Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 323 | Junio 2008


Latin America

Strawberry Fields and Undocumented Workers Forever?

When I got to California’s Salinas Valley, my eyes swam in a sea of strawberries. Looking closer, I discovered the numbers in an economy hungry for fresh strawberries and reliant on a cheap and docile labor force. Visiting the homes of several pickers, I found struggle, clarity and change This is the story.

José Luis Rocha

Salinas Valley was catapulted to universal fame by Nobel Prize winner in literature John Steinbeck, admirer of the original Californians, those who conserved their Hispano-Mexican traditions even after the United States annexed that region in 1848.

California is the strawberry queen

In East of Eden, Steinbeck describes Salinas Valley’s topsoil as deep and fertile, needing only a rainy summer to carpet it with vegetables and flowers. Much earlier it had been a redwood forest. Today this soil is scarred with long rows of strawberry plants, waves of strawberries that imitate the nearby waves of the Pacific Ocean and extend like gigantic juxtaposed zippers, without a single tree to break the view or offer escape from the lashes of the summer sun. Thousands of Latin American immigrants, the majority of them Mexicans, work these vast fields.

Some are well settled into the population centers of Salinas and Watsonville, districts that absorb 38% of California’s strawberry plantations and produce half of all the strawberries consumed in the United States. Others come only for short periods to plant or harvest. They are paid by the hour and by the box: $4.75 an hour and $0.99 a box. They work at least ten hours a day bent over in the rows between the squat plants. They are fully aware that they’re producing wealth for California, a state to which the National Agricultural Statistics Service attributed 67% of all US strawberry fields and 88% of their production in 2006, thanks to an annual yield of 59,000 pounds per acre. This was double the average 28,000 pounds of Florida, its closest rival.

California has achieved this productivity thanks to the blessings of its geography and geology. Its sandy coastal soils ensure good drainage and thus avoid the concentration of salt and dampness. Given its fresh climate, the fields aren’t subjected to extreme temperatures. California seldom gets the blazing summer heat that literally nips the plants in the bud and deteriorates the fruit’s quality or the winter frost that delays the harvest and stimulates unproductive leafiness; when it does experience such weather conditions it’s for much briefer periods than in other states. Furthermore, the absence of torrential rain—the kiss of death at harvest time—is another feature that virtually guarantees a prosperous production, perhaps the best in the world. California’s climate allows strawberries to be grown from February to December, while in Florida the growing season is only three months long, in Oregon a maximum of seven weeks and in the other parts of the country where it is even possible to grow them, four weeks tops.

The waves of strawberries
require waves of immigrants

Its proximity to Mexico offers California a continuous flow of immigrants—i.e., cheap and docile workers. The strawberry industry requires abundant labor because the focus is increasingly on fresh berries. In 1970, fresh fruit was already 64% of the total and by 2006 nearly 80% of all strawberries grown in the United States were sold fresh because they bring a better price: $0.72 vs. $0.28 a pound for processed ones.

But fresh strawberries have to look appealing and to have been treated well, requirements that limit the possibilities of mechanization, which has shoved aside human labor in the vineyards and tomato fields. Fresh strawberries also have better quality if they come from young plants, which requires hiring workers to replant every year. In the sixties, plants were replaced every four years and in the seventies every two. And as strawberries have to be at a very precise point to be picked, teams of pickers are needed to go back over the rows almost daily.

A strawberry that remains one day longer than needed won’t have the appearance and flavor the market demands. Continual picking is also necessary to keep productivity high: harvested plants keep on flowering. Because of this, the number of agricultural workers in California doubles in the peak harvest periods from 225,000 to 450,000. At harvest time a small farm with 14 acres of strawberries needs to hire over 28 pickers, a medium one of 32 acres needs 64 and a large farm of 100 acres needs 200.

The combination of all these advantages expanded California’s participation in the total national strawberry production from 9% in 1946 to 36% in 1953, 74% in 1988 and 88% in 2006. But all these advantages have their downside: if the farmers want to conserve them, they have no choice but to negotiate with the workers, as they did in the seventies. Alternatively, as they have done more often over time, they can take advantage of the blessing of the migratory wave.

The labor system is all about profit

US anthropologist Miriam Wells talks about the “labor market regime” when alluding to the configuration of policy restrictions in a labor market at a given moment. A labor market regime reflects and affects the class interests, resources and strategies at each productive level, significantly shaping the relative advantages of each class in a particular labor process.

At times two regimes can coexist in the same country, or one can shift to the other at meteoric speed. The coexistence of different regimes was documented by Eric Wolf in Czarist Russia. The serf system predominated in its southern provinces, where the black soil guaranteed a generous and lucrative production. There the feudal lords preferred to have vassals under their control to cultivate their land their way. In the northern provinces, where the soil fertility was depressing, a system of in-kind or money payment was applied for use of their land. In those provinces, work in small-scale manufacturing or industry in the cities made these monetary or in-kind payments possible. The definition of the system is determined by what best suits the elites.

