"In the Strawberry Fields"
On May 16, 1996, Eric Schlosser received a Sidney Hillman
Foundation award for his article "In the Strawberry Fields,"
which was published in the November, 1995, issue of The Atlantic
Monthly. In the words of the Foundation: "These annual awards recognize
journalists, writers and public figures who pursue social justice and
public policy for the common good." Schlosser delivered the following
remarks upon accepting the award in New York City.
I'D like to thank the judges and the Sidney Hillman Foundation for
My article looked at the growing reliance on illegal immigrants in
the California strawberry industry. But the exploitation of illegals and
the use of illegals to undermine trade unions has become a nationwide
phenomenon. Much the same article could have been written about the role
of illegals throughout this country in construction, in light
manufacturing, in restaurants, in hotels, in the garment industry.
The answer does not lie in fortifying the border. That is a futile,
impossible task. The answer lies in guaranteeing decent wages and working
conditions for all workers in the United States.
Nearly sixty years ago Sidney Hillman was instrumental in securing
the passage of legislation designed to achieve those very goals. The Fair
Labor Standards Act established for the first time a nationwide minimum
wage. The law aimed not only to raise the wages of America's poorest
workers but also to eliminate sweatshops and sweated labor. It sought to
punish employers who thrived by exploiting their workers.
The combination of union activity and federal enforcement of the
labor laws had great effect. The drive against sweated labor
was largely successful--until recently. Twenty years ago there were about
two hundred illegal sweatshops in New York City. Today there are
literally thousands of illegal sweatshops in this city; perhaps three
thousand, according to The New York Times. In the current
anti-union climate and in the absence of any vigorous enforcement of the
labor laws, it is the good employers -- those who are paying their workers
decent wages and offering benefits -- who are being punished.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Sidney Hillman's death.
The progressive ideals he cherished are more relevant today, and more
endangered, than at any other time since the Great Depression. If the
current anti-labor trends are not reversed, in the near future the United
States will not have to import a peasantry.
We will have created our own.
Also by Eric Schlosser: "Refeer Madness"
and "Marijuana and
the Law," the two-part Atlantic article that won the 1995
National Magazine Award for Reporting.
Copyright © 1996 by Eric Schlosser. All rights reserved.