Labor in the 2012 Farm Bill?

Every four or five years, Congress passes a new Farm Bill whose sweeping authority touches everything from wetland conservation to the price of tea in China. With a budget of $284 billion, the Farm Bill funds food stamps and crop subsidies, sets trade agreements and spearheads rural development. Yet somehow, labor has never fully entered the conversation.* Indeed, agribusiness lobbyists have forcefully excluded labor rights from the Farm Bill.

Of course, no farm bill since the New Deal has been truly “new.” Most of its provisions are minor modifications of existing programs, with powerful lobbyists scrambling to retain their piece of the pie.

Pie chart showing that farm programs account for about 22 percent of Farm Act budget allocations.

In this context, 2008’s Food, Conservation and Energy Act was hailed as “unprecedented” in its reforms. Of course, the infamous commodity programs persist; but thanks to active citizens, new funding is slowly trickling down to land conservation and local food infrastructure. International fair trade and healthier produce even earned a nod. But domestic farmworkers remain invisible in the Farm Bill. Why? And could America finally deliver justice to the most exploited workers in our economy by reforming the Farm Bill in 2012?

Objection 1: Labor is outside the purview of USDA. The Department of Labor should handle issues of workers’ rights. This argument ignores two crucial points: that DoL’s National Labor Relations Act conspicuously omits farm labor, and that the Farm Bill does impact working conditions – indirectly but profoundly – by subsidizing factory-farming under the commodities program. Any economic system that considers its outputs mere commodities will also treat its inputs as commodities. The dehumanization of workers is the first step in exploitation. Furthermore, to suggest that anything is outside the scope of this enormous bill is absurd.

Objection 2: Reform is slow, resource-intensive, and unenforceable. With well over 100,000 employees, USDA is a bureaucratic behemoth. And as House Majority Leader Harry Reid said of reform efforts in 2007, “That’s all very nice, but it doesn’t help because agriculture talks big money in the Senate.” It’s true: when Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) proposed a voluntary program to certify fair labor practices for domestic goods, Big Ag freaked out and blocked the measure. No wonder a trip to America’s factory farm fields still seems like a blast from the antebellum past. Of course, even if this measure had passed, it would still be voluntary.

If labor groups mobilize for 2012 as conservationists and nutritionists did for 2008, farmworkers could win a few nominal nods – extra money for the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, a grant program here, a line of rhetoric there. But these measures will help a mere handful of our 2 million migrant farmworkers unless Congress radically overhauls the long-standing commodity programs and restructures USDA for people instead of profits. Anything short of a structural shift to transparent, accountable agriculture is only more agribusiness-as-usual.

*Except for a handful of desultory mentions. Both of these are grant programs, with little incentive for farmers to participate.

Section 7204(38): Agricultural worker safety research initiative

Section 14204: Grants to improve supply, stability, safety and training of agricultural labor force

Also, Section 14013 establishes the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, which includes a Farmworker Coordinator position. It appears this office has not yet accomplished anything and the position has not been filled.

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