The Other A-TEAM: When High Schoolers Took Over for Migrant Farmworkers

Pierre Van ZylLearn, News + Discoveries

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highschoolers replacing farmers

Randy Carter, an assistant director and production manager, has been part of popular TV shows and films such as Seinfeld and The Godfather II. Although impressive achievements, Carter still wishes he had the chance to work on a script of his own work, about the summer when he was 17.

In 1965, W. Willard Wirtz, then the Secretary of Labor, came up with an idea to get rid of Mexican farmworkers and replace them with high schoolers. The farmworkers were working in the United States under what was then known as the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican men to harvest crops in the United States. This program was in effect from 1942 to 1964 and resulted in a temporary workforce of 5 million men from Mexico [1].

The program was disbanded, but farmers still needed people to harvest crops, and Secretary of Labor Wirtz came up with the idea to get high schoolers, specifically jocks or athletes, to do the work. Ultimately, the Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower (A-TEAM) was created.

A Summer in a Migrant Worker’s Life

Radio ads and magazines appealed to these young men looking for summer jobs, and newspapers covered their local boys who had signed up for the program and were scheduled to depart to Texas and California for the summer. But others expressed doubt about the harshness of the work and the inexperience of young American teenagers.

Ultimately, only a few thousand high schoolers got to pick crops, and Carter was among them. He says none of the kids who had signed up from his school were athletes, as sports coaches didn’t want their star players getting worn out in the fields when the practice was more important.

In early June, Carter and his schoolmates arrived in Blythe, a small town in a California desert, and were told they’d be picking cantaloupes all summer. 

Carter says the first day was brutal. Although the work started before dawn, the sun showed its face soon enough, and Carter says by 9 in the morning it was 110 degrees outside. The gloves they were given only lasted four hours, due to the rough skin of the cantaloupe.

They were paid $1.40 an hour, and an additional 5 cents for every crate they loaded with fruit. Breakfast was, of all things, beans, eggs, and bologna sandwiches that were less than appetizing in the sweltering heat. 

For six days every week, Carter and his classmates worked in the fields and returned “home”, which was, depending on where you were assigned, old Army barracks, shacks made from discarded wood, and even buildings used to hold Japanese-Americans during World War II.

They weren’t the only ones having a rough experience. Hundreds of teenagers quit after just two weeks. Some went on strike. Eventually, the A-TEAM was considered a failure and abandoned.

What the A-TEAM Means for Migrants Today

Not many people today know about or remember the original A-TEAM, but Lori A. Flores uncovered the program while doing research for her book, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement. 

Flores commented that the students who participated in the program “had the words and whiteness to say what they were feeling and could act out in a way that Mexican-Americans who had been living this way for decades simply didn’t have the power or space for the American public to listen to them.”

She went on to say that “it’s not about work ethic. It’s about that this labor is not meant to be done under such bad conditions and bad wages.”

As for Carter, now 70, he agrees with Flores’ conclusions. He and his friends finished out the summer, even under the less-than-ideal conditions. “We went through something that you can’t explain to anyone, unless you were out there in that friggin’ heat,” he says. “It could only be lived.”

Carter also says that the empathy he learned toward immigrant workers is something others would do well to take note of. “We know the work they do. And they do it all their lives, not just one summer for a couple of months. And they raise their families on it. Anyone ever talks bad on them, I always think, ‘Keep talking buddy, because I know what the real deal is.’”

Conditions Still Aren’t What They Should Be

Today, there are an estimated three million migrant workers in the United States, and 68 percent of them are from Mexico [2].

These workers play an essential part in the labor that’s needed to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables to sell. Many of them come to support their family back home. 52 out of every 100 farmworkers are unauthorized, meaning they have no legal status in the US [3].

Even those that are licensed to work in the country, if they have an H-2A visa, may only be able to work for a specific farmer. To leave their job due to unfair conditions and wages means they must leave the country and secure a new visa. These workers are also subject to wage theft (an estimated $18 million in just the three years from 2010 to 2013) and meal break violations, not to mention unsafe working conditions [4].

The ability of the employer to treat these workers as such is partly the result of their insignificance in the eyes of Americans, who don’t realize just how integral these workers are to our economy [5]. On top of that, Americans simply don’t know that agriculture continues to be an extremely hazardous industry, and growers aren’t even legally obligated to tell workers their rights [6].

So what can we do?

How You Can Help Increase the Visibility and Rights of Migrant Workers

You can support funding for better enforcement and improvement of the existing laws such as the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), which requires that contractors of migrant workers register with the government, and notify workers of their wages and working conditions before hiring [7].

Improving this act and the way it’s enforced would make stricter standards, which would reduce injuries and deaths and give these workers a better quality of life [8].

And, due to the H-2A visa in which a worker is tied to an employer, that worker can’t leave even if the employer refuses to pay them, as doing so would violate their visa. Changing the regulations for the H-2A visa would help these workers exercise their rights for fair and safe working conditions. Currently, changes to the H-2A visa are benefitting employers more than workers [9].

If you’ve ever worked on a farm (hands up, who are my fellow I-grew-up-on-a-farm-and-still-live-on-a-farm people?) you know how hard the work can be—it’s a world different from the labor it took for me to write this article. Even though history has largely forgotten the original A-TEAM, remembering could help increase modern attention, empathy, and ultimately, safety for migrant workers.

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