ather like some ponderous tribal potentate, Raymond (Beaver) Campbell was lying sleepy-eyed on a king-sized bed covered with a baby blue spread, ignoring the blare of a daytime quiz show on the color TV that sat next to a high stack of cases of grape soda.
Beaver's empire lay outside his little room. A Lincoln Continental automobile. Two blue-and-silver buses with the word "Beaver" scripted into the glass-covered destination marker above the windshield. Pickup trucks with Florida license plates.
Around the unpainted shacks-- hovels, really, holding five and six people in a single room-- Beaver Campbell's subjects were milling. A tape player rocked the camp with disco music. Black children skittered about, chattering in English and Creole.
The work day had just ended and this was the scene at one of the dozens of migrant labor camps on Virginia's Eastern Shore, where as many as 3,000 itinerant workers have been harvesting the potato, tomato and cucumber crop throughout the summer. At least another 3,000 or more (no one is certain) have spent the season in Maryland and Delaware.
Up and down the Virginia-Maryland-Delaware peninsula in June, July and August the view is the same. Armies of migrants come in from the South to work the fields and while away their idle hours in the camps. Men like Beaver Campbell are genuine potentates in this milieu.
Campbell is a farm labor contractor. Crew chief, in the vernacular. Around the country there are about 8,000 of them, some of whom are immensely wealthy and always, in the American migrant labor system, powerful figures.
Their work is controversial, for the stories of abuse and mistreatment of the migrant crews are legion. Just last week, the National Lawyers Guild released a study asserting that crew leaders frequently use force and threats of force to keep migrants in their camps in North Carolina. Federal investigators said they were probing several cases of involuntary servitude and had recently liberated a number of migrants from one of the camps there.
Similar stories are heard along the Delmarva Peninsula -- cases of crew leaders plying their workers with drink and drugs to keep them docile, forcing them to hand out their supplies of federal food stamps, cheating illiterate workers out of wages, pocketing their Social Security deductions, gouging on the rent and food.
The Department of Labor requires the contractors to register each year, in the effort to assure that they will follow wage-and-hour, health, transportation and Social Security requirements. Enforcement, DOL officials acknowledge, is difficult. The crews are moving constantly, the enforcement teams are undermanned and an aura of fear in many migrant camps complicates the government's ability to make a strong case on some violations.
All of this is news to Beaver Campbell, a man of 42 who learned the business from his father, who was a crew leader for 25 years. Campbell got his own crew 12 years ago and has been coming north from Fort Pierce, Fla., every year since. Some of the 100 men and women in his force have been with him for years. Others, like his 40 Haitians, are new to the eastern migrant stream.
"Exploiting? I've heard that about crew leaders, but I'm not doing it. A lot of crew leaders will bring drunk guys out of the missions in Philadelphia to work, but I don't do that. If they'd stick with Florida people they'd be all right," Campbell said.
If Campbell had his way, he would hire only Haitians, even though six of them walked out of his crew a few weeks ago after an altercation over a hamper of green tomatoes that, according to the Haitians, one of Campbell's assistants insisted was not full enough.
"The Haitians are fast. I have to teach them how to work, but they do it right when they learn. They make more money than the Americans because they work harder. They'll even run to the trucks with their buckets. They haven't been blessed like the American people. The American man . . . welfare has done spoiled him," Campbell said.
The crew leader contracts with the farmer to harvest the crop, recruits the workers and houses them in the farmer's camp, takes them to the fields and transports them from state to state. He also often feeds them, provides them with stimulants and sex -- all for a price, usually on credit against next week's wages.
In this system, the faster the crew, the more money the crew leader makes. If the worker gets 40 cents for a bucket of tomatoes, the crew leader will earn at least an equal amount. From that, he pays the transportation, insurance (if he has it) and a Social Security share.
With a crew the size of Campbell's, an income of several thousand dollars a day is easily attainable, but Campbell pleads penury.
"If I was wealthy, I would have quit five, six years ago. I want to, but financially I'm not able to. If a contractor buys a nice car, everyone claims he's rich. I'm not and there's not that much money in this type of business."
More than money, however, he has bitter complaints about two things. One is the federal Farm Labor Contractor Registration Act, which governs his actions and those of farmers who use migrant and seasonal labor. He thinks he is forced to keep too many records and answer too many questions, and he thinks the law is too strict about requiring workers to make the minimum wage.
When a field hand doesn't pick enough on the piece rate to make the equivalent of $3.80 an hour, the crew leader has to make up the difference. This comes out of the leader's profit.
His other problem is with the legal aid lawyers who, through the federally funded Legal Services Corp., stay after him, other contractors and the state and federal enforcers to assure that the workers' rights are protected.
"Legal aid gives the contractor too much trouble. Legal aid has hassled me. They'll go out and tell anything about you. You bust your brains out to do right and nobody appreciates it," Campbell said.
George Carr, a veteran migrant aid lawyer who is stationed at Salisbury, Md., takes exception. He cites dozens of instances in which legal aid attorneys have made successful claims against crew leaders for failure to keep proper records, for personal injury to workers, for misrepresentation of the terms of employment.
"It is a totally cash economy and there are just not adequate safeguards," Carr said. "There are constant disputes over the farm labor contractor law, but what we find is that there is too little enforcement on the really serious issues. I would agree with those who say the Labor Department is going after minor violations. They ought to be going after the major things."
Work was slowing down around Mappsville, and Campbell was making plans to take his crew of American and Haitian blacks north for six more weeks of work in the potato fields of New York. His little caravan will then head back to Florida and begin the cycle all over again next year.
Campbell roused himself to lead a visitor into the "commissary," a barren lunchroom featuring a flashy jukebox and long plain wooden trestle tables. A crude sign on the wall advertised sandwiches for $2, coffee for 40 cents, soft drinks for half a dollar. Mrs. Campbell fried a sandwich in the nearby kitchen.
"Big boss," said a laborer perched on a bench as the portly Beaver glided past.