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LABOR IN AMERICA

The Industrial Revolution was dawning in the United States. At Lowell, Massachusetts, the construction of a big cotton mill began in 1821. It was the first of several that would be built there in the next 10 years. The machinery to spin and weave cotton into cloth would be driven by water power. All that the factory owners needed was a dependable supply of labor to tend the machines.

As most jobs in cotton factories required neither great strength nor special skills, the owners thought women could do the work as well as or better than men. In addition, they were more compliant. The New England region was home to many young, single farm girls who might be recruited. But would stern New England farmers allow their daughters to work in factories? The great majority of them would not. They believed that sooner or later factory workers would be exploited and would sink into hopeless poverty. Economic "laws" would force them to work harder and harder for less and less pay.

THE LOWELL EXPERIMENT

How, then, were the factory owners able to recruit farm girls as laborers? They did it by building decent houses in which the girls could live. These houses were supervised by older women who made sure that the girls lived by strict moral standards. The girls were encouraged to go to church, to read, to write and to attend lectures. They saved part of their earnings to help their families at home or to use when they got married.

The young factory workers did not earn high wages; the average pay was about $3.50 a week. But in those times, a half-dozen eggs cost five cents and a whole chicken cost 15 cents. The hours worked in the factories were long. Generally, the girls worked 11 to 13 hours a day, six days a week. But most people in the 1830s worked from dawn until dusk, and farm girls were used to getting up early and working until bedtime at nine o'clock.

The factory owners at Lowell believed that machines would bring progress as well as profit. Workers and capitalists would both benefit from the wealth created by mass production. For a while, the factory system at Lowell worked very well. The population of the town grew from 200 in 1820 to 30,000 in 1845. But conditions in Lowell's factories had already started to change. Faced with growing competition, factory owners began to decrease wages in order to lower the cost—and the price—of finished products.

They increased the number of machines that each girl had to operate. In addition, they began to overcrowd the houses in which the girls lived. Sometimes eight girls had to share one room.

In 1836, 1,500 factory girls went on strike to protest wage cuts. (The girls called their action a "turn out.") But it was useless. Desperately poor immigrants were beginning to arrive in the United States from Europe. To earn a living, they were willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions. Before long, immigrant women replaced the "Yankee" (American) farm girls.

To many people, it was apparent that justice for wage earners would not come easily. Labor in America faced a long, uphill struggle to win fair treatment. In that struggle, more and more workers would turn to labor unions to help their cause. They would endure violence, cruelty and bitter defeats. But eventually they would achieve a standard of living unknown to workers at any other time in history.



GROWTH OF THE FACTORY

In colonial America, most manufacturing was done by hand in the home. Some was done in workshops attached to the home. As towns grew into cities, the demand for manufactured goods increased. Some workshop owners began hiring helpers to increase production. Relations between the employer and helper were generally harmonious. They worked side by side, had the same interests and held similar political views.

The factory system that began around 1800 brought great changes. The employer no longer worked beside his employees. He became an executive and a merchant who rarely saw his workers. He was concerned less with their welfare than with the cost of their labor. Many workers were angry about the changes brought by the factory system. In the past, they had taken great pride in their handicraft skills; now machines did practically all the work, and they were reduced to the status of common laborers. In bad times they could lose their jobs. Then they might be replaced by workers who would accept lower wages. To skilled craft workers, the Industrial Revolution meant degradation rather than progress.

As the factory system grew, many workers began to form labor unions to protect their interests. The first union to hold regular meetings and collect dues was organized by Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792. Soon after, carpenters and leather workers in Boston and printers in New York also organized unions. Labor's tactics in those early times were simple. Members of a union would agree on the wages they thought were fair. They pledged to stop working for employers who would not pay that amount. They also sought to compel employers to hire only union members.

CONSPIRACY LAWS

Employers found the courts to be an effective weapon to protect their interests. In 1806, eight Philadelphia shoemakers were brought to trial after leading an unsuccessful strike. The court ruled that any organizing of workers to raise wages was an illegal act. Unions were "conspiracies" against employers and the community. In later cases, courts ruled that almost any action taken by unions to increase wages might be criminal. These decisions destroyed the effectiveness of the nation's early labor unions.

Not until 1842 was the way opened again for workers to organize. That year several union shoemakers in Boston were brought to trial. They were charged with refusing to work with nonunion shoemakers. A municipal court judge found the men guilty of conspiracy. But an appeal to a higher court resulted in a victory for labor unions generally. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was not unlawful for workers to engage peacefully in union activity. It was their right to organize, he said. Shaw's decision was widely accepted. For many years following this decision, unions did not have to fear conspiracy charges.

UNION STRUGGLES

In the next two decades, unions campaigned for a 10-hour working day and against child labor. A number of state legislatures responded favorably. In 1851, for example, New Jersey passed a law calling for a 10-hour working day in all factories. It also forbade the employment of children under 10 years old.

Meanwhile trade unions were joining together in cities to form federations. A number of skilled trades organized national unions to try to improve their wages and working conditions. The effort to increase wages brought about hundreds of strikes during the 1850s. None was as extensive, however, as a strike of New England shoemakers in 1860. The strike started in Lynn, Massachusetts, when factory workers were refused a three- dollar increase in their weekly pay. It soon spread to Maine and New Hampshire. Altogether, about 20,000 workers took part in the strike. It ended in a victory for the shoemakers. Similar victories were soon won by other trade unions. These successes led to big increases in union membership. Yet most American workers were generally better off than workers in Europe and had more hope of improving their lives. For this reason, the majority did not join labor unions.

In the years following the Civil War (1861-1865), the United States was transformed by the enormous growth of industry. Once the United States was mainly a nation of small farms. By 1900, it was a nation of growing cities, of coal and steel, of engines and fast communications. Though living standards generally rose, millions of industrial workers lived in crowded, unsanitary slums. Their conditions became desperate in times of business depressions. Then it was not unusual for workers to go on strike and battle their employers. Between 1865 and 1900, industrial violence occurred on numerous occasions.

Probably the most violent confrontation between labor and employers was the Great

Railway Strike of 1877. The nation had been in the grip of a severe depression for four years. During that time, the railroads had decreased the wages of railway workers by 20 percent. Many trainmen complained that they could not support their families adequately. There was little that the trainmen could do about the wage decreases. At that time, unions were weak and workers feared going on strike; there were too many unemployed men who might take their jobs. Yet some workers secretly formed a Trainmen's Union to oppose the railroads.

Then, in 1877, four big railroads announced that they were going to decrease wages another 10 percent. In addition, the Pennsylvania line ordered freight train conductors to handle twice as many cars as before. On July 16, a strike began on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia. The strike quickly spread to other lines. On July 19, Pennsylvania Railroad workers at Pittsburgh refused to let freight trains move. (The strikers let passenger trains move freely because they carried United States mail.) The next day the governor sent state militiamen to oust the strikers from the freight yard. But these men were from Pittsburgh. They had many friends and relatives among the strikers. Soon they were mingling with the crowd of men, women and children at the freight yard.

The next day 600 militiamen arrived from Philadelphia. They were ordered to clear the tracks at the freight yard. The soldiers advanced toward the crowd and shooting erupted. In the aftermath, 20 people in the crowd lay dead. Many more were wounded. News of the killings triggered rioting and fires in the Pittsburgh railyards. President Rutherford Hayes ordered federal troops to Pittsburgh to end mob violence. When they arrived, the fighting had already ended. In the smoking ruins, they found the wrecks of more than 2,000 railroad cars. Dozens of buildings lay in ashes.

Many strikers were sent to jail and others lost their jobs. A large part of the public was shocked by the violence in Pittsburgh and other cities. Some people were convinced that miners, railroad workers and other laborers were common criminals. Legislatures in many states passed new conspiracy laws aimed at suppressing labor. But the Great Railway Strike of 1877 helped the workers in some ways. A few railroads took back the wage cuts they had ordered. More important was the support given to the strike by miners, iron workers and others. It gave labor an awareness of its strength and solidarity.

KNIGHTS OF LABOR

The Railway Strike led many workers to join a growing national labor organization. It had a grand name—the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. It was founded in 1869 by a small group of Philadelphia clothing workers. Their union had been unable to organize effectively. The reason, they believed, was that its members were too well-known. Employers fired them and then put their names on a "blacklist." Other employers would not hire anyone whose name appeared on the list. The garment workers came to two conclusions:

• Secrecy was needed to protect union members against employer spies.

• Labor organizations would fail if they were divided into separate craft unions. Instead, labor should be organized in one big union of both skilled and unskilled workers.

Membership in the Knights of Labor was open to wage earners over 18 years of age regardless of race, sex or skill. New members had to take an oath of secrecy. They swore that they would never reveal the name of the order or the names of its members.

The program of the Knights of Labor called for: an eight-hour working day, laws establishing a minimum weekly wage, the use of arbitration rather than strikes to settle disputes, laws to protect the health and safety of industrial workers, equal pay for equal work an end to child labor under 14 years of age and government ownership of railroads, telegraph; and telephones.

It was impossible for the Knights to operate in complete secrecy. Rumors of their activities reached the press. Newspaper stories usually exaggerated the strength of the order. Under pressure from public opinion, the Knights began to operate openly. But they we still forbidden to reveal the name of any member to an employer.

Membership in the Knights increased slowly. By 1884, the order had only 52,000 members. But that year workers led by Knights of Labor organizers went on strike against two big railroad companies. Both strikes ended in complete victories for the Knights. Now workers everywhere rushed to join the order. Within two years membership in the Knights rose to 150,000. Newspapers warned their readers about the power of the Knights. One ñ them said, "Their leaders can shut most of the mills and factories, and disable the railroads." Many people associated the order with dangerous radicals.

Later railroad strikes by the Knights met with defeat. The order was not nearly as powerful as it had seemed. Workers began to leave it in great numbers. Within 10 years of its greatest victories, the Knights of Labor collapsed.

BREAD AMD BUTTER" UNIONISM

As the Knights declined, a new labor organization began to challenge it for supremacy. This was the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It was formed in 1886 by Samuel Gompers, a leader of the Cigarmakers' Union.

Gompers believed that craft unions ñ skilled workers were the best kind. Unskilled workers were easily replaced when they went on strike. Craft workers could not be replaced easily. Gompers ha no use for the Knights of Labor, which combined all workers in one big union.

The American Federation of Labor began with a core of six craft unions. They were cigarmakers, carpenters, printers, iron molders, steel molders and glassmakers. The new organization was not an immediate success. For 10 years, the AFL and the Knights battled each other. They invaded each other's territory encouraged revolts and welcomed each other's members into their own ranks. They even supplied strikebreakers against each other. But the tide was running against the Knights. The AFL, led by Gompers, grew steadily in size and power

By 1904, it had 1.75 million members and was the nation's dominant labor organization.

At this time, many workers in Europe were joining revolutionary labor movements which advocated the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a new socialist economic system. Most American workers, however, followed the lead of Gompers, with his highly pragmatic approach to problems of labor. They strove to organize strong unions so that they could demand a greater share in the wealth that they helped to produce. They were not interested in destroying the economic structure of the country but in making it work more effectively for their benefit.

Gompers believed that unions should be primarily concerned with the day-to-day welfare of their members and should not become involved in politics. He also was convinced that socialism would not succeed in the United States but that practical demands for higher wages and fewer working hours could achieve the goal of a better life for working people. This was known as "bread and butter" unionism.

There was one outstanding exception to the pragmatic "bread and butter" approach to unionism which characterized most of American labor. This was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary labor union launched in Chicago in 1905 under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs. The IWW demanded the overthrow of capitalism through strikes, boycotts and sabotage. Particularly strong among textile workers, dock workers, migratory farmers and lumberjacks, the union reached its peak membership of 100,000 in 1912. The IWW had practically disappeared by 1918, because of federal prosecutions and a national sentiment against radicalism which began in 1917.

In the early years of the 20th century, a powerful reform movement called Progressivism swept the country. Its leaders were college professors, ministers, journalists, physicians and social workers. Their goal was to improve conditions for all Americans. They wanted to make the political system more egalitarian. They also wanted to make the nation's economic system more democratic. Those who owned the nation's resources, they said, should share some of their wealth with the less fortunate. The movement appealed to farmers, small businessmen, women and laborers. It cut across political party and regional lines. The Progressive Movement had the support of three United States presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

The Progressives were concerned about labor's problems. They were alarmed by the growing use of court rulings to halt strikes. In 1890, for example, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act. Its purpose was to punish big business corporations that combined to prevent competition. Yet more and more it was being used as a weapon against unions. The Progressives were unhappy about the use of federal troops and state militia against strikers. They were outraged by inhuman conditions in factories and mines.

The Progressives and the AFL pressured state governments for laws to protect wage earners. Almost all states passed laws forbidding the employment of children under 14 years old. Thirty-seven states forbade children under 16 years old to work between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Nineteen states established the eight-hour day for children under 16 in factories and stores.

The Progressives were also concerned with the hours worked by women in industry. Forty-one states wrote new or improved laws to protect women workers. Most limited the work day to nine hours, or the work week to 54 hours.

One of the greatest concerns of the Progressives was the problem of industrial accidents. They wanted workers to be paid for accidents regardless of cause. The cost of insurance to cover accidents, they said, should be paid by employers. By 1917, 13 states had passed workers' compensation laws. Many states passed laws to improve safety regulations.

The alliance of Progressives and the AFL also campaigned for federal laws to aid labor. In response, Congress passed laws to protect children, railroad workers and seamen. It established a Department of Labor in the president's Cabinet. Most important of all, Congress passed the Clayton Act of 1914. Its purpose was to halt the use of antitrust laws and court injunctions against unions.

During World War I, organized labor made great advances. The federal government created the War Labor Board to settle disputes by arbitration. Generally the Board was favorable to wage increases, the eight-hour day and collective bargaining. This led to a big increase in union membership. In January 1917, the AFL had 2,370,000 members. By January 1919, it had 3,260,000 members.

RED SCARES AND DEPRESSION

As the 1920s began, organized labor seemed stronger than ever. It was successful in getting Congress to pass laws that restricted immigration to the United States. Unions believed that a scarcity of labor would keep wages high. But events that took place in Europe were already threatening labor's gains. In 1917, a communist revolution overthrew the government of Russia. Communists also attempted revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Finland.

Immigrants entering the United States at this time were primarily from southern and eastern Europe. Many of them, in response to the economic hardship and social inequality which they found in America's industrial cities, were attracted to the Utopian promises of socialist, communist and other radical political groups which advocated a drastic change in American society. There was widespread fear—almost hysteria—among more established Americans that a revolution might break out in the United States. In response to this fear, the federal government launched a series of raids which resulted in the arrest and sometimes the deportation of aliens who were members of socialist, anarchist or communist organizations. About 500 aliens, including Russian-born anarchist

"Red Emma" Goldman, were deported during this period. A number of them, like Goldman, rejected Bolshevism as they experienced it in the Soviet Union and later returned to the United States.

Meanwhile, workers were striking for higher wages all over the United States. Many Americans believed that these strikes were led by communists and anarchists. During the Progressive era, the public had sympathized with labor. Now the public became hostile to it. Employers encouraged anti-union movements, or created company unions that they sought to control. Courts found legal openings in the Clayton Act and issued rulings against union activity. The courts also found ways to use the Sherman Antitrust Act against unions. Opposed by public opinion, business and the courts, union membership fell. The number of AFL members dropped to 2,770,000 by 1929. This decline took place even though the number of workers in industry rose by almost seven million.

For most Americans, the 1920s were prosperous years. But in October 1929, the New York stock market "crashed," and the value of stocks went way down. The crash, part of a worldwide economic decline, led to the worst economic depression in the nation's history. People lost their jobs, their farms and their businesses. By 1932, 13 million men and women were unemployed. This was one out of every four in the work force. Many more workers had only part-time jobs. In the cities, jobless men stood on long lines for a handout of bread and soup. Many of them lived in shanties near garbage dumps. Men and boys roamed the country, hoping to find work.

In the past, depressions had usually hurt unions. Unemployment meant a sharp drop in workers' dues. Then unions became almost powerless to prevent decreases in wages or long working hours. But in the Great Depression of the 1930s, unions actually benefited. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, promised Americans a "New Deal." He pledged to help the "forgotten man"—the worker who had lost his job, or the farmer who had lost his land.

Under Roosevelt, Congress passed laws to revive business and create jobs. To help labor, Congress passed the Wagner Act. It guaranteed workers the right to join unions and bargain collectively. The law created a powerful National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The Board could order elections in which workers voted for the union they wanted to represent them. (Workers could vote against joining any union, if they wished.) The NLRB could also order a stop to unfair practices used by employers against unions.

Union leaders hailed the Wagner Act. It provided a great opportunity to increase union membership. But the drive was delayed at first by a dispute within the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was made up mainly of skilled workers organized into craft unions. But millions of unskilled workers were in giant industries like steel, autos, rubber and textiles. Some labor leaders believed that a single union should represent all the workers, skilled and unskilled. One big industrial union would be much stronger than a dozen different craft unions, they said.

