Tuesday, December 17, 2019


By David Bacon,
Truthout, December 17, 2019

Security guards, employed by a contractor at the Google Mountain View campus, demonstrate for their right to have a union. Many Google workers supported their demonstrations.David Bacon

The progressive movement in this country owes thanks to the new generation of workplace organizers, who are carrying our movement forward. Among them are four activists we should recognize and support: Laurence Berland, Rebecca Rivers, Paul Duke and Sophie Waldman, who were fired from Google for organizing their fellow workers.

Workers at Google have been protesting many of the company’s actions over the last two years. A year ago, Google’s decision to pay a reported $90 million in severance to a manager accused of sexual harassment sparked a walkout by an estimated 20,000 employees worldwide. Petitions and rallies at its Mountain View, California, headquarters, protesting other company actions, have followed. With the firings, Google has finally sought to eliminate those workers it thinks responsible for this upsurge.

The four fired employees filed a formal complaint against Google with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), saying they were fired for collective activity, which is protected, at least in theory, under federal law. The Board is investigating the charges. Google says it would never retaliate against workers for such activity — a boilerplate denial that comes from every employer charged with violating Federal labor law. The company insists they were fired for accessing information that is readily available to employees on the company database.

What did the four really do? They tried to put human rights into action inside the company. They protested sexual harassment. They told Google not to bid on a Trump contract to put the Homeland Security database into the cloud, facilitating the shameful detention of children and parents. They questioned Google for hiring Miles Taylor, who was chief of staff to Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Google’s activists sought to give voice in the company to their outrage over the detention of migrants, joining millions of people in the outside world, like these marchers in Oakland.  David Bacon

What did Google say their crime was? Making sensitive information public. CEO Sundar Pichai, whose salary in 2016 was almost $200 million, told an “all hands” meeting (a Google term for a meeting for a large number of employees) that “you’ve clearly seen the amount of leaks we are seeing.” The four fired workers were Google’s own Chelsea Mannings and Julian Assanges. When company managers questioned Rivers, the contract with DHS is what they asked about.

So, of course, Google did what the government does to whistleblowers — what union organizers call “corporate capital punishment.” It fired them. Everyone at Google knows what the real reason was.  They were organizing their fellow workers inside the company. That made Google afraid.

“This isn’t really about me, or Rebecca, or any individual,” Berland said at a November demonstration. “They are retaliating against us because they want to intimidate everyone who dares to disagree…. They want us afraid, and they want us silent.”

In Mountain View workers at the Versatronex hi-tech assembly plant went on strike over racist treatment, in a precursor to the current workplace activism there. It started when the company fired a Salvadoran worker, Joselito Muñoz, for standing up in a company meeting and saying “Se acabo el tiempo de esclavitud,” which means, “The time of slavery is over.”  David Bacon

Corporate media have said this is about changes in what Google boasts as its “open culture.” I know all about the open culture of Silicon Valley from personal experience.

Challenging Exploitation in Silicon Valley

When I was fired for organizing a union at National Semiconductor (a large manufacturer of integrated circuits, which had over 10,000 people in our plant at the time I worked there) I went up the food chain all the way to the office of the CEO, Charlie Sporck. He came to work in a pickup truck, wore Pendleton plaid shirts and tried to make us think he was just an ordinary worker like us. So I went in one morning and said I told I thought I was being fired for organizing, and that my rights were being violated.

It made no difference — I still got fired. And after I got fired, I got blacklisted. I was never able to work in the industry again.

Many of my fellow activists also got fired for organizing the union — at National, at Phillips, at Intel. Did we get our jobs back? No. For that, you need a union with a contract that says you can only be fired for a just cause. Federal law says we can’t be fired for organizing a union, but there is no real enforcement. We all filed charges, as the workers have done at Google, and after an “investigation,” the company’s pretextual excuses were found valid. Our government is not committed to our rights at work.

My friend Romie Manan survived the firings because National Semiconductor feared him as the leader of the Filipinos in the plant. The prospect that they might organize and protest was a much more serious threat to National than a possible NLRB complaint. You can easily recognize Romie today because he only has half a thumb - the other half was burned off by hydrofluoric acid in a so-called "clean room."  His was just one of many injuries and health dangers we protested as workers.

Romie Manan led Filipino workers at National Semiconductor.  David Bacon

Still, we won some things at National just because we had a group of organized workers inside the plant. That’s how a union starts. And that’s what the Google workers were fired for trying to organize, whether you call it a union or not.

We got one of the worst cancer-causing solvents — TCE, or trichloroethylene — banned. We had the help of allies in our community — the Santa Clara Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, and especially attorney Mandy Hawes, who’s spent a lifetime suing high tech companies for harming workers, and Ted Smith, who organized the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. They should get an award for so many years of fighting.

We forced the company to give us raises. We challenged the racist structure of high tech, where women and people of color are a big majority on the bottom, and things get more male and more white the further up you go. When I worked in the plant, the company and the government treated the racist structure of the workforce as a trade secret. Making it public began with a fight by workers in our factory.

A Versatronex worker on strike against racist firings. Versatronex later closed the plant.  David Bacon

In the 1990s, tens of thousands of us, the people on the bottom, lost our jobs when the semiconductor companies decided that labor was cheaper elsewhere, where workers weren’t trying to organize. The Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission, and its director Jim McEntee and chairman Jesus Ruiz, held hearings about racist firings in electronics plants and the relocation of our jobs. The union in the plant found workers who came to testify, risking their jobs.

That’s a lesson for the folks at Google: Our jobs can be moved. If we want to protect them, we need allies throughout our community. We have to reach out far beyond that nice Google campus in Mountain View.

We accept without question our right to advocate and speak freely for human and labor rights. That should include the right to speak out and organize at work. But remember what Rivers, Berland, Duke and Waldman were fired for. We cannot accept that we have rights outside the workplace but tyranny inside. You can call it open culture if you want, but we can see the iron fist in the velvet glove.

Google hired union busters, IRI Consultants, to fight its own workers. Just hours after a meeting with IRI, Google managers installed a tool allowing them to know when any worker organizes an event with more than 100 participants. What kind of event do we think they’re afraid of?

Like any corporation, Google’s loyalty is to profits for the shareholders, not us as workers, or to us as the community dependent on the jobs. One of the signs at a Google rally said, “This is our company.” Another said, “Bring them back.” Google workers deserve credit for being brave enough to come out and wave those signs in front of company managers.

Korean and Latino tech workers in San Jose marched together to oppose union busting and plant closures.  David Bacon

But to make it “our company” — that is, a company where workers are free to advocate progressive values, and human and labor rights — we have to bring them back, as the other sign said. That is, we need to put the four fired workers back to work, stop the company from firing anyone else, and reduce the fear that any reasonable worker feels when she or he thinks about doing what they did.

We Need to Build Broad Solidarity to Support All Workplace Struggles

So how do we do this? What difference would it make to other workers if Google workers build an organization in their company? We are told that the world of high tech is unique, and that the community and labor solidarity that won enormous changes for farmworkers, for instance, have no relevance in Silicon Valley. Our experience, however, says just the opposite.

Organizations like Jobs with Justice have already shown us how communities can organize to support the rights of all the workers in a given place. For example, organizers can set up workers’ rights boards where community leaders, faith activists, elected officials and union people join together to expose violations of rights at work, and defend people when those violations occur. When companies have to pay a price for violating workers’ rights, they’re much less likely to do so, even when the legal system doesn’t impose significant penalties.

We can fight for labor law reform that restores our rights. Farm workers, for instance, still have the right to secondary boycotts. That’s a big reason why the United Farm Workers won the 1965 grape strike. We stood in front of Safeway and said, “Don’t go into the store if it’s violating workers’ rights and selling grapes during the strike.” We picketed not just the vineyards where workers were on strike but also the stores that sold the struck grapes, appealing to workers far removed from the fields to support the strike. That’s the right to solidarity in action — people supporting each other.

In the Cold War, we lost that right for the rest of us, when Congress passed the Taft Hartley Act. That law prohibited those boycotts, as well as other ways workers can support each other. We need that right to solidarity back. That can give us a tool to enforce our rights, at Google and everywhere else, and not just on paper.

Farmworkers on strike in San Joaquin Valley’s blueberry fields taking direct workplace action against company wage cuts.  David Bacon

That strike in 1965, and the way the boycott transformed public support into active solidarity, lifted conditions for farmworkers. It gave women bathrooms in the fields, where before there was no privacy. It gave workers shade in the 100+ degree sun and hoes that you can use standing up, instead of the short-handled hoe that forces you to work bent over all day, in constant pain.

Our rights, especially the right to a union, have been won at a terrible cost. We remember who died for farmworker rights. Juan de la Cruz, an immigrant from Mexico, and Nagi Daifullah, an immigrant from Yemen, were shot on the picket line in the 1973 strike. Rufino Contreras was shot in a struck Imperial Valley lettuce field. Nan Freeman, a Jewish girl of 18, was run down by a truck crossing a strike picket line in Florida. They died because they believed in justice, not as an abstract principle, but as a fundamental right at work that has to be fought for.

The reasons why people organize at Google may be different from the reasons that motivated farm workers, but winning the right to organize was the key to making farm conditions better and it is the key to what Google workers hope to achieve as well. We need to stand up in the same way.

We can see that what happens to Google workers can make it harder for us to defend our rights elsewhere. If Berland, Rivers, Duke and Waldman stay fired, and people at Google get scared, IRI Consultants will show up next at the county building, or at the school district, or on construction sites. It will be harder even for people who have unions and rights at work to keep them.

Aquiles Hernandez, who was imprisoned as an education workplace activist in Mexico, organizes farmworkers in California.  David Bacon

If people at Google are fired for organizing against a contract with Homeland Security, it makes it harder to fight the Trump agenda of deportations and detentions.

But let’s look at it the other way. If we have strong unions at Google and Microsoft, run by militant workers, it will be easier to win the things we need, like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All or immigration reform. We can end the wars that have gone on for years. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King warned us half a century ago that U.S. bombs that kill people abroad become bombs that explode and wreak poverty and devastation in our neighborhoods here at home.

In Silicon Valley, a human rights advocacy group called Human Agenda promotes the values of all of us: Freedom from oppression and racism. Life in a healthy environment. Social conditions that favor meaningful lives. And economic justice is one of the most important of those conditions.

If we don’t have a union at Google, we can still fight and win some of these things. But organization at work gives workers the power to fight politically as well, in the communities where we live. When workers in high tech have a strong organization, meeting our human needs and enforcing basic rights, and even goals beyond this, will be within our reach.

Organizing is the key to what we want. Our problem isn’t that we don’t know what we want. It’s that we need the ability to make change happen. And that is the product of organizing, nothing else.

Security guards, employed by a contractor at the Google Mountain View campus, demonstrate for their right to have a union. Many Google workers supported their demonstrations.  David Bacon

Security guards demonstrate for their right to have a union.  David Bacon

Wednesday, December 4, 2019


By David Bacon
The Progressive, December 4, 2019

Demonstrators sit in the streets blocking intersections downtown.

On November 30, 1999, thousands of activists flooded downtown Seattle, protesting the global economic order and forging a new understanding of the world.    This story and photoessay was originally published by the Pacific News Service on December 1, 1999.

SEATTLE, WA  (12/1/99) - Those who marched or stood or sat in the streets of Seattle this week made history, and they knew it. And like the great marches against the Vietnam War, or the first sit-ins in the South in the late 50s, it was not always easy to see just what history was being made, especially for those closest to the events of the time.

Tear gas, rubber bullets and police sweeps, the object of incessant media coverage, are the outward signs of impending change - that the guardians of the social order have grown afraid. And there's always a little history in that.

Poeina, a young woman sitting in the intersection at the corner of Seventh and Stewart, waiting nervously for the cops to cuff her and take her away in her first arrest, knew the basic achievement she and her friends had already won: "I know we got people to listen, and that we changed their minds." It was a statement of hope, like the chant that rose Tuesday from streets filled with thousands of demonstrators as the police moved in - "The whole world is watching!"

The Seattle protests put trade on the roadmap of public debate, making WTO a universally recognized set of initials in a matter of hours - what it took a year of debate over NAFTA to accomplish.

But perhaps the greatest impact of Seattle will be on the people who were there. Just as anti-war demonstrations and civil rights sit-ins of decades ago were focal points, from which people fanned out across the country, spreading the gospel of their movement, Seattle is also a beginning of something greater yet to come. What will the people who filled its downtown streets take with them back into this city's rainy neighborhoods, or to similar communities in towns and cities across the country?

A certain understanding of the world was forged in the streets here - a realization based, to begin with, on who was there. Environmentalists came protesting the impending destruction of laws protecting clean air and water. Animal rights activists came to protect sea turtles. Trade unionists came fighting for jobs, and protesting child labor. Fair trade campaigners arrived ready to debate corporate domination of the process by which trade rules are decided.

Even the generational culture of the protestors started to spill over from one group into another. Environmental activists in their 20s came with the tactics from the battles in the forests of northern California and the Pacific Northwest. They carried giant puppets, dressed themselves in costumes rather than carrying signs, and laid down in busy intersections at the height of morning rush hour.

Just as anti-war demonstrations and civil rights sit-ins of decades ago were focal points, Seattle is also a beginning of something greater yet to come.

In groups of 20 and 30, they chained their arms together, slipping metal sleeves over hands and chains to make it hard for the police to cut them apart. Two years ago, this tactic was answered by Humboldt County sheriffs, who swabbed pepper spray directly into the eyes of protestors at Pacific Lumber Company. Even for veterans of civil disobedience, the chains are a tactic that demands determination and commitment to face down the fear of violent response.

As police rushed in to make arrests and cut them apart, a young woman stood to the side, crying out in tears to the helmeted and shielded officers - "I'm your daughter!"

Later the same day, tens of thousands of union members marched into downtown to join the protest. Having shut down all the ports along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to San Diego, union members chanted and waved picket signs as their ranks filled the streets as far as the eye could see. Each union's members marched together, each with its own color jacket or t-shirt, each carrying banners and hundreds of signs printed for the occasion.

Many of the morning's young protestors were visibly impressed by the strength of the numbers and organization. For Annie Decker,  "the power and size of it made me feel joyful. I was proud that we were together, bringing the WTO into the public eye."

In the midst of the tear gas, it was not hard to see that this culture of protest is starting to spread, whether through union jackets on protestors in the redwood forests, or giant puppets on union picket lines in Oakland. But under the culture is the germ of an idea - the linkage.

For unionists, the depredations of a global trading system has pitted workers in many countries against each other, in a race to the bottom in wages and workers' rights. Environmental activists see a system that values profit-making over laws protecting health and the environment. Rather than creating an atomized assembly - each group pursuing its own interests in isolation - protestors came ready to see what they had in common.

Decker, an organizer and observer at an intersection filled with sitting bodies, called her own realization liberating. "We don't have to just express an opinion on one issue," she said. "Trade and the power of corporations are affecting us in so many areas that we can all make connections, and see the common element behind the problems we share."

President Clinton may regret planning a summit of the powerful that has become overshadowed by street protest. But in the long run, he will regret this realization more. It is an indictment, not of a particular company, or even a single country, but of a whole economic order that is uniting its enemies in opposition to it.


1-2 Demonstrators chain their arms together, with pipes covering the chains, to make it hard for police to cut them apart for arrests.



3 Leaders of the AFL-CIO march against the WTO, including, from left, AFL-CIO Vice-President Linda Chavez Thompson, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, and United Auto Workers President Steve Yokich.

4 Demonstrators march against the WTO.

5-6 Longshore union members march against the WTO.

7-9 Demonstrators sit in the streets blocking intersections downtown.

 10 Demonstrators against the WTO prepare for tear gas.

11-12 Demonstrators in the streets downtown.

13-14 Demonstrators sit in the streets blocking intersections downtown.

15 Demonstrators in plastic handcuffs sit in intersections in the streets downtown, just before being arrested.

16 Longshore union members march in the streets downtown.

17 Leaders of the AFL-CIO march against the WTO, including, from left, Steel Workers Union President Richard Becker, AFL-CIO Vice-President Linda Chavez Thompson, and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

18 Longshore union members march in the streets downtown. 

Monday, November 25, 2019


‘Close to Slavery’ or Legalization? The Farmworkers’ Hard Choice
By David Bacon
The American Prospect, November 25, 2019

A guest worker strings up wire supports for planting apple trees, in a Washington State field.

In Chicano and Mexican families, the grandfathers who came to the United States as braceros (and almost all braceros were men) are mostly gone now. These farmworkers were considered only temporary migrant laborers, yet despite being denied the right to settle in this country and raise families, thousands of them eventually did just that. Their perseverance created homes and communities throughout the Southwest. From the program’s inception in 1942 to its abolition in 1964, bracero labor produced enormous wealth for the growers who employed them.

That wealth had a price. Braceros were almost all young men, recruited into a program that held them in labor camps, often fenced behind barbed wire, separate from the population around them. When their contracts ended, they were summarily shipped back to Mexico. Growers used braceros to replace local farmworkers, themselves immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines, in order to keep wages low and often to break strikes. To bring their families here, braceros had to work many seasons for a grower who might finally help them get legal status. Others left the camps and lived without legal status for years.

In 1958, economist Henry Anderson charged in a report, (for which growers got the University of California to fire him) that, "Injustice is built into the present system, and no amount of patching and tinkering will make of it a just system ... Foreign contract labor programs in general will, by their very nature, wreak harm upon the lives of the persons directly and indirectly involved, and upon the human rights our Constitution still holds to be self-evident and inalienable."

Anderson’s call helped lead to the abolition of the bracero program, but his warning cannot be buried safely in the past. Today, contract labor in agriculture is mushrooming again, with workers brought mostly from Mexico, but also from Central America and the Caribbean. States are beginning to pass laws to deal with its impact, and a new bill in Congress does what Anderson cautioned against—expand the contract labor program for agricultural labor—in exchange for the promise of legal immigration status for some undocumented farmworkers.

Debate over today’s contract labor program unfolds in a virulently anti-immigrant atmosphere, much like that of the 1950s. Many supporters of proposals to benefit undocumented migrants believe that only major concessions can give such proposals a realistic chance of enactment. But the bracero program’s history, during a similar period of deportations and nativist hysteria, may provide an idea of what the future might look like if such compromises become law.

In the Cold War era of the 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. government mounted huge immigration raids. Farm labor activists of that era charged they were intended to produce a shortage of workers in the fields. Fay Bennett, executive secretary of the National Sharecroppers Fund, reported that in 1954, “the domestic labor force had been driven out ... In a four-month period, 300,000 Mexican illegals [sic] were arrested and deported, or frightened back across the border.”

All told, 1.1 million people were deported to Mexico that year, in the infamous “Operation Wetback.” The bracero program, begun in 1942, was already in place, organizing the recruitment of contract laborers in Mexico for U.S. farmers. As the raids drove undocumented workers back to Mexico, the government then relaxed federal requirements on housing, wages, and food for braceros.

In 1956 alone, 445,197 braceros were brought to work on U.S. farms, 153,000 just in California. They made up almost a quarter of the 2.07 million wage workers on U.S. farms that year, according to the Department of Agriculture. “The availability of braceros held down farm worker earnings,” says University of California, Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin. In the decade of the 1950s, median farm wages rose from 85 cents an hour to $1.20, while wages in the cities took a bigger jump, from $1.60 to $2.60.

By law, bracero wages were not supposed to undermine wages for resident workers, and growers were supposed to offer jobs to local workers before they were allowed to bring in braceros. But activists “accused certain large growers of offering wages lower than domestic migrants will accept, in order to create an artificial labor shortage and justify a request for Mexican nationals,” wrote H.B. Shaffer in a 1959 report. The bracero program “tends to displace those [resident] workers rather than meet real labor shortages.”

Bennett agreed: “The alleged domestic labor shortage in the [rural] area is artificially created by pay rates too low for decent living.” The activists of those years who protested included future leaders of the United Farm Workers Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong, as well as leading community organizers Bert Corona and Ernesto Galarza.

Today’s labor picture on U.S. farms has changed surprisingly little from that of the 1950s. Industrial agriculture in the Southwest and along the Pacific coast relies on Mexican labor, as it has for a century. About 2.4 million people presently work for wages in U.S. agriculture, a slight increase from 1956. Mexicans made up the majority of farmworkers then, and today are two-thirds of the workforce. U.S. immigration law and its enforcement have never eliminated Mexicans from the workforce, but indirectly control the conditions under which they live and work. Mexican academic Jorge Bustamante argues that a primary purpose of U.S. immigration law historically has been—and still is—to regulate the price of Mexican labor in the United States.

Depending on the period, farmworkers come across the border with visas or without them. Especially since the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the economic forces displacing people in Mexico, pushing them across the border, have made migration a necessity for survival for millions of families. During times of heavy enforcement, hundreds die on the border each year. In an earlier similar period, Woody Guthrie sang, “We died in your hills, we died in your deserts ... Both sides of the river, we died just the same.”

Amelia and Rigoberto Garcia, with the contracts he signed as a bracero on the table in front of them.

The bracero program channeled that flow of people into a cheap and convenient system for growers. Today the H2-A visa program serves the same function. Although the bracero program was abolished in 1964, the H-2 visa on which it was based was never eliminated. In 1986, Congress again authorized an organized farm labor importation program and created the H-2A visa.

Growers recruiting H-2A workers, mainly from Mexico, must apply to the Department of Labor, specifying the type of work, living conditions, and wages workers will receive. The company must provide transportation and housing. Workers are given contracts for less than one year, and must leave the country when their work is done. While in the U.S., they’re tied to the grower that recruits them. If workers protest mistreatment, they can be legally fired and must leave the country.

In theory, growers must advertise for local workers first, and can only bring in guest workers if too few locals are available. Currently, every state is required to survey wages every year to establish an Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR)—a minimum wage for H-2A workers that theoretically won’t undercut the wages of local farmworkers.

Legal-service agencies, farmworker unions, and advocates have criticized the program for years, calling it “close to slavery,” and charging extensive and systematic violations of all of these requirements. A host of articles have documented those violations.

Farmworker Justice, a national farmworker advocacy group, has criticized the H2-A program for creating “a captive workforce that is deprived of economic bargaining power and the right to vote.” The United Farm Workers has warned against Trump administration proposals to further weaken the regulations “that require U.S. citizens and legal residents to be offered these jobs first … This drastic move could replace local U.S. workers with foreign H-2A workers.”

