Friday, August 17, 2018


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, August 15, 2018

While Washington state agencies reduce farmworker pay and find employers faultless for a death in the fields, Trump and congressional Republicans back proposals to turn farmworking into permanent indentured servitude.

Farmworkers and supporters gather in the morning at the start of their 14-mile march.

More photos from the march:

On Sunday, August 5, a group of 200 farmworkers and supporters began walking at sunrise along the shoulder of Benson Road, heading north from Lynden, Washington, toward Canada. When they reached O Road, the marchers turned right to walk along the border. Unlike the frontier with Mexico, with its walls, floodlights, and patrols, the border line here is no line at all-simply a road on each side of a weed-choked median.

The procession, chanting and holding banners, passed a succession of blueberry fields for the next 14 miles, finally reaching the official border crossing at Sumas. Pausing for a protest in front of the local immigrant detention center, it then continued on until it reached its objective one mile further on-the 1,500-acre spread of Sarbanand Farms. There, in front of the ranch's packing and warehouse facilities, participants staged a tribunal.

"We are here to assign responsibility for the death of Honesto Silva," announced Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community, one of the march's main organizers. A year before the march, Silva, an H-2A guest worker brought from Mexico to harvest the farm's blueberries, collapsed and later died.

Protesters march along the U.S./Canada border, where there is no wall or fence separating the two countries.  The march is led by Modesto Hernandez, a disabled farm worker, in a wheelchair.

Walking past the fields, one of Silva's coworkers, Raymond Escobedo (his name has been changed to protect his identity) remembers the day he died. "I could see he wasn't feeling well, and he asked to leave work. They wouldn't give him permission, but he went back to the barracks to rest anyway. Then the supervisor went and got him out and forced him back to work. Honesto continued to feel bad, and finally had to pay someone to take him to the clinic. When he got to the clinic he was feeling even worse, and they took him to the hospital in Seattle. And so he died."

Sarbanand denied any responsibility for Silva's death, and claimed it was a manager who'd called an ambulance to bring him to the local clinic.

Silva's death, however, came on top of growing anger among workers about their living and working conditions. "From the time we came from Mexico to California we had complaints," Escobedo says. "There was never enough to eat, and often the food was bad. Some of the food was actually thrown out. Still, they took money for it out of our checks. They took out money for medical care, too, but we never got any. The place they had us stay was unsafe and there were thefts. Some workers in California protested and the company sent them back to Mexico."

Sarbanand Farms belongs to Munger Brothers, LLC, a family corporation based in Delano, California. Since 2006, the company has brought more than 600 workers annually from Mexico under the H-2A visa program, to harvest 3,000 acres of blueberries in California and Washington. Munger calls itself the world's largest blueberry grower, and is the driving force behind the growers' cooperative that markets under the Naturipe label. Last year, it brought Silva and the other H-2A workers across the border. It took them first to Delano, and once they finished harvesting blueberries there, it transferred them to Sarbanand Farms in Washington.

Marchers at daybreak.

"We thought that when we got to Sumas, things would get better," Escobedo recalls. "But it was the same. There still wasn't enough to eat, and a lot of pressure on us to work faster, especially when we were working by the hour. They wouldn't let us work on the piece rate [which would have paid more]. But what really pushed us to act was what happened to Honesto, when he got sick and there was no help for him."

Escobedo's account is at odds with a statement Sarbanand Farms gave to Univision following Silva's death. In it, the company claimed "it is always our goal to provide [the workers] with the best working and living conditions." It called the barracks "state of the art facilities" and described the food as "catered meals at low cost." Silva himself "received the best medical care and attention possible as soon as his distress came to our attention. Our management team responded immediately."

Lynne Dodson, secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, was one of the marchers earlier this month. As upset as she was to hear about Silva's death, she says, she was even more outraged by what happened next. When they heard Silva had been taken to the hospital, 70 of his fellow H-2A workers refused to go into the fields, and instead demanded to talk with the company about the conditions. They were then fired. Because the H-2A regulations require workers to leave the country if they are terminated, firing them effectively meant deporting them.

"Workers may not leave assigned areas without permission of the employer or person in charge, and insubordination is cause for dismissal," the Sarbanand statement says. "H-2A regulations do not otherwise allow for workers engaging in such concerted activity."

Jeff Johnson, President, and Lynne Dodson, Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council on the march.

That, Dodson contends, is a very dangerous policy. "If you get deported for collective activity," she says, "that's basically saying you have no enforceable labor rights. No right to organize. No right to speak up on the job. No right to question working conditions without being deported." This creates a threat, she charges, that goes beyond farmworkers. "Because H-2A workers are vulnerable, employers bring them in rather than hiring workers living and working in the area. What's to stop that from becoming the norm in every industry? Here in a state with almost 20 percent of the workers organized, we see a farmworker who died and others fired because they tried to organize. If this happens here, imagine what can happen in other states."

