By Mark A. Torres
Long before the vast vineyards, lavender fields and pumpkin patches, Long Island’s East End was dominated by sprawling potato farms. World War II left most potato farmers with a shortage of labor needed to pick these lucrative crops. To remedy this, New York State authorized Suffolk County to begin using labor camps to house domestic and international farm workers. What ensued was a migratory system of labor practiced on Long Island for more than half a century that somehow remained obscured and nearly lost forever.
My initial knowledge of Long Island’s labor camps derived from a few random newspaper articles, but when I began to research the topic, I was disheartened to learn that there were no primary sources that covered it. Undeterred, I continued my research, and the more I delved into the history, the greater my obligation grew to tell it. Fully embracing this responsibility, I worked diligently to research and write “Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood” (The History Press, 2021).
The book is a true account of the migrant labor camps on Long Island from their inception during World War II, through their heyday in 1960, and culminating with their steady decline towards the end of the 20th century. The book details the many types of structures used as labor camps, along with the human suffering of those who resided, and in some cases, perished in them. The book also delves into the cause and effect of the camps, the relentless economic exploitation of migrant farm workers and the factors that led to the eventual decline of this era. Lastly, the heroic efforts of outspoken critics of the camps who fought to improve the lives of migrant workers on the East End during this time are also covered.
For several reasons, the historical importance of “Dust for Blood” cannot be underestimated. First and foremost, it is the only primary source to comprehensively chronicle a migratory labor system practiced on Long Island that was rife with brutality, corruption and relentless exploitation of farmworkers for more than half a century in one of the most affluent counties in the United States less than 100 miles from the heart of New York City. So brutal was this era that a local news reporter once described it as a “20th century form of slavery.”
Secondly, the book details a system of labor that valued industry far greater than human life, along with undertones of racial animus and hostility towards migrant workers, all recurring themes that plague our society today. Lastly, the exclusion of federal and state labor laws enabled the brutal treatment of the thousands of farm workers during this era. New York would not pass a state labor law to improve working standards for farm laborers until 2019; nearly eight decades after the opening of the first labor camp and far too late for the thousands of farm workers who languished on Long Island and throughout the state during the 20th century. As such, this book adds many vital lessons to the study of American labor.
“Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood” is more than just a book that covers an obscure part of Long Island’s history. It is the resurrection and preservation of a lost dark era — one to be known, studied and, most importantly, remembered. If we lack the resolve to preserve such history, then that history disappears, leaving us with an irreplaceable void.
Mark Torres is the author of “Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood” (The History Press, 2021). Torres has also authored two fictional crime novels titled “A Stirring in the North Fork” and “Adeline,” along with a labor union-related children’s book titled “Good Guy Jake.” Mark is also a labor attorney who represents thousands of hardworking individuals and their families throughout the greater New York area. He has a law degree from Fordham Law School and a bachelor’s degree in history from New York University.
Torres will join Hofstra University as an adjunct assistant professor in January 2023, teaching a course called “Migrant Labor in New York,” which will feature the history discussed in his book along with contemporary issues faced by agricultural laborers in New York State.