Economic justice is fundamental to a vibrant democracy, where all people can exercise their civil liberties and civil rights. Fighting for farmworkers to have the same rights as other workers, including overtime protections, is critical to the ACLU of Oregon’s mission of advancing civil liberties and civil rights.
As far back as the 1930s, the ACLU recognized that economic justice was essential to achieving racial justice. In a 1931 report entitled Black Justice, ACLU’s first report on the civil liberties of Black Americans, we observed that the low-income status of Black Americans and their oppression by systemic racism were inextricably linked.
Many worker protections at the federal level – including the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 – were created in the 1930s, the same decade of the ACLU’s report Black Justice. What did these laws have in common? Racism was baked into their creation. Both laws excluded agricultural and domestic workers from their protections, fields predominantly occupied by Black workers during the 1930s.
What did these laws have in common? Racism was baked into their creation.
As Juan F. Perea calls out in an article for the Ohio State Law Journal, President Franklin Roosevelt’s initial desire in the FLSA was to protect all workers, agricultural and industrial, by establishing minimum wages and maximum working hours. The historical record, however, indicates that this largely did not happen because of intentional discrimination against Black people.
In the hearings and debates on the FLSA, lawmakers were explicit in their racism. For example, Senator ‘Cotton’ Ed Smith of South Carolina complained bitterly about the deterioration in America that he perceived from the introduction of Black people into political society after the American Civil War. As another example, Rep. J. Mark Wilcox of Florida said on the record, “...the Federal Government knows no color line and of necessity it cannot make any distinction between the races … it will prescribe the same wage for the Negro that it prescribes for the white man … You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it …”
The racism baked into the FLSA continues to cause harm with disproportionate racial impacts today. In America, most workers have overtime protections. However, farmworkers in most states, including Oregon, have no overtime protections, and currently farmwork is a field predominantly occupied by Latino/a/x workers.
While none of us took part in creating this racial injustice, we have the opportunity to right this wrong and guarantee fair wages for people working on Oregon farms today. Farmworkers have kept food on our tables, helped sustain Oregon’s $5 billion dollar agricultural market, and prevented family farms from shutting their doors, while sacrificing their health and wellness. They worked through the COVID-19 pandemic, catastrophic fires and hazardous air quality levels, and increasingly worrisome heatwaves.
While none of us took part in creating this racial injustice, we have the opportunity to right this wrong.
For our state to live up to its values of equity, we must fight for the civil liberties and civil rights of all people. It is essential to this effort that we identify the continuing harms of historical laws that were molded by racism and change their course. Lawmakers in Oregon have a historic opportunity this year to end the racist harms of FLSA’s exclusion of farmworkers from overtime protections. We ask our state legislators to embrace this opportunity to advance justice and equity in Oregon.
Historical information about Social Security Act and FLSA: https://lawecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1150&context=facpubs