Silva was only one of the many workers who die in U.S. fields every year-417 in 2016 alone. What has made his death stand out, however, is the way it has highlighted the conditions for H-2A guest workers at a time when growers and their Republican Party allies are seeking to expand the program.

In that effort, they have the support of President Donald Trump, despite his otherwise sour anti-immigrant rhetoric. At a Michigan rally in February, he told supporters, "For the farmers it's going to get really good. ... We have to have strong borders, but we have to let your workers in. .... We're gonna let them in because you need them. ... Guest workers, don't we agree? We have to have them."

Companies using the H-2A program must apply to the U.S. Department of Labor, listing the work and living conditions and the wages workers will receive. The company must provide transportation and housing. Workers are given contracts for less than one year, and must leave the country when their work is done. They can only work for the company that contracts them, and if they lose that job they must leave immediately.

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community, was the principal organizer of the march.

In 2017, Washington growers were given H-2A visas for 18,796 workers, about 12,000 of whom were recruited by WAFLA (formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association, a H-2A labor contractor). "We could be close to 30,000 this year," says WAFLA president Dan Fazio. Last year, about 200,000 H-2A workers were recruited nationwide and brought to the United States. This year, the number is expected to exceed 230,000.

Over the past two years, H-2A expansion bills, authored by Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, would have eliminated most of the very limited worker protections. Originally, Goodlatte introduced a stand-alone bill in 2017, the Agricultural Guestworker Act. Although that bill didn't get a vote in Congress, its main provisions were folded into a much larger, comprehensive bill that Goodlatte tried to pass this spring, the Securing America's Future Act, H.R. 6136. That bill failed by a vote of 193 to 231.

Following the failure of the stand-alone bills, Republican Representative Dan Newhouse, a cosponsor of H.R. 6136, won a promise from House Speaker Paul Ryan to hold a vote on guest-worker expansion before the end of July. Newhouse then inserted one proposal into the budget bill for the Department of Homeland Security. His proposal would allow growers to employ H-2A workers without being limited to temporary contracts of less than a year.

Critics charge that the change would make replacing current farmworkers with H-2A workers much more attractive to growers. According to Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, "The H-2A program is premised on the alleged difficulty of finding U.S. workers for seasonal farm jobs because they yield low annual incomes. ... Agricultural employers with year-round jobs should do what any other employer must do to attract and retain workers: improve wages and working conditions."

Farm worker advocates call for a boycott of Naturipe, the label under which berries grown by Sarbanand Farms are sold.  Honesto Silva was an H-2A farm worker at Sarbanand Farms when he died.

Another Newhouse effort involved placing a waiver into the 2018 appropriations bill that allows growers, for the first time, to use federal subsidies for housing for H-2A workers. While H-2A regulations require growers to provide housing (a provision Republican bills have sought to eliminate), this proposal would allow growers to use the very limited public funds for building housing for U.S. resident farmworkers on housing for H-2A workers instead. "There are many farmworkers who are living outdoors in cars, in garages, and many other places," Goldstein said. "Any available subsidies to develop farmworker housing should be used to address the shortage for U.S. farmworkers and their families."

Washington state itself has also given farmworker housing subsidies to WAFLA and other growers who use the funds for H-2A housing. Daniel Ford at Columbia Legal Aid, Washington's legal service organization for farmworkers, protested to the state Department of Commerce. Ford notes that the department's own surveys showed that 10 percent of farmworkers who are Washington residents were living outdoors in a car or in a tent, and 20 percent were living in garages, shacks, or "in places not intended to serve as bedrooms." The department refused to bar growers from using the program to house H-2A workers, however.

This was not the first instance of very favorable treatment by Washington state authorities toward H-2A contractors and the growers who employ H-2A workers. Craig Carroll, for instance, ag programs director at the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) overseeing H-2A certification, spoke three times at WAFLA's "H-2A Workforce Summit" in Ellensburg on January 27, 2017. He shared the stage with Roxana Macias, director of compliance for the CSI H-2A recruiting agency. Macias herself worked for ESD for two years, and then for WAFLA for three years, before heading compliance at CSI.

This year, at WAFLA's instigation, the ESD and the U.S. Department of Labor effectively slashed the legal minimum for farmworker wages by up to $6 per hour. ESD is required to survey wages every year so that it can establish the Adverse Effect Wage Rate-a minimum wage for H-2A workers that theoretically won't undercut the wages of resident farm labor. In January, after ESD published its wage survey, WAFLA appealed to have the piece-rate wages removed, leaving only an hourly guarantee.

