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Harvest and Relief: 1935

Harvest and Relief

By Daniel M. Kidney, An Article in Survey Graphic, September, 1935

“No work, no eat” has been the slogan in many communities as fruit and grain ripened for harvest and relief clients held back from farm jobs. In other areas, shortage of domestic help has been reported. What is the workers’ side of the story? The taxpayers’? What is the policy of federal and state relief officials? Here an informed Washington writer goes behind the headlines to kind the facts and what they mean.

That able-bodied persons on relief will not take a job when it is offered them is the hue and cry raised wherever there are berries to be picked, onions to be topped, sugar beets to be pulled, small grain to be harvested or corn to be shocked. The charge is leveled at that lowliest of laborers—the part-time agriculture worker. Unorganized, penniless, oftentimes practically homeless, this group of the unemployed and dispossessed soon finds itself shunted from relief rolls and into the fields to work for whatever wage and conditions may be offered. The harvest over they again return to relief, where they remain as well or better off than they were when working. Their plight and that of domestic help offers one of the most vexing problems faced by relief officials. They investigate, they report, and the files at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration headquarters in Washington bulge with their findings. Action is taken at the direction of state and local relief administrators. Almost without exception the result has been that relief is cut off until the seasonal work is done.

“No work, no eat,” was the edict of South Dakota’s cowboy Governor, Tom Berry. It found ready acceptance from taxpayers throughout the land, who, through reading newspaper headlines and seeing newsreels of berries shriveling on the bush, conclude at once that relief-takers are merely loafers who will not work when they get the chance. True, relief officials are first to agree that the dole tends toward pauperization and that if unemployed long enough, individuals become unemployable. That was why the works-relief program was launched, amid protests from many who preferred the dole as being even cheaper than the relief scale of wages.

But there is another side to the picture from that presented by the watermelon patches in Georgia with the melons ripening and rotting on the vines; unpicked strawberries in North Carolina, raspberries and blackberries in New Jersey; weed-choked fields of Colorado sugar beets and Ohio onions; Iowa’s corn belt and the small grains of the prairies ready for harvest but short of hands. It is the workers’ side—which so often remains unexpressed so far as the general public is concerned.

From the berry growers at Wallace, N. C., came the complaint that pickers who formerly came to the fields from Wilmington, some forty-five miles away, were refusing work because they preferred to stay at home on relief. Investigation disclosed that there was some truth in the contention. Negroes and “po’ whites” were “reveling in the luxuries” provided a family on relief payments of from two to three dollars a week, rather than face the living conditions in the fields. It was found that transportation was not provided for the workers to and from Wilmington; that they were forced to live herded together in field shacks, with as many as twenty men, women and children occupying one small room. In one of these fly-infested huts, Negroes of both sexes and all ages were found huddled en masse. In some places strange men and women were thrown together in the same room. Several of the women asserted they wouldn’t mind the work if they were only given shelter with kinfolk, but they objected to being housed with strangers. After expenses were paid, the investigators found a possible net earning of only 35 cents a day. The berries were picked, however, for relief was shut off to workers who refused to go out to the fields and accept the life that was offered them there.

One of the difficulties in Georgia, the Carolinas and elsewhere in the South has been the falling off of the yearly wage of the worker who combined agriculture with industrial labor. The marginal industry, which with little capital located its factory in these states to take advantage of the cheap labor supply, has been shut down. It cannot compete with northern plants, now that a cheap labor supply is available everywhere. So where formerly the worker eked out a bare living from combining work in field and factory, only the field work remains and that with wages and conditions which make the lowest-cost relief attractive by contrast. Hundreds of these southern mill town workers have hitchhiked to Washington, D. C., where they find the transient relief fare and decent treatment accorded them a sort of Promised Land. In some southern towns the unemployed are organizing and demanding things; usually under the leadership of their local preacher who, in addition to an honest sympathy for their sorry plight, sees in their cause the one opportunity of saving his pastorale.

Intolerable living conditions for seasonal agricultural workers are not confined to the South, however, as the investigation by FERA in the Hammonton area of New Jersey disclosed. Charges that persons on relief in that community were refusing to accept berry-picking jobs were given great headlines in the New York dailies; so Harry L. Hopkins, FERA Administrator, sent Edward J. Webster, a member of his headquarters staff, to make an inquiry. As the result of Webster’s investigation, hir. Hopkins issued a public bulletin in which he stated that these refusals of work were “not supported by the facts.” The Webster report stated:

No case is known of an adult relief client in the Hammonton area refusing to accept a job. All single able-bodied men were removed from relief rolls several weeks ago and about ninety family cases. representing nearly 400 [individual] cases, were closed in June.