In Russia’s case, the segmentation was spatial. In California’s case, we can trace a pendular and temporal differentiation. Before World War II, especially during the Great Depression, a system of sharing the harvest with the workers reigned. A decided shift to a salary system was imposed when the strawberry industry became uncommonly profitable and the Bracero Program provided numerous cheap and disciplined workers contracted on a short-term basis. That program was the best antidote to strikes and other forms of union pressure.

The key to profit:
Control the labor force

Between the mid-sixties and the end of the seventies, the peak period of the farm worker unions’ strength, the harvest-sharing regime expanded again: the business delegated its plantation, maintenance and harvest to families that thus earned participation in the final benefits. The results of the harvest and commercialization imposed limits on their demands. In that period, up to half of the producers and lands were under the harvest-sharing regime. When the migrations of undocumented workers became much greater, weakening the unions, the salary regime recovered its near-total coverage.

These regime changes have confirmed that strawberry cultivation depends greatly on the labor supply. Control of the labor force during harvests is critical to profits because labor is the main cost component. Its price, synchronization and careful execution have become the main determinants of the profit rate. Modifying other factors remains outside the farmers’ control. Strawberries and agricultural products in general have relatively inelastic demand: it grows very little even when prices drop or consumer incomes increase. Moreover, product differentiation is a barely accessible way to increase demand and growers are typically unable to control input prices or to increase the price of the strawberries by restricting their supply. This inability to raise prices in a highly competitive market or reduce the cost of inputs whose sale is in the hands of powerful agrochemical and credit suppliers will continue increasing their interest in productivity-raising technological innovations and the manipulation of labor costs.

Strawberries need green thumbs

Such technological innovations have reduced the need for skilled labor in US agriculture in general, allowing farmers to do without the workers best situated to make their demands felt. But people’s predilection for fresh strawberries and increasingly expanding markets has meant that, unlike other crops, strawberries keep demanding more and more workers. The fruit’s fragility—it bruises easily—as well as its sequential point of maturity, the length of the picking season, the difficulty removing the layer of leaves and the stem from the fruit have all discouraged the adoption of plant-destroying mechanical harvesters.

To preserve the points of green color, fresh strawberries are picked by twisting the stem, not pulling it. The berries must be selected by appropriate size, firmness, form and color. This pampering requires loving gardeners’ hands rather than rough “cultivators” hands. As a result of all these needs for human rather than mechanized labor, California absorbs more agricultural workers than the rest of the United States combined.

California strawberries in
the world and Latinos in California

Any agricultural labor market regime in California is characterized by a voracious appetite for workers. In 2000-2006, California’s Latino population went from 11 million (32% of the state’s total) to 13 million (35.5%). In little Salinas it leaped from just under 97,000 (64%) to 100,000 (71.3%). California currently has 30% of all Latinos living in the United States, followed by Texas with 19%, Florida with 8% and New York with 7%. Only New Mexico’s 44% population of Latino origin exceeds California’s percentage.

This increase in the Latino labor force has helped consolidate the US position as the largest strawberry grower in the world. It is followed by Spain, with a production three times lower. Italy occupies eighth place, and California alone produces more strawberries than Spain and Italy together. Between 1970 and 2006, strawberry production in the United States rose from 496 million pounds to over 2.4 billion, an increase that together with a $0.41 rise in the per-pound price meant that the value of the production went from US$106.6 million to $1.515 billion in that same period. In the past 10 years the land dedicated to strawberries increased by over 10,000 acres in California—2,463 in Salinas and Watsonville alone. The predominately undocumented immigrant labor force has made this feat possible, yet the area under cultivation has grown much more than the population in those two districts. How was that magic possible?

The Bracero Program lasted over 20 years

The story begins—and has yet to end—with immigrants. To get a better perspective, we need to go back to the forties. To have more hands at the task that then disappear—the ideal migrants needed by the system—the US government made use of one of its typical ambivalent policies: a bilateral negotiation with Mexico to import its nearest neighbors to the south. The offer was that the United States would accept the migrants, but only in a controlled way and only if needed; they weren’t allowed to stay. That negotiation jelled in a hiring program in the country of origin called the Bracero Program, which was implemented between 1942 and 1964. It was originally pushed by the Southern California farmers in league with the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation.

When native workers laid down their farm tools to enlist in the Army in the early forties, these organizations explicitly pressured for a federal labor supply program. They presented their particular interests as a “national defense” issue for reasons of food security. But while it was assumed to be a program linked to the war, its coming on the scene proved so profitable that the farmers assured its continuation for 23 years after the war ended. During that period, the program imported nearly five million workers, at 450,000 per year in the peak period at the end of the fifties; California absorbed up to 90% of them. The braceros—defined as temporary workers imported from Mexico—came to represent over two-thirds of all California strawberry pickers and 100% of those in the state’s central coast area around Salinas Valley.