Martha Ojeda, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a coalition of churches and workers centers, was a judge in the tribunal in front of Sarbanand Farms.

Last year's hourly AEWR wage was $14.12 an hour. In the Washington apple harvest, however, most workers are paid a piece rate that can reach the equivalent of $18 to $20 hourly. ESD and the Department of Labor agreed with WAFLA to remove the piece-rate minimum, effectively lowering the harvest wage by as much as $6 an hour. WAFLA President Dan Fazio boasted, "This is a huge win and saved the apple industry millions. Really glad we could help."

Nor was this the first time WAFLA sought to manipulate the wage survey. In 2015, WAFLA told growers not to report piece-rate wages, just hourly ones. Fazio explained, "We want to encourage you to be smart and strategic in your answers to help yourself and the other people in your industry."

Given this history, it came as no surprise to Washington state farmworkers and supporters that Sarbanand Farms would find itself freed from legal liability for Honesto Silva's death. In February, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries announced that he'd died of natural causes, and that the company was not responsible. The department said it had investigated conditions there and had found no workplace health and safety violations.

Yet according to both Escobedo and a suit filed by Columbia Legal Services against Sarbanand Farms, Nidia Perez, who supervised workers on behalf of the H-2A recruiter CSI, had threatened workers there before Silva's death, telling them that they had to work "unless they were on their death bed," and that they had to pick two boxes of blueberries an hour or they'd be sent back to Mexico. (Sarbanand has not responded to the allegation or to calls to the company for comment.) A temperature of over 90 degrees "was in normal ranges and given that the workers are accustomed to working in much higher temperatures in California and Mexico, it is very unlikely that heat played a role," claimed the pro-grower website Heavy smoke from forest fires on the day Silva collapsed played no role either, it seems.

In front of the ICE immigrant detention center in Sumas, Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta condemned the deportation of the strikers at Sarbanand Farms.

In February, Sarbanand Farms was fined $149,800 by Washington's Department of Labor and Industry for not providing required breaks and meal periods, an amount a judge later cut in half in July. The food was fine as well, apparently. "We were unable to substantiate the concern regarding the quality or quantity of the food provided," ESD's Craig Carroll wrote in an August 7 email.

Assessing the size of the fine, march organizer Guillen told the workers' tribunal by the entrance to Sarbanand Farms, "We completely reject the idea that Silva's life was worth $75,000. No amount of money can pay for the life of a farmworker."

Jimmy Matta, mayor of the Seattle suburb of Burien, also marched in the protest. Matta had been physically attacked at an outdoor event in Burien in late July because of his support for Burien's immigrant sanctuary ordinance. The incident, which is being investigated by the FBI, followed a well-funded anti-immigrant campaign against Matta and the ordinance.

"It's been said that H-2A workers are being taken care of, that they have everything they need," Matta commented bitterly. "Unfortunately, here we have an individual that wasn't taken care of. They made him work. He suffered from heat exhaustion. And now we have an individual who will never see his family again."

Tuesday, July 31, 2018


By David Bacon
Foreign Policy in Focus, July 31, 2018 (Originally published in Lobelog)

Oil workers on a drilling rig in the Rumaila field

As uncertainty continues over the results of Iraq's May 12 election, the deterioration in social services that brought about the victory of the Sairoon coalition has impelled thousands of people to take to the streets to protest the increasingly difficult conditions of their lives.

Throughout July, Iraq was rocked by demonstrations, road blockades, tent occupations, and the invasion of oil fields by thousands of people, especially in the country's oil-rich south. Thirteen people were killed in a series of at least eight protests in the first half of the month, and at least 47 others were wounded, including two children by gunfire and one beaten with rifle butts. The government cut off Internet access for days in many parts of the country to make organizing the protests more difficult and impede the flow of information about the repression.

The protests started at the West Qurna 2 oilfield on July 8 and spread to other oil fields in the area, including the huge Rumaila field, and into the city of Basra itself. From there they spread to other provinces and cities, including Baghdad, Kut, Amarah, Karbala, Najaf, Babil, Dhi Kar, Missan, and Muthanna. An oil worker, Muhammad, told Human Rights Watch investigators that he saw one man, in a tent erected on the highway, struck and killed by a bullet. That road occupation continued for several days afterwards, while other street occupations were set up in Basra, which were then also attacked by police.

The Badr Brigade, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, a presidential candidate in the last election, was among the forces shooting demonstrators. Protesters demonstrated outside the organization's headquarters in Basra, and Badr Brigade paramilitaries then fired on the crowd, wounding two children.

