Bracero Program Will Hurt Farmworkers

by David Bacon

Migrant farmworkers stopped work at Sakuma Farms in Washington state to raise the piece rate for picking—and to try to stop the grower from replacing them with contract guestworkers from Mexico. The Sakuma Farms workers are mostly indigenous Mixtec and Triqui migrants from Oaxaca and southern Mexico, who now live in the U.S.  Guestworker programs give employers leverage to pit workers against each other. Photo: David Bacon.strikebacon.jpg

On Saturday, Oct 3,  immigrant rights groups rallied  in many cities to demand immigration reform. Some are asking the House of Representatives to pass a bill similar to the one passed by the Senate in June (S. 744). The Republican leadership in the House has refused to hold such a vote

There is no question that we need immigration reform. Eleven million people have no legal status. Four hundred thousand are deported every year. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been fired because they’re undocumented. But as we push for reform, we need to look closely at what’s actually on the table. We need a reality check.

One of the most important parts of the Senate’s bill, and of all the “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals, is a big increase in guestworker programs. Employers demand them as a price for supporting legalization of the undocumented. But our history tells us that this is a very high price. Especially for farmworkers, guestworker programs have been a terrible idea.

Most media coverage of immigration accepts as fact the claims by growers that they can’t get enough workers to harvest crops. Agribusiness wants a new guestworker program, and complaints of a labor shortage are their justification. But a little investigation of the actual unemployment rate in farmworker communities leads to a different picture.

The labor shortage is largely a fiction. I’ve spent over a decade traveling through California valleys and have yet to see fruit rotting because of a lack of labor to pick it. I have seen some pretty miserable conditions for workers, though.

The wages these families earn are barely enough to survive. As Abe Lincoln said, “Labor creates all wealth”—but farmworkers get precious little of it. Farmworkers are worse off today than they’ve been for over two decades.

Labor Shortage a Myth

Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the influence of the United Farm Workers, union contracts guaranteed twice the minimum wage of the time. Today, the hourly wage in almost every farm job is the minimum wage—$8 an hour in California, $7.25 elsewhere under federal law. If wages had kept up with that UFW base rate, farmworkers today would be making $16 an hour. But they’re not.

If there were a labor shortage so acute that growers were having a hard time finding workers, they would be raising wages to make the jobs more attractive. But they aren’t.

In fact, despite claims of no workers, rural unemployment is high. Today’s unemployment rate in Delano, birthplace of the UFW, is 30 percent. Last year in the Salinas Valley, the nation’s salad bowl, it swung between 12 and 22 percent.

Yet growers want to be able to bring workers into the country on guestworker visas that say they have to work at close to minimum wage in order to stay, and must be deported if they are out of work longer than a brief time.

The industry often claims that if it doesn’t get this, consumers will have to pay a lot more for fruit and vegetables. But low wages haven’t kept prices low. The supermarket price of fruit has more than doubled in the last two decades.

Unions Make the Difference

Low wages have a human cost. Families live in cramped trailers, or packed like sardines in apartments and garages, with many people sleeping in a single room.

Over the last half-century, growers have demolished most of their old labor camps for migrant workers. These were never great places to live, but having no place is worse.
 Today migrant workers often live in cars, sometimes even sleeping in the fields or under the trees.

In past years I’ve seen children working in fields in northern Mexico, but this year I saw them working here too. When families bring their kids to work, it’s not because they don’t value their education or future. It’s because they can’t make ends meet with the labor of adults alone.

What would make a difference?

Unions would. The UFW pushed wages up decades ago, getting the best standard of living California farmworkers ever received. But growers have been implacably hostile to union organizing. For guestworkers and undocumented workers alike, joining a union or demanding rights can mean risking not just firing but deportation.

Enforcing the existing law would also better workers’ lives. California Rural Legal Assistance does a heroic job inspecting field conditions and helping workers understand their rights. But that’s an uphill struggle too. According to the Indigenous Farm Worker Survey, a third of the workers surveyed still get paid less than the minimum. Many are poisoned with pesticides, suffer from heat exhaustion, and work in illegal conditions.

Give workers real legal status. Farmworkers need a permanent residence visa, not a guestworker visa conditioned on their employment. This would ensure their right to organize without risking deportation. Organization in turn would bring greater equality, stability, and recognition of their important contributions—not to mention higher pay.

Don’t Repeat a Bad Idea

But growers don’t want to raise wages to attract labor. Instead, they want workers on temporary visas, not permanent ones—a steady supply of people who can work but can’t stay, or who get deported if they become unemployed. This is a repeat of the old, failed bracero program of the 1940s and ’50s and of today’s H2A guestworker visa program.

The H2A program mandates a guestworker wage that supposedly doesn’t undermine existing wages, called an “adverse effect” wage rate. The highest in the country is in Washington State—$12/hour, $2.81 above the state’s minimum. In effect, however, it functions as a ceiling on wages for all farmworkers, since growers can replace them with workers at that “adverse effect” wage.

The Senate bill would lower that wage to $9.64. Some bills in the House would take it down even further. None of these wages allow a family to live a decent life.

With a temporary labor program, farm wages will not rise. Instead, farmworkers will continue to subsidize agribusiness with their low wages, in the name of keeping agriculture “competitive.” Strikes and unions that raise family income will be regarded as a threat.

We’ve seen this before. During the bracero program, when resident workers struck, growers brought in braceros. And if braceros struck, they were deported. That’s why Cesar Chavez, Ernesto Galarza, and Bert Corona finally convinced Congress to end the program in 1964. The UFW’s first grape strike began the year after the bracero law was repealed.

Today immigrant workers who already live in the U.S., like those who recently held a strike at Washington State’s Sakuma Berry Farms [7], are being pitted against modern-day braceros brought in under the H2A program. Ryan Sakuma says he won’t pay strikers more than he’s paying the H2A workers, and sometimes offers even less. Workers fear that if they protest, they won’t get hired for next year’s picking season, and others will take their places.

Farmworkers perform valuable work and need healthy conditions and security, not an immigration reform that will keep them in poverty. Giving employers another bracero program is a failed idea, one we shouldn’t repeat. Farm jobs that can support families is a better one.

Call to action:

While we’re out demonstrating for immigration reform on October 8, we can help the Sakuma Berry Farms strikers by boycotting the two customers who are buying the berries—Haagen Dasz ice cream and Driscoll berries. For more information, go here.

Republished from Labor Notes with permission from David Bacon. http://www.labornotes.org/2013/10/viewpoint-immigration-bills-new-bracero-program-will-hurt-farmworkers

David Bacon is a California writer and photographer and was a union organizer for two decades. His new book, The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration, was just published by Beacon Press.

David Bacon will be a featured speaker at the DSA National Convention, Building the Next Left, Oct.25-27, in Oakland, California, along with Tom Hayden, Michael Lighty, José La Luz, John Nichols, Catherine Tactaquin, Steve Williams, Maria Svart and others.  For registration information go here.

http://www.dsausa.org/convention

 

 

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 36 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
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Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 6 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
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You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 69 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.