Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 11

A study of the manpower implications of small business financing

by Joseph Debro

A 1968 book-length report, titled “A Study of the Manpower Implications of Small Business Financing: A Survey of 149 Minority and 202 Anglo-Owned Small Businesses in Oakland, California,” was sent to the Bay View by its author, Joseph Debro, prior to his death in November 2013, and his family has kindly permitted the Bay View to publish it. The survey it’s based on was conducted by the Oakland Small Business Development Center, which Debro headed, “in cooperation with the small businessmen of Oakland, supported in part by a grant, No. 91-05-67-29, from the U.S. Department of Labor, Manpower Administration, Office of Manpower, Policy, Evaluation and Research.” Project co-directors were Jack Brown and Joseph Debro, and survey coordinator was Agustin Jimenez. The Bay View is publishing the report as a series. A prolog appeared in the December 2013 Bay View, Part 1 in January 2014, Part 2 in February, Part 3 in April, Part 4 in May, Part 5 in June, Part 6 in August, Part 7 in October, Part 8 in November, Part 9 in January 2015, Part 10 in March 2015, and this is Part 11 of the report.

Mexican immigration 1900-1960

(Most of the general remarks in this section are from Grebler, 1966.)

Mexican-workers-storm-border-Mexicali-020354-by-UCLA-Special-Collections-300x219, Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 11, Local News & Views
Mexican workers storm the border at Mexicali Feb. 3, 1954. Tired of “waiting their turn,” 9,000 made their way that day into the U.S. to work. – Photo: UCLA Special Collections

The patterns established during the last century continued into the 20th as well. Successive waves of immigrants came to this country from Mexico as a response to American labor demands in the industrial and agricultural sectors.

Before 1910, Mexican laborers were employed generally without union status as agricultural workers, as miners, as maintenance and construction workers with the expanding network of railways and in other non-agricultural pursuits. As low-paid, non-union workers, they were used in much the same capacity as Negro strikebreakers.

Violence was used against them on several occasions by Anglo farmers, notably in 1928 when a Mexican farm labor union, La Confederación de Uniones Obreras, was defeated in its attempts to secure higher wages. Strikers were arrested and deported.

In 1933 a cotton strike was broken by organized violence, and in 1934 a meeting of workers in Brawley, California, was interrupted by police officers who attacked with clubs and tear gas. Another wage strike was broken in Orange County in 1936 (Galarza, 1964:39). In recent years, the Mexican American farm workers strikes in Delano have exposed most of the labor exploitative devices of big farmers in California agribusiness. The 20th century, then, has been a struggle of Mexican and Mexican American farm workers attempting to free themselves from the shackles of low-paid, degrading agricultural labor.

The advent of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1917 witnessed a remarkable upswing of immigrants, both legal and otherwise, to the Southwest. In addition to the great numbers of persons who arrived – a minimum of 173,663 between 1910 and 1917 – there was great diversification in terms of occupational backgrounds when compared with previous decades or those which followed.

Confederaci-¦n-de-Uniones-Obreras-Mexicanas-Federation-of-Mexican-Workers-Union-CUOM-first-union-for-Mexican-workers-in-LA-1927, Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 11, Local News & Views
The Confederación de Uniones Obreras Mexicanas (Federation of Mexican Workers Union-CUOM) was the first “union” for Mexican workers, founded in Los Angeles in 1927.

Not only were Mexicans being pushed out of their homeland because of the hazards of the revolution, but they were also drawn into the U.S. by American industrial and agricultural expansion. The demand for food and farm products was greatly increased during World War I; at the same time, the supply of domestic agricultural labor was beginning to dwindle due to rapid urbanization and the military recruitment due to the war.

Agriculture in the Southwest depended heavily upon seasonal, low-wage laborers who would toil and live under sub-standard conditions. The Chinese were available for this type of labor, as were limited numbers of Japanese, Filipinos and Hindus. However, because of unfavorable racist-type legislation and “gentlemen’s agreements,” Asiatic farm workers had restricted entry privileges.

As the demand for cheap labor grew, Southwestern growers turned to Mexico, where they found thousands of persons willing to engage in stoop labor. As industrialization further expanded during the decade, many Mexicans remained during off-season periods and soon found themselves occupied as railroad maintenance workers and miners.

In the next decade, nearly half a million Mexicans legally crossed the border, accounting for over 11 percent of all immigrants to the United States. Alarm was registered on both sides of the border. The Mexican government feared a loss of its economically most active and intelligent sector – the young men between 16 and 44 years.

In the United States, mounting racism was responsible for another of many strong tides of pro-Anglo-Saxon and anti-non-white discrimination emanating from the American labor movement and other sources, including the academic world (Wyse, 1966:l03-112). Diplomatic considerations prevented the closing of immigration doors to Mexicans, but entry requirements were stiffened through higher fees and the necessity of applying for visas at designated consular offices. In spite of these obstacles, Mexicans poured in as conditions in the homeland grew worse during post-Revolutionary days.

Bracero-recruitment-1942, Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 11, Local News & Views
In 1942, when this photo was taken of Mexican workers being recruited, the United States signed the Bracero Treaty, which reopened immigration until 1964 for millions of Mexican workers to work temporarily on contract to United States growers and ranchers.

During the 1920s, the same processes already noted during the previous decade were accelerated. Farming became more industrialized, and wide scale irrigation was introduced in the Southwest. The improved boxcar which could carry produce and other perishables across the nation and the widespread use of home refrigeration were developed at this time.

Domestic farm workers, because of low wages, continued their migration to urban centers, and Mexicans filled those slots left vacant by their American counterparts. The stereotype of the Mexican as an agricultural laborer was again reiterated in a report to Gov. Young of California in 1930: “He (the Mexican) does tasks that white (sic!) workers will not or cannot do. He works under … conditions that are often too trying for white workers. He will work in gangs. He will work under direction, taking orders and suggestions” (quoted in Gebler, 1966:23).

Increasing numbers of Mexican immigrants found their way into industrial plants as common laborers, but a few found more responsible jobs as “core-makers, machinists and mechanics in metals and machinery; as finishers, machinists and upholsterers in wood manufacturing; mechanics and painters in chemical oil and paint industries; as bookbinders and photo and job press workers in printing and paper industries” (Grebler, 1966:24).

American business leaders were strongly opposed to curbing immigration from Mexico and other countries of the Western Hemisphere and pushed strongly for importation of more “temporary workers,” who actually never returned to their homelands. Mexicans were fast becoming the last source of cheap scab labor, and, as in previous decades, Anglo union leaders fought bitterly to block their entry, but to little avail. American businessmen hired professional smugglers to entice laborers across the border (Gamio, 1930: Appendix II).

From 1930 until the end of that decade, immigration from Mexico declined drastically due to the effects of the Depression. The Mexican economy itself began to recuperate, and the demand for farm labor dropped off while domestic replacements were found in the form of “Okies” and urban unemployed persons seeking temporary farm work.

Whether under coercion or voluntarily, Mexicans returned to their mother country en masse. As was the case 80 years earlier in the California mines, Mexicans were once more considered as trash to be discarded once their utility to American society had come to an apparent end.

Braceros-line-up-for-lunch-1963-by-Bettmann-Corbis-300x148, Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 11, Local News & Views
Braceros line up for lunch in 1963. – Photo: Bettmann-Corbis

“Local agencies, saddled with mounting relief and unemployment problems, used a variety of methods to rid themselves of ‘Mexicans’: persuasion, coaxing, incentive and unauthorized coercion. Special railroad trains were made available, with fare at least to the Mexican border prepaid; the withholding or stoppage of relief payments and welfare services were used effectively when necessary; and people were often rounded up by local agencies to fill carloads of human cargo.

“In an atmosphere of pressing emergency, little if any time was spent on determining whether the methods infringed upon the rights of citizens. For example, children born in the United States were shipped back along with their parents regardless of legal status. When the children later wished to re-enter this country in the belief that they were U.S. citizens, they could be excluded if they had meanwhile voted in Mexican elections or served in the Mexican Army without realizing that such action meant the loss of U.S. citizenship.” (Grebler, 1966:26).

Thus many of the ejected persons, who had but a few years earlier been actively recruited by American enterprises, experienced treatment that undoubtedly “served to strengthen their mistrust of the host society, add to their feeling of alienation, and confirm their worst views of government as something to fear and avoid” (Grebler, 1966:29).

When war broke out in the early ‘40s, the U.S. “was once again faced with manpower shortages due to the draft and the recuperation and expansion of industry in general. This time, instead of allowing free immigration of agricultural laborers, a bilateral arrangement between the two nations was arranged whereby the bracero program was institutionalized.

Although initially conceived as a temporary device to supply cheap labor as an emergency war measure, it was continued for 22 years, from 1943 until 1964. Bracero camps provided conveniently segregated housing and living conditions for Mexican laborers, and new avenues of exploitation were opened by having company-controlled restaurants and stores which braceros were encouraged to patronize.

Allegations of overcharging, deductions from wages, shortchanging, underemployment, poor food, improper recordkeeping, poor housing, hazardous working conditions, physical mistreatment, failure to pay stipulated wages etc. are recorded by Galarza (l964:183-198), even though most of the recognized inequities of previous decades had supposedly been corrected by law (Grebler, 1966:30-31).

Mexican-farmworker-1942-uses-shorthandled-hoe-now-illegal, Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 11, Local News & Views
A Mexican farmworker in 1942 uses a short-handled hoe. Requiring the worker to stoop all day, the tool is now illegal.

In spite of the fact that conditions for braceros were still far from ideal, many thousands of “wetbacks” illegally entered the U.S. in search of agricultural labor. In many cases they worked side by side with braceros without great difficulties other than threatened deportation. Even after deportation, wetbacks would return, the general economic conditions for them on this side of the border being seen as more favorable than those prevailing in Mexico.

The 1950s witnessed a sharp incline in immigration of Mexicans with permanent visas and of those seeking temporary employment. At the same time, efforts were made to apprehend wetbacks for speedy repatriation.

The “job offer,” introduced as a device to assure American consuls that there was no danger of the visa applicant becoming a public ward, perhaps was responsible for ushering in Mexicans with more skills on the average than those who came in previous decades.

The wetback problem reached critical proportions during the ‘50s. Pressure from labor unions forced more stringent controls on wetback apprehension and deportation. Of the 875,000 persons apprehended during the fiscal year 1953, “30,000 were found to hold industrial and trade jobs rather than jobs in agriculture, and 1,545 were smugglers of alien labor” (Grebler, 1966:34).

When the federal government cracked down, it was again reminiscent of the ‘30s, when civil liberties were often swept aside in the name of justice. If documentary evidence could not be produced immediately by a Mexican or even a naturalized American accosted by a federal inspector, there was little doubt that he would be apprehended and sent to Mexico, not just to the border where he could re-enter once again, but to his home town in the interior. As the decade proceeded, about 3.8 million cases of forced repatriations were made.

Joseph Debro, born Nov. 27, 1928, in Jackson, Miss., and a pillar of Oakland until his death on Nov. 5, 2013, was president of Bay Area Black Builders and of Transbay Builders, a general engineering contractor, former director of the Oakland Small Business Development Center and the California Office of Small Business, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors and a bio-chemical engineer.