Labor Department official Jim Mooney among honorees for farmworker efforts

Jim Mooney was born in Brooklyn, not necessarily the place that comes to mind for an agricultural specialist.

But something about farmworkers appealed to him. In the 1970s, as a wage and hours inspector for the Department of Labor in southern New Jersey, he found himself volunteering for farm inspections when others wouldn’t. He was struck by the workers’ challenging lives, the way they toiled for hours in summer heat for low pay, the way their children changed schools repeatedly as their parents moved from farm to farm.

“They were just hardworking people, and I really felt like they needed somebody,” Mooney said.

In 1980, he was in Labor’s first class of 22 farm labor specialists, his mission to help improve working conditions for the country’s farmhands. Today, Mooney is the last member of that original class still on the job, a distinction that helped earn him induction this week into the agency’s Hall of Honor.

He was among several leaders, organizers and bureaucrats recognized as pioneers of the Farm Worker Movement.

“I’m proud to have one of the movement’s pioneers on my staff,” Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said during Monday’s ceremony. “Thank you, Jim, for being here today and for your lifetime of advocacy for our farmworkers.”

Money is the department’s regional agriculture coordinator for the Northeast. His district runs from the tobacco fields of southern Virginia to the blueberry flats of Maine.

Mooney remembers some of the bigger violations he has found. The Labor Department levies fines that average $3,000 to $5,000 per case, Mooney said, but one New Jersey farmer would stomach the fines and continue to house workers in poor conditions rather than make more expensive investments in the farm. Mooney was part of a team that examined every possible violation on the farm. The team levied a $37,000 fine.

“He signed a consent agreement to pay the majority of the penalty and built a brand new camp to get off the repeat violators list,” Mooney said.

For all the progress made, problems persist, he said. Just two years ago Mooney and his team found a farm with a camp capacity for about 230 farmworkers. They stopped counting at 800.

“There were people living in tents, in the beds of their pickup trucks and in drainage pipes,” Mooney said.

Lately, Mooney has found farm labor contractors more willing to approach him for guidance. They sometimes ask him to check their farms to determine whether they are unwittingly violating labor laws. That never happened when he started. Some farm labor contractors want to avoid fines, but others find better conditions make better farmers, Mooney said.

For the past 10 years, Mooney has sponsored donation drives for the farmworkers. He coordinates collections with Labor’s district offices. Drives can help gather canned foods, clothes and sometimes furniture.

Eleven years ago, Mooney became something of a farmer himself when he bought an 18- acre pine grove in northwestern New Jersey. He sells Christmas trees as a hobby.

Mooney wiped away tears as Solis spoke of the achievements of the leaders of the California grape boycott of the 1960s, when farmers went on strike in California demanding better wages.

“Over the years I’ve had occasions to meet and talk to and interview hundreds if not thousands of farmworkers. And I can sort of relate to the plight of the grape pickers after all the farmers that I’ve seen over the years,” Mooney said.

Mooney, 59, had open heart surgery nine weeks ago to replace an aortic valve.

“I could have retired,” he said, “but I was looking forward to getting back to work. I was glad that I had surgery in the winter because I wouldn’t have been out in the field as often. But now I will be.”

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