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Legacy of Shame: Migrant Labor, an American Institution. 46 minutes, 1995. CBS News. $99.95.

REVIEW of Legacy of Shame: Migrant Labor, an American Institution

In CBS’s 1995 broadcast, “Legacy of Shame”, Dan Rather and Randall Pinkston report on the abuses of farm workers in the United States. They focus specifically on the struggles of Mexican migrants, both legal and illegal, as they seek work on American farms. When Harvest of Shame, the first televised broadcast on migrant workers, aired in 1960, there were virtually no labor laws protecting the health, safety, and rights of U.S. farm workers. Since that time, laws have been enacted, but their lack of regulation allows injustices to persist. All across the nation, injustices are both shockingly evident and also discreetly obscured. This is conveyed through footage of dozens of people sleeping on city streets and through interviews with fearful workers who hope to make enough money to feed their families and fulfill their debts to the “coyotes”, the men who smuggled them over the border.

Migrant farm workers’ voices go largely unheard for fear of losing their jobs and because of their marginalized status in the U.S. Many of the problems fall through the cracks of bureaucracy, and relatively few people have the power to rally for farm workers’ cause. Of all the inequity and corruption that occurs within this system, it can be argued that the system still functions because each sector receives some benefit: immigrants find work, farmers can employ cheap labor, and Americans enjoy a small grocery bill. The journalists shrug that, sadly, the system may not see changes anytime soon. Until then, socially just production will be left to idealists and niche producers who only small markets of concerned consumers will support.

The report provides a critical look back at the status of migrant workers at the turn of the century, which informs today’s cultural attitudes and understandings. It reveals the shameful human costs in our food supply and the barriers that stand in the way of change. However, we also meet farmers who have changed their labor standards and now provide farm workers with fair wages, suitable housing, and healthcare. Unfortunately, farmers with this attitude and willingness to change are few and far between. Finding socially responsible products in the grocery store was a definite challenge in 1995 and continues to be today.

Viewers would benefit from a more recent analysis of migrant farm workers in America to become better aware of current problems and solutions. Ultimately, consumer demand largely contributes to the future of America’s farm labor system, and accessing these products remains a major struggle. Consumers can support international farm workers by purchasing food products carrying labels like Fair Trade Certified and Equal Exchange, yet farm workers in the U.S. still go largely unnoticed. Domestic fair trade, as an idea, is gaining popularity in the United States and will likely continue to see more growth in the coming years. The following resources will provide a broader understanding of America’s farm workers today and what consumers can do to promote human dignity in our food system.

Selected Resources:

American Harvest. Angelo Mancuso [Director]. White Hot Films, 2008. Film.

The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle. Rick Tejada-Flores and Ray Telles [Directors]. Paradigm Productions, 1997. Film.

Harvest of Shame. Edward R. Murrow [Narrator]. McGraw Hill Films, 1960. Film.

Jaffee, Daniel. Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability and Survival. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007. Print.

Kaye, Jeffrey. Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2010. Print.

Pawel, Miriam. The Union of Their Dreams: The Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement. Bloomsbury USA, 2009. Print.

Mooney, Patrick H. and theo Majka. Farmers’ and farm Workers’ Movement: Social Protest in American Agriculture. New York: Twayne. Print.

Rothenberg, David. With these Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

Lia Spaniolo
Michigan State University

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS for Legacy of Shame: Migrant Labor, and American Institution:

1. Knowing that the U.S. food supply depends on exploited laborers in the United States, what are your reactions?

2. Did anything in the broadcast surprise you about migrant labor in the U.S? Did you learn anything new?

3. What are some of the human costs of food production presented in the broadcast?

4. Why do you think so many people migrate to America to find work when the journey and lifestyle are so dangerous?

5. Discuss some barriers in the way of changing the current farm labor system.

6. Why do you think that the government does little to regulate farm workers in America?

7. In the broadcast, Dan Rather states that the U.S. farm labor system will not likely change soon because many people still receive benefits. Who benefits from this system and how? Do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

8. How does the free market system work? Why does migrant labor exist in our free market economy?

9. What parts of the U.S. farm labor system do you think should be changed? How can this be accomplished?

10. How did Duda Farms, who were portrayed in the broadcast, change their company to improve workers’ rights and benefits? Do you think their approach could work on a larger scale if more farms adopted this model? Why or why not?

11. What can you as a consumer do to support U.S. farm workers?

12. Some say that one of the solutions to improving the conditions under which farm workers’ labor is for consumers to pay more for their food. Do you think that this could work? What do you think would allow more people to choose to pay more?

Questions by
Lia Spaniolo

in cooperation with
Michigan State University
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