Jan 4, 2016
Farm labor harder to find than it was 50 years ago

Five decades ago, there was a sea change in the world of agricultural labor – and ag employers are still feeling the ripples today.

It started in 1960, when CBS aired “Harvest of Shame.” The documentary, about the plight of migrant farm workers, helped usher in an era of migrant advocacy, said Fred Leitz, a fruit and vegetable grower in Sodus, Michigan.

A few years later, the Bracero program – a legal channel that brought Mexican farm workers into the United States from 1942 until 1964 – was shut down. In its peak year (1956), the program brought in 445,197 guest workers to perform farm labor, according to the Bracero History Archive.

By the end, no one wanted to be associated with the Bracero program because of claims of worker mistreatment. Though there were some abuses, the program worked well for most participants. Growers got their crops harvested and workers could go home when the season was over, said Jack King in a 2011 interview. King was manager of California Farm Bureau Federation’s national affairs division at the time.

“The elimination of the Bracero program in many ways has led to most of the ills we define as a broken immigration system,” wrote Harry DeMell, an immigration lawyer based in New York City, in a 2011 editorial. “An estimated 60 percent of all undocumented aliens in the United States today are Mexican workers who would be legally here and documented had that program remained valid.”

When the federal government scrapped the Bracero program, it threatened other foreign labor programs as well, forcing growers to organize into groups to preserve their labor pools. The National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) was founded in 1964 in response to the increasing pressures on ag employers, said Executive Director Frank Gasperini.

The Bracero gap could possibly have been filled by unionized farm workers – at least in California, where United Farm Workers (UFW) and its charismatic leader, Cesar Chavez, gained public clout in the 1970s.

As skilled as UFW was at unionizing workers and galvanizing public opinion, however, it wasn’t as successful when it came to negotiating contracts with employers, King said.

Philip Martin, a labor economist with the University of California, Davis, has documented the rise and decline of farm union power in California. Fewer farm workers are unionized today than
during the 1970s. According to his research, it was unauthorized immigration that broke the back of the farm union movement.

“California has the most pro-worker and pro-union labor relations law in the United States, and Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers were expected to use it to transform farm work from a job to a career,” Martin wrote in 2004. “Instead, unauthorized immigration increased the supply of workers, and farm labor contractors organized them into crews that unions found hard to organize.”

One of the points of contention between growers and workers at that time was mechanization. In the early ’70s, virtually all processed tomatoes in California were still harvested by hand. New machines eventually switched much of that hand labor over to machine labor. UFW claimed such efforts took jobs away from farm workers. The result of such accusations – and lawsuits – was that the University of California virtually abandoned mechanization research. More and more, research into ag mechanization moved from the public sector to the private sector. Advances continued – especially in the processing tomato business, which couldn’t harvest current volumes without machine labor – but the overall pace of development in the produce industry slowed down, King said.

Legislative solutions?

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). There were about 2 million illegal or undocumented aliens in the United States at that time, DeMell wrote, and IRCA gave all of them a path to citizenship.

IRCA also split the H-2 foreign labor program – which had been around since the 1940s – into an ag branch (H- 2A) and a non-ag branch (H-2B), and created the I-9 form, the document that authorizes employees to work in the United States.

Instead of helping the farm labor movement, however, in the long run IRCA probably did more damage, according to Martin.

“Instead of giving unions a second wind, legalization in 1986 accelerated the vicious spiral of more workers, more labor contractors and declining farm wages and benefits, encouraging workers with other U.S. job options to find non-farm jobs,” he wrote.

The problem is that IRCA’s second phase, which was supposed to replenish workers who left the ag industry, never took place – which helped lead to a massive influx of illegal workers, said John Young, former executive director of the New England Apple Council. He wasn’t sure why the second phase never kicked in, but it probably had something to do with the changing political climate of the 1990s.

In the last couple of decades, Congress has shown little sign that it’s capable of passing another IRCA – or any sort of immigration reform legislation, whether comprehensive or piecemeal. It introduced the AgJOBS bill in 2003 but failed to approve it. The U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill 10 years later, but the House of Representatives never reciprocated.

Lone alternative

U.S. agriculture’s traditional labor pool continues
to dry up. Small towns and rural areas don’t have the population base to sustain seasonal agriculture on a commercial scale anymore. Migrant workers are getting older, getting jobs in other industries or are staying in Mexico, where the economy is improving and there’s
no difficult border to cross. In recent years, growers of crops that require human labor have experienced worker shortages that average anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent, Gasperini said.

Because demographic and cultural trends have
been working against them and they can’t rely on the government to intervene, more and more growers have found themselves relying on the federal H-2A guest- worker program. Agricultural employers and their advocates have been complaining about H-2A’s costs, burdensome paperwork and general inflexibility for years, but at this point it seems to be the only reliable solution.

According to NCAE, 136,822 H-2A workers were certified in 2014, up from 90,328 in 2011. In the same period, the number of employers and agents filing for H-2A workers rose from 1,604 to 1,796.

Washington state growers hired about a thousand H-2A workers in 2007, whereas in 2014 they brought in more than 9,000 – roughly 15 percent of the state’s seasonal work force, according to Dan Fazio, director of WAFLA, a labor recruitment company in the Pacific Northwest.

Florida growers brought in 13,500 H-2A workers in 2014, up from about 10,000 in 2013, said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

The Michigan fruit and vegetable industry is dipping its toe in the H-2A program. A handful of growers hired workers in 2014 as part of a project organized by Michigan Farm Bureau, and more did so in 2015.

Fred Leitz was one of them. To him, H-2A had always been for states that weren’t part of the “migrant flow.” But that flow, which originated in Florida, started drying up in 2012, when freeze events killed massive amounts of fruit and discouraged workers from coming to Michigan. Leitz thought things would improve in 2013, but he was about 50 workers short that year and had to leave 50 acres of tomatoes in the field. He decided H-2A was the only way to reduce that uncertainty.

The H-2A program remains difficult and expensive, but employers who use it say the workers are more productive and reliable. They also say that it gets easier after the first couple of years, once you’ve got your infrastructure in place and you’ve mastered the application process, Gasperini said.

Matt Milkovich

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