By Richard Bailey
California’s culture of worker exploitation has produced some unusual pairings.
On March 8, 2018, former Alabama Senator, now Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, did something unusual. In a speech in Sacramento, he compared California to the Old South. Sessions said, “There is no nullification. There is no secession. Federal law is “the supreme law of the land.” I would invite any doubters to Gettysburg, and to the graves of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln.”
Calling out California’s version the Old South’s efforts to protect its system, Sessions said, “There is no nullification. There is no secession. Federal law is ‘the supreme law of the land.’ I would invite any doubters to Gettysburg, and to the graves of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln.”
In the 1850s, Calhoun argued for slavery. He claimed it helped civilize slaves. The same argument has been used to justify human trafficking. In 2015, Huffington Post contributor Richard Eskow wrote, “. . . The open-borders crowd sometimes comes embarrassingly close to making the kind of argument that was once deployed in defense of slavery: Sure, they have a tough life in this country, but it must be so much better for them here than it was in their old country.” Calhoun famously argued that slavery was not only not evil, but a “positive good” for slaves, who were brought from a state of savagery to a better life in America. Both Senator Sanders and Attorney General Sessions made the connection.
Before trimming his sails to satisfy donors, Senator Bernie Sanders condemned the system. In a well-publicized interview with Ezra Klein on July 28, 2015, Sanders was asked to support open borders. His answer shocked Klein, but was in line with leading Democrats at the time. Sanders said,
Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal. . . . That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. … It would make everybody in America poorer —you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. . . . What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.
Sanders later switched in order to remain a viable candidate during the 2019 presidential primaries, when he tried to “shift the conversation” away from that issue.
Eskow pointed why the California system is likely to fail. “Open borders is a recipe for the further commodification of human beings. It treats people as economic inputs to be moved about the globe at the whim of global capital.”
California is following the path of the Old South. Until the 1950s, Dixiecrats kept the slave system going under different guises. One party rule in the Deep South made Federal anti-slave and anti-lynching enforcement nearly impossible. Local authorities resisted. White-only local juries would not convict. Republicans lacked the will to take decisive action.
Democrats, once returned to power, used the power of the state to depriving Blacks access to markets. They destroyed a thriving Black rural economy. Slavery substitutes followed. These included share cropping and mass incarceration of African-Americans. These became part of a prison forced labor system that was worse than slavery, since overseers had fewer reasons to keep the prisoners healthy or even alive.
The California system that matured after the end of the Cold War worked something like that. NAFTA destroyed the Mexican farm economy. Mexican farmers were unable to compete against subsidized American corn. Farmers who lost their livelihoods were driven north, just as African-American farmers in the Old South were made share-croppers.
A series of regime changes in Central and South America, and the Middle East, created another wave of impoverished workers. Today, 41 million people are enslaved worldwide. In California, half of farm laborers are exploited noncitizens. Garment workers in Los Angeles, hotel workers in San Francisco, domestics and gardeners in Los Angeles, live in poverty and fear.
This system has been identified as the “new slavery.” As in the Old South, the slave next door has become an unremarkable part of the landscape, untroubled pulpit denunciation, campaign trail denunciation or editorial board comment. As in the Old South, California culture sees slaves and simply turns the other way.
Mass incarceration and the use of prison slave labor blossomed from 1880 to 1950 in the Old South. California’s prison population blossomed beginning in the mid-1990s. Today, the sale of prison labor is a billion dollar business.
San Francisco attorney Michelle Alexander identified Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill’s mass incarceration at the heart of what she described in detail as the New Jim Crow in a book of the same name.
Old Foes, Same Positions
Former Congressman Radonovich supports finding an alternative to the abuse of noncitizens. Canada has a viable guest worker program. Participants return to Canada for decades. Back home, they live middle class lives, buy homes and farms, and thrive.
On the other side stand Senator Camila Harris, Governor Gavin Newsom, the states elected Democrats and many corporate leaders.
California Slavery a Vulnerable Throwback
California’s political culture of exploitation is not attractive. It’s vulnerable. Working people are leaving. But, just as in the Old South, it’s being defended.
Today’s California is a throwback. As with the Old South, residents filter their reality to avoid the unpleasant.
Open borders drives this exploitive system. Why push for it?. Per Sen Bernie Sanders, before he switched in 2019 to supporting an open border: “In fact, the open-borders crowd sometimes comes embarrassingly close to making the kind of argument that was once deployed in defense of slavery . . . .” https://berniesanders.com/open-borders-a-gimmick-not-a…/
California is increasing identified with the Old South. It protects human labor trafficking and sale of prison labor. California feudalism features oligarchs, a large group of exploited people and not much in between.
Securing the Border is the First Step
California politics is the opposite of progressive. It is feudal and looks like the Jim Crow South of old boy networks that looked the other way at horrific realities.
A border porous drives this system. Cut off the supply of exploitable workers and it collapses. The Framers of the US Constitution understood that cutting off slave trafficking was the necessary first step to dismantling slavery. The same thing applies in the twenty-first century. Control of the border is one step. Punishing those who employ noncitizens is another.
Strong borders create strong communities, jobs and rising wages. California human labor trafficking destroys the American Dream.
Closing the border puts pressure on farmers and Republicans to find workable alternatives to exploiting noncitizens. Human labor trafficking is coming to an end.
Open borders drive a toxic system.