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Origins, Innovations, and Early Labor Struggles

Origins, Innovations, and Early Labor Struggles

Charles F. Seabrook, commonly referred to as “C.F.,” was born in 1881 and was the son of A.P. Seabrook, a successful truck farmer in Cumberland County. Involved in the family business from an early age, in 1907 C.F. introduced overhead irrigation to his father’s farm, an innovation that helped to increase yields. In 1911-12, C.F. purchased his father’s share of the venture, and assumed full ownership. Under his direction, Seabrook Farms expanded the amount of acreage being tilled, created an industrial-sized greenhouse, and introduced new mechanized equipment. After going bankrupt in 1924 and nearly succumbing to this fate again at the start of the Great Depression, in 1934 Seabrook Farms entered into a partnership with the General Foods Corporation, which owned the patent and brand name to Clarence Birdseye’s recently developed frozen-foods line. In 1934, Seabrook would construct a processing and freezing plant on site, along with a frozen-storage warehouse, revolutionizing how the company did business. By 1938, the company produced two-thirds of the frozen vegetables consumed in the United States, first for the Birdseye brand, and later under its own label. In 1939, Seabrook Farms would also acquire a share in the Deerfield Packing Company, a Canadian concern that marketed canned and frozen vegetables to Canadian and British retailers. Known as the “Henry Ford of Agriculture,” Seabrook prided himself upon building the infrastructure that allowed thousand acres of farmland and an array of plants and warehouses to function as a single, cohesive enterprise. A vertically integrated firm, Seabrook also operated its own transportation subsidiary consisting of a fleet of refrigerated trucks, and C.F. Seabrook personally owned a construction firm that built the company’s numerous facilities.

Over the years, C. F. Seabrook would gain a reputation for being minutely involved in all aspects of his company’s operation. He was constantly at odds with his three sons, whom he brought into the family business. John “Jack” Seabrook would describe his father as someone who was “cold and calculating” to his own family, but at the same time, was “highly successful at projecting a warm, caring, friendly image” to the public at large. The concept of providing housing to employees and their families at Seabrook Farms conformed to the paternalistic business philosophy as well. According to his son, “the family and the business were the same thing.”

In the early years of Seabrook Farms, both the seasonal and year-round workforce was largely comprised of Italian immigrants, often recruited from Philadelphia. The name given to the first houses that Seabrook built and rented to his employees, “The Italian Village,” reflects this ethnic makeup. Italian workers were joined by black migrant laborers from the South, who travelled throughout the Northeast during harvest seasons. Some of these migrant laborers ended up settling permanently in the Bridgeton area.

In April 1934, field and plant laborers at Seabrook organized the independent Agricultural and Cannery Workers’ Industrial Union, and elected Jerry Brown, a black farmworker, as its first president. According to Brown, C.F. Seabrook told him that if he dissolved the union, he would “fire all the Dagoes and just keep colored on,” but he and the union refused to budge. When Brown was fired on April 10, three hundred workers walked off their jobs. Seabrook, facing the complete loss of the company’s cabbage crop and unable to hire replacements on short notice, relented to the wage increase they demanded. In mid-June 1934, when a slack period was about to begin, Seabrook reneged on the increase and reduced hourly wages from 30 cents an hour for men and 25 cents an hour for women to 18 cents. As historian Cindy Hahamovitch notes, “Seabrook must have known that his actions would set off another strike, but this time he was ready.” When a strike committee attempted to meet with him on June 25, they were attacked by vigilantes that the company had hired.

For two weeks, black and white striking workers did battle with the local police force, as well as with vigilantes and members of the Ku Klux Klan whom Seabrook enlisted to break the strike. In one incident that received national and international attention, a group of approximately 250 workers tried to prevent a fleet of tractors from harvesting beets, which local sheriffs, intervening on behalf of the company, dispersed with teargas. When a group of women strikers hopped on the tractors and began throwing bushels of beets back into the field, they were attacked with blackjacks, revolver butts, and billy clubs. Picketing workers who lived in company housing were evicted. As Lester Granger wrote in an article on the strike that appeared in the August 1934 issue of the Journal of Negro Life, Seabrook employees in nearby Bridgeton lived in conditions where “Half-clothed, half-starved, completely dirty children, poor white and Negro, run about in hopelessly squalid surroundings. Frowsy heads look out from half-open doors, through which may be seen badly ventilated rooms crowded with broken furniture and with broken humanity.” Despite the forces arrayed against them, “the strike idea was born in all defiance of South Jersey public attitudes, in all defiance of Klan threats, in all defiance of the traditional belief that Negroes will not strike and that Negroes and whites cannot organize together successfully.” The strike ended only after Francis Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, sent a representative to New Jersey to broker peace. Donald Henderson, a Communist Party member and economics professor who had been fired from his position at Columbia University, encouraged the workers to keep striking, but was overruled and removed. Although Seabrook agreed to rehire striking workers and restore wage levels, the union was not recognized and the company – once federal officials had left – backed away from many of the promises it had made during the official mediation. Black workers who had joined the strike were denied their old positions altogether and the New Jersey state police was brought in to ensure violence did not reignite, arresting laborers who continued to protest.

It was not until 1941, with C.F.’s college-educated sons’ backing, that Seabrook workers were permitted to organize. Employees joined Local 56 of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union, a less radical alternative to the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America. Since agricultural workers were excluded from the 1935 Wagner Act, the federal statute that guaranteed American laborers’ right to collective bargaining, the more progressive views of the younger Seabrooks on what constituted the fair treatment of workers proved essential to this development. Even with the eventual recognition of the union, the 1934 strike set the tone for C.F. Seabrook’s labor recruitment strategies moving forward. Increasingly his emphasis was on finding workers whose circumstances forced them to more readily accept the conditions that the company imposed.

Italian Village

The Seabrook community was comprised of numerous housing developments, many of which were reminiscent of barracks. Owned and leased by the company, these dwellings served as home to many workers and families through hot summers and cold winters. The name given to the first houses that Seabrook built and rented to his employees, “The Italian Village,” reflects the labor force’s ethnic makeup at the time. Although the photo was originally dated to 1909, Seabrook Farms was not yet in existence at that point. But the photo can be dated prior to 1934, since the freezing plant that would come to shadow these homes does not appear in the picture. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway

60 injured in Seabrook Farm strike riot

The strike became violent when local police and a deputized security force were called to the scene as strikers attempted to obstruct trucks laden with produce from leaving Seabrook Farms. Here a fireman uses a hose to disperse striking workers. Courtesy of Acme Newspictures

New Jersey farmers stone strike breakers

Strikers throw rocks at replacement workers and police attempting to harvest and ship produce from the fields. Courtesy of Acme Newspictures

Deputized guards in field

Bridgeton area residents deputized as strikebreakers guard a beet-topping machine. Courtesy of Acme Newspictures

Caged in homes

A photo taken in the home of one of the strikers, likely in the Italian Village. In the background are the wired doors and windows of the cannery, which Seabrook enclosed to prevent protesters from entering. Workers who lived in company housing were especially vulnerable during the strike, since they faced eviction. Courtesy of Acme Newspictures

Farm strike settled

Charles Seabrook (third from right), the owner of Seabrook Farms, talks to reporters about the settlement of the strike that had come about after Department of Labor mediation. Pictured next to him is Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr., the superintendent of the New Jersey State police and father of the future military commander. Courtesy of Acme Newspictures

Farm strike broken

Dave Horuvitz, attorney for the strikers, addresses strikers regarding the agreement reached. Courtesy of Acme Newspictures

Employees standing in line to receive their pay from paymaster Pratt as the director of the U.S. Mint, Nellie Taylor Ross, looks over the situation

Seabrook employees line up for a photo op with Nellie Tayloe Ross, director of the U.S. Mint. A publicity stunt, Seabrook hoped to show the community of Bridgeton just how important his industry was to the local economy. Employees were paid in silver coins which then circulated among local businesses. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway

Packing Birdseye asparagus

Packing asparagus for distribution as frozen food was not done mechanically. It was all hand packed and weighed individually, thus the many people in this assembly line. Inspectors kept an eye out for defective products, and if they spotted any they would stop the line immediately. This picture was taken in the early 1950s. Pictured individuals include the forewoman Berne Omura and Chickie Furushima. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway