April 2019

The Everglades Labor Camp and the Farmworkers’ Movement in Florida

In our current moment, as the Trump administration daily wields federal power to attack immigrant communities and workers’ rights, these kinds of community-driven struggles and organizations serve as a bulwark protecting families and empowering workers to make change where they live and work.

by Charlie Fanning

In 1973, a typhoid epidemic struck the rural city of Homestead in South Florida, sickening approximately 210 people. The victims, who drank from a sewage-infested well, were impoverished farmworkers and their families living in a local labor camp. After years spent advocating for improved farm labor camps and community resources, farmworkers mobilized around the outbreak to challenge growers’ power over their living and working conditions. Building on its labor organizing and deep community ties, Organized Migrants in Community Action (OMICA)—a largely Chicano farmworkers’ organization with some 5,000 members—coordinated on-the-ground relief efforts and exposed the growers, farm labor contractors (FLCs or “crew leaders”), and housing authorities that had neglected the camp.[1] With public outrage focused on the deplorable living conditions of farmworkers, the Florida Department of Health condemned nearly half of the farm labor camps in the state by 1974.[2]

For Florida’s farmworkers, many of whom worked seasonally in the state in the winter and continued along the East Coast “migrant stream” in line with growers’ needs, the struggle for housing justice and decent work were inextricable. Farmworkers had few options for housing outside of grower or FLC-controlled camps and those who acted for better wages and conditions were routinely evicted and replaced. Accordingly, farmworker families celebrated after OMICA and other advocates shook loose federal funds to establish the Everglades Migrant Labor Camp in 1974 as a public housing alternative where tenants could rent clean trailers directly from the county. The camp quickly became an epicenter for farmworkers’ organizing and for the next decade a power struggle ensued between farmworkers’ organizations and growers over control of the camp, the fate of its tenants, and the contours of the state’s farm-labor systems.

A farm labor camp in Florida, 1974. Photo credit: Dallas Kinney in The Farmworkers: A Cry for Justice from Florida’s Fields (United Farmworkers Report, 1974), https://libraries.ucsd.edu/farmworkermovement/.

At first glance, the local contest over the Everglades Migrant Labor Camp and the environment of labor activism that surrounded it might seem like an isolated case study. Nevertheless, it reflects the broader trajectory of Florida’s farmworkers’ movement and demonstrates the importance of incorporating housing and community as key sites of class conflict, particularly in agriculture. Through the 1970s and 80s, growers and FLCs consistently resisted farmworkers’ union and community organizing, breaking strikes, using political influence to undermine farmworkers’ organizations, and gaming shifting federal immigration priorities to keep wages low. While South Florida’s farmworker activists ultimately achieved limited gains in terms of union organizing, after years of mobilizing, they won community control of the camp. This struggle reinforced farmworkers’ civil society and key community institutions that continue to support farmworkers’ campaigns to reorder agro-industrial power.

Although poverty, poor health, gender-based violence, and coerced labor plagued farm work in the 1970s—as it does today—the decade began with promise for farmworker organizing. The United Farm Workers (UFW) and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) led successful boycotts against major brands and won union contracts covering tens of thousands of workers in the West and Midwest. Smaller farmworkers’ organizations in Florida, Texas, and Arizona also fought to bring collective bargaining to their states. Bolstered by new federal social programs and some extensions of labor law into agriculture, farmworkers were building a powerful movement to upend America’s enduring “Harvest of Shame.”[3]

In Florida, OMICA led the campaign to organize farmworkers out of its Homestead office. Rudy Juarez, a former farmworker and crew leader from Texas, established the organization while working as an outreach worker in the late 1960s. He partnered with young Chicano and Black radicals to form a “rural coalition” to unionize Florida’s diverse migrant population.[4] Targeting the massive fresh produce sector built upon the Everglades ecosystem, OMICA activists were relentless organizers. They reported being blacklisted, chased from labor camps, and shot at, but still recruited thousands of dues-paying members in OMICA’s first years, expanding operations to an office in Immokalee.[5] By the 1970s, OMICA activists were routinely settling grievances with growers and FLCs and picketed farms accused of wage theft.[6]