Videos and photos led to the identification of other government forces responsible for the shootings, including federal anti-riot police, as well as the police for the oil fields. People were beaten with clubs and pipes, and some were beaten after being taken into custody. A Humvee hit one person, and troops used teargas and water cannons in addition to bullets.

At least 81 people were arrested, and as of the end of July none had been released or charged. Jabbar Mohammed Karam al-Bahadli, a lawyer petitioning for the release of those detained in the protests, was killed in a drive-by shooting on July 23 in Basra.

Power Outage

Demonstrations escalated when electrical service collapsed completely in several provinces, including Basra, Shi Qar and Missan, and partially in Nineveh and Kirkuk, on July 27. Temperatures that day reached 120 degrees, not unusual for the Iraqi summer, and people had no power to run air conditioners or other cooling equipment. The government's Southern Electricity Transport Department blamed the outage on "a technical malfunction in the Nassiriya thermal station on Thursday afternoon [which] led to the disconnection in the southern area and the stoppage of generating stations, and put the high voltage lines out of service."

In mid-July government negotiators had promised to respond to demonstrators' demands, and the protest wave abated temporarily. But the electrical failure, compounded by more violence against protesters by authorities, produced a new round of demonstrations. "It is expected that the electricity network will be restored to its normal status in the upcoming period of time," the Southern Electricity Transport Department said in its Thursday statement. "Normal" 24-hour electrical service in southern Iraq, however, is basically non-existent.

In the West Qurna 2 field demonstrators mounted a sit-in on the highway. At first, local officials seemed willing to negotiate with them, but security forces then arrived to disband the protest encampment. An Iraqi brigadier general then brokered an agreement with Lukoil, the Russian company that operates the field, to provide 200 jobs to local residents from Az al-Din Saleem. Nevertheless, demonstrators both at West Qurna 2 and at Zubair announced that they would continue their protests.

The Role of the Unions

Iraq's trade unions, especially the oil workers, have played a central role in organizing the demonstrations. Hassan Gomaa Awad Asadi, president of the Federation of Oil Unions in Iraq, explained the protests' origins in an email interview:

"The demonstrations in southern Iraq are not an accident. They are the accumulation of 16 years of rage. The southern regions in particular suffer from clear negligence by successive governments, although these areas are the richest in Iraq, where 75% of the oil is produced. Yet they suffer from marginalization and deprivation.

"The current government and the previous governments are responsible for the deteriorating conditions of electricity and water. The Iraqi people do not have the most basic rights of citizenship. Their demands are simple and just-to provide basic services. People have a legitimate right to public services, such as electricity and desalination of water. The government must provide job opportunities for the unemployed, who constitute a very high percentage of Iraqi society.

"Unfortunately we do not see any response. Instead, the state has threatened demonstrators with arrest, and even fired live ammunition at them. This has enraged the public, and today's demonstrations in Basra are the result. Demonstrators have begun to escalate their demands, which now include the dismissal of the government. Participating in demonstrations is a legitimate right of the people, and the demonstrators are the sons and daughters of Iraq.

"The Federation of Oil Unions is very involved in these demonstrations. From the beginning Basra has been the spark of this movement, and our union has been a key player. We will not abandon the defense of our nation and our people. We believe that the people have the right to the oil wealth. This is what the Iraqi constitution says. And we are responsible to the people, so we are fighting to improve their situation.

"The demonstrations have spread into the oil fields, especially in the north of Basra, West Qurna 1 and West Qurna 2. The people most affected by this crisis live near the oil fields, so this is a message the angry masses have delivered to the government. We are able and willing to go anywhere to claim our legitimate rights."

Environmental Crisis

Protesters included a group in Garma, which accused the oil companies that operate the fields of contaminating the water and soil, and demanded "treatment of high water salinity that has killed the trees and plants and destroyed our land." The Al-Jazaeer Coalition, composed of over 12 tribes in Basra province, said in a statement distributed by the Baghdad News Agency that they experience "environmental pollution as a result of clouds of smoke" and "the destruction of agricultural land and the pollution of the water." Exxon Mobil and the Russian company Lukoil operate the West Qurna 2 fields, BP handles the Rumaila field, the Malaysian Petronas is in charge of the Gharaf field , and the Italian ENI runs the al-Burjisiya field .

Rising water salinity is part of a broad and growing environmental crisis. The Iraqi government failed to protest effectively over the construction of dams in Turkey and Iran on the Tigris River. The reduction of water flow into Iraq has exacerbated the crisis. This year the government even banned the cultivation of rice and corn because of the water shortage. "Thousands of people may be displaced and become migrants due to the scarcity," predicted the Iraq Civil Society Solidarity Initiative.