FROM THE CIO TO TAFT-HARTLEY

Most leaders of the AFL were opposed to the idea of industrial unions. They made no effort to organize them. Finally Lewis and other union leaders broke away from the AFL. They formed a new labor organization that became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

One of the first targets of the CIO was the auto industry. Workers at the General Motors factories in Flint, Michigan, eagerly joined the CIO's United Automobile Workers (UAW) union. They demanded that the company recognize the UAW. But officers of General Motors refused to meet with union representatives. This was a violation of the Wagner Act. In January 1937, the UAW called a strike against the company.

The tactics used by the auto workers took the company by surprise. The workers refused to leave the factories. Instead, they put away their tools and sat down. They did this to prevent strikebreakers from taking their jobs. At night the men slept on the seats of new cars. Food was passed to them through windows by their families.

General Motors tried to force the workers out. The company shut off the heat in the factories. It was winter, but the workers stayed. Police tried to break into one of the factories. The strikers drove them back by throwing soda bottles, coffee mugs and iron bolts. Then the police charged with tear gas bombs. This time the workers drove them back by turning fire hoses on them.

Finally General Motors went to court and got a ruling against the strikers. The workers were ordered to leave the GM factories by February 3. The National Guard (militiamen) was alerted to enforce the order. Everyone expected a big battle on February 3, but it didn't happen. Governor Frank Murphy refused to order an attack on the strikers. Instead, he ordered General Motors officers to hold peace talks with the UAW. President Roosevelt also asked for a peaceful end to the strike. A week later General Motors recognized the union and agreed to bargain with it. The UAW and the CIO had won a major victory.

Within two years, the CIO organized 3,750,000 industrial workers. The AFL met the challenge of the CIO with an organizing drive of its own. By the end of 1937, the AFL had 3,400,000 members.

During the 1930s, Congress enacted other reforms that benefited labor:

• The Social Security Act of 1935 created a system of government-sponsored unemployment insurance and old-age pensions.

• The Fair Labor Standards Act regulated wages and hours. Minimum wages were established to help workers maintain a decent standard of living. Hours were shortened to give them more time for leisure. The law also forbade the labor of children under 16 in most occupations.

Unemployment in the United States remained high until the United States entered World War Ï in 1941. Then, defense industries boomed, and millions of men entered the armed forces. By 1943, unemployment ended and industry was faced with a shortage of labor. During the Great Depression, women were urged not to take jobs. Now they were encouraged to go to work. Before long, one out of four workers in defense industries was a woman.

During World War II, labor cooperated with government and industry. Its spirit was expressed by John L. Lewis, president of the CIO. "When the nation is attacked," he said, "every American must rally to its defense."

When peace came, a wave of strikes for higher wages swept the nation. Employers became alarmed. They said that the Wagner Act had given labor too much power. A majority in the United States Congress agreed with them. In 1947, Congress passed the Taft- Hartley Act. It contained a number of provisions to limit organized labor. One of them outlawed the "closed shop" agreement which required employers to hire only union members. It also permitted the states to pass "right to work" laws. These laws forbade agreements that required workers to join a union after they were hired.

Labor leaders bitterly denounced the Taft- Hartley Act. They said it was meant to destroy unions. Despite their fears, membership in unions continued to grow. By 1952, it had increased to 17 million.

Leaders of the AFL and the CIO merged their organizations in 1955. The combined organization became the AFL-CIO.

LABOR TODAY

In recent years there has been a steady decline in the percentage of workers who belong to labor unions. In 1945, 35 percent of the work force were union members. In 1988, less than 17 percent of the labor force—or 17 million workers—were unionized. There are several reasons for this, including:

• The decline of heavy industry, once a stronghold of unionism, and the increase of advanced-technology industries.

• Automation and other technological changes that have displaced many blue-collar workers.

• Foreign competition, which has depressed some United States industries and increased unemployment.

• The transition to a "post-industrial" economy in the United States. Ever increasing numbers of workers are employed in service-providing businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and retail stores.

Despite the decline in members, organized labor in the United States remains strong and conditions of America's labor force have steadily improved. The length of the work day has been shortened. Many agreements between employers and wage earners now call for less than 40 hours of work a week. Most agreements have generous "fringe" benefits. These include insurance, pensions and health care plans. As the number of union members has decreased as a percentage of the total work force, unions have responded by broadening their organizing efforts to include employees of federal, state and local governments as well as other professionals. Organizers have also waged long campaigns to unionize and win better conditions for such diverse groups as public school teachers and seasonal farm workers.

By the early 1990s, the work force was changing. First, the pool of workers was no longer expanding as rapidly as in the past. And, second, the composition of the labor force was different, consisting of a larger percentage of minorities and women than before. Employers are adapting to this work

force diversity in several ways. Some sponsor education and training programs for potential recruits. Many, in an attempt to attract and accommodate women workers, provide on-site child care, and flexible hours. Others make special arrangements so they can hire more handicapped workers. One hotel chain, for example, uses lighted telephones and vibrating beepers so they can hire more hearing- impaired people.

As the work force has changed, so have some—but not all—labor-management issues. Unions now want laws to strengthen their right to strike by prohibiting companies from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers. Employers want the right to test workers for drug use. There is also growing sentiment that all employers should be required to provide adequate health insurance to their workers— which most, but not all, already do. Many workers are fighting for the right to take unpaid leave when they have babies or when a family member is ill and needs extensive care. And, as the unemployment rate has climbed (over 6 percent in 1990), there is growing sentiment that the government should help create jobs—through public works programs, job training programs and tax credits for employers in areas of high unemployment.

