The interaction of race, nationality and class in the American labor market : a comparative study of Mexican-American and Afro-American labor migration (1842-1981)
Manning, Robert D. (Student of history)
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The internal and international movement of ethnic and racial groups is a salient feature of American history. Most immigrants came voluntarily to the United States in order to improve their socio-economic status by acquiring property or accumulating wealth. The policies of the U.S. government encouraged these population movements in an effort to fulfill the national demand for cheap labor. An extreme example of the function of immigrant groups is the involuntary migration of African citizens. The members of each ethnic or racial group in America have attempted to escape manual labor employment and establish themselves as independent property owners. Those groups or individuals who successfully redefined their status and became land owners also sought varous forms of inexpensive labor that included European indentured servants, Indian and African slaves, and domestic wage-laborers. Not incidentally, early struggles between agricultural laborers and land holders frequently assumed the character of inter-class conflict. The objective of this study is to demonstrate the historic unity of the migration of various groups of laborers within the United States. In the urban north, the large-scale immigration of European workers created an "open" labor market; the enormous volume of foreign immigrants enabled individual workers to enter and leave the northern work force without fear of reprisal. The development of a "closed" labor market occurred in the south; the involuntary status of Afro-Americans was perpetuated through the institution of chattel slavery. A more fluid labor market emerged in the southwest through the institutionalization of Mexican migration; Mexican compesinos fulfilled the seasonal fluctuations in the demand for labor and then returned to their villages after their labor was no longer needed. Hence, the historic demand for cheap labor in the United States was responsible for the emergence of various labor migration systems. The function of these systems was to redistribute workers from areas of labor surplus to areas of labor scarcity. Not surprisingly, each regional labor market possessed its own distinctive institution of labor migration. Occupational segmentation in the American labor market has historically restricted both Afro-American and Mexican-American workers to the least desired forms of employment. This situation is demonstrated by observing the development of Afro-American and Mexican-American labor migration systems from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. After the urban crisis of the mid-1960s, however, many black workers left the bottom of the labor market and joined the subclass of "relief" poor. The resulting shortage of cheap labor led to the rapid expansion of Mexican migration from a regional to a national phenomenon. This recent influx of legal and undocumented workers, predominantly Mexicans, has had a profound impact on the American labor market. A new division--nationality-- has been imposed upon the working classes of the United States. A case study of Yalaha, Florida provides an illuminating example of the historic continuity of labor migration. Afro- American migration supplied the primary source of labor for the Yalaha economy between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. In the 1940s, the full-employment demands of the national economy reversed this flow of black workers. The absorption of this regional work force did not undermine the local economy due to the rapidly diminishing labor requirements of the dominant foliage industry. The economic condition of the ornamental foliage industry changed drastically in the early 1970s. As a result, the participation of Mexican-American workers in the fern labor force has steadily increased. Archival sources, government documents, secondary sources, personal and business correspondence, and survey data are supplemented with numerous oral interviews in an attempt to explain this complex phenomenon. Together, these sources underscore the fact that the present flow of Mexican-Americans to Yalaha represents the historic continuity of labor migration to Central Florida.