events in the farm worker communities that induced employers to seek these new and more exploitable sources of labor. Additionally, it presents strong evidence of the commonality of problems faced by farm workers in this country regardless of their location, and the fruitless attempts by reformers to alleviate those problems by legal or legislative means.
This work is vital for comprehending the underlying rationale of current events, such as the controversy over replacement agricultural workers (RAWS), the grower-dominated U.S. Commission on Agricultural Labor, the proposed free trade agreement with Mexico, and efforts to alter immigration policies. Moreover, it should spawn numerous research projects on the events and persons presented in the analysis. This book is a necessary addition to the library of any student of rural or farm worker history.