Black Labor Too Uppity for the Fields: Guest Workers Needed

by BAR executive editor Glen Ford

By his silence, President Obama is giving the wink and nod to guest worker programs under immigration reform, further institutionalizing the displacement of African Americans from farm work. “The farm owners, like their historical brethren, seek the closest approximation to slave labor that society will allow,” but “African Americans refuse to be treated as slaves or fugitives in a foreign land.”

 

Black Labor Too Uppity for the Fields: Guest Workers Needed

by BAR executive editor Glen Ford

Guest worker programs are not, and have never been, intended as ‘paths to citizenship.’”

It is exceedingly rare that the Congressional Black Caucus considers standing in the way of Barack Obama’s historical legacy – whatever that might be, this term. However, Black lawmakers appear to be stiffening their opposition to proposals by the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” that would abandon the Diversity Lottery, which allocates permanent-resident visas to 55,000 immigrants per year, about half of them Africans. Republicans insisted that the lottery be dropped from the Senate version of immigration reform legislation in favor of a so-called merit-based system, but Congresspersons Yvette Clark and Hakeem Jeffries, both from Brooklyn, New York, call the proposal “a deal breaker” and “a red line for the CBC,” respectively. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a “Gang of Eight” member who made sure that Irish immigrants get an additional 10,500 visas under the proposed new system, thinks he can bring the Black Caucus around to his way of thinking – and he’s probably right. When President Obama says his legacy is riding on a bill, any balking by the CBC is probably ephemeral.

For organized labor, guest worker programs have historically been immigration “deal breakers” – although the unions’ spines are as brittle as the CBC’s. Obama’s immigration vision is clearly aligned with agribusiness, which claims it cannot function without guaranteed importations of throwaway, non-citizen farm labor. Obama has lately been pretending he can’t hear or speak on the subject of guest workers – which means he’s actually aligned with the corporations.

Guest worker programs are not, and have never been, intended as “paths to citizenship” for the millions of undocumented workers and families who are already in the United States. Historically, they have been just the opposite: a means of obtaining inherently insecure, controlled labor flows for agribusiness; a labor pool that cannot possibly organize itself for long term bargaining power or act in solidarity with the “domestic” workforce. This is the corporate side of immigration “reform.”

Obama’s immigration vision is clearly aligned with agribusiness.”

In the South, undocumented farm labor has almost totally replaced Blacks in the fields. The owners claim that African Americans don’t want the jobs, and are incapable of doing the work. Yet, as reported in the May 6 New York Times, Blacks in Vidalia and Moultrie, Georgia, have gone to court, charging farm owners with discouraging them from applying for jobs in the fields and, once hired, paying them less than Latino workers and then firing them because of their “race and national origin.”

More bluntly put, African Americans refuse to be treated as slaves or fugitives in a foreign land. We’ve starred in that movie, already. One man who was fired after a week in the fields told the Times, “We are not going to run all the time. We are not Mexicans.”

The farm owners, like their historical brethren, seek the closest approximation to slave labor that society will allow. Undocumented, seasonal workers who are racially and ethnically identifiable – and, theoretically, removable, at white society’s convenience – fit the bill.

The slave master always claimed that his Black captives were too lazy and shiftless to work, necessitating the application of whip and lash and knife and fire as moral implements. Old Master hasn’t changed a bit. He has replaced the Blacks, who had “no rights that any white man is bound to respect,” with right-less undocumented workers. He claims to love his Mexicans and Central Americans, just as he told his northern visitors that he loved and cared for his slaves, back in the day – until they were spoiled by emancipatory aspirations.

The owners claim that African Americans don’t want the jobs, and are incapable of doing the work.”

African Americans are not wanted in the fields – or the factories, or the offices, for that matter – because they are “joiners”: the U.S. group most likely to want to join a union or other self-help organization. The imperative to unity in the face of implacable hostility of the larger society, is an essential component of the African American legacy (one that Obama does not share). As free labor, Blacks rose to the top of the hierarchy of union-joiners, which is, in descending order:

African American Women

African American Men

Hispanic Women

Hispanic Men

White Women

White Men

Latinos would be right behind Blacks in bargaining for better wages and working conditions, if they were documented and secure in their residency. Many come from political cultures in which labor solidarity is more ingrained than in the United States. It is not that African Americans need to “run” as hard as undocumented Mexican field workers, but that field laborers need to be emancipated, so they can work as free men and women, with bargaining power, civil and human rights, and the force of law on their side.

Hard work should be well-paid work, but only the organizing ability of the hard-workers can make it so. Guest worker programs institutionalize perpetual worker insecurity in the fields, in order to guarantee high profit margins for shareholders up and down the corporate chain, from the farms outside Vidalia, Georgia, to the WalMart mega-grocery in Chicago (endorsed by food Czarina Michelle Obama).

There is a lot more at stake in immigration policy than gaining visas for 25,000 or so additional Africans per year – although, certainly, the Diversity Lottery is worth fighting for. Immigration policy is also national economic policy, national labor policy, and national infrastructure policy. An immigration reform vision that projects a captive labor population into the national future is a nightmare formula.

Been there, done that.

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected].