I work in your orchards of peaches and prunes
Sleep on the ground ‘neath the light of the moon
On the edge of your city you see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind

Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters come down
Every state in this Union us migrants has been
We will work in your fight and we’ll fight till we win!
Bound for Glory – Woody Guthrie

It was early in the Second World War on the US west coast. Woody Guthrie had hitched a ride with a bunch of travelling workers. When their tyre burst next to some orchards of ripe apricots they thought they would try to earn some money to fund their vehicle repairs so they could become mobile again. Guthrie mixes his own story as a peripatetic musician falling for a young woman in the group with a sympathetic account of the workers as they confront the deeply entwined layers of agrarian capitalism.

There can be no generalizing about migrant workers in industrialised agriculture across space and time. In Guthrie’s example, for example, national solidarity in the wartime US appears to encompass all social classes and both mobile and settled people. Yet the political economy in the story contains elements that are recognizable outside the specific context of its telling. A woman Guthrie refers to as ‘Swedish lady’ because of her complexion drives over to the workers soon after their arrival and explains the distinctions between the different qualities of apricots in terms of price and pickers’ pay:

Three grades of apricots, you know… Now, the plain ones ripen last in the warm weather; anybody can pick the plain ones. Pay so much a box. Selects ripen earlier. Better taste, better shape, less of them. You get a little more money for picking them, about twice as much a box as the plain ones… Moneyed folks want the very best they can get, and the best is the Extra Selects.

The connection between pay rates and the market conditions remains explicit as the story unfolds. The timing of the apricot harvest depended not only on the ripeness of the fruit, itself affected by weather, but also on orders from the cannery, which in this case owns the orchards.

The workers in Guthrie’s story are enticed into a form of indebtedness to the cannery. The broken down vehicle means there are no other employers within easy reach. So they take on the debt, not through naivety, but necessity. For now, they are resigned to the inequality of the relationship. The company man ensures he has identified the owner of the broken down vehicle and that he has signed his agreement to the debt the workers take on in the company store – the first time a worker inspected the store they found that goods were subject to a hefty mark up but there was nothing they could do. The ‘field boss’ then uses the cannery’s statement rather than his own words to announce the delay in the harvest:

Quiet everybody… Won’t bother to read all of this order. ‘DEAR SIRS: DUE TO COLD WEATHER OF THE PAST THIRTY DAYS, THE APRICOT CROP WILL NOT BE RIPE ENOUGH TO BE SUITABLE FOR CANNING. THERE WILL BE A TEN DAY WAITING PERIOD TO ALLOW THE FRUIT TO MATURE. PICKERS MAY STAND BY AND AWAIT ORDERS, AS THE WEATHER MAY TAKE A WARM CHANGE AND RIPEN THE FRUIT SOONER. USUAL CREDIT SLIPS MAY BE OBTAINED BY MAKING THE PROPER ARRANGEMENTS AT THE COMPANY STORE’… Hhhhmmm. Yes. Anybody want to ask any questions?

The cannery/fruit grower thus accumulates wealth not only through production, processing and sale of food, but also through making the harvest workforce indebted. The distribution of land and machinery has a major role in enabling him to do this. Importantly, it is backed by the state which, as legal enforcer, lies behind the effectiveness of the credit agreement that workers sign. This does not mean that the state inevitably acts against the interests of workers. The state can have and, at times, has had a protective role. However, the state may also be called in to crush workers’ attempts at industrial action. One of the women workers remarks:

I’m one that’s shore glad we quit that striking [when war broke out]… cause just ain’t right for one buncha people to up an’ quit work, an’ another bunch to drive down an’ shoot you full of that old tear gas, crops of all kinds-a-goin’ to waste all around.

Guthrie also describes coming across a younger woman planting stones from four apricots she had picked and eaten in the early morning:

I stole four of these big pretty apricots. I had them for breakfast. And now I’m planting them back here by the side of this old store. Grow up some day. Then I can rest easy knowing I paid him back.

Bound for Glory is autobiographical, yet the very nature of the worlds of agricultural workers described – spaces far from conurbations, fleeting associations with particular employers and places of work – makes it impossible to establish how much of the story is invented. It does, nevertheless, serve as an exemplar of migrant employment in the industrialised food production sector, the understanding of which, in spite of its diversity, involves asking a common set of political, economic and cultural questions. What is the structure of ownership and control across food growers, packers, processors, creditors and retailers? To what extent, how predictably, and at what times of year are large numbers of workers required? What role do states and international actors have in reinforcing or challenging inequality and injustice in fields and food factories? How much and in what ways can workers act to improve their working conditions and wages? And, following Robert Thomas’ (1985) exposure of the use of the urban ideal of the ‘farmer’ to obscure the workings of industrialised agriculture, and Geoff Mann’s (2007) detailed deconstruction of the ‘wage’, to what extent is this a struggle over meanings as well as over money, time, bodies and food?

References

Guthrie, W. (1943) Bound for Glory, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Mann, G. (2007) Our Daily Bread: Wages, Workers and the Political Economy of the American West, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Thomas, R. (1985) Citizenship, Gender and Work: Social Organization of Industrial Agriculture, Berkeley: University of California Press.

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