(Editor’s Note: This article highlights World War II’s Mexican Farm Labor Agreement between the U.S. and the Republic of Mexico. As background, the following details are provided on the U.S. labor force.)

Labor Day began during the late 1800’s to honor a segment of the U.S. business base that up to then was largely kept behind the scenes. Remarkably, workers were the muscle-power driving our nation’s economic mechanism might. Yet, payroll was considered only as an expense entry in a company’s operations budget. Basically, workers were taken for granted.

That view began to change thanks to late nineteenth century intrepid workers who found the courage to tell plant and company owners that workers deserved fair wages, safe working conditions, and associated benefits. Thereby, they organized fellow workers into unified groups to collectively speak with one voice to their boss.

Doing so, these worker groups became unions, acting as primary worksite advocates. Equally, they kept open the communication lines between labor and management.

Hence, unions first brought attention to the following message: “Being business-oriented doesn’t mean worker-oriented.” Said another way, when government tax breaks are said to be business-friendly, it doesn’t mean those policies are worker-friendly.

Frankly, tax incentives don’t trickle down to the workers. Sadly, many of today’s working people miss that lesson because they’ve been conditioned by management to reject unions.

(Update: The New York Times, August 3, 2019. “Yes, America is rigged against workers; No other industrial country treats its working class so badly; inadequate wages, downsizing, job insecurity, no maternity leave, etc. Numerous studies have found out that an important cause of America’s soaring income inequality is the decline of labor unions and the concomitant decline in workers’ ability to extract more of the profit and prosperity from the corporations they work for.”)

Nevertheless in 1887, to honor labor’s key role in producing products and services, inspirational parades, picnics, and related activities began in New York City. Over half of the states quickly joined in. Labor Day received federal holiday status in 1894 so that U.S. workers could officially spend the day with their families.

In its early stages, Labor Day was not just a day off from work. Rather, it was clearly intended to remind the entire nation that our industrial complex wouldn’t exist without its fundamental base – its workers.

Today, Labor Day is not only a money-maker for the retail industry, but has traditionally signaled the end of summer. Also, it generally indicates the beginning of the new school year.

Significantly shaping the U.S. labor pool, the 1940’s Selective Training and Service Act was passed. Men between the ages of 21-36 (later included 18-year olds) had to register for a peacetime draft, in response to escalating fears of war in Europe and the Pacific. It was a wise move, since the U.S. entered WWII the next year.

Interestingly enough, the U.S. labor workforce was concurrently transformed by another adjustment. That is, the U.S. had sufficiently satisfied its wartime manpower needs overseas, but it had done so by seriously depleting the labor pool at home.

The answer? The signing of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, offering vital manpower resources to the U.S.

Personally carrying the urgent message, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) traveled to Monterrey, Nuevo León in 1943 to meet with Mexico’s President Manuel Ávila Camacho. Specifically, FDR requested thousands of Mexican workers to fill jobs in agriculture, railroad, manufacturing, and other industries left vacant by U.S. men and women who were in active duty.

What follows is a brief summary of the Mexican bracero program. Incidentally: The word “bracero(s)” comes from the Spanish ‘brazos” (arms), referring to people who work with their arms. Quite fittingly, it’s this oldest, most honorable occupation that is the focus of Labor Day.

Indeed, a new manpower pool of wartime willing workers was a miracle solution for U.S. farming, ranching, and labor-intensive industries. As approved by the departments of State, Justice, and Labor and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Mexican bracero laborers were guaranteed fair wages, decent living conditions, and proper sanitation. Also, Mexican workers were not to be discriminated against while working in “whites only” areas. At least, that was the plan.

Unfortunately, the program had some shortfalls. Almost from the beginning, grievances began to surface. For instance,

  • Bracero workers in several regions went on strike to protest wages lower than they had been promised.
  • Some contractors arranging the delivery of workers were easily bribed.
  • Ethnic discrimination by whites was common.
  • As well, 1942-47 era bracero paychecks were reduced by deductions supposedly going to a savings/retirement fund. Yet today, surviving former braceros (now elderly) are still fighting in court because they’ve never received the benefits.

Through the next several years, the basic arrangement underwent numerous stages to clarify and improve the system. Not only did farmers and ranchers consider the bracero program crucial, but it had become an integral component of the U.S. agricultural framework.

Alas, the war’s conclusion sent the bracero program into a downward spiral. Because braceros tended to work for lower wages as arranged by their contractors, U.S. labor organizers blamed braceros for lowering pay scales of U.S. field workers. Soon, the program’s benefits were forgotten, and U.S. public opinion began to view braceros in negative terms.

Ultimately, the program was stopped in 1964. At its end, it provided over five million guest workers a sense of dignity by giving them opportunities to support their families.

  • Attesting to Mexican bracero toughness is the fact that after the program’s end, the U.S. launched an ambitious effort to employ its own citizens to replace braceros. However, of the initial 18,000 positions advertised to work in Texas and California farms, only a fraction of the slots was filled.  
  • Moreover, most of the new hires soon quit, due to unfavorable working conditions, horrible heat, and sub-standard housing. The new program lasted less than one year.

In summary, despite its flaws, the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement was a timely shot in the arm to the U.S. economy for over 20 years. In recognition, this article is a belated Thank You (Gracias) to our Mexican bracero brethren who for a critical part of U.S. history acted as booster spark plugs and pistons powering the U.S. economic engine. Happy Labor Day 2019 (Feliz Día del Trabajador).

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Manuel Ávila Camacho during a state visit to Monterrey, Mexico, in April, 1943.