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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