New York, NY — A riveting new book titled Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood will be released on March 22, 2021. LaborPress sat down for a Q & A with its author Mark Torres.
LP: Please share with us a brief history of your activities as a union activist/organizer.
MT: I have served as the General Counsel for Teamsters Local 810 for the last 12 years. I tirelessly represent the Union and thousands of unionized workers and their families throughout the greater New York area. I have a law degree from Fordham University School of Law and a bachelor’s degree in history from New York University. I achieved these academic milestones while working full time as a Refrigeration Engineer at New York University (where I was also a union shop steward) and attending class in the evenings, all while raising a family. My commitment to the Labor movement spans more than 30 years.
LP: Tell us about the tragic fire that occurred in 1961 on the North Fork of Long Island.
MT: During the early morning hours of October 8, 1961, firefighters responded to a raging fire at the infamous farm labor camp on Cox Lane in Cutchogue. For years, the camp had been used to house hundreds of migrant workers who travelled from other states to harvest potatoes and other crops on the vast farms of Long Island. The fire began after a leaky kerosene stove inside one of the camp’s barracks exploded. Within minutes, flames engulfed the 100-foot-by-25-foot wooden structure. It took several hours and over 120 firemen to extinguish the blaze. When they did, they learned that the fire claimed the lives of three migrant workers and a fourth man died from his injuries at a nearby hospital later that day. The other occupants of the barracks barely escaped without injury.
LP: What was the cause determined to be?
MT: Local police investigated the scene and discovered that one worker attempted to light the stove and the kerosene, which had leaked nearby, caused the explosion. Detectives further learned that, although kerosene stoves were barred from the camp, the one that caused the fire was snuck in by the workers to use for cooking because they struggled to afford the 75-cent cost for meals at the camp. Despite the four deaths, the fire was ultimately ruled to be an accident and no charges were filed.
LP: Tell us about the workers that it affected.
MT: The migrant workers at the camp were part of the migratory labor system utilized in Suffolk County throughout the latter part of the 20th century. This system was rife with abuse and economic exploitation as workers were forced to reside in dangerous slum-like camps. The time period of my book includes the first labor camp in 1943 until 2000 when many of the camps dwindled away. During this period, there were thousands of workers used for farming purposes. They included workers from Jamaica, Barbados, Mexico and Puerto Rico and later workers from the American south were primarily used.
LP: You say this incident was not exclusive. Who were the workers that were involved in these other deadly incidents?
MT: The book chronicles several deadly events. In one specific period in 1959, 8 people perished in an 11-day period. This included adults and very young children.
LP: Who were the critics of the conditions of these camps, and how did they fight to improve the lot of the migrant workers?
MT: Critics of this corrupt system included local and national clergy, social justice groups, local reporters, and other outspoken individuals who at times braved death threats and scorn as they spoke out against the system.
LP: Are working conditions for some as bad and dangerous now as they were then, and if so, can you give examples and tell us what is being done to combat them?
MT: While the era of the camps that I have covered in the book is generally gone forever, most farmworkers in this country continue to face abuse, exploitation, discrimination, and the lack of legal protections that most other workers in this country enjoy.
LP: What motivated you to write this book?
MT: This is an important part of Labor and human rights history that has never before been written about. I first learned about it in 2015 and incorporated it into my debut novel A Stirring in the North Fork. When I revisited it, I realized the importance of preserving this work and the more I researched the topic, the greater my obligation grew to tell it.
Since there is no primary source of reference, I felt like many times I was chasing a ghost. However, I embarked on an extensive research project which included a review of more than 300 newspaper articles; I studied documents at local historical societies and libraries; I viewed several relevant documentaries; I interviewed charitable groups and individuals with first or second hand knowledge; and reviewed more than a thousand documents after submitting an information request to local government agencies. No stone was left unturned as the importance of the topic required it.
My passion for Labor and human rights certainly drove me to write this story. Although I have never had the occasion to represent farmworkers, I certainly have a new-found respect and sympathy for their plight. After all, an injustice in the workplace anywhere is an injustice in the workplace everywhere. While I am currently studying other potential historical topics, I am eager to educate the public on this history via virtual lectures hosted by universities, libraries and historical societies.