Iowa Migrant Workers

Muscatine Migrant Committee sign, 1960s.

This 1960s Muscatine Migrant Committee sign shows the connection between Iowa and Texas, where many of the Mexican Americans who harvested tomatoes each year in the farm fields around Muscatine were from.

Irene and Jose Guzman with Governor Harold Hughes.<br />

Iowa Governor Harold Hughes (center) with former migrant workers José and Irene Guzman (right) after signing the 1967 Iowa migrant child labor law.

"March in Support of Migrant Workers," Des Moines Register, February 1969.

1,500 activists marched in Des Moines in February, 1969. This type of collective action pressured legislators to pass the migrant housing and migrant child labor bills and was an effective strategy for raising awareness in Iowa of the needs of Mexican American workers within its own borders.

Muscatine Community Effort Organization (CEO) news article on the boycott of Heinz, 1969.

Muscatine C.E.O. [Community Effort Organization] flier calling for a boycott of H.J. Heinz Company products to pressure Iowa growers to improve wages and working conditions for migrant farm workers in Iowa., 1969.

"!Boicoteo!: Rayo de Esperanza para el Campesino" by Ernesto Rodriguez

"!Boicoteo!: Rayo de Esperanza para el Campesino" by Ernesto Rodriguez.

By Janet Weaver

In 1960, LULAC leaders met at their national Supreme Council meeting in Albert Lea, Minnesota, to discuss solutions for longstanding problems faced by Latinos across the country.  Attendees included LULAC state directors Robert Ornelas from Texas, Victor Gonzalez from Chicago, Ray Delgado from Hollandale, Minnesota, Bill Rocha from Des Moines, and LULAC Council 10 president Henry Vargas. A key part of their discussion focused on the deplorable wages and working conditions endured by migrant workers in Minnesota. In large part, this stemmed from the exclusion of agricultural laborers from the pro-labor legislation of the New Deal era, which meant that minimum wage, overtime, and child labor provisions of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act did not cover farm workers.

Henry Vargas brought information from the Minnesota meeting he had attended back Davenport. LULAC Council 10 members sent a delegation to Muscatine, just a few miles downriver from Davenport, to a meeting of the Muscatine Migrant Council (MMC). Started just two years earlier, the council provided medical and educational services for approximately 2,000 migrant workers on local farms who cultivated tomatoes for processing at the Heinz factory in Muscatine. Most of the migrant workers were U.S. citizens from Texas. MMC president Robert Hinshaw explained the organization's objectives: first, to improve working conditions for migrant workers and their families; second, to improve the relationship between the workers and the community; third, to provide recreational facilities; and fourth, to provide a day school program with educational and medical services for the children of migrant workers. LULAC representatives told Hinshaw about LULAC's educational program known as "Basic 400 Words" led by national LULAC president Felix Tijerina. The program, funded and conceived of by national LULAC aimed to teach pre-school children in Texas basic English words so that when they entered school they would not be at a disadvantage.  The Muscatine Migrant Council asked LULAC to help plan a fiesta to raise money to support its program, which the Council 10 delegation took back to its members.  (LULAC Council 10 newsletter, El Reportero, March 1960; LULAC News, Councils 306 and 308, July-August, 1959; LULAC Glances, Convention issue, Vol. 1 No. 2)

In 1967, Iowa LULAC councils and Iowa migrant agencies supported an Iowa migrant child labor bill to make it illegal to employ migrant children under the age of 14 in farm labor in Iowa. When the severely weakened bill finally passed the House after more than two months of heated debate, it prohibited migrant children under ten from working in the fields at any time and barred growers from "knowingly" employing children under 14 during school hours.  The use of the word knowingly radically reduced farmers' liability for failing to heed the legislation as they could always plead ignorance of the actual age of any child, thus placing the burden of responsibility with the children's parents. 

In 1969, LULAC councils across Iowa supported two new migrant worker bills before the Iowa General Assembly. The first would strengthen the enforcement of the 1967 migrant child labor law by deleting the word knowingly; the second would establish minimum health and safety standards for the housing of migrant workers in Iowa. Both bills were contentious and, again, faced an uphill battle in the Iowa legislature. 

To assert the lobbying power behind the two new migrant protection bills, proponents planned a demonstration in front of the Statehouse. The Iowa Federation of Labor and United Auto Workers chartered buses to bring supporters, including LULAC and union members, to Des Moines from across the state. About 1,500 demonstrators converged in Des Moines on March 19, 1969, when "labor marched on the state capital for the first time in two decades." At the rally, Representative John Tapscott, who sponsored both bills, called for a boycott of H.J. Heinz Company products. Looking back on the march, LULAC state director John Terronez noted, "It gave us a feeling of satisfaction, contentment, and accomplishment. But best of all, it gave us a feeling of solidarity.'"

In the weeks following the rally, leaders of the Muscatine Community Effort Organization (CEO), a group of 150 former migrant workers now living permanently in Muscatine, together with LULAC leaders and Representative Tapscott, planned the official start of a "tomato boycott," which they hoped would become a national boycott of Heinz Company products. Muscatine CEO members, who sought to improve conditions in the approximately 200 migrant labor camps established each year in Iowa, proclaimed in their flier that they wanted all Mexican Americans to take part in "the great boycott against Heinz":

We expect better housing, better wages, and better opportunities for our people and fellow migrants, and let’s not get their children into the fields, where they can get sick or get sun stroke.  Let us give our children a better education so that we will not be known as dumb Mexicans, because Heinz likes this and this is why the RAZA is striking back to support our rights in the Constitution of the United States.

Let us leave the chickens in the chicken shacks and the pigs in the pig pens . . . and let's join with the great boycott of grapes with CESAR CHAVEZ.

by CEO of the Midwest

The flier, "Boicoteo!: Rayo de Esperanza para el Campesino" [Boycott! Ray of Hope for the Farm Worker], written by the co-chair of the Quad City Grape Boycott Committee Ernest Rodriguez, underscored the connection between Delano and Muscatine and appealed to racial, ethnic, and labor solidarity: "la huelga y boicoteo de uvas tiene su origin en Delano, California pero en verdad es una lucha para liberación de la pobreza de todos los que trabajan en la cosecha del campo" [The grape strike and boycott has its origin in Delano, California, but in reality is a struggle to liberate from poverty all those who work in the harvest].

Note ~ This page includes excerpts from the following article: Janet Weaver,  "From Barrio to 'Boicoteo!': The Emergence of Mexican American Activism in Davenport, 1917-1970," Annals of Iowa, Vol. 68 (2009).


Iowa Migrant Workers