Stephen Colbert to Congress: The Invisible Hand of the Market Doesn’t Want to Pick Beans

Lindsay Beyerstein

Stephen Colbert, host of the satirical Colbert Report on Comedy Central, last Friday testified in character before a House Judiciary subcommittee on his experience as a temporary migrant farm worker. Colbert, who plays a blowhard right-wing talk show host, arranged to work alongside farm workers for a day as part of the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) Take Our Jobs’ campaign.

Since Colbert’s appearance, the chattering classes have exhausted themselves debating whether Colbert’s appearance was appropriate. It’s easier to debate Washington protocol than to think about the serious issues Colbert raised in his testimony.

The point is, we have to do something, because I am not going back out there,” Colbert said of his day in the fields, stooping to pick beans in the hot sun, At this point, I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.”

I’m a free-market guy. Normally, I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market, but the invisible hand of the market has already moved over 84,000 acres of production and over 22,000 farm jobs to Mexico, and shut down over a million acres of U.S. farm land due to lack of available labor,” Colbert said. Because apparently, even the invisible hand doesn’t want to pick beans.”

In other words, the government had better do something to ensure that we have a stable agricultural workforce, otherwise even more jobs will be shipped overseas. Amazingly, Americans aren’t clamoring to work in an sector defined by low wages, non-existent job security, dismal occupational health and safety, backbreaking physical labor, and no right to unionize outside the state of California. 

The UFW’s Take Our Jobs campaign is a brilliant piece of postmodern PR in its own right. Obviously, any union would like to represent more people, but the real point of offering farm jobs is to have the American public rebuff them, despite massive unemployment.

The ultimate goal of the campaign is to raise awareness about the AgJOBS bill, which the UFW helped to negotiate. AgJOBS has been a high priority for the UFW for years. If the bill becomes law, it would give undocumented farm workers who are already in the United States the right to stay in the country and work toward legal status, provided they continue to work in agriculture.

UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez also testified before the subcommittee on Friday. Rodriguez note that least 50 percent of farm workers are not authorized to work in the United States, according to U.S. government statistics. If all unauthorized workers were deported today, society would have to recruit at least a million citizens and legal residents to replace them.

A mass deportation of agricultural workers would cause the collapse of the agricultural industry as we know it,” Rodriguez said. As of last Friday, the UFW’s Take Our Jobs” campaign has lined up 7 new American farm workers.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who opposes the proposed labor reforms for undocumented farm workers, said at the hearing that the real problem is not that Americans won’t work, it’s that employers won’t pay. Americans will harvest produce, King maintained, they just want to be paid a respectable wage” to do it. No kidding, congressman.

Colbert should invite King on his show to do the next edition of The Word. King’s got the disingenuous right-wing blowhard schtick down pat.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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