Mapping Jobs for Texas Migrants
by LEWIS T. NORDYKE
Texas, like other major agricultural states, depends on migrant labor to meet the peak load at harvest timeto follow the ripening crops along the well-beaten labor routes. Climatic conditions and soil types mark the big state off into regions, each of which has its own type of crops. South Texas including the Gulf Coast and the Rio Grande Valley, grows vegetables, fruits and cotton. East Texas grows cotton and vegetables. Central Texas and west Texas grow cotton, peanuts, wheat and other grain. Northeast Texas ,rows cotton and vegetables, mainly onions. The Panhandle grows wheat. The crops in no two regions are ready for cultivation or harvest at exactly the same time. Cotton picking starts in the Rio Grande Valley in June and July. On the plains it starts in September and October. A cotton picker can start work in south Texas in June and "pick his way" to the plains, where he can work until nearly Christmas. Then he can drop back to the valley and start cutting spinach and gathering vegetables in the winter garden area.
This isn't the promised land, however. Previous to 1933, when new life was legislated into the United States Employment Service, the migrant had to take his chances with slack periods and crop failures. The landowners' themselves, accentuated the problem when they found time-saving machinery and AAA benefits more profitable than tenant farming. Evictions have uprooted some 60,000 Texas farm families since 1930. Driven by cold necessity these victims of change have been sucked into the stream of crop-following workers. Bewildered by rumors of "better picking" and higher pay that move swiftly along the grapevine telegraph of labor routes, the migrants flooded communities where there was no work. Wage cuts stranded families and abject poverty resulted. In other communities, and, in some cases, neighboring ones, the farmers were begging for "hands" to save their crops. The haphazard movement of family labor naturally resulted in conditions that spawned poverty, squalor, health problems and discontent along the highways of Texas.
A Guiding Hand
TODAY THERE IS A NEW ORDER, THANKS TO modern sort of round-up in Texas. he farm placement division of the Employment Service keeps at its finger tips finite information on crop conditions and labor needs in every important agricultural community in the state. And it keeps tabs on its army of migrants, even though there are 600,000 of them. When cotton, vegetable or fruit section needs workers the Service knows it, and it routes only enough laborers to handle work in an orderly manner. Other workers, who ordinarily would rush to any area with a rumored labor shortage, routed elsewhere.
This is not to say all phases of the social, economic and health problem created by the crop-following workers have been solved in Texas or any other state, but there is definite proof of a workable plan that has a good chance to become national scope through federal-state cooperation. In routing the migrants during the past two years in a manner surprising but satisfactory to the workers and the farmers, and making 403,039 farm placements in 1938, and close to 0,000 in 1939, the Service demonstrated that the needed workers could be handled without serious confusion. (A cement means a man, woman or child has been placed in a job.)
Although Texas was part of the vineyard that produced the grapes of wrath, the success of her plan for migrant control has been held up as an example for other states by the Federal Placement Service. Caught in the spotlight of John Steinbeck's novel, California plans to cope with the nation's number one migrant problem by adopting the Texas plan for farm labor placement and control, and Robert M. McKinley, who developed the Texas program, is helping start the placement system there.
Tales of short food rations and deplorable sanitary conditions in Texas roadside camps shocked the State Employment Service into action. At the beginning of the cotton harvest of 1935 in the Texas plains area, exaggerated reports yield were relayed on all routes traveled by grants. Workers poured into Lubbock, central point for one of the nation's major cotton fields.
About the time the great migration reached Lubbock a cold rain set in. There were no housing, facilities. Many families, nearly all of them with small children, had no protection other than It of stripped-down cars or a scrub mesquite the open prairie. Within a few days, children, mainly in Spanish-American families, fell ill of exposure. None of the migrants was eligible for relief. None could get work. There would be no ton picking until after the rain. Farmers, at time distrustful of migratory workers, would make no advance payment of wages. Food was scarce. Children died. Too poverty-stricken to pay legal burial, the parents did the best they coulddug holes and buried their children on muddy camp grounds. The Service has never been able to determine how many workers died the week of that cold October rain.
LEADERSHIP CAME FROM AN UNEXPECTED source. The big onion county of Willacy in the Rio Grande Valley had seen hungry women and children: scratch in harvested fields for food. Here stranded families subsisted for days on onions the harvest hands had missed or rejected as partly rotten. Business interests and civic organizations went into action. A camping ground was laid out with running water, toilets, and garbage disposal units. So successful was the Willacy County camp, other communities scattered all over the stateLubbock, El Campo, Sinton, Robstown, Waco, Brownfield, Levelland, Plainview, all centers of regions using a great amount of migratory laborbuilt camps. Although most of the camps are not the best of living quarters, they are far ahead of crowded mudholes.
