Frank Bardacke: Millions of undocumented farm workers produce much of America’s food
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Thanksgiving is taking place in the United States. And as you look out over your table and see all the food, perhaps you’ll want to think a little bit about where that food comes from. Certainly, some of it comes from California, and much of it will come from undocumented workers laboring in the United States. Frank Bardacke has recently written a book about California farmworkers. The title of the book is Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. And he joins us now from the PERI studio in Amherst, Massachusetts, to talk about the current situation and some of the history of undocumented farm workers in particular in the United States. Thanks for joining us, Frank.
FRANK BARDACKE, AUTHOR: Glad to be here.
JAY: So just really quickly, a little story. In 1991, I was researching a film, and I was standing on the Tijuana American border, and on either side of me were hundreds of people, mostly men, but some women, about to cross the border into the United States, waiting for the sun to go down, and on the other side of the border waiting to stop them from entering the United States was nobody, because it was harvest season. And it was rather clear that this whole thing was a kind of dance that had to some extent been orchestrated. And then, of course, once the workers got to California, it was a whole different story. Then they were threatened with immigration laws and deportation in order to lower wages and such. So talk a little bit about that period, Frank. And then, have things changed?
BARDACKE: Yeah. What you experienced in 1991 actually was historically based with the Bracero Program. And the Bracero Program, between 1941 and 1964, was a contract–they contracted Mexican workers who were brought to work in the California fields, and they were here just for the harvest, and then they were returned to Mexico. And they could only work for the people who contracted them. They were only semi-free workers. And when the Bracero Program ended in 1964, there was a great deal of concern about who was going to do the work in the California fields. And in 1965 there was a tremendous shortage of labor, and actually wages jumped up in 1965, and the United Farm Workers union was formed in ’65 because of this shortage of labor. So what they did, starting in ’66, was they threw the border open, and people came back as undocumented workers and green carders. They made it very easy to get green cards. So from ’65 up until, like, 1985, the border was basically open. The INS was underfunded so that it was impossible for people to control the border. The New York Times said at the time that the INS, the immigration service, was an agency programmed to fail. And that was quite purposefully done, so that the Mexicans who had been Braceros and were skilled farmworkers could come back as undocumented workers and green carders to do the work that they’d done before. Now, today, today it’s quite a bit different, because the border has been militarized and there’s a very serious attempt to stop free flow of people across the border.
JAY: Before we get into that, [incompr.] it’s just so important that so many millions of farm workers–and perhaps they’re now working in other forms of industry, too–came to the United States practically induced to come, invited to come, and many of their children, who still remain undocumented, were from families that were essentially, you know, asked to come. But now they’re treated as, oh, you didn’t wait in line and you were–you know, you broke American laws and such. It doesn’t get talked about very much in the immigration debate.
BARDACKE: No, it doesn’t, and you’re absolutely right. People–you know, it’s–it wasn’t that people were virtually asked to come or almost asked to come; people were literally asked to come. The lemon growers around Oxnard in Ventura who had used Braceros, when the Bracero Program ended in 1965 they lost almost–most of the harvest because the Braceros had not yet come back and the domestic workers just simply couldn’t do the work. It’s highly skilled. To pick a lemon tree is actually a highly skilled activity. And so the growers actually went down to Michoacan, to the area where the Braceros lived, and they had the right to give the ex-Braceros a piece of paper, a letter, which said that if they got–if they came back to Ventura, they would have jobs in the lemon orchards. And the Braceros would take those pieces of paper to the US Embassy in Mexico City and they could get green cards for them. So a lot of people came back as green carders. People who didn’t get green cards came back as undocumented workers. So it was like–people weren’t virtually invited; people were actually invited to come back as undocumented workers.
JAY: As I say, in ’91 what I witnessed was hundreds of people crossing over completely unobstructed, even though supposedly they were cracking down during that period of early ’90s. But that’s not what I saw.
BARDACKE: Yeah. Like, if you had been in San Luis, Arizona, where there’s also lemon production, which is right on the border with San Luis, Mexico, if you had been there in 1978, what you would have seen is the buses that would take people to work in the lemon orchards right at the border, and then people, undocumented people, crossing the border and getting in the buses and going to work. So it was very naked. It was very naked. As I say, it was an agency programmed to fail. Now, there were–and there were a few agents in that–there were a few border patrol agents in that period who were in Salinas and were in Ventura and were in Bakersfield and Fresno, just a very few, to keep the threat alive, to keep the threat alive that you could be deported at any time.
