There is great concern and interest in what the outcome of the midterm elections means for agricultural employers. We know there will be both opportunities and real concerns with the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives relative to issues such as immigration, AgJOBS, foreign trade, and farm programs. At the same time, we have no reason to believe that the administration’s actions in terms of aggressive I-9 audits, increased scope of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, child labor laws, and employer responsibility for costs will abate in the near term. Some may even escalate. It is ever more critical that we stay together as an industry, through our associations, to prioritize and address issues important to the industry and not be led into partisan or popular politics that are not part of our industry focus and do not further American food production.
It is estimated that over half of our critical field workforce is either undocumented or falsely documented. Based on the å rhetoric of both new and returning members of Congress, this issue is likely to become even more troublesome. Many campaigned on platforms of stopping illegal immigration, heavier employer sanctions, enhanced border and worker eligibility enforcement, and putting more domestic workers to work—even if that means higher labor costs for growers. The arguments that this will encourage even more food production to move out of the United States has not had much traction among those moving into leadership positions on House committees that will set policies on trade, worker eligibility, border security, and Farm Bill allocations.
It appears that the agricultural policy focus in Congress will become even more tilted toward commodity agriculture. The mindset among congressional leaders will probably continue that growers can mechanize more and increase productivity in order to compete globally. Although this concept has worked for corn and soybean growers, it does not ring true for growers of specialty, labor-intensive crops.
On the plus side, it is unlikely the new Congress will have much interest in issues such as the Employee Free Choice Act (relating to union organizing) or other legislation that would increase tax or regulatory burdens on businesses, particularly small businesses.
However, labor-intensive agricultural employers will almost certainly continue to face increasingly onerous new, or reinterpreted, regulatory pressures from federal agencies like the Departments of Labor, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Even if the new congressional members attempted to change current laws, and even if they were able to get changes past the Senate and avoid presidential veto, it takes years for law to be fully implemented and the regulatory agencies could continue their anti-employer policies for a long time.
An area that fruit growers and other agricultural groups and associations will have to watch even more carefully will be state and local legislation and regulation. It is almost a certainty that your regional and state agricultural associations and advocacy groups will see increased state and local activism with legislative and regulatory proposals on a wide array of labor, employment, environmental issues, as well as other issues that will find no effective voice in the new Congress. November’s election resulted in several state gubernatorial elections which will further favor such action. Expect to see renewed efforts to pass farmworker overtime laws and facilitate unionization in California, New York, and other leading-edge states and eventually being proposed in other states. Because of perceptions that the new congressional majority might be supportive, look for Arizona-like immigration enforcement laws with strict employer sanctions to be proposed in the states as well. Your state and regional associations will have their hands full for the next two years and will need your support and participation.
While none of these agricultural employer issues can be fixed quickly, they must be addressed through the grassroots power of growers, packers, shippers, suppliers, and others who will work together through their own various commodity and trade groups to educate Congress and the administration and then demand that U.S. domestic food production not be legislated and regulated out of business. Your state and regional groups will be challenged on many of the same issues. It is important that each of you, as growers, invest time and funding to participate in your state and national commodity and trade groups to bring this grassroots power to bear in 2011 and beyond.