Tuesday, January 12, 2021


By David Bacon
The Nation, January 12, 2021

 Baby Lhiann Lacambacal with her grandparents Reginaldo and Gloria, and Arturo Rodriguez, an organizer at the Larry Itliong Resource Center. The Lacambacals live in housing built as part of the Self-Help movement. (David Bacon)

In California's agricultural heartland, farmworkers are fighting back against expensive rents, substandard housing, and economic disenfranchisement.

Support for this reporting came from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Poplar, Calif.-In the Covid era, poverty in California's rural agricultural counties has become deadly. California now has over 2.7 million coronavirus cases. While Los Angeles, with its huge population, has the largest number of cases with over 920,000, the highest infection rates actually are to be found in less-populous counties with large farmworker populations. Imperial County, right across the border from Mexicali, Mexico, and Kings County, just south of Fresno, both have well over 10,000 cases per every 100,000 residents. California is the richest state in the United States, so it's easy to forget that its rural poverty and substandard farmworker housing have contributed to the surge in Covid-19 cases here.

Tulare County, a large county in California's southern San Joaquin Valley, was a tourist destination in better times-it's home to the towering forests of the Sequoia National Park. But Tulare is also a working county-it was here that the United Farm Workers was born out of the 1965 grape strike, and it remains one of the most important agricultural regions in the state and the country. Tulare, with a population of about 466,000, has 34,479 Covid-19 cases, and 406 people have died. That gives it infection and death rates more than twice those of urban San Francisco or Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County. 


Erika carries her ladder from the row of trees she's just finished picking, to the next row in Poplar. The ladder weighs about 30 pounds. Most women farmworkers normally wear some kind of face covering, usually a bandanna, while working in the fields. The bandanna protects against the sun and breathing dust, and even against sexual harassment. Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis bandannas have become a protection against spreading Covid-19 as well. (David Bacon)


Maria Madrigal picks persimmons in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley, in a crew of Mexican immigrants.  (David Bacon)

Covid rates follow income. Family annual income in San Francisco and Santa Clara is more than twice that of Tulare. Over 32,000 the county's residents are farmworkers, and farmworker families survive on less than half of what most US families earn.

In Tulare, poverty forces people to live closer together to share rent and living costs, making social distancing difficult. People here go to work because they have no cushion of savings-a day without pay can be difficult; a week could be ruinous. Traveling to and from the fields in crowded cars or buses also places workers in close proximity. "Getting better housing has become a survival need at a time when existing conditions make the threat of the virus much much worse," Mari Perez, an organizer with the Larry Itliong Resource Center in Poplar, a farmworker community in Tulare County, told me. 


Abandoned housing for farmworkers outside of Poplar. (David Bacon)

A farmworker family's home in Campo California, outside of Poplar. Campo California is a colonia, or an unincorporated community outside of the city limits of the closest city, Porterville. Most colonias, whose residents are low income farmworkers, and mostly immigrants, have problems getting public services from water to sewer connections. (David Bacon)

Justin lives with his mother in an encampment on the Tule River levee near Porterville. The riverbed is often dry, since a dam was built further upstream to create Lake Success. People with no other place to live have built a string of encampments along the levee downstream. (David Bacon)

But the fight to improve housing conditions didn't begin with the pandemic-in fact, better living conditions has been at the center of the struggle for rural emancipation here since the days of the grape strike. One of the most important tools for getting better housing, born in the civil rights upsurge among the valley's farmworkers, was a concept called Self-Help Housing.

It started with the idea that even people with low income could build and own homes. If farmworkers contributed their labor and got help with building materials and loans for land, they could free themselves from paying high rents. In activist Richard Unwin's history of Self-Help Housing's first idealistic decade, he called it "a story of a singular effort, a sustained commitment, to develop imaginative, efficient and humane methods of assisting families to move up from poverty by moving out of riverbank shanties and roadside shacks into decent houses...of determination to make substance of dreams." 


Mario Robles was born in 1999, just after his family had bought this house in Earlimart. (David Bacon)

Mario Robles, now 21 years old, was born the year his parents moved into a house on Sierra Avenue in Earlimart, a small farmworker town in Tulare County. It was already an old house, one of the first built by Self-Help Housing in 1965, 35 years earlier. 


A home on Bobbi Avenue in Earlimart, built in the late 1990s as a Self-Help housing project. (David Bacon)

"No one in my family knows who built it," Robles says. "But when we moved in the house was falling apart. We put a lot of work into it, and now we're really proud of it." A string of houses like the Robles's lines the south side of Sierra Avenue, all built in the same year. A few show their age, but most look like their owners have taken very good care of them, or even rebuilt them after they'd deteriorated.

These homes were the answer community activists had to the chronic crisis afflicting farmworker families-terrible housing, or even no housing at all. Today, it's still not unusual to see people living in cars when the grape harvest begins in Tulare County and migrants arrive for the picking.

Even families that live in the county year-round have to put up with homes in bad condition, paying a large part of their low farmworker wages to live in them. According to the Census, half the workers in the county earn less than $24,000 a year. Nearly a quarter of the families in Tulare get food stamps and live below the poverty line-more than a third of families headed by single women. For half of Tulare's 56,000 renters-farmworkers and other low-wage laborers-a third of family income goes for rent.

Self-Help Housing was a product of the early farmworker movement. At the end of the 1950s, Larry Itliong, for whom the Resource Center in Poplar center is named, had been organizing strikes of Filipino farmworkers for a decade, with the Filipino Farm Labor Union and later the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Cesar Chavez was getting ready to leave the Community Service Organization to found the National Farm Worker Association.

In 1958, in Tulare County, Brad McAlister, a staff member of the Farm Labor Committee of the American Friends Service Committee, brought together the first group of farmworkers to talk about a self-help model for building homes. Two years later, he went to Congress and began writing what became the Housing Act of 1961, which produced the first federal home loans for low-income rural people.

By 1963, the first 12 families had begun construction in Goshen, a tiny Tulare County community on Highway 99. From the start, both Self-Help and the UFW were part of the same rebellious movement for change among rural families. Supportive activists like Clyde Golden and George Salinas worked as carpenters on Self-Help homes in some years, and in others built the union's retirement home for Filipino strikers, Agbayani Village. 


Husband and wife Reginaldo and Gloria Lacambacal in the garage of their home. Gloria came from the Philippines 20 years ago, and worked in the fields for years. (David Bacon)

The Lacambacal family in the garage of the home in Poplar that they built as part of the Self Help program. From left, Gloria, Reynaldo, Giyahna, Reginaldo, Eddie and Eufronio. In front, Lhiann, and Jenika Gwen. (David Bacon)

In Poplar, 20 miles north, Self-Help began pulling together Filipino and Mexican immigrant families two decades ago, and helped them begin building homes on Walker Street. "We moved into our house in 2004," remembers Gina Lacambacal. "Self-Help provided the materials and it was up to us to put it up. Sometimes if we couldn't work on our own house people would come and help. All the houses in this neighborhood were built with Self-Help."