A farmworker and OMICA activist points out a labor camp surrounded by barbed wire in South Florida in 1969. Photo credit: Federico Santi. For more photos from OMICA’s early years, visit: http://www.drawrm.com/vista3.htm

As transmitted in OMICA’s community organ Nuestra Lucha, Juarez and OMICA activists also sought to empower farmworkers to “make a home” in South Florida.[7] They coupled their drive to build a union in the fields with a commitment to supporting farmworkers in “achieving personal freedom” to escape the migrant stream.[8]  Within OMICA, women frequently led community initiatives and the OMICA’s all-farmworker board encouraged experimentation and democracy in community programming. OMICA staff facilitated farmworkers’ access to federal programs and legal assistance and developed clinics and job training, housing, and childhood education programs. In the mid-1970s, to bring stability to OMICA’s community development initiatives, Juarez created a separate OMICA housing corporation, which began raising funds to build affordable homes for farmworkers. And in Everglades Labor Camp, OMICA opened a trailer to systematically address farmworkers’ needs and grievances. [9]

Through the 1970s, both union-supporters and growers predicted farmworkers’ unionization would soon be as widespread in Florida as it was in California.[10] In 1972, the UFW was enticed to the state. Working with local activists, its organizers won a contract with Minute Maid that year and successfully defeated an anti-union bill in the Florida legislature in 1973.[11] Additionally, the UFW, OMICA, and Florida Rural Legal Services also won a series of lawsuits allowing advocates into company-owned camps in the mid-70s, as growers bristled at the shifting power dynamics in rural communities.[12]

OMICA organizers gather for an impromptu meeting, 1969. Photo credit: Federico Santi.

After an initial flurry of action and a failed attempt to organize the sugar industry, however, the bulk of the UFW’s organizers and many of their student and faith supporters retreated from the state.[13] With scarce resources and facing growers’ attacks, local organizers carried forward the union effort. Thousands of farmworkers unsuccessfully struck growers in Plant City and Immokalee on two separate occasions in 1976 and 1977, demanding union recognition and higher piece rates. In the summer of 1978, OMICA agreed to cooperate with a group called United Migrants Association (UMA) out of Central Florida to “organize the people to form a sole union.”[14] That December, at the height of harvest season, the farmworkers’ movement in Florida executed one of its most successful actions of the decade in Homestead.

“After growers announced a low $0.30 a bucket wage for the tomato harvest, nearly 1,000 workers in the Everglades Labor Camp struck on December 7.”

After growers announced a low $0.30 a bucket wage for the tomato harvest, nearly 1,000 workers in the Everglades Labor Camp struck on December 7. OMICA’s trailer in the camp hosted daily meetings of the strike committee led by UMA. Farmworkers staged roving pickets from the camp and mobilized hundreds of nearby workers to the cause. The next day, police arrested more than 300 strikers, but supporters quickly raised $1,400 to bail them out. Dolores Huerta, vice president of the UFW, travelled to meet with the strike committee and pledged the UFW’s financial assistance. Under pressure, growers soon offered to raise piece rates to $0.40. After police arrested 60 strikers on December 14, the strike committee accepted the offer, and further concessions reducing FLC transportation fees and rent in labor camps.[15]

The successful tomato strike demonstrated that farmworkers could win by unifying local organizations and securing national support, staging labor action outside of grower-controlled spaces, and mobilizing the community. It also engendered opportunities for additional community programming and collaboration among farmworkers’ organizations. For example, in 1978, an OMICA housing staffer Susan Reyna established MUJER, a long-running domestic violence initiative, and the next year OMICA, UMA, and six other organizations established the Coalition of Florida Farmworker Organizations to coordinate state-wide advocacy.[16] 

United Migrants’ Benito Lopez addresses strikers in the Everglades Labor Camp, 1978. Photo Credit: Bob Mack. Miami News, December 13, 1978.