Hashmeya Alsaadawe, president of the Basra Trade Union Federation and head of the electrical workers' union, asked on Iraqi national television, "Against whom are these military troops and arms directed? To the unarmed citizens who call for their legitimate demands of a dignified life! They only need water, electricity, and job opportunities. Who should we address our demands to? The local government doesn't respond!"

Alsaadawe and other Iraqi unionists supported Sairoon, a political coalition in Iraq's May 12 national elections that won the most deputies, with 1.3 million votes. It was followed by the Fatah Party of Hadi al-Amiri, whose base rests on militias with ties to Iran. Al-Amiri's Badr Brigade, however, has been accused of firing on demonstrators in the July protests. No party has been able to assemble a coalition with support from a majority of deputies and thus form a new government. In addition, the vote count in several provinces has been challenged. The ensuing political paralysis has accentuated the frustration of Iraqis with the deterioration in electricity and water services and employment, for which the government is responsible.

Sairoon itself is the product of many years of street protests over these issues. In the Iraqi Spring of 2011, at least 45 people died and hundreds were arrested. In 2015, Iraqis began demonstrating every Friday, denouncing the corruption of sectarian political parties, holding them responsible for the crisis in electrical power, clean water, and employment.

Sairoon's program grew out of those rallies. It called for an end to the system that divided political positions and government support along sectarian lines, a system imposed by the U.S. after its occupation of Iraq in 2011. Basing a governmental structure on sectarian political parties led to a system of patronage and division of spoils, and consequently enormous corruption. The alliance's slogan in response was "To Build a Civil State, a State of Citizenship and Social Justice."

Union president Hassan Gomaa Awad Asadi blamed the problems in Iraq ultimately on the United States:

"The root of our problems in Iraq is the American government. After the occupation it pushed on us people who are not competent. U.S. pressure, and the intervention of international financial institutions in the administration of the state, have brought about the current crisis. After more than 16 years, all the political parties, including the Islamist and Shiite parties in the state administration, have failed.

"I do not think that the demonstrations are a consequence of the elections, although people are not immune from the electoral system. Rather, these events are an inevitable result of the government's neglect and financial corruption in the state system. The parliamentary system in Iraq is a failure and corrupt to the bone, filled with politicians who pass laws just to advance their own self-interest. This is an inevitable result of the system of political quotas, which has caused us great harm.

"This corrupt system is responsible for the massive theft of public funds. This despicable conduct is basically stealing from the poor. There is no accountability for how they are spent. Since 2003 the government has wasted more than $48 billion dollars on the electrical grid alone, while the country lives in darkness."

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, July 18, 2018

But advocates want detainees freed, not sent to for-profit jails

The Reverend Izzy Alvaran, who gained asylum from the Philippines a decade ago, leads protesters in a chant outside the detention center.

Most Latina teenagers celebrate their a quinceaƱera, or 15th birthday, with parties and dances. Sometimes their families even rent a hall and hire a band. On June 9, Alexa Lopez, dressed in a pink tulle gown, held her quinceaƱera outside the West County Detention Center in Richmond, California. Her father, Raul, had been locked inside for a year and a half.

The celebration, organized with the help of the Interfaith Movement 4 Human Integrity (IM4HI), was in part an effort to help Alexa feel that, despite her family's separation, she was surrounded by a community that understood the importance of that day. But it was also a way to show to the larger world the terrible cost of immigration detention and family separation.

Perhaps that was one element convincing Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston to announce, a month later, that he was canceling the county's contract to house immigration detainees for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency of the Department of Homeland Security. Detainees' families and their supporters called that a victory, but only a partial one.

"While in the long view," cautions Reverend Deborah Lee, IM4HI's director, "ending Contra Costa County's incarceration of immigrant detainees is a step towards ending immigration detention-and part of a growing trend of local municipalities to end contractswith ICE detention-the action by the sheriff is not yet a victory. It will not be a real victory unless current ICE detainees are released and reunited with their families."

Lourdes Barraza speaks out in front of the detention center

The Contra Costa County cancellation is not unique. Several cities and counties have taken the same action in recent months, including Sacramento and Monterey Counties last month. Santa Ana, in conservative Orange County, voted in 2016 to phase out its ICE contract, leading ICE to simply pull out of the jail. Around the country, ICE contracts have been canceled in Springfield, Oregon, and Williamson County, Texas. In Alexandria, Virginia, just across the river from the White House, the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center recently decided to stop imprisoning immigrant children.