When she was growing up, she recalls, people in Poplar rented homes from the local pawnshop owner. "Our house wasn't very well built. It was ancient, but you had a roof over your head. That's all that mattered."

The Sobrepena family built their home in 1996, just a few doors away. Both the Lacambacals and Sobrepenas come from the Philippines. Family migration wasn't easy for them: It took Gina's older brothers more than 20 years to get their visas because of the system's long backlogs. Another brother had to stay unmarried for years in the Philippines, since married children lose their visa preference. He could only marry his wife once he arrived in the United States. 


Valentine Sobrepena, the oldest member of the family, prepares Filipino goat meat for a party that evening, in the garage of the home they built in 1996 as a Self-Help housing project. (David Bacon)

Christina Sobrepena is 83 years old and came from the Philippines and worked in the grapes for 20 years. She now lives in housing built as part of the Self-Help movement. (David Bacon)

Nevertheless, having a stable home gave the families a base from which other members were able to come. Valentine and Christine Sobrepena and Reginaldo and Gloria Lacambacal were brought to the country by family members who were already citizens and legal residents. The couples worked the rest of their lives as farmworkers picking grapes and other fruit. They're now in their 80s, too old to work, but they have a home with four generations of family looking out for them.

Most families in Poplar, however, are still renting. It is a tiny, unincorporated "Census-designated place," but growing. In 2000 it had 1,500 residents, and 10 years later 2,500. "We haven't seen this year's numbers yet," says Mari Perez, "but we're sure they'll be a lot higher. So we need housing more than ever." 


Rachele Alcantar at the door to her trailer, where she lives with her husband Jose Serna, her son Victor Alcantar, and her baby Ezekiel Serna. She was just elected to the local school board. (David Bacon)

Jose Serna and his sons Victor Alcantar and Ezekiel Serna. Serna is active in the local chapter of CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. (David Bacon)

Despite some rural housing construction, half the housing in Tulare County was built before 1970, and only 4 percent in the last decade. Like many Poplar residents, Rachel Alcantar lives in a trailer, paying $500 a month in rent, with her husband, Jose Serna; her son, Victor Alcantar; and her baby, Ezekiel Serna. She was just elected to Poplar's school board, and she and her husband are both immigrant rights activists with the local chapter of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "We all hoped that Self-Help would continue bringing in more families, but they stopped after the houses were built on Walker Street," Alcantar says.

A few blocks away, Lupe Aldaco moved into a house that was falling apart five years ago, and fixed it up. Then she added a tiny trailer in the backyard for her son and a friend to live in. Arturo Rodriguez, the other organizer at the Larry Itliong Resource Center, grew up in that house and remembers the condition it was in. "I just thought it was normal, the way people lived," he says. So when the center was organized, he began a campaign to take control of the local development board. 


Lupe Aldaco moved into a house that was falling apart five years ago and fixed it up. She set up this bedroom for her son when he was still a boy. (David Bacon)

Lupe Aldaco added a trailer in her backyard for her son Israel Champion and his friend Miguel Ruiz to live in. She and her family live in difficult housing because there is not enough affordable housing for working families in Poplar. (David Bacon)

"It was run by the old guard," he says, "who stopped any new housing because more people meant a threat to their control." Poplar is in the district of Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the US House of Representatives. The center finally found several acres of land for housing, but it's still fighting to get rid of restrictions the old guard put in place.

"Housing is a right," Perez laughs. "But it's also a fight. If we don't organize, we'll never get it." 


The staff of the Larry Itliong Resource Center-Arturo Rodriguez and his daughter, Mari Perez and Rachel Eyla-are organizing the residents of Poplar to demand better housing. (David Bacon)

David Bacon is author of Illegal People-How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), and The Right to Stay Home (2013), both from Beacon Press. His latest book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte, University of California Press, Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017. David Bacon's photography archive is now in the Special Collections of the Green Library at Stanford University.

Monday, December 28, 2020


By David Bacon, December 28, 2020
Stansbury Forum, https://stansburyforum.com/2020/12/28/fred-hirsch-doing-the-work-that-needed-to-be-done
Organizing Upgrade, https://organizingupgrade.com/fred-hirsch-doing-the-work-that-needed-to-be-done/

Together with immigrants, workers, union members, people of faith and community activists, Fred sat down in the street in front of the Mi Pueblo market in East Palo Alto, calling for a moratorium on deportations and the firing of undocumented workers because of their immigration status.  2014

Fred Hirsch, born in 1933, died on December 15, 2020 in San Jose.

When Adriana Garcia heard about his death, it was a blow.  “The whole South Bay is hurting,” she mourned.  Garcia heads MAIZ, a militant organization of Latina women in Silicon Valley.  For many years she and Fred co-chaired the annual May Day march from San Jose’s eastside barrio to City Hall downtown.

The recovery of May Day was one of the great political changes that took place during Fred’s lifetime.  May Day commemorates the great demonstrations in Chicago in 1886 for the eight-hour day, and the execution of the Haymarket martyrs a year later for leading them.  When Fred became a political activist and Communist in the 1950s, the holiday had become virtually illegal, a victim of Cold War hysteria.  It was called the “Communist holiday,” celebrated everywhere in the world but here.

Fred grew up in New York, where police on horseback attacked the May Day rally in the city’s Union Square in 1952.  They clubbed down mothers with strollers who were holding signs calling for justice for Willie McGee, a victim of legal lynching in Mississippi.  Years later it was no surprise that Fred helped organize a local support network for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  SNCC fought the racism and political repression in the South that killed McGee, and its courageous student activists helped end the dark years of McCarthyism.

Even by the 1970s, fear of redbaiting still kept most delegates away from the May Day events Fred would organize among delegates to the Santa Clara County (now South Bay) Labor Council.  In 2006, though, everything changed.  Millions of immigrants chose May Day, a holiday they knew well from back home, to pour into the streets, protesting a law that would have made it a felony to lack immigration papers.  Tens of thousands marched in San Jose.  In the years that followed, when Fred and Adriana asked unions to come out for May Day, they’d bring banners and arrive by the busload.

To Fred, May Day wasn’t merely a radical symbol.  It was a chance to connect union and community activists in San Jose to people far beyond the country’s borders, and to talk about a shared set of politics.  Making those connections, seeing the world joined by the bonds of a common class struggle, was the thread that ran through Fred’s politics throughout his life.

I interviewed Fred not long before his death, to understand the political history of Silicon Valley, and his own work that helped shape it.  Because Fred had been a “big C” Communist for most of his life, and a “little c” communist to its end, he viewed his long activity, not as the work of one person alone, but as the product of a history, of a set of ideas, and of a collective of people fighting together.


“A thread runs through Santa Clara Valley’s history of labor and community organizing,” he explained, “from the days of the canneries up through the heyday of industrial production in the high tech industry.  Very little organizing or political activity occurred spontaneously. There was always a small group of left-wing, class-conscious, Marxist-oriented workers who met regularly, exchanged experiences, and planned campaigns.

“It was not one single group. New people came in and others moved on. Many simply got old, retired and died. Through much of the time an important strand of that thread was the Communist Party and the many friends with whom its members worked. But other groups with similar left ideas also organized and sought to influence people.


