The images of the Dust Bowl migrants, made famous in John Steinbeck’s best selling novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), tend to dominate the historical memory of migrant workers during the Great Depression era. However, while thousands of Okies and Arkies did take to the road in search of survival, they joined migrant workers who had traveled the nation in search of work long before the Depression and who would continue to do so for decades thereafter. These migrants, many of them racial and ethnic minorities, had always worked for low wages and lived in horrible conditions. The Great Depression merely exacerbated their harsh circumstances.
Assessing the absolute number of migrant workers during any decade is difficult. In 1937, sociologist Paul S. Taylor tentatively estimated that there were between 200,000 and 350,000 migrant workers traveling yearly throughout the United States. Although many migrants worked in California, where some would be displaced by incoming Dust Bowl migrants, migrant labor was not just a West Coast phenomenon. For example, thousands of Mexican and Mexican-American migrant workers toiled throughout the nation—from the cotton fields of Texas to the sugar beet fields of Colorado, Michigan, and Ohio. Thousands of southern African Americans and whites (mostly displaced sharecroppers from Georgia and Alabama) regularly worked along the Atlantic Coast, toiling in the winter months in Florida’s Everglades and in the northern states during the summer. And finally, thousands of other migrant workers traveled less clear paths throughout dozens of states in search of work.
The Great Depression, which had begun in the 1920s for many of the nation’s agricultural regions, worsened the difficulties migrant workers faced. While the numbers of workers in search of work rose during the Depression, the amount of land in production decreased. Moreover, farmers who also faced economic difficulties—falling prices for their crops, higher taxes, and increased debt—looked for places to cut costs, and reducing workers’ wages was often the only option they had. The surplus labor (in 1933 in California there were roughly 2.36 workers for each available job) made it extremely difficult for workers to get paid for the full value of their labor. As a result, wages throughout the nation fell during the Depression. Migrant workers in California who had been making 35 cents per hour in 1928 made only 14 cents per hour in 1933. Sugar beet workers in Colorado saw their wages decrease from $27 an acre in 1930 to $12.37 an acre three years later. In Texas, migrant families during the Depression could expect yearly earnings of between $278 and $500, hundreds of dollars below what experts at the time estimated it would cost a family of four merely to survive.
In addition to earning low wages—the lowest of any workers in the country—migrant workers also tended to live in horrible conditions. It was not uncommon for farmers to house migrant workers in shanties, shacks, chicken coops, barns, portable wagons, and even open fields. Those who found shelter inside small cabins or abandoned farm houses often had to contend with broken windows, torn screens, missing doors, and leaky roofs. Most migrants, whether living by themselves in the fields or in specially designated migrant camps, remained isolated from the surrounding communities. Often viewed as racial and class outcasts, migrant workers were shunned by the local communities.
While the nation’s industrial workers could look to the New Deal to address some of their problems, migrant workers found themselves largely outside of the scope of most of the programs and legislation. When discussing the status of migrant workers in the United States, historian Cindy Hahamovitch argued that they were, in fact, “stateless.” Unlike industrial workers who gained the right to organize unions and bargain collectively, migrant workers were left outside of the bounds of the most important New Deal legislation. Neither section 7a of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act nor the 1935 National Labor Relations Act included migrant agricultural workers. When Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act instituting minimum wage provisions in 1938, agricultural workers were once again exempted from the federal protections afforded other kinds of workers.
Certainly the political clout of agricultural interestshelped to keep agricultural workers outside of the New Deal protections. Idealistic notions about agricultural labor and rural America may have also made it difficult to pass legislation to protect or empower migrant workers. Even legislation passed explicitly to address the problems plaguing rural America—the Agricultural Adjustment Act—did little to help migrant workers. In fact, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) probably worsened the conditions for many migrant workers who saw their jobs disappear along with the crop reductions required by the AAA. In addition, the jobs of many agricultural workers were eliminated when farmers used their government stipends to buy new machinery. The only New Deal agency that attempted to address the needs of migrant workers was the Resettlement Administration, which was replaced by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). By 1942, the FSA had built ninetyfive camps, which could house approximately 75,000 workers. Many of these camps provided housing, health services, schools, laundry facilities, and adult-educationprograms.
With the exception of the FSA camps, when migrant workers looked to the state for relief, they faced an uphill battle. Racist private and public relief agencies throughout the nation, but especially in the South and West, often denied migrant workers benefits or granted them benefits much lower than those awarded to other workers. Even the federal relief agencies, including the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, worked in conjunction with local officials to schedule relief benefits according to the growing seasons. Migrant workers often found their meager benefits cut at the same time that their labor would be needed in the fields. In this way, the federal government helped to maintain a vulnerable, low-income workforce.
Mexican and Mexican-American migrant workers felt the full force of state power during the Great Depression. As non-citizens, many Mexicans were banned from public works projects available to other destitute workers. Moreover, communities looking for a scapegoat to explain the Depression often blamed Mexicans. Working together, private relief charities, municipal governments, and Mexican consuls helped to repatriate thousands of Mexicans and even Mexican Americans back to Mexico. Many of these men, women, and children had been migrant workers.
Even though migrant workers were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, thousands joined unions and engaged in strikes to garner better wages and living conditions. In fact, in the early years of the Depression, the number of agricultural unions increased, as did the number of strikes. In his exhaustively researched study on unions in agriculture, Stuart Jamieson recounted ten strikes involving 3,200 workers in 1932. The following year, 1933, over 56,800 workers in seventeen different states took part in at least sixty-one strikes. By 1935 nearly one hundred agricultural unions represented thousands of workers. Although California remained the bastion of labor organizing among agricultural workers, states in the Midwest and East, including Michigan and New Jersey, also witnessed unions and strikes. This militancy is essential for understanding the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression. Even though they were often viewed as the bottom rung of society, traveling from place to place and doing jobs others would not do, and even though they were excluded from the benefits awarded other workers, migrant workers nonetheless tried to make a New Deal of their own.