In response to farmworkers’ escalating strikes, growers moved to reassert their control over the farm workforce. They pushed Dade county officials to revoke major training block grants from OMICA. Long facing financial difficulties, OMICA only survived as a membership organization until 1980, when its housing arm took on its remaining community programs, renaming itself Centro Campesino. Homestead’s growers’ associations also undertook a lobbying effort to take control of the Everglades Labor camp, charging its administrator with mismanagement.[17]

More importantly, by the end of the 70s, Florida’s agro-industrial complex restructured and expanded its labor contracting operations to maintain a low-wage workforce. Working with coyotes and other intermediaries on the U.S.-Mexico border, FLCs recruited Mexican immigrants, who often had to go into debt to pay for transport and housing, to work for growers across the state. Thousands of new asylum seekers and immigrants from Guatemala and Haiti also began entering the fields, where FLCs often served as their initial entry point into the state’s labor market. By 1980, Florida’s Department of Labor estimated that undocumented workers constituted approximately 60 percent of the agricultural workforce.[18]

“Ushering in a labor system that continues to define agricultural production today, growers benefited from employing deportable workers with few job options for low pay. “

Ushering in a labor system that continues to define agricultural production today, growers benefited from employing deportable workers with few job options for low pay. Meanwhile, immigrant families lived in terror as the Reagan administration increasingly politicized the arrival of new immigrants and endorsed aggressive enforcement tactics. In the first two years of Reagan’s presidency, in Florida, the number of Border Patrol agents increased four-fold and apprehensions doubled to 800 a month.[19] As the Border Patrol conducted sting operations in public facilities, grocery stores, and health clinics, farmworkers’ organizations began to refocus on preventing deportation and trafficking and providing social and legal services. [20]

In Homestead—a major immigrant gateway into farm work—activists redirected their efforts to meet a growing housing and subsistence crisis. Centro Campesino sought county aid to provide emergency housing outside the Everglades Labor Camp for newly arrived farmworkers, who were frequently sleeping outdoors during peak season.[21] Instead, in 1982, the Dade County commissioners voted to close the camp due to its outstanding $2 million debt. Centro Campesino organized the camp’s 1,800 tenants to prevent growers from taking control of it. Working with national housing and civil rights groups, churches, and civic leaders, Centro Campesino successfully raised the capital to acquire the camp and its debt from the county, forming the Everglades Community Association to manage the camp.[22]

Collective bargaining for Florida’s farmworkers became a distant prospect in the 1980s. Community resources dwindled, in part due to the Reagan administration’s cut to social programs, and many farmworker membership organizations dissolved. Changes to immigration law, too, further empowered growers and FLCs.

Balancing business and restrictionist interest groups, in 1986, lawmakers passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which offered amnesty to qualifying undocumented immigrants, strengthened immigration enforcement, and enacted sanctions on employers who hired undocumented workers.[23] To avoid the law’s sanctions, growers and FLCs added layers to their subcontracting arrangements. The diffuse farm workforce had little leverage to counter growers’ power. Those undocumented farmworkers who could take advantage of IRCA’s legalization provisions did so and promptly sought out better jobs, while the remaining workforce continued to face persistent poverty and exploitation.[24] Indeed, after 1978, farmworkers would not see another raise in tomato piece rates for over 30 years.[25]  

While these trends might indicate only disruption and disempowerment, farmworkers resolutely advanced initiatives to create a better life outside the fields, building on the organizational gains made in the 1970s. After seizing community control of the Everglade Labor Camp, Centro Campesino activists developed additional housing, training, and education programs and later led recovery efforts for farmworkers after Hurricane Andrew leveled Homestead in 1993. After the hurricane, Everglades Community Association rebuilt the former labor camp into the Everglades Farmworker Village, a high-quality low-income housing development that today serves as a national model for sustainable community-controlled housing.[26]

