Imagine working in temperatures exceeding 110 degrees for more than eight hours at a time. In the 1960s, the situation was exactly this for many migrant workers in the U.S., and it was one that many American legislators wanted to alleviate.
It was 1965 when U.S. Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz announced that he wanted to recruit 20,000 American high school students to replace the hundreds of thousands of Mexican agricultural workers currently laboring under the ill-fated Bracero program. It was a novel idea, though an ultimately an ill-conceived one.
The Bracero program began during World War II as an agreement between the United States and Mexican governments. Mexican men would come into the U.S. to pick harvests. Unfortunately, these migrant workers would suffer terrible living and working conditions and wage thefts. Thanks to the civil rights work of Cesar Chavez, the act ended in 1964.
The migrant workers’ problems were over for the time being, but the plight of American farmers was just beginning. The Mexican laborers had done the jobs American workers didn’t want to do. The end of the Bracero program meant that crops would rot in the fields before they were picked. It’s a problem that’s echoed today, but back then, the U.S. government had a plan.
This is where Secretary Wirtz comes in. He looked at the labor shortage on the farms and the lack of summer jobs American high school students seemed to have, especially in some of the more rural states. It was a perfect match. Wirtz would create a program that paid and provided cheap labor for American farmers.
He didn’t want nerds or geeks, or even girls, Wirtz wanted athletes. He wanted athletic young men who could do the work. He called the project “A-Team,” which stood for Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower. It seemed like a pretty solid solution at first glance, but issues arose almost from the start.
The Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness announced their A-Team plans over the radio and in magazines. They even got 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte to vouch for the program. Their goal was to lure as many high school boys as they could to join.
A Positive Light
Newspapers across the country showcased their local A-Teams with pride. People were signing up left and right, carried in buses out to American farmsteads. For as many media outlets who were on-board with the program, there were also a few skeptics. Many of whom cited that just because one is being paid for work, doesn’t mean they are going to enjoy doing it.
The Detroit Free Press was one such skeptic. The way they saw it, “Dealing with crops which grow close to the ground requires a good deal stronger motive than money or the prospect of a good workout.” They weren’t wrong, if the migrant workers had fought to get out of that very vocation, then what type of job were American students signing up for?
All Over America
Nevertheless, Wirtz’s scheme was strong from the get-go. About 18,000 American teenagers signed up to join the A-Team, though only about 3,300 were sent to pick crops. It was June when buses of students arrived on farms in California and Texas; two of the hottest states in the county.
One of those young men was Randy Carter, who would eventually become a member of the Director’s Guild of America. At the time though, he was a junior at the University of San Diego High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Southern California. He and 25 of his classmates signed up for the A-Team.
Interestingly enough, almost none of the recruits from Carter’s school were actually athletes. The coaches at his school didn’t want to send their best players to pick crops, they needed to get their practice days in. It was yet another indication that Wirtz’s program had problems right from the start.
The work began at dawn before the heat of the unforgiving sun could begin to bear down upon the young workers. The A-Team students went out into the field and felt the wind blowing across the plains, but then the sun came over the horizon. By the time it reached 9 am, the thermometer had skyrocketed to 110 degrees.
The farmers provided garden gloves for picking cantaloupe, which have sandpaper-like hairs on their surface. Unfortunately, the gloves only lasted about four hours. Student workers received $1.40 an hour for their services. And they earned an additional five cents for every crate filled with 30 to 36 melons.
Not only were the working conditions bad, so were the living conditions. The old army barracks where Carter and his classmates stayed were the same ones that the Mexican migrant workers had lived in. The barracks had no insulation, no air conditioning, and even once the heat of the day had died down, nighttime temperatures were still often in the 90s.
Breakfast for the A-Team was basically beans, eggs, and bologna sandwiches. They worked six days a week and had Sundays off. However, they were not allowed to return home during their stint as farm workers. They were forced to remain on the farm, living in the old army barracks and discarded internment buildings used for Japanese-Americans during World War II.
As you might expect, these problems were not limited to California. Similar issues arose nationwide. Hundreds of A-Team workers in California’s Salinas Valley quit after two weeks in the program. Some others worked only a few days before they staged strikes or went home.
Evidence of the grand experiment was sealed away, which is why many people have never actually heard about it. Regardless of the secrecy surrounding it, however, it represents an important lesson about the conditions that farm workers across the country face, even today. Stony Brook University history professor Lori A. Flores did research on the program for her 2016 book, “Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement.”
A Full-On Fiasco
Flores’ award-winning 2016 book reveals an important reality of the A-Team fiasco. “It’s not about work ethic for undocumented workers. It’s about the fact that this labor is not meant to be done under such bad conditions and bad wages,” she said.
She argues that the high school students who were involved in the program had, as she puts it, “The words and whiteness to say what they were feeling and could act out in a way that Mexican-Americans who had been living this way for decades simply couldn’t.” Neither the farmers nor the government could mask the conditions any longer.
Today, Randy Carter is a member of the Director’s Guild of America with a number of accolades in his long career in Hollywood. He’s worked as a first assistant director on Seinfeld, the Blues Brothers, and the Godfather II. But he’ll never forget the few weeks he spent working as a member of the ill-fated A-Team.
“We know the work they do,” Carter explained in an interview with NPR. “And they do it all their lives, not just one summer for a couple of months. And they raise their families on it. [Whenever] anyone ever talks bad on them, I always think, ‘Keep talking, buddy, because I know what the real deal is.’”