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The Return of Bracero

Ag Lobby in Big New Push

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

With the help of two Democratic senators, the agricultural lobby is poisedto resurrect a version of the infamous Bracero program, and allow Americancompanies to import cheap immigrant labor. The legislation in question wasattached to the Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary appropriations bill,which has already been approved in the Senate by a vote of 68-31 (followinga mere one hour of debate). The House will take up the legislation soon,with a vote expected by the end of October.

American agriculture has long made use of foreign labor. During the late19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of Chinese and Filipinos were grantedshort-term permits to work the fields. The original Bracero program wasapproved during World War II, and allowed companies to make up for laborshortages caused by the war by hiring Mexican farm hands. Bracero was supposedto be a temporary measure, but Congress extended it in 1945. It was finallykilled in 1963, by which time some 4.6 million Mexicans had moved throughthe program.

Big farmers have long dreamed of reviving Bracero, and they have a greatdeal of clout. During the past two years, the industry has funneled about$1 million to members of Congress. The National Council of AgriculturalEmployers, a leading trade group, is spearheading the current drive on Bracero.The Council’s federal lobbying budget for 1997 was more than $200,000. Thatmoney has paid for a number of top lobbyists. More than $60,000 went tofour lobbyists at the firm of McGuiness and Williams, Tim Bartl, Jim Holt,William LaForge and Monte Lake. All learned the legislative secrets of agriculturalpolicy from stints on Capital Hill or at the US Department of Agriculture.Bartl was the former legislative director to Rep. Steve Gunderson, the conservativeRepublican from Wisconsin. Before joining McGuiness and Williams, LaForgespent seven years working for Sen. Thad Cochran, the Mississippi Republican,as legislative director and chief of staff. Before that LaForge served asthe staff director for the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommitteeon agriculture, one of the most powerful staff positions on the Hill.

Another experienced Washington hand hired by the Council is Anthony Podesta,the brother of White House deputy chief of staff John Podesta. “Thegrowers and their lobbyists have been working the Hill and district officeson this issue for more than two years”, says Bruce Goldstein of theFarm Workers Justice Fund. “It’s a nationwide campaign that has costmillions and millions of dollars.”

Over the summer, the growers prodded Democratic Senators Ron Wyden ofOregon, touted as one of Congress’s most liberal members, and Bob Grahamof Florida into drawing up such a plan. If passed, the measure – titled,in true 1984 spirit, the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and SecurityAct — will greatly expand an existing “guest worker” programthat now involves about 20,000 farm laborers.

Along with the agribusiness lobby, Wyden and Graham argue that theirproposal is urgently needed because of labor shortages facing U.S. farmers.Furthermore, supporters of the plan say, U.S. workers simply won’t performhard labor, a fact which forces growers to employ illegal workers. “Thecurrent agricultural labor system, for workers and growers, is a mess”,Wyden said when he introduced the bill last July 21. “It leaves toomany workers in shoddy working conditions, and too many farmers on the brinkof bankruptcy.”

Wyden was flanked that day by Oregon’s other senator, right-winger GordonSmith. Smith also supports the bill, saying that while he is deeply concernedabout protecting farm workers, “Let’s not forget that growers havebeen victimized by this process too”.

None of the arguments advanced by the bill’s supporters can withstandeven casual scrutiny. As Bill Maxwell pointed out in an article for theNew America News Service – which along with Legal Times is one of the fewpublications to cover the story – “Americans do all sorts of tough,dirty seasonal work, laying asphalt on highways, mining coal, roofing in100-plus-degree weather, constructing buildings. The difference is thatthese jobs pay much better and usually offer benefits that everyone otherthan farm workers takes for granted.”

Furthermore, the Government Accounting Office concluded in a December1997 report that “A widespread farm labor shortage does not appearto exist now and is unlikely in the near future. The GAO concluded thatlegislation such as the Wyden-Graham bill would result in the firing oftens of thousands of American workers as growers replace them with cheaperworkers from abroad.

Instead of paying decent wages, the growers would prefer to cut costsby employing easily exploitable Third World workers. And keep in mind herethat wages for U.S. farm workers have been falling steadily for more thana decade, with per capita pay currently amounting to a meager $6,300 peryear.

The bill would further squeeze farm hands and weaken the modest protectionswritten into the current guest worker program. Indeed, Goldstein says thebill is even worse than the original Bracero law. Its chief provisions would:

—kill a law that requires growers to provide housing and transportationto farmhands – as was required under Bracero. Instead, workers would begiven a housing stipend and left to find their own quarters. That won’tbe easy, since the stipend is piddling – for example, $125 a month in Wyden’shome state of Oregon.

—waive the minimum wage requirement for individual workers. Companieswill be able to pay workers as a group, and the group must receive, on average,the minimum wage. In practice, that means that companies will almost certainlypay sub-minimum wage to some employees. Yet another loophole will allowgrowers to, in some cases, avoid paying unemployment insurance.

—revokes a law that forces employers to pay workers for at least 75percent of the contract time for which he or she is hired. Since farm workis unpredictable, this means that some workers may travel from thousandsof miles away and find that themselves unemployed and penniless.

—would end a requirement that growers actively recruit in the US beforeseeking to hire foreign workers.

While Wyden and other bill sponsors declare that they are deeply, deeplyconcerned about farm workers, the chief effect of the bill will be to allowAmerican companies to hire cheap foreign labor without the need to relocateabroad. In an interview with Maxwell, a Georgia onion grower made this pointabsolutely clear: “If we had a bunch of American workers, we’d haveto hire someone like a personnel director to deal with the problems. Thepeople we have now, they come to work. They don’t have kids to pick up fromschool or take to the doctor. They don’t have child support issues. Theydon’t ask to leave early for this and that. They don’t call in sick.If you say to them, ‘Today we need to work for 10 hours,’ they don’t sayanything.” CP