Union and growers split on immigration plan

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WASHINGTON - The United Farm Workers and the nation's farm growers' lobby, who bargained for 13 years between themselves to create a new program for bringing foreign farm workers temporarily into the U.S., have split on details of the issue, their testimony to the House Immigration subcommittee shows.

And that split could imperil immigration legislation overall, since the GOP-run House has made it clear that it may deep-six the Senate's comprehensive immigration overhaul - assuming that measure passes - and instead will take up immigration issues piece by piece. And even then, the House might not pass anything at all.

The problems are reflected in the first measure the House panel considered, HR1773, the farm worker visa bill. HR1773 would take the nation back to the bad old days of the infamous bracero program, which ended in 1964, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez told lawmakers. He opposed the House measure.

And in an interview the day before his testimony, Rodriguez warned that getting any immigration reform through the GOP-run House "would be a lot of hard work.

"We'll monitor it" he said, referring to the entire immigration legislation, "advocate for it and engage with farm workers and others to ensure victory. And we'll have to educate members of Congress, many of whom do not understand the issue," he added.

The future of farm workers and their rights is important to the entire country, Rodriguez told lawmakers on May 15, since farm workers toil under unhealthy backbreaking and hazardous conditions to produce the nation's food supply.

"To the extent a new path is needed to bring more professional farm workers from abroad to this country, we should look forward and not backward to the bracero program," Rodriguez told the House Immigration subcommittee.

"HR1773 is a step backward. Future agricultural workers who we invite to our country to work should be accorded equality, job mobility, strong labor and wage protections, and an opportunity to earn immigration status leading to citizenship."

The Senate proposal would let growers import 112,233 farm workers per year, and that's too low, the growers' witness told the GOP-run House committee. Growers want 500,000 imported workers. Rodriguez took no position on the numbers.

He also admitted UFW did not gain one demand: Bringing farm workers under the National Labor Relations Act. Farm workers were excluded when the NLRA passed in 1935, to win Southern Democratic votes. Those southerners feared African-American farm workers would unionize.

"Our agreement with grower associations is a compromise," Rodriguez said. "The agreement does have the basic wage and working protections we need to ensure that farm worker wages that are already low do not decrease." The wage is a "prevailing wage," which the growers' rep said would be above the minimum wage.

"No industry will benefit more from immigration reform than the agricultural industry," Rodriguez told lawmakers. " The issue is having enough people who are both willing and able to do difficult agricultural work. What we need in order to ensure we have enough people both willing and able to work in agriculture is to elevate farm work so guest workers or farm workers without legal status do not need to be the norm.

"We can elevate farm workers by making changes to immigration policy that do the following:

  • "Retain much of the existing workforce in agriculture. We can keep people in agriculture by honoring farm workers with the ability to earn permanent legal status. What we wanted in new immigration policy was higher wages and better protections. We did not get those changes in the agreement between grower associations and the UFW. What we need to have is the ability for the existing farm workers to earn permanent legal status to encourage people to stay in agriculture and to honor our American values."
  • "Include basic worker protections that ensure U.S. worker wages do not decrease and that stabilize the agricultural workforce," he said. The UFW and other farm worker groups "want an end to the more than 70 years of discriminatory labor legislation that excludes farm workers from basic protections like the right to organize, to act collectively, and to join a union." But they did not get it, he admitted.

They got the wage and working conditions protections that both Rodriguez and the growers rep, North Carolinian H. Lee Wicker, mentioned.

But Wicker endorsed HR1773. He called it "not perfect," but declared it "offers great employment opportunities and provides growers a" worker visa "program that is substantially more predictable and user friendly than" current H-2A farm worker visas.

"The delicate balance in this bill between program improvements for farmers and worker benefits and protections, represents a win for farmers, a win for farm workers and secures a safe food supply," Wicker claimed.

Photo: Gosia Wozniacka/AP

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