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

 

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 77 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner 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? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

July 06, 2017
· 22 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
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DSA New Member Orientation Call

July 09, 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.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

Running for the National Political Committee

July 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join this call to hear a presentation and ask questions about the role, duties and time commitment of a member of DSA's National Political Committee. In the meantime, check out the information already on our website about the NPC.

Feminist Working Group

July 12, 2017

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
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Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
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Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.