When I was in high school, and also part of college, I spent my summers working in a wholesale nursery as a menial laborer. It was all stoop labor — “there’s 10 acres of pots of kinnikinnick, go weed them all” — and of course once you finished it all, you’d start over again because a new crop of weeds was sprouting. So I spent long days in the sun, bent over, scraping popweeds out of containers. It’s not a job I’d wish on anyone, but it’s partly how I paid for college.
Now I’m reading that, in 1965, the US government had a brilliant idea for replacing those darned Mexicans who were doing all that farm labor: pay high school students to do it for minimum wage. Thousands of students took the offer.
He remembers the first day vividly. Work started before dawn, the better to avoid the unforgiving desert sun to come. “The wind is in your hair, and you don’t think it’s bad,” Carter says. “Then you go out in the field, and the first ray of sun comes over the horizon. The first ray. Everyone looked at each other, and said, ‘What did we do?’ The thermometer went up like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. By 9 a.m., it was 110 degrees.”
Garden gloves that the farmers gave the students to help them harvest lasted only four hours, because the cantaloupe’s fine hairs made grabbing them feel like “picking up sandpaper.” They got paid minimum wage — $1.40 an hour back then — plus 5 cents for every crate filled with about 30 to 36 fruits. Breakfast was “out of the Navy,” Carter says — beans and eggs and bologna sandwiches that literally toasted in the heat, even in the shade.
The University High crew worked six days a week, with Sundays off, and they were not allowed to return home during their stint. The farmers sheltered them in “any kind of defunct housing,” according to Carter — old Army barracks, rooms made from discarded wood, and even buildings used to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II.
I think you can guess what happened. Students quit in droves after only a few days. Others held strikes. The whole program was declared a failure, not just because the kids wouldn’t do it, but because they were pointing out the horrible working conditions and pitiful wages that were inflicted on desperate migrant workers…conditions and wages that still apply.
Clearly, the lesson is that we should hire anybody, migrant or not, and that they should be paid an hourly wage that reflects the value of their labor.
I only stuck with that kind of work because I was desperate, and even then my parents were housing and feeding me so all of the cash could go straight into my college fund.