As was the case in the 1950s, however, U.S. immigration policy today is intended to impede the entry of undocumented migrants, and uses the resulting shortage to force growers into using the H2-A visa program. In one celebrated case, federal immigration authorities used the E-Verify system to identify 550 undocumented workers on the huge Gebbers ranch in eastern Washington. Citing the legal prohibition on employing them, authorities forced Gebbers to fire them all. The company was then required to use the H2-A program to recruit workers from Mexico, and even Jamaica, to replace those who’d lost their jobs.

Many immigrant rights activists view the 2010 Gebbers action as a trial run for an enforcement tactic that today has become more common, one that proposed legislation would make mandatory on every U.S. farm. Its purpose is not to deny labor to growers. It is to return to an earlier system for managing it. In this particular, 2019 is beginning to look like 1956. At the same time as H-2A employment is rising, deportations are increasing. The Trump administration deported 256,000 people in 2018, just slightly more than the number of people brought to the U.S. under H-2A visas.

According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, about half of the country’s 2.4 million farmworkers are undocumented. As the flow of workers across the border was reduced by immigration enforcement under President Obama, and even more under President Trump, finding labor became an increasing problem for growers.

Trump’s fulminations against migrants and his drive to build a border wall create the impression that he seeks to restrict immigration across the board. But when growers appeal for workers, his response is different. At a Michigan rally in February 2018, he told supporters, “For the farmers … it’s going to get good … We’re going to have strong borders, but we have to have your workers come in … We’re going to let them in ’cause you need them … We have to have them.”

For many years, the H2-A program saw little use by growers: In 1992, fewer than 10,000 visas were issued. That number had tripled by 2005, and under Obama and now Trump it has mushroomed. Last year, growers were certified to bring in 242,762 H-2A workers—a tenth of the total agricultural workforce and an increase of more than 100,000 since 2014, when the number of such workers was 139,832. Georgia brought in the most—32,364, compared with its non–H2-A workforce of 48,972, according to the Department of Agriculture. Florida brought in 30,462, compared to 96,247. California’s 18,908 H2-A workers are fewer in comparison to its huge workforce of 377,593, but that was an increase of 70 percent in just two years.

During the bracero program, workers were employed directly by growers, and hired through grower associations. Today, however, the three largest employers of H2-A workers are labor contractors: the North Carolina Growers Association, which accounts for 11,609 workers; the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) with 5,163; and Fresh Harvest, with 4,237. Some employers with operations in Mexico, like Fresh Harvest and Driscoll’s (the world’s largest berry company), offer H2-A visas to workers they first employ in fields south of the border. Other large H2-A employers include Washington state’s Zirkle Fruit Company, which alone brought in 4,169 pickers.

A camp in Blythe used for braceros in the 1940s and 50s, which still housed migrant farmworkers up until the 1980s.

Also unlike the bracero era, when recruitment was jointly managed by the U.S. and Mexican governments, recruitment today is privatized. No one knows for sure who all the recruiters are, how they recruit people in Mexico, or their arrangements with U.S. growers. The largest recruiter may be a company called CSI, formerly Manpower of the Americas, which claimed to have recruited 30,000 Mexican workers in 2017 and is closely tied to WAFLA. In the 1990s, Manpower of the Americas maintained a legal blacklist of workers who would be denied employment—including those who’d been involved in worker activism, who protested bad conditions, or who just worked too slowly. Today, the CSI website warns, “CSI shares candidate [worker] records with companies to select whomever they see fit.”

Republicans have introduced a number of bills in recent years to make the H2-A program more grower-friendly. But the most far-reaching bill dealing with H2-A workers was introduced in Congress at the end of October by Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from Silicon Valley, and Dan Newhouse, a conservative Republican from Washington’s Yakima Valley. Newhouse receives more campaign contributions from agribusiness than any other industry. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 essentially ties legalization for undocumented farmworkers and guest worker programs together. This compromise bill guarantees growers a labor supply at a price they want to pay, while at the same time providing a pathway to legal residence for many undocumented farmworkers.

Last Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill and sent it to the House floor.

Today, about half the agricultural workforce, or 1.25 million people, are undocumented, and would be able to apply for legal immigration status (the “green card”) if they’ve done farmwork for two years before the bill’s passage. Those who’ve lived in the U.S. more than ten years would have to wait four years before getting a green card, and those with less than ten years would have to wait eight years. Other requirements include fines, fees, and record checks.

Applicants, while they could get jobs outside of farm labor, would have to put in a minimum of 100 days a year in the fields while they wait to be accepted into the program. That might not be easy, since many farmworkers struggle to find that much work in the course of a year.

The bill makes it mandatory that growers use the E-Verify database to detect and turn away future job applicants who might not have legal status. That database has been criticized for many years for inaccuracy, and for providing a pretext for refusing to hire people based on race and nationality. The bill includes language barring such discrimination. Employers, however, also have a long history of accusing workers of lacking immigration status as a pretext for firing them because of union and workplace activism.

Since half of current workers have no legal status, an even more predictable impact of the mandatory use of E-Verify would be to make it harder for employers to find workers they can legally hire. The half of the workforce that’s currently undocumented would eventually shrink as people applied for green cards, gained legal status, and found better-paying jobs elsewhere. The other half of the workforce—people who are citizens or have legal immigration status—will shrink as well over time, particularly because the average age of farmworkers has increased from 28 in 2000 to 38—the average age today.

With the mandatory use of E-Verify, growers would have two choices. They could increase wages and encourage direct, year-round employment to make their jobs attractive to workers living in rural communities. Or they could use the H2-A program much more extensively to fill their labor needs.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act has several provisions to make the second alternative attractive. It suspends for one year the increase in the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which would otherwise increase with inflation, and changes how it is calculated. After ten years, the AEWR would be evaluated, and could be abolished altogether. The net effect would be to bring down H2-A wages, so they’re closer to the minimum wage. That could not only affect H2-A workers directly, but also make it more difficult for resident farmworkers to raise their own wages.

