[BELL RINGING] SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
SPEAKER 2: Welcome to Mann Library's Chats in the Stacks book talk series. In today's talk, originally given at Mann Library on Wednesday, April 2011, Cornell Assistant Professor of Latino Studies Ronald Mize and Ithaca College Assistant Professor of Sociology Alicia Swords highlight their research on the social relations that define how corporations, consumers, and states involve Mexican immigrant laborers in the politics of production and consumption. The result is a comprehensive and contemporary look at the important role that immigrants play in our economy.
ALICIA SWORDS: Thank you so much. Thanks, everybody, for coming out today. I want to thank especially the people from Mann Library, Mary and Lynn and I think some others behind the scenes whose names I don't even know, Eveline, who helped set this up today and do the publicity and make it all possible, make sure there were refreshments here. I think they also made sure there was a nice spring day. Thank you. We've been waiting for that.
As is true for many books, this day of the arrival of our book was a long time in the making. And so we're really excited to be here, to have you all here, and for you to get to meet us and our book. And we think our book comes at an important time. Mexican immigrants have been catching hell lately. From the illegal aliens campaign ads of Republicans Sharron Angle and David Vitter to the 20 states with laws copycatting Arizona's SB 1071, would assume that Mexican immigrants had committed a great offense.
But we've seen no mass exodus from the Mexican countryside, no rushing flood over the border. In fact, the undocumented population has decreased since the economic downturn. So why have the mainstream media returned to scapegoating immigrants? Why has the Arizona SB 1070 law gained such popularity, especially in states like Utah, Colorado, Virginia?
This law explicitly requires police to racially profile in inspection and detention those, quote, "where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States," quote unquote. Why, while they blame immigrants, is Meg Whitman, failed California gubernatorial candidate, and anti-immigrant media commentator Lou Dobbs hiring undocumented workers to tend to their multimillion-dollar residences? In our book, Consuming Mexican Labor, we ask who consumes and who profits from Mexican goods and services in North America.
In this neoliberal era, the social relations of production and consumption are deeply political and built, as always, upon the backs of workers. We write about how the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, has increasingly bound workers and consumers in all three NAFTA nations. In all three countries Mexican laborers are among the most marginalized, who do the hard work for little pay and little security in the consumer-driven economy.
Our research shows that from 1942 to the present, the largest consuming class in the world, US and Canadian citizens, shapes the conditions for labor migration and for the exploitative and marginalized production by Mexican immigrants that makes mass consumption possible in North America. As we document the relationship between production and consumption, we examine how a complex set of social actors, including transnational corporations, federal governments, nation-states, and consumers in the Global North drive the service economy through advertising, marketing, and the transnational corporate-led race to the bottom.
As the owners of capital and corporate shareholders operate the motor of mass consumption for massive profits, wealth concentrates in the hands of big businesses. Importantly, consumers also play a part in the profit machine, as too often they maintain exploitation by choosing particular products or services. If consumers do not collectively choose fair trade over exploitation, living wages over poverty wages, and socially responsible consumption over seemingly insatiable needs, then corporations march along, unfettered by consumers' latent power. For this reason, we discuss the exploitation of Mexican immigrant labor and aim to find alternatives to unjust production and consumption.
The clothes that we wear, the food we eat, the cars we drive, even the tobacco we smoke are increasingly the product of Mexican immigrant labor. US consumers spend nearly 80% of their income on products and services in which Mexican immigrant labor is concentrated. Housing is the largest expense. Although the largest part goes to companies that service home loan mortgages, Mexican laborers increasingly dominate the residential construction industry. Depending on how it's measured, between 20 and 24% of the labor market are Latino laborers. Food, which is 12.6% of average expenditures, is increasingly harvested by Mexican farmworkers, served by Mexican waitstaff, prepared by Mexican workers.
Understanding the link, then, between consumption and production is crucial if we're interested in effective remedies. So in the case of Mexican immigrant labor, there are many examples of consumer-driven exploitation-- day laborer, lawn care, housekeeping, child care, janitorial work, home health care, et cetera. In these cases there are no big businesses directly profiting, directly benefiting from exploitation in the same way as in the oligopolistic industries of meat packing and agribusiness. It's not surprising that media and political figures, like Lou Dobbs and Meg Whitman, employ Mexican workers that serve them, but at the same time support policies that exclude the very same people whose labor they seem to require.
Whether at Dobbs' horse ranch estate in Sussex, New Jersey, his winter holiday mansion in West Palm Beach, Florida, or the Whitmans' mansion in the Bay Area in the most affluent town of Atherton, California, the lifestyles of our nation's most affluent are often based on the labor of those most marginalized by a broken immigration system. When immigration is constantly reduced to a cost-benefit analysis for US consumption, dilemmas facing immigrants become nonissues. Today the so-called debate about immigration is reduced to countering the backlash of nativists and reclaiming the moral ground against criminalization, nativism, and vigilantism.
The debate on contemporary immigration policy has been limited to focus only on comprehensive reform that consists of more or less punishment, militarization, and criminalization. So I want to share an example today of the kind of transformative politics that we document in our book. This example, I think, explodes the debates on immigration and shows that politics based on human rights is possible.
This is a modern-day David and Goliath story, in which a small organization of farm workers in South Florida called the Immokalee Workers, rhymes with broccoli, gained international significance by forcing the fast food industry to respect the labor rights of tomato pickers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers formed in 1993 to address human rights abuses and poverty wages facing farm workers. When they identified Taco Bell as a major purchaser of their tomatoes, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers challenged Taco Bell's parent corporation, Yum Brands, to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes, $0.01 more per pound of tomatoes. The Immokalee Workers highlighted the fact that Mexican workers who provided the tomatoes for Taco Bell's tacos were not paid enough even to order from the $0.99 menu.
They then launched an ingenious campaign involving students, religious congregations, truth tours around the United States, very skillful use of the internet back when the internet wasn't quite as easy to access, especially for farm workers, and a hunger strike at the corporate headquarters of Yum Brands. Their modest demands doubled farm workers' annual pay, barely raising the cost of a burrito, but significantly framing farm workers' demands in terms of human rights. In 2005 Yum Brands agreed to the workers' demands, which were modest but precedent setting.
Since their success with Taco Bell, the farm workers have launched a full campaign for fair food. They secured agreements with McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Pacific Tomato Growers, Whole Foods, Bon Appetit, Sodexo, and Compass Food Service Companies. I dare you to find a tomato that they're not interested in.
On October 21 of this year, last year, the Immokalee Workers announced that the Six L's packing house agreed to pass on the penny per pound to the farm workers and to adopt the Immokalee Workers' code of conduct, which included a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process to ensure that farm workers themselves are active participants in the social responsibility efforts. Through systematic research of the tomato supply line, the Immokalee Workers learned to target every point in the journey from field to table, from growers and packing houses to distributors, restaurants, and supermarkets.
But the Immokalee Workers did not just target any brand. Yum Brands is a spin-off entity of guess who? The Pepsi Corporation, whose business strategy is emblematic of NAFTA-area development. NAFTA restructured the Mexican economy to promote foreign investment, free trade and production for global markets, but stopped supporting production to feed Mexicans, neglecting and displacing rural and Indigenous Mexicans.
So in this context, corporations like PepsiCo are raking in all-time record revenues by turning to cheap Mexican labor as well as by expanding markets in Mexico. For example PepsiCo's Gamesa brand sells the most cookies in Mexico. I think you can probably find them if you go looking at any corner store. And its Sabritas brand corners 80% of the snack chip market. You can find these in absolutely every corner store and kids playing on every street corner with the [SPANISH] that they sell in the Sabritas.
As former Detroit automakers Ford and General Motors move more operations to the Mexican border, they, too, follow the Pepsi NAFTA race to the bottom, aiming to maximize profits by minimizing labor costs and expanding their global market share. The politics of the Immokalee Workers in this way helps to blast open a debate that has otherwise been closed down. Their work shifts the terms of the debate to allow solutions that would otherwise be considered outside the realm of possibility. Substantive, comprehensive immigration reform requires considering the one group that has rarely been consulted in the history of immigration law. That is, immigrants themselves.
The problem, however, is that immigration reform has been deeply constrained. Much has been made of the Vitter and Angle ads that utilized images of three young Mexican men who were photographed in Mexico to characterize their Democratic opponents, Harry Reid and Charlie Melancon as best friends of illegals. The immigrant-bashing strategy worked for Vitter.
And even though Whitman and Angle lost, the terms of the debate have shifted. Immigration reform is now limited to countering age-old and nativist claims that lawless Mexicans are taking American jobs and tax dollars. In this context, the failing economy is explained as a result of a porous border. And comprehensive immigration reform gets reduced to a discussion of how much border militarization is required.
When Ronald Reagan visited Berlin in 1987, he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Ironically, at the same time, the United States was building its own wall to deter Mexican immigrants from entering the country. From the 1954 Operation Wetback to Gatekeeper or Hold the Line, increasing militarization of the border has led to thousands of lost lives, increased costs associated with clandestine crossings, and entry points shifted to more dangerous locations.
Yet undocumented immigration, until 2007, was at an all-time high. If the purpose of building walls and employing more border guards is to stop the flow of so-called illegal immigration, then these policies were complete and utter failures. The National Geographic Channel has attempted to normalize the militarization and border enforcement measures with their airing of a series, a new series called Border Wars.
Not a single politician has spoken out against more border enforcement. In this context, we wonder if any policymakers are considering options to actually deal with the illegal immigration problem that US consumption has created. We're wondering which foreign dignitary will visit the US-Mexican border and will chide a future US president to tear down this wall. We're not willing to wait. President Obama, fellow people of the world, tear down this wall.
RONALD MIZE: So it's difficult for us to figure out the best way to introduce 300 pages of material in less than 60 minutes. And in some ways we wanted to provide a specific story that connects to what we wrote about in the book. But in the time that I have, what I want to try to share with you is a little bit of the general contours of the book and what we try to do in the allotted 275 pages that we were given.
So I just want to say very briefly, it's really nice to see familiar faces, and even just as nice to see new faces that I don't recognize in the room. So it's been a long year or two years. So this has been really-- it's been long, multiple years, but a long two years. And I'm glad that I'm able to be here with you all today. Glad to be anywhere at this point, right?
All right, so I'm going to read a little bit from the book itself and give you a sense of what we try to do in the most general of ways. So why people move is a perennial question that has intrigued the social sciences since their origins in the European enlightenment. When the first political economists, from Adam Smith to David Ricardo to John Stuart Mill, sought to understand the shift from traditional to modern society, rural to urban migration was already present. But it was not central to their explanation of these forces of socioeconomic change.
Yet the relevance of migration, both rural to urban and international, to the advent of capitalism cannot be understated, nor can the preoccupation with immigration by scholars who sought to explain this great transformation. In many ways, Karl Marx was the first, in his discussion of the industrial reserve army of surplus labor, to understand the ways in which predominantly Irish proletarians were migrating to Europe or to England's industrializing cities. In a much different political context, Ravenstein's Laws of Migration were the first attempt to define the push and pull factors in a general theory of population distribution in 1889.
I want to go back to Marx for a second, though, because for Marx, the shift from feudalism to capitalism, which is experienced by the English peasantry, is a shift from an agricultural subsistence lifestyle to the factory life of a wage laborer. And, in fact, the industrial proletariat or the working class was formed by the displaced peasants who migrated to the city in search of wages. An often neglected but extremely important element of the process of proletarianization is the massive, massive movement of people that is required in order to meet the labor demands of capitalists.
The so-called freedom of the peasantry that Marx talks about consisted of a rural to urban migration that cut the ties that bound them to the feudal lords. Concurrently, this freedom also required migrants to find new means of subsistence. This new need gave rise to the wage laborer, the growth of cities, and the capitalist mode of factory production.
In addition to the rural to urban migration, international migration also played a key factor in the development of capitalist social relations in Britain. Migration is important because it maintains the ability of capitalists to reproduce their workforce over time. According to Marx, he states, "We have heard how overwork has thinned the ranks of the bakers in London. Nevertheless, the London labor market is always overstocked with German and other candidates for death in the bakeries."
He expands this analysis in his chapter in Capital entitled-- or the chapter's entitled "The General Law of Accumulation," into what has become now known as his industrial reserve army thesis. He sees the working class as being in competition for jobs with the unemployed sectors of society, which he terms the surplus population. And his description of this surplus population, I think, has a much more limited application in contemporary times. Nevertheless, I think it's relevant that in this era of neoliberal globalization, migrants from less industrialized nations move to fill the worst jobs available in advanced capitalist societies.
Today we are impelled to examine the experiences of Mexican labor immigrants within the political economy of neoliberalism, the policies and practices that privileged free markets to govern political and economic relations. Migrants have responded very creatively to the evisceration of the public sphere in the United States and Mexico, and increasingly a precariousness in Canada. And we try to talk about all three nations in our hemispheric approach. In response to this evisceration, migrants send remittances while forming hometown associations, immigrant rights organizations, and worker centers. And in this way, their adaptability has facilitated development and some stability, even in inherently unstable and marginal social locations.
We look to a number of literatures to try to understand this new times in which we are trying to situate Mexican immigrants. And for us, what becomes central is understanding this relationship between consumption, both material and symbolic, and production. We go to the work of transnational anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who's been, I think, particularly helpful and generative in theorizing the production-consumption linkage that best explains the process that brings Mexicans to the United States and the vital services they are producing that are both dependent upon and bolstered by providing cheap labor inputs to US consumption practices.
Finally, we posit that the role of the state in both in US and Canada and Mexico cannot be understated in the shaping of Mexican labor migration to meet the wants of US consumers and the industry's demands for cheap, exploitable labor. Here, the increasing precariousness of the Canadian welfare state means fewer protections are in place, as the social contract is eroded in favor of hemispheric trade agreements, transnational corporate dominance, and an immigration system that is increasingly providing temporary labor for firms catering to consumers' tastes. The dual role of the state and direct employer recruitment in both constructing and managing immigrant labor markets shape the social networks that migrant scholars-- migration scholars often view as so important in sustaining these migrant streams over time.
