The Farm Workforce Modernization Act Raises Troubling EchoesRoundup
tags: agriculture, immigration, labor history, Farm Workers, Bracero
Matt Garcia, Ralph and Richard Lazarus professor of history, Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies, and Human Relations at Dartmouth College, explores the limits of “social responsibility” in our global food system in Eli and the Octopus: The CEO Who Tried to Reform One of the World’s Most Notorious Corporations (Harvard University Press).
H.R. 1603, which is better known as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, passed the House in March 2021 with overwhelming Democratic support and a handful of Republican votes. It stalled in the Senate, however, amid rancor over its provision to create a path to legal permanent residency — and eventually citizenship — for undocumented farmworkers already in this country. In the final weeks of 2022, many are hopeful that the bill will finally make its way to the Senate.
The American Farm Bureau opposes a provision of the bill that allows farmworkers to sue employers when conditions of employment are not met. Still, the desperation of farm owners, especially those in livestock and dairy agriculture in the West and Midwest, has pushed the Bureau toward neutrality to achieve passage of the bill.
Surprisingly, the United Farm Workers (UFW) — the legendary farm labor union started by Cesar Chavez — is the most vocal supporter of the bill. Its position is a stunning reversal of the UFW’s historic opposition to guest worker programs, which the union previously saw as exploitative of workers. Indeed, the UFW’s position today threatens to undo many of the advances the labor union fought hard to win decades ago.
When Chavez began organizing farm laborers in the 1960s, he understood that the Bracero Program (1942-1964), which was the largest guest worker program in U.S. history, had created an unequal playing field for workers vis-a-vis their employers. Like his labor organizing predecessor, Ernesto Galarza, Chavez made it a priority to eliminate the program before starting a union — something Chavez and his followers achieved in 1962. During the 22-year history of the program, farm owners often held threats of deportation or nonrenewal of contracts over the braceros’ heads if they dared to question the conditions of their employment.
For example, in a 2004 interview, a Mexican farmworker who had worked under the program shared a tale of sacrifice and discrimination. His experience of inadequate living facilities and unreliable and insufficient pay contrasted sharply with official claims on both sides of the border that workers had been treated like heroes who “saved the crops” during a time of war.
In his opinion, “Era abuso mas bien de derechos humanos,” or “it was more an abuse of human rights.” His account confirmed what many Americans eventually saw on their televisions in Edward R. Murrow’s CBS documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” in 1960, an exposé that helped lead the way to the Bracero program’s demise less than four years later. By 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson found it so distasteful to a conscientious public that he could no longer defend it.