Published June 24, 2010
President Obama’s team has discovered another errant profit-seeking, job-producing villain -- the blueberry farmers of America. Who knew sprinkling blueberries on your cereal could be controversial?
According to a release from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the Obama administration has hired an additional 250 investigators – a 33% increase – to more energetically oversee those who employ migrant workers, such as blueberry farmers in North Carolina. They are especially on the lookout for growers who have hired children under the (legal) age of 12, or who have paid less than minimum wage to pickers. To rein in abuses, the Labor Department has ramped up penalties. Fines now range up to $11,000 for violations previously costing $1,000. In addition, the department is supporting a bill that would make it more difficult for young people to work on farms.
Tales of youngsters working long hours and being exposed to pesticides and other risks offend American sensibilities, and rightly so. On the other hand, most of the families who migrate with the crop cycle count on the income their children can provide and often misrepresent their ages in order to put them to work. One study puts the median income for migrant pickers at less than $7,500. Two-thirds are reportedly immigrants, with 80% coming from Mexico. More than half, according to one survey, are working illegally. These folks may certainly need protection, but what they need even more is the opportunity to earn a livable wage.
There is a movement afoot to deny them that chance. Congress is considering legislation that would limit migrant family income by raising the legal work age to 14, and by restricting the hours that youngsters can work. On the surface, this proposal sounds well intentioned. Dig a little deeper, however, and we find that it is yet another push by organized labor – the Obama administration’s closest ally – to increase its fortunes.
The legislation in question is the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), sponsored by Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, who represents the distinctly nonfarm community of Los Angeles. Roybal-Allard has been a big beneficiary of organized labor, which has contributed $879,000 to her various campaigns. Her bill has garnered support from more than 80 co-sponsors, including many who have donated generously to Roybal-Allard, such as the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, the Teamsters, the Laborers Union and so on.
Why does Big Labor care so much about migrant families? Perhaps because there are hundreds of thousands of nonunion workers who, each year, cultivate the produce of the United States, 85% of which is done by hand. As union enrollment has declined across the private sector, organizers have anxiously searched for new members, especially among the Hispanic community. Those at the bottom of the work pyramid are easily convinced that a beneficent union can secure higher pay and can demand better protections against abuses. They don’t realize that union organizers could well cost them their jobs -- a reality that accounts for the decades-long slump in union totals elsewhere.
Today, the United Farm Workers has shrunk into insignificance, apparently representing fewer than 5% of California field hands. The greatest challenge to the union has been illegal immigration – long the nemesis of its founder Cesar Chavez. Early on, Chavez fought the strike breakers brought in from Mexico by growers, and was successful in raising wages for “stoop laborers.” His success was aided by a crackdown on illegal immigrants during the 1950s and 1960s; of especial importance was Congress’ abolition of the bracero guest-worker program in 1964. The supply of migrants plunged, according to a piece by Steve Sailer in the American Conservative, to roughly 200,000, mostly American citizens. This drop in supply helped Chavez organize, and allowed the fledgling union to demand higher wages. The gains, however, were short lived.
Paltry farm worker pay today stems in part from a surfeit of illegal workers – symptomatic of a collapse in our country’s border control. As union leaders appraise their opportunities, they can see gains only if undocumented Mexicans are driven home. What could better further that ambition than ramping up inspections, and reducing the income opportunities for such families? Since the Obama administration has no stomach for tackling immigration reform – and who can blame them? – it will resort where possible to this kind of back-door enforcement, especially in circumstances advantageous to their Big Labor donors.
Solis is onboard. Within three months of taking office, she attempted to stiffen the rules governing issuance of H2A visas, which determine employers’ ability to hire foreign workers, such as farm laborers. Though the early attempt failed, she amended the program this year. Ron Gaskill of the American Farm Bureau describes the new rules as the most onerous ever – so difficult that many employers are simply not bothering. Which, of course, is the whole point. Fewer imported workers will improve organizing opportunities. It will also lead to rising costs for small farmers inevitably lead to larger-scale organizations which will then more readily succumb to union demands.
This is not a battle to support small children; it is yet another salvo against small business owners by organized labor and the Obama administration.
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