Big Farms, Unions and Immigrants

by Sydney Williams Farming is hard work. However, the fruits […]

Woman harvesting tea leavesby Sydney Williams

Farming is hard work. However, the fruits of farming provide necessities for life. Besides which everyone likes a good meal at home or a restaurant. It is one of life’s pleasures. Yet very few of us consider the work that goes into the food on the plate before us – the seed that becomes a plant, the nurturing and eventual harvesting, the packaging and transportation. The china, crystal and silver off of which we dine are worlds apart from the laborers – many of whom are immigrants (a lot of them here illegally) and almost all of whom are poor – that made our repast possible.

Even though I grew up on what some would call a farm in New Hampshire, I admit to little familiarity with the arduous work involved in picking strawberries in California’s Central Valley, or Vidalia onions in Georgia. My farm work was limited to chores at home, and summer jobs, haying for neighbors and one summer (better forgotten) picking blueberries for Mr. Glazier.

Farming is a capital intensive business; it requires land, equipment, seed and fertilizer. It is subject to the whims of nature, thus often produces volatile operating margins and not infrequently, losses. The risks and hard work it entails, and a want of willing labor have entangled US growers, the United Farm Workers and immigration reform into a Gordian Knot. This seemingly intractable problem sets cultures and work ethics against one another. Farming involves long and difficult work conditions
and possible exploitation. Resolving the issue is important to us all, as we need the continuing flow of fresh fruits and vegetables at
reasonable prices to our kitchens and restaurants.

What prompted these musings was a front page article in Tuesday’s New York Times , “Workers Claim Race Bias as Farms Rely on Immigrants.” Ethan Bronner highlights the conflicting forces: farmers that need crops picked in a timely fashion, Mexicans who are skilled and who are willing to work longer for extra pay, African-Americans who claim to want the jobs, but not when they entail the hours that Mexican guest workers are willing to put in, accusations of racism, union leaders who would like to increase their ranks and, thus, their leverage, and lawyers who see opportunity in confusion.

The issue is sensitive and highly charged. Lawyers for the African-American community have leveled  accusations of racism against farmers in Georgia who have hired Mexican immigrants instead of native Americans, including African-Americans. It is generally acknowledged that the Mexicans are very hard working. Mr. Bronner writes: “Even many of the Americans who feel mistreated
acknowledge that the Mexicans who arrive on buses for a limited period are incredibly efficient, often working into the night seven days a week to increase their pay.” He then quotes an American who was fired, he claims unfairly: “We are not going to run all the time. We are not Mexicans.” His tone is indicative of the sensitivity of the situation.

The farmers claim they are neither racists nor anti-American. They simply have crops to pick and need workers to do so.Mr. Bronner quotes Brian Stanley, owner of Stanley Farms, a farmer who has been sued: “We have tried to fill our labor locally. But we couldn’t get enough workers, and that was hindering our growth. So we turned to the guest worker program.” Mr. Stanley then noted that there is an extra cost to importing guest workers. They require extensive paperwork. They have to be housed. Understandably, all things being equal, importing labor would not be their preference.

About a month ago, Reuters reported that key Senators agreed in principle with U.S. growers and the United Farm Workers on immigration reform for farm laborers. The agreement calls for the creation of a new guest worker program to replace the current H-2A program, a program which will ultimately create legal status for farm workers who entered the United States illegally. There are approximately 1.5 million agricultural workers in the U.S., and estimates suggest that somewhere between 500,000 and 900,000 are undocumented aliens. It has been difficult for farmers to recruit Americans to perform jobs that are deemed too
difficult and/or beneath their dignity. The problem is one of economics.

Farmers have no biases when it comes to their businesses, other than turning a profit. If a Mexican immigrant is more productive than an American native, the Mexican will get the job. It is as simple as that. Like most non-government unions, membership in the United Farm Workers (UFW) has declined, from an estimated 50,000 field workers in the 1970s to 15,000 today. The legacy of Cesar Chavez can be seen in portraits, buildings and even a Lewis and Clark-class cargo ship, but not in the union he helped create.

Farming means working in extreme heat or in the rain, contorting the body into unnatural positions, as one stretches to pick apples, or bends to pick berries and dig up onions. It is not preferred employment. But it is a job that needs to be done and, like most jobs when done well, can provide the means and opportunity to find better employment in another place at a future time. There are aspirant even among farm laborers. Let us hope that we have not arrived at a place when all Americans feel they are entitled to a good job, a clean home and all the food they can eat. We are entitled to think, pray and speak freely, to assemble unafraid and be secure in our own persons, but we have to work for our material success. Being an American, or just being in America, provides opportunities, but does not guarantee success. It cannot and should not be otherwise. In a Piece about words that replace thought, Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, talks of the word “fair.” He writes: “Apparently everyone [seemingly] is entitled to a ‘fair share’ of a society’s prosperity, whether they worked 16-hour days to help create
that prosperity or did nothing more than live off the taxpayers or depend on begging or crime to bring in a few bucks.” We better hope that is not true, for that is the path to national perdition and enslavement
of the mind.

There is a misguided notion among the Left that everyone is entitled to a comfortable life. But the real responsibility of government, besides affording protection and ensuring our God-given and inalienable rights, is to help people become
productive contributors to the state, not dependents.

A report issued early this week from the Heritage Foundation is aimed at derailing immigration reform. The foundation claims that by legalizing undocumented workers, it places a $6.3 trillion cost over the lifetime of current illegals. The number is derived by assuming welfare costs $9.4 trillion, minus taxes collected of $3.1 trillion. Since former South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint is now president of the foundation, the findings are not a surprise, as he was and is a foe of reform that provides a path to citizenship for illegals, which would include at least half a million farm workers. Mr. DeMint expresses a legitimate concern. Nevertheless, the report, according to a rebuttal byDiana Furchtgott Roth, assumes all illegals will choose naturalization,will be in low-paying jobs and/or on welfare. That may prove too dire a prediction. We remain an upwardly mobile society. A recent analysis of individuals’ tax returns by Treasury economists Gerald Auten and Geoffrey Gee found that between two ten-year periods, 1987-1996 and 1996-2005, over 50% of taxpayers moved to a different fifth of income distribution, with half those in the lowest fifth moving up.

“Immigration reform,” as Senator Marco Rubio said yesterday, “that shifts the mix of legal immigration away from family-based toward highly skilled/merit-based, combined with bringing millions of undocumented out of the underground economy, will improve the labor market, increase entrepreneurship and create jobs…” A problem the United States faces is not one of illegals getting benefits; it is the culture that we have created and are perpetrating that encourages dependency on the part of our own citizens. That is what needs attention. The country can use both skilled and unskilled labor. It needs people who want to work.

Neither leftists nor conservatives want to be deprived of fresh fruits and vegetables and they want them at reasonable prices. Free markets apply to labor as well as to goods and services. No one wants to see individuals or sectors of society excluded from jobs or any other activity for reasons of prejudice and no one wants workers to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers. But we also cannot allow politically correct concepts of “fairness” dictate the way markets work.Agricultural work is not easy, as one of the plaintiff’s attorneys attests: “I am not arguing that agricultural work is a good job.” But hethen adds perversely, “Just because [some] people are easier to supervise, agricultural employers shouldn’t be able to import them.”

Presumably he is referring to Mexicans as being easier to supervise. The implication is that hiring Americans who will work less hard and demand more money and who are more difficult to manage should be hired in their place. If all managements thought that way, the economy would be in worst shape than it is.

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“The thought of the day” by Sydney Williams


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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