Behind the placid, rural scenes of “happy” Holstein cows grazing on lush hillsides lies the raw reality of an industrialized dairy system that increasingly relies on hired immigrant labor to provide milk to the nation.
California, the nation’s largest dairy production state, has long relied on immigrant labor to milk its industrial cows arrayed primarily in massive factory operations. A similar immigrant labor structure now pervades milking operations in Wisconsin, “the dairy state,” and in Vermont, where labor traditionally provided by farm families themselves is rapidly and dramatically disappearing. The University of Wisconsin Program on Agricultural Technology Studies estimates that over 40 percent of that state’s 12,500+ workforce of hired dairy employees is comprised of immigrants, primarily from Mexico.
Dairy producers, including family farmers, are disarmingly clear in declaring their need for immigrant workers for their own survival, and a growing network of producers is flexing significant political strength in local jurisdictions and in support of AgJobs legislation and comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, both of which are critical to protecting immigrant agricultural workers. The demand for an open flow of immigrant dairy workers, however, will be—and should be—suspect, given the grueling and unconscionable history of immigrant exploitation in the U.S. agricultural sector, even with protections supposedly provided—but often unenforced—by public policy.
While many of the more politically active producers seem keen to provide immigrants fair wages, benefits, and housing, many questions remain unanswered—and unasked—about worker rights in an industry where they are scattered, frequently few in number, work long days and weeks with little time off, and are often based in remote sites with limited access to support systems. As is always the case, undocumented workers are most vulnerable to abusive employers who wish to take advantage of their status to extract the most labor for the least cost. The guarantee of worker rights for those who labor on dairy farms must be as strong and as enforceable as worker rights in any other industry, and any state that seeks to support, promote, and advance that industry and its producers must also support, promote, and advance the inherent rights of its workers.
Got milk? Not without immigrants and workers of color whose labor is, quite literally, the backbone of the U.S. food system.