Most cancellations have been motivated by public outrage over the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, under which every migrant crossing the border without papers is being criminally charged and held in detention centers. More than 3,000 children have been torn from their parents in this process. Thousands of other young border crossers, unaccompanied by adults, have been incarcerated as well.

The West County Detention Facility is housed in a much larger jail, one of four Contra Costa County criminal lockups. Its official capacity is 1,096 people, of whom 150 to 300 have been detainees in a facility run by ICE, which pays the county $3 million a year to use it.  Some immigration detainees have been held because ICE says they're in the country illegally. Others have been asylum seekers detained on arrival in the United States or legal residents with past offenses (often very minor ones) that makes them deportable.

Detainees await a hearing before an immigration judge. That hearing, however, is not the normal courtroom procedure one might imagine. The judge sits in a room in the ICE building on Sansome Street in San Francisco. The immigrant sits in a room at the detention center in Richmond. The hearing takes place over the Internet. In the past week, demonstrators protesting the detention of migrants have occupied the street outside the San Francisco building.

Reverend Deborah Lee, executive director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity

The decision in Contra Costa County, however, was not simply a reaction to the controversy of recent weeks. For seven years, IM4HI and its predecessor, the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, have organized a monthly vigil outside the detention center doors. Churches, synagogues, and other religious bodies (most recently Zen Buddhists), as well as community organizations, have all taken turns bringing their members out. The gatherings usually number more than 100, and a recent rally, part of the national demonstrations against the detention of children, drew 3,000. Close to 10,000 people have come to the vigils, some more than once, and a few come every time.

"The vigils have been important because they made our community aware that the detention center was there," says Reverend Lee. "We have a responsibility. We can't say, 'We didn't know.'"

Several years ago, the faith-based network also began holding educational events in churches and organizing delegations to Mexico and Central America, in which faith leaders talked with activists about the root causes convincing migrants to leave home and risk detention, deportation, and family separation.

"For us, the vigils have been an organizing platform," Lee explains, "an ongoing teach-in, and a chance for people to see who's in this jail and talk to them about why they've come."

Over the years, the vigils have provided activists a way to communicate with people inside the center and find ways to support them and their families. On one Saturday earlier this year on February 3, Lourdes Barraza and her daughters Sofia, Isabel, and Anna waited to hear news of her husband and the girls' father, Fernando, who'd already spent three months inside. Reverend Pablo Morataya gathered members of the First Hispanic Presbyterian Church in east Oakland, a sanctuary congregation, as well as other pastors and lay ministers serving immigrant congregations throughout the Bay Area. They went to the detention center to hold a vigil for Fernando. "There are risks," Pastor Morataya says, "but for us it is a calling of our faith."

With that support, Fernando was freed several weeks later. Not long afterward, at a tribunal held in the shadow of the jail, Fernando and other former detainees told the story of their imprisonment, and community members testified in opposition to policies criminalizing migration.

Alexa Lopez, her mom, and Reverend Deborah Lee outside the detention center

Encounters between faith activists and the families of detainees have often been very dramatic. During one vigil outside the detention facility three years ago, Paola (not her real name) was standing with supporters when she got a phone call from Florencio, her husband.  He was in another detention center in Arizona, calling to tell her that la migra (immigration agents) had caught him in the desert, walking north with a dozen others. She collapsed into the arms of a church member next to her, both of them weeping.

"I was there with people from the church who were helping us," she remembers. "We'd been praying for people they knew who were inside, and we began singing. Then my cell phone rang.  I was so afraid of getting that call, because I knew what it would be. Then they were praying for me too."

St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley had helped Paola apply for asylum, and was eventually able to get her husband out of detention. Activists refer to this support as "accompaniment," a term that originated in the 1980s in efforts to protect activists in El Salvador from death squads. People showed their solidarity with those in danger by accompanying them physically. Today, accompaniment is part of the movement giving sanctuary to migrants.   Activists support a family by helping them find food and shelter, and getting them legal help. Sanctuary congregations have multiplied to 32 throughout the Bay Area.

"The West County Detention Center became a local symbol of a national problem," Reverend Lee says, "but it is also a real place holding real people. We've been committed from the beginning, not just to protest the symbol, but to do what we can to know, to support, and finally to liberate the people inside. It's not about self-interest. It's about moral interest."

The fate of the 169 people currently incarcerated in the center, however, is uncertain in the wake of Sheriff Livingston's announcement canceling the contract. Instead of being released, as advocates have hoped, people are being transferred to other ICE jails. Raul, the father of Alexa Lopez, was taken to a facility in Colorado. "We can't see him anymore," his wife Dianeth told Lee.

