RECAP: “Challenging the New Deal’s ‘Contemptible Neglect’,” 4/14 Colloquium w/ Univ. of Mississippi Prof. Jarod Roll

Representing the full diversity of the Depression-era working class, UCAPAWA—United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers—faced an uphill battle from the very start. On balance, their constituents were unappealing candidates for unionization: poorly and irregularly paid and rarely in one place for long, making dues collection difficult. Compounding this was that many lived under racialized regimes of oppressive control, both in the South and American West, and compounding that was the fact that agribusiness workers in UCAPAWA’s purview were excluded, infamously, from New Deal-era benefits under both the National Labor Relations/Wagner Act and, eventually, the Social Security Act, an insidious bargain legislators made to accommodate segregationists. Still, such “contemptible neglect” inspired fervent advocacy, as adjacent laborers with rights fought for those without them, and spirited national leaders charged “where angels feared to tread,” all in hopes of radically transforming American democracy.

As University of Mississippi Professor of History Jarod Roll noted in opening his talk, unpacking the history of UCAPAWA requires a bit of synthesis. You have, on the one hand, the grassroots, fragmented case studies that show incredible progress made via community organization and activism. To tell the full story, however, you need to likewise weave into this narrative the work that happened on the national stage, where leaders like Clyde Johnson and Elizabeth Sasuly established standing in the administrative state and tirelessly confronted Congress with the inconvenient truths of agribusiness laboring conditions in order to give voice to those dispossessed of it.

A string of said grassroots victories in 1938 brought the union to life. A successful pecan shellers strike in San Antonio and a National Labor Relation’s Board (NLRB) win in the Alaska salmon canning industry, for example, not only opened up Wagner Act benefits for thousands of agricultural processing workers but also thrust UCAPAWA, then UCAPAWA-FTA, members into union leadership positions and codified relationships with NLRB officials at the regional level (a crucial aspect of the union’s triumphs). The union rode this wave to D.C., where Clyde Johnson became UCAPAWA’s first legislative researcher and representative and, Prof. Roll explained, quickly acquainted himself with the complex, confusing, and critically important minutia of labor legislation. His first task was to represent laborers in congressional hearings over a peculiar carve out in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which defined “area of [agricultural] production” in such a way to limit the workers to whom wage and hour provisions were extended. The goal of the carve out was to protect small family farmers who would have been crushed by having to pay overtime. The reality was that massive corporations exploited a broad interpretation of the definition to deny wage equality to canners, processors, and pickers—essentially anyone even remotely associated with agricultural products who didn’t own the land from which they came. While Johnson’s testimony before Congress resulted in a narrowing of “area of production” that would significantly benefit laborers, the term itself would remain a contested battleground. When amendments to the Social Security Act were introduced in 1939, industry lobbyists negotiated a re-broadening of the exclusions that Johnson had beaten back, meaning that 600,000 agricultural laborers who had coverage in 1935 lost it (though, in what might be considered a hollow, if also portentous, victory, Johnson’s arguments regarding “area of production” were cited by Social Security Board Chairman AJ Altmeyer and CIO President John L. Lewis in protesting the 1939 legislation).

Burdened by the “killing work” of dealing with perpetually hostile economic and political institutions, Johnson would leave D.C. shortly after the crippling Social Security loss, and UCAPAWA-FTA would be without a legislative rep until 1942, when Elizabeth Sasuly, a PhD student at Columbia who dropped out to work for the CIO, came aboard. Like it did during Johnson’s tenure—when the fruit and vegetable workers Local 78 in Arizona and California became one of the nation’s largest—union membership and organization grew under Sasuly’s watch. Navigating, and taking advantage of, the fluid landscape created by the war (and War Labor Board), she won victories with tobacco workers in the Carolinas, cotton processors in Memphis and Houston, and oat processors in the Midwest, and membership among women, and Black women in particular, surged during Sasuly’s time in D.C. That said, the same obstacles reared their head. When conservatives attached a rider to the NLRB’s annual appropriation bill that attempted to apply the same ag-related exclusions as the 1939 Social Security Act, Sasuly, realizing that this was life or death for UCAPAWA-FTA, managed to forge a compromise that used the more hospitable FLSA standard that Johnson helped broker. Disaster dodged, but the storm clouds were gathering, and they would eventually burst with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Amendment to the Wagner Act, which opened the door to right-to-work and required non-Communist affidavits from unions, a problem for UCAPAWA members and leaders since they were more or less all Communists. Sasuly would continue to advocate for agricultural laborers, again appearing before Congress in April 1949 to denounce the capricious application of the Fair Deal-era’s “area of production” designation, and again for naught, as the largest corporations in the U.S. benefited from new legislation at the expense of agribusiness workers everywhere.

With new backing from the AFL-CIO, some headway was made in the 1949 FLSA, which increased the minimum wage and won Social Security coverage for large swaths of the agricultural sector, but by 1950, anti-Communist sentiment drove a nail in the UCAPAWA coffin. Sasuly’s final days in D.C. were, Prof. Roll argued in closing, an encapsulation of the union’s bargaining history: Contracts negotiated by UCAPAWA unions and leaders had rescued workers from certain exclusions and won them critical rights, but at the end of the day, corporations suffered little if at all, and they continued to wield their power in abusive ways thanks to sympathetic politicians. But the conditions making this so were nonetheless exposed as absurd time and again by UCAPAWA representatives and they used the administrative state in innovative, often productive ways, underscoring a value in obstinance and centralized advocacy that reverberates into the present.