California Teachers and the Bracero Program: Tell the Whole Story!

Published on September 12th, 2012

By Joe Guzzardi
September 4, 2012

Last month Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that encourages California K-12 schools to teach the bracero program and its history. Supporters feel that classes which focus on the contributions Mexicans made to California’s economy and the mistreatment too many of them received would be valuable to millions of Hispanic students.

As a retired California public school teacher, I’m all for learning. But I’d like to see a comprehensive bracero analysis that teaches not only how the corporate cheap labor lobby conspired to pay migrants less than minimum wage but also shut American workers out and eventually broke Cesar Chavez’s once powerful United Farm Workers Union, a vigorous anti-illegal immigration force.

The problem has always been wages—not a shortage of willing American workers which, since the bracero program began in 1942, agribusiness has insisted is the core issue.

During the 1960s, even California leadership acknowledged that no compelling need for migrants existed. In January 1965, then-California governor and civil rights champion Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, elected in 1959, realized that more braceros meant fewer jobs for native Californians who had willingly worked in the field. On the theory that a person worth hiring deserves a decent wage, Brown proposed a state minimum wage hike to $1.25 an hour from the existing 90 cents.

Brown’s sense of decency didn’t last long. Within two years, Brown was in the back pockets of agribusiness giants like California Packing (Del Monte) and Hunt Foods. In turn, the Bank of America controlled the packers and growers. The bank insisted on the lowest payroll possible…that meant hiring braceros even though domestic workers were available at the minimum wage.

With the bracero program facing increased opposition because of flagrant exploitation, growers like Salinas Strawberries predicted their crops would rot if more Mexican pickers weren’t brought in. That was the first but not the last time agribusiness made such a largely unfounded claim. Even today, famers’ baseless charge of “rotting crops” is commonly heard.

Finally, in the mid-1960s, Congress killed the bracero program. After it ended, illegal alien started flooding in and haven’t stopped since. In short order migrant workers, by providing the cheapest possible labor, broke the UFW.

Today, the Hispanic-American community promotes Chavez as the patron saint and role model for illegal immigrants. The truth, however, is different—and more interesting. Chavez, a third generation American was an ironfisted leader who understood the most fundamental economic truth: a larger labor pool means lower wages. For Chavez’s union members, nothing could be worse than a steady stream of migrants willing to work for less than those who preceded them last season.

Intent on protecting his membership, Chavez doubled as an Immigration and Naturalization Services’ surrogate. The UFW routinely reported to the INS suspected illegal immigrants who refused to unionize or acted as strikebreakers on behalf of management.

Illegal immigration increased; wages fell. Beginning in 1981, when members realized that paying dues to the UFW didn’t increase their net income, they resigned and the organization crumbled. With an endless supply of eager, cheap labor coming north annually, growers felt no pressure to mechanize, a measure that would have provided a long term solution to the so called labor shortage.

To California teachers, I say “Teach away.” But don’t forget to tell the whole, unadulterated story that includes the harm done to American workers and the crucial role that Chavez played until the day he died as an anti-illegal alien activist.


Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow whose columns have been syndicated since 1986. Contact him at [email protected]

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