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IntmducUon ... --------.-~---------~~ LONG BEFORE DAWN on a winter morning in Belle Glade, Florida, white farmers drive from their homes or hotel rooms to 5th Street, where rows of flatbed trucks wait idling in the dark. There they are met by the bean pickers, some 2,000 black men and women who emerge out of the crowded, shedlike apartment buildings and ramshackle houses of the "Negro quarter." Murmuring sleepy greetings to one another, men in rubber boots carrying leather knee pads walk alongside women wearing long-sleeve blouses over flowered dresses and pants tied at the ankle to keep out the dry dust of "the muck."1 As the pickers converge on the rows ofparked trucks, the sound ofthe crowd grows louder. The rumble of voices stops only when a farmer, standing beside his truck, shouts the first offer of the day: "First picking! Bountifuls! Good stand! Fifty cents!" If this seems an attractive wage for picking a hamper of beans, and if the farmer is known to be honest and his foreman humane, a few men and women will hesitantly board the truck, keeping alert for better offers. Another farmer makes his bid: "Tendergreens, second picking, good yield! Sixty cents!" This is more money per hamper, but any picker knows that filling a hamper takes longer in a field already picked once. Shrugging off this offer, the pickers resume their conversations and wait for a better deal. More growers add to the din as they raise their voices to be heard over the engines of the trucks. As the flatbeds fill with workers, they roar offone by one into the waiting fields. The crowd seems to hang back from the remaining trucks, so the growers begin to employ one of several schemes to reverse their fortunes . Black men hired for their gift ofgab start to trumpet the glories of particular fields, using the truck beds as their stage. A farmer signals a picker in the crowd, paid off earlier, to climb enthusiastically into a particular truck and encourage others to follow. Another gives the go3 ahead to a picker paid to malign a competing grower's field or foreman. Eventually, though, the remaining farmers are forced to outbid their colleagues, and they drive offhurriedly once enough pickers have scrambled offother trucks and onto theirs.2 So might go a typical day in Belle Glade during the Second World War, when the green beans were plentiful and the pickers scarce. But when the proportions were reversed during the 193os, the predawn scene in this migrant town looked very different. The growers would save their bribes and cut short their descriptions of their waiting fields. Though they offered only 15 to 25 cents a hamper (down from 40 cents in the 1920S), their trucks were soon crammed with pickers; those not quick enough to get onto the flat beds were reduced to hanging onto the sideboards or lying across the hoods. When the weight of the pickers was so great that a truck could not move from the loading area because the sagging floorboards pressed into the tires, the driver's helper would circle the vehicle, beating the hangers-on with a stout piece ofwood until enough pickers loosened their grip so the truck could pull away.3 In Belle Glade, Florida, and everywhere migrant farmworkers harvested crops along the Atlantic Coast in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, labor supply meant everything, and everyone knew it. While for other sorts of workers, decent wages, full stomachs, and prospects for the future depended in varying degrees on skill, shop-floor control, ethnic communities, kinship networks, and even the ballot box, migrant farmworkers were rarely skilled, had no shop floors to control, often migrated away from their kin and communities, and could seldom vote in the states through which they passed. Their struggles for power occurred at the moment they sold their labor to a grower for a day, a week, or a season. And their success in those struggles turned on the relationship between the supply of labor and the supply ofwork. Labor supply is the crux of farm labor conflict, but it is also an old problem in American history, indeed in human history. The willingness ofEuropeans to subjugate Africans solved the problem oflabor supply in the colonial period and relieved planters of the necessity of having either to repress or to bargain with white laborers. The closing of the slave trade in the early nineteenth century, just as world demand...


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