AMERICAN AGRICULTURE

 

From the earliest days, the sight of farmers working the land has been at the heart of the American experience. If an observer had trudged through the forests of eastern North America on the eve of the arrival of European colonists, he would have found stump-strewn clearings in which Native American, or "Indian," communities were growing crops such as maize ("Indian corn"), beans and squash. Today, from a plane soaring high above the Great Plains in the center of the North American continent, the observer can look down upon vast, rolling fields of wheat, corn, soybeans and other crops.

Outward forms have changed, but the vital importance of agriculture has not. Now, as then, agriculture provides the sustenance that meets people's most basic needs. Agriculture and its related industries serve as the foundation of American economic life, accounting for a larger portion of the United States' GNP (Gross National Product) than any other endeavor. Agriculture represents a bond of continuity between present and past, linking new generations with the rhythms and dreams of generations of long ago.

From the nation's infancy, American leaders have extolled the virtues of the hardy, self- sufficient farmer as those most worthy of emulation by the people as a whole. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, put it this way: "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its interests by the most lasting bonds."

Farmers have never truly been as self- sufficient as myth suggests, dependent as they are on the whims of weather and the marketplace and on the nature of government policy. Nonetheless, American farmers have shown a spirit of individualism and egalitarianism that the rest of society has widely admired. To a large extent, agricultural values have been adopted and celebrated by the society as a whole.

American agriculture assumes a richness and variety unmatched in most other parts of the world. In part, this is due to the vastness of the nation itself; in part, it is due to the generosity of nature. Only in a relatively small area of the West are rainfall and snowfall so limited that deserts exist. Elsewhere, rainfall ranges from modest to abundant, and rivers and underground water allow for irrigation where necessary. Large areas of level or gently rolling land—especially in the eastern Great Plains— provide ideal conditions for large-scale agriculture. Today the average American farm comprises 462 acres (187 hectares).

The leap from the small, subsistence farms of the past to the modern-day mixture of small family and high-technology "mega-farms" has been great. To understand it, we shall trace the development of farming in the United States and explore the strengths and shortcomings of American agriculture as it exists today.

 

 

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

The first American farmers, the Native Americans, helped European settlers to adapt European methods and crops to the soil and climate of North America. The settlers achieved this adaptation with relative ease. They found it harder, however, to transplant the European systems of land ownership with

which they were familiar. The English system, under which a landed gentry owned vast estates and most farmers were tenants, was ill-suited to the colonies, although officials and landowners sometimes tried to reproduce it.

In the end, land was too abundant and labor too scarce for such a system to work. Except for slaves, farm laborers were free to take city jobs or to acquire land of their own, and many did. North American agriculture came to be based upon a multitude of small freeholdings or "family farms," with tenancy practiced only on a relatively minor scale. Except in a few heavily settled areas, American farms tended to be scattered and isolated, rather than clustered around villages. This contributed to the individualism and self- reliance of the American farmer.

While the abundance of land had positive social effects, it also had its dark side. Free to move on whenever the land wore out, American farmers often plowed up more land than they could readily cultivate. They "mined" the land by removing nutrients without replacing them through the use of fertilizers. They laid their furrows carelessly, even up and down hillsides, and, when the inevitable hard rains came, the water often gouged deep gullies down the rows. Careless farmers did not worry too much about the consequences, for they could always move west, or south, or at least somewhere else. The more conscientious farmers—and there were many—labored under the burden of competing against their "rip-and-run" neighbors, whose costs, of course, were lower.

One way to compete was to improve efficiency and output, and many agriculturists devoted close attention to such matters. Owners of large properties—for example, Thomas Jefferson, who was a southern planter as well as president—had the leisure to devote to scientific studies of farming. Jefferson kept careful records of weather patterns and left

detailed notes on many aspects of agriculture.

Prominent agriculturists like Jefferson helped to popularize ideas of a more scientific approach to farming being advanced by European advocates. Such practices as crop rotation and the liming of fields (to reduce acidity) spread rapidly in the years after American independence. Their spread was made easier by the growth of agricultural societies and the founding of farm journals. On the local level, annual fairs gave farm families a chance to share ideas and demonstrate their accomplishments (they could win prizes for their hay, their livestock or the products of their kitchens). They could also learn of new developments in farm technology.

Technology played a key role in the rapid growth of farm output in the United States. Throughout the 19th century, one new invention or tool followed another in rapid succession. The scythe and cradle replaced the sickle for harvesting grain, then gave way to Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper beginning in the 1840s. The wooden plow gave way to the cast-iron plow and then (by 1845) to the steel plow. By the time of the Civil War (1861-1865) machines were taking over the tasks of haying, threshing, mowing, cultivating and planting. A large agricultural industry had grown up, centered around the city of Chicago, Illinois, in the region known as the Midwest. (The region runs across the northern middle of the United States from Ohio and Michigan west to the Rocky Mountains. Even today, the Midwest remains the main production center for American farm machinery.)

American agriculture raised its output by leaps and bounds during the second half of the 19th century. One factor was the rapid flow of settlers westward across the Mississippi, "opening" new lands, or replacing Native American ("Indian") farmers with non-Indian ones. The federal government promoted this westward movement in a variety of ways. For one thing, it negotiated treaties with Indians or used military force to confine the Indians to reservations (areas reserved or set aside exclusively for the Indians). The federal government also made free land available to settlers and gave grants of land to railroad builders to encourage the rapid extension of railroad lines.

The government act establishing the free- land policy was known as the Homestead Act. Adopted in 1862, while the Civil War was raging, the act offered a farm, a "homestead," of 160 acres (85 hectares) of land to each family of settlers. Any head of family who was at least 21 years of age and a United States citizen (or even a citizen-to-be) could acquire free property by moving onto a piece of public land and living on it for five years. If the family was in a hurry, it could buy the land after six months for $1.25 an acre. In later years, the government provided means by which families could acquire still larger acreages at little or no cost. These policies were possible because the United States government considered itself to be the owner of almost all land west of the Mississippi, through purchase, as a result of war, or both.

