A few thoughts on labour in California

The Chronicle this morning had an article stating that Two-thirds of Californians support guest-worker plan.

As I read through the article, I found myself thinking about the history of labour and race in California. California: An Interpretive History (8th ed.), by James Rawls and Walton Bean, provided me with a quick refresher on labour and exploitation in California:

For all its progressivism now, California in the early days was not known for liberalism, particularly when it came to race. California’s anti-Asian attitudes, which began in the Gold Rush, are well documented, for example. Numerous immigrants from Asia came to California looking for work and fortunes in the 1850s, and found themselves virtually enslaved by the white elite, who treated them essentially as coolies. They were forced to pay high taxes, weren’t permitted to own land, and generally had a hard go of it. There were caps on Asian immigration even during the heady days when “anyone” was allowed into the United States. Asians were not allowed to become naturalized citizens, thanks to laws from the 1700s stating that “only free white citizens” could become citizens, and this excuse was held up until 1952. Anti-Chinese sentiment, in particular, was quite fashionable, and the sort of language anti-Chinese advocates used is reminiscent of the language used today by anti-immigration groups. The Chinese took jobs from hard working Californians. The Chinese depressed overall wages by being willing to work for low pay. The Chinese had no respect for American culture. The Chinese lived in overcrowded dangerous housing, like animals. Chinese children were excluded from schools until 1885, when the legislature amended the state code to allow for racially segregated schools. When Japanese immigration began to increase in the early twentieth century, Japanese children were shunted into the “oriental schools” as well. A civic organization even formed to maintain the second class citizenship of the Asian community–the Asiatic Exclusion League. Other Asian ethnicities were also discriminated against.

Other minorities and immigrant groups were exploited during California’s rise. Indeed, it is probably safe to say that California would not be where it is today were it not for the sweat and death of immigrant laborers who worked hard in a state of perpetual inequality building California. The Spanish exploited the Indians and the United States exploited the Mexicans. Indeed, anyone not white in California was used as cheap, disposable labour: to build railroads, run restaurants, work in agricultural pursuits, construct homes, pick up garbage, and provide sundry services to the California elite. Through clever manipulation of legislation, these workers lived lives of half-citizenship until well into the twentieth century, when they were granted equal rights with reluctance.

It is with the bracero* program that California perfected the exploitation of immigrant labour. During the world wars, especially, California faced a serious labour shortage, and merrily imported workers from Mexico to prop up California agriculture and other industries. These hard working men and women fed Americans during the war. And when the war was over, they were deported back to Mexico. Understandably irritated, the Mexican government demanded that the United States take some responsibility for the braceros, and the system was codified. Mexicans were sent over the border into the North, where they would be picked up by labour contractors. They were supposed to be guaranteed a minimum wage and certain living conditions, including medical care and disability benefits. These stipulations were, of course, ignored, and the laborers were packed into unsanitary conditions and forced into long working hours in the California agricultural industry. However, it became painfully obvious that the bracero program depressed wages, reduced the bargaining power of labour unions, and only added to the abject poverty of farm workers. Braceros were used as strike breakers and for leverage–farms could offer obscenely low wages and living conditions for workers, thus ensuring a “shortage” of domestic workers who were understandably unwilling to work in miserable conditions, and then the farms could import braceros, who worked for virtually nothing. They were the ultimate cheap labour force–there when you needed them, and deported to Mexico when you didn’t. How ideal. The bracero program existed until 1963, when Congress refused to extend it. (And good for them!)

For further detail on labour in California, and the history of California in general, I would highly recommend California: An Interpretive History (8th ed) to my readers–much of the information above is taken from their extensive examination of racial divisions and labor in California.

In later years, California has simply used illegal labor to feed its industries. Now there is a proposal to revive a guest worker program, and it’s being welcomed by Californians who apparently don’t know any better. This saddens me.

The use of illegal immigrants in California (and most states, really) is something that should be addressed. Not because I have a problem with illegal aliens, but because I have a problem with their exploitation, and I have a bigger problem with Congress codifying that exploitation. I have worked side by side with numerous Latin American immigrants, legal and illegal, and I have always been impressed with the quality and dedication of their work. One of my most adored baristas at the coffeehouse works multiple jobs and rarely has a day off, all so that he can send money to his family back in Mexico. Latin American men and women are the backbone of California society–they expose themselves to pesticides while growing and harvesting our crops. They clean our homes and businesses. They labour in sweltering kitchens preparing our food. Undocumented immigrants, as the Chronicle points out, are doing “important jobs,” jobs that Americans don’t want to do because we think we’re too good for them. Mexican women have a reputation for being great cleaning ladies, loyal nannies, and so forth. Mexican men have a reputation for being hard workers who endure foul conditions in order to support their families. Immigrants are not “taking away” jobs from California residents–they are doing the backbreaking labour we don’t want to perform. And all of this performed under a shadow–the fear of the INS, of deportation, of what they will do if they are sent back home.

I do not want to deny these hard working men and women jobs. What I want is for them to experience the same working conditions white legal residents do–to be paid a minimum wage, to have access to health care and housing and schools, to be treated like human beings rather than disposable commodities. I would imagine that in the future, people will look down upon the history of illegal labor in the Southern border states, because some illegal immigrants exist in a state of virtual slavery. However, unlike slaves, they aren’t valuable as individuals, and can therefore be abused and deported when they have outlived their usefulness. Children of illegal immigrants (who may or may not be aware of their immigration status) can be deported from the United States, where they have lived and schooled for their entire lives, and thrown into a culture they’ve never lived in.

The United States has exacerbated the problem by destabilizing South American governments. I used to work with a woman from Columbia who said she preferred Columbia, had a better job there, loved living there–but was forced out because of the violence propagated by the American “war on drugs.” The United States has not done well by our Southern neighbors, and now we propose another “guest worker” program? I can see the appeal. Illegal immigrants could come out of hiding, be registered, receive social support, perhaps get benefits and better working conditions. And then, when we were done with them, we could throw them away, send them back to their home nations, and wash our hands of it.

No. My South American coworkers deserve the same rights I have, including the right to citizenship. By being able to register legally, without threat of deportation, they would be able to pay taxes and support the bureaucracy which runs the United States. By being allowed the same rights as American citizens, they could participate more actively in the vibrant culture of America, without having to fear being sent away. I recall a fellow student from Brazil, legal resident alien of the United States, who was still afraid to go to a political rally because he could be deported for un-American activity. I don’t want a guest worker program because I think it’s wrong to structure our labour force that way. I want all workers in this country to be on equal footing, whatever their race, ethnic, or national origin.

*It should be noted that bracero “bears a striking resemblance to the meaning of the Tamil word kuli,” according to Rawls and Bean.

[guest workers]