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Eric Schlosser's
"In the Strawberry Fields"

June 1996

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 this honor.

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.
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