Our nation’s continuing controversy surrounding its current immigration “policy” is more than just corporate agribusiness’s dirty little secret, but it also shrouds an economic iceberg that unless recognized could well rip the U.S. apart.
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 mostly territory that now comprises one third of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 through the years.
During those years these large growers have developed the mistaken notion that the nation and our government should provide them with a cheap, unorganized work force.
With such initiatives as the bracero program, originally passed by the Congress during World World II as an emergency manpower act and which remained in place until 1964 before 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 thinking also motivated the large meat and poultry slaughter houses in the Midwest beginning in the late 1960’s, to aggressively and promote the idea that they too should be entitled to the “the slaves we rent.”
Of course, 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 who were forced to work in conditions that made the industry the most hazardous occupation in the U.S.
In the meantime, more and more of those firms merged, became more politically powerful, actively recruiting labor in Mexico, and reporting record profits.
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 labor costs and additional government subsidies, 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 packinghouse house workers are available, providing they are paid fair wages and work in safe and healthy work places. We know, from what 20th century history tells us, that family farmers and independent cattle producers can survive and prosper if they are paid a fair price for what they produce.
Let’s make no mistake about it, corporate agribusiness is one the most profitable sectors of our economy based on return of stockholder’s equity. By paying a fair wage to their labor force and a fair price to their suppliers they would see not only a slightly negligible effect on their profit picture, but they would see a small price paid for a healthy agricultural and rural economy.
At the same time it would go a long way toward alleviating an immigration problem for which corporate agribusiness is largely responsible.
Until that reality is recognized the words of Thomas Jefferson will ring hollow throughout the land when he stressed that you cannot have political democracy without economy democracy.
AL KREBS writes The Agribusiness Examiner “Monitoring corporate agribusiness from a public interest perspective“. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org