History of Agriculture Labor in the United States: History of Exploitation

By Ramon Ramirez – Former President of PCUN, and Distinguished Taconic Fellow at Community Change

I decided to write and document the history of Agriculture labor from a perspective of a farmworker organizer, fighting for the rights of farmworkers. 

I could never understand why farmworkers were never included in the National Labor Relation Act of 1935, That historic legislation that gave the rights to workers to join unions and bargain collectively. 

In Oregon, not only were farmworkers not covered in the NLRA act, but were also excluded from collective laws established in 1973. An Oregon law even banned farmworker and their supporters from harvest season picketing which made it virtually impossible to defend or win a strike till 1991 when the law was declared unconstitutional. California, Hawaii and recently the state of New York are the only states that include Collective Bargaining rights for Agriculture Workers. 

So the only way that farmworkers could organize for collective bargaining is through strike and boycott. To ask the lowest paid workers in America to go on strike is the ultimate sacrifice. 

One day I had a deep down conversation with Michael Dale, long-time farmworker legal rights attorney. He told me he had just finished reading a legal paper written by Texas Rural Legal Aid, TRLA attorney about this very subject. 

The bottom line on why farmworkers in 2020 are still excluded from collective bargaining laws stems from the creation of the labor laws in the 1930’s. When the New Deal was brokered in 1935 to end labor strife in the United States, farmworkers were excluded. 

Essentially, labor unions were represented by the northerners and business interests were represented by the Dixiecrats, Southerners- many who were plantation owners and promoted the sharecropping system that insured the continual economic exploitation of black people. 

In a recent article written in the New York Times: “Southern Democrats affected New Deal legislation in several ways. They carved out exceptions in bills regulating business—such as bills setting a minimum wage—for farming and

domestic service, since that was work performed in the South predominately by African-Americans. They retarded the growth of the labor movement and tried to block efforts to unionize in the South, suspecting, rightly, that unions were motors of racial integration”. 

Labor agreed to the deal and farmworkers were excluded from the historical piece of legislation. 85 year later, farmworkers are still excluded from the NLRA. 

Even worse when farmworkers try to pass legislation in the state legislative body, growers claim that the agriculture industry is special therefore they deserve exception from worker rights laws. What they are really saying is that grower want to preserve a system of exploitation based on Jim Crow laws that maintained Black farmworkers in a system of legalized economic slavery and continue that system of white privilege in place to continue their strangle hold of the current workforce who are Latino immigrants. 

Over the last twenty five years, PCUN has proposed many different bills to improve the living and working conditions of farmworkers. Bills to give workers paid rest period, minimum wage increases and paid sick leave. 

Each time those bills were met with stiff opposition from the growers – and their trade organizations. They used language like “our industry is special, we have a different set of values, we have a good relationship with our workers, they don’t want or need protections”. 

The same language is used often to defend Jim Crow and Sharecropping laws that maintain the worker in a state of exploitation. 

What the agriculture industry is saying is we want to continue the exploitation of farmworkers and we aren’t going to change. 

This is an important history we must teach ourselves so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. We must work at all to make sure farmworkers have protection and are allowed to build political power through collective bargaining. 

We must build unity with all farmworkers regardless of their color. United we are strong, divided we will never create the strength needed to create change to better our lives. 

Unity starts with understanding each history of exploitation, creating relationships based on common goals and objectives that collectively benefits all workers. At the center of this unity is to come to each other’s aid when needed. My most profound experience in building workers resistance and building unity happens

when you teach workers farm economics – and how through labor, the growers are getting wealthy while the workers remain poor. Workers begin to see that other workers aren’t to blame for job displacement, but that grower uses this tactic of divide and conquer to maintain the workers unorganized. 

I had the opportunity to go to see the Vidalia onion harvest in Southeast Georgia. It was nothing short of legalized slavery. It is the most labor-intensive work I have ever seen. 

The farmworkers labor under the hot Georgia sun. They are bent over for hours picking and cutting large onions, and putting them into 40 gallons. After two buckets are filled, workers walk up a quarter mile to a loading truck. They receive 40 cents a bucket. I noticed there were no black farmworkers working. I knew for a fact that black farmworkers did this work at one-time. 

I asked the workers where they were from, all 300 were indigenous farmworkers from the southern state of Oaxaca, living in Birmingham, Alabama. Brought to Georgia by a labor contractor. None knew who picked the crops before – nor knew how much they earned. 

I asked the crew boss, who was Latino why there weren’t any black people working. His answer, “Black people were too lazy to work”. I also talked to Latinx community leaders who gave me the same answer “Black people were too lazy to work”. I didn’t accept the answer so I went into the Black community and talked to people in the street. 

Their answer was completely different. 

Their answer was “back in the day, we did that work and we did it for $1.00 a bucket, when the grower brought in the Mexicans they started doing the work for $0.40 cent a bucket. Who in their right mind would take a 60% cut in pay for doing the same work” 

Throughout the South and in America this story repeats itself. If we’re truly going to build Black and Brown power, and build a coalition that will create change we need to understand each other’s exploitation – and begin to see that other workers aren’t to blame for their job displacement, but rather a tactic of divide and conquer to maintain the workers unorganized and divided. 

As we embark on the 400th year since the arrival of slaves to America. The fight to improve the living and working conditions of farmworkers is tied directly to the struggle for retribution in correcting a long-standing wrong done to agriculture workers: current, past and future. We must redress the vestiges of any form of

slavery and system of institutionalize exploitation. If we don’t address this issue, history will continue to repeat itself only with a different workforce. 

As we speak thousands of workers are waiting on the border, especially workers from Africa, Haiti and Central America awaiting jobs in the United States. 

You can read the full literature review, here. 


Ramon Ramirez has been a leader in the immigrant rights movement for more than four decades, co-founding and serving as president of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon’s farm workers’ union and one of the largest Latinx organizations in the state. PCUN, with Ramon as its most recent representative, has been a member of FIRM’s Executive Committee and an active player in the national fight for immigration reform. Ramon’s fellowship docked with Path to Power’s first pillar: Building Black and Immigrant Power. Drawing from his deep history of coalition building, Ramon’s year-long fellowship project will study, document, and glean lessons from a number of local cross-racial organizing efforts throughout the country and culminate in a multimedia report on his findings.

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