Farmworkers protest organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in 2013. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Although farmworker organizers in the 1970s and 1980s ultimately failed to win widespread collective bargaining in Florida’s agricultural sector, their struggles to “make a home” in Florida created a durable civil society foundation for ongoing organizing and advocacy. Today, farmworkers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, with aid from the state’s extensive farmworker-support network, are holding global fast-food brands and supermarkets accountable for paying more for their tomatoes and enforcing a code of conduct in their supply chains. The palimpsests of the farmworkers’ struggles in this period are further inscribed in the homes, clinics, and day cares that serve thousands of families in rural South Florida; in the legal arena; and in the state’s campaigns for immigrant rights and environmental justice.[27] In our current moment, as the Trump administration daily wields federal power to attack immigrant communities and workers’ rights, these kinds of community-driven struggles and organizations serve as a bulwark protecting families and empowering workers to make change where they live and work.

Charlie Fanning is a Doctoral Student at the University of Maryland, College Park. He specializes in labor and immigration history with a focus on agricultural change and labor recruitment practices in the United States and Mexico. He previously worked in the AFL-CIO International Department and holds an MA from Georgetown University and a BA from Florida Southern College. 

Further Reading

[1] The typhoid outbreak occurred in the South Dade Migrant Labor Camp, which housed some 2,000 seasonal farmworkers. While the camp was a federally-funded, it was managed by the Homestead Housing Authority, where four out of five board members were growers. As the camps’ manager only rented to those referred by local crew leaders, it operated much like the grower and farm labor contractor-owned private camps prevalent in the state. According to farmworkers’ reports, camp and county officials were aware of the contaminated drinking water as far back as 1971, but failed to act until contaminated water and typhoid threatened to spread to Miami Beach.  U.S. Congress, Committee on Education and Labor, Typhoid Outbreak in Dade County, Florida, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Agricultural Labor, April 6-7, 1973, 15; 31-35.

[2] Jerry Brown and Robert Stulberg, The Farmworkers: A Cry for Justice from Florida’s Fields (United Farmworkers Report, 1974), 9, available in the University of California, San Diego Farmworker Movement Documentation Project (hereafter UCSD), https://libraries.ucsd.edu/farmworkermovement/.

[3] See: Cindy Hahamovitch, No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 173-75.

[4] Bruce Galphin, “OMICA: A Nonviolent Way to Equality,” Washington Post, April 26, 1970; “Cry of Black Youth,” Southern Legal Action Movement 3, no. 4, December 1970.

[5] Ramon Rodriguez, phone call with author, November 11, 2018; U.S. Senate, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Powerlessness: Hearings, 1st and 2nd Sessions, (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970); Bruce Galphin, “Peaceful Revolutionary,” Tampa Tribune, May 3, 1970.

[6] On pickets and wage theft, see, for example: Mike Abrams, “Chicanos Win Dispute With Glades Grower,” Palm Beach Post, January 1, 1971; Immokalee Migrant Group Strikes,” Tampa Tribune, April 27, 1971.

[7] In addition to helping raise their seven children, Josephina Juarez, the wife of Rudy, edited Nuestra Lucha. The paper supported organizing by publicizing local struggles and resources, workers’ poems and essays, and cases of abusive growers, FLCs, and landlords.

[8]  “Farmworker Services Project,” Nuestra Lucha 2, no. 1, October 1975, CSC.

[9] Juanita Mainster, phone call with author, November 30, 2018; “30 Homes for Farmworkers,” Nuestra Lucha 2, no. 1, October 1975, CSC; “Clinica Campesina Migrant Health Center” Nuestra Lucha, no. 9, November 1970. CSC; Jan Hillegas, “Florida: Farmworkers Organize,” Regeneracion 1, no. 5, 1970.

[10] See, for example: Pete Johnson, “Organizing is Urged for Farmworkers,” News-Press, December 21, 1976.

[11] See: Jacques E. Levy, Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa (New York: WW Norton and Co 1975), 460-61.

[12] Albert Lee et al., v. A. Duda and Sons, inc., District Court of Appeal of Florida, Second District, February 14, 1975, https://www.leagle.com/decision/1975701310so2d3911539; see also: Wallace E. Allbritton, Assistant Attorney General, Advisory Legal Opinion – AGO 78-65 “Right of Access to Migrant Camps,” April 26, 1978. myfloridalegal.com/ago.nsf/Opinions/29D43C1357A365B685256594005712B6.

[13] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 133.

[14] “Unionless Migrants are Tired of Waiting for Chavez,” Tampa Times, July 14, 1978.

[15] “Florida Migrants Win Tomato Fight,” Workers Voice 2, no. 1, January 1979; “Tomato Strikers Gain Support,” News Press, December 12, 1978.

[16] Kathy Hersh, “Susan Reyna-Oral history Transcript,” Florida Community Studies Consortium, August 17, 2007, http://floridacommunitystudies.org/csc/node/138; Martin Merzer, “Migrants See Greener Fields in Union Movement,” Tallahassee Democrat, March 11, 1979.

[17] Patrice Gaines-Carter, “Tomato Farmers Knock Camp’s Use as Strike Center,” Miami News, January 9, 1979; Pete Johnson, “Migrant Groups Lose Funds for Eight Jobs,” News-Press, February 2, 1977.

[18] Mary Ann Lindley, “Talk Won’t Soothe Misery of Migrants,” Tallahassee Democrat, November 11, 1980; Bruce Bernstein, “Migration, Health, and Nutrition: Haitians in Immokalee, a South Florida.

Farmworker Town” (PhD Diss., University of Connecticut, 1986), 1-3; Brent Ashabranner, Dark Harvest: Migrant Farmworkers in America (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1985), 96.

[19] Robert Press, “Tracking Illegal Aliens – Tactics Under Fire in Florida,” Christian Science Monitor, July 11, 1983.

[20] Mary Toothman, “Graham Vows to Help Prevent Abuses of Migrants,” Tampa Tribune, May 26, 1983; Ashabranner, Dark Harvest, 130-32.

[21] “Migrants Make a Pitch for Tent City of Own” Miami Herald, July 23, 1980.

[22] Juanita Mainster, phone call with author, November 30, 2018; Susan Faludi, “Migrants: Everglades Labor Camp in Turmoil,” Miami Herald, March 31, 1983. Rural Neighborhoods, “The 1980s,” http://www.ruralneighborhoods.org/what-we-do/about-us/our-story/the-1980s/.

[23] Muzaffar Chishti, Doris Meissner, Claire Bergeron, “At Its 25th Anniversary, IRCA’s Legacy Lives On,” Migration Policy Institute, November 16, 2011. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/its-25th-anniversary-ircas-legacy-lives.

[24] Douglas Bagby, “Selective Effects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 on Farmworker Living and Working Conditions in the U.S.,” (MA Thesis, University of Florida, 2003), 37-44; Monica L. Heppel and Sandra L. Amendola, Immigration Reform and Perishable Crop Agriculture: Compliance Or Circumvention? (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1992), 168; 174-76.

[25] See: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “Facts and Figures on Florida Farmworkers,” 2007, http://www.ciw-online.org/images/Facts_and_Figures_07.pdf.

[26] Today, Centro Campesino has built some 500 homes and rehabilitated more than 6,000 homes for rural low-income families and the Everglades Community Association (now known as Rural Neighborhoods) owns nearly 1,600 rental units and has serviced over 100,000 tenants. See: Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland, How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit (Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011), 167-69; http://www.ruralneighborhoods.org/what-we-do/about-us/our-story/the-2000s/; http://centrocampesino.org/?page_id=41.

[27] For an overview of the expansive networks of farmworkers’ organizations in Florida, see: The Coalition of Florida Farmworkers Organizations, “A Guide to Farmworker Programs and Services in Florida.”www.coffo.org/images/FarmworkersAssistanceReferenceGuide_255B1_255D.pdf.

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