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Better late than never?

18 October 2008

Yes, I know the wheels of justice turn slowly, but this is one of those legal cases where the plaintiffs and defendants have basically died of old age waiting for the settlement.

People only have from now until 23 December to present documentation that they worked as a Bracero between 1942 and 1946 to be included in a possible settlement of the unpaid ten percent set-aside that Braceros should have received for their work in the United States during the Second World War.  There is a Mexican government fund, paying out 38,000 pesos to braceros (or their heirs) in compensation.  It’s not a lot, but at this point, it’s probably the best that can be hoped for.

When Mexico declared war on the Axis Powers in May 1942, it was really in no position to provide much in the way of troops.  However, Mexican workers were recruited for the war effort, to keep U.S. farms, factories and railroads running (and to free up manpower in the United States).  This created huge labor shortages within Mexico itself, which was also rapidly industrializing to meet war time needs:  Mexican labor law at the time forbade night-shifts in industrial plants, but third-shifts were allowed to meet the emergency.  And, Mexico’s own version of Rosie the Riveter, The Women’s Workers’ Corp (who had their own uniforms) later formed the vanguard of a Mexican women’s sufferage movement.

Under the Bracero Agreement, the workers were supposed to receive ten percent of their salary after the war.  This never happened… either because the money was lost or stolen by Mexican banks, or U.S. banks.  Or… just as likely… it was error on the part of participants.  Farmers and managers in the U.S. didn’t always understand the program, and didn’t keep accurate records (and sometimes just didn’t understand Mexican surnames — assuming Jose Gonzales Sanchez and Jose Sanchez Gonzales were the same person, for example).  And, there was widespread exploitation.  The Braceros were supposed to be free to elect their own representatives but there was no oversight and — as in California agricultural enterprises — the owners assigned their own representatives without any regard for the workers’ rights.

Compensation has been a sore point for years.  The aging veterans at one point occupied Vicente Fox’s farm.  Much to the consternation of Fox’s equally ancient mother, his bodyguards were not about to rough up a bunch of grand-dads.  The war-time program continued into the 1960s, but the non-World War II era braceros are considered a different class under this lawsuit and their compensation claims are handled differently.

Several U.S. banks — notably Wells-Fargo when it assumed the debts of several banks in the last round of U.S. bank consolidation — have owned up to their failures and contributed to a Mexican government compensation fund, which the Mexican congress voted to set up to settle these claims.  It is payments from that fund that are in question in  Senorino Ramirez Cruz, et al. v. United States of America, et al, No. 01-0892-CRB, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California.

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