Farm Workers Need Fair Wages, Not Open Borders

It may come as a surprise to today's liberal community and those politicians who identify with that community but one of the longtime opponents of allowing illegal immigrants into the US was Cesar Chavez, a founder and longtime president of the United Farm Workers.

As AlterNet staff writer Maria Luisa Tucker recently pointed out, "Chavez was no friend to undocumented immigrants during his time. He was born a US citizen in Arizona and was loyal to American farm workers. In fighting for the rights of agricultural workers, in 1969 his union protested farms that hired illegal immigrants as scabs during a union strike. They even reported some suspected illegal immigrants to INS."

While today's illegal immigrants are not necessarily being used as "strikebreakers," they are in fact being used by corporate America to break the back of our nation's organized work force.

Ignored by our national TV and media pundits in their alarm over the influx of foreign workers, principally from Mexico, the immigration issue has both its historical roots and an abject lesson regarding what is wrong about our whole so-called "free enterprise" system.

To begin with, the question needs to be asked: Who really are "illegal" immigrants on territory that now comprises one-third of the US land mass and which in fact belonged to Mexico prior to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848?

Here was land literally stolen from the Mexican people by a handful of thievish land barons in what the famous land reformer Henry George once described as "a history of greed, of perjury, of corruption, of spoliation and high-handed robbery for which it would be difficult to find a parallel."

The long-term consequences of such action was that in the words of Ernesto Galarza, author of the classic Merchants of Labor, the Treaty left "the toilers on one side of the border, the capital and the best land on the other."

Therefore, it is no accident that throughout US history the chronic areas of rural poverty have remained the South, where the plantation system has dominated the agricultural scene, and the Southwest, where the vast tracts of productive land have remained in the hands of a privileged few throughout the years.

During those years these large growers have developed the mistaken notion that the nation and our government should provide -- nay, owed them -- a cheap, unorganized work force.

With such initiatives as the bracero program, originally passed by the Congress during World War II as an emergency manpower act and which remained in place until 1964 when it was terminated, and in recent years so-called "guest worker" programs, corporate agribusiness has managed to hoodwink politicians and the public into thinking that unless these programs were continued our crops would rot in the fields.

This same type of thinking also motivated the large meat and poultry slaughter houses in the Midwest, beginning in the late 1960s, to aggressively promote the idea that they too should be entitled to the "the slaves we rent."

They conveniently ignore the fact that at this same time they launched an aggressive campaign against the unions representing those packing house workers, closing plants, slashing wages and reopening plants with cheap labor, people who were then forced to work in conditions that made the industry the most hazardous occupation in the US.

Meantime, more of these firms were merging, becoming more politically powerful, reporting record profits, while actively recruiting labor in Mexico.

During the course of all these "cost-cutting" efforts by corporate agribusiness, we have seen millions of family farms unable, because of their size, to compete with these large corporate entities, slave labor costs and other additional government subsidies, and eventually go out of business. We have also seen the ranks of the independent cattle producers and poultry growers and the domestic labor force in the meat and poultry industry continue to dwindle and disappear.

So it is time that this nation and its elected representatives face the facts. We know from both academic and government studies throughout the years that a domestic farm labor force and packing house workers are available, provided they are paid fair wages and work in safe and healthy workplaces. We also know, from what 20th-century history tells us, that family farmers and independent cattle producers can prosper if they are paid a fair price for what they produce.

It was Chavez who remarked to me in a conversation on the first day I met him that he decried the farm labor contracting system employed by so many of the growers. "I would rather there be no union at all than to recognize the rotten contractor system," he angrily declared.

Yet today, as Los Angeles Times staffer Anna Gorman writes, "Even as pressure builds in Congress to crack down on the hiring of undocumented workers, the involvement of contractors and subcontractors could make enforcement nearly impossible, labor experts, government officials and immigration policy critics say."

As she goes on to note, current federal law states that companies face criminal or civil sanctions only if they knowingly employ undocumented workers.

"An easy defense ... would be to say that they used this subcontractor who they assumed was checking the documents," said Jennifer Silliman, assistant special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "It gives a level of deniability."

Gorman concludes that "whether employers invoke the use of contractors as a defense or not, immigration authorities often don't go after the employer when a contractor is involved."

Unfortunately, through the years corporate agribusiness has fought hard to keep the farm labor contractor system in place with little or no regulatory controls. In many instances that fight has been led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, who themselves in many cases serve as a contractor.

In 1983 North Carolina, to clarify a state law that would be in conformity of Article XIII of the Bill of Rights, placed a measure on the state ballot that gained the support of every major organization in the state -- except the AFBF, as they feared it might somehow jeopardize a farm "guest worker" program of which they were the contractor.

Corporate agribusiness is one the most profitable sectors of our economy based on return of stockholders' equity. Even being forced to pay a fair wage to their labor force and a fair price to their suppliers, the effect on their profit picture would be but a small price to pay for a healthy agricultural and rural economy.

A.V. Krebs ( publishes the online Agribusiness Examiner. See his book, La Causa: And the Word Was Made Flesh at (click "Essays," then "Manuscripts").

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2006

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