Fred came with his union banner and members of Plumbers Local 393 to the huge march to support the drive to organize the strawberry workers in Watsonville. 1997

Fred spent his working life as a plumber and pipefitter, after joining the union in New York in 1953.  Being in the union brought political responsibilities – to defend it and the labor movement, and at the same time to fight for politics that represented the real interests of workers.  At 20 that meant opposing the Korean War, calling for peace with the Soviet Union, and opening the union’s doors to Black workers.  The local’s leaders told him plainly that once he passed his apprenticeship, they wanted him out.

He left New York with his wife Ginny and migrated to California. Leftwing politics kept him from getting work in Los Angeles as well, so they moved north.  In San Jose Fred still faced redbaiting, but Communists hadn’t been driven out of the local labor movement and their presence helped the family survive.  Fred also knew that survival depended on winning the respect of the plumbers he worked with.  In a tribute to him after he’d been a member of United Association (UA) Local 393 for 50 years, Fred was called “a good mechanic” – plumber-speak for a worker who knows his job.

Transforming the labor movement – making it not just more militant, but anti-racist and even socialist – was the ever-present idea.  Sometimes it meant organizing a trip with other unionists to show support for newspaper strikers in Detroit.  Sometimes it meant going to Colombia to expose U.S. support for a murderous government and paramilitaries out to obliterate the union for oil workers.  Sometimes it just meant showing up at a farmworkers boycott picket line in front of Safeway, in his VW van full of copies of the Communist newspaper, the People’s World.

Transforming the labor movement was part of Fred’s hope when he, Ginny and their daughter Liza moved to Delano in 1967, after the grape strike had been going on for two years.  “The work they were doing in Delano,” he later remembered, “led me to hope that one day farmworkers could stimulate a transformation of our rather moribund AFL-CIO into a real labor movement.  It seemed achievable.  The organization of ill-fed, ill-housed, and ill-clothed agricultural workers, who truly had ‘nothing to lose but their chains and a world to win’ could change the shape of the workers’ struggle in California.  Farmworkers, in their hundreds of thousands, could potentially provide a model of workers’ power that could lead organized labor into a new and militant era.”


Fred and some of the workers fired at the Mi Pueblo market because of their immigration status went into the store to confront managers and security guards, demanding their jobs back. 2011

Fred was physically courageous, and was beaten by foremen and strikebreakers as he went into fields, ostensibly to serve legal papers, but in reality to organize.  Having been roughed up in his own union by fearful and angry right-wingers, someone should have told the scabs it would only make him more determined, and it did.  But even in Delano he faced redbaiting, when the leaders of the then-called United Farm Workers Organizing Committee wouldn’t give him a real assignment.  He called it “an anti-ideological hand-me-down from the prejudices of Saul Alinsky.”

But soon he was working with older Filipino workers, the “manongs,” chasing railroad cars shipping struck grapes out of Delano and the San Joaquin Valley.  In order to track their movements and stop them, “We were to call a special number and report our whereabouts to our Filipino brothers, who would move pins on the map to follow the progress of the grapes.”  In these old men Fred knew he’d found veterans of decades of strikes in the fields, going all the way back to the 1930s.  He also knew he’d found a group of workers, Communists among them, who despite their age brought radical politics into the early United Farm Workers.


Fred always had his eyes on the workers at the base of any union.  He pinpointed early on the problems in the UFW’s structure that would ultimately weaken it.  “There was a weakness in what I saw in Delano,” he recalled later, “that kept gnawing at me. Yes, the workers were getting organized, but they were not necessarily organizing themselves.”  Fred’s politics inherited a set of principles from the Communist, socialist and anarchist traditions in the U.S. labor movement – that the power in the union comes from workers at the base who should control it, and that the more politically conscious those workers are, the greater capacity for fighting the union will have.

Finally, he and Ginny left Delano when Robert F. Kennedy won the union’s support for his presidential campaign.  Fred later acknowledged that if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, the union would have won crucial support it needed in Washington.  But he and Ginny remembered Kennedy as an aide to Senator Joe McCarthy, and later as the author of deregulation that destroyed much of the power of organized truckers.  Even though Liza was later brutally redbaited and purged from the UFW, Fred continued to support the efforts of farmworkers themselves.  “The UFW helped shape the life of our family,” he said.  “Whatever its failings or accomplishments, it nurtured and developed a generation of organizers and activists who continue to make a positive impact on trade unionism and the political life of our nation.”


Fred speaks at a rally at City Hall at the end of the May Day march. 2010


Back in San Jose Fred was a key organizer of the huge upsurge of the civil rights and anti-war movements that transformed the politics of the Santa Clara Valley.  His comrade-in-arms was Sofia Mendoza, who with her husband Gil and other Chicano community activists in the San Jose barrio began organizing against the Vietnam War.

The first of the student blowouts, which helped launch the Chicano movement, took place at San Jose’s Roosevelt Junior High in 1968.  That led to student walkouts in Los Angeles, and eventually to the huge Chicano Moratorium march against the Vietnam War up Whittier Boulevard.  In San Jose the movement began organizing marches on City Hall, and formed a committee to stop police brutality, the Community Alert Patrol (CAP). “The police had guns, mace and billy clubs,” Mendoza remembered.  “They were always ready to attack us. It seemed as if nobody could stop what the police were doing.”

But CAP did stop them.  Its members monitored police activity, much as the Black Panthers were doing in Oakland, documenting police beatings and arrests.  Students organizing for ethnic studies classes at San Jose State University became some of CAP’s most active members, at the same time fighting to get military recruiters off the campus. CAP had the participation of Communists, socialists, Chicano nationalists and other leftwing groups.

Sofia, Fred and others believed San Jose needed a multi-issue organization to confront the many problems people faced in the barrios – discriminatory education, lack of medical services, poor housing, and of course the police. “We wanted an organization that was not limited to one ethnic group, that would organize our entire community,” she later recalled.  “We called ourselves United People Arriba – United People Upward -because it got the idea across that people from different ethnic backgrounds were coming together in San Jose to work for social change – Blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and whites working together in one organization.”  Today Silicon Valley De-Bug’s Albert Covarrubias Justice Project, the community organizing of Somos Mayfair, and the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network all carry on the legacy of CAP and UP Arriba.

In 1972 Angela Davis, African American revolutionary feminist and then-leader of the Communist Party (CP), went on trial in San Jose, charged with kidnapping and murder, accused of providing the guns used by Jonathan Jackson in an attempt to free his brother, George, a leader of the Black political prisoners’ movement. Davis’ historic acquittal was the product of an international campaign that succeeded because a strong local committee mobilized support.  Ginny Hirsch, assisted by Fred, researched every person named as a potential juror, work that ensured the jury included people open and fair about the prosecution’s false accusations. This kind of community research has since become a powerful tool in other trials of political activists.


On the first day of a three-day hunger strike to protest the firings of workers because of their immigration status, Fred speaks at a rally in downtown San Jose. 2010


The South Bay’s first fights against deportations began with the government’s effort to deport Lucio Bernabe, a cannery worker organizer.  His defense was mounted by the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, put on the Attorney General’s list of “subversive organizations.”  Further fights against raids in Silicon Valley electronic plants like Solectron, and garment factories like Levi’s, led Fred and other activists to oppose the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.  Although the law provided amnesty to undocumented people, which they supported, activists warned that the law’s prohibition on hiring workers without papers would lead to massive firings and attacks on unions.  The law also reinstituted the hated “bracero” contract labor program, which Fred’s compañeros Bert Corona and Ernesto Galarza had fought all through the McCarthyite years.

In fighting IRCA, Fred challenged the AFL-CIO’s support for the bill, along with other beltway advocacy groups in Washington DC.  They argued that if undocumented people were driven from their jobs and couldn’t work, they’d go home and leave the jobs to “us.”  Fred and his cohorts lost the battle when the law passed in 1986, but continued to organize until they succeeded in 1998, when the AFL-CIO reversed its position, and called for amnesty and labor rights for immigrants.  When similar immigration bills were introduced in years afterwards, Fred again defied the liberal Washington DC establishment and supported instead the Dignity Campaign for an immigration policy based on immigrant and labor rights.


In 1973 Chileans began to arrive in San Jose, and Father Cuchulainn Moriarty made Sacred Heart church on Alma Street the resettlement center for those who fled the fascist coup.  Enraged, not just at the CIA’s organization of the coup, but at the deep complicity of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, Fred wrote one of the most damning exposes of its work, “An Analysis of our AFL-CIO Role in Latin America, or Under the Covers with the CIA.”

In just a relatively few pages, he did more than document the sordid history of the AFL-CIO’s support for fascism in Chile.  The small pamphlet became the tool used by leftwing labor activists for many years, in the long struggle to cut the ties between the U.S. labor movement and the anti-communist intelligence apparatus of the government.


Fred marching in San Francisco, opposing U.S. intervention in El Salvador. 1990

It was a long fight.  In 1978 the first Salvadoran Communists and trade unionists appeared in San Jose, looking for help after the U.S. supported the Salvadoran government, and trained its death squads at the School of the Americas.  It was the beginning of the Salvadoran civil war, and over the next decade two million Salvadorans sought refuge in the U.S., ironically, for what the U.S. itself was doing to their country. The first Salvadorans fleeing the death squads deployed against unions in the late 1970s sought out the Hirsch home on 16th Street.  To expose what had made them flee, Fred and his comrades organized the Labor Action Committee on El Salvador, a forerunner of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.  Their work was so effective that when they invited Salvadoran leftwing trade unionists to come to the U.S. as guests of the South Bay Labor Council, the AFL-CIO’s president George Meany threatened to throw the council into trusteeship.

Mexican miners came north during a bitter strike at the huge Nacozari copper mine in Sonora, finding money and friends in San Jose.  Fred went to Colombia and came back with another long report.  He told labor council delegates, “I’m a retired plumber who’s been around the block a few times. I’m not easily moved, but in Colombia I saw a daily life reality I’d only glimpsed before, mostly in nightmares … We have to stop sending our taxes and soldiers to protect corporate interests in Colombia.”  And when unions were pressured to supporting President George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he responded by convincing his plumber’s local to send money to start U.S. Labor Against the War.

These were all solidarity actions from below, not only intended to provide support for workers themselves, but to show to the members of his own union the consequences of the actions of U.S. corporations, and the imperial system from which they profit.  In Fred’s way of organizing, solidarity was a way to help his fellow pipefitters understand that the unions of Mexico, Chile or El Salvador were their true allies, and to reject the idea that unions here should defend a system that attacked them.


Fred was not a voice in the wilderness, however, speaking out by himself.  He saw a common interest between immigrants and native-born, between workers of color and white workers, between unions in the U.S. and those around the world.  He never stopped trying to explain that class gave them something in common, and he found effective ways to convince white workers in particular that fighting racism and imperialism was in their own interest.  Whether organizing for a progressive immigration policy or for solidarity with leftwing unions in El Salvador, Colombia and Iraq, he brought his own union’s members with him, along with delegates to his labor council, progressive elected officials, and many others.

Fred supported every significant social movement that arose in the South Bay for over six decades, but he never believed that a spontaneous upsurge would suddenly defeat capitalism.  He believed in organization, not just of unions and communities, but of political activists.  For many years he thought those activists could find a political home and education in the Communist Party, and an organization capable of planning a lifetime struggle to win socialism. At the end of his life he was no longer sure that the party was that organization, but if not the CP, some organization would have to play that role, he thought.

“It would have to have a clear focus on a socialist and democratic future in a world without war,” he told me at the end of our conversation. “It would have to fight injustice in our communities and worksites, our nation and our planet, promote serious education about the process for social change and organize people to take to the streets.”

Real revolutionaries in his beloved labor movement, he thought, need to band together to fight racism and sexism “all through the institutions and culture of our society.”  And in doing all this, they should be humble, willing to do the work that needs doing, and glad to take leadership from the people around them.  In short, Fred wanted “an organization like the Communist Party we dreamed and worked for so many years ago, but more effective than we were. Without it wonderful working class leftists will continue making enormous efforts to build progressive movements that ebb and flow, but won’t develop a strategy and build a base of their own.”

In the outpouring of messages from activists hearing of his death, it was apparent that plenty of people had absorbed Fred’s ideas.  Virginia Rodriguez, the daughter of farmworkers and a lifetime labor organizer like him, passed away before he did.  But she shared his confidence in a vision of an ongoing core of politically committed activists. “I came to believe,” she said, “that there will always be those individuals who will respond to the outer edges of what needs to be done, and who will step forward to take up responsibility for what is called for if change is to take place.  In so doing, these people help move others to come along. It underscores the principle that if enough of us carry out a piece of what needs to be done, then change will most certainly come.”


Adriana Garcia, eight months pregnant, with members of MAIZ in the same May Day march, which she co-chaired with Fred. 2010

Thanks to the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project for preserving the memories of Fred Hirsch, Virginia Rodriguez and many others of their experiences working with the United Farm Workers.

All photographs are Copyright David Bacon.

This article is being published jointly by Organizing Upgrade and The Stansbury Forum.

Thursday, December 17, 2020


By David Bacon
Truthout Photoessay, 12/17/20

Newly elected Oakland City Council member Carroll Fife speaks to a rally in Oakland, California, calling for cancelling rents. Aja, the daughter of Dominique Walker, stands beside her.


Rent strikes have spread across the country with the spread of the coronavirus. In the pandemic's first months, 400 New York City families stopped paying rent in buildings with over 1,500 rental units. In May, rent strikes involving 200,000 tenants spread to Philadelphia and elsewhere. Washington, D.C., in September saw tenant unions spring up in strikes at the Tivoli Gardens Apartments and the Woodner, as well as Southern Towers in nearby Alexandria.

Rent strikes had a history as a resistance tactic before the pandemic hit. Cleveland tenants settled a rent strike in February, after 38 families forced concessions on the landlord of the 348-unit Vue Apartments in Beachwood. San Francisco had a famous rent strike that went on for three years at the Midtown Park Apartments, ending in 2017.