The report was released July 11. It revealed that the Relief Administrator of Atlantic County, New Jersey, had offered to help the growers to the extent of enlisting men from the transient camps and from among heads of relief households in outlying, parts of the county, if in turn the growers would provide daily transportation from concentration points to the fields. Transportation was insisted upon since the housing accommodations in Hammonton were found to be totally inadequate. The growers declined the offer. They complained that unmarried men “won’t stay on the job” and that “inexperienced pickers do more harm than good anyway.” The family unit, with husband, wife and children working in the fields was what they wanted, Mr. Webster reported, adding, “The Relief Administration did not attempt to recruit families, which would have meant forcing child labor into the berry fields.” Instead of the $3 a day average wage as reported through the press, he found that wages for adults would not average above $1.70 a day. Prevailing piece rate at the time of the investigation was two and one-half cents for picking a pint of berries. At this rate, it was found, a maximum wage for adults, working a ten-hour day, would be $2 to $2.50, while the most that children could earn was from 75 cents to $1.50 a day. The investigator reported that probably not more than 500 extra workers could be used in the entire area at the peak of the crop season, which lasts only eight to ten days. Original statements were that there was a shortage of from 300 to 2000 pickers

Among the reasons why migratory workers did not flock to the area, the investigator discovered, was that in 1933 and 1934 crops had been short and the pickers had difficulty in collecting the small amounts that they had earned. Housing conditions were rated at the lowest level in fifty years:

The extremely bad living conditions to which berry-pickers are exposed is perhaps the greatest cause of dissatisfaction. The typical building is a so-called “shanty.” It contains one large bedroom in which all members of the family are herded together without regard to age or sex. No bedding is furnished. Sometimes the shanty includes space for cooking and eating, but frequently the workers must cook and eat in the open. Besides shanties, old houses and barns are used. On the whole the housing falls far below any recognized American standard of decency.

Previously the padrone system of employing labor by contract through an agent prevailed in the New Jersey raspberry fields. Originally the workers were for the most part Italians from Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania, but in late years German, Polish and Negro families have been employed as berry pickers. With the passing of the Italians into industry and the changed immigration laws, the padrone system has broken down and there has been a labor problem in these fields for the last ten years. Growers persisted in attempts to secure family labor and complained of the unmarried men and the inexperienced pickers. Meanwhile the volume of the crop has been steadily decreasing. This year it was but 40 percent as large as it was ten years ago and 20 percent as large as it was twenty-five years ago. In concluding his report, Mr. Webster stated:

The charge that relief clients in the Hammonton area are refusing to accept berry-picking jobs is not supported by facts. The temporary shortage of labor is not at all as represented by recent news stories. Actually, the situation which gave rise to misleading and inaccurate publicity was a demand for workers during the eight to ten days of the season’s peak production.

Possibly more serious than marginal and submarginal wages and the practice of forcing child labor into the berry patches, is the question of housing conditions. To compel workers to accept these crowded one-room shacks, which with their lack of sanitation and conveniences represent the worst housing of fifty years ago, invites encroachment upon family and home life to which no workers should be exposed.

Failure of farmers to pay cash until after the crop is marketed and then the haggling over money already earned is a common complaint from seasonal agricultural workers. When Governor Berry issued his South Dakota edict, workers on relief gave their reason for not going into the fields as harvest hands as based on the lack of money among the farmers with which to pay cash wages. A mass meeting attended by more than 600 farm laborers was held at Sioux Falls, South Dakota to protest the Governor’s action and ask the removal from office of M. A. Kennedy, state relief director. Telegrams were sent to both Governor Berry and Mr. Hopkins upholding the contention that the farmers were not paying cash wages for harvest hands and alleging that the cutting off of relief was being used to break a strike in the Morrell Packing Company plant at Sioux Falls. Joining in the protest were J. P. McCoy, vice-president of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers of North America, and officials of the local unions of butchers, barbers and clerks. So-called “radical” organizations of the unemployed also were represented at the mass meeting and an organizer for the Communist Party was one of the dozen speakers. Among the organizations named in the local press as represented at the meeting, in addition to the trades unions and the Communist Party were the United Workers League, Fraternal Order of Workers, Loyal Sons and Daughters of America, and the Farmers Regional Committee. FERA officials are quick to deny that Communists have any large following in the rural areas. The officials contend that “professional radicals”—speakers and organizers—often come from the large cities to troubled communities to make capital of a farm controversy.

