By GRAHAM TRAINOR, Oregon AFL-CIO president
One of the things I’m most proud of about Oregon’s labor movement is the willingness of rank and file members and leaders alike to both acknowledge the ugly, often untold truths of our movement’s exclusionary history and practices AND their willingness to look hard for solutions and action to right the course of history.
As the Oregon legislature debates a bill to grant Oregon farmworkers the same overtime rights and protections afforded to just about every other class of Oregon workers, the history of the labor movement and farmworker rights should be of particular interest.
In our movement, we often talk with unwavering pride about the New Deal, the pro-worker leadership of the Roosevelt Administration, and the gains that workers and organized labor made during that era. Under Francis Perkins’ leadership at the Department of Labor and as the first woman to serve in a Presidential Cabinet, major gains and investments were made in people and in workers. From the Wagner Act of 1935, the creation of Social Security that same year, mass unemployment relief through the creation of the Works Progress Administration, and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act setting the first minimum wage and 40-hour work week standards to name just a few notable gains, the impacts of this era continue to be felt to this day. Impacts both good and bad.
In order to pass such a bold and visionary agenda found in the sweeping New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s, it took some “compromise” and deal-making, even if it was based on an explicitly racist premise. We have an opportunity, in Oregon in 2022, to right the course of history on one of the egregious and racist “compromises” of this historic era.
When Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, there were many historic components in the bill that today’s economic framework and worker protections are still firmly built upon. Unfortunately, that foundation created with the passage of the FLSA also includes an explicitly racist component. In order to appeal to southern Democrats, Congress excluded farmworkers from the FLSA, who at the time were primarily African Americans. Today, most farmworkers are Latino and Indigenous, and are still excluded from overtime protections granted to almost every other worker explicitly because of their race.
As I said in my recent testimony before the Oregon House Business and Labor Committee referring to the United States Congress, the Oregon Legislature, and the American Labor Movement: None of our institutions did enough in 1938 to stop this racist injustice from occurring then, but we are all here now.
We are here now, and we have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation of Oregon farmworkers doesn’t inherit this failed and racist experiment that we have all inherited.
Farmworkers in Oregon have continued to tend Oregon’s famous Christmas trees, picked world renowned hazelnuts, and toiled in Oregon’s grass fields throughout the pandemic. They’ve inhaled smoke through historic wildfire seasons and endured extreme cold, all while being paid less than every other “essential worker” in the state when working beyond forty hours.
House Bill 4002 is our opportunity to acknowledge the harmful past this exclusion has left in its wake, and is perhaps the most squarely moral imperative opportunity before the Oregon Legislature in 2022. Farmworkers and the Oregon Labor Movement are watching closely to see what happens in Salem. Because we are all here now.
The Oregon AFL-CIO is a federation of labor unions.