But with the pandemic, rent strikes have become a widespread response to brutal economic pressure. According to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, 16.5 million families who rent housing lost income when the crisis began. Its October report states, "Nearly 50 percent of households in California have lost employment income since March of 2020, and one in five households (20.7 percent) indicated that they have no or only slight confidence that they have the ability to pay their mortgage or rent next month."  

According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 24.6 percent of apartment households were not paying rent as of December 6. But even before the pandemic, 16.8 percent had not paid their rent in a survey made a year earlier. A website set up by Bay Area tenant activists, Bay Area Rent Strike, notes that 78 percent of the people in the U.S. live paycheck to paycheck. The group urges people who can't pay to act collectively - to "work together to prevent eviction and foreclosure." It adds: "We must demand an immediate suspension of rent and mortgage payments for everyone. And if this demand is not met, we must refuse to pay our rents and our mortgages, together."

Cancelling rents was the demand that spread across the country with the strikes. In April, Cea Weaver, organizer for New York's Housing Justice for All, said cancelling rent "is the demand of the rent strike." In Los Angeles, Larry Gross, director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, says the city is full of rent strikes pushing for rent and mortgage forgiveness. Voicing that demand, the LA Tenants Union grew from 400 to 2,000 members in 2020.

Yet, despite LA's strong tenant protections against eviction, enacted at the beginning of the crisis with no end date, the housing battle continues. "People occupying the CalTrans housing were forcefully removed," Gross charged in an email interview. "That was fashioned after the Oakland mothers' effort." In March, housing activists occupied homes purchased by CalTrans which the agency intended to demolish for a freeway, but then kept vacant for years. On November 26, Highway Patrol in riot gear took them out and arrested many.

Los Angeles activists were inspired by Moms 4 Housing, a collective of homeless and marginally housed mothers who occupied a vacant Oakland home in 2019 and forced the city to find financing for its purchase, igniting a wave of housing activism. Carroll Fife, a Moms 4 Housing member, was elected to the Oakland City Council in large part as a consequence. On December 5, she spoke to a rally organized by several tenants' unions, just prior to a caravan to the buildings where rent strikes are taking place. 


Carroll Fife speaks to the Oakland rally.

 Carroll Fife speaks to the Oakland rally.


With the pandemic, rent strikes have become a widespread response to brutal economic pressure.

"People said cancelling rents was ridiculously radical and not popular," Fife declared, as the daughter of another activist squirmed and danced beside her. "But District 3 is ground zero for displacement, and people here think otherwise. We think a different reality is possible. The current paradigm in this country is not only not working - it is killing us."

The caravan then set out. First a bicycle hauling a huge speaker, emblazoned with the slogan "Cancel Rent Debt" left a Lake Merritt parking lot, heading into the densely populated downtown apartment district. Following it came other bicycles, with slogans taped to their frames. Skateboarders and roller skaters snaked among them. And finally came the cars, with placards fixed to their windows and doors.


A caravan of bicycles and cars leaves Lake Merritt, as the lead bicycle pulls a banner with the action's demand: Cancel the Rent.
A huge speaker with the action's demand is pulled with the march, playing music and speeches from participants on a connected bluetooth link.

Bicycling tenants call for cancelling the rent.

The caravan arrives in front of a building where tenants are on a rent strike.

The caravan, organized by the JDW Tenants Union, Alice Tenant Union, the People's Tenants Union, Onday Tenants Council and Veritas Tenants Association, held impromptu rallies in front of several buildings where organized tenants have stopped paying rent.


The banner produced by the caravan organizers taped to a car door.


A statement was read from one group, the SMC Tenants Council, at a building owned by the Sullivan Management Company. "We have been forced to advocate for our rights and our housing against a corporate landlord that is backed by hedge funds and billionaires," it charged. "Our corporate landlord has ample resources to forgive rent to its tenants for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis but chooses instead to squeeze its tenants, who have lost jobs and federal assistance."

Councilwoman Fife is the director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), which helps organize and support rent strikes throughout the state. "The 'shelter in place' orders will end," ACCE warns. "The crisis for low-income and working families will not. Even before the crisis, most of us were living paycheck to paycheck. With the loss of income, there is no way for most Californians to pay back rent or back mortgage payments that went unpaid during the crisis. Basic common sense dictates that because we won't be getting back pay, we have no way to pay back housing payments." 

Cancelling the rent, ACCE says, is the only solution.

A driver holds up his fist in a car with his demands taped to the windows.
Skateboarders and a Segway rider in the caravan.
A roller-skating tenant calls for ending capitalism.
Two bicycle participants with the caravan banners.
Mo Green, a member of the ACCE People's Tenants Union, calls for canceling rents.
An activist urges tenants to join the tenants union.

Saturday, November 21, 2020


By David Bacon
Capital & Main, November 20, 2020


An organizer talks at lunchtime with a D'Arrigo Brothers worker with a union button on her cap. 


All photos by David Bacon.  These photos are housed in the Special Collections of the Green Library at Stanford University.  https://exhibits.stanford.edu/bacon

Sidebar below: How a Labor Law Evened the Balance of Power in California's Fields

Not long before Donald Trump's election in 2016, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed suit against California's farmworker access rule in federal court on behalf of two companies - Cedar Point Nursery in Siskiyou County and the Fowler Packing Company in Fresno. The foundation is a conservative libertarian group that holds property rights sacred and campaigns against racial equity. It fought hard for the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the high court.

The access regulation, which took effect after the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, allows union organizers to come onto a grower's property in the morning before work to talk with workers. According to the labor board's handbook, "The access regulations of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board are meant to insure that farm workers, who often may be contacted only at their work place, have an opportunity to be informed with minimal interruption of working activities."


Two UFW organizers walk into a D'Arrigo Brothers broccoli field in Salinas, 1994.

The board requires that the union give notice to the employer before taking access, and that organizers not disrupt work. They can talk only for an hour before and after work and during lunch, and can take access for only a total of 120 days during a year.

Growers have always hated the access rule, and many at first refused to obey. Former United Farm Workers organizer Fred Ross Jr. remembers being arrested several times in Santa Maria for taking access. "This was all about power and who had it," he says. "Growers had it all, and their workers none. They wanted to dominate. For them, workers didn't even have the right to talk."

The suit filed by the PLF, Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, attracted more than the predictable support of the California and American Farm Bureaus. Amicus briefs came from a host of right-wing legal bodies, including the Mountain States and Southeastern Legal Foundations, the Pelican and Cato institutes, and even the Republican attorneys general of Oklahoma, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas. The company brief conjured up visions of "stampedes of third-party organizers" and warned, "If such a rule proliferates, property owners throughout much of the nation will see their rights greatly diminished as governments increasingly sanction invasions of their property."

 During the 2007 UFW campaign to organize grape pickers for the huge VBZ grower in Delano, organizer Yolanda Serna talks to workers eating lunch.