The bill would allow growers to use federal programs for farmworker housing to build barracks for guest workers. Growers historically have complained that requiring them to provide housing adds to the cost of hiring H2-A workers. Subsidizing H2-A housing encourages the program to expand, while limiting those subsidies restrains it. Washington state’s Department of Commerce ruled that growers could use state farmworker housing funds for barracks, and subsidizing that cost is a significant factor of the program’s rapid growth there.

In California, this year the United Farm Workers sponsored AB 1783, a bill preventing growers from using state farmworker housing funds for guest worker dormitories. The California bill’s author, Assemblymember Roberto Rivas (a son and grandson of UFW members) argued that his bill “phases out state support of the federal H-2A program. These types of programs—such as the Bracero programs, which aimed to secure a temporary agricultural workforce—have historically limited farmworker rights and been criticized for abuse.” The bill passed and was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in October.

While the bill now in Congress wouldn’t invalidate the new California law, it would allow growers to tap federal funds instead, with some restrictions.

The old justification for both the bracero and H2-A programs was that growers needed workers on a temporary basis to fill transitory labor needs, and therefore didn’t threaten the more permanent jobs of local workers. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act alters this assumption by setting a three-year duration for the H2-A visa, moving it more toward a visa for longer-term employment. (Currently, the H2-A visa is good for one year only. Some 60,000 H2-A visas would be available over three years for permanent employment, which dairies in particular want, and this cap could eventually be removed.)

Barracks in central Washington built to house contract workers brought to the U.S. by growers under the H2A visa program.

The bill does contain some pro-worker changes in the H2-A program. Ten thousand holders of H2-A visas per year would be able to transfer from the employer that recruited them to another employer, which is presently not allowed. H2-A workers would be covered by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act (AWPA), offering some protection from abuses.

Employers could sponsor 40,000 farmworkers, including both undocumented and H2-A workers, for green cards each year. Many workers want residence status badly, but giving employers the power to petition also makes workers more vulnerable to them. H2-A workers could petition themselves, but would have to have worked for ten years in the program first—not a requirement for employer petitions.

Predicting all the long-term impacts of the bill is impossible, but some effects are very likely. The pressure on people in Mexico to migrate will still push people to come, since the conditions that displace people are very deep, and changing them would require reordering the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. As early as 1949, Ernesto Galarza, pioneering farmworker organizer, author, and scholar, argued that the Mexican migrant “is forced to seek better conditions north of the border by the slow but relentless pressure of United States agricultural, financial and oil corporate interests on the entire economic and social evolution of the Mexican nation.” That pressure has only grown stronger in the past 70 years.

Increasing wages substantially in U.S. fields would make jobs more attractive to resident farmworkers, and perhaps lead to a mixed workforce of both local residents and migrants. The federal bill, however, would effectively keep farmworker wages close to the minimum. That, together with the impact of E-Verify and turnover in the workforce, is a recipe for pressing employers, willingly or unwillingly, to use the H2-A system. Last year’s total number of certified H2-A applications was almost a quarter of a million, which could easily increase at the rate seen in the last ten years. In addition, the number of permanent jobs held by H2-A workers will increase.

An agricultural system in which half the workforce would eventually consist of H2-A workers is not unlikely. Florida, Georgia, and Washington are already approaching this situation.

Competition for housing in farmworker communities would also become more intense. Soledad, in the Salinas Valley, put a moratorium on H-2A housing last September, after the local Motel 8 was converted into living quarters for contract workers. At the same time, residents complained that they were evicted from a rental complex when owners found it preferable to rent the apartments to H-2A contractors. In Santa Maria, farmworkers say rents increased drastically as growers outbid residents to house the 800 workers they brought into the valley. According to the University of California’s Philip Martin, fair-market rent for a two-bedroom house in Salinas is $1,433, while the current state minimum wage only produces $1,920 a month.

Housing for H-2A guest worker farmworkers in Santa Maria. This trailer was listed as the housing for six workers by La Fuente Farming, Inc.

What makes the likely expansion of the H2-A program a risk worth taking for some farmworker advocates is the prospect that more than one million people could gain legal status from the bill’s legalization provisions. For many farmworkers living in fear of taking their kids to school or making a trip to the grocery store, the need for legal status is overwhelming and immediate.

Farmworker Justice and the United Farm Workers, which both criticized the program when the Trump administration announced prospective rule changes, helped negotiate the Farm Workforce Modernization Act with growers and Republicans.

According to Farmworker Justice, “If enacted, this legislation would alleviate that fear [of deportation] by providing farmworkers and their families with an opportunity to earn legal immigration status. With legal status and a path to citizenship, farmworkers would be better able to improve their wages and working conditions and challenge serious labor abuses.”

The UFW says, “The bill addresses the pervasive fear faced every day by the immigrant farm workers who perform one of the toughest jobs in America. The bill also includes significant new protections and rights for groups of farm workers previously excluded from basic rights.”

Farmworker unions and advocates are divided over support, however. Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community, a farmworker advocacy organization in Bellingham, Washington, argues that “this bill doesn’t address the needs of most farmworkers who are already here. It shifts agriculture in the wrong direction, which will lead to the eventual replacement of domestic workers and create even more of a crisis than currently exists for their families and communities.”

Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the new independent union for farmworkers in Washington state, says his experience helping H2-A workers protest labor violations makes him doubt the bill will change their situation. “Employers will continue to have the power to punish and deport these workers if they resist,” he says. “We know they’ll do this because it’s what they’re doing now. Growers complain they can’t find enough workers, but the reason they can’t is that conditions and wages are so bad we have people living in garages and sleeping under trees. Organizing the union is the only thing that has worked to change conditions here for the better, but there is no protection for the right to organize in this bill.”

