Check out CTWO’s research director Dr. Karey Leung’s chapter on New Jersey immigration policies and activism in the newly published Contemporary Immigration in America: A State-by-State Encyclopedia. The chapter highlights recent legislation and activism over immigration policies at the local and state level as well as the historical linkages to immigrant worker activism in New Jersey.
The chapter highlights a historical example of multiracial farm worker organizing at Seabrook Farms near Bridgeton. In the 1930s, owner Charles F. Seabrook implemented Henry Ford-style industrial factory farming. This “pioneering” invention meant that farm workers were alienated from each other and their labor in assembly lines at the frozen vegetable processing plant. Despite such atomization, African American and Italian American workers, men and women, organized together in historic farm strikes in 1934.
During one of the strikes, 500 black and white workers staged a peaceful walk-out and picketed side by side at the 5,000-acre farm to counter a wage cut and to fight for a union. Their collective action was met with brutal police force as sheriff’s deputies armed with shot guns and tear gas bombs sought to break up the strike. The authorities with the support of the active Klu Klux Klan in the area were ultimately unsuccessful as the bitterly fought strike achieved a wage increase and a union for the workers. (This was one year before the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 protected the rights of workers to collectively bargain. However, the NLRA currently excludes certain sectors from coverage such as independent contractors, agricultural workers, and domestic workers.) However, a subsequent strike lead to the withdrawal of union recognition.
In the next decades, Seabrook implemented the practice of hiring dispossessed and displaced ethnic minorities and prisoners of war, housing them in ethnically segregated barracks to break up potential worker organizing efforts. In an attempt to keep workers from organizing for better wages and working conditions, Seabrook arranged for contracted labor to relocate to the farm camp to work grueling 12-hour days for a few cents an hour with only a day off every two weeks.
Seabrook’s answer to the labor-shortage at his farm was to contract with the government for cheap labor—workers included Japanese American and Japanese Peruvian internment camp evacuees. About 3,000 Japanese American and Japanese Peruvian internment camp survivors resettled in Bridgeton and Vineland resulting in Cumberland County having the largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the country at the time.
For an in-depth perspective on the life at Seabrook, check out Seiichi Higashide’s book, Adios to Tears: The Memoirs of a Japanese-Peruvian Internee in U.S. Concentration Camps in which he considers living conditions at Seabrook as worse than what he experienced at the Crystal City internment camp. In place of barbed wire, farm laborers at Seabrook lived and worked behind fenced-in barracks, tied to the farm camp through the company owned stores similar to conditions of African American sharecroppers after the Civil War.
Other contracted labor groups include German and Italian prisoners of war; displaced Estonian refugees escaping Soviet occupation; West Indian, Jamaican, and Puerto Rican laborers; and Mexican guest workers through the Bracero Program who all worked at the farm labor camp throughout the following decades.
From the 1950s to the present day, the growth of migrant farm workers from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central and South American countries have turned southern New Jersey farming communities into majority-minority districts of mostly low-income communities of color where Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans comprise the majority of the population. Today, such communities have formed farm worker support committees such as El Comité de Apoyo a Los Trabajadores Agrícolas (CATA) to support migrant workers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
The tradition of worker organizing across race, ethnicity, occupational, and immigration status continues to this day as workers build alliances across sectors that include day laborers, domestic, guest, tipped (restaurant), farm, service sector, taxi, and formerly incarcerated workers.