Had the political atmosphere in the country not changed in the 40 years since the regulation has been in effect, the suit might never have been filed at all. Agribusiness challenged the access rule from its inception and went all the way to the California Supreme Court, where the growers lost in 1976. In the last decade, however, visions of a liberal U.S. Supreme Court evaporated in the final years of the Obama administration, and Trump's election led to the appointment of three right-wing justices, giving the court a 6-3 conservative majority.

 An organizer, on leave from his job as a lettuce worker, talks with D'Arrigo Brothers broccoli cutters on their lunch break. (1994)

When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Nov. 13 to hear the growers' appeal from their loss at the U.S. Court of Appeals, many legal observers became concerned. "State court decisions over state issues used to be respected by the U.S. Supreme Court," says Jerry Cohen, who helped write the law as the legal director for the UFW. "States' rights used to be a Republican issue. Now the end product is all that matters."

That end product is a continued erosion of power for farmworker unions. "Without the rule the union seems to workers like it's not legitimate, and there really is no right to talk," Ross says. "Losing it reinforces the growers' power and control. It's one more blow to the right to organize."

The mundane genesis of the current suit was a short strike in Dorris, near the Oregon border, where hundreds of farmworkers migrate from Southern California every year to trim young strawberry plants. In 2015, according to one worker, Jessica Rodriguez, the company paid low wages, had dirty bathrooms and harassed and intimidated workers. They called the United Farm Workers, which sent organizers and filed under the access rule to talk with them on the property. The strike lasted for just a day. At Fowler Packing the union filed for access to talk with an unrelated group of workers, and the company simply refused to let organizers onto the property.

 Julio Ramirez talks to a strawberry worker in the fields of the Gargiulo Corp. in Watsonville, 1977. Ramirez was a lettuce cutter and longtime UFW member.

Over the years the access rule became a valuable tool for organizing workers. Jerry Cohen remembers his discussions with UFW founder Cesar Chavez, during negotiations with then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed the law during his first term in 1975. "Cesar told us to get things that were practical, that could help workers organize," he recalls. "Where workers are together it's easier for the union to talk with them."

The access regulation came into effect at a time when the UFW was strong. The balance of power between workers and growers had shifted, and by the early 1980s more than 40,000 farmworkers had union contracts. To Eliseo Medina, who grew up in a farmworker family and became a leading organizer, "The rule was a very clear example that growers were not all-powerful. It was a huge change. People saw organizers coming onto the properties, and could have a conversation at work about their future. It gave people confidence that change was possible."

In 1996, when a huge campaign began to organize the strawberry industry in Watsonville, organizers visited picking crews in dozens of fields. They taped butcher paper on the walls of the Porta Potties, and held meetings where strawberry workers wrote down their demands for raising some of the lowest wages in agriculture, for health benefits and an end to discrimination in hiring. Then in field meetings they planned marches to the company offices, where the demands were announced.

 Two farmworkers, who have left their jobs to work as organizers for the United Farm Workers, hold a meeting at lunchtime with a crew of strawberry pickers, 1997.

In 2015 the access rule was used in McFarland in the San Joaquin Valley, where workers angry over a wage cut went on strike. They called in UFW organizers, who used meetings in the fields during lunch and after work to collect signatures on an election petition. After workers voted overwhelmingly for the union, the blueberry pickers chose a ranch committee and eventually negotiated a contract with Gourmet Trading.

When Pacific Legal Foundation argued its case in 2017 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where it ultimately lost, its attorney Wen Fa declared, "The growers have no problem in the union talking with workers. It's where they talk with the workers. ... [There are] plenty of alternative means for the union to talk with workers ... All the workers [at Cedar Point Nursery and Fowler Packing Company] live in houses or hotels. Many have cellphones."

 Susana Cervantes, a Union Summer intern and student from East Los Angeles, talks to strawberry pickers on their lunch break during the first year of a big UFW organizing drive in 1997.

The ALRA had recognized, however, that it's harder for farmworkers to organize than for other workers, and set up a much quicker process for gaining union recognition than the National Labor Relations Act did for other workers in 1936. Because farmworkers work only for a season, which can last just weeks, union representation elections take place a week after workers petition for them, and within just 48 hours if there's a strike.

 Efren Barajas, UFW organizing director, holds a worksite meeting with strawberry workers on their lunch break during the Watsonville organizing drive of 1998.

Growers are required to furnish a list of workers with addresses. "Those lists are notoriously bad, though," Medina laughs. Most Cedar Point workers actually live hundreds of miles from their seasonal jobs. Addresses in Mexico are very hard to find, and workers on this side of the border often live in isolated colonias scattered over a huge geographical area. "By winning access it was easier to get their addresses so we could visit them, especially those who were afraid to talk in front of the foreman," Ross explains.

The difficulty of reaching workers outside of work is even greater for a growing segment of the farm labor workforce- those workers brought to the U.S. under temporary H-2A visas. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Labor allowed California growers to fill 23,321 jobs with these contract laborers. "H-2A workers would be even more impacted by losing the access rule," Medina charges. "They don't have the legal right to organize - even undocumented workers have more rights than H-2A workers. They're living in barracks under the growers' 24-hour control. In Delano growers are taking over whole motels and making them into labor camps."

The union, however, has used the access rule less frequently over the years. In her defense of it, ALRB chairwoman Victoria Hassid noted that it filed for access at only 62 of the 16,000 agricultural employers in California in 2015. "There is no indication," she wrote, "that the access regulation poses a significant problem for California farms ... petitioners have not actually alleged any negative economic impact on them (or anyone else) resulting from the regulation."

 In 1994 D'Arrigo Brothers workers, after a UFW march from Delano to Sacramento, were inspired to march to the office of the company after work to demand a union contract.

Pacific Legal Foundation's Wen Fa made the growers' root argument in response: "The Constitution forbids government from forcing property owners to allow unwanted strangers onto their property, and there is no exception for union activists."

In an interview with this author, Fa claimed that growers' economic losses growing out of the access rule could be "significant," but couldn't say specifically what they are. "This case is about property rights," he said. In his winning defense of the access rule before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Matthew Weiss, deputy attorney general for the ALRB, noted that the effort to knock out the rule simply "privileges private property interests over all others."

UFW general counsel Mario Martinez says the effort to knock out the access rule is further evidence of a history of racism toward farmworkers.

"The federal government has excluded farmworkers from all labor law protections under the National Labor Relations Act for 85 years," he charges. "In light of this racially discriminatory exclusion, California granted to agricultural workers important labor protections to balance the historical imbalance of power between farmworkers and growers. A court review of California's legislation appears to be another attempt to unfairly discriminate."

The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear arguments in the case early next year and will probably rule by July.

 Aquiles Hernandez, an indigenous Mixtec farmworker and former teacher activist in Mexico, informs Mixtec-speaking workers at Gourmet Trading about their labor rights during a lunchtime access period in 2016.

By David Bacon
Capital & Main, November 20, 2020

 D'Arrigo Brothers workers demonstrate outside the company office, 1998.

