On today’s episode we will meet labor attorney, member of Teamster’s Local 810 in New York City and author, Mark Torres.
Mark’s latest book, Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood, chronicles the plight of thousands of poverty stricken migrant workers lured to the agricultural fields of New York State for decades with the promise of good wages and decent housing. Once there, they were preyed upon by corrupt camp operators who often cheated them out of pay and housed them in deadly slum like conditions.
Dust for Blood, shines a harsh light onto what atrocities greed, a failure of government oversight, and the blatant disrespect for the working class can produce.
Marks in-depth investigation into the sordid history of these camps begins in the 1940’s during the massive labor shortage created in America by the 2nd world war.
It then follows the arc of human tragedy and suffering for those who worked in these dour camps, providing the food for our nation. The book focuses in on the peak years of the 50’s and 60’s and then tracks their steady decline in the decades that followed.
Packed with personal accounts of the hardships faced by the un-represented, his book serves as a cautionary tale for those who feel the need for organized labor unions have passed.
Dust for Blood is published by The History Press and is available in paperback now for purchase.
Mark Torres Website
Grit Nation Webpage
Email Grit Nation:
Mark Torres, welcome to the show.Mark Torres:
Thank you for having me, Joe. Glad to be here.Joe Cadwell:
Well, thank you so much, Mark, for taking your time to be on the show today to talk to our listeners about your upcoming book. And I'm hoping before we get too deep into your book Mark give us a quick backstory on who you are. Sure,Mark Torres:
I'm a labor attorney from New York, I'm general counsel to a teamsters local a 10. In the Greater New York City area represent 1000s of unionized workers. I've been part of the labor movement for almost 30 years myself, I have a law degree from Fordham a bachelor's degree from NYU. And I'm also an author and I try to park as much of my work is aimed to teach you particularly labor history, human rights history, and approximate them. So my latest work,Joe Cadwell:
and I understand you, you've written three books to date. And your fourth one, which we're going to be talking about later in the show is coming out here real soon. What's the name of that book?Mark Torres:
Sure. That is called Long Island migrant labor camps, dust for blood. It is my first foray into nonfiction historical. My other three books my I've written two fictional crime novels, and, and the children's labor related children's book called good guy Jake, which is vacated teaches our youth what unions do holiday themed book was published my humble price.Joe Cadwell:
And how did you decide to to become an author? What was your inspiration for that?Mark Torres:
You know, I was, you know, I love what I do. I see myself as one of those dinosaurs. So keep keep plugging away for the labor movement as long as I could, God willing. But I also wanted to do more I had I've used the teaching of wanting to reach out, I provided our union shops to a training, and I enjoyed that I enjoyed conveying information in a challenging but interesting way. And that naturally branched off into writing. I just wanted to write and just kind of creating, you know, my work has always aimed and enlightening and entertaining the readers and even from fictional work, you know, teaching past elements of New York history eventually morphed into becoming, you know, a nonfiction historical author, which I'm quite very, very proud of.Joe Cadwell:
And I know your book takes place in Long Island, but do you live in Long Island?Mark Torres:
I do. I live in Nassau County. The book itself is centered in Suffolk County, it's the latter, probably two thirds of long Allen, primarily known for its high agricultural output potatoes and other crops. And the book centers begins from the 1940s. During the World War Two, labor shortage in generally runs till around 2000, when a lot of the camps from the heyday period died down from that the peak period of the 1950s 1960.Joe Cadwell:
And I know a lot of my listeners are here in the northwest and maybe not have had visited New York. There are five boroughs around the center of New York. And so when people talk about crops growing, you don't usually think of that in New York. So this how geographically How far is it from say that the center where the Empire State Building would be?Mark Torres:
Sure, well, probably with between 80 and 90 miles east from New York City area that runs along those two forces, the North Fork and the South Fork, the South Fork is more famous with the Hamptons and Montauk. We've got friends a little bit further, and on the north side and the North Fork runs to orient point which is about 80 miles so less than 100 miles on both forks. And these are labor camps that were built. post World War Two, and immigrant workers would come to work seasonally to harvest crops during World War Two There was a serious labor shortage, people going off to war, they had trouble filling it, filling that that void of workers, they tried everything from German POW to to Boy Scouts and any local help, they can. But the shortage was never really filled. So the government initially sponsored with local farmers, several contracts with the highlands of Jamaica and Barbados. And they were able to bring in these workers from Jamaica and Barbados, to work at Easter four camps in 1943. Shortly after the war, those those contracts with government sponsored contracts died out, but the work was still needed. And the farmers would then network with local and crew leaders and contractors, if you will, to bring help, and they would rely upon Mexican workers, workers from Puerto Rico. And eventually, which turn primarily to black workers from the US south, primarily filled that that large need for manpower.Joe Cadwell:
So they were filling a need, but somewhere along the way, the living conditions in these camps kind of hit a low point, didn't they?Mark Torres:
The early camps in the 40s, were were probably best described as bare. Again, they were government sponsors, so kind of with all eyes on on those camps. But over the years, they vastly deteriorated. And really, you can tell by the production in 1940, in 1943, the four camps I mentioned, by 1951, there were 28 camps. And then 1958, that number ballooned to 134 labor camps. And the word labor camps are used interchangeably. It's any form of housing, which could have been old trailers abandoned homes to modern or maybe not, at the time, modern barracks, and cabin style units.Joe Cadwell:
And these camps that you have written about why? Well, let's back up just a bit. Why did you decide to write this story about these camps?Mark Torres:
First and foremost, it was shocking, the story that's never been told, you know, we're talking about 8090 miles from from New York City. Heavy, high agricultural output, again, primarily on potatoes. And the story, you know, these areas are steeped in history, they have a very deep history and a lot of information going back to the early settlers. Yeah, here we are in the early part, mid mid 20th century, and there was nothing written on it. So my first goal was to capture this history before it was lost forever. And I'm proud while I'm proud to say I've capital A great deal of it, I do know that a lot of it is lost forever, right? I reached out to the Suffolk County Department of Health, which is the government regulating body over these camps. And I was I received over 1000 documents from the information request. And a lot of those documents were probably from the 1980s. forward. So a lot of the information prior to that was lost. And that's sad, because I was able to do my research, review over 300 newspaper articles, read documentaries, interviews with those who may lose some still surviving at the time, which are very few. And I do not as demonstrated a lot more information that was last forever. So while I'm proud to have captured this history, it is regrettable that that a lot of it was lost forever,unfortunately.Joe Cadwell:
And why do you feel no one's ever taken this project on before?Mark Torres:
Sure. Well, I believe largely it is an agricultural area, I do believe that the constituents, so the farmers, the industry, it's not the positive type of history, they would want to have shared. So I'm sure you know, those in power would have preferred not to be discussed. But the the data that I found, certainly and certainly supports that it was not it was certainly a shameful legacy for an area that is now prosperous for its vineyards and, and mansions and estates. But it does have this dark history and, and I you know, the way I see it is if any part of history is lost in real estate, it's a loss to humanity. And that's that's a shame. So, as I grew into telling the story, my obligation grew to tell it more and I'm glad to have uncovered what I was able to do.Joe Cadwell:
And in your research, what did you find? Well,Mark Torres:
Those camps at best was certainly probably can best be described as poor to horrendous slum like, you know, the conditions deteriorated over time. These facilities were horrendous, they, you know, terribly smelling, dirty, no water, really isolated areas, not insulated on no heat. And, you know, to supplement for that heat, a lot of the people who live there would rely upon space heaters and, and kerosene stoves. Unfortunately, there were fires and horrific deaths from that 11 day span for 1959. Eight people died, including young babies and adults. And that, you know, that's another large part of the story that I strive to tell is to kind of capture names, those who perished in this migratory labor system, and there were quite a few. And I can think of a 22 year old mother named Jill see a trend will be located there, she had three children, three very young children all under the age of three at the time. It's a cold January, she goes to like the kerosene stove, the match, the wick of the match falls onto the rug, which is already saturated with kerosene, the place goes up, she, you know, she tries to stand up the kerosene here, gets kerosene on herself and effectively became a Human Torch. She runs out of the apartment or the home trying to extinguish the flames in the in the mud outside, within seconds the placement of the baby's parents that she had died a week later. And you know, those are the kinds of stories that that really hit home with me because I wanted to share you know, but for a few newspaper articles, you know, that their her existence was lost forever. And I and I felt empowered to want to capture that and share it the book.Joe Cadwell:
And this was in 1959, if I heard you correctly, was 1959.Mark Torres:
There were other camps that was in the cutshaw and cutchogue, New York, which is a beautiful area. It's known for its vineyards and bucolic countryside, one of the largest labor camps existed there. It had the capacity to hold up 300 mega workers at a time. It was the first and probably only only camp in New York state that had its own school. Helen price renowned the person in Southold area was was teaching the children to the best you can the conditions were wretched, generally wretched. And over the years, and it will in 1961, there was a fire for workers, they snuck in one of these kerosene stoves for heat, because they struggled to afford the 75 cents for the meals that it cost at the camp and fire went up. All four of them died, one died, one died shortly later in the hospital, and you know, $25,000 in excess damage to the facility. You know, in many ways, it's kind of a miracle more people didn't perish in that fire. And there were other fires 1968 in Bridgehampton and Jacobs labor camp, which is really a rundown house at that point. Three people perish there. And you know, these stories are just continuously the wretched conditions. And a lot of it, sadly, is due to the economic exploitation because the crew leaders who would typically black men or woman from the south themselves would recruit these workers to come up to New York to stay for the season. And they would abuse them both physically and mentally. They would you know, if they, if they sensed that the workers were susceptible to approach alcoholism, they would supply them with with wine, cheap wine to keep them satisfied and quality, any kind of any animosity for not getting paid. There was cheat cheating of pay, one woman had went to Riverhead court to complain that she was getting Social Security taken out of her paycheck, but she never saw security card. You know, that's the kind of rampant abuse that was going on. And the from the farmers perspective, they only dealt with the crew leaders. So they kind of outsourced their liability responsibility to the workers. And we just deal with the crew leader and the crew later with, you know, cut and turn and cheat and do everything he or she can to abuse and exploit these workers. They're really a terrible economic and physical and mental toll on these workers.Joe Cadwell:
Yeah, sure. Sounds like it and again, post World War Two through the 50s and 60s that romanticized vision of America that that everyone has, it sounds like there was quite a disparity between that vision and what these people were truly experiencing in these labor camps. And they were susceptible to the conditions that they were they were, you know, put upon them. And did they have any recourse? Was there any way that they could, could bring these living conditions to the authorities or the it doesn't sound like there was any type of unionism at allMark Torres:
or that that was the first problem which still exists today. Under the National Labor Relations Act, foreign workers are excluded from labor law protections. So on the federal level, they have no recourse state level. It wasn't until this year. In fact, I'm sorry 2020 2020 when we got finally enacted a measure similar to California Which did in the 1970s, to offer some protections and rights and benefits, but ultimately the idea of joining union was not existed. I, you know, the he was little help, there was no appetite for the constituents of the county, for the public government to act, even the public, it was largely a different, whether willful or, or just, you know, just didn't know what was going on, you know, these camps are all almost all the time situated in, in the backwoods, rural places miles from nears town, and that had its own problems and other workers were left isolated. You know, the recourse would be if there were complaints, you know, someone would just call the local police and more often than not, it's to maybe bring up a fight or violence or, or something there, but it was never any kind of place to live. There were a few examples of because part of my book, the latter part certainly covers what I call better angels. There were some people and groups who really strive to fight against a system that think of author Brian or a pastor from Greenpoint for more than 10 years. He took it upon himself to go to Congress to testify in 1969. against the deplorable conditions of the camp. He received death threats for that. Imagine a pillar of the community is going to get shunned. But just trying to help these people, I think of Mary Kay stone, a woman, a very, very Apple woman, woman from the Boston area, who left her really affluent lifestyle, and we located in Riverhead, to help these people. She did offer training and courses to try to teach the workers, different trades carpentry construction, they can escape the migrant stream and find more steady work. You know, so you know, there were some people in groups who really strive to help. In fact, the marriage a stones case, you filed several different cases I say there were court cases they were filed. Even though it was governed by the Department of Labor, there were local cases that were heard, and most of it was cheating out of pay taxes, other types of physical abuse, but any kind of justice was really few and far between most of the times, it was a horrendous system from top to bottom.Joe Cadwell:
And there was no oversight the government was basically absolved of any responsibility. The labor unions were ineffectual and unable to get in there. The media it seems like when I tried to do some research mark, again, you are a pioneer and putting out your book and, and shining some light on the these conditions. I did stumble across a video by Edward R. Murrow and CBS News called harvest of shame. But that was more of a sort of a broader spectrum, looking at the conditions across the US in regards to the agricultural workers showing and that andMark Torres:
that video by I mean, that's just an excellent video that captures on a national level from generally from Florida, up through Maine, and it does touch on California, is that with three miking students at the time that the West Coast mostly California area, you think of the Midwest, which was covered a lot of a lot of the growth through Texas and then you think of the east coast from Florida to Maine. But I was able to dig deeper, I did find that other read documentaries called what harvest for the Reaper, this was produced in 1969. And and that really shed light specifically on the control camp, it was the first and only true documentary and not only that, it shed light on the conditions, but it really did a great job of explaining the economic exploitation. And I'll give you certain examples of the way the you know the way it worked. So when the Kool Aid it goes say he contracts with the Long Island farmers he drives down in his bus or whatever vehicle to say Arkansas he would recoup workers and their their veteran waiting time in Arkansas was say $1 is 1969 in New York with generally $1.35 today what's all the work is look like get to 35 or more great place to work. And of course, you know, there just can't be poverty in poverty stricken south, they would go for the ride the minute they step on the bus, they're already indebted to that crew leader for both the right there and the right back Of course, right because it was seasonal. So now they're and and from that point on throughout the whole time they're chasing this perpetual debt. You know, they're the costs that are open or hidden, right housing costs, food, transportation, blanket bs you try. There's all these little things that are added in there. There's no written contract. It's basically at the whim of the the crew leader. If the cult leader really had an interview, he would just say you're not working today, and you would stay at the camp. And now you're still incurring the debt, but you're but you have no income. The wardens who didn't work, you know, farmers would come pick them up, they'd happen to pick up chalk or what sometimes they get a ride. They work on the farm on the farms, picking tomatoes and all the other things they do. And then they get back and the crew leader of course would get a cut out of their pay. He would also get a cut from the farmers for for each day each worker that he supplied. We don't work. So Joe Kulina was making all different ways. And again, and I'll give you an example though a huge markup on items. It was a popular one a cheap California Wine called Twister at the time at a local liquor store would sell for 61 cents at the camp, it will be sold for over $1. So now you think, alright, just go to the golden liquor store if you if you're so inclined and get it miles away. And not only is it difficult to get it, if you did do it and the crew leader found out, there will be repercussions, it would be punitive, he would frown upon that. Another big problem was, there was no pay during work stoppages. So, if a machine broke down for four hours out of the eight, then I paid for the eight hours, they just paid for the four. So in essence, their their daily output is cut in half. But the the expensive stolen car, and this kept kept perpetuating a vicious cycle of debt that is going to really take a toll on anybody, right? If you think about it, and with little recourse, there was little, you know, you're, you know, 1000 miles away, you're not just gonna go home quickly.Joe Cadwell:
Indentured servants, slaves to the company's store, it almost seems like a form of modern day slavery in these camps were allowed to operate again from the late 40s.Mark Torres:
Until when then, well, well, strangely enough, there are still some camps. Now, it's a lot different. Now, obviously, a large part is the there's more affordable Low Income Housing available, there is more oversight. And really, I kind of kind of wanted to capture this story from its peak period from its inception to the peak period. So I chose 2000, at the end of, you know, the end of the decade and wanted to leave it at that. But, you know, the conditions aren't as as bad as they were. But as we all know, they still are. I mean, there's a lot of venues that works very intensive. And, and, you know, I haven't done a deep dive into modern post 2000. But we, you know, just from from early reports, you can just tell that it's not as ideal as you would like, especially farm workers across the country, particularly with COVID. They're getting decimated, there's little protections, the prior administration really wasn't inclined to help. We're hopeful that that some relief can come. But But generally, from really, throughout this, throughout this country, you know, the farmworkers have had the raw end of the deal. They've been on the bottom the last to get, and they continuously suffer, yet they provide food for a nation really is a sad spell with it. You know, I've never represented I you know, as a teamster, I represent truckers warehouse, meaning skill maintenance, I haven't had haven't had, we don't have farm workers. But I tell you, I see them as as our brothers and sisters, like any other union member, and I really sympathize with them.Joe Cadwell:
That's a fantastic job that you do. And I'd like to learn a little bit more about that. Mark, myself being with the carpenters union, you being with the the Teamsters, organized labor, as you're aware of is constantly under attack on the government level, the greed from giant corporations that are trying to reach into the working man and women's pocket to the further path around what what lessons have you learned? And what parallels Can you draw between the situation that you you wrote about and where we're at today,Mark Torres:
certainly, the themes are always recurring, where industry in this case, industry became more valuable in human life. And you see that now where, you know, hard working men and women are trying to organize a union and companies come in and, and, you know, they'll spend millions of dollars to keep unions out. Whether it's by you know, bait and switch will offer a slight raise to make them happy. And then you know, then they can always change that down. So a lot of these themes are recurring. And it's sad, because, you know, it's just a denial of, and really, you know, it could have been better oversight, because, again, you touched on earlier gel, this was a wide sweeping share of the blame from individuals, ruthless individuals, to a constituency or general public, to government agencies, and really was a fluid system and it is shameful legacy. And, and I although I haven't covered like parts of New Jersey, which had tremendous amount of camps, and certainly California is well documented, you know, this this area, you know, as part of this similar suffering that we see nationwide, throughout throughout the years and decades.Joe Cadwell:
That's a microcosm and a bigger picture across the United States. And for us being a microcosm for the rest of the world to some extent, taking advantage of the workers. And seeing those profits just spread out very thinly at the very top end of the spectrum.Mark Torres:
And, you know, you think of the physical slum like conditions of the camps, but even if you move from that, and you look at the specific job conditions, like we were used to looking at that, right, migrant workers they had, they've always had a lower life expectancy, high infant mortality, they suffer weather related maladies from heatstroke to to, you know, to suffering from the cold weathers. In the book, I've highlighted that there have been some deaths where migrant workers found dead in the road. And you know, autopsy shows yet tuberculosis for years. no access to medical treatment. Well, that could have easily been prevented. infectious diseases a little access again to health care. You know, And also pesticide poisonings, which which are common but because of long Alan's makeup and farms, the farms weren't as large as the California. So no real studies to determine the true level of pesticide poisonings. But evidence does show that was illnesses from that, you know, the planes, planes are flying overhead with these properties pesticides and none of that was ever good and certainly wasn't done.Joe Cadwell:
Now a lot of these protections and and benefits that we take for granted as as organized labor workers would regardless of what craft or trade you're in the the livable wages, the benefits, the medical benefits for you and your family, the access to training, safer working conditions, the pension, the representation, these were all all non existent and are still not exist in a large part of the American working middle class. And if it weren't for unions, I think we would really have a hard go of it in this country.Mark Torres:
Oh, absolutely. And it's sad that we're just above 6%, in unionized workforce and in the private sector. But you know, and, and I think I think it's important to understand as we were touching upon it, we shouldn't underestimate how hard their work is, I call it stoop labor, you're bending down and crawling to pick these fruits in the relentless weather, whatever you're facing, very taxing on the body, that the accident rate in 1970, was three times higher than any other industry. Now, if you think of 1970, you know, there was mining, there was all these industries, and we know the dangers of any industry. But yet, for some reason, it's kind of undermined, because of you think I was just picking fruit, and by no means is easy. And in this case, here in New York, that prior to 1965, they had no access to workers comp, workers compensation. So now these workers had to sue in court, which is ever going to happen, you know, unless they got assistance. And a lot of times they would lost limbs, a finger and a foot, you know, the work was very taxing. And I think that part of it goes because it's undermined what really happens. And then, of course, you know, when you cram people in the slum like conditions, you abused them, you mistreat them, you robbed them, of course, crime and violence