IV. Race of the Orchards

September 25, 2007

Growers who defend the importation of Jamaican apple pickers say the job requires special attributes--traits they would like to pass off as national characteristics. Veterans of the apple harvest, on the other hand, say all that's needed is a stomach for 12-hour days of brutal, boring labor and a piece rate system that never lets you rest. You try to save time and energy by picking three apples at a time before dropping your hand into the canvas bucket hanging heavy from a shoulder harness. You ignore the metal rim of the bucket digging into your waist with the weight of 50 pounds of apples. Your legs struggle to make a hundred and more trips a day up and down a ladder four times your height. Everything that hinders the flow of motion is an expensive annoyance. Be careful not to bruise the apples, be careful not to break branches with the ladder, or pull off spurs (next year's crop setting) while picking. Negligence is also flirtation with dismissal. To this picture of the six-week apple harvest add the indiscriminate use of pesticides, substandard housing, lousy food and manipulated wages. Apples are big business throughout the East. In Virginia alone some ten million boxes of apples are harvested, reaping $25 million in sales. By the time a bushel of apples reaches the supermarket, the consumer will pay $22.50 for what a picker gets 30C to harvest. The grower gets 25%, then complains at the narrow profit margin. In apples, as in the rest of unmechanized agriculture, the drive is to keep the cost of labor at rock bottom. Over time, students, families on the migrant stream, even German prisoners of war have been brought into the orchards. Domestic seasonal workers are recruited on a daily basis from nearby towns, or are brought from out of state by an independent crew leader. We already know the drawbacks of both day-haul and crew-led workers from the grower's point of view. In essence, they cannot be made to be sufficiently productive, cheap or reliable in comparison to the captive labor force of foreign contract workers. Crew leaders notoriously attempt to control their workers by trapping them into debt bondage that may serve to keep them on a string, but stifles productivity. If you can't ever get your head above water, why try? Hence, in the last decade apple growers have increasingly turned to the Caribbean for their pickers. Three years ago the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, edged out of other agricultural contracts, attempted to get a piece of the action. The struggle that ensued is clearly illustrative of the points we have tried to make in this issue. It shows the lengths that the growers, driven by their own needs to maximize profits, will go to obtain the cheapest, most productive and most controllable work force. It reveals the inherent contradictions of a government agency set up to protect workers in a capitalist economy. Most importantly, it demonstrates the undermining role that a contract system plays in the attempts of workers to improve their conditions of work. We saw earlier that a wage minimum effectively becomes a wage ceiling when a labor force is introduced that cannot battle to raise that wage. Here we will see that the contract system as a whole effectively paralyzes the struggles of all farmworkers to demand better conditions. When those Macs turn ripe - a Vermont apple grower expounded, waving his hand out over his orchards -I've got only ten days to get 'em off the trees. Any later and I lose the whole thing. I need real workers who, when I say go out and pick, they go out and pick until the job is done. I can't afford to mess around with local people who show up when they feel like it. And I don't even want to hear about Puerto Ricans. All they're after is a plane ticket to the U.S. But Jamaicans-he paused to take a breath and change his tone -if you're going to write about Jamaicans, then only say good things, because they're the best pickers I've ever had. In early 1975 the U.S. Department of Labor brought together eastern apple growers and the Puerto Rican Migration Division to explore the possibilities of contracting apple pickers from Puerto Rico. Each of the three groups had their own goals. As we have seen, the Puerto Rican workers had been edged out of other agricultural contracts and the Commonwealth government was looking for new areas of work for its unemployed labor force. The six-week apple harvest in the United States offered a new possibility. The growers agreed to be present at the meeting only because they had lost a legal fight to avoid hiring southern migrants the year before, and were under court order to actively recruit domestic workers. I They were still determined, however, to restore their unhampered access to foreign labor. The Department of Labor was trying to fulfill one of its legislated mandates, that of finding jobs for domestic workers, in this case Puerto Ricans. In its dealings with growers, the Department's weapon was its ability to grant or withhold certification for temporary foreign workers. It had brandished