In a statement, ICE spokesperson Richard Rocha said that the decision to cancel the contract would negatively impact local ICE operations, but would hurt detainees more. "Now, instead of being housed close to family members or local attorneys, ICE may have to depend on its national system of detention bed space to place those detainees in locations farther away, reducing the opportunities for in-person family visitation and attorney coordination."

In 2011, people of faith began holding a vigil outside the West County Detention Center, where immigrants are incarcerated before being deported.

Immigrant rights activists call that a threat. "People can and should be released while they await for their asylum or deportation cases to proceed, so that they can be united with their families and more readily access legal counsel," IM4HI said in a statement. "It is unnecessary for immigrants to be detained when humane, cost-effective alternatives exist."

"Our ultimate victory is an end to immigration detention, not merely the closure of one facility," the statement continued. "Victory will be the full release, not transfer, of ICE detainees and the return of those who have already been transferred out of state."

Meanwhile, many people detained by ICE are taken to the sprawling, 2,000-person Adelanto ICE Processing Center in San Bernardino County, California. Since it opened in 2011, more than 73,000 migrants have been incarcerated there for at least some period. Five detainees have tried to commit suicide, three others have died, and detainees have mounted several hunger strikes in protest of terrible conditions. Adelanto is run by the Geo Group, Inc., which was formerly the Wackenhut security firm, and originally began as the Pinkerton anti-labor detective agency a century ago. ICE pays Geo $112 per day per detainee.

"While it's a victory that we were able to get the contract canceled in Contra Costa County," Lee warns, "there's a great danger that we'll see even more private prisons. We have to keep up the pressure, especially on places like Adelanto."

After hearing the news of the impending closure of the immigrant detention center, the families of a dozen detainees and their supporters held a rally outside. Many broke into tears as they talked about the pain of separation, and their fears that they might not see their husbands or fathers if they're transferred far away. They called on ICE to release the detainees on bond, or with an electronic ankle bracelet that allows ICE to monitor their whereabouts.

Dianeth said that she could live with the humiliation of the monitoring, or even paying thousands of dollars, if ICE would bring her husband back from Colorado and free him. "We want freedom for all the people who are detained," she told the crowd in a trembling voice. "We want freedom so they all can come home."

Soledad comforts her daughter, crying because she fears that if they transfer her father she won't see him again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, July 11, 2018

A Salinas grower and the union bet that a new contract will become an alternative to employing guest workers

D'Arrigo workers march in Salinas to protest immigration raids in farm worker communities.

Up and down the Pacific coast, many of the largest growers are rapidly increasing their use of guest workers recruited in Mexico as temporary harvest labor. Farm labor, in their view, is unskilled. The workers who perform it should show up at harvest time, work as hard as possible, and then effectively disappear until the next season.

This has been the common view for over a century. It is the justification for a renewed Republican push to establish a vastly expanded guest worker program. But is the road to improving the lives of farmworkers to legislate even more massive contract-labor programs? Or is it to treat farm labor as skilled and permanent work, and provide security and decent wages to those who do it?

One Salinas grower, D'Arrigo Brothers Company, is choosing the second alternative, a choice its workers feel reflects the value of their labor. "I started working at D'Arrigo in 1979," says Efrain Fraide, who works in a company broccoli crew. "I've cut and packed every crop they have-celery, cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli, lettuce-here in Salinas and in the Imperial Valley, too. The company was poor when I went in, and now they're one of the biggest."

"We're ready to invest in our workers," says John D'Arrigo. "It's hard to find workers today, and our answer is to make the jobs attractive, and to retain the workers we have. We need a long-term workforce, and we want direct hires-people who work directly for the company."

That understanding led to a labor agreement signed in a televised ceremony in Salinas on June 29 by D'Arrigo Brothers Company and the United Farm Workers (UFW). The contract covers 1,200 D'Arrigo employees in the Salinas Valley, most of whom work about nine months of the year, and another 300 in the Imperial Valley, who work a three-month harvest.

Wages in the new contract start at $13.35 per hour-$2.35 above California's minimum wage of $11. They rise to $13.85 in the second year, and $14.40 in the third year, when the state minimum rises to $13. Many D'Arrigo workers, however, work on a piece rate (called a production incentive), which increases by 3 percent in the first year, 3 percent in the second, and 2.5 percent in the third over the three-year duration of the contract. The company has a bonus system, giving workers an additional percentage of their pay at the end of the year, and the required number of hours has been reduced so that Imperial Valley workers will receive it for the first time.

