For Migrant Workers, Still the Harvest and the Shame

As America prepares for its ritual feast, a look back at an epic broadcast that forever changed the way we look at farm workers.

Cesar Chavez in 1974 (Wikimedia Commons)

On Friday, November 25, 1960, the day after Thanksgiving, CBS News broadcast Harvest of Shame, the Fred-Friendly-inspired Edward Murrow documentary about the horrific conditions of America's migrant workers. The newsman had been ill during the project, but nevertheless made his way each day to the screening room "looking rapt at the footage," according to A.M. Sperber's definitive account, Murrow: His Life and Times. Why was he so pro-union? Murrow once was asked. "Because I hoed corn in a blazing sun," he had answered.

Here's the famous piece in its entirety.

Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the piece, CBS News commissioned Byron Pitts, the network's national correspondent (and now a 60 Minutes correspondent) to go back into the fields and report on what he saw. What he saw were some improvements in the lives of the workers. What he also saw was the same ugly dynamic that had existed during Murrow's visits, the same cycle of brutal work, deplorable conditions, and rapacious treatment of workers unable to protect their own interests. Here is Byron's thoughtful piece from 2010.

Thoughtful -- but of course no substitute for the original work. Watching Harvest of Shame after all these years is istill an enormously powerful experience. The haunting images, the terse language and body language, are links to the mechanisms of slavery itself. Yet the events portrayed in the show occurred within the living memory of a hundred million or so Americans, folks who are now just in their 60s or 70s. What happened then to all those people is a part of our history -- but not yet a part of our ancient history.

This year, on the anniversary of the original broadcast -- an anniversary likely to be overlooked -- I wanted to find a new way to translate the power of the original piece. So I asked about a dozen politicians, labor leaders, government officials, and grocery executives to undertake an exercise for me. I asked them to take an hour out of their busy schedules to watch Murrow's work in full and then to comment on it, in real time, with two central questions in mind: How far has America come with its migrant workers since 1960? How far does it have to go?

By far the most poignant and compelling response I received came from Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, who succeeded Cesar Chavez in that post nearly 20 years ago. Next year, Rodriguez will observe his 40th anniversary with the UFW. It's fair to say that, during that time, he's seen it all -- both the ups and the downs of the farm labor movement. What follows are his words, interspersed with snippets from Murrow's broadcast, so you can follow along from one to to the other, from the past to the present.

Rodriguez: Shape-ups such as those depicted in Harvest of Shame still occur in different parts of the country. Today farm workers, many of them from Mexico, leave their homes at 1 a.m. for the madrugada, the early morning shape-up just across the border in California, hoping to get jobs for the day and board farm labor contractor buses heading to distant fields. These shape-ups are eliminated where the United Farm Workers has union contracts with seniority and other job rights.

The Southern African-American farm workers shown in the documentary are why all farm workers are still excluded from the minimum wage and overtime protections of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. That was the price President Franklin Roosevelt paid in 1938 to get Southern Democrats to vote for the law, according to press accounts of the day. Today across the nation, farm workers are mostly Latino. The UFW nearly passed legislation last summer so California farm workers could receive overtime pay after eight hours a day, like all other U.S. workers. Growers preserved this racist exclusion by defeating the bill.

Rodriguez: Too many of today's farm workers are cheated out of their pay; have few if any benefits; endure child labor, pesticide poisoning, sexual harassment and sometimes the denial of basic needs such as clean water and restrooms in the fields. Growers say such horror stories can't be true because California has the toughest laws and regulations in the country. But even in California the laws on the books aren't the laws in the fields. Violations have been common and enforcement lax under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

For example, in 2005, the UFW pressured then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the first state regulations in the nation to prevent farm workers from dying from exposure to extreme heat. Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, pregnant and an immigrant from Mexico, collapsed after working most of the day under the hot sun with no access to shade or water. She was denied timely emergency medical care that could have saved her life. At least 15 other California farm workers have died from the heat since 2005. Cal-OSHA admits about a third of agricultural employers are not honoring state heat standards.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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