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Divisions of Labor at Seabrook

Divisions of Labor at Seabrook

Seabrook Farms’ practiced a form of capitalism that relied on the division of labor by race, gender, and legal status. Women workers, for instance, were almost always relegated to vegetable sorting lines at Seabrook, and kept from higher paying jobs in the plant. The reception of Issei and Nisei parolees revealed the complicated dynamics of American race relations, and how a hierarchy of racial desirability informed white attitudes. When Seabrook Farms was first embarking on his recruitment of internee labor and raised its plans with local officials, Bridgeton City Council President A. Lewis Turner commented that while “he personally did not welcome the American-Japanese,” he still thought them preferable to “the undesirable Southern Negro labor” because they would be “law-abiding.” H. Leon Yager, the WRA official in charge of the agency’s Philadelphia office, also promoted Japanese Americans as an alternative to black laborers. Yager echoed Seabrook’s view that released Nisei and Issei internees were “more efficient, intelligent and industrious workers” than black Southerners, and were less likely to provoke racist hostility from local whites. While Seabrook marketed his company as a haven free from racial discrimination, he simultaneously perpetuated the idea that Japanese Americans represented a “model minority” group whose docility and willingness to follow orders made them ideal workers. For Yager, the project of reassimilating internees into society and increasing the size of Seabrook’s workforce trumped concerns about the intimate associations that would take place between white “hill-billy girls” and Nisei boys living and working together at Seabrook Farms. Seabrook, wanting to replace his “unruly” southern black laborers, had few qualms either. As he told the Washington Post: “It's good business and fair play to give the Japanese Americans a chance here. That's what democracy’s for, isn't it?”

Because guestworkers from islands such as Barbados and Jamaica were not U.S. citizens, they were frequently paid less and their contracts limited them to employment at Seabrook Farms. Guestworkers who left contracts with Seabrook’s processing subsidiary, the Deerfield Packing Company, faced deportation. The bonded status of guestworkers led critics in organized labor to allege that the recruitment of foreign workers was nothing more than a new form of slavery. Nonetheless, guestworkers exercised their agency through the means available to them. A November 1944 War Manpower Commission memo indicated that when 97 Barbadians who had been working at the Deerfield Packing Company were given the option to renew their contracts with Seabrook Farms, only 14 did. Although two workers wished to return to Barbados, the remaining 81 requested employment elsewhere.

Seabrook Farms’ insatiable appetite for labor also led the company to appeal to the federal government for prison labor. During the war, Seabrook Farms acquired 150 German prisoners of war (POWs) as laborers. The federal government saw to the care, transport, and housing of these prisoners, meaning that Seabrook only had to pay the prisoners military wages as mandated by the Geneva Convention, from which union dues were subtracted. Seabrook Farms offered strict guidelines to its employees about dealing with POWs, including directives to avoid fraternizing with German POWs and not to block them from the line of sight of their guards. According to a company memo, POWs were supposed to be under constant surveillance and kept in isolation from the main labor force at Seabrook Farms. Laborers were not allowed to speak to prisoners unless it was work related. In reality, however, German POWs were not necessarily as isolated as the corporate memo suggests. When agricultural interests convinced the state of New Jersey to amend and temporarily suspend child labor and compulsory education laws, citing labor shortages, Seabrook took advantage of this too. In 1943, Seabrook Farms created a “Victory Program” that involved the employment of 200 Boys Scouts who were paid the piece rate of 25 cents for every five-eighths of basket of snap beans that they picked during five-hour workdays, with the Scouts’ paying for the laborers’ food and lodging. When yields proved insufficient, however, Seabrook discontinued the program after only two days.

Migrant workers from the U.S. South and guestworkers from the Caribbean were required to pay union dues, although they were not entitled to the protections afforded to members by union-negotiated contracts. Local 56, fearful that it was losing the ability to effectively organize the workforce, and that Seabrook Farms might stop recognizing it altogether, did attempt to reassert control over the situation by entering into a unique arrangement with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU). With thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers of cotton unemployed for large stretches of the year in the South, Local 56 arranged to have the STFU workers’ membership made transferable and their transportation costs paid for by hiring employers. This was crucial in allowing black cotton workers to leave the South, since from 1944 on, local white officials were authorized by Congress to block employers in other states from contracting and paying for the transportation of workers. During the summers of 1945 and 1946, Seabrook received approximately 500 black women through this “underground railroad,” who were members of the STFU and on break from colleges such as Morehouse and Hampton. Jack Seabrook played an influential role in this program, and during its second year even agreed to pay extra so that the women could fly and avoid the “dirty, dusty, trash-ridden Jim Crow coaches” they had traveled on a year earlier. An article in the Chicago Defender noted approvingly that the women were able to earn 62 and a half cents an hour (five dollars for an eight hour day), more than triple what they might make doing agricultural work in the South.

