50 Years After Murrow’s ‘Harvest of Shame,’ What’s Changed?

Stephen Franklin

This is the last in a series of arti­cles about migrant farm­work­ers in the U.S. For the ear­li­er posts by Stephen Franklin, go here, here, and here.

They live bro­ken lives. They are not slaves but they could be. They picked California’s fields 80 years ago and they har­vest­ed Florida’s fields 50 years ago.

It would be heart-warm­ing to say that 50 years after Edward R. Murrow’s icon­ic doc­u­men­tary about migrant work­ers, The Har­vest of Shame,” that migrant work­ers no longer suf­fer in silence. Wouldn’t it be uplift­ing to say that the gov­ern­ment is a trust­ed ally of one of the most vul­ner­a­ble groups of work­ers today in the U.S?

It sure­ly would pro­duce smiles for many to be able to say that nobody makes a dime on the backs of peo­ple who cringe from those who rule their dai­ly lives because they are immi­grants with­out papers or because they do not know their rights or sim­ply because they can’t find anoth­er way to work and survive.

But that’s not the case. Not in the world that Vin­cent H. Beck­man and Alexan­dra Sos­sa know.

Their world is made up of migrant and sea­son­al work­ers in North­ern Illi­nois. Some of these work­ers come here quite legal­ly on H‑2a visas, which allows them to do short term agri­cul­tur­al work for gar­dens and nurs­eries because the busi­ness­es say they can­not find oth­ers to do the same back-break­ing work. Some are farm­work­ers. Near­ly all are Latino.

The two work for the Farm­work­er Advo­ca­cy Project, a small agency in Chica­go that reach­es out to the thou­sands of work­ers who fill the fields, gar­dens and nurs­eries of North­ern Illi­nois in the summer.

This is what Sos­sa, who once worked in the Attor­ney General’s office in Colom­bia, learns from the work­ers when she makes the rounds of their camps and the small towns where they live.

They don’t access to water or to bath­rooms (in the fields.) They work from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. some­times with­out a break to go the bath­room. They have to relieve them­selves in their fields.”

This is Beckman’s view of the role of the gov­ern­ment in pro­tect­ing these work­ers from abu­sive sit­u­a­tions. He has years expe­ri­ence in work­ing with migrants: In terms of gov­ern­ment action, there is very lit­tle enforce­ment… There have been some improve­ment but not a lot….Right now we don’t both­er mak­ing com­plaints, they (the gov­ern­ment agen­cies) are so ineffective.”

If only we had lis­tened to Mur­row when he end­ed his broad­cast five decades ago, and we made the world a very dif­fer­ent place for these peo­ple whose sweat makes our the dai­ly meals possible.

Murrow’s broad­cast end­ed this way: The migrants have no lob­by. Only an enlight­ened, aroused and per­haps angered pub­lic opin­ion can do any­thing about the migrants. The peo­ple you have seen have the strength to har­vest your fruit and veg­eta­bles. They do not have the strength to influ­ence leg­is­la­tion. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck.”

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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