Those who agreed to participate in this program were brought to enormous enclosures on the border where they would wait until they were assigned to work posts. Huge signs were hung around their necks and they were stripped and sprayed with an agent that killed parasites before being allowed to cross into the United States. That certified them to work for a given period in a given place. They were provided permits for between six weeks and two months and assigned the jobs least appealing to US citizens. They weren’t sent to pick apples, for example, but rather strawberries, where they had to work bent over for long hours.

Once inside the country, the workers were at the mercy of their employer. Many denounced the abuse and were decertified and immediately deported, together with all those who got involved in union activities or tried to negotiate wages and labor conditions. The Bracero Program directly involved the government in negotiating the labor force, making it possible for the farmers to defray the bulk of the recruitment costs and headaches.

The farmers’ satisfaction with this program is more than obvious in this declaration by one of their spokespeople: “Braceros were here to make a living, not to make trouble. They were family men, not juvenile delinquents like you get today. We knew we could send them back if they complained, but we rarely had to. The Bracero Program helped everyone. Mexicans supported their families and Americans made money. It was the finest Peace Corps activity in reverse. Instead of us going to their country to teach them, they came up here to learn from us.”

The legendary César Chávez
and the empowering United Farm Workers

Everything was working perfectly for the farmers until the United Farm Workers burst onto the scene, becoming the strongest farm worker union in US history. Founded by the legendary César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in 1962, it chalked up victories that included wage increases and improved working conditions.

César Chávez was born in 1927 and died in 1993 in his native Arizona. At the time of his death, he was fighting the application of toxic pesticides, a banner the United Farm Workers, Líderes Campesinas and other organizations have recently taken up again. As a child Chávez had chafed at the many racist comments and warning notices that read, “For Whites Only.” He attended 37 different schools but felt the education they offered had nothing to do with his life as a farm worker. In 1962 he founded the Asociación Nacional de Campesinos, which later changed its name to Campesinos Unidos, or United Farm Workers (UFW). At the beginning, few members paid their union dues, making it very difficult to finance the organization’s activities.

After arduous work, the UFW got the grape growers to accept collective contracts and certain labor improvements, thus winning the sympathy and affiliation of the majority of workers in that industry. By the seventies, the UFW had over 50,000 workers protected by its contracts. The grape strike in Delano, the 1966 farm worker march from Delano to Sacramento, California’s capital, and Chávez’s water-only hunger strikes inspired by Ghandi—25 days in 1968 and 1972 and 36 days in 1988—focused national attention on the problems of rural workers and forced the government to approve highly unusual laws in the agricultural sector.

Strikes, marches, demands,
laws, collective bargaining...

Different organizing efforts had preceded the UFW but were blocked by the growers’ manipulation of the braceros. Chávez skirted that by working with churches, the Senate and consumers and making an alliance with the civil rights movement. In 1964 he exercised a lot of pressure to put an end to the Bracero Program, arguing that it depressed salaries, displaced US workers and used public funds to benefit private interests. The UFW got a law pushed through according to which no bracero could replace a worker already within the country.

In the fields there was no portable lavatory and workers had to drink water from the same “cup,” which was a beer can. They would sell that “cup” of water on the farms at $0.25 apiece. The temporary shelters for workers were segmented by “race” and a metal lean-to, often infested with mosquitoes and with no water or sanitation service or means for cooking cost over $2 a day. Added to all that, many workers were injured or died due to easily preventable accidents. The UFW got laws passed that established substantial improvements for the workers, although the bosses systematically ignored them.

Every time the UFW would call a strike, the farmers brought in Chicano scabs from the neighboring area, a function the braceros had previously filled to a tee. But the work of the Catholic Church, especially the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Delano, started creating ethnic solidarity and Chicanos began to form a common front to back the UFW.

Thousands of workers left the farms in the late sixties and early seventies. Fifteen or twenty cars full of UFW picketers would tour the farms and persuade or confront the scabs and police. Schenley Industries reacted by spraying the striking farm workers with highly toxic pesticides. As a counter-blow, the UFW organized a march in 1966 in which 70 strikers walked the nearly 340 miles from Delano to Sacramento in 25 days. Many employers folded and signed collective bargaining agreements with the UFW. The key to its success was to present the discrimination against farm workers as similar to the racism African Americans were experiencing. California’s farm workers had finally created a union that has survived over time.

Grape boycott followed by
tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries…

The farmers discovered to their dismay that this time the strikers wouldn’t be mollified with small wage concessions; they aspired to more. And they moved to another battlefields: Chávez called on consumers to boycott grapes not bearing the UFW label. Groups of volunteers toured the big cities to organize sympathizers—unions, churches, community organizations and others—to join the boycott. The UFW pinched where it hurt most: millions of consumers stopped buying grapes altogether. In 1969 alone, the losses caused by the boycott reached $20 million. Soon their fight extended to the tomato, lettuce and strawberry crops. The 1970 strike just in the strawberry fields cost $2.2 million in crop losses. All this jelled into a new awareness of the workers’ rights and possibilities. They began to believe change was possible, winning benefits that the workers still enjoy.

Farm workers had been excluded from the benefits of many laws that strengthened urban workers. Farmers had successfully argued that these labor protections were unjust in agriculture; that farmers were already too vulnerable to workers’ demands given that their products were perishable. What’s more, said the farmers, they were superfluous laws because labor relations on their farms were commonly harmonious—”like family relations.”

California’s farm workers had to wait until 1975 to get the rights that workers in the city had won 40 years earlier. The California agricultural labor relations act of that year granted workers the right to organize, have union elections and collectively bargain without interference by the employer.

The collective agreements guaranteed by law restricted the farmers’ control over the price and management of the labor force; imposed the recording of a labor file and medical plan at the employer’s expense; stipulated hiring and firing procedures as well as the payment of minimum wage, vacations and overtime; and established occupational conditions—health and safety standards, including the handling of pesticides.

From guest workers to
undocumented non-citizens

Even before Chávez’s death, the UFW has lost many of its historic activists who were unhappy with the abandonment of the original forms of struggle—strikes and worker organizing—to dedicate more emphasis to the consumer boycotts. Today, some of the UFW victories have been rolled back. Others are taking up the struggle, no less enthusiastically, but less numerously: the UFW had 27,000 affiliates in 2003.

The main Achilles Heel in the new period is the migrant stream, together with the pyramid of rights in the US system. Anthropologist Miriam Wells notes ironically that the success of the civil rights and anti-poverty movement in getting recognition of citizens’ rights also had the effect of strengthening the relative vulnerability of non-citizens and increasing their usefulness to employers. Only a very small fraction of farm workers are US citizens.

As in many other countries, agriculture is the oldest industry in the United States. The 1790 National Census reported that 90% of the country’s 4 million residents at the time were located in rural areas. That figure and its ethnic composition have varied over the past 200 years, with relatively few citizens and residents currently living in rural areas. In 2002, the Pew Hispanic Center found that 1.2 million (47%) of the 2.5 million wage workers who earn their living on US farms are undocumented. The number of these “unauthorized” or “uncertified” people, as they are called in many official and academic documents, increases in the peak harvest periods. The Pew Hispanic Center calculated in 2004 that of the 35.7% of the population born abroad, 10.3 million (29%) are undocumented. Of those, 2.4 million (24%) reside in California, 8.4 million (81%) came from Latin America and 6.7 million (65%) came to the United States between 1995 and 2004.

According to Santos Quintero, whom we interviewed in the UFW offices in Watsonville, 90% of the workers in California’s strawberry fields today are undocumented. We also learned from Quintero that strawberry farmers put bombs in those offices in 1970, a year in which bombs and the threat of them had become a daily event for the unions.

The labor regime is now characterized by an incessant flow of undocumented workers. Businesses no longer have to shape the hiring scheme and other aspects of the labor policy. They focus instead on migratory policies, knowing that this will have an oblique but immediate effect on workers’ vulnerability and malleability.

In California, as in other states and countries, hiring immigrants helps employers maintain and increase the profit rate. Undocumented immigrants can be employed more flexibly than the braceros, legal residents or citizens. They are less inclined to make demands, and can be manipulated more easily because their employment alternatives are more limited and the threat of deportation deflates their resistance to the farmers’ impositions.

Wells, author of Strawberry Fields. Politics, Class, and Work in California Agriculture, notes that the government no longer directly negotiates farm labor: its migratory policies do the negotiating by indirectly classifying workers, creating different citizenry statuses that institute an unequal access to political and economic resources.

The farmers depend on
undocumented workers

The immigrant wave has an effect similar to the Bracero Program that the UFW fought to eliminate. Established workers have fewer opportunities to exercise pressure when there’s a continual supply of workers whose deteriorated citizenship gives the bosses the additional benefit of avoiding certain employer obligations.

The UFW has handled the migration issue very delicately. During its opposition to the Bracero Program, it advocated greater control of the border with Mexico, but didn’t exclude undocumented workers or oppose their presence in the fields. Many of its affiliates have undocumented relatives and friends.

While the UFW didn’t bring up the citizenship issue and proposed to involve all workers, divisions over the issue of citizenship and documents occasionally became such a sizable drag on its efforts that the UFW had to take a position.

In 1974 and 1979, during the renewal of the contracts with the lettuce growers, the UFW launched a vigorous campaign against the undocumented workers on the central coast. At the time it emphasized the loss of jobs that undocumented workers were causing documented immigrants and national workers, but its main concern was the use of undocumented immigrants as strikebreakers. In part as a result of its pressures, the border control increased its captures and doubled deportations to 2,652 just in May 1979.