The Farm Security Administration, one of the many agencies cooperating with the Employment Service, came along with a still more ambitious program. It is building four housing units in south Texasat Raymondville (Willacy County), Robstown, Sinton and Weslacoand tentatively planning more for other parts of the state. The four camps will be completed this spring. They will have facilities for 1079 families, approximately 5540 persons. Each will be a supervised community center. The migrants will be under roof. Adjacent to the camps the FSA is building several small houses which will rent for about $8 a month to families reasonably sure of sufficient year-round employment to settle down. The FSA is handling a similar program in California.
The housing units are far superior to the community sponsored camp grounds, but the camps, aside from the more sanitary quarters they provided, proved to be a godsend to the Employment Service's main functionthat of orderly placement of migratory workers and the harvesting of the crops to the satisfaction of the farmers. Before the camps were established there were no concentration points for the workers, and the Service had much difficulty in keeping track of labor, particularly during the peak harvest seasons when all available workers were needed. Now the workers go to the camps, and the Service has hourly figures on the labor supply and can fill orders without delay.
Keeping track of workers, particularly the thousands who had been accustomed to unguided search for employment, proved to be one of the Service's major problems. These people are human. And they will gamble on a rumor that swells hope for a better job. In Texas, as the Service soon learned, the age-old cotton country vision of whiter fields beyond the next ridge of hills sent jalopies chugging in all directions.
On a Saturday afternoon in town (a picker always wants to go to town or Saturday afternoon) we heard of "better picking" and higher wages in the next county. Hope swelled. We were doing fairly well where we were. Plenty of cotton to pick and a living wage. But it was evident the rumors were "taking." Some of the pickers started to move. The farmer begged. In desperation, he threatened to get his shotgun. But several of the pickers loaded their cotton sacks, pots and pans and kids into their old car and chugged off for the "whiter fields." The poor farmer wasn't making an more money than the pickers. The market was sagging. There was cotton in the field. The farmer was frantic until more pickers came. They came from the community to which our friends had just gone. They, too, had heard whiter fields in town on Saturday afternoon-that honey pond and fritter trees.
IT IS THIS SORT OF THINGA proposition costly to the workers and the farmersthe Employment Service is combating in Texas. The Service's first big job Texas was rumor chasing. The cotton season was opening in the Rio Grande Valley. The Service received an urgent request for 2000 pickers. A field man rushed to the scene, ran down every rumor. Eighty-five pickers were sent. No more were needed. What would have happened to the other 1915 pickers had they rush to the area is well known. Such things had been happening for years. It had become an annual proceeding growers to demand of their congressmen that immigration restrictions be relaxed so Mexican aliens could flood Texas with cheap labor.
Harsh criticism has been directed at the farmer for such practices, but he has his problem, too. He usually operates on a very slender profit, if any at all. And if he grow. crop, he must harvest and market it. Bad weather a delay can cause damage that means the difference between profit and loss. The farmer came to distrust workers and, distrusting, he advertised for as many labors as he could attract, hoping enough workers to gather his crop would have to stay with the job or starve. Confusion, distrust, crop losses and the worst sort of poverty among the stranded workers resulted.
Many farmers doubted the Service's ability to handle the workers, but they have changed their minds. The Service established sub-offices in the main agricultural sections. It sent men to check labor needs. It kept weather reports. It kept accurate figures on acreage, close checks on local labor. This information was not a routine matter to be inserted in the annual report. It was used daily. As a matter of fact, a man in the central office in Austin could estimate more accurately the labor needs in a given county than could the average farmer living in the county.
The Service sent out emergency crews to intercept the workers and route them to communities needing "hands." Literally, this work amounted to a round-up. The migrants, frequently being led by rumors of work ahead, had to be convinced the Service knew what it was talking about. They had to be convinced that the honey pond and fritter tree might be so near they couldn't see them.
There was some difficulty, but the Service, with all its accurate information at hand, simply couldn't help but be convincing. If migrants heeded the Service's advice they found conditions as described. If they stubbornly refused listen and went their way, as many did, they soon learned "that government feller must have known what was talking about." The laborers soon learned to have confidence in the Service. Thousands now seek its advice before making a move.
In 1938, hordes of migrants, many from neighboring states, drifted to the onion fields of north Texas for the vest. The labor market was glutted. The price of onions was so low many farmers were reluctant to harvest at all. Thousands of workers found no employment. They were stranded. As many 200 persons lived in the space of a town lot without shelter or sanitaryor unsanitary, for that matteraccommodations. The farmers didn't want such a thing to happen again. Neither did Serviceor the migrants.
LAST YEAR AN EARLY START made a world of difference. south Texas the Service itself to a group of 4000 Spanish-Americans around Dallas who had never been successfully directed, by sending in a worker of Spanish descent. Loyalty to anyone they find they can trust, to their leader, or jefe, seems to be characteristic of Spanish Americans, who represent about 60 percent of the Texas migrant army. While the jefe found work in the local onion fields for the Dallas contingent, the Service held back the migration of as many laborers from other sections.
