We Should Remember the Bracero Program ... and Shudder

By David North on March 12, 2013

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, was recently quoted in an ABC News story about the dangers of nonimmigrant worker schemes:

"Programs like the bracero program or temporary guest-worker programs where individuals were tied to an employer, they got exploited", he said. "They got cheated out of wages [and] they weren't given what was rightfully due to them. They were forced to work under unsafe conditions. They were forced to accept substandard wages. They couldn't say anything, because if they did, [the employer] would jerk their permit and deport them."

Let's hope that he remembers what he said, because he is exactly right about such programs, and he is engaged in an off-the-record set of negotiations with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which the two organizations seek a common position on "comprehensive immigration reform". The Chamber, however, wants a sharply expanded program for bringing temporary foreign workers to the United States, while the AFL-CIO wants a massive amnesty program and does not want a big temporary worker program.

May the negotiations collapse!

Meanwhile, there are a couple of interesting elements about Trumka's statement, the first unfortunate, and the other very useful.

Trumka is quoted as saying that "temporary guest-worker programs where individuals were tied to an employer" (emphasis added), which suggests that he is unaware that there are currently many, many such nonimmigrant worker programs, where, to this day, foreign workers are tied to employers. Right now. Today.

There's a regular alphabet soup of such programs, including, among others, the H-1B, H-2A, H-2B, J-1, L-1, L-2, and Q-1, and in all of them the alien worker's legal status in the United States is tied directly to the employer's whims. If a worker loses favor in the eyes of his employer, the worker can be plunged into illegal alien status.

Guess what kind of attitude that creates among those indentured workers! They work like crazy and never complain about anything!

On the other hand, Trumka, who was a high school student when the bracero program finally ended, has reminded us of that terrible precedent, and for this we should be grateful.

The bracero program was started in World War II as a way to bring workers from Mexico, then at peace, into the United States, then at war. Our labor force was then challenged due to millions of people in the military, and millions more in the war industries. Very few bracero workers actually came to the United States during the war, but after the war agri-business found the docile, ill-paid migrants a tremendous boon and at the height of the program there were as many as half a million of them working in U.S. agriculture, primarily in labor-intensive crops such as fruit and vegetables.

Bracero originally meant, "the strong-armed one" in Spanish. Unlike current nonimmigrant programs, this one was one-nation (Mexico), one-sex (male), one sector (agriculture), and one season at a time. Workers were recruited in Mexico, usually in the late winter or early spring, and this often involved the workers bribing Mexican officials to be selected; the workers came to the United States as single males, stayed in barracks housing (often grim), and worked for a number of months before returning as winter approached.

The program was managed by the U.S. Department of Labor, and it was from a job within the Department, Assistant to the Secretary of Labor for Farm Labor, that I watched the dismantling of the program after Congress (thank goodness) failed to renew it, effective January 1, 1965. I was the young political appointee whose task was to help push growers into using American workers, or to help make the transition to the H-2 (later H-2A) program, which had stricter rules than the bracero program. I was there for about two years.

There were a number of negative consequences of the program, some more obvious than others.

Farm labor wages stagnated at low levels for decades; braceros became the favored workers of growers, particularly in the West, to the detriment of U.S. workers. American workers, both black and white, were subtly pushed out of farm work. The braceros were routinely underpaid and badly treated. These were all pretty obvious.

Less obvious was the fact that U.S. growers happily adjusted their practices to a surplus of cheap, easily transferrable workers (though the growers rarely admitted this). Wasteful labor-use practices grew up, such as the almost obsessive hand-weeding of sugar beets and "pick the last apple on the tree" work practices. Growers began to grow labor-intensive crops in areas where there was no resident labor force, because there was no resident population. Western growers became used to barracks housing, which is much less expensive than the family housing found along the East Coast for the then-Florida-based migrant families. For more on the difficulties caused by this program, see the CIS Backgrounder by UC Davis professor Philip Martin.

Once the growers became used to these conditions they, of course, regarded the cheap labor situation as their God-given right, and used their political prowess to preserve these privileges, but there was a chink in the growers' armor, which leads to the next point.

One of the lessons learned from the bracero experience was based on the behavior of Congress, not that of either growers or workers. The bracero program, for reasons lost in history, was always a temporary one, with an expiration date. The supporters had to rally around and get another extension for the program, so the burden of creating a majority was always on the shoulders of the growers, and that burden became more and more daunting as time passed.

Eventually, in the early 1960s (at a time of growing civil rights fervor) the program's supporters gave up, and allowed the program to die. Unfortunately, too many growers then simply switched to illegal aliens, as there was not enough interior immigration law enforcement (sound familiar?) to get many growers to adopt modern labor-management practices. Western growers, particularly, resisted the mild regulations that went with (and go with) the H-2A program.

So, thank you, Richard Trumka, for reminding us of the bracero program!