The Homestead Act confirmed the existing pattern of small, family farms. It helped to drain surplus population away from the eastern states and to build up the population of independent farmers. The number of people who owned or worked on farms rose

throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, reaching a peak of 13.6 million (14 percent of the United States population) in 1916.

While free or cheap land helped establish the family farm firmly, it had other, unforeseen consequences. By encouraging settlement on prairie lands that received sparse or sporadic rainfall (generally, lands west of present-day Oklahoma City), the passage of the Homestead Act trapped many families in a shaky, hand-to-mouth existence. Many families from eastern states who considered 160 acres to be a more than ample homestead found when they moved west that they could barely eke out a living on that amount of land. Their crops of dry land grain were too small; their livestock too hungry. In desperation, prairie farmers plowed up and planted even marginal land. When rains were adequate, their crops glutted the market, and the prices they received were low. When the rains failed, wind whisked away their dusty topsoil and impoverished the land.

Overproduction became a major problem in the years after the Civil War ended in 1865. Not only was more land being put to the plow, but improved machines were making American farms more and more efficient. Gang plows allowed several furrows to be turned at a time. Giant machines called combines performed several of the operations of grain harvesting. With production increasing faster than consumption, the prices that farmers received for their products began to decline. The years from the 1870s until about 1900 were especially hard ones for American farmers.

Discontent among farmers sparked the growth of political action groups like the Patrons of Husbandry (1870s) and the Populist Party (1890s). Members of the Patrons of Husbandry, commonly known as Grangers, campaigned against the high rates and monopolistic practices of the railroads. Their efforts led to the adoption of "Granger laws" in many states, setting up governmental bodies to regulate such things as railroad freight rates. Grangers also set up cooperative societies to run stores, warehouses and other businesses serving farm communities. Although many Granger cooperatives failed due to the inexperience of their operators, others survived to set a pattern that is followed to some extent even today. California lemon growers who market their produce under the "Sunkist" name do so on a cooperative basis, and in many communities, cooperative stores compete against privately owned ones in the buying and selling of farm- related goods.

The Populist Party wove the Grangers and many other largely rural groups into a major movement of political protest that called attention to some of the inequities of life in the United States. The Populists reached the peak of their influence in the 1892 presidential election, winning about eight percent of the popular vote. Such Populist goals as the free coinage of silver (to pump more money into the economy) became a focus of national debate and were adopted by the Democratic party in 1896. Although the Democrats lost that race, the farmers and their allies had brought their concerns to the forefront of the political agenda. Politicians respected the political power of the farmers, and would continue to pay close attention to farm issues.

A GROWING ROLE FOR GOVERNMENT

Farmers campaigned for a wide variety of government policies, although they did not always agree on which policies to support. Early frontier farmers, for example, supported a system of national roads, to help get their crops to market. They supported other internal improvements as well—canals, river dredging and eventually grants of land to railroad companies. Land policies represented a major divergence between the views of frontier farmers and those of farmers in older sections of the country. Frontier farmers wanted cheap—or free—land for expansion. Established farmers often preferred things as they were; they might suffer from lower prices if farm expansion should glut the market with excess produce.

Up to the 1860s, few federal policies were aimed directly at farmers. Agricultural affairs fell under the jurisdiction of the commissioner of patents, who collected agricultural statistics and conducted a limited range of farm experiments. But in 1862, Congress created the Department of Agriculture, raising it to cabinet status in 1889. (Cabinet status meant that the head of the department gained the title Secretary of Agriculture and became one of the president's staff of chief advisers.) Thenceforth, the national government took a direct role in agricultural affairs.

The Department of Agriculture at first had few face-to-face dealings with farmers. Its activities were mainly the promotion of research and the collection of statistics. After 1900, Congress gave the department other responsibilities, such as protecting forests and enforcing safe food standards.

A few weeks after it created the Department of Agriculture, Congress passed the historic Morrill Act, granting thousands of acres of federal land to each state government for the purpose of endowing a system of agricultural and technical colleges. In the years that followed, the states created 69 such institutions (called "land-grant colleges"). Land-grant colleges have played a key role in advancing agricultural research and in educating successive generations of farmers.

Around 1900, agricultural leaders began to worry that the government's research findings were not reaching the farmers who could apply them. Many farmers distrusted governmental advice. Proudly, they followed the methods their parents or grandparents had followed, scorning such "newfangled" ideas as crop rotation and seed selection. To demonstrate the value of the newer techniques, government officials set up a limited number of "demonstration farms." They joined with local business and farm groups to hire "demonstration agents" who would go from farm to farm to show how the new ideas might help farmers improve their yields and their incomes. In 1914, Congress gave such programs a national scope by establishing a new "agricultural extension service." Financed jointly by the federal government and each state's land grant colleges, the service hired "county agents" to establish offices in each county (local governmental district) to provide advice to farmers and their families.

The extension service began at a time of prosperity for American farmers. Farm prices had increased between 1900 and 1914, and they increased even more rapidly as World War I created a pressing demand for farm products. Far from the battlefields, and benefiting from a relative abundance of labor-saving equipment, American farmers had no trouble stepping up production. Farm prices doubled from 1914 to 1918 and kept rising until 1920.

This period of great prosperity ended, however, and American farmers entered a new time of crisis. Prices declined in the 1920s, and worse times lay ahead. In 1932, the average level of farm prices dropped to less than one- third of the 1920 level. Farmers by the thousands failed to meet their mortgage payments and saw their lands taken over by banks or other creditors. Farmers were not alone. The Great Depression of the 1930s was rippling through the world economy, causing hundreds of thousands of factory and office workers to lose their jobs and presenting national leaders with urgent political and economic problems.

The government's response to the Great Depression began a new era in American agricultural life. Many present-day farm policies have their roots in the desperate decade of the 1930s and in the programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served from 1933 until his death in 1945. Those programs were part of what Roosevelt called a "New Deal" for the American people.