In the winter of 1976, a year after the Agricultural Labor Relations Act took effect, lettuce cutters at George Arakelian Farms Inc. began organizing a union. The men lived in Mexicali, Mexico, just south of California's Imperial Valley. Every day they left home at 2 a.m. and walked to the border. After crossing it, the company labor contractor put them into cars. As each clunker was filled, it took off for the Palo Verde Valley, a two-hour drive across the desert.

Union organizers also met the workers at the border and followed the cars. When they all arrived at the fields, however, the crews couldn't immediately start work. In the winter,  water freezes inside the lettuce. If a cutter grabs a head to harvest it, the ice cuts into the leaves and they wilt. Everyone has to wait for the ice to melt, when work can start.

Next to the fields, workers lit fires in 55-gallon drums. In those moments when they stood warming their hands and talking with the organizers, the union at Arakelian Farms began to take form. The laborers asked about the benefit plans, their rights under the new labor law and when they might be able to vote the union in. They set up a ranch committee to make decisions and convince the unconvinced.

When the ice finally melted, they began to cut, almost running down the rows with their knives. Packers followed, tossing boxes of lettuce onto trucks. No one took lunch. When the company filled its daily order, workers jumped into their cars and drove back to the border. They walked home with just with enough time to eat, say hi to their kids, catch a few hours'  sleep, and then wake up again and leave at 2.

Organizing their union this way was possible because of the access regulation, formulated by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. The regulation allowed the organizers to come onto Arakelian's property in the morning before work to talk with the lettuce cutters. After a few weeks of field meetings, workers and organizers filed a petition for an election, which the union won 139-12.

Like many growers, however, Arakelian refused to negotiate a contract. It took nearly 10 years before the California Supreme Court found Arakelian had violated its obligation to bargain with its workers. Other parts of the law had to be changed to solve that problem, and George Arakelian Farms is no longer in business. The workers have moved on. But from the beginning, the access rule was the tool they, and others like them, used to help even the balance of power with the growers.

Monday, November 16, 2020


by Nick Rahaim
Tropics of Meta: historiography for the masses -  November 11, 2020
Stanford Libraries, Special Collections


The hands of Manuel Ortiz show a life of work


Manuel Ortiz held out his hands to the camera, revealing decades of toil - callouses, scars and creases embedded with soil that multiple hand washings wouldn't scrub clean. Photographer David Bacon first saw him in 2015 as he pushed a shopping cart full of cans and bottles through an alley in Yakima, Washington. Ortiz first came to the United States in the 1950s under the Bracero program and continued working the agricultural fields of California and Washington for six decades.

But when he met Bacon, Ortiz was in his mid-80s and too old to work in fields, so he redeemed cans and bottles to cobble together enough money for rent and food. With a single photo in Bacon's signature style - an uncropped black and white image set in a hard black border marking the edge of the full frame - he captured decades of hard labor that provided food for millions, but more importantly he reveals the continued strength Ortiz's hands hold to survive in a society that had continually undervalued his work.

"It's a powerful image," said Roberto Trujillo, associate university librarian and director of Stanford Libraries' Special Collections. "An elderly man's hands, just his powerful hand, scarred and worn from working in the fields day in and day out for probably all his adult life."

The photograph of Ortiz, entitled "The hands of Manuel Ortiz show a life of work," is one of 200,000 images spanning three decades shot by Bacon that are now housed in Stanford Libraries' Special Collections, which acquired Bacon's archive in the winter of 2019. The collection was launched this fall under the exhibit title Work and Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford, after more than a year of cataloging the images, original film negatives, color transparencies and digital files.

"David Bacon's career as a photojournalist and author represents working class history and social justice movements that transformed political landscapes internationally," said Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez, Ph.D., a historian who works in the Department of Special Collections at Stanford who worked closely with Bacon on the acquisition of his archive. "David's work highlights communities that are often ignored by mainstream media and brings them from the margins of society to the forefront."

Bacon, 72 and a labor organizer-turned-photojournalist, has been at the frontlines of social justice movements since his youth, starting as a student activist in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the mid-1960s. In the mid-1980s, after working as an organizer for the United Farm Workers and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, among others, Bacon picked up a camera and began training his lens on the people he had worked with closely for nearly two decades. In the subsequent years, Bacon documented workers in the fields, strikes by teachers and hotel workers in cities, poverty and homelessness in the streets, May Day marches for immigrants' rights and even the struggle of Iraqi workers during the United States' occupation of the country following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"Activism, the feeling this work is part of a movement for social justice has been central to everything I've done," Bacon said.

His work has brought him to Asia, Europe and throughout Latin America and has revealed the human faces behind many political struggles. But there's a common thread tying every photo together: People banning together to fight corporate greed, globalization and politics that both divide and displace workers and their families.

"What has always impressed me with David's work is how he purposely tried to capture the humanity of people who are struggling to make it, to just survive," Trujillo said. "His work also deals with labor and laborers at an international scale that's quite impressive for the work of a single man."

The David Bacon Photography Archive complements the Bob Fitch Photography Archive, which boasts 200,000 images from the civil rights movement and farm worker struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Together the two archives provide nearly 400,000 images covering six decades of social movements in California and beyond.

The hands of Manuel Ortiz show a life of work captured in the single image, through the David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford, a life's work in photos will be maintained in perpetuity. Scholars and writers scouring the archives of labor and immigrant rights activists including Bert Corona or of organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance and National Council of La Raza, all held at Stanford Libraries' Special Collections, now have access to the faces and human form behind the primary-source documents on the struggle for social justice.



Bert Corona, father of the modern immigrant rights movement, and his son, Ernesto

Bert Corona looks intently into Bacon's camera lens, but there's something enigmatic in his expression - a bemused seriousness or perhaps a stern contentment. Over Corona's left shoulder stands his young grandson, Eduardo, who's approaching adolescence and gives a quizzical look as the tip of a small American flag rises toward his face. The following year, 2001, Corona will pass at 82 years old.

"That image of Bert just stuck out," Trujillo said. "It's Bert, it's just Bert. It shows his anger, his humanity, his compassion and his passion for his work."

Corona's name might not have the recognition of some of his contemporaries in the labor and Chicano rights movements of the middle 20th century, but his impact still shapes the political landscape in California today.

"He was the father of the modern immigrant rights movement because it was Bert who said that the Mexican people, especially Mexican workers, living in the United States, especially in LA, were going to be the basis for radical social change, and he was right," Bacon said. "A lot of the work I have in archive chronicles and documents the latter part of that history."

In the 1930s Corona became an influential member of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) where he organized low-paid, mostly Spanish speaking workers in Los Angeles. Outside of labor organizing, he was active in many early Mexican American political groups including El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española and the Asociación Nacional Mexicano Americano. By the rise of Chicano movement in the 1960s, Corona was already a respected elder statesman who was one of the earliest champions of the rights of undocumented workers when much of the labor movement was hostile to them. For Bacon, there's a direct through-line from Corona's early activism to the May Day marches that bring millions to the streets demanding justice and dignity for those without papers.