is going to happen. And there were many accounts that I've captured in the book of beatings, and attacks, and murders, and things that happen, you know, from these camps, which not only is a burden to those who live there, but also the greater community and the first responders, because they had to come and intervene now, and interject and we believe resolve these disputes to the best they could. I think one case in 1955, there was a migrant worker who went into his cabin, it was another worker, they were looking for money, they had a dispute, he stabbed him and killed him, even into the woods tried to hide police a call, they found them. And that person was sent to jail, that person his name, he was a famous blues artist named sun house. So when house sun house, and he spent it's undetermined how long he spent in jail, but he did certainly resumed his career and recorded quite a few records. And if you look them up, you'll see Son House, he had a pretty spiring career, but he came from one of these camps and and you can see that the tie into these, you know, all of these examples.Joe Cadwell:
So Mark, did you write this as a sort of a historical novel? or How did you craft the actual chapters of the book?Mark Torres:
Yeah, I think the best way to the best way for me to describe it was sort of a journalistic, investigative journalistic approach. I totally chronologically I tell it from, from my from identifying the camps, working through the system, but for me, most importantly, was it. It's about people, and the effects on them from psychological to the physical effects, and the abuses but also on the county. And like I said, first responders, it was kind of a holistic approach that covered, really all the topics that I really could kind of put in appropriate order. And really, you know, I'm quite proud of the of the way not only the information was able to uncover, but also put it in a manageable way that illuminates to the reader, the whole system, and the effects on the people involved.Joe Cadwell:
And I really have to look at it, again, how fortunate we are now for the positions that we have within our respective unions. And I think a lot of lot of folks should really be wary of the attacks that are being made on our labor organizations and not trying to let our guard down because there are people there are forces out there wanting to take away these, these benefits and these wages that we again, for lack of a better word, but take for granted at this point, and it's not too far away from having right to work or national reduction of the prevailing wage laws that could then push us back into a period that is not too far off from what you're talking here.Mark Torres:
Sure, you know, this this COVID relief bill, which should be signed this week is the first time I can remember some relief to the to the unions and labor in terms of the pensions but strangely, it's not for the unions and labor. It's for the working people in this country that that lived up to their part of the bargain. They work for 2030 years or more. And they expect a pension. And they were very nearly close to me wiped out and you know it teamsters and many others across the country, and to get some relief after so many years of hoping and praying is helpful, but you're right, the fight goes on I, you know, I dedicate this book to my wife and children, my family, but to my brothers and sisters in labor, and I include the farmworkers. So, I may not have never met, may never meet, but I certainly feel very, very closely their plight, and I sympathize with it. And, you know, I've reached out to farmworker justice and even local groups like Eastern farm workers Association, and, and I work with them at to help share this and share this, you know, the the, you know, and I would Amaro really captured it. So pointedly when he said, You know, these are the people that feed our nation, and they're treated horrifically, and it still goes on. And, you know, where are we as a society, if we can look out for our lowest brothers and sisters? You know, we lost so in many ways, it's kind of a rekindling, and, and tying into the labor movement, my passion for labor, which is why a large part of why I enjoy you know, writing this book.Joe Cadwell:
I agree wholeheartedly. Mark. Marcus has been a fantastic conversation, where can our listeners go to find out more about you and yourMark Torres:
book? Sure, my, what my author page monitor is author calm, and the book will be published and released on March 22, and will be published by the history press. It's already you know, I'd really have a heavy marketing Blitz on Facebook and social media, and send many, many events scheduled across the next few months to try and share this history. You know, as I said, earlier job that I designed this presentation, which is so informative that at times I forget that it is pertaining to a book. But my goal has always been and will always be to teach this history. And I'm glad to have captured it and present it and I hope one day it can be used as a future reference to be sourced and cited and, and relied upon and other works in this area.Joe Cadwell:
As do i'm looking very forward to reading it. Thank you again for taking your time to be on the show today.Mark Torres:
My pleasure. Thank you for having me. Have a good day.Joe Cadwell:
All right. What do you think?Mark Torres:
Great. Thank you.