Mexican Carny Union Expose, Behind the Rides

Link to Expose
Mexican worker smiles

The New York Times this week published a terrific expose on a union accused of representing both Mexican carnies and carnival owners.

This was rumored when I spent my year working in 10 carnivals, in 10 states in 2013-14. I interviewed James Judkins several times, but he declined to be interviewed by the newspaper. Judkins is most certainly the most prolific recruiter of Mexican workers to America and now is alleged to be the force behind Mexican carnival worker unionization.

A former circus owner himself, Judkins has funneled thousands of workers north to keep traveling carnivals running as the pool of American workers thins. He is paid by owners to find good workers and arrange visas, transportation and jobs.

However, but worker advocates allege he is the man behind the Association of Mobile Entertainment Workers, which represents Mexican workers rights in carnivals.

“This was a fraud on the system,” said Art Read, a lawyer with Friends of Farmworkers, one of the groups that filed a complaint last year about the union with the National Labor Relations Board, The New York Times article quote states.

At the end of my year working rides and games, I took a bus south from the State Fair of Texas in Dallas to the tiny hamlet of Tlapacoyan, in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz. I found my former boss at Butler Amusements in California. He took me on a two-day tour of the town, visiting other workers I’d worked with outside San Francisco that spring.

Tlapacoyan is an ancient settlement in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental and empties of men each year as they go north work to erect Ferris wheels and tighten the bolts on the roller coasters at hundreds of carnivals across America.

When the men leave Tlapacoyan, the carnival “feeder town” is vulnerable to a variety of social ills. The economically struggling families of the men who go north often have to pay local gangs for “protection.”

The former employee of Judkins’ carnival, Victor Apolinar Barrios, had just been elected mayor of Tlapacoyan when I arrived. Apolinair Barrios is widely understood to run the local operations for Judkins. Here’s what I heard and the NYT confirmed.

“Some workers have testified that they had to pay Mr. Apolinar Barrios $350 to $500 a year to secure a carnival job, money they often borrowed at very high interest rates. Such recruiter payments are illegal in the United States.

Mr. Judkins and Mr. Apolinar Barrios are not listed on any public documents filed by the union. But people close to them, like Mr. Judkins’s sister and two brothers of Mr. Apolinar Barrios, are. According to the complaint by labor advocates, the Mexican politician’s brothers took over his recruitment business after he was elected last year.”

Jim Judkins is easily the biggest purveyor of Mexican seasonal help to carnivals in America and yet is alleged to be the force behind its workers union too.

A telling anecdote is my interview with Judkins last year, at the annual trade show for traveling carnivals held in Gibsonton, FL., sponsored by the International Independent Association of Showmen.

Judkins held seminars for owners telling them how to handle H2B visa regulations, the temporary work visas carnival workers attain to work in the United States.

He advised compliance and the services of his firm in avoiding government interference. At the conferences, he introduced an attorney and a lobbyist he works with on Capitol Hill in favor of the industry and owners.

He told me that his JKJ Workforce Agency arranges for about half of all Mexican migration to US carnivals. Of the estimated 50,000 Mexicans who come north for seasonal work on H2B non-farm workforce visas, Judkins said about 5,000 come to work in carnivals. Judkins arranges for about half of those carnival jobs to come from Tlapacoyan and surrounding towns. In my carnival at Butler, which is typical of large traveling carnivals, two-thirds of the workers were Mexicans on H2B visas.

During the Florida conferences, owners complained of red tape and labor laws. Judkins reminded them they are not covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, but other rules apply. In April, the Labor Department proposed new rules to protect seasonal workers such as carnival workers but the industry has filed suits against the rules, according to the NYT.

My carnival in San Francisco at the time, Butler, was the subject of a lawsuit alleging abuses such as long, uncompensated work hours. I often worked through the night and Mexican workers sometimes were sent home before us, perhaps in order to comply with the regulations.

Mexicans at Butler fell into several groups. “Jointees,” who ran games, often had more English language skills. They made more money and lived in better trailers. Many of them were city folk from Mexico City. “Ride jockies,” who ran rides, could live in more expensive trailers with US workers for $50 a week or for free in the Mexican “reefers.” These men were almost all from Tlapacoyan.

The “reefers” – supposedly ‘refrigerated’ in summers – are single trailers fit with wooden bunks for Mexicans. Bunks are stacked three beds high. About 15 men fit into the Butler trailer I traveled with, which included a small kitchen and two showers.

The reefers are generally considered the worst neighborhood in the carny quarters, maybe the closest thing we have in the United States to third world poor. The ventilation is poor and conditions are crowded. The showers, I can say from experience, always seemed muddy.

Judkins advised owners to tell workers not to talk to anyone about their conditions, to let ownership and lawyers do the talking.

With conditions, pay, immigration rules and government oversight at issue, Judkins never sounded like an advocate for higher worker pay, better conditions, stricter oversight or unionization.

However, as a personal insight Domestic Battery Lawyer Overland Park believes, Judkins seemed genuinely concerned with all those issues for workers. He was a passionate advocate for Mexican workers ability to work in the United States and against restrictions on employment. At one point, he told me the Chicago carnival I worked for was not one of his clients because of the poor living conditions provided for workers, conditions American workers and I lived in.

That I know of, there is no union for American carnies.


For a fuller picture of the legal ramifications and possible conflicts of interest, please read the New York Times piece. Another upcoming investigative piece is being worked on by a wire service. View my YouTube video “Mexico: New Faces of American Carnivals.” Links are at the top of the article

Michael Sean Comerford spent a year working in 10 carnivals in 10 states, hitchhiking 36 states between jobs and venturing down to Mexico. He blogged along the way at and for Huffington Post (search Michael Sean Comerford). He’s written about the year for Northwestern Magazine, Marquette Magazine and Wand’rly. The Chicago Tribune called his blogs, “By turns emotional, erudite, enlightening and ever engaging.”

Literary agent Tim Hayes is representing efforts to publish a book “Eyes Like Carnivals. Michael Sean Comerford can be reached at

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