From Many One: An American Renewal on NJ’s Farms First

Downtown Vineland.

We are several weeks into the 2021 race for Governor and it’s not likely an issue will be made of New Jersey’s racist minimum wage scheme which as of the start of this year set the minimum wage at $12 and hour and a lower $10.44 rate for immigrant farmworkers.

New Jersey’s minimum wage law, which Gov. Murphy signed into law in 2019, gets to $15 an hour for non-farm workers by 2024, while farmworkers will have to wait until 2027.

But that’s only one facet of the systematic exploitation of the workforce we have over a barrel because most of them are undocumented people of color.

According to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, these workers are also exempt from being paid any overtime.

And as for breaks, or a fixed lunch period, “company policy dictates break and lunch periods for anyone over the age of 18.” According to New Jersey labor law, on the farm only “minors under the age of 18 must be given a thirty-minute meal period after five consecutive hours of work.”

Everybody else? You better be nice to the crew boss.

 

HIDDEN FIGURES?

Nobody makes the case that farmworkers are paid less because their work is easier or that they are not essential and don’t also face the same COVID risk as the rest of the frontline workforce that died by the many of thousands across the country during the pandemic.

But just as Trenton slow walked the ending of slavery, persisted in embracing the jailing of debtors, and so embraced the robber barons that Lincoln Steffens branded us the “traitor state”, its only logical it would see itself as the guarantor of farmers’ profit margin.

It’s important to stipulate here that this primarily south Jersey ‘arrangement’ is not merely a function of the greed of growers, but of a complex economic system that compels them to press their advantage as agents in a ‘free market’ of which we as consumers pick the winners and losers.

Farmers rightly ask if consumers and down line businesses would pay the premium price for produce that was higher because it was not the fruits of such a bitter harvest of race-based inequity. Yet, at some point we turned this corner when it came to child labor, did we not?

While there is much consternation over the teaching of critical race theory that looks at the historic role of race in our history, it’s impossible to wrap your head around our agricultural economy, how we feed ourselves today, without accounting for the role of race in sorting out who is being exploited and who is prospering.

We say we are exonerated from having any guilt from 19th century slavery while we ignore it’s 21st century iteration of it in our Garden State.

In my two previous columns I have traced New Jersey’s structural racism from our lingering embrace of slavery through our elevation of Woodrow Wilson, a white supremacist who used his position to cast Reconstruction as a great injustice done to white southerners who were innately superior to the Blacks they had enslaved.

 

POVERTY THAT FEEDS PROSPERITY

While we are still in the pandemic, it’s likely hard for us to come to terms with some of the harder lessons we may lack the courage or character to absorb.

In its recent report, “Essential and in Crisis-A Review of the Public Health Threats Facing Farmworkers in the U.S.” the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future observed “the Covid-19 pandemic has displayed decision makers’ unwillingness to address farmworkers’ exploitation, it simultaneously provides a wake-up call to millions of Americans across the country. When workers receive the rights, protections, and compensation they have fought for and deserve, our food system, our agricultural communities, and our collective wellbeing will become stronger.”

Further on, the researchers assert our food system has been “built on the foundations of racial capitalism, operating to produce wealth for a small group, at the expense of public health, the environment, and rural communities. The legacy of racism, enslavement of African peoples, genocide of Indigenous peoples, and stolen Indigenous lands is also evident in our farm labor policies and practices which deny many workers basic protections while relying on their skills to feed and sustain the US population.”

 

THE JIM CROW THAT ENDURES

So, there is a through line from America’s reliance on slavery and our 21st century codification in state labor law of discrimination against farmworkers. Its connected through a deal cut by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s in the 1930s to exclude domestic and agricultural workers from landmark labor protections. For these unlucky souls, and generations of those who came after them to this very day, the 40-hour work week, the weekend and time and a half would be for everybody else.

Back in 2019, after the legislature passed the tiered $15 minimum wage law, United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero and UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres, called on Gov. Murphy to veto the measure while offering the critical historical context that’s consistently ignored.

“New Jersey lawmakers accepted the racist legacy of the Jim Crow South by passing a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill that leaves behind farm workers, an exemption that did not exist in state law,” Romero and Torres wrote. “Governor Phil Murphy should veto the bill.”

They continued. “Southern lawmakers demanded farm workers’ exclusion from overtime pay after eight hours a day when the federal Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938. Why? Because in the South of the ‘30s, most farm workers were African Americans. Most of them are Latino today. Southern politicians did not hide their bigoted motivation, arguing that white and African American workers could not be paid the same.”

 

PROGRESS BUT WELL SHY THE PROMISED LAND

“Governor Murphy was proud to sign legislation in February 2019 to increase the minimum wage for New Jersey’s workers,” wrote Alyana Alfaro Post,

Gov. Murphy’s Press Secretary, in response to a query from InsiderNJ about the state’s tiered minimum wage law. “The Governor believes that increasing wages is integral to creating a stronger and fairer New Jersey economy that provides more residents with pathways to the middle class. The Governor also believes that higher wages must be phased-in responsibly and methodically. Under the law, the New Jersey Labor Commissioner and Secretary of Agriculture will jointly decide whether to recommend that the minimum wage for agricultural workers increase further.”

There’s much in Gov. Murphy’s record on immigration that he can be proud of. His support for granting undocumented immigrants drivers licenses was an important step in the integration of members of our community that have been here for decades but have been jammed up by our dysfunctional immigration system.

