In The ’60s They Tried Using High School Jocks For Farm Labor
During World War II, the US had a major labor shortage, with a big chunk of the old workforce out fighting but the country still having to build stuff. You’ve all heard of one solution to this shortage: Many women started working for the first time. However, these women only totaled around two million, and that wasn’t enough.
Here’s one other solution the country turned to: pulling in new temporary workers from Mexico. This was called the Bracero program, and while this didn’t bring in that many workers in terms of numbers, it made a big difference in the industries where they worked. Braceros worked on farms and built railroads. The program continued in various forms even after the war ended, for two decades.
Then the program ended, and farms faced a labor shortage again. Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz came up with a solution. During the summer picking season, how about farms use high school students? They’re not doing much of anything during the summer, right? Specifically, farms could use high school athletes. Athletes are strong and bounding with energy, so they should be perfect for the job.
The government put out a publicity campaign to attract student athletes. “Farm work builds men!” it said, and they dubbed the project “A-TEAM”—Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower. In the end, most coaches forbade their players from taking part, since they should be spending their summers practicing. (The 1960s kids pictured above are just examples of the sorts who the government wanted for the program, not ones who actually joined it.) Tens of thousands of other students still signed up, though, and around 3,000 of them did end up employed as farm laborers.
They did not last long. Many soon quit, while others staged formal strikes. Picking cantaloupes is hard work and pays little. It’s a tough job even for an adult who needs the money—of course it never suited a kid who’s mostly in it just to build character. So the country scrapped the A-TEAM program, and quietly agreed to pretend they’d never come up with such a dumb idea. Yes, millions of American children still do work on farms, but at least we no longer give it a cute acronym.
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