JAY: Well, that’s what I saw when I was in South San Diego County. And people were working like slaves, and half the time at the end of harvest season they wouldn’t even get paid, and if they complained about it, they would be threatened with deportation. Has anything changed?
BARDACKE: Well, yeah, the situation is very different today. Because of all of the scare about immigration and because of the militarization of the border, the situation’s extremely different, because now it’s not an open border. And people still cross the border, but it’s expensive to cross the border. So if you want to cross the border at a border crossing with some border agent that’s been bribed to let you through, it costs about $5,000. That’s the going price. And if you want to cross–to be taken across by a coyote in a portion of the desert that’s somewhat dangerous, it’s about $1,500 to $3,000. So that’s a pretty expensive price to cross. So what’s happened is about 90 percent now of the people who work in the California fields were born outside of the United States. Most of them were born in Mexico. About half–you know, 40 to 50 percent of those people are undocumented. It’s become so inexpensive to go home to Mexico, because when you come back you have to pay such a high price, that a lot of people stay in the United States once the harvest is over who used to go home. People are kind of trapped in the United States because of the militarization of the border.
JAY: And in terms of the farmworkers union, the conditions, the issue of rights, has it improved at all since those days?
BARDACKE: It improved greatly in the 20 years after the end of the Bracero Program, when the United Farm Workers union was strong and powerful, improved tremendously. People made relatively good wages–I think not even relatively good wages; excellent wages. When I worked in the fields in the [incompr.] making $14 an hour in the 1970s. People who worked in the lettuce were making $20 an hour in the late 1970s. So during the period of UFW’s strength, conditions in the field improved dramatically, wages improved dramatically. When the UFW was defeated in the fields in the mid 1980s, wages and conditions have been deteriorating ever since. An example I’ll give you is: during the period of UFW’s strength, the short-handled hoe was banned, the short-handled hoe, which is a very difficult tool to work with, backbreaking tool, and the long-handled hoe was–replaced it. Well, over the last ten years, the growers had brought back not the short-handled hoe, but a short-handled knife, a curved knife that people have to use to weed. And it’s not a hoe, it’s a knife, but it’s used instead of the long-handled hoe, and they’re getting away with it.
JAY: Why do the growers want that?
BARDACKE: Well, the growers believe that it’s more efficient to use a short-handled instrument to weed. It might be more efficient over a short period of time, like in the morning, but by the time of the afternoon, actually, when you’re tired and been working all day [incompr.] bent over, it turns out that the long-handled hoe is just as efficient as the short-handle one. But if you’re working for a short period of time, to have a short-handled implement to weed, it’s just simply you do a–you can do a more efficient job, at least more quickly.
JAY: But literally more backbreaking for the people doing it.
BARDACKE: More back–literally more backbreaking, not figuratively; literally more backbreaking.
JAY: And what about the–how do the wages compare? You quoted $14 an hour, $20 an hour. What are those wages now?
BARDACKE: No, those wages have fallen way back, way back, so that you [incompr.] more–if you work in the fields in California, in most jobs you still get more than the minimum wage. It’s–you get paid more than if you work in Target or something like that. But it is nothing like it used to be. People in my town, in Watsonville, which is where most of the strawberries come from–if you eat strawberries, if you have strawberries at your Thanksgiving table, they probably come from Watsonville, either Watsonville or Santa Barbara–people make about $10 or $11 an hour, but at very, very hard work. This is work that’s bent over all day long. And as a matter of fact it’s–and it’s individual piecework, so you’re all on your own. And I have a friend who worked in the strawberries and quit after three days, and he was a fairly experienced farmworker, but he just couldn’t take the strawberries. And he told me–he told me after he quit [another language] which is a way of saying, this isn’t work, it’s a punishment from God. So very, very difficult work, the strawberries.
JAY: What’s happening now in terms of the union? What’s happening in terms of fights for farmworker rights in California?
BARDACKE: As I said before, the United Farm Workers was defeated in the mid-1980s. And then, when Cesar Chavez died in 1993, there was an attempt by the union to get back into the fields, which was pretty much blunted. They really–the United Farm Workers union really has only about 5,000 people under contract, and it–what it is is it’s kind of an advocacy group. It’s important as an advocacy group, as an advocacy group for farmworkers, but in terms of organizing in the fields, not much organizing is being done in the fields in California now.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about why that’s the case, what happened to the United Farm Workers union, and the struggle for rights of farmworkers in California and in the United States. So please join us for part two of our interview with Frank Bardacke on The Real News Network.
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