In Praise of Illegal (Undocumented? Citzenship Disadvantaged?) Workers

Last summer Mrs. Smallholder and I went on a two day tour of grazing dairies in Virginia and North Carolina.

I know, ladies, I’m a romantic. But remember, I’m taken. The last thing I need is you gals moving into the barn with Sadie, pining for your agricultural Adonis.

A common theme in the discussions we had with the tour group was the problem of finding dependable workers. They universally bemoaned the fact that no one was willing to get up early to milk cows (I refrained from pointing out that if they milked themselves, they could make a living with fewer cows and a lower debt load). I heard some racist statements - but they generally conceded that those wetbacks were willing to work when many native-born Americans wouldn’t work. Several guys were paying $11/hour for two five hour shifts a day, seven days a week - with housing included (though the housing is typically a run-down single-wide). This comes to $770 a week - not bad for a job that can be learned and mastered in one week of on-the job training.

I found this quite interesting in light of the long running debate I have had with a Boy Named Sous. Brian is concerned that illegals displace hard-working Americans. I’m convinced that hard-working Americans ARE working and that if someone is lazy or socially impaired enough to be outcompeted by a person who doesn’t speak English they ought to be unemployed.

When people complain that jobs don’t exist, I suggest they look into milking. In fact, I suggested as much to one of my poorly-motivated class of freshmen. I said that hard-work was rewarded and said that if they were willing to work hard they could get a job in the dairy industry. A couple kids asked about the working conditions. When I got to the part about milking at 5 AM, there was general dismay: “I’m not gettin’ up at no five o’clock!”

I also had occasion to talk to a professional dairyman cousin (Bonnie just wouldn’t stop producing milk even after we stopped miling her and took her calf to the butcher - I was concerned if there was anything else I should do yo dry her off). Johnny works for another cousin - Pinky who runs a mega-dairy. Other than family-members, the work crew is entirely Mexican. Johnny allowed as how they hadn’t checked too closely on the information provided to show citzenship or legal residence - they aren’t required by law to do so and don’t particualrly care. He said that the pro-immigrant worker sentiment I had seen in Virginia was also present among his peers in Wisconsin. Reliability was the key issue - cows have to be milked whether or not workers show up. He said that Anglo kids wuld just not show up some days. If a Mexican worker was on his deathbad and absolutely could not show, he would send his brother. The cows get milked. The marketplace for labor favors folks who take working seriously.

Lest you think that your humble Smallholder is so full of anecdotal crap that his eyes are brown, I recommend the 2006 dairy wage survey. Over half of the milkers in American dairies are “foreign born” - and a good chunk of those workers’ identification cards would not bear close scrutiny. In fact, Meixcan workers are so essential to the modern dairy industry that cooperative extension offices are offering courses in “Spanish for dairy operators” and publishing bilingual dairy dictionaries. Cornell even offers a 400 level “Advanced Spanish.”

Don’t cry for the poor oppressed American worker. Jobs exist if you are willing to work.

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