Retracing our Roots: the History of MSFW Inclusion in Workforce Development Programs

Kendra Moesle, Director of Workforce Development

May 3, 2021

As part of AFOP’s 50th anniversary, we are celebrating the long history of farmworkers’ fight for equal opportunity.

Much is well-known about this chapter of American history.  Filipino & Latinx civil rights leaders Larry Itliong, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta are loved and celebrated as the original champions of farmworkers.  Thanks to their leadership and hard work, fights like the Delano grape boycott and Salinas lettuce strike were won, securing the case for farm laborers’ rights in the public eye.  Recognizing the import of their contributions, President Barack Obama declared March 31st as National Cesar Chavez Day in 2014, and this year Governor Newsom declared April 10th as Dolores Huerta Day in the state of California.  First Lady Jill Biden recently traveled to Forty Acres, the former headquarters for the UFW in Delano, CA, to mark Cesar Chavez Day and to demonstrate the President’s support for farmworkers’ rights.

Less is known about political reformers’ efforts to fight for farmworkers, though it is part of that same grassroots story, woven in and through its familiar threads.  According to Anne B. W. Effland, the “awakening public conscience” of the 1950’s intersected with “the increasing power of reformers in government” which, together, began to turn the tide against commercial agriculture.[1]

Four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the foundation for migrant assistance with his New Deal legislation in 1933 – itself a culmination of decades of public awareness campaigns and dissatisfaction with the labor status quo.  Migrant laborers had long been exploited, starting with African American sharecroppers after the end of the Civil War, then Asian immigrants prior to the Chinese exclusion act of 1882, then Filipinos and Mexicans from the late 1800s – early 1900s.  Labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) tried to correct migratory labor abuses before the First World War, but, due to their Communist leanings, faced setbacks during the first Red Scare.

It wasn’t until the Great Depression and the displacement of countless small (white) farming families, that public outcry about migrants’ living and working conditions finally galvanized the U.S. government into action.  Part of FDR’s New Deal produced the federal migrant labor camp system, which provided housing, sanitary facilities, health care, and a measure of self-determination to impoverished farmworkers.  Unfortunately, Congress caved to pressure from farm employers and excluded farmworkers from the major labor legislation of the New Deal – the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 – a legacy that farmworker advocates are still working to overcome today.

President Lyndon B. Johnson has gone down in history as the greatest social reformer since FDR,[2] but even he never intended for migrant assistance to be part of his anti-poverty agenda.  Political reformers and activists had laid important groundwork by holding public hearings on migrant issues over the years.  This resulted in sustained efforts to introduce migrant assistance legislation on the floor of both the House and Senate.  Though their bills continually failed, when Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act was introduced in Congress, farmworker advocates saw their chance.

Representative James Roosevelt – oldest son of Eleanor and FDR, and Democratic Congressman from California – argued for the addition of migrant assistance programs under Title III, the Rural Poverty program in Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act.  The chances of garnering southern Congressmen’s support was seen as unlikely, but Roosevelt and others worked quickly behind the scenes in both the House and Senate to win them over.  Their conversations were not recorded by any historian, but they somehow succeeded, and Title III-B, which authorized “programs of assistance to migrant agricultural employees and their families… [for] housing, sanitation, education, and day care of children,” was written, then passed, then signed into law as part of Johnson’s War on Poverty on August 20th, 1964.[3]

Today, the National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP) is authorized under Section 167 of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) passed in 2014.  WIOA succeeded WIA, a similarly dubbed law passed in 1998.  WIA built upon the Job Training partnership Act (JTPA) of 1982, which was a re-working of the Comprehensive Employment & Training Act (CETA) of 1973.  CETA, in turn had incorporated provisions of the Comprehensive Migrant Manpower Program of 1971, and that, of course, developed out Title III-B of Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act in 1964.  Though challenged continually by some politicians, support for migrant and seasonal farmworker programs by Congress, as a whole, remains strong.

AFOP members, as the state or regional practitioners of the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP), know firsthand the value of job training programs for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.  Many of our members were serving farmworkers decades ago, long before public funding for MSFWs existed.  Thanks to that crucial support from USDOL, however, AFOP members train thousands of farmworkers annually in new skills that help them advance in their careers and find family-sustaining jobs, raising themselves and their families out of a life of poverty.  Year after year, NFJP has proven to be the most successful job training program operated by the U.S. Department of Labor, a record that we are extremely proud of.As anyone who has worked with farmworkers long enough knows, the past is prologue, and some of the same issues that Cesar Chavez fought so hard to change 50 years ago, remain today.  The work of government reformers and labor rights activists go hand-in-hand.  There is still so much work left to do.