Agribusiness is also divided, chiefly over whether the bill provides enough change in the H2-A program. California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson told AgNet West, “This comprehensive legislation contains key elements that address current and future workforce needs … Improvements to the H-2A program would make it much more flexible and valuable to California farm employers and employees.”

The senior vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Robert Guenther, favored the bill because it would keep workers tied to agricultural jobs. The legalization program “requires them to keep working in agriculture for a period of time which actually increases depending on the number of years they have been working in agriculture,” he claimed. Because there is no cap on the numbers of H2-A workers, he added, “past issues with getting enough workers in during various growing seasons will be mitigated.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation, however, was not satisfied. Produce Blue Book reported that Will Rodger, director of policy communications, complained that the bill did not have enough work visas for agriculture, and that E-Verify use would make too few workers available. “We want the bill to correspond to reality, and there’s no way the H2-A numbers will work,” he said.

The most radical pro-immigrant and pro-worker proposals are being made outside of Congress, however. Two Democratic presidential candidates want changes that go far beyond the bill’s legalization provisions. For months, Julián Castro has advocated for “an inclusive roadmap to citizenship for undocumented individuals and families who do not have a current pathway to legal status.” He has many recommendations for taking down current barriers to immigration, including strengthening the family reunification program. (Restrictionists and some employers have argued for years that family reunification visas should be replaced by ones that allow people to enter the country based only on their ability to work and the need for their labor.)

Castro supports changes to “strengthen labor protections for guest workers and end exploitative practices which hurt residents and guest workers, provide work authorization to spouses of participating individuals, and ensure guest workers have a fair opportunity to become residents and citizens.” He would “reconstitute the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE)” and begin examining the roots of forced displacement and migration.

Bernie Sanders released his immigration program on November 7, which calls for “a path to legal residency or citizenship for most undocumented immigrants in the country today.” Of all the candidates, he is the most critical of guest worker programs, saying he “rejects the exploitation of workers and the use of visas for cheap, foreign labor. We must increase opportunities for qualified individuals to take steps towards permanent residency.”

Sanders asserts that guest workers “have been routinely cheated out of wages, held virtually captive by employers who have seized their documents, forced to live in unspeakable inhumane conditions and denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries,” in programs he calls “close to slavery.” He notes he voted against creating ICE, and against the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 because it expanded guest worker programs.

The bathroom in a San Joaquin Delta labor camp where braceros lived in the 1950s and 60s.

In the end, the fate of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act may be overtaken by election politics. Since the original comprehensive immigration bills were introduced under President George W. Bush, common wisdom in Washington holds that passing an immigration bill is practically impossible during a presidential campaign.

The differences between Donald Trump and his supporters, and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are so great that the election, rather than legislation, will basically decide the direction for U.S. immigration policy. The flow of many Mexican and Central American migrants across the border will either be increasingly imprisoned in a system of cheap and disposable labor by growers, or it will be integrated into families and communities able to fight for rights, legal status, unions, and a better standard of living

Friday, November 8, 2019


By David Bacon
The Nation, 10/8/19

Los Angeles garment worker leader Christina Vasquez and members of her union UNITE denounce NAFTA for having caused the closure of the factory where they worked, 1994. (David Bacon)

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump pledged to get rid of NAFTA, and once in office he killed Barack Obama's Trans Pacific Partnership. Neither of those trade policies were worth mourning. But now he has produced a "renegotiated" NAFTA-the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA-whose purpose is the same as the original: to eliminate "rules that interfere with cross-border commercial activity" and "to craft laws that facilitate these activities," according to the Canadian union, UNIFOR. In other words, the purpose of the new agreement is to provide profit-making opportunities for large corporations-the same purpose that led to the disastrous impact of the old one.

Pressuring Trump's trade negotiators will not produce a trade agreement that will help workers on either side of the border, as a quarter century of experience with NAFTA demonstrates. That trade agreement unleashed economic changes in Mexico that increased poverty and displaced people on a massive scale. At the same time it was useless in protecting union rights, especially in the US. I've spent the last two and a half decades documenting the devastation that NAFTA has wrought for Mexico's workers, and I've seen the vigorous resistance that US and Mexican workers have put up against its ravages.

At the time the original NAFTA was implemented in 1994, supporters claimed the deal would raise incomes in Mexico and would slow migration from Mexico to the US. By 2005, however, the World Bank found that extreme rural poverty jumped from 35% to 55% within four years after NAFTA took effect. By 2010, 53 million Mexicans were living in poverty. In the 20 years after NAFTA went into effect, the buying power of Mexican wages dropped-the minimum wage's buying power plummeted by a staggering 24%.

In NAFTA's first year, one million Mexicans lost their jobs. According to Jeff Faux, founding director of the Economic Policy Institute, "the peso crash of December, 1994, was directly connected to NAFTA." Yellow corn grown by Mexican farmers then had to compete with corn from huge US producers, subsidized by the US farm bill. Corn imports into Mexico rose from 2 million to over 10 million tons, driving 2.5 million Mexican farmers and farm workers off their land.

"Here, if you have no money, the government won't enforce the law. We really have very good laws in Mexico, but a very bad government." Veronica Vasquez spoke these words in the middle of a dusty street in Tijuana, in the workers' march on May Day. 1996 (David Bacon)

In 1990, 4.5 million Mexican migrants had come to the US. In 2008 that number peaked at 12.67 million. About 9% of all Mexicans now live in the US. This displacement and forced migration was a direct consequence of the economic damage the treaty dealt to Mexico's economy. Timothy Wise, Senior Research Fellow at Tufts University, says "The real assault was NAFTA, along with the neoliberal economic policies adopted by the Mexican government of which NAFTA was an integral part."

Besides the economic immiseration of two generations of Mexican workers, the original NAFTA also failed at one of its other purported goals, to improve working conditions for workers across North America. Both the old and the new agreements require the US, Canada and Mexico to enforce their own labor laws. But for over a quarter century NAFTA abjectly failed to do this. Mexico's laws guarantee workers the right to form independent unions, but throughout NAFTA's reign workers' attempts to organize were met with firings, beatings and broken strikes. NAFTA's labor side agreement failed to reinstate even a single fired worker or force the signing of a single union contract.

After two decades of pressure from progressive Mexican unions, Mexico has finally passed a law strengthening the rights of Mexican workers in their unions and workplaces. Many unions here in the US supported the long effort to win those reforms. Liberal Democrats and the AFL-CIO now call on Mexico's new government to implement this new labor law reform as a condition for supporting the new NAFTA.

Members of Tijuana's SWAT team, the Special Forces, march beside the Han Young factory, as they prepare to illegally reopen the plant and bring in strikebreakers in 1998. Workers in the plant had organized an independent union and gone on strike. 1998  (David Bacon)

Strong unions and high wages benefit workers in both countries. The USMCA supposedly will require Mexico to enforce the new reforms more rigorously. Mexican workers will indeed benefit if they are enforced, but the track record of the old NAFTA is clear. Even if the USMCA requires Mexico to obey its own labor laws, freeing US corporations to invest and operate in Mexico will have the same disastrous consequences the old agreement produced. And unmentioned in the current debate is the failure of NAFTA to require enforcement of US labor laws.

In the US the National Labor Relations Board has failed to aggressively enforce the National Labor Relations Act or significantly curb a whole industry of illegal union-busting. As gig and contingent employment mushrooms, many workers now can't even legally picket their real boss. Farm and domestic workers were written out of US labor law entirely in the 1930s because of overt racial bias in Congress, and still are.

Federal workers won the legal right to organize, which President Trump now threatens to revoke. Fierce attacks against public workers' hard-won union rights are the new normal. More and more states pass "right to work" laws, made legal by the same Cold War Taft-Hartley Act that prohibits effective labor action, like effective secondary boycotts and mass picket lines.

It's therefore notable that there is no special section of the new USMCA that requires the US to reform its labor laws in the same way it requires Mexico to do so, and liberal Democrats and the AFL-CIO don't even suggest it. Their silence shows eloquently that they don't even expect the trade agreement process to enforce US workers' rights.

Putting all the onus on Mexican enforcement is not only one-sided, but promotes the idea that Mexican workers are a danger to the jobs of US workers, rather than the lack of labor rights here at home. President Trump has used the USMCA negotiations to whip up nationalistic fervor against Mexico, saying his trade agreement will protect American jobs, while history shows clearly that it will not. And his anti-Mexico nationalism, calculated to win votes in 2020, nevertheless obscures his attacks on workers here at home.

AFL-CIO President Trumka has said, "We are working to try to get an agreement worthy of the American economy and the American worker." Such an agreement, however, should prohibit investment decisions that increase poverty across North America, rather than accepting poverty and displacement as unfortunate byproducts of trade. It could mandate works councils to give unions power over company investment decisions, guarantee labor rights across borders, and even demilitarize the US-Mexico border itself.

Sara Steffens-after being fired from her job as a reporter for heading the union organizing drive at the Contra Costa Times-called for passage of labor law reform in the US. Today Steffens is Secretary-Treasurer of the Communications Workers of America. 2009 (David Bacon)

Instead of tinkering with a new NAFTA, Congressional left-wingers should put an agreement like this on the table, and unions should step up concrete action to defend workers' rights in both countries. Solidarity with unions fighting in Mexico is a much more effective strategy than pressuring Trump trade negotiators.

The fact remains that workers in this country have a common interest with workers south of the border. NAFTA 2.0 will not improve their lives and does not deserve working class support.

Thursday, October 17, 2019


Photographs by David Bacon

In two demonstrations last week people in the Bay Area stood up to defend immigrant members of our community. 

In Berkeley on October 14, Mayor Jesse Arreguin and other community leaders announced that the City of Berkeley was passing a resolution calling on Congress to act to presesrve Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for refugees and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, for young people brought to the U.S. without papers as children.  If action is not taken, over a million people will lose work authorization and the legal ability to remain in this country.

May people spoke out at the rally across the street from Berkeley's old City Hall.  They included young people like Crista Ramos and Kruz Morales.  Other immigrants like Cristina Morales and Rose Carranza represented the TPS Committee for Permanent Residency Now! and East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, and were supported by Pierre Labossiere of the Haiti Action Committee and Ramon Cardona of Centro Latino Cuscatlan.  Berkeley's poet laurate Rafael Jesus Gonzalez read poetry.

On Friday, October 11, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity organized a vigil in front of the ICE office in San Francisco, calling on Governor Gavin Newsom to pardon to men so that they will not be deported, and can remain with their families in the U.S.

Charles Joseph is facing transfer to ICE custody upon release from prison. When he was younger, Charles Joseph's father was incarcerated and deported. Joseph is a member of musician Lew Fratis' musical development and performance program at the California State Prison, Solano.  His mother, Alumita Siva, and his lawyer, Francisco Ugarte, spoke to the rally.

Saman Pho, a 43-year-old father of four from Oakland, a construction worker and Teamster Union member, was taken into custody when he reported to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement on Sansome Street.  His sister Monica Sok spoke out for him.

On the sidewalk people dug into their pockets and raised the bail money needed for a young person who was being freed from custody, but then being turned over to immigration authorities for deportation.