April 6 - April 12, 1995

Hydroponic Hustlers

Arizona Taxpayers Gave The Dutch Company Of Dalsem-Kassenbouw $600,000--So Is This Any Way To Treat Arizona Workers?

By Jeff Smith

IT'S NO FUN being an illegal alien. This isn't merely a statement of fact; it's a song. For those of you who remember Cat Stevens before he became this Death-to-the-great-Satan Muslim, it was one of his ditties.

I can sing the tune in Spanish, which is generally appropriate and generally all too true, but I don't know the words to it in Dutch, which is almost inexcusable on my part on account of my mom was Dutch.

But no matter, translated into Dutch the song loses much of its meaning. For one thing, Dutch wetbacks are harder to spot than your standard brown types, because they look just like regular white people. Except for the shoes. Look for wooden shoes. I'm not talking Dr. Scholl's sandals, I mean the genuine article, with the pointy-up toes. Since the INS has been cracking down on mojados from Holland, the boys have gone native, investing in Air Jordans and so forth, but nose around where they live and spend their leisure time and you'll find the evidence. No shit.

For another thing, your Dutch wetback has a guaranteed job, at a living wage, and a support system that sees to his housing, feeding, feeling of home and companionship, transportation...and those niggling little legal expenses that crop up when your unwitting and unwilling host nation gets tipped to the fact that you and your bosses are ripping off the American public.

Taken all around, being a Dutch wetback is sort of like being a G.I. in post-war Germany. Kind of a paid vacation, in a country where you can hide out all right until you open your mouth, and the foreign accent and the alien cultural values become manifest in an instant.

But what does any of this have to do with you and me--cultured, politically curious readers of alternative news weeklies that we are? We eat tomatoes, don't we? Anybody who eats tomatoes, believes in truth, justice and the American way, and cares about a fair shake for the American worker, needs to hear my little tale of the lads in the wooden shoes.

Our story begins in April of last year. Toward the end of that month ads ran in the help wanted section of the Star and Citizen classifieds, asking for heating engineers and construction workers to build a 10-acre greenhouse near Bonita, north of Willcox in the Sulphur Springs Valley. The construction workers were offered $15.70 an hour, and the heating engineers--essentially a high-tech way of saying plumbers and pipe-fitters--were to be paid $18.50.

So Wayne Bryant and a bunch of his co-workers called the number listed in the ad and set up initial telephone interviews with the local honcho for the company running the show, a Dutch firm named Dalsem-Kassenbouw. Each time the head cheese answered the phone he said, "Hi, (your name here), this is Johan Van Den Berg, vice president of Bonita Nurseries."

I know. I read transcripts of several of these initial phone interviews, and each followed a scripted list of questions from Van Den Berg. And why would transcripts of these interviews exist?

Because Wayne Bryant and his buddies are union plumbers, welders and pipe-fitters and prior to these interviews with Van Den Berg they'd begun to suspect the runaround. If there's one thing even more no-fun than being an illegal alien, it's being a union man in a right-to-work state like Arizona. It's tough enough competing with the indigenous scab labor force: fighting with wetbacks for a few plumbing and construction jobs at decent wages is guaranteed to put the Joe Hill Choir at full-song.

The burden of Van Den Berg's questions over the phone and his follow-up responses by mail was whether the applicants were familiar and experienced with something called The Tichelman System.

The applicants replied they had not heard the name.

Van Den Berg said therefore they were not familiar with the Tichelman System and could not meet the minimum prerequisite of two years' experience in greenhouse construction using the Tichelman System.

The applicants asked if the Tichelman system was a Dutch system.

Van Den Berg said it was.

The applicants asked Van Den Berg to describe the system so they could tell whether it corresponded to work they'd done in America under other names.

Van Den Berg said that would take too long.

The applicants described their broad range of experience in all types of welding and pipe-fitting, from carbon steel to stainless steel to space-age plastics, at installations from municipal water works to Biosphere II.

Van Den Berg simply reiterated his prerequisite of two years' experience in a system known specifically in Holland. He did this by phone, then by mail--inviting applicants to drive over to Willcox to interview in person, if they still insisted.

Then, when they did, he ultimately turned them all down as unqualified.

Wayne Bryant and Local 741 of the plumbers and pipe-fitters union were pissed.

Of course they were jacked over the tiptoe-through-the-tulips they'd been given from classified ad to picnic trip to Bonita, but Wayne Bryant has been down that road before and knows most of the tricks of the trade. He went to work on a background check of Dalsem-Kassenbouw and learned bunches of fascinating stuff:

Like the fact that D-K has similar greenhouse operations growing beefsteak tomatoes in Pennsylvania and other states.

Like the fact that D-K obtained low-interest loans from the state of Arizona, totaling $600,000, on the strength of its pledge to create at least 40 new jobs for local residents.

Like the fact that the first 10-acre greenhouse, then the next, and a projected 40 acres more of the same, are constructed of materials imported from Holland.

Like the fact that the fertilizers used continually to grow these high-dollar tomatoes are also imported from Holland.

And what especially chapped the local union boys' asses: the fact that the workers who built the greenhouses and installed the hydroponic irrigation and vine-growing systems were Dutch employees--many of them apprentices at slave-wages--of the corporate family of Dalsem-Kassenbouw, and that they were smuggled into the U.S. and from state to state and job to job...illegally.

