Millions of people have taken to the streets in immigrant-rights protests mostly focused against vicious legislation passed by the U.S. House that would criminalize undocumented workers and anyone who assists them. But the “compromise” proposal in the Senate falls far short of justice.
Among the provisions of the propoal by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy is a guest-worker program that would give legal status to migrant workers brought into the U.S. to work for a specific contract. The politicians claim the guest-worker system would be a generous “reform,” and some leaders among immigrant-rights organizations support it, viewing it as the “realistic” alternative to the House bill.
But in fact the history of the last major guest-worker program in the U.S. — the so-called bracero program, from 1942 to 1964 — shows that the reality of such a system is very different from the rhetoric promoting it.
The bracero program was introduced in 1942, a year after the U.S. entered the Second World War. The program, negotiated between the U.S. and Mexican governments, brought approximately 4.8 million Mexican contract laborers to work in the U.S., primarily as agricultural workers in California and Texas. The term “bracero” refers to those who work with their arms, from the Spanish word for arm “brazo.”
Though it was supposed to be a temporary measure to fill a wartime labor shortage, the program was so lucrative that it was extended until 1964.
The primary purpose and result of the bracero program was to give growers more control over farm labor, immigrant and native alike. The program was immensely profitable for growers, as it enabled them to thwart union organizing efforts and drive down wages of all farm workers.
By the 1940s, the family farm had been largely replaced by large-scale commercial agriculture in western states like California. A decade before, during the struggles of the 1930s, farm workers made huge strides in union organizing that, while not entirely successful, left growers fearful of their potential power.
War mobilization increased demands for production across many industries, threatening the growers’ control over farm labor. Agricultural laborers had increasing opportunities to secure better jobs in manufacturing, transportation and service trades.
Farmers didn’t want to be scrambling to secure a labor force, especially if it meant increasing wages or improving conditions. Growers, processors and federal authorities settled on the bracero program as a means of alleviating this threat.
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The Mexican American Bracero Agreement was signed on July 23, 1942, establishing the Mexican government as recruiters and the U.S. government as distributors of cheap and expendable labor. Mexico had declared war on the Axis powers one month before and was thus under pressure from the U.S. to help it overcome the wartime labor shortage. The majority of “braceros” were assigned to work in agriculture, though a significant minority, about one in four, were contracted to work on the railroads.
The government, newspapers and recruiters in Mexico sold the program through an intensive propaganda campaign. For example, an article titled “Impressions of a Worker,” printed in the Mexico City daily El Universal, quoted Antonio Corrales, who had allegedly just returned from working as a contract worker in California. “We work contentedly, eat with an appetite, amuse ourselves, send our families money, and even save,” he said.
He described the braceros as being “joyfully greeted by the North American farmers,” working eight-hour days in the “best possible conditions,” making exchanges of language lessons with American workers, earning abundant wages, having opportunities to save at least 25 percent of their earnings, and receiving a sympathetic welcome by Americans generally.
This glowing picture contrasted sharply with the actual experience of most braceros.
Braceros were usually afraid to register official complaints, but they suffered from lack of consistent work, long work hours, earnings that barely covered expenses, unauthorized deductions from their pay, meager and poor-quality food rations, run-down and unsanitary housing, dangerous means of transportation, dangerous working conditions that led to disabling or fatal accidents, and even physical abuse, as well as severe racial discrimination.
The contracts stipulated that workers had to leave at the end of the season–a perfect solution to growers’ need for seasonal labor that wouldn’t “burden” local schools or public relief funds.
The bracero agreement stipulated that the contract laborers were to be used only to fill shortages, to be paid at prevailing rates, and not to displace or undercut the wages of domestic workers.
In reality, the opposite occurred. The Farm Placement Service, entrusted by the Department of Labor with determining the need for labor and wages, was far from independent. Many of its officials had worked previously for the California Farm Production Council, a representative of commercial farm interests.
Mexican contract workers often found when they arrived that they were replacing recently fired native-born or non-contract Mexican farm workers. They were almost always paid significantly less than “domestic” laborers, and their availability enabled growers to lower wages for all farm workers.
As one former contract worker explained, “They paid a little more to them, to the domestic people. We knew they were making almost double. They knew that the Mexican people had to work, so they paid us less.”
The agreement’s recognition of braceros’ right to elect their own representatives and provisions for a grievance process weren’t honored in practice. In 1944, there were only 10 inspectors assigned by the Mexican government to investigate conditions and respond to the grievances of more than 62,000 Mexican contract workers who entered the U.S. that year, in addition to the thousands remaining from previous years.
While both governments formally recognized braceros’ right to join unions, the right was nonexistent in reality. When the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU) attempted to organize braceros in 1950, the Department of Labor intervened to sabotage its efforts.
When the program was renegotiated in 1951, the new agreement again recognized the right of braceros to organize through elected representatives. But the Department of Labor refused to meet with union officials to discuss the grievances of braceros who joined the union. Thus, the provision was, as NFLU organizer Ernesto Galarza put it, “stillborn,” remaining “embalmed in the meaningless language of the international agreement.”
The growers claimed that the Mexicans’ interpreters, employed by the company, served as the workers’ chosen representatives. But interpreters occupied an advantaged position in relation to braceros, which they were unwilling to compromise to advance the grievances of braceros.
Any attempt to unionize could lead to immediate termination of employment, and therefore deportation. Even to be spotted talking to a union organizer could mean transfer or deportation. As Justin Akers wrote in the International Socialist Review, “Any ‘breach’ of the contract, such as speaking out against poor conditions or involvement in collective bargaining, was a violation of the contract. Because these contracts were made with individuals, collective bargaining was precluded.”
A study conducted by the Pan American Union (PAU) found that braceros were threatened with transfer and deportation if they attempted to put forward grievances, organize or challenge the growers in any way.
After speaking with more than 500 Mexican contract workers in 1945, PAU investigators concluded that “workers who complain are regarded as agitators and are shipped back to Mexico…Many groups have stated confidentially that they prefer not to push a justifiable complaint so as not to run the risk of sudden repatriation.”
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The contract labor program did not stop “illegal” immigration, nor was it meant to. Farmers continued to employ undocumented farm workers throughout the duration of the bracero program. Growers paid undocumented workers even less than contract workers, thereby driving wages down even further.
Organized labor was hesitant to criticize the bracero program as long as the war lasted, especially as wartime production and labor shortages meant that domestic workers had ample job opportunities. After the war ended, however, unions began to advocate for the program’s termination and made some limited efforts to organize braceros, or at least defend their right to organize.
While there were attempts by the NFLU to organize braceros and involve them in the strikes, as well as efforts by braceros to honor picket lines and resist their use by growers as strike breakers, the threat of firing and subsequent deportation left many with little choice but to replace striking farm workers. Strikes led by the NFLU often went down to defeat as a result.
The bracero program helped growers to keep unions out of the fields and wages abysmally low for over two decades. It was only after the bracero program was finally terminated in 1964 that a new farm workers’ movement, led by Cesar Chavez, could take off.
Like employers today, the growers’ objective was to ensure their control over who worked, for how much, and under what conditions. Guest-worker programs, like any other division based on immigration status, segregate the workforce, allowing employers to take advantage of immigrant workers to drive all workers’ wages down, worsen working conditions and undermine union organizing.
A new guest-worker program will be no different. We should stand up to such bogus immigration “reforms” and demand real reform–equal rights and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.
SARAH HINES lives in Los Angeles and writes for the Socialist Worker.