CURRENT FARM POLICIES

A maze of legislation governs the agricultural policies of the United States government. Congress debates and passes a basic "farm bill" once every four years. In addition, many aspects of agricultural policy emerge as byproducts of legislation targeted on other goals. Tax laws, for example, help to channel private investment money into specific aspects of agriculture.

• Acreage Limitations. On the theory that overproduction is a chief cause of low farm prices, the government encourages farmers to plant fewer acres. This policy began with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, a key New Deal law that offered special subsidies to farmers who agreed to remove part of their land from production.

• Price Supports. Certain basic commodities are eligible for price supports, which come in the form of a loan from a government agency. Here is how the system works: Congress sets a price—say $2.55 a bushel for corn (one bushel = 35.2 liters)—-to represent the supposed value of a crop. Corn farmers who agree to acreage restrictions may borrow $2.55 for every bushel of corn they turn over to the government. In effect, the borrowers pledge their crop to the government as collateral for the loan. If the price of corn rises above $2.55, the farmers can reclaim their corn, sell it on the open market, and pay off the loan. The farmers keep the extra profit. If the price stays below $2.55, the farmers may decide to default on their loans— an action that carries no penalty. The government merely takes over ownership of the corn and either keeps it in storage or sells it at a loss. There is no upper limit on price-support loans to any one farmer.

• Deficiency Payments. More important than price-support loans are deficiency payments, which are a direct form of income support for farmers. Congress sets a "target price" for

various crops. Again, to receive any benefit, farmers must take some of their land out of production. If the market price that the farmers receive when they sell the crop falls short of the target price, they receive a check from the government to make up the difference. Deficiency payments are limited to $50,000 a year.

Price supports and deficiency payments apply only to such basic commodities as grains, dairy products and cotton. Many other crops are not federally subsidized.

There has been some criticism of these farm subsidy programs on the grounds that they benefit large farms most and accelerate the trend toward larger—and fewer—farms. In 1987, for example, farms with more than $250,000 in sales—only five percent of the total number of farms—received 24 percent of government farm payments.

• Marketing Orders. A few crops, including lemons and oranges, are subject to outright restrictions on marketing. So-called "marketing orders" limit the amount of a crop that a grower can send to market week by week. By restricting sales, such orders are intended to increase the prices that farmers receive. The restrictions are applied by committees of producers within a particular state or region. Marketing arrangements are set up after being approved in a vote of the farmers concerned. Upon certification by the Secretary of Agriculture, the arrangements become mandatory. Thereafter, a farmer who ignores marketing restrictions may be prosecuted in court.

• Farm Credit. Access to borrowed money has always been regarded by farmers as crucial to their operations. As early as 1916, the federal government began to provide assistance to private and cooperative farm credit programs. New Deal legislation, particularly the Farm Credit Act of 1933, stepped up the government's role. Today, farmers have access to a range of private, cooperative and government lending institutions. One major cluster of institutions is known as the Federal Farm Credit System. It contains three types of banks that serve specific purposes—making loans on real estate, making loans for such production needs as the purchase of seed and fertilizer and making loans to cooperatives. The country is divided into 12 districts, each containing three federal banks, one for each of the three purposes. The banks finance their operations by selling bonds to investors, just as a business corporation might do. Because the banks have traditionally had a high credit rating, they have been able to borrow at low interest rates, and this has served to keep farm credit costs low. Another source of farm credit is the Farmer's Home Administration, a sort of "lender of last resort" for farmers who cannot get credit elsewhere.

• Soil Conservation. Some federal programs are aimed specifically at promoting soil conservation. Under one program, for example, the government shares with farmers the cost of seeding unused land to grass or legumes in order to reduce the danger of erosion.

• Providing Water for Irrigation. A federal system of dams and irrigation canals provides water at subsidized prices to farmers in 16 western states. Subsidized water helps to grow 18 percent of the nation's cotton, 14 percent of its barley, 12 percent of its rice and three percent of its wheat.

The government's wide-ranging agricultural programs have developed a strong base of support over the years. Members of Congress from farm states regularly win congressional approval for program after program aimed at satisfying a variety of farm interests. Yet these farm programs have often been attacked. Among other things, critics charge that different programs often work against one another. For example, they say, the government pays some farmers for removing one piece of land from production while giving them tax breaks for plowing up and planting another piece of land.

Some legislators and presidents have urged Congress to cut back the government's role in agriculture and have urged a gradual reduction in farm subsidies and the eventual elimination of government programs to store crop surpluses and to make direct loans to farmers. Some feel these programs represent undue government interference in the operation of a free market. Important economic interests defend many aspects of current farm policy, and proposals to change the system have stirred vigorous debate in Congress.

AMERICAN AGRICULTURE TODAY

As the 20th century nears its end, many Americans have been contemplating the successes and shortcomings of the country's agriculture. They have found much to be proud of, but they have also raised some nagging questions.

The successes of American agriculture are easy to see—and many farmers are quick to boast of them. In parts of the Midwest, signs along major highways remind motorists that "one farmer feeds 75 people." Thanks to nature's bounty and to the effective use of machines, fertilizers and chemicals, American farmers are virtually unrivaled in producing crops cheaply and in quantity. The United States produces as much as half of the world's soybeans and corn for grain, and from 10 to 25 percent of its cotton, wheat, tobacco and vegetable oils.

American agriculture is, by any standards, big business. Indeed, the term "agribusiness" has been coined to reflect the large-scale nature of agricultural enterprise in the modern U.S. economy. The term covers the entire complex of farm-related businesses, from the individual farmer to the multinational maker of farm chemicals. Agribusiness includes farmer cooperatives, rural banks, shippers of farm products, commodity dealers, firms that manufacture farm equipment, food-processing industries, grocery chains and many other businesses.