The recruitment and positive reception of the STFU college students notwithstanding, Seabrook’s wage rates for black workers employed by the company in 1943 and 1944 did not show a pattern of equal treatment. WMC contracts reveal that guestworkers were paid only fifty cents an hour. Black migrant laborers from the South not affiliated with the STFU also received fifty cents an hour as employees of the processing plant and the WRA reported that many were incensed to learn that newly-arrived Japanese American internees were automatically being paid five cents more an hour to do the same work. Many Nisei workers, even before their permanent relocation was established, were also welcomed into the union. This is consistent with the more general discrimination and abuse that black workers arriving at Seabrook received from the white population of Bridgeton and its surrounding areas. David Burgess, a labor organizer and radical preacher, described Bridgeton as “the seat of the Confederacy in New Jersey.” During the four months he spent there in the summer of 1943, he observed “white policemen delighted in arresting blacks downtown on Saturday and Sunday nights, beating them with billy clubs, and handcuffing them around light posts before taking them to police headquarters and charging them with disorderly and drunken behavior.” When Burgess spoke before the local Kiwanis Club about the plight of migrant laborers, its members attacked Seabrook for bringing blacks to the area. Another member accosted him in the street a day later with the greeting: “You are that damned minister who wants to free them God-damned niggers rather than keeping them in their place.” Given their own experiences with bigotry, it is perhaps unsurprising that black students at Bridgeton High School were the first to cross the cafeteria color line to welcome newly arrived Nisei students, as the WRA reported.

Letter from Aitken to Seabrook

This letter, from Bridgeton Mayor Bertram F. Aitken to C.F. Seabrook, discusses why town officials preferred relocated Japanese Americans to “the undesirable southern Negro labor.” Racist stereotypes - the laziness of black workers, the docility of Asian Americans - surrounded the relocation of Japanese Americans and cast them simultaneously as both “model minorities” and alleged security threats. Records of the War Relocation Authority, Record Group 210, National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

Memo on German POWs

Seabrook Farms acquired 150 German prisoners of war who were being held at a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp in nearby Parvin State Park. Seabrook issued strict guidelines to its employees on how to interact with the POWs, including directives to avoid fraternizing with them and to not block them from the line of sight of their guards. According to a company memo, POWs were supposed to be under constant surveillance and kept in isolation from the main labor force at Seabrook Farms. Courtesy of the George Yuzawa Papers, TAM.442, Box 1, Folder 45, Seabrook Farms, Deerfield Packing Corporation: Instructions to All Employees re: Treatment of German Prisoners of War Contracted to Work at Company, Tamiment Library, New York University

Memo about Disappearance of Barbadian Workers

During the war, the War Manpower Commission (WMC) coordinated the recruitment of migrant guestworkers from the British West Indies. Because guestworkers entered the United States with specific employment contracts, leaving their assigned jobs made them "illegal" immigrants.An internal WMC memo discusses the disappearance of a group of Barbadians who were supposed to be in the employ of the Deerfield Packing Company, the Seabrook Farms' subsidiary. Records of the War Manpower Commission, Record Group 211, Region III, National Archives at Philadelphia

Barbadian Workers Deportation Order

A letter from the WMC to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization instructs officers with the agency to arrest and send the Barbadians who left their contracts to Florida for deportation. Records of the War Manpower Commission, Record Group 211, Region III, National Archives at Philadelphia

Renewal of Contracts Memo

Working conditions, housing, and wages at Seabrook Farms often failed to meet the expectations of migrant guestworkers. As this memo from November 1944 details, of the 97 Barbadian workers at Seabrook Farms who were given an option to renew their contracts with the company, only 14 did. Eighty-one workers requested that the WMC find them alternative employment. Records of the War Manpower Commission, Record Group 211, Region III, National Archives at Philadelphia

Letter from Cecil Roach

Cecil Roach fell ill after coming to the United States as a guestworker, and (illegally) went to Boston to receive care from his sister there. In this letter addressed to President Roosevelt, Roach requests an extension of his contract so that he might "make a little money to carry home." Records of the War Manpower Commission, Record Group 211, Region III, National Archives at Philadelphia

College students working during summer months settle into their apartments and make use of library facilities

Recruited as part of an agreement between Local 56 of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union, which represented workers at Seabrook, and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), which represented cotton sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the South, in 1945 and 1946 Seabrook Farms hired and paid the transport for approximately 500 black women on summer break from college. Jack Seabrook, C.F.'s oldest son, was instrumental in implementing the program. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway

Young college students working on the corn line

White officials in the South often prevented black agricultural laborers from migrating as seasonal laborers, and the agreement between Local 56, the STFU, and Seabrook Farms was described by Jack Seabrook and others as an "underground railroad." Here a group of college students recruited as part of the program sort corn for freezing. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway