The Fox Takes Charge of the Chickens : Keyword: A congressional commission top-heavy with agribusiness will determine the fate of farm workers.

Michael Hancock is executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington.

How credible would you find a commission on labor relations with a 7-to-1 ratio of corporate executives to workers? Meet the congressional Commission on Agricultural Workers. It was empowered by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act to study and report on the impact the law has had on farm labor. Of its 12 members, seven represent farmers' interests, one represents labor.

The commission will have its first--and only scheduled--California hearings this week, in Visalia. Its findings are due at the end of the next year, and will carry great weight in the ongoing debate over U.S. immigration policy.

The work set out for the commission is controversial. It will look at competing claims that there is an oversupply or a shortage of farm laborers resulting from the amnesty provisions of the 1986 immigration law. Labor advocates contend that, despite grower fears that newly legalized farm workers would leave the fields, there is in fact an overabundance of workers in the current agricultural labor market. Preliminary studies support this view. A glut means unemployment for many and lower wages and working conditions for those who are hired.

One of the thorniest issues the commission will examine is the use of farm workers imported under a non-immigrant visa program known as H-2A. Growers argue that unforeseeable spot shortages, impending long-term shortages and the uncertainties of harvesting perishable crops justify the importation of foreign laborers to supplement the domestic work force. In reality, many growers contract for foreign guest-workers on a routine basis and make minimal efforts to recruit domestic workers. Employment of foreigners is in the growers' interest: H-2A workers are deportable if their employment ends for any reason, making them an easily manipulated and exploitable work force.

One of the tasks that Congress specifically assigned the commission was to discover why agriculture should be outside the realm of modern labor-management techniques used in other industries. When a company faces a shortage of workers, it doesn't petition the government for imported counter help; it makes the job more attractive by raising wages, improving work conditions or adding benefits. Through the H-2A program, the agricultural industry is exempt from these free-market pressures.

This is only one of the fundamental labor-relations questions that deserve careful analysis by a serious panel of experts. Unfortunately, the commission is a stacked deck. Not only are seven of its dozen members affiliated with the business end of agriculture; several of them represent parties that have repeatedly run afoul of labor. The California grape industry, the subject of boycotts for almost 30 years, is represented by Michael Durando of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League and Henry Voss of the California Farm Bureau (he is chairman of the commission).

Another panel member with a history of conflicts with labor is Othal Brand, mayor of McAllen, Tex., and founder of a major international agribusiness firm. At a commission meeting last December, Brand stunned his audience with warm words of praise for yesteryear's bracero program--a program so brutally exploitative of imported Mexican laborers that an outraged Congress outlawed it. As an appointee to the Texas pesticide regulatory board, Brand once remarked about one pesticide, "Sure, it's going to kill a lot of people, but they may be dying of something else anyway."

The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Assn., which acts as a labor recruitment agent for sugar-cane growers, is represented on the commission by George Sorn. The sugar-cane industry has a long history of labor abuse. It began importing cane cutters after sugar companies were indicted in 1942 for conspiracy to enslave black American workers. In 1983, the industry's labor practices were soundly condemned by a House subcommittee that turned up evidence that growers had deliberately dismissed U.S. resident workers in favor of Caribbean guest workers. The foreign laborers were more servile and willing to accept dangerous, degrading and poorly compensated work. They still are.

In addition to its management-labor imbalance, the commission is racially and sexually biased: Women, minorities and labor are all represented in the person of Dolores Huerta, vice president of the United Farm Workers.

The commission is grossly slanted regionally as well. Seven members are Californians; three are from the South; there is no one from the Midwest. (The Californians, besides Huerta, Durando and Voss, are: Russell Williams, president of the state Agricultural Producers Assn.; Lloyd Aubrey of the state Division of Labor Standards and Enforcement; Philip Martin of UC Davis, and Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles.)

With what authority this body will speak for the national agricultural picture is unclear. No one wants a commission composed of well-meaning but ignorant members. However, the best government commissions attempt to strike a balance between competing interests.

Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa) pressed the concerns of many of his colleagues about the commission's tilt during congressional hearings this year. Voss responded that the commission has taken great care to hire labor-sympathetic staff. But staff is staff. It is the commissioners who will be directing policy. A diverse staff, no matter how good, does not compensate for biased and unbalanced leadership.

Rep. Howard Berman (D) of Los Angeles raised the possibility of expanding the commission to bring labor and grower interests on a par. The grower representatives declined.

Now that the commission is moving into its public-hearings phase, the imbalance will be visible to all. If American workers and other taxpayers are as outraged as they should be, maybe Congress will step in and stop this sham in its tracks.

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