So when we look at migration today of Mexican immigrants, we look at it not as a binational phenomena, but really understanding it within its regional context and ultimately its hemispheric context. We see production and consumption as deeply political processes. And in an increasingly neoliberal era, they are both built upon the backs of those whose labor makes them possible.
The ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement has increasingly bound the production and consumption practices of each nation to one another. In all three NAFTA nations it is the most marginalized, the Mexican laborers, who do the hard work of production for the consumer-driven economy. We identify our work within a scholarly literature that's very widely varied in its approaches. But again, Appadurai's work on consumption is really our beginning point. And this is where we actually have some problems and some departures from them.
Appadurai argues that consumption is the hardest work, the hardest sort of work, the work of the imagination. And we thought about this a long time. And I think Alicia was much more compelled to respond to this than I initially was. And I think our response, I think, was actually quite helpful, so arguing that consumption is the hardest sort of work, the work of the imagination.
It seems egregious to us to claim consuming imaginations are the hardest sort of work when compared to the sheer dangers associated with backbreaking physical, manual labor in construction, day labor, farming, mining, and factory jobs. Even in the service sector, the face work needed to maintain subservient roles in power relations, along with the arduous aspects of cleaning, child care, landscaping, repetitive service tasks, and often stroking the egos of the privileged is certainly more taxing than the mental work of consuming imaginations.
Clearly consumption is built upon the backs of those who produce goods and services. And to privilege the work of consumption belies the social relations that shape both consumption and production. Appadurai often avoids this dialectic by stating that this labor is not principally targeted at the production of commodities, but is directed at producing the conditions of consciousness in which buying can occur, this notion of the consuming imagination.
Yet to seriously consider the social life of commodities and services, one must clearly attend to both sides of the equation, production and consumption, and identify the expropriation of labor from the producers for the betterment of a privileged group of capitalists and consumers. The work of wanting to buy more things or figuring out the means of financing to purchase these items is the goal of the finance and culture industries. And consumers clearly must engage in this.
But too often those who produce the goods and services falls out of frame. Laborers are often observed through a camera obscura, whereby production labor is either rendered invisible or callously disregarded. And too often the self-centered focus on consumers and on the satisfying of one's own wants to the direct expense of others ignores the conditions of production and capital accumulation, the exploitation of laborers, and the treatment of workers as disposable bodies.
Unfortunately, Appadurai's approach to consumption basically lets consumers off the hook and does not critically challenge them to consider the social origins of the goods and services they consume. And that's ultimately what we attempt to do in this book. So from 1942 to the present, we analyze the relations of Mexican laborers in relation to consumption as ultimately constituting a triad that includes capital accumulation, labor exploitation, and consumption practices in the making of Mexican labor for North American consumption.
The central thesis of our book is that the current consumption level of the North American population rests squarely, though clearly not exclusively on the backs of Mexican labor. In every region of the United States and increasingly in Canada and in Mexico, the particular usurpation of Mexican labor constructs relational forms of inequality that unjustly enrich and overcomfort North American capitalists and consumers. In this post-Fordist era of flexible specialization and consumer-driven capitalism, a great deal of work by capitalists goes into shaping consumers' wants and tastes for the sole purpose of maximizing profits.
But at the same time, consumers often directly-- oh, I already did this part. I'm sorry-- often directly employ Mexican workers and exploit low-wage immigrant labor in order to improve their own quality of life. That's where the little star is, don't read this part, because Alicia was going to cover this sorry.
ALICIA SWORDS: It's OK.
RONALD MIZE: So we're just reiterating that is, in fact, the central thesis. Pardon me. But in addition to looking at this equation of production and consumption, we also want to recognize that Mexican workers themselves are not passively operating in a full mode of exploitation. We also spend as much time on these processes as understanding the social movements and resistances American workers, often in collaboration with other community members and often across racial lines, that reveal the possibilities for building and rebuilding community and for imagining and constructing new forms of economic relations of production and consumption that are not based on the systematic physical and emotional violence of exploitation. Not only are Mexican workers not the problem in North America, they are often playing leading roles in creating innovative solutions.
OK, so I think there was some time that we wanted to share for question and answer. And we're happy to get into many more of the details of the book. We wanted to at least try to offer a cursory glance of it. And at this point we'll entertain any questions you all have for us. Thank you.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
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Mexican migration is a highly contentious issue in the eyes of many North Americans, and every generation seems to construct the northward flow of labor as a brand new social problem.
In a Chats in the Stacks book talk at Mann Library on April 20, 2011, Cornell professor of Latino studies Ronald Mize and Ithaca College professor of sociology Alicia Swords highlight research presented in their new book to explore the social relations that define how corporations, consumers, and states involve Mexican immigrant laborers in the politics of production and consumption. The result is a comprehensive and contemporary look at the important role that immigrants play in our economy.