This concern for the undocumented likely grew from Corona's binational childhood on the border. His father was an anarcho-syndicalist who was a comandante in Francisco Villa's Division del Norte during the Mexican Revolution, but had to flee after post-revolution politics in Mexico made it dangerous for him to stay in Mexico. He moved to El Paso, Texas where Corona was born. This also marks a similarity with Bacon's own life: Bacon's father was a printer and union leader in New York City who ended up on a McCarthy-era blacklist for alleged communist ties and lost his job in 1953. So at a young age Bacon moved with his family from Brooklyn to Oakland, California where his father was able to find work.

Corona's father would later be granted amnesty by the Mexican government only to be murdered shortly after for his political activity. The Bacon family was never exposed to violence, but the experience of being uprooted at an early age because of political persecution informed Bacon's politics and shaped his approach to photography.


On the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. families greet other family members on the U.S. side.

In the global economy capital faces few barriers while crossing international borders, while people face many. Few images capture this fact as starkly as three family members standing at a rusted border wall with chipped paint worn by weather and sun. An older woman has placed her hands on the wall, intently looking at a family member on the other side who is hidden from view. Her face is full of love, but there is little joy in her expression, rather a longing for an embrace she's legally prohibited from giving.

Bacon took this photo at Parque de Amistad, or Friendship Park, in Tijuana, Mexico in 2017. Every Sunday families gather at the park, close to where the border wall runs into the Pacific Ocean, to speak with loved ones through metal grates. The family pictured came 1,500 miles from the state of Puebla in central Mexico for the chance to see their family.

Much of Bacon's work has focused on the border and migration, as neither are separated from the struggle for justice in fields, factories and hotels. In fact he has written numerous books on this nexus, including: The Children of NAFTA (2004), Communities Without Borders (2006), Illegal People - How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), The Right to Stay Home (2013) and In the Fields of the North/En Los Campos del Norte (2017).

While borders, walls and inhumane immigration policies keep people separated, the solidarity in the struggle Bacon has spent a lifetime documenting knows no borders.


Jane Algoso cuts dead fronds from the trunks of banana trees

Jane Algoso should have been in school, but the 11-year-old held a sickle to cut dead palm fronds from the trunk of a banana tree in Mindanao, Philippines for 50 peso a day. The child wore rubber boats to navigate the muddy ground in the Soyapa Farms banana plantation. Algoso looks strong and healthy, but she's in the middle of a chemically intensive monoculture controlled by the Dole Food Company.

Bacon travelled to the Philippines in 1997 to report on child labor and strikes by four cooperatives against the poverty-level prices Dole paid for their harvest. In a struggle to survive, many farmers pulled their children out of school to help in the fields. Bacon's article and photos ran on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Christmas Day that year. His writing and pictures of Algoso and other children working in plantations added to the growing international pressure on Dole to meet the demands of the striking farmers and pay fair prices. With better pay farmers would be able to send their children to school.

"After they won their strike prices went up," Bacon said. "I went back to the community 20 years later to meet with the same people and I saw they were living a good life compared to what things were like before."

While Bacon went to the Philippians to document Filipinos organizing against exploitation by a large corporation from the United States, many photos in the David Bacon Photography Archive also document Filipinos organizing in the United States. From the earliest days of the United Farm Workers movement, Filipino Americans organized alongside Mexican Americans for justice in the fields.

Under globalization that started to accelerate in the 1990s, unions, strikes and protections against child labor were seen as "barriers to trade." Activists from across the globe descended on Seattle, Washington in November of 1999 to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference and free trade agreements that would hurt working people in the pursuit of greater profit and economic growth. The example of children working in banana trees was one among myriad grievances brought by activists. 


 Police arrested demonstrators as they sat in and blocked intersections


A police officer in full body armor stood motionless holding a baton with eyes resting intently on something out-of-frame. At his feet were protesters sitting on the pavement with their hands zip tied behind their backs. A young woman's mouth hung slightly ajar with a look of exasperation on her face. To her left, a man with a bandaged head and scrapes on his face looked at the police officer with displeasure.

Bacon went to what would later be known as the Battle of Seattle and reported on the protests against unchecked global capitalism. More than 40,000 people took to the streets, in a coalition of labor unions, indigenous groups, environmentalists and international NGOs. There were marches, rallies, teach-ins, and a few acts of vandalism.

Some sat and laid in intersections to block traffic in direct actions to disrupt the WTO talks, many of whom were arrested by police. As demonstrations intensified police met protesters with rubber bullets and teargas. The global talks failed amidst the maylay and hundreds of people were arrested by police - 157 of whom were found to have been detained without probable cause and received settlements from the city of Seattle.

Thirty-five years prior in Berkeley, California, Bacon left a demonstration in handcuffs. Early in the Free Speech Movement he took part in the occupation of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley in December 1964 and was the youngest person arrested. Bacon was still attending Berkeley High School but was enrolled in classes at the university at the time.

"Our finals were given while I was in jail and the university didn't let us take an incomplete or retake the final," he said. "For all intents and purposes I was thrown out, many others were too."

So Bacon, bypassed his formal academic studies and went to the factory floor before becoming a full-time union organizer like his father before him.



Outside the labor camp, the children of strikers at Sakuma Brothers Farms set up their own picket line on a fence at the gate


Six children stood on a bench behind a barbed-wire fence giving toothy, excited smiles to Bacon's camera in 2013. They had set up their own picket line as their parents went on strike for union recognition and better pay in Burlington, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle. One boy raises a fist in solidarity and a girl holds a placard that reads Justicia Para Todos, justice for everyone.

Most of their parents had migrated from to the United States from indigenous communities in Mexico for work and for a better life for their families. But work in the fields picking blueberries at Sakuma Brothers Farms left them both physically exhausted and in poverty, raising their children in labor camps. They formed a union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and organized for official recognition, better wages and living conditions.

Bacon's photo of the children not only showed who would benefit most from a just labor deal, but became the image Familias Unidas por la Justicia used to promote their efforts. The young girl holding the placard was incorporated in the union's logo and was printed on t-shirts.  

"As a photographer I'm also a participant," Bacon said. "I want people looking at the pictures to feel what it is to do the work of farm workers and others, but I also want the images to be useful to the people who are in them."

Three years later in 2016, workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms, the largest berry grower in Washington state, formally voted to form the union, even though their union rights as farmworkers were not recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. In an article about the organization effort for the Nation, one union member told Bacon, "From now on we know what the future of our children is going to be."

An archive of one's life work is inherently backward looking. A collection of photographs documenting social struggle often lacks the lightness of being. But, the humanity and dignity shown in the David Bacon Photography Archive gives hope. The markers of the slow progression of social justice many images capture give direction to the path forward, guiding toothy-grinned kids as they mature into adults.

Nick Rahaim is multimedia journalist and storyteller based in Monterey, California. He was a member a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting team at The Press Democrat who covered the North San Francisco Bay wildfires in 2017. Rahaim's articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vox and Hakai Magazine among many other publications. In addition to journalism, he has worked in commercial fisheries from the Bering Sea to Southern California for the better part of a decade. Check out his blog at outside-in.org and follow him on Instagram and Twitter @nrahaim.