this weapon the previous year against the intransigent growers but was finally forced to back down. In this meeting it proposed a "pilot program" which would allow at least a token number of Puerto Rican workers to come to pick apples under the contract. Since the 1975 meeting three harvests have passed. This season there were no Puerto Ricans among the contract workers who picked the trees clean from Appalachia to New England. The growers struggled intensely and successfully to maintain and expand their access to West Indians and foreclose on the use of Puerto Ricans. To attain their goals, the growers went into strategic formation. They defended their interests unstintingly using political pressure at all levels, sympathetic local courts and weak farmworker protection laws. The playing out of the multi-purpose strategy of the apple growers is an eye-opener. It lets us see the unmitigated opposition between the agricultural branch of capital and labor, and the compromised role of the Department of Labor which tries to serve the interests of both. In attempting to carry out their plan and to make Puerto Rican workers acceptable to the apple growers, the Department of Labor abetted the undermining of special legislative protections guaranteed to the Puerto Rican contract workers under Commonwealth law (Public Law 87). In the end, the job rights and standards of all farmworkers, domestic and foreign alike, were further undermined. 1975: ONLY JAMAICANS NEED APPLY Representing the interests of the major growers during this period was the Farm Labor Executive Committee (FLEC). FLEC was established in 1974 by the International Apple Institute* to represent the growers in ten eastern states, from Virginia to Maine, many of whom were already familiar with the advantages of West Indian harvesters. The stated purpose of FLEC was to "educate the *The International Apple Institute, whose membership encompasses 13,000 commercial apple and winter pear growers nationwide and about 600 of the country's major shippers, processors, distributors and brokers, initiated the development of the Farm Labor Executive Committee (FLEC).  Department of Labor to the growers' needs and problems," 2 and to expedite the recruit- ment of harvest labor for its members. What appeared to be at issue in the 1975 meetings and subsequent three-year struggle, were the provisions of the Puerto Rican contract program which in several specifics exceeded federal regulations. The growers demanded major modifications of the contract before they would hire any Puerto Ricans. These changes included reducing subsistence pay due at the end of the contract, reducing the guaranteed number of work hours and taking the contract out of the jurisdiction of the Puerto Rican courts. To obtain the job openings the Puerto Rican Department of Labor accepted these demands, effectively abandoning many of the worker protections it purported to defend. Despite the concessions, however, the program still exceeded federal minimum standards, although barely. By the middle of July the basic agreement between FLEC and the Puerto Rican Labor Department governing the 1975 apple harvest-eight weeks away -had been signed. The specific number of workers to be recruited had yet to be discussed. FLEC had won round one. FLEC next reminded the Puerto Rican government that this was only to be a "pilot project." Even with the "improved" contract provisions, the growers would agree only to hire two to three hundred pickers. The Puerto Rican Department of Labor, which by that time had already recruited some 2,600 ready, willing and able workers for the orchards, refused to accept this artificial limit. FLEC called their bluff:' despite the evident abundance of "domestic workers," the growers requested that the U.S. Department of Labor certify a shortage. Sticking to the logic of their original proposal, the Department of Labor acceded to this request, thus allowing the importation of 4,800 Jamaicans. The Department of Labor had two defenses for its doublecross of the Puerto Rican workers. It argued that it could not force growers to sign any contract, or to accept employment conditions that are more strict than those stipulated by federal regulations. Thus the Department of Labor deftly turned federal minimum standards into maximum requirements, sufficient to eliminate from the running Puerto Ricans covered by Commonwealth standards. When unemployed Puerto Rican and mainland farmworkers filed a class action suit against the Department of Labor and the INS, charging the unlawful certification of 5,000 foreign workers, the court upheld the view that Puerto Ricans could not be considered available because, the court said, their contract terms "were more extensive and onerous insofar as the employers were concerned," than federal regulations. Thus no Puerto Rican workers were hired on the contract that season. Round two: growers 2, workers 0.NACLA Report Each apple picking bucket holds a half bushel (about 50 pounds); each bin holds fifteen to twenty bushels. Still trying to obtain apple picking jobs, the Puerto Rican government