"The most important thing to me," says Odilia Aldana, a lettuce worker on the union negotiating committee, "is that the company is now going to pay for our medical plan, plus six holidays every year." The UFW administers the Robert F. Kennedy medical insurance program, and D'Arrigo has agreed to pay the whole $612 monthly premium providing medical, vision, and dental coverage for workers' families.

Workers pay deductibles for treatment, including $15 for a visit to the doctor or for prescriptions. The plan pays 90 percent of major medical bills, and the union has negotiated lower rates with local hospitals.

"For the last three years, I've cut lettuce in a crew where we're all women, except for the men who load the boxes on the truck," Aldana says. Cutting lettuce used to be a job reserved for men, who in past decades earned some of the highest wages in agriculture for backbreaking work.

Since then, the work system has changed and the pay is not what it was. Nevertheless, a few years ago the company told its women employees that it couldn't find enough men to cut all its lettuce, and asked them to take cutting jobs. "When there's a lot of lettuce in the field, we can work piece-rate and make good money," Aldana explains. "But we really earn it, and go home very tired. And if the field isn't so good, we have the hourly guarantee to fall back on."

Inside the company, the union has a workers' committee with five members, and is trying to encourage the participation of more women. Each crew has a union steward, and when workers have grievances or problems they try to resolve them directly with the supervisor.

According to UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, D'Arrigo Brothers has always relied on workers employed directly by the company. "That's good for the workers," he says. "It's more stable. The workers get educated and become more skilled, which is better for the company. And as a union, we develop a better relationship with the company because of that stability."

D'Arrigo Brothers is one of the Salinas Valley's oldest companies. Two Sicilian immigrants, Andrea and Stefano D'Arrigo, started distributing produce in Boston in 1923. After moving to California soon after, they developed the refrigerated railroad cars that allowed the state's vegetables and fruits to reach markets across the country, and the first brand-marketed produce label-Andy Boy. John D'Arrigo, the current president, belongs to the family's third generation.

The brothers were not always friends of the union, however, and the new contract represents a change in an often-contentious relationship going back half a century. The nascent United Farm Workers Organizing Committee signed a first agreement with D'Arrigo Brothers during the great Salinas lettuce battles of 1970, but it only lasted two years, and was followed by a strike. When California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the company's workers voted for the union the year afterward, but were unable to get the company to sign a union agreement.

Nevertheless, a core of union supporters have worked for the company through the decades, and over the years organized job actions to try to win better wages and conditions. In 2002, California passed a law allowing the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to impose a mediated contract settlement on an employer when the union has been certified to represent its workers. Because of the 1976 election, the law applied to D'Arrigo, and the company and UFW finally signed a contract three years ago. It is one of the largest growers to sign a union agreement as a result of the mandatory mediation law.

Both Rodriguez and D'Arrigo agree, however, that the new agreement has changed their relationship. When talks between the union and company negotiators stalled during the current bargaining, which lasted from December to June, Rodriguez and D'Arrigo met at a restaurant, and later talked by phone. "John said it made more sense to spend money on wages and benefits than on lawyers to fight with the union," the UFW president recalls. "We got far more than we've ever gotten before."

"I told my team that what happened in the past is over," D'Arrigo explained in an interview. "After we signed the agreement, I had an hour-long meeting with them and the union's negotiating team together. I told them that the company survives because of them, and that we have to develop a new way to work. We have a shrinking, aging workforce. We have to take care of who we have, and make our jobs attractive to the people who live here."

Like other Salinas growers, D'Arrigo does use labor contractors, and employs H-2A workers. Under the H-2A visa program, agricultural employers can recruit workers in other countries, under contracts of less than a year. Afterward, the workers must return home. Program regulations require growers to hire local workers first. If H-2A workers are fired for not meeting production standards or organizing, they must leave the country immediately.

"I don't have enough direct hires [directly hired permanent employees] to harvest all our crops, so I need additional workers," D'Arrigo says. "The contractor and H-2A crews are all very good workers, but they're really just a partial solution, a Band-Aid, not a real solution. Both Artie [Rodriguez] and I agree the goal is developing long-term, skilled people."

According to UFW Vice President Armando Elenes, about 200 workers for D'Arrigo are employed by labor contractors, and under the new agreement they will all belong to the union and get the wages and benefits the contract provides. An additional group of fewer than 200 H-2A workers are represented by the union and get the union contract wages. Those wages are above the level required under the Department of Labor regulations, which set the minimum H-2A wage in California this year at $13.18 per hour.

Since all the workers are receiving the same wages, there's no economic incentive to replace permanent workers with H-2A workers or a contracted labor force. That is an important issue for workers in Salinas. Two large local growers, Tanimura and Antle, and Nunes Company, have built barracks with hundreds of beds for H-2A workers. Last year, California-based H