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California Governor Defends a Farm-Labor Regime that Dates Back to the Days of Lynchings

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.

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.

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).