Relief workers dealing with transients have explained the lack of migratory workers in the harvest fields of the Northwest upon the grounds of low wages, although farmers there were quoted in newspaper dispatches as paying $1.50 a day with board and room provided. For many years some of this labor supply has come from the bowery-type missions and flophouses of Chicago, St. Paul and Minneapolis. “Bumming” their way to the harvest fields, these transients worked enough en route to have some ready cash. They followed the season’s harvest from state to state and at the close returned to the city with enough to maintain them at leisure throughout the winter on a subsistence level. Relief of recent years has made such life possible summer and winter, so many of these former tramp workers have left the road. Under the works-relief program the plan is to put an end to this full-time leisure program for all those migrant workers who are able-bodied and employable.

Many of the harvest hands, particularly in the corn belt, live in the small towns and are not transients. Only as a last resort have they “gone on relief.” Having once swallowed their pride, they fear taking any small-pay, part-time job because of the difficulties involved in getting back on relief-rolls when their own resources are once more exhausted. Backed by instructions from national headquarters, state relief administrators generally have announced that this obstacle has been removed and that such cases will be promptly returned to the relief rolls after the harvesting has been done, if they are in need. A relief status is also necessary for these men if they are to qualify for works-relief jobs, since with a 10 percent exception, only names taken from the relief rolls are eligible under the rules laid down in Washington.

Effort is being made to put the whole matter of work refusal on a common sense basis and to avoid hysteria. Mr. Hopkins has pointed out that in order to make this possible, decisions must be left largely in the hands of state and local administrators who are on the ground and understand the situation. A general order was sent out to revise relief lists and to eliminate shirkers who refuse work. It is up to the local authorities to decide who the shirkers are and to take them off the rolls without further instruction.

That families of harvest hands will be in need again this winter, unless works-relief jobs are obtained, seems inevitable. Even at a wage of $1.50 a day paid in cash, the grain-harvest season is so short that a worker cannot accumulate enough money to support a family through the winter. In the fruit and vegetable fields it has been found that with a whole family working during the few weeks that they are needed they cannot make sufficient funds to keep them off relief when the employment ceases. This fact was vividly disclosed in a study of industrial and labor conditions in the Ohio onion fields made by the US Department of Labor.

It was found that the cultivation and havesting of onions was done on a family basis, women and children working particularly in the weeding, pulling and topping processes. Of the 433 workers from whom age data was obtained, 10 percent were under fourteen years and 18 percent were under sixteen years. Since this information on the ages of farm workers was obtained only where families were employed by growers for wages, it did not include the onion share-croppers which would vastly increase the percentage of child labor in the onion fields. Annual family earnings from farm work of 60 percent of the families from whom information was secured was less than $250, 26 percent earned between $250 and $500, and only 14 percent earned $500 or more. Only forty-nine of the 195 families included in the study had been able to go through the last year without assistance from a public relief agency. Relief for the entire year given to twenty-five families was valued at less than $20 apiece; thirty-five families received between $20 and $40, and twenty-three families between $40 and $60. Only twelve families, composed of three or more persons each, had relief during the year amounting to $60 or more. A strike in the Ohio onion fields attracted national attention last year. The Labor Department found that relief as administered there amounted to a subsidy to this sweated industry.

Somewhat similar labor conditions were found in the sugar-beet fields of Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and southern Montana. Here much of the back-breaking business of caring for the beet fields is done by low-paid Mexican laborers. Growers do not pretend to pay an annual living wage and for many years outside work was available to help these families eke out the barest sort of existence. Depression wiped out these sources of extra income and trouble was brewing in the beet fields until the Agricultural Adjustment Administration took a hand and wrote a minimum wage clause into the crop control contracts. Secretary of Agriculture Wallace announced that this would be done last year, but it took time to get the beet contracts signed. Meanwhile the workers got the idea, which was not dispelled by the growers, that all would be well if they just went to work, harvested the beet crop and awaited wage payments until the scale had been determined. As a consequence, many are reported still unpaid and the Department of Agriculture has had to send a sort of claim arbitrator into the fields to stop the haggling and help collect what the workers have long since earned.

The wage scales set by the Department and written into AAA contracts have not entirely settled the problem. As is usual in such establishment of minima, the workers claim they are too low and the growers that they are too high. The figures were arrived at as a sort of compromise between the demands of both sides. They are based on location and acreage production and range from S17.50 per 10-ton acre in southern Colorado to $19.50 per 12-ton acre in northern Nebraska and $21.50 per 12-tons in Montana and northern Wyoming. Although lower than in 1929, these wage scales represent a 40 percent increase over 1933 wage payments, according to AAA officials who made the contracts. Workers were demanding $23 per 12-ton acre and the growers were offering S15 when the contractual plan of settlement was decided upon.

