Wisconsin’s Migrant Workers
As the use of foreign workers diminished in the early 1950s, the population of the domestic migrant increased. These nomadic people generally hailed from Texas and traveled collectively as a family, though sometimes just single men arrived.5 The 1950s represented Wisconsin’s peak era for migrant workers, with about 11,000 in any given year until the middle of that decade.6 Job availability in the canning, processing, and agricultural industries attracted domestic migrants. Labor recruiters traveled to south Texas during the off-season to find workers.
In 1950 the Governor’s Commission on Human Rights issued Migratory Agricultural Workers in Wisconsin: A Problem in Human Rights, the first of many reports recognizing problems surrounding the surge of Latino workers. This report detailed the lack of educational services, substandard housing, employment abuses, discrimination (including the name given to workers: bean picker), and health concerns of migrant workers. The report recognized migrant workers’ unfortunate position but concluded that because of the lack of a unifying agency and the fact that the worker is a social problem to virtually all the public agencies established to protect the public welfare, these problems would go unresolved.7 Follow-up reports indicated similar problems facing Wisconsin’s migrant workers, although the state organized the Migrant Relations Committee in 1953 to address these issues.
One Wisconsin farmworker’s frustration with employers and lack of regulation led him to Madison in demand of change. Alcario Samudio, a farmworker from south Texas, spent 14 years as a laborer, foreman, and recruiter for a seed potato grower in Lake Mills, a small town about 20 miles from Madison. His frustration grew when Latino workers asked him about obtaining off-the-job insurance. When Samudio inquired about the insurance, the employer said such benefits were impossible, because Mexicans were unstable and unreliable. Not satisfied with the response, Samudio called the insurance company and said he had learned workers were eligible for the insurance and that his employer had lied. Disgusted by the employer’s actions, Samudio became determined to help migrant workers and headed to Madison to seek change at the state level.
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