In many cases these folks own homes, pay taxes, have children that have served in our military. Throughout the pandemic they have been part of the backbone of the essential workforce that has put their life and well-being of their family at risk from the state’s blueberry patch to its assisted living facilities where they lovingly care for our elderly.

 

HEALING HISTORY

A handful of states, including California and New York, have taken affirmative steps through legislation to make up for the deal cut by FDR for national labor standards that were enacted with the express exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers.

The New York State legislature took the embracing of the undocumented immigrant workforce upon which we have become so reliant one step further when it approved its last budget. It allocated over $2 billion in a fund for undocumented workers who lost income or became unemployed as a consequence of the pandemic.

Earlier this month, New Jersey’s allocation of just $40 million for similarly situated excluded workers here in our state sparked a protest at a Murphy campaign event in Newark just outside the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice where the Governor was getting endorsed by the New Jersey Coalition of Latino Pastors and Ministers.

As InsiderNJ’s John Van Vliet reported, at the event Murphy was lauded by NJCLPM President Rev. Raul Ruiz for pursing “an agenda rooted in compassion, fairness and inclusiveness, building opportunities for all New Jersey residents to be part of a bright future.”

Meanwhile, outside of the Legal Center Latino protesters were holding up signs in English and Spanish calling on Murphy to allocate more funds for undocumented workers excluded from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

“We are here this morning reminding Governor Murphy that there are still half a million working families who have not received any relief,” said Carlos Castenetta, one of the protestors.  “He calls himself progressive, but there’s nothing progressive about leaving our half a million families for any aid or recovery package….We are not asking for anything that is not ours.  All we are asking for is economic justice, fairness, and equity.”

In response, the Governor’s press office noted that support for the state’s undocumented extended well beyond the $40 million allocated for the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund.

“Further, investments in the FY2022 Appropriations Act provide rental, tuition, and legal assistance without regard to immigration status,” according to Murphy’s press office. “Any additional state and federal funds must be approved by the Legislature, per budget language. The Murphy Administration will continue to explore how it can support recovery from the pandemic for all residents.”

For Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a non-partisan think tank, New Jersey’s $15 Minimum Wage law “was the most consequential in the last 30 years” but that part of the “sausage making” to get it passed “was to have to just accept the exclusion of a nonwhite workforce.”

“It all comes down to who politicians think will actually vote,” he said. “It’s still frustrating to live in a state like ours where they say they believe in racial justice but it’s still like pulling teeth to match their actions with those statements.”

 

DEMOGRAPHICS=DESTINY

The demographic reality is that in embracing the undocumented that are already here, New Jersey is actually acting in its own long term economic and demographic self-interest. New Jersey’s fast growing immigrant households are often a blend of individuals with different immigration status under the same roof ranging from undocumented to U.S. citizen.

As we saw under Donald Trump, draconian enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws, after generations of a contradictory policy, is a violent assault on families.

Back in April, it was announced that New Jersey, which like the rest of the country is seeing a declining birthrate, actually saw our population grow 5.7 percent from 8.79 million in 2010 to 9.28 million in 2020 according to the U.S. Census. As a consequence, New Jersey will not lose a seat in Congress, while our neighboring New York and Pennsylvania will.

Last year, the Star Ledger reported that “without immigration New Jersey’s population” would have “stagnated over the past decade” adding that “If not for the state’s growing diversity, our population would have actually fallen.

“From 2010 to 2019, the Hispanic and Asian populations of the state each leaped by nearly 20%, adding more than 425,000 people and edging New Jersey closer to a time when it could be a community in which minorities make up the majority,” the newspaper reported. “Hispanics now account for 1.86 million of the state’s 8.9 million residents, or one of every five, after growing by 292,000 over the decade, according to Census estimates.”

 

BUILDING ABUNDANCE

The economic reality is that as long as the U.S. birthrate continues its historic decline, we will lack the sufficient number of working age adults to sustain our economy and our existing social contracts like Social Security.

This was brought home vividly by a recent segment by CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Luke Burbank.

Burbank profiled the tribulations of Shay Myers, an Oregon farmer who could not find sufficient farmworkers to harvest his asparagus crop and rather than let it rot, gave it a way to thousands of locals who answered the call to harvest it for themselves.

“For Myers – a self-described staunch conservative – one of the first changes he’d make would be to give immigrant, undocumented workers a path to citizenship,” Burbank reported. “They came here with a dream,” Myers told Burbank. “They came here to make a difference for their family. They came here to improve their lives. They put food on everyone’s table. They should have a way, a path to citizenship. There’s no question that they should have a path to citizenship.”

For four years we have tried tearing America apart. Perhaps, it is time we try something else.

Credit of the Library of Congress These women were harvesting unions in New Jersey in 1938 without wage and hour protections other American workers would come to take for granted. 21st century farm workers still lack them.
These women were harvesting onions in New Jersey in 1938 without wage and hour protections other American workers would come to take for granted. 21st century farm workers still lack them. Credit of the Library of Congress.

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  • Kathleen Demarest

    ……………..MAGNIFICENT COLUMN!

    True, I would be willing to pay a higher price for my food,
    but it is, also, true, while I would not be considered wealthy,
    I can afford and would be willing to pay the higher price.

    Unfortunately, for four years we have tried tearing America apart.
    Perhaps it is time we try something else. Cross out the perhaps.
    It is time we try something else.

    We have to value and respect the work the farm workers do,
    and at the same time value the food they grow to feed us
    along with valuing the hardworking farm workers.

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