The UFW no longer asks about the migratory status of the workers in its ranks, but the danger continues and is more threatening than the Bracero Program. That program and those that succeeded it—fumigating and certifying temporary workers—tipped the balance to the point that “certified” guest workers exceeded undocumented workers: 37% vs. 8% in 1989 and 30% vs. 17% in 1990. But by the early nineties that proportion had switched: (23% vs. 33% in 1992, widening to 15% vs. 52% in 1998). The farmers depended greatly on undocumented labor. A continual supply of undocumented workers is their guarantee that the UFW’s pressures will never again reach the point they had in 1970 and won’t be able to have substantial effects.

With a past, in the present and with a future

Another Achilles Heel was and still is that many workers obtain the benefits of the UFW’s struggles without paying the price. Even at the peak period of its struggles, the UFW barely affiliated 10% of the farm workers, but many received the benefits of their sacrifices and risks without paying dues or participating in the strikes and marches, or even in the collective bargaining contracts.

The companies located in areas where the UFW operated increased the wages and multiplied the work benefits to avoid their laborers joining the union. The UFW thus had a carom effect on those who weren’t active members. Today UFW members must pay dues of 2% of their salary, not a very attractive policy in today’s “every man for himself” world.

The particularity that workers on the farms have to unionize in blocs imposes certain limits on the advance of unionism. United Farm Worker affiliates go out to the fields, do awareness-raising work and then call for elections. Only if over 50% of the workers on a farm vote the union in can the UFW sign them up and negotiate a collective agreement with the owner. The vulnerability of the workers under the agreement is substantially reduced: they can’t be fired or abused and the union intervenes to defend them if anyone tries.

The UFW recently won a new victory: a law that obliges employers to keep the workers’ drinking water in the shade and supply a tent for the rest period to protect them from the sun. It‘s one more achievement that shows that the UFW has a past, a present and a future.

Farmer and contractor:
two different people, one real boss

The contractor is a figure in the current labor market system who, while not new, now appears in more vibrant colors and blown-up size. According to Santos Quintero, the contractor is usually a relatively young man or women with work experience in the field and commonly of Latino origin—yet more proof that “servants make the worst masters.”

To do this job well, the most important things contractors need are connections and a vehicle to transport their recruits. They are the wizards of the system, responsible for recruiting temporary, undocumented, cheap, frequently indigenous laborers: hands applied to the task who then leave.

Contactors are the liaison point, the middlemen, between the farm owners and migrants. They offer multiple services: representing the workers to the farmers, food, overcrowded housing of 10 migrants per room, transport, and money changing and other banking transactions. They receive the workers’ pay from the farmers and, as in the commissariats of the old Latin American haciendas, deduct the high costs of their numerous services and do whatever they can to reduce the number of validly recognized work hours and days. Not infrequently they even keep the wages and sic the police on their unsuspecting tenants, who are summarily deported before receiving so much as a dollar for their grueling period of work.

Contractors are key figures for defraying farmer’s costs, doing it even better and more pitilessly than the government did in its time with the Bracero Program. They do the recruiting at no cost to the farmers and shoulder part of the authority functions and accompanying stigma the boss used to have.

In short, they’re a hybrid between capitalist and pre-capitalist relations. They move in the capitalist world because they make possible the impersonal connection with the owner, but they also establish personal—although ephemeral—relations with the workers not unlike those of the pre-capitalist hacienda foreman. The role of the employer appears split, which makes the system work beautifully: two different people but only one real boss. The contractor is a diffuse figure on the legal plane but a key player on the informal one. For the immigrants, the contractor is the real figure, their door to the US labor market. He/she is boss and commissariat rolled into one, selling recruitment, financial transactions, food, housing—such as it is—and transport.

The contractor is one of those political-social institutions that determines the balance of power between workers and bosses and in this particular case guarantees the employers’ advantageous position. The contractor is a symptom, an effect and a cause all rolled into one: among other things a symptom of the deteriorated relations between immigrants of various generations; an effect of today’s constant migratory flows of undocumented workers which make possible the contractor’s existence and the concomitant traps that accompany it; and a factor that allows both the boss and the state to evade their responsibilities.

Farm workers are still the worst paid

The current migratory flow and the proliferation of contractors are helping farm workers retain their status among the poorest paid workers in the United States. The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics lists their 1988 weekly wage as averaging $202. By 2000 it had reached $304, only slightly higher than the $286 of waiters, $296 of domestic workers and $302 of cooks, but slightly below the $324 of cleaning staff. It was well below the $400 of butchers, $414 of construction workers, $467 of roof installers and $507 of carpet layers.

The massive presence of Latinos—a very marginalized group in the US labor market—contributed to this situation. Latinos are more inclined to accept poorly paid work because they’re more affected by the unemployment rates. Traditional methods of measuring unemployment resulted in an 8% Latino unemployment rate in 2004. An alternative unemployment measurement—used by the Pew Hispanic Center to include not only the unemployed included in the traditional measurement but also workers employed part time for economic reasons and workers in marginal jobs who have sought work recently—nearly doubled that rate to 15.5%. That’s below the 17.1% of non-Latin African-Americans, but much higher than non-Latin whites. This difficulty of breaking into the labor market, combined with their massive condition as undocumented workers, explains why Latinos are the poorest paid group, as the table below shows.

According to Department of Labor statistics, the average weekly wage of Latinos in general is $504, the lowest of all major population categories in the United States. But as do all averages, this one hides groups that are hit even harder: first-generation migrants, who earn an average $465; women, whose average salary is just under $436; those who entered the United States after 2000, who only earn an average $381; and those who didn’t go to high school, who receive $369.

The agricultural wage is well below the worst of these. The average weekly wage paid in the agricultural sector is $200 below the average Latino wage. So Latinos who work in agriculture—and they make up the majority in this sector—are among the worst paid in a country that measures success by income, venerates the accumulation of wealth and has a movie industry that habitually lauds fairy stories about upward social mobility.

The most exploited are
Mixtecs, Triquis and Zapotecos

Not only the general labor market but also the labor market of US farms, and above all of California farms, are very subdivided by region and industry, and the workers are stratified along citizenship lines. There are white citizens, Asian citizens, Latino citizens, African-American citizens… Legal residents are stratified into these same groups. Below them are undocumented workers, and on the bottom rung undocumented indigenous workers. The most appealing in the labor market—and in the market for tall stories—are the Mixtec, Trique and Zapotec peoples from western Oaxaca.

The Mixtec family is one of the largest and most diverse of the Otomangue trunk and is divided into three groups: the Mixtec, Cuicatec and Trique. Many of them speak neither English nor Spanish, and thus end up particularly exposed to the wiles of the more unscrupulous contractors. Some activists in the Líderes Campesinas group relate the case of a young Trique woman who was paid barely $40 for two days of work from 6 am to 6 pm because the contractor assured her it was the wage in that area. Graciela Vega, who works in the strawberry fields, knows all about that danger: “Some of the new ones don’t know how much they’re going to earn and end up with contractors who only pay them $2 a hour.”

Mixtec men are ideal workers and Mixtec women are even better: they have no documents, put up no fuss, don’t talk, earn little and pay a lot. They are laborers in the strictest sense of the term. They have a mouth but don’t use it. They have hands that plant and pick the strawberries, for which they receive a paltry wage. And they pay what is asked of them—which is almost always inflated—for services that are almost always bad. This is the lowest rung of citizenship. Their rights are neither heard nor stated. In the US caste system, they are the inaudible pariahs.

Indigenous migrants are also ignored in the union world. Lacking union experience and more terrorized than most by the threats of repressive bosses, they tend not to join unions and are more exposed to abuses. Taking this into account, the UFW has a Mixtec among its promoters, who concentrates on helping his compatriots who speak no other language.

Pesticides prohibited but
used in the strawberry fields

Low wages aren’t the only pest plaguing immigrants who work in agriculture. They also suffer the pesticides. The sale and application of certain pesticides are controlled in the United States due to their toxicity. Methyl bromide, diazinon and abamectin are insecticides whose use is restricted, but they are nonetheless commonly applied in the strawberry fields.

The Montreal Protocol, signed by 182 countries in 1992, declared that methyl destroys the ozone layer. Despite a severe reduction in its use, 35 million pounds of this insecticide were applied in US fields in 1999, half of it in California and just over half of that in its strawberry fields. Whether or not by intention, the US government has not provided more recent data. Many farmers are reluctant to stop using it, arguing that it avoids losses that could hit $150-200 million for all growers combined.

The workers are suffering that reluctance. Farmers typically don’t respect the lapse of time legally stipulated between fumigation and the entry of workers onto a plantation. Worse yet, given that many strawberry fields are close to schools, children end up affected by the fumigation. Farm worker leaders in Salinas are actively denouncing this disrespect for the law, which prohibits fumigating less than 500 feet away from homes and educational centers. According to their investigations, children are suffering respiratory diseases, allergy, loss of memory and irritation of the eyes and skin. “It sometimes seems like the children arrive having been smoking marihuana,” Lupita Miranda commented to me.

The farm worker leaders are a light
in a vale of tears and strawberries

Many US organizations work with farm workers in general. The United Farm Workers is the most powerful, but not the only one. There are also organizations headed by women that work predominately with women workers, such as the Dolores Huerta Foundation; Líderes Campesinas; Esperanza, which is the UFW’s Women’s Legal Initiative; the UFW’s Women’s Institute, Latinas Unidas por un Nuevo Amanecer; and Las Amigas.

Líderes Campesinas is the organization with the greatest draw among the women who work in Salinas Valley’s strawberry fields and packing plants. It was born in the late eighties as a movement of Mexican women workers and was formally founded in 1992 by Mily Treviño-Sauceda with an $8,000 donation provided by Ms. Foundation, an offshoot of the women’s magazine. Its permanent team is made up of 30 women who usually were farm workers and now work in capacity-building, democratic decision-making, peer training—in the style of Latin America’s Peasant to Peasant program—and leadership development. It employs a mixture of traditional and innovative education and organizational methods such as home meetings and theater presentations at community events.

I met with them at one of these homes, ringed by children and toys. My contact, Paula Placencia, who has been in the United States 26 years, had invited eight lively members of Líderes Campesinas to talk about their impressive work. Accompanying the chat with juice, coffee and cookies, they explained how the components on which their work is focused respond to the needs and recommendations of the female farm workers and their families: labor conditions (sexual harassment in the workplace, pesticides, occupational health and safety, wages and the workday, organic agriculture), family violence (domestic violence, sexual attacks and abuse of children and the elderly), women’s health (HIV/AIDS, breast and cervical cancer, nutrition, diabetes and hypertension), development of youth leadership (adolescent pregnancy, sexual harassment, violence and date rape, family violence, child labor and labor conditions), a third-age program (abuse, leadership development, health and others), an Institute for Women Workers (training of female farm workers to receive credit as professionals) and the Economic Development Program, which provides job skills to female farm workers.

As it matured and became more inclusive, the group got closer to Trique and Mixtec women, Central Americans and migrants from other nationalities, expanding the presence of their committees to Coachella Valley, Santa Cruz and Fresno counties and the towns of Ventura, Kern, Tulare, Madera and Merced. It has now extended its support to organizations and immigrant women as far away as Texas, Arizona, Iowa, Washington and Mexico to help them replicate its work and thus establish a southwest and binational network. It has more than 550 members, over 300 of them women and around 200 girls between 10 and 18 years old.

Other pests in the strawberry fields:
Sexual harrassment and abuse

Combating sexual harassment has been one of Líderes Campesinas’ principal causes from the outset. Many supervisors demand sexual favors in exchange for assigning fewer hard tasks or simply in exchange for keeping their job.

“We just thought it was normal to have sex to keep your job in the United States,” a group of women farm workers told their lawyer. The Salinas workers referred to one of the strawberry fields as the “underwear field,” alluding to the large number of rapes that took place there. For the same reason, the women in Florida have baptized the plantations there as “the green motel.”

The most terrifying threat undocumented immigrants are subject to, however, is deportation. Virginia Bautista had to deal with a lot of harassment and subsequent depression given the threat of deportation or at least of losing her job for the second time with four children to raise. But then she made contact with Líderes Campesinas and became one of the 3,000 women this organization educates annually in their homes or among the strawberries they pick or pack.

In one of these house meetings in 1999, as they snacked on burritos, nopales and tacos, they learned of the case of a female worker abused by her supervisor in Fresno county. In 2006, the jury issued a verdict obliging Harris Farms, one of the largest agricultural companies in the country, to pay $994,000 in damages. That same year a law was passed obliging all California farms with 50 or more employees to provide preventive training against sexual harassment.

As a result of these struggles, forms of sexual harassment are very finely typified by California laws. Among others they include undesired sexual advances; the offer of labor benefits in exchange for sexual favors; making sexual gestures; displaying sexually suggestive objects, paintings, drawings or posters; the use of ignominious or defamatory comments, jokes or epithets; sexual comments including graphic comments about a person’s body, sexually degrading descriptions of an individual or suggestive or obscene letters, notes and invitations; and physical touching or attacks as well as the blocking of movements.

Despite the fervor with which they have embarked on this struggle, the active promoters of Líderes Campesinas do not see or explain things in a flat, stereotypical black and white way, even though the role of the “bad guys in the movie” almost always corresponds to men with power. They recognize that laws easily lead to entrapment. Ramona Barajas, who has lived in the United States 35 years, relates that her hus-band, a supervisor on a farm, was harassed by a female worker. Despite his steadfast resistance, she sued him, but after an embarrassing process, he was able to show his innocence.

The women’s agenda is
more complex and complete

These women go beyond the social movements’ traditional agenda. New problems appear in the new circumstances. Diabetes is appearing, related to the Coca Cola they drink everyday. Hypertension is appearing, associated with the excessive consumption of junk food. Gangs are appearing, related to the neglect of children, who are left in the hands of babysitters who sometimes abuse them.

Looking into where class interests lie and into the structural dynamic of capitalism isn’t enough to grasp all the changes taking place. Many things are breaking down on a day-to-day level: community, family ties, religious conceptions… Care of children is a major challenge, a service that must be bought from people they don’t always know well. This new situation is a source of tensions in the community. The work rhythm and the market’s absorption of all interchanges have changed the situation they had in their countries of origin. Full-time remunerated work has transformed all the nooks and crannies of their life style.

Contractors and babysitters:
Incarnations of evil

Although more urban and less superstitious, the migrants’ imagery still needs incarnations of evil to help them explain the new world and what it has in store. The new demons are secular: the contactor and the babysitter. They are at the crux of the ruptures with the traditional world.

Contractors embody the boss-employee rupture. Their most profound perversity consists of intervening in that relationship and disguising the mechanisms of domination. They express the impersonal nature of capitalist relations: there’s no contact with the boss, or sometimes even with his money, since he pays with a check. A middleman steps in to charge for everything that previously, on the big hacienda, was part of the wage: bed, food and transport.

Babysitters embody the merchandising of human relations and the cohort of services associated with them. The babysitter charges for a service that previously formed part of non-monetarized interchanges, usurping the functions of absent aunts, grandmothers, nieces and daughters who are now far away or busy earning their own living. Her existence proclaims the disappearance of the bank of supportive exchanges through which family services were once reciprocated in either an immediate or deferred way. For that reason, her appearance and the abuse she sometimes inflicts on the children in her care become associated with the appearance of youth gangs and drug addiction.

Social movement, informal school
and community organization

These two demonizations express a central point: the community is threatened. The contractors and the malevolent babysitters express the struggle of Latinos against Latinos. Relocating or reconstructing a community is an arduous task. Redesigning it, reweaving it or imagining it takes time, creativity and sweat. How does one de-commercialize things in a society pushing steadfastly in that direction? How does one avoid opportunism in a culture that legitimizes the paid provision of every kind of service?

Líderes Campesinas has before it a gigantic challenge, but its nature as a social movement, an informal school and a community organization is the ideal mix for assuming it. Líderes Campesinas is present in very diverse spheres: labor conditions, pesticides, sexual harassment, domestic abuse and violence in the streets. Its socio-dramas have become famous all over the country and its appearance in the media is frequent. Its affiliates know, however, that they still have a long row to how.

Many struggles lie ahead in a region where one only begins to calculate overtime after 10 hours of agricultural work and where strawberry pickers are only upright when they’re carrying a box of fresh-picked strawberries the 25 meters to then double over again until the next box.

Why the fear of legalizing them?

To satisfy the colossal appetite for strawberries in the United States, 248 million pounds of Mexican strawberries were imported in 2006, an amount that exceeds the total export of US strawberries. For all that, however, it is still more profitable to import Latin Americans for the US strawberry market.

Why not legalize those who are already there? The argument is that legalization programs only keep workers in agricultural occupations for a while: as soon as they’re happily legalized they’re very likely to leave agriculture for better paying jobs and be supplanted by new migrant workers. Experts on the issue hold that, in such a case, between 180,000 and 500,000 workers will be needed every year to replace those who move to other work.

The solution is to stick with the current system: a good supply of workers who are undocumented keeps them captive in the lowest paying activities and those in which they’re less susceptible to being detected. To avoid an avalanche, the governments of Mexico and the United States try to reissue pendular programs of well-behaved migrants: those who come, work and return without a fuss.

Such a position forgets the social security system’s growing dependency on Latino workers. Latinos, a young and growing population, currently represent 14% of the US population and 13% of its labor force. Over a third of the 40 million Latinos in the US are under 18 years old.

The Pew Hispanic Center calculates that by 2050 Latinos will have doubled their demographic weight and their weight in the labor force, coming to represent a quarter of the labor force around the country even if the migratory flow is reduced. The growth of the Latino population will increase its role in the economy and in financing social security. It is estimated that between 2006 and 2050, the US labor force will grow from 143 million to 182 million: 39 million more. During this same time, the Latino labor force will rise from 19 million to 46 million, a growth of 27 million.

As the elderly population will grow from 35 million to 77 million, the dependency rate will rise. The 4.1 workers for every retired person could drop to 2.7 by 2025 and 2.4 by 2050. The number of Latino workers supporting a growing elderly population is rising and the social security system—unless severely reformed—will need them far more than now. Why fear them and close the doors to them?

Strawberries of wrath

Fumigated and badly paid, migrant workers live on the margins of the citizenry, but with a growing awareness of their rights and of the ways to get them respected. Xochitl Martínez, of Líderes Campesinas, gave a last bit of advice to her compañeras when our group interview concluded: “You should know that John Steinbeck, whose museum is at the entry to the town, wrote Red Pony. His books deal with our rights as workers. I’m now reading Grapes of Wrath. I recommend that you all read it if you want to know what the struggles of the workers here in California have been like.”

José Luis Rocha is a researcher with the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío Editorial Council.

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