'Take My Job!' Campaign Markets Agricultural Labor

One stereotype about undocumented workers in the U.S. is that they occupy agricultural jobs that could be filled by Americans in need of work. The United Farm Workers (UFW) of America labor union is testing that theory. They have launched the "Take Our Jobs!" campaign, which invites unemployed Americans to take a stab at agricultural labor. Host Michel Martin speaks with United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez about the campaign and perceptions about agricultural labor.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a refuge for the musical genre called deep house. It's under the tracks on the outskirts of Baltimore and it's got people all jacked up. That conversation in a few minutes.

But, first, with the national unemployment rate hovering just below 10 percent and polls showing broad support for Arizona's tough new law aimed at driving out illegal immigrants, that's the law that the U.S. Justice Department is now fighting, clearly many Americans believe that undocumented workers are stealing jobs from Americans who would be willing to do them. The United Farm Workers, the UFW, wants to test that theory. The union's Take Our Jobs campaign invites unemployed Americans to take a stab at agricultural labor.

With us to talk about the campaign and the realities of agricultural work in the U.S., we're joined by United Farm Workers' president, Arturo Rodriguez. He joins us from his office in Kern County, California. Also with us is Gabriel Thompson. He's the author of the memoir, "Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do." We talked to him previously because he did just that. He did those jobs that the United Farm Workers is now inviting people to do. And Mr. Thompson joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to you both.

Mr. ARTURO RODRIGUEZ (President, United Farm Workers): Thanks for having me.

Mr. GABRIEL THOMPSON (Author, "Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do"): Thank you so much for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: Mr. Rodriguez, let's start with you. You launched this Take Your Jobs campaign. You're scheduled to go on "The Colbert Report" to talk about it. So would it be fair to say that this is actually fairly tongue in cheek or are you serious that you really are inviting people to do agricultural work and you're going to teach them how to do it?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, we're definitely inviting folks. In fact, we sent letters to every single member of Congress. And as of date we still have not received a response from any of them a positive response, saying that they are willing to go work out in the fields because we're really tired of all the criticism that's been launched against farm workers, immigrants and saying that we're actually there taking their jobs when in fact I don't think people really realize how difficult it is to work in the fields.

MARTIN: Okay, well, presumably members of Congress already have a job, so maybe they wouldn't necessarily be as interested in your offer as other people might be. But are you seriously expecting to and willing to and hoping to train people who are unemployed who say, you know, I can't get a job because somebody illegal is taking my job? Are you really saying, I'm going to train people to do this work?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: You know, we're actually, what we're doing is that we have a website, takeourjobs.org and people are applying for that and we're then directing them to websites where there are jobs available and assisting them in every particular way possible. And, yes, we are hoping that they come and they apply and that they actually go get the experience of working in the fields and see what it is to become a professional farm worker and work in the conditions that farm workers work in every day.

MARTIN: And you talk a little bit about that on the site. It cautions that duties may include tilling the soil, transplanting, weeding, thinning, picking, cutting, sorting and packing of harvested produce. May set up and operate irrigation equipment. Work is performed outside in all weather conditions. Summertime, 90-plus degree weather and is physically demanding, requiring workers to bend, stoop, lift and carry up to 50 pounds on a regular basis. You're not making that sound as appealing as, well, say, being a summer associate in a law firm. I don't know, is that your intention?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, we just want to paint a real picture for folks. We don't want folks to think something different. Anybody going out there better be ready to really work in severe, difficult conditions.

MARTIN: And how much can people expect to earn?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: You know, it's minimum wage. And then some jobs call for piece rate, so you maybe make a little bit more if you can pick the crop as fast as they require.

MARTIN: And Gabriel Thompson, let's turn to you. You actually did this of your own volition. And just refresh our memories about this for people who may not have heard our earlier conversation. Why did you decide to do this?

Mr. THOMPSON: I think first it was that so much of the talk around immigration and so much demonizing of immigrants is done by people in air conditioned offices that were completely removed from the reality on the ground of what it's like to do the work that everyone depends upon. So my mission was pretty simple. It was to go out and do spend two months in each one of these jobs, beginning with cutting lettuce for Dole in Yuma, Arizona.

You know, Yuma has had a high unemployment rate, has one of the highest rates in the state and yet, I never saw another white person in the fields. But the reality of the job is that it is incredibly physically demanding. You come home and youre just - I was at least - completely wiped out. I'd be in bed by 7 PM, 8 PM, right when I got home. But the other piece is that it's very skilled worked and you have to really be able to stick it out for a while before you even get a basic level of, sort of, adequacy in doing the job.

MARTIN: Gabriel Thompson, was it your impression that many of the people you worked with at Dole were undocumented? Because the impression I got from your book is that, in fact, that they were documented. That they had specific visas that allowed them to work there. They crossed freely, back and forth, across the border. What was your impression?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, Yuma's a little bit; its a different situation than much of the farm work going on around the country because it's right near the border. A lot of the workers on my crew were actually guest workers because the companies that said they couldnt find Americans to fill those jobs. And so, you know, basically any American that showed up at Dole's office, or any of these companies that had guest workers, would be guaranteed a job in the fields.

