Pickers, Immigrants, and the Exploitation of Farm Workers

 New Orleans  A lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center named Jim Knoepp found a way to get my attention when he was quoted in a story about potential employment discrimination between United States workers and immigrant farm labors, saying, “Think of trash collection.  That’s not very appealing, either.  But if you offer decent wage and conditions, people do it.”  He’s right, you know.  Our union, Local 100 of the United Labor Unions, has represented hoppers, the laborers on the back of garbage trucks in New Orleans and “gunslingers” as they are called in Dallas for 15 years and moved the wages from minimum to almost twice that during that period.  It’s a hard job, but not as hard as it was, and we have some men who have been on the trucks for years.

            Knoepp made the point while talking about an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by African-American workers against big onion growers around Vidalia, Georgia where 10,000 H-2A visa holders, largely from Mexico, are working.  The local workers claim that the visa holding immigrant workers are given hiring preference, which is of course illegal.

            A quote by an operations manager, Jon Schwalls, from Southern Valley offers prima facie evidence virtually proving the point:

“When Jose gets on the bus to come here from Mexico he is committed to the work,” he said. “It’s like going into the military. He leaves his family at home. The work is hard, but he’s ready. A domestic wants to know: What’s the pay? What are the conditions? In these communities, I am sorry to say, there are no fathers at home, no role models for hard work. They want rewards without input.”

Ironically, Southern Valley has already entered into a consent decree negotiated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and agreed to make changes.  As part of the consent decree, Southern Valley has to provide daily bus transportation and prove that it is training and retraining Americans.  So far the federal government is not impressed, and the company is whining about the cost.  One of the changes must NOT have been to stop being racist about both African-Americans and Latinos.

Dawson Morton, a lawyer with Georgia Legal Services hits the nail on the head:

“I am not arguing that agricultural work is a good job, I am arguing that it could be a better job. If you want experienced people, train them. Just because people are easier to supervise, agricultural employers shouldn’t be able to import them. It is not true that Americans don’t want the work. What the farmers are really saying is that blacks just don’t want to work.”

Cindy Hahamovitch, an expert on guest worker programs, pointed out that in the last 40 years farm labor employment flipped from 2/3rds American and to 1/3rd foreign in the 1970’s to 1/3rd local and 2/3rds immigrant by the 1980’s to almost exclusively foreign now.  As Knoepp pointed out “wages have stagnated and conditions have deteriorated.”  The early comment from the farm manager makes it clear that they believe that they can exploit the workers at will.  The lawyers and common sense tells anyone who might care that this is a stacked deck designed to lower wages and perpetuate horrid living and working conditions to such a degree that only workers with no other choices – and a roundtrip ticket back to their home countries – will do it.

This isn’t about immigration or immigration reform, just plain old worker exploitation almost as old as the dirt in the ground where all of these workers labor or at least try to do so.

Farm Workers Audio Blog

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How Critical is “Future Flow” to Labor Unions?

New Orleans    Senator Mark Rubio of Florida cautions that there may be much work to be done on a new immigration bill, but I really wonder if that actually means that he is not ready to slip from attention yet or is trying to drag a potential bill down with some of his own issues?  Optimism broke out when the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO seemed to come to some tentative agreements on “future flow” of immigrant workers into the United States.  Future flow refers to the number of visas that will be given annually to guest workers.  Classically, business wants more cheap labor, while labor resists pushing down more skilled wage rates by allowing too many foreign workers into the country.   This disagreement was critical to killing the bill proposed by Arizona’s Senator John McCain and others during the Bush Administration.

This is a classic issue between business and labor, but I wonder how much it is really a contemporary economic concern, especially for the declining membership of unions?

On the lower wage side of union membership, the United Farmworkers, who potentially would be most impacted by temporary visas for additional farm labor hearkening back to the bracero program years ago, have indicated for years their willingness to make a deal in this area.  The Service Employees, although not a member of the AFL-CIO, is at the table with Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, a former immigrant farmworker and UFW organizer in his youth, and SEIU has been a leader in advocating for immigration reform even though theoretically its lower wage janitors, landscapers, and others would feel the most wage pressure from lower paid, temporary foreign workers.  Many immigrant workers dominate the home construction industry and there is always hue and cry from construction unions about these kinds of issues, but in reality there is little job competition or wage pressure in the downtown, big development construction projects where unions still have density.

Furthermore, other than the increasingly, politically marginalized agricultural interests, the big drool for more visas comes from the high tech industry and its hopes of raiding top flight software engineers and other geeks from around the world.  None of these companies, aside from some legacy plant workers for Xerox, are arguably union, so more tech visas is not something that labor is going to care about much.

Reports indicate that the sugar in the deal for labor was raising the minimum wages of visa workers so that a higher floor was set.  This is a smart move!  Given that we can no longer pretend, as our membership numbers plummet, that we are really protecting members as opposed to just being a cranky, old uncle advocate, by raising the minimum wage standards, we both protect UFW and other unions and help whatever members we have left by giving our unions more leverage at the bargaining table to push up wages by arguing about compression coming from visa workers.

Finally taking a deep drink of reality, rather than having the vapors from our own nostalgia, may have allowed labor to make a good deal on immigration reform, and this is a good thing!

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