The Precariat: Two Cycles of Migrant Worker Documentaries—A Brief Guide

Working people, their unions, labor issues in general, and political movements involving the working class have always been a part of Hollywood, independent, and foreign filmmaking. These films dramatize or document working people, labor activism, labor history, and related economic, political, and sociological issues.

The films have, however, resisted genre analysis because, first of all, they cross genre boundaries and, secondly, independent filmmakers have produced many labor documentaries that do lend themselves to genre study. Many of them, however, generated some distinctive film cycles. Here I want to focus on two cycles, one of the 1960s, the other 1990s, all of the films focusing on migrant labor.

The film that launched a film cycle of three major 1960s television documentaries about the hidden plight of migrant workers in the 1960s was one of the most influential investigative journalistic exposes of all time–Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame (1960). Murrow covered virtually every issue of importance to the mainly white migrant workers, although he even included the then relatively little-known bracero program, whereby the growers could import Mexican workers (who remained Mexican citizens) and pay them even less than the pitiful wages they were paying American workers.

Harvest of Shame is in part famous because it was not typical of TV reporting in a conformist era. Murrow was unusually forthright on political issues. Murrow’s juxtaposition of cattle trucks with strict safety rules and mistreated migrant laborers in rickety trucks is a famous example of his no-holds-barred style.

The TV documentaries that followed Murrow’s lead also use a strong voice-over narrator by a star or celebrity reporter (who may even be in the shots) and were always on the edge of muck-raking rather than simple reporting. By the end of the decade, however, exploited labor knew no color:

What Harvest for the Reaper? (1968), shown on NET [National Educational Television] Journal, focuses on just one of Murrow’s targets, a labor camp in Cutchogue, Long Island, that “would make slave life on the old Dixie plantation appear attractive” (Variety).

Hunger in America (1968), shown on CBS Reports, sent Charles Kuralt and others to focus on poverty among Mexican-Americans, Navajos, southern blacks, and white Virginia tenant farmers, the latter occupying the estates of Senator Everett Dirksen and the popular TV entertainer Arthur Godfrey.

Migrant (1970), shown on NBC, sent Chet Huntley out in the field to document how Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries (Snowcrop, Hi C, Minute Maid, and Tropicana) exploit Florida farm workers; Variety noted that the show’s sponsor, Coca-Cola, tried to “kill the exposé,” which was shown, in the end, without a single commercial.

A second film cycle was also generated by Murrow’s Harvest of Shame, even if thirty years had passed. In fact one of them, Hector Galan’s New Harvest, Old Shame (Frontline, 1990), demonstrates that “little has changed” for the now Latino migrant workers who travel from Florida to New Jersey for their picking opportunities.

Five years later, Dan Rather’s Legacy of Shame emphasized that laws were finally in place to protect migrant workers but “now the problem isn’t the laws, it’s their enforcement.” Rather chronicles both the highs—the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the lows—crew leaders and owners virtually treating their workers like indentured servants.

The subject of Children of the Harvest (1998), a NBC Dateline film, is obvious—gross violations of the law in regards to child labor, although the filmmaker has some sympathy for the families who feel they must send their children out to work in order for all of them to survive. The film ends with one farmer, disciplined by Heinz for using child labor, predicting that when children are kept out of the fields, Heinz will go out of the pickle business.

Although certain films from these three cycles have substantial reputations, most of the other films are not well-known and are sometimes seen as one-off or maverick productions. Keeping such films isolated from the cycles they are developed in obscures important relationships that have escaped film historians on occasion.

P.S. The last three documentaries, New Harvest Old Shame, Legacy of Shame, and Children of the Harvest, all have extensive discussions in my book, Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds and Riffraff: An Expanded Guide to Films about Labor (Cornell University Press).


One Response to “The Precariat: Two Cycles of Migrant Worker Documentaries—A Brief Guide”


    The Precariat: Two Cycles of Migrant Worker Documentaries—A Brief Guide | Globalization and Film

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