A crew of cotton pickers was referred by a Service interviewer to a large farm near Lubbock. A farmer who cultivated adjoining fields agreed to hire his neighbor's pickers after they finished the first job. When the jefe was consulted about moving down the road a few hundred yards into a new field, he demurred, saying: "We're working for the government man. When we finish here we'll go to town and report." In vain the farmer tried persuasion. Then he took the jefe to town to see the "government man," Allen Buell, who assigned the crew to the second farmer, the change to be made when the first farmer's cotton was picked. The workers were happy. For they had lost no time between jobs.
American workers swear by the Service interviewers who have routed them into jobs. Early in the 1939 season in the plains area, C.E. Peake, district supervisor at Amarillo, went to the fields to check on labor needs and to arrange for camp sites for migrants. Judge R.A. Simms of Terry County reported that the lot was ready at Brownfield, but perhaps too early, since several white families had camped on the site and were unwilling to accept offers of employment made by farmers. "I think they are worthless squatters," he remarked. Peake went to the lot where the group's spokesman informed him that earlier in the season the Service's E. L. McElhanon had directed them to work in the Gulf Coast country hundreds of miles to the south. After the season closed there the workers learned that McElhanon had been assigned to the plains region. They followed. Peake told the spokesman that McElhanon was in Hale County to the north. The lot was clear in exactly one hour. A few days later McElhanon reported that the group of "worthless squatters" had been put to workand gainfullyin Hale County.
The Service made 500,000 placements in the 1939 labor circuit, which indicates that Texas' 600,000 migrantswith fully half of them wholly dependent on crop-following employmenthave reached out confidently for the Service's guiding hand.
And the farmers apparently have been convinced Thousands of them depend upon the Service for labor. In 1938 and 1939, for the first time since 1920, there was not a single demand for alien labor. Local chambers of commerce resorted no acute labor shortages. It has begun to work the other way. As early as 1936, the year the Service got its system into operation, civic bodies an to cooperate. On August 26, 1936, the Robstown Record, a weekly newspaper published in the heart of great coastal cotton belt, reported:
The U.S. Employment Service, a division of the Department of Labor, has proven a benefactor this year in the picking of the cotton crop in the Robstown territory, according to L.C. English, manager of the Robstown Chamber of Commerce.
To substantiate this statement, Mr. English cites the fact over 6000 cotton pickers have been placed systematically in the fields this year by men of this department. Instead of confusion in this matter, the operation has been very orderly actual results have been obtained.
Reports like this have come from all over the state, there is no official tie-up between individual farmers farmers' associations with either the federal or state units of the agency. The Service is without policing or enforcement authority. It operates solely on the basis of mutual understanding among farmers and workers.
In Texas, however, the federal-state agency has the endorsement of the Texas Agricultural Association. At its convention in Dallas in December 1939, the association strongly endorsed the work of the Service in a resolution declaring that the orderly handling of migrants had prevented the existence in Texas of conditions which are receiving such wide and unfavorable publicity in other agricultural states.
There seems to be better understanding among all persons involved: the Service; the farmers, many of whom have provided housing for their workers; and the migrants, who enjoy better treatment and increased income. But Texas is having trouble with other states. The Service is making every effort to curb all useless migration of labor, but thousands of workers still go annually to the beet fields of Michigan, Ohio, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Out-of-state migration, the Employment Service reports, affects the supply of labor available to harvest Texas crops and "is obviously acting to oppose the economic and social welfare of Texas agricultural workers and employers."
This weak spot can be blamed to some extent on the state's labor department. Texas has laws prohibiting the movement of laborers out of the state by unlicensed agents. The Service reports four licensed employment agencies, operating in the state with the express purpose of recruiting Spanish-American labor for northern beet fields. The Service's records show the state's department of labor has not assessed the high license fee against the agencies. The high fee was designed to discourage out-of-state agencies.
The laborers are usually hauled in trucks very much cattle at so much per head in advance. Many returning laborers have reported the drivers stopped only for fuel and nothing else. The laborers stood all the way, and the trip to the north is about 1600 miles. Many are stranded. Few return home with any fruits of their labor. The Farm Placement Service, maintaining that such mass movements and transportation facilities are revolting and should be prevented for the general social good, is urging interstate cooperation to stop the practice, which usually gluts the labor market in the beet states.
The Farm Placement Service is a unique form of federal-state cooperation. The Wagner-Peyser Act by which Congress established the U. S. Employment Service in June 1933, provides for federal maintenance of a Farm Placement Service. Rather than compete with the state services, the federal agency appointed farm placement supervisors in the states in which migratory labor problems were acute to serve as working members of the administrative staff of the State Employment Service. Texas has two such federal farm placement representatives.
It is the federal unit that is planning inauguration of the Texas system of migratory labor control in California and other states. A long range program is in view, and no one can say it isn't needed. The migratory labor problem is a national one.
I have talked with migratory laborers who were belligerent, down on the government, down on everythingapparently easy prey for agitators. On the other hand, many of the workers, including the uprooted tenants, are hopeful, They have their pride. They are sensitive about the publicity given their plight.