''I've wondered why more attention wasn't paid to the fact that just in the last apple harvest up in New England, that after they sent thousands of letters of solicitation to unemployed Americans, then you saw pictures of the planes coming in from Jamaica, unloading the people to pick apples . . . because unemployed Americans wouldn't do it. The plain truth of the matter is that there are some jobs in this country that we couldn't provide for ourselves, even with our great unemployment.''m
- President Ronald Reagan
An old argument, the President's. He voiced it to support another attempt to revive the discredited bracero program, which provided farm employers an unlimited supply of cheap, docile, and captive Mexican labor betwen 1942 and 1964. Growers, their governmental allies, and corporate interests with stakes in farming had argued then that imported workers are needed because ''Americans won't do stoop labor.''
High unemployment in the United States led Congress to kill the bracero program. Though unemployment is more extensive now, it has not deterred grower interests from trying to return to what were their good old days.
They're aiming at modification of the so-called H-2 program the federal government began after the bracero program died. It allows growers to import foreign workers, but under restrictions that have made it unattractive to most employers. Growers in California and in other major Southwest farm states have turned to the poverty-stricken Mexicans who pour across their borders illegally, desperately eager to accept whatever pay and working conditions offered them.
With the pending Simpson-Massoli immigration bill threatening to curb the flow of illegal aliens, growers are lobbying hard for revisions in the H-2 program, which would enable them to import Mexican workers as easily as they could under the bracero program - and to exploit them as easily. They could recruit workers directly from abroad without going through the US government and largely ignore current restrictions against employment of foreigners having an ''adverse effect'' on US workers.
What else can they do, President Reagan surely would ask, since ''Americans won't do stoop labor?''
Well, consider those unemployed people in New England - Vermont it was - who allowed Jamaicans to take those apple-picking jobs last year.
Workers were promised just $3.54 an hour for the month-long harvest. They theoretically could have made more, since the Vermont growers, like those elsewhere, use the 19th-century piece-rate system that drives workers to a feverish pace by offering greater rewards to the swift. The average picker, however, manages no better than seven bushels an hour - $3.50 at most by piece rate. Even the swiftest workers rarely pick more than 10 bushels - a gross of $5 an hour.
And what must pickers do for $3.54 to $5? Clamber rapidly up tall ladders, reach out precariously and grab apples of the proper size and quality, and then drop them carefully into sacks hanging about their waists so as not to bruise them.
There's this, too: Growers must appeal for local workers 80 days before their harvest in order to qualify for the foreign workers they prefer - workers who can be sent home if they protest their conditions. And growers do not make payments to the social security and unemployment-insurance benefit funds, as they must for US workers.
Thus Vermont's jobless - offered only a month's work and pay not much higher than unemployment benefits - were asked in July if they would be available to pick apples in September. It's hardly surprising that they said no to the growers, while Jamaicans, who make as much in a week at home as they make in an hour in Vermont's orchards, said yes.
It's no surprise, either, that hundreds of Jamaicans picked apples this fall in West Virginia. Growers there, as others who use the H-2 program, offer as little to local workers as do the Vermont growers.
It's also obvious, however, that Americans will do ''stoop labor.'' Who is it that cleans our sewers and collects our garbage? Who are the cement masons, who spend virtually the entire workday on their knees; our roofers who work with scalding hot tar all day; our steelworkers?
They, of course, are Americans who are treated with dignity, paid a decent wage, given decent working conditions, and not thrown into competition with desperate foreign workers.