I showed up on a Friday. I was on the fields on Monday. So there was never a sense that people were taking jobs. And every now and then, you know, I talked to my supervisor in my dorm or the foreman, they would have someone come up and try it for a couple days and very quickly they realized that this type of job, its not just hard like oh, construction is hard or as some other jobs are hard, which I've done. It's so physically demanding that I actually consider having survived two months and writing a book about it, so its kind of a huge accomplishment in my kind of life experience to survive two months in the lettuce fields.

MARTIN: And there were workers who were out there in the fields with, who were pregnant, as I recall. There was one woman who was out there who was out-cutting you, as I recall, who was pregnant at the time.

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, many. The other real clear difference I think is to, that needs to be made is that this is one part of their lives. And they come home from an exhausting day and they're raising families and they're helping their kids with school work.

And for me it was really awe-inspiring to see just how much energy and how much dedication they had to, not only do this work, but then to live sort of full lives as much as possible to help raise their families.

MARTIN: Mr. Rodriguez, is it your sense like Mr. Thompson said, that if you are documented, if you were an American citizen, these jobs are for the taking? Is that your sense as well?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Oh definitely. I mean there is no doubt they have a job forever, as long as they can do the work. The reality is, though, Michel, that probably, according to government reports, at least 50 percent if not more farm workers today are undocumented out there.

MARTIN: Well, how do you respond to the sense that many people have. I mean any conversation we have on this topic, any conversation that most people in the media have on this topic, people will call, email and write and say that undocumented workers are not only displacing Americans, but also demanding and using services for which they do not pay.

What is your response to that?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Farm workers, they come here really, because they want to realize the American dream like anyone else. And they're not here to take advantage of the system. They're not to, in particular way, hurt America. In fact, they see themselves as really benefiting America. They realize no one else wants to go to work out in the fields. So consequently, they want to be a part of America just like anyone else. They want their children to get educated. So some can work in the fields but they want to see them have opportunities that they didnt have growing up.

MARTIN: But wait, what about those who would argue that if undocumented immigrants were not available to do this work, then the working conditions would improve? That the pay would improve and the conditions would improve. That in effect, youre making it easier for employers to keep these jobs as hard and as grueling as they are instead of looking for ways to make the working conditions better?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: You know, in reality, farm work has always been a low-paying job with no benefits, no laws covering and protecting them as other workers here in this country. It was not immigrants that were primarily working in the fields at that time. It was American citizens. People that were here that were migrating all over the country. And yet, back then there was a large Anglo population.

In fact, about 40 percent of the farm worker population were people that had migrated from Oklahoma and all over the country to work in the fields.

MARTIN: Go ahead Gabriel.

Mr. THOMPSON: I think too, one important note of and I think the message of Take Our Jobs campaign, is a reflection of the fact that we need to remember how this economy went downhill. It wasnt farm workers in the fields, harvesting lettuce for eight bucks an hour or processing poultry for $7.50 an hour that led to this large unemployment.

I mean, these were people in suits highly educated that dismantled our economy. But I think, inevitably, youre going to start finding people blaming folks that whose voices often aren't heard. And I think then they have this notion that well, immigrants - undocumented immigrants are here and they're really milking the system and doing all these things. And the Take Our Jobs idea sounds essentially like, if you think we are coasting by and not contributing to this country, come check it out. Come see how it feels.

MARTIN: Well, having done that Gabriel, what's the final word from you? What the hardest thing about doing the farm work that you did?

Mr. THOMPSON: I think it's just living with the constant pain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: People would say after five days you start getting use to it and the pain goes away. But really what happens is you just you start redefining what constitutes pain. And so you just have to become use to always having your hands swollen, and used to your back going out, and used to falling asleep at the drop of a hat.

I would say, the positive is that, as opposed to some of the other jobs I did, there is a real feeling in the fields - at least where I was - of solidarity among workers - about workers really feeling that the work they're doing has a lot of dignity. And they - even if American consumers in grocery stores dont make the connection, workers in the fields make the connection that they are literally feeding the United States American citizens and doing some of the hardest jobs that exist.

MARTIN: Mr. Rodriguez, I noticed that you laughed when Gabriel mentioned that living with the constant pain and you actually chuckled. Why did you chuckle?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: No, because it's true. I mean your hands are swollen. They're cut up. They're stained. And the women that oftentimes theyll work on their knees and their knees are brown so they won't wear skirts because they're ashamed of showing that off to people. I mean those are just the realities that farm workers face every single day. So it's a grueling effort, a grueling job that takes place and they get very little recognition for what they do. But the reality is, that if it wasnt for them, we would not have food on our tables every single day.

MARTIN: Arturo Rodriguez is the president of the United Farm Workers. He is launching the Take Our Jobs campaign. He says that he will train, or the UFW will train, Americans who wish to do agricultural work. And he joined us from his office in Kern County, California.

From New York we heard from Gabriel Thompson. He's the author of the memoir "Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do." And if you want to hear my previous conversation with Gabriel Thompson about his book, you can go to our website. Go to npr.org, click on programs then on TELL ME MORE.

Mr. Rodriguez, Mr. Thompson, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you very much, Michel.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thanks for having me.

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