Farmworkers past and presentPicking on the pickers: Depression-era cotton sharecroppers (part of a Grist slideshow) and modern-day immigrant strawberry pickers have something in common: injustice. (Left image: Library of Congress)In the United States, we have two sets of rules for workers: one that applies to farm and domestic laborers, and another that applies to everyone else. Everyone else gets a 40-hour week, mandatory days off, and other protections. Farm and domestic workers don’t.

Why the labor-force apartheid? I don’t use that loaded word idly. The New York Times editorial page explains:

That inequality is a perverse holdover from the Jim Crow era. Segregationist Southern Democrats in Congress could not abide giving African-Americans, who then made up most of the farm and domestic labor force, an equal footing in the workplace with whites. President Roosevelt’s compromise simply wrote workers in those industries out of the New Deal.

In our time, another despised group — immigrants from Mexico and points south — do most of our farm and domestic labor. As the eminent food-politics writer Barry Estabrook puts it, “Jim Crow is alive and well,” congealed into labor laws that exclude these workers from basic New Deal protections.

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California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill that would gave his state’s vast army of farm workers a degree of equal footing with everyone else. The San Francisco Chronicle describes the governor’s rationale:

In vetoing the measure, Schwarzenegger cited the fragile economy and said that extending overtime protections could put farms out of business, or result in lower paychecks for agricultural workers because farmers would hire more people and cut hours to avoid paying overtime.

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The bit about “hiring more people” to avoid overtime is ludicrous. California’s plantation-scale farms have faced labor shortages for years. Hysteria and militarism at the border, along with the bad U.S. economy, have led to fewer people sneaking over the border to pick our vegetables and clean our houses. There simply aren’t more immigrants to hire — and even in a rotten economy, U.S. citizens aren’t exactly lining up to spend backbreaking days stooping in the sun for $10 per hour (the average wage of California farm workers).

Schwarzenegger’s real concern is likely the economic viability of the state’s farms. His reasoning could be restated like this: it is economically impossible to treat California’s 700,000 farm workers decently. This is a stunning statement, given that California essentially serves as the U.S. vegetable patch. Its sheer dominance of U.S. fruit and veg production is dizzying. The state produces 99 percent of the artichokes consumed in the U.S., half of asparagus, a fifth of cabbage, two-thirds of carrots, 86 percent of cauliflower, 93 percent of broccoli, and 95 percent of celery. Leafy greens? California’s got the market corned: 90 percent of the leaf lettuce we consume, along with 83 percent of Romaine lettuce and 83 percent of fresh spinach, come from the big state on the left side of the map. Cali also cranks out a third of total fresh tomatoes consumed in the U.S. —  and 95 percent of ones destined for cans and other processing purposes.

As for fruit, 86 percent of America’s lemons and a quarter of oranges come from there, as do 90 percent of avocados; 84 percent of peaches; and 86 percent of fresh strawberries.

Overall, the state’s farmers bring in about $7.5 billion on vegetables and $11.2 billion on fruit every year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture [PDF]. And they can’t afford to pay farm workers overtime or guarantee them a day off per week?

The bitter truth is, maybe not. U.S. vegetable markets are dominated by a few massive companies — for certain commodities like lettuce, grocery retailers like Wal-Mart and fast-food behemoths like McDonald’s have massive power to dictate prices — and aren’t shy about playing off U.S. farms against competitors in Mexico and points south. Even farms that gross millions of dollars per year operate on razor-thin profit margins. The vast economic value they generate gets mostly siphoned off by the big buyers. It’s conceivable that new rules forcing them to treat farm workers decently could push many of them over the edge.

Schwarzenegger is really saying that our food system is built on exploitation: Jim Crow laws for farm workers are the cost of providing cheap and plentiful food. The same logic, of course, applies to the environment: dumping poisons on land, abusing topsoil, concentrating waste from thousands of animals into a single, leaky “lagoon”: all seem perfectly normal.

But what’s normal is not what’s right.

Lynchings were normal in the Jim Crow South, too, as was ruthless exploitation of farm and domestic labor. We need to support emerging food systems that respect human rights and build ecological robustness: demanding that the dominant food system do so is a first step. True, California’s proposed law would have shaken things up in the heart of our nation’s vegetable patch and force farmers, eaters, and big buyers to grapple with tough issues. Change requires shakeups. Schwarzenegger has disgraced himself by vetoing the farm-labor bill. May he one day look as regressive and hateful for his actions as did the Southern governors who defended Jim Crow tooth and nail.