acceded to the new court-reinforced demands of FLEC to reduce the worker rights guaranteed under Commonwealth law. For the 1976 season they relieved the growers of the "onerous bttrden" of providing three hot meals a day, financing any of the workers' non-occupational group disability insurance or posting a bond to guarantee contract enforcement. In total, because the workers' disability insurance costs would now come out of their own pay, the Puerto Ricans would earn even less than the adverse effect wage rate. Following these concessions, the growers agreed to hire 1,000 Puerto Ricans in 1976. In the end they accepted only 613 who, together with 3,400 West Indians and bus- loads of domestic day-haulers and migrant crews, began to pick the relatively poor crop. 1976: PUERTO RICANS HIRED BUT HARASSED During the 1976 season the growers delivered some low blows to the Puerto Rican pickers. Their strategy was in part to make the Puerto Ricans look lazy, undisciplined and unwilling to stay on the job. Total havoc characterized the management of the first - and perhaps last - Puerto Rican apple contract, and much of it appears to have been deliberate on the part of the growers. FLEC failed to specify how the Puerto Ricans would be geographically distributed, thus precluding effective over- sight by Puerto Rican contract supervisors. Some growers never claimed their quotas, others refused to sign their contracts. Still others said that Jamaican workers were already occupying all available housing. Once in the orchards, the Puerto Ricans found themselves particularly discriminated against. There was no adjustment to their piece-rates when they were assigned-as frequently occured--to "clean" trees already spot-picked by West Indians. They were placed in sections where deadly pesticide spraying had left everything covered with a white dust that caused their arms and faces to develop into a mass of itchy rashes. The Puerto Ricans' productivity was predictably lower than that of West Indian workers and under this pretext the growers arbitrarily fired many of them. Others quit, complaining of inadequate meals, maltreatment, underpayment of wages, inadequate training, and generally intolerable conditions. By the end of the season only 25% of the contracted Puerto Ricans remained. After the season was over FLEC complained that a full 70% of the Puerto Rican workforce provided "unsatisfactory" work quality and another 18% were only "marginally productive." In essence, the delaying tactics, the false representation, the cheating and manipulation only showed the pervasiveness of the obstinacy expressed by the chairperson of FLEC: "Over my dead body will there be any Puerto Rican workers picking apples in Wayne County." s The angry workers returned to Puerto Rico. Unable to get compensation through the regular grievance procedures, they sued the growers. The multitude of complaints became at least six court cases alleging numerous contract violations and arbitrary dismissals. One class action suit was filed (Flecha v. Recio et al.) against both the Puerto Rican and the U.S. Departments of Labor, as well as the INS, challenging the original limitation on the recruitment of Puerto Rican workers. . Round three to the growers. 1977: DOWN FOR THE COUNT By 1977 the growers had refined their footwork and introduced a new tactic: they abandoned the practice of advancing transportation payments to recruited workers. Early in the year many of the growers had negotiated an unusual agreement with the British West Indies Central Labor Organization well prior to filing job offers with the U.S. Employment Service. 5 For the first time the growers succeeded in requiring that the West Indian organization pick up the tab for advancing the cost of workers' transportation to the mainland orchards. With the new standard in hand the growers then opened up the bidding to domestic workers and did not offer to provide traveling expenses to domestic migrants. This insidious tactic assured that domestic workers would be "unavailable." Impoverished agricultural migrants throughout the country were unable to pay their own way to the orchards, particularly since they were not assured of a job when they arrived. Even though the Department of Labor located more than 2,500 workers in Florida, willing and able to harvest eastern apples, the growers steadfastly refused to pay their transportation charges. The Labor Department would not let the workers sign on under what they called "substandard" conditions, but courts in state after state upheld the growers' right not to pay. Round four: the workers are on their knees. BOTH SIDES AGAINST THE MIDDLE The only labor force still standing between the growers and the powerless West Indians were the Puerto Ricans, and the focus of the attack against their importation again became PL 87. Since 1951 Puerto Rico had participated in the federally-funded employment system created by the Wagner-Peyser Act. Every year Puerto Rico, like any other participating jurisdiction, had submitted an annual plan of operation for its services in order to obtain its share of federal funds. Every year Puerto Rico's plans and their legal basis, PL 87, had been approved. Even in 1975, when the growers launched their first assault on the statute, and in 1976, when the standards were undercut, funding for Puerto Rico's employment service plans had been approved by the Department of Labor. Suddenly in June 1977 Lawrence Rogers, Regional Administrator of the Employment and Training Administration, traveled to Puerto Rico with the news that funding of the island's employment service was in doubt. Rogers claimed that PL 87 effectively eliminated Puerto Rican workers from the domestic labor supply inasmuch as it would prevent them from accepting job offers on the same (minimum) terms and conditions as other domestic workers. Thus, Rogers threatened, the Department of Labor would again have to consider unemployed Puerto Ricans "unavailable" for apple harvesting and would have to certify the need for temporary foreign labor. 6 News of this extortionary behavior by the Department of Labor spread rapidly through the island. Within a week the Puerto Rican farmworkers, who were still embroiled in the class action suit from the 1976 harvest, filed to enjoin the Department of Labor and the INS from leapfrogging the available Puerto Rican workers in favor of foreign workers. With only weeks to go before the harvest, U.S. District Judge Jose V. Toledo granted the farmworkers' request for an injunction declaring the "availability of Puerto Rican workers for the 1977 apple harvest with the full protections of PL 87," and thus precluded the certification of foreign workers. 7 The Department of Labor immediately obtained a stay of Judge Toledo's order through an appellate court in Boston. This maneuver, confusing on the face of it, arose from the conviction on the part of the Labor Department that the growers would never agree to Toledo's conditions. The stay would buy time to convince Puerto Rico to abandon PL 87. Representatives of the Puerto Rican farm- workers appealed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. to reinstate Judge Toledo's order, but he turned them down. Significantly, as Caribbean Business later reported, "the Boston court did not rule on the merits of Toledo's order but simply allowed the Jamaicans into the country because time was running out for the harvest and the growers stood to lose millions of dollars with no one (sic) to pick their apples." 6 8 Meanwhile, the growers had from the beginning of 1977 forestalled any efforts on the part of the Puerto Rican Migration Division to negotiate on behalf of its workers. The growers had withdrawn formal negotiating power from FLEC, forcing Migration to deal individually with the growers or their associations.9 They had ignored mailed invitations to designate their individual representatives, or replied that there was no need to negotiate a special agreement covering Puerto Rican workers because they could apply as individuals just like any other domestic worker. 10 When Toledo's order was overturned, the Puerto RicanDepartment of Labor was forced to abandon all the protections of PL 87 in order to open up jobs for Puerto Ricans. 11 At this point the growers' response showed that they were ready to "go to the mat" to get foreign labor. They replied that the Puerto Rican Secretary of Labor did not have the authority to suspend PL 87. Their lawyer pointed out that growers would not want to do anything illegal. He feared that the growers "would place themselves in jeopardy [of criminal penalties] by hiring Puerto Ricans." 12 Furthermore, by still refusing to pay transportation and by refusing to interview except in the orchards, the growers effectively eliminated the available Puerto Rican workers who, like their mainland counterparts, could not afford their own transportation under any circumstances, much less any as speculative as these. Although the growers had scored a stunning blow, the Department of Labor refused to call the fight and continued to withhold certification. The growers went back into the local courts region by region in the affected states, quickly obtained a temporary order from the U.S. District Judge in Virginia mandating the Secretary of Labor et al., to immediately certify the need for temporary foreign workers and undertake to process and issue the necessary visas. 3 The order was upheld by an appellate court, and after a few more days of foot dragging the Labor Department certified the full 5,134 foreign workers the growers had planned on from the start. Within the week, the first of the season's more than 4,000 West Indians were beginning to fan through the southern reaches of apple country. Combining intimidation, fein- ts and stalling, the growers had out-endured their opponents, winning a technical knockout against all comers. In retrospect it becomes only too clear that the workers' benefits required by PL 87 were not the real reason the growers refused to hire Puerto Ricans. The fight over the law was only a maneuver to get the Puerto Rican and U.S. Labor Departments off guard. The growers got what they had wanted all along: foreigners with no rights and no real representation, workers who could not afford to say, "We refuse!" AN IRREDEEMABLE SYSTEM The contract system has been a constant source of division among workers. In the course of this Report, we have seen workers in Texas fighting the importation of Mexicans, Florida farmworkers demanding the ouster of Jamaicans on contract in the cane fields, and Puerto Ricans and West Indians battling for jobs in the orchards. In a broader context, the question of "illegal" immigration threatens to provoke an anti-immigrant backlash in the United States. Scapegoating is used as a diversionary tactic to explain the ills of the economy to the unemployed, the over-taxed and the under- paid. In agriculture, documented and undocumented foreign workers are effectively being used by growers to keep their labor force divided and unorganized. There are two possible strategies to combat this manipulation: first, to oppose the presence of foreign workers in the United States and demand that borders be sealed. This solution is both politically untenable-since it denies the international character of the conditions that lead to labor's migration-and realistically infeasible. As long as conditions abroad deny workers the right to a livelihood, foreign workers will continue to cross the borders by any means possible. Declaring these workers illegal constitutes a mandate for repression. But even if the borders and airports could be closed to aliens, growers would turn to a legal system such as the one described in this Report to provide them with a labor force that is equally controllable, vulnerable and underpaid. The second strategy is to reject the false explanations for unemployment and exploitation and focus on the real ones. Only by waging a common struggle can farmworkers oppose the growers' ability and determination to play one sector of the work force off against another. Before this second strategy can be viable, however, foreign and domestic workers must have equal rights. For as long as foreign workers can be "breached" when they protest their conditions, and as long as growers and government are intent upon deporting those who refuse to play by the rules, workers will remain divided. To rely on governments that must reconcile labor to capital's demands is clearly not the solution. Throughout this Report, we have seen the West Indian, Puerto Rican and U.S. governments consistently compromise the interests of labor. Until farmworkers are in a position to determine the terms of their own employment, conditions in the fields and orchards will remain much as we have described them. RACE TO THE ORCHARDS 1. Elton Orchards, Inc. vs. Brennan, 508 F. 2d 493 (1st Cir. 1974). 2. Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate, "Statement of Fred W. Burrows, Executive Vice President, Interna- tional Apple Institute," Immigration 1976, 94th Con- gress, 2nd Session, April 1, 1976 (Washington, D.C.: Gov- ernment Printing Office, 1976), 194. 3. Quoted in a letter of Carlos S. Quiros, Secretary of Labor, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, to F. Ray Mar- shall, Secretary of Labor, U.S.A., June 7, 1977, 7. 4. Flecha et al. vs. Recio et al., U.S. District Puerto Rico, No. 76-1382, October 29, 1976. 5. Michael C. Harper and Mitchel Ostrer, "Aliens and the Apple Harvest: Squeezing out Americans," The New Leader, September 12, 1977, 8. 6. Statement of Carlos S. Quiros, Secretary of Labor, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, before Public Hearing of the U.S. Department of Labor, regarding the Proposed Regulations on the Certification and Use of Temporary Foreign Labor for Agricultural Employment, June 13, 1977, 10, and "Memorandum in Support of Plaintiffs Motion for a Preliminary Injunction," Flecha et al. vs. Recio et al., op. cit., 8. 7. Migrant Legal Action Program, press release, August 19, 1977 (Washington, D.C.). 8. "Agricultural Migrant Issue Growing," Caribbean Business, October 6, 1977, 6. 9. Harry Turner, "Dispute Threatens Catastrophe for Apple Growers," San Juan Star, August 23, 1977. 10. Carlos S. Quiros, "Answer to FLEC's Request for Investigation of 1976 Puerto Rican Program in the East Coast Apple Harvest,"June 7, 1977, 11 and Appendix J. 11. Lee Harrison, "Apple Growers Fight Bureaucracy to get their Jamaican Pickers," Bennington Banner, Sep- tember 17, 1977, 2. 12. Lee Harrison, op cit. Quote from S. Steven Karelakis, partner in the law firm of Wikinson, Cragun and Barker of New York City and Washington, D.C. 13. Frederick County Fruit Growers'Association, Inc., et al. vs. F. Ray Marshall, et al., U.S. District Court, Western District of Virginia, Harrisonburg Division, civic action no. 77-0104(H). Photographs on pages 28, 31, 32 were ta- ken by Lee Harrison. Photographs on pages 4, 7,10, 13, 14,16,35 were taken by Ron Smith, 0 1974 The Palm Beach Post. Many thanks to Ron Smith, Melinda Meers and Lee Harrison for their help.

Tags: US agriculture, apple industry, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, contract labor

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