Especially difficult in rural areas has been the problem of the relief families with women heads of the households. A recent survey by FERA, covering forty-seven agricultural counties in nineteen states, disclosed the added handicap faced in such cases. The women who are working (28 percent of the total) were not much better off financially than the totally jobless, the survey disclosed. Most of them were farming or employed at domestic service. Their wages averaged only $13 a month, and many of those who were farming may have had no cash income at all. While employment in domestic and personal service had declined by one third since 1929, the number of women heads of relief households attempting to operate farms had increased one fifth. While the study was made on the basis of 1933 data, FERA executives believe that in general the same condition still holds true.

Long before the farm labor complaints came in, housewives were complaining that they were unable to get anyone to work because unemployed women preferred to remain on relief. Over tea tables and at cocktail bars in any American city, women recount endless difficulties in getting their housework done in these days when Negroes and whites can get three meals a day on relief. A study of this subject was likewise undertaken by Edwin J. Webster of FERA. He made a survey of the Baltimore situation after Mr. Hopkins had been deluged with complaints and long stories had been published in the Washington newspapers about how domestic workers on relief rolls in the neighboring Maryland city had been turning down jobs.

The evidence gleaned indicates that the many broad generalizations about job refusals to which the public has been exposed have been based upon a few sporadic incidents and much loose talk. Of the 195 cases against which the accusation of job refusal was leveled in March and April, only four were clear cases of unjustified refusal. In the remaining cases the charges were unjustified or the refusal was due to extenuating circumstances. Of the total cases, thirty-one involved domestic servants among whom family situations created acute problems of unemployability. Further, the wage scales offered this group frequently sank below the minimum subsistence levels established by the relief administration. Of the 164 cases involving occupations (including the four adjudged to be flat refusals), sixty-five were found to be persons who had never been on the relief rolls or who were at the time outside the jurisdiction of the relief authorities; sixty-five were either at work or were permanently or temporarily unemployable; fifteen did not receive the call or did not get the job; ten refused for sound reasons; and in five cases the records were confused but pointed to the guiltlessness of the client. On the whole, the notion that “forcible measures should be introduced into the relief program to get able-bodied persons to work” is a gross extravagance. The findings of this study warrant the statement that for each man or woman who would refuse a job which could reasonably be accepted, there are hundreds who would be willing and anxious to accept work if it would get them off relief. In only four cases of the entire 164 originally reported was it discovered that workers had flatly refused to accept jobs without clear justification. Three ignored job calls which they were known to have received and relief was immediately withdrawn in each case. The fourth, having ignored a call and announced that he was “through with work” received no more relief. This FERA report concludes.

“The first problem involved is that of employability. Giving due consideration to the attendant circumstances of each case, and adopting common sense as the yard stick of social policy, how many could be called employable?

“Twenty-four of them have dependent children. A large majority are homemakers. Even though they may once have been properly classified as domestics, is it proper to so classify them now? The public employment office recognizes this problem and, were it not for the failure of some of these women adequately to state the facts when they register, they would be classified as ‘unemployable.’

“The second problem involved relates to the abuses of ‘live in’ requirements. It is known that if a domestic lives in the home of her employer, in many cases she is practically forced to render twenty-four hour service. Even though these incidental circumstances are waived, the fact remains that in at least eleven of the thirty-one cases under discussion, it would have been impossible for the worker to accept a “live in” job.

“Finally, the third problem involved—and this is likewise in separably related to relief policy—is wages. In at least one half of the thirty-one cases studied the wage offered was not only under the exceedingly low standard obtained for this service, but it was also insufficient to meet the minimum subsistence needs of the households involved as defined by the relief bureau. Whether workers should be permitted to accept such jobs, even under pressure of dire need, is open to question on grounds of wise social policy. They certainly should not be compelled to accept them. A number of cases were found in which the prospective employer of a domestic announced one wage at the public employment office and a much lower rate to the applicant for the job. Meanwhile, the whole situation has been much aggravated by reason of the fact that many families who were unable to afford domestic servants in the past are now offering $3 to $4 a week or less for a maid, expecting to get one, and raising complaint against the relief authorities when they do not. That it is difficult to secure domestics for some jobs offered is readily admitted; but that domestics in particular need protection against low wages and unfair conditions cannot be gainsaid. Until reasonable and just standards are established and maintained, merely to affirm that ‘some of them find more security in relief than work,’ is to beg the main question.”

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Kidney, D.M. (1935, September). Harvest and relief. Survey Graphic, 24(9), 421. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=11178.

Source:  New Deal Network,, (March 17, 2014).

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