The Harvest Gypsies
by John Steinbeck
Article VIIFrom almost daily news stories, from a great number of Government reports available to anyone who is interested, and from this necessarily short series of articles, it becomes apparent that some plan must be contrived to take care of the problem of the migrants. If for no humanitarian reason, the need of California agriculture for these people dictates the necessity of such a plan. A survey of the situation makes a few suggestions obvious. The following are offered as a partial solution of the problem:
Since the greatest number of the white American migrants are former farm owners, renters or laborers, it follows that their training and ambition have never been removed from agriculture. It is suggested that lands be leased; or where it is possible, that state and Federal lands be set aside as subsistence farms for migrants. These can be leased at a low rent or sold on long time payments to families of migrant workers.
Blocks of these subsistence farms should be located in regions which require an abundance of harvest labor. Small houses should be erected and the families settled, schools located so that the children can be educated. People who take these farms should be encouraged and helped to produce for their own subsistence fruits, vegetables and livestockpigs, chickens, rabbits, turkeys and ducks.
Crops should be so arranged that they do not conflict with the demand for migratory labor. When the seasonal demand is on, the whole family should not be moved, but only the employable men. The subsistence farm could be managed during the harvest season by the women, the growing children and such unemployables as the old and the partially crippled.
In these communities a spirit of cooperation and self-help should be encouraged so that by self-government and a returning social responsibility these people may be restored to the rank of citizens. The expense of such projects should be borne by the Federal Government, by state and county governments, so that the community which requires the greatest number of seasonal workers should contribute to their well-being.
The cost of such ventures would not be much greater than the amount which is now spent for tear gas, machine guns and ammunition, and deputy sheriffs. Each of these subsistence districts should have assigned to it a trained agriculturist to instruct the people in scientific farming; and a spirit of cooperation should be encouraged so that certain implements such as tractors and other farm equipment might be used by the whole unit. Through the school or through the local board of health, medical attention should be made available, and instruction in sanitary measures carried on and enforced. By establishing these farms the problem of food during the five or six-month unemployment season would be solved, the degenerating influence of family moving would be removed and the education of the children would be assured.
Such information should then be placed in the hands of the subsistence farmers and of the labor unions, so that the harvest does not become a great, disorganized gold rush with twice and three times as much labor applying as is needed.
It has long been the custom of the shipper-grower, the speculative farmer and the corporation farm to encourage twice as much labor to come to a community as could possibly be used. With an over-supply of labor, wages could be depressed below any decent standard. Such a suggested labor board (if it had a strong labor representation) would put a stop to such tactics.
Agricultural workers should be encouraged and helped to organize, both for their own protection, for the intelligent distribution of labor and for their self-government through the consideration of their own problems.
The same arguments are used against the organizing of agricultural labor as were used 60 years ago against the organizing of the craft and skilled labor unions. It was argued then that industry could not survive if labor were organized. It is argued today that agriculture cannot exist if farm labor is organized. It is reasonable to believe that agriculture would suffer no more from organization than industry has.
It is certain that until agricultural labor is organized, and until the farm laborer is represented in the centers where his wage is decided, wages will continue to be depressed and living conditions will grow increasingly impossible until from pain, hunger and despair the whole mass of labor will revolt.
The attorney-general, who has been given power in such matters, should investigate and trace to its source any outbreak of the vigilante terrorism which is the disgrace of California. Inspiration for such outbreaks is limited to a few individuals.
It should be as easy for an unbought investigation to hunt them down as it was for the Government to hunt down kidnapers. Since a government is its system of laws, and since armed vigilantism is an attempt to overthrow that system of laws and to substitute a government by violence, prosecution could be carried out on the grounds of guilt under the criminal syndicalism laws already on our statute books.
If, on the other hand, as has been stated by a large grower, our agriculture requires the creation and maintenance at any cost of a peon class, then it is submitted that California agriculture is economically unsound under a democracy.
And if the terrorism and reduction of human rights, the floggings, murder by deputies, kidnappings and refusal of trial by jury are necessary to our economic security; it is further submitted that California democracy is rapidly dwindling away. Fascistic methods are more numerous, more powerfully applied and more openly practiced in California than any other place in the United States.
It will require a militant and watchful organization of middle-class people, workers, teachers, craftsmen and liberals to fight this encroaching social philosophy, and to maintain this state in a democratic form of government.
To attempt to force them into a peonage of starvation and intimidated despair will be unsuccessful. They can be citizens of the highest type, or they can be an army driven by suffering and hatred to take what they need. On their future treatment will depend which course they will be forced to take.