Wetbacks. Mojados. Illegal aliens, undocumented workers, foreign-exchange students, pick your favorite politically correct euphemism, these sneaky furriners were ripping off the American taxpayer and the local labor force.

And after raising 99 kinds of by-the-book bureaucratic hell, Bryant and the union guys concluded the Dutch were getting away with it, too.

So they began bugging the press about it. Initially, all the press reports of the greenhouse tomato project from the land of the dike and the tulip--that's Holland, not northern California--were the customary, glowing reports in the business sections of the local dailies. Essentially public relations puff about how big and how leading-edge, and how fat and red and tasty the deadly nightshade, and how much MONEY, oh the cash-flow...to the local economy. Not a discouraging word heard about how tightly the Dutch were keeping their purchasing in-house and off-shore, and where the corporate profits were being banked and taxed...

...and the skies were not cloudy all day.

And by the way, those 40 jobs fluttered like a tart's hanky before the state Department of Commerce folks who approved the $600,000 in loans to the Dutch: They turned out to be minimum wage jobs, picking and packing.

I sidled over and spoke to the shift foreman of the packing crew, the day I visited Bonita Nurseries with Wayne and Philo Nichols, a union man from nearby Sunsites. The foreman was a local boy, a lucky man who had one of the handful of job-creations that isn't of the 'You want fries with that?' class. He said,

"These Dutch guys are some businessmen, boy."

Indeedy do. From the folks who brought you South Africa.

I edged away from this friendly son of the Sulphur Springs Valley, so as not to taint him with the stench of the Fourth Estate and poison his future with the Hollanders. Finally, after waiting through two Dr. Peppers from the soda machine, I was greeted by a functionary from the front office, who asked, in Dutch-accented English, what my errand was and was I with this other gentleman (Philo Nichols, whom he recognized from an earlier visit for a job interview, and whom he did not appear pleased to see a second time).

I said I was a newspaperman from Tucson and wished to speak with Mr. Van Den Berg.

"About what?" he inquired, and I said about the company's future construction and operation plans and the employment plans pertaining to that anticipated construction and operation.

He went away and came back another Dr. Pepper later and said, "We see no advantage in speaking to you."

I SEE HIS POINT. In the four months since my visit to Bonita Nurseries, Wayne Bryant and the lawyers and secretaries of Local 741 have worked their fannies to the bone, filling the phone lines with faxes, the airways with certified letters, and my ears with intelligence regarding the Dutch tomato barons. And the response of our local politicians, congressional delegation and state and federal bureaucrats to all of this?

The first reactions, documented in thick files forwarded to me by Wayne, was essentially:

We don't know anything about anything out of order by any of these people, so we must assume that they've filled out all the proper forms with some other agency. Thank you for your interest. Now go away.

Nobody with a political name that might be tarnished wanted to touch this one with a plastic pole.

Finally, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in response to constant nagging from the union boys, raided the construction sites and bagged 14 Dutch workers with no legal answer for why they were here and doing what they were doing.

But no action was taken.

Wayne Bryant returned to Bonita a few weeks after the June visit by the INS investigators, and found several of the same Dutch illegals back at work again.

I went with him in October and we saw some of those guys working on the next 10-acre greenhouse under construction. Wayne recognized them, and they recognized him. One of them stopped my truck and wanted to know what I was doing there. I told him I was a member of the press corps, but he looked right through me to Wayne and Philo.

"You're the union men," he said.

"Where is John Van Den Berg?" I asked.

"He has gone back to Holland," he said.

In fact, Johan Van Den Berg was much closer than Amsterdam: he was in his office at Bonita Nurseries, about a half-mile away. We found him there--though, as stated, he saw no advantage in speaking to us--five minutes later.

But first we stopped by the front of one of the crew's trailer, and shot some pics of the wooden shoes sitting on the doorstep.


FINALLY WAYNE'S NINE months of being a pain in the ass are beginning to pay off. The U.S. Attorney's office and the INS have continued their investigation into the labor practices of Dalsem-Kassenbouw and Bonita Nurseries and have arrested five more wetbacks at the newer construction site. Three of them were Mexicans, two of them Dutch. Whoopee.

The barn door may be closed but the horse is long gone. The greenhouses are essentially finished and, Wayne Bryant estimates, half a million bucks in potential wages to American workers has been lost.

Still, Dalsem-Kassenbouw told the Arizona Department of Commerce that as much as 40 acres more of steel and glass greenhouses might be built on the firms 300-acre farm site in the future.

Could the investigative efforts of Wayne and Philo and the rest pay off in high-dollar jobs for qualified American workers at future construction sites?

Or was all that talk of 40-acre expansion just so much prick-teasing to sweet-talk Fife's folks into a low-rate loan?

Will Wayne and Philo ever wind up welding pipes for Johan Van Den Berg, and laughing over Heinekens at Miller Time? Or will the arrogance and brass balls that gave the world apartheid and minority rule bring back those wetbacks from the Zuider Zee to build more greenhouses and get out before the Border Patrol can nab them?

Stay tuned.

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April 6 - April 12, 1995

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