Both American and foreign consumers benefit from the American farmer's low-cost output. American consumers pay far less for their food than the people of many other industrial countries. Moreover, one-third of the cropland in the United States is planted in crops destined for export—to Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Agricultural exports were 35.6 thousand million in 1989. Agricultural imports lag far behind, leaving a surplus in the agricultural balance of trade.

The standard of living of American farmers is generally high. Incomes of farm families average about three-quarters of those of nonfarm families, but because farm families'

living expenses are lower, their standard of living is close to the national average. Although farm living once meant isolation from the comforts of modern life, this is no longer the case.

The readiness of many farmers to adopt new technology has been one of the strengths of American agriculture. Computers are but the latest in a long line of innovations that have helped American farmers to cut costs and improve productivity. Yet farmers have been traditionalists as well as innovators. They preserve a deep conservatism and respect for tradition that has helped to lend stability to rural communities in times of rapid change.

However, American agriculture has a dark side as well as a bright side. Farmers in the United States go through alternating periods of prosperity and recession and some farm practices have raised environmental and other concerns.

While the high productivity of American agriculture has kept food prices low for consumers, farmers have been perhaps too successful. Crop surpluses and low prices have made it hard for many farmers to make a profit. The cost of the products farmers buy—tractors, fertilizers, pesticides—has risen faster than the prices they receive for their crops. High interest rates have added to the farmers' burden.

A period of economic difficulty began in the early 1980s. Agricultural exports declined, partly due to the high value of the United States dollar (which raised the cost of American products to foreign buyers). Crop prices fell and interest rates rose. Many farmers found themselves hard-pressed to keep up payments on loans and mortgages taken earlier when prices (and income) were higher. As in the 1930s, some farmers lost their farms and equipment, which were sold off to satisfy the farmers' debts. In dozens of farm communities, the crisis caused the closing of banks, farmer cooperatives and small businesses. A variety of governmental and private programs helped to ease the suffering, but many farmers wondered whether the good times had finally come to an end.

In 1987, there were slightly more than 2 million farms in the United States—down by about 7 percent from the number just five years earlier. Slightly more than 86 percent of the total number of farms are owned by individuals or families. Some 67,000 farms—or 3.2 percent of the total—are owned by corporations, but most of those corporations are owned by families. Although family farms are not disappearing—as some people fear—smaller farms are disappearing. People who farm small pieces of land find they cannot invest in the modern equipment they need to make the farms pay. Often, they sell their land—sometimes to other farmers, sometimes to developers who build houses on it. According to the Department of Agriculture, the number of small farms—those with under $50,000 in annual sales—dropped by 120,000 between 1982 and 1987.

Many farm owners—especially owners of smaller farms—do not work on the farms full- time. Forty-five percent of the people we call farmers actually have other occupations. And not all farmers own their land. Some 240,000 are tenant farmers—who either rent their land for cash or pay the owner a share of the crops they grow. On large farms, many of the workers are hired only for a specific chore— such as picking crops. Many of these seasonal workers travel from farm to farm, staying only until the crops are picked. They are known as migrant workers. Some are housed under poor conditions, have inadequate health care, and are paid low wages. In recent years, there has been an effort on the part of government and others to improve the lives of these workers.

Critics accuse both corporate and family farmers of damaging the environment. Since the 1940s, American farmers have multiplied their use of artificial fertilizers and chemicals designed to kill weeds and insect pests and to protect against crop diseases. Such farming aids have played an indispensable role in increasing crop output, but they have also caused problems. Rainfall that seeps through or runs off the soil has carried fertilizers into ground water, rivers and lakes, damaging water quality and promoting the growth of undesirable water plants. Toxic farm chemicals, some linked to cancer and other diseases, have at times found their way into the nation's water, food and air, although constant vigilance by government officials at the state and federal levels is taken to protect these resources. Some have caused harm to farmers and farm workers—although chemical companies insist that their products are safe when used according to directions. Over the years, many farm pests have developed a resistance to milder chemicals, so farmers have had to resort to stronger and costlier ones.

INTO THE FUTURE

 

As they face the future, American farmers can be sure of only one thing—that more changes lie ahead. Ambitious programs of research and development now going on in university, corporate and government laboratories promise to continue the trends of recent years.

Many innovations are being considered. One is "no-till" farming, in which farmers plant a new crop directly into the stubble of the old, without turning the soil with a plow. "No-till" depends heavily on chemical weed­killers, and thus has drawn criticism. However, it can reduce erosion and trim the costs of labor and fuel, and many farmers have eagerly embraced the practice.

Other innovations are flowing from biotechnology, the application of biological science to practical ends. A number of companies are taking the lead in using such techniques as "gene-splicing" to design new plants and animals with desirable traits. (Gene-splicing is the artificial alteration of the genes that carry the hereditary characteristics of organisms.) Will the future see the development of hardier, more productive plants that need less fertilizer and carry greater resistance to disease and insects? Biotechnologists hope so. Among other things, they predict that their work will allow farmers to reduce their reliance on toxic chemicals, thus helping preserve a safer environment for everyone.

Though responding to innovation and evolving with the passage of time, agriculture remains the foundation upon which American well-being and prosperity are based. This bond linking past, present and future is fundamental to the American way of life.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Ebeling, Walter. Farm Policy:

The Politics of Soil, Surpluses, and Subsidies. Washington: Congressional Quarterly. 1984.

Ebeling, Walter.

The Fruited Plain:

The Story of American Agriculture.

Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980.

MacFadyen, J. Tevere. Gaining Ground:

The Renewal of America's Small Farms. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984.

National Planning Association. Food and

Agriculture Committee.

State of American Agriculture 1984.

Washington: National Planning Association, 1984.

United States Department of Agriculture. Office of Information.


Date: 2015-02-28; view: 646


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