In 1947, after reading a newspaper article about the crash of a plane carrying a group of Mexican contract workers back to the border, Woody Guthrie wrote a poem, later set to music by Martin Hoffman. In haunting lyrics Guthrie describes how it caught fire as it flew low over Los Gatos Canyon, near the farming town of Coalinga, at the edge of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Observers below saw people and belongings flung out of the aircraft before it hit the ground – falling, as Guthrie sang, like leaves.
While the Coalinga Record carried the names of the pilot and Border Patrol agent on the flight, no record was ever kept of the workers’ identities. They were all listed on the death certificates as “deportee,” and that became the name of the song.
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
Today, the word illegal is used to mean a person without immigration papers. But Guthrie uses it in the sense of an earlier era -- of being excluded. To him, it means someone who is not a real resident of the place where he or she works, not part of a community or accepted by the surrounding society.
For 22 years, an army of transient workers like these harvested U.S. crops, and for two years, laid its railroad tracks as well. At the time, being illegal and being a bracero, or contract worker, was almost the same thing. People went back and forth between the two categories so often that the words were used interchangeably. The growers who sent these dozens to their death in a fireball were taking advantage of this fact. Workers caught without papers were often given the opportunity to be deported, and flown back to Mexicali, on the border. There they would be hired again and return, this time under contract. Some growers even dropped a dime on their own undocumented workers, a process they called “drying out wetbacks.”
Today those who remember the bracero program are in their sixties and seventies. Rigoberto Garcia, whose memories of his bracero experience are still fresh, lives with his wife Amelia in a small trailer in the Palo Verde Valley, at the edge of the desert by the Colorado River. At 68 years old he was still working in the fields, picking lemons and grapefruit. A few of the bracero camps he remembers remain standing on the outskirts of Blythe, not far from his trailer park. No one has lived in them for twenty years.
“I went as a bracero four times,” Garcia recalls. “Each time we got on the train in Empalme, went all the way to Mexicali [both cities in northern Mexico], and from there on busses to El Centro [in California’s Imperial Valley]. Thousands of men came every day. Once we got there, they’d send us in groups of two hundred, as naked as we came into the world, into a big room about sixty feet square. Then men would come in masks, with tanks on their backs, and they’d fumigate us from top to bottom. Supposedly we were flea-bitten and germ-ridden.
“Then they’d send us into a huge bunk house, where the contractors would come from the growers associations in counties like San Joaquin, Yolo, Sacramento, and Fresno. The heads of the associations would line us up. When they saw someone they didn’t like, they’d say, ‘You, no.’ Others, they’d say, ‘You, stay.’ They didn't want old people -- just young, strong ones. And I was young, so I never had problems getting chosen.”
Memories of a vanished past? In 2004, when President George W. Bush finally introduced his administration’s long-awaited plan for immigration reform, it sounded remarkably like the one Garcia recalled. Even the old practice of transforming deportees into braceros returned as a provision of the proposed reforms.
The United States still has a program for guest workers in agriculture, the H2-A program, much like the old bracero scheme. Every season immigrant farm workers in North and South Carolina, Georgia and other east coast and southern states pass through the kind of mass shapeup Garcia describes. While the delousing (probably with DDT, given the era), is no longer a feature, Bruce Goldstein, co-director of the Farmworker Justice Fund in Washington DC, says 10,000 workers are processed in North Carolina’s centers every year – “parceled out among growers in a huge barn.”
And while the H2-A program only brought about 40,000 people a year through 2006, out of an estimated 2,500,000 workers in US agriculture, it may become the centerpiece of vastly expanded schemes in other industries. Employers dependent on undocumented labor increasingly call for replacing them with a more predictable workforce of contract laborers. Garcia’s memories could describe, not just a distant past, but a rapidly approaching future.
“We slept in big bunkhouses,” he remembers. “It was like being in the army. We woke up when they sounded a horn or turned on the lights. We’d make our beds and go to the bathroom, eat breakfast, and they’d give us our lunch -- some tacos or a couple of sandwiches, an apple and a soda. When we got back to camp, we’d wash up and eat.. Picking tomatoes, you really get dirty, like a dog. If we wanted to go into town, in Stockton there was a Spaniard who would send busses out to the camps to give people a ride. He was making a business out of selling us shirts, clothes, and medicine.”
Since Garcia’s bracero days, the housing situation for farm workers has actually deteriorated. In most parts of California and many other states growers no longer want to house workers who harvest their crops. At harvest time it’s common to see cars parked on the outskirts of farm worker towns, families sleeping beside them.
The current H2-A program requires growers to provide housing to the contract laborers they bring into the country, and their barracks or trailers are inspected -- in theory. But in the fall of 2000, in negotiations over expanding the program, agribusiness associations proposed scrapping this requirement. “With a big expansion it’s unlikely there would be the resources for inspections,” Goldstein predicted at the time. “Instead, they could give workers a housing allowance, if the government certified that there was no housing shortage.” The barracks of Garcia’s memory might be preferable to what such an allowance could buy. The housing supply is very limited in farm worker communities, especially during harvest, and its condition ranks at the bottom. In fact, grower insistence on eliminating the requirement might even backfire, according to Goldstein. “You can imagine that a lot of people in rural communities would freak out if growers simply dumped a contract workforce on the local housing market,” he speculated.
Housing is one element of living conditions. Another is food. Garcia remembers that food in the camps was often bad. One year one of the workers in his crew died of food poisoning. “Something he ate wasn’t good,” he recalls, “but what could we do? We were all worried that what happened to him could happen to any of us. They said they’d left soap on the plates, because lots of us got diarrhea, but this boy died.” According to Goldstein, “things have improved a little. Today [H2-A] workers complain that the food often isn’t culturally appropriate, but no one’s dying of food poisoning. But if a much larger guest worker system is reestablished, it really would look like what we had during the bracero program. How else could they manage such a workforce?"
Braceros did not always willingly acquiesce in their exploitation. California’s legendary immigrant rights campaigner, Bert Corona, recalls in his autobiography not only that braceros sometimes went on strike, but that local Latino communities would bring them food and try to prevent their deportation. Garcia also remembers strikes. “One of my brothers went on strike in Phoenix because they were picking cotton and the crop was bad,” he says. “They threatened to send them back to Mexico, and put them on a bus to El Centro. He got strikes into his blood, and later worked with Cesar Chavez [co-founder of the United Farm Workers] for many years. Me too. When the farm workers' movement came along, we already knew how to organize from people who’d participated in those conflicts.” But while some braceros fought to change conditions, and small rebellions raised wages temporarily, the threat of deportation was enough to stop any larger strike and union effort until 1965, the year after the program was abolished.
The H2-A program establishes a minimum wage rate, a little over $7/hour in most areas in 2000, and about $8 by 2006. “If workers demand more,” Goldstein said, “the employer can say, ‘I’m offering all the Department of Labor requires. If you don’t like it, I can get more workers.’ In effect, the minimum standard becomes the maximum standard. The Department says you can’t fill a vacancy created by a strike with a guest worker, but they define this so narrowly that it’s virtually impossible to enforce.” Furthermore, H-2 workers cannot lawfully choose to leave their job and work elsewhere, giving employers even more leverage.
Despite low wages and bad conditions, however, Garcia did eventually find an employer who felt compassion for braceros. “In San Diego I worked for a Japanese grower named Suzuki, a good man,” he remembers. “During the war they had put him into one of the camps. He told us, ‘I know what your life is like, because we lived that way too, in concentration camps watched over with rifles.’ So he got [permanent residence] papers for all of us. That was the last contract I worked.” According to Goldstein, some growers in Canada even go to the Mexican hometowns of their workers, to attend the local fiesta. One New Hampshire apple grower attempted to take over the local growers’ association to raise the wages for H2-A workers, only to wind up losing his own seat on the group’s board. “Occasionally there is a person who wants to be fair,” he said, “but the economic forces at work are too powerful. You can’t really go against them.”
For Garcia, the bracero program was the route to establishing a life in the US, but it was a hard one. He’s glad his children won’t face it. “When I fixed my immigration status, I decided I wouldn’t go back, and would bring my wife here instead. I was tired of being alone. That was the hardest thing -- the loneliness, even though you have the security of three meals, a place to stay, your job. I missed my land and my wife, but it was important to send my kids to school. That’s what I was trying to do as a bracero. I wanted a real future, and we knew that we were just casual workers – we would never be able to stay. So I had to look for another way. Eventually I got my papers and now I live like anyone else. Those experiences were the beginning of the life I’m leading now. We survived, and here I am. But I always remember how I got here. Illegal, a bracero.”
During the 1950s, growers’ use of braceros as strikebreakers allowed them to undermine the ability of the farm workers to demand higher wages. Cesar Chavez, then an organizer for the Community Service Organization in Oxnard, California, organized protests over this practice. Ernesto Galarza, a labor organizer and former diplomat, lobbied against the program in Washington. Chavez later said that it was impossible to organize the United Farm Workers until Congress terminated the bracero law, Public Law 78, in 1964. The grape strike in which the union was born began the following year. According to the UFW’s Mark Grossman, “Chavez believed agribusiness' chief farm labor strategy for decades was maintaining a surplus labor supply to keep wages and benefits depressed, and fight unionization.”
With this goal in mind, starting in the late 1990s growers began a concerted effort to expand the H2-A program. To justify their proposal they claim they face a dire labor shortage. According to Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based project organizing farm workers in south Florida, "it's a lie. Everyday in the papers you read about the high numbers of unemployed workers. The problem is that most workers in this country do not want to do the work we do for the wages we're paid. We average $7500 a year and the conditions are so exploitative that any reasonable person would prefer receiving unemployment benefits. The answer is to raise wages and improve working conditions."
In a series of articles in the New York Times, however, reporter Julia Preston interviewed growers, agribusiness spokespeople and agricultural economists who said that crops were rotting in the fields for lack of workers to pick them. U.S. agriculture would go to Mexico, they warned, if Congress didn’t expand the guest worker program. California grower Steve Saroni, who told Preston that without guest workers, “I have no choice but to offshore my operation.” Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, claimed that "the choice is simple: Do we want to import workers or import food?" And agricultural economist James Holt told Congress that "the U.S. agricultural industry is in the midst of a labor crisis, the resolution of which will determine whether U.S. producers…are more than marginal participants in U.S. and global markets." None felt that raising wages would encourage more people to take farm labor jobs. “I would have raised my wages,” Steve Winant, a pear grower, told Preston. “But there weren’t any people to pay.” Saroni, moving his harvest to Mexico’s Celaya Valley, explained that “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I did that [raised wages] I would raise my costs and I would not have a legal work force.”
The cry was taken up by the Wall Street Journal, which made incredible claims of farm losses: “The problem was bad enough last year that some 20% of American agricultural products were stranded at the farm gate,” it asserted in a July, 2007 editorial, which claimed California would lose 30% of its crops, and that “farmers in North Carolina lost nearly a third of their cucumber crop last year.” North Carolina growers are probably the most active users of the H2-A program, but apparently the workers they brought in weren’t enough.
Growers charge the H2-A housing requirement is helping to cause the terrible shortage. “When you’re having to pay housing costs, it’s very difficult to survive and wait for the next agricultural season to come around,” Jack King, head of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the Times. After the Bush administration’s immigration reform bill failed to pass Congress in 2007, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez promised to make guest worker programs more attractive to employers. He proposed to eliminate the current H2-A requirement that growers offer jobs first to U.S. residents, before bringing in contract labor from outside the country.
The same month growers told Preston their pears were rotting on the ground in California’s Lake County, farm laborers in next door Tehama County were leaving in large numbers for the grape harvest to the south, because there was so little work picking olives. If growers’ claims of a labor shortage were true, workers would have gone to nearby Lake County instead. Growers told Preston that 70,000 of the state’s 450,000 farm workers were missing,. But Lake County’s unemployment rate at the time of the articles, according to the state’s Employment Development Department, was 7.2%.
Unemployment in rural California counties generally averages twice that of urban counties. San Francisco’s unemployment, for instance, was 4.4%, and Los Angeles 4.9% in the same period. In the Imperial Valley, next to the Mexican border, unemployment was 16.6%, and in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, it ranged from 7.7 to 10.5%. Delano, birthplace of the United Farm Workers, had a rate of 23.2%, despite construction of two new prisons on the town’s outskirts. Unemployment in Salinas, the state’s vegetable capital, was 15.2%. In the careful grey language of the Congressional Research Service, “trends in the agricultural labor market generally do not suggest the existence of a nationwide shortage of domestically available farm workers.” The CRS report said rural unemployment “remains well above the U.S. average, and underemployment among farm workers remains substantial.” As a result, it notes that agricultural labor earns “about 50¢ for every dollar paid to other employees in the private sector.”
Abe Lincoln said “labor creates all wealth,” but farm workers get precious little of it. Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the influence of the United Farm Workers, union contracts guaranteed almost twice the minimum wage of the time. Today, the hourly wage in almost every farm job is the minimum wage -- $6.75 an hour in 2007 in California. And taking inflation into account, the minimum is lower today than it was then. Farm workers are worse off than they’ve been for over two decades, while the supermarket price of fruit has more than doubled.
US agriculture is addicted to a vast reservoir of cheap labor. Outside of the brief years of the Dust Bowl in the mid-1930s, farm work has been the labor of people of color. African Americans made up the rural labor force of the south for centuries, first as slaves, then as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and finally wage laborers at the bottom of the scale. In the highly developed, corporate agriculture of the west and southwest, immigrant workers from Mexico, Latin America and Asia constitute the rural labor force. Their wages are also at the bottom. In fact, everywhere in the world, rural standards of living are far below those in cities.
Contrary to predictions of huge crop losses caused by labor shortages, nationwide planting of labor-intensive crops like cherries and strawberries has grown by 20% over five years, according to Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California’s main agricultural campus in Davis. Income hasn’t gone up nearly as quickly. Martin says farm wages average $9.06 per hour. This average is just ahead of the minimum wage, but it includes skilled, better-paying jobs like equipment operators and supervisors. By comparison, the average non-farm wage is $16.75.
Wages make up only 6¢ out of every dollar charged for produce in the supermarket. Wages could double, and consumers would hardly know the difference. This, in fact, was the point made by Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers, when they successfully convinced McDonald’s and other fast food chains to increase the price they were paying for tomatoes, and ensure the raise was passed along to the pickers. The United Farm Workers made a similar proposal during their organizing drive in Watsonville, California, in 2000- -- “5¢ for Fairness.” Here again wages could increase significantly if consumers paid a nickel more per box of strawberries.
Farm wages, however, rose only a tiny half percent a year from 2000 to 2006. In California and Florida, which employ more farm workers than other states, they went up even more slowly. If there was a huge labor shortage, it didn’t inspire growers to pay better in order to attract more workers, despite what they told Preston. They wanted a larger labor supply, but at a price they were willing to pay.
In housing, low wages mean that families live in cramped trailers, or packed like sardines into apartments and garages, many people sleeping in a single room. Indigenous workers from Mexico and Central America have worse conditions than most, along with workers who travel with the crops. Migrants often live in cars, sleeping in the fields or under trees because their income is too low to rent anything better. It’s not uncommon to see children working in fields in northern Mexico, but they work in U.S. fields too. Families bring their kids to work, not because they don’t value their education or future, but because they can’t make ends meet with the labor of adults alone. Teachers and their supporters fled from Oaxaca’s violence in 2006, only to find conditions that were, in many cases, not so different from those they’d left behind.
The UFW pushed wages up decades ago, getting the best standard of living California farm workers ever received. But growers have been implacably hostile to union organizing, and for undocumented workers, joining a union or demanding rights can mean just firing, but deportation. Tight labor markets usually encourage unions and workers to strike, since it is more difficult for employers to recruit strikebreakers. But the last big strike among California farm workers took place more than 20 years ago. If growers gain much wider use of the H2-A program, strikes and union organizing drives will become even more difficult. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Close to Slavery,” “in practice, there is little difference between the bracero program and the current H-2 guest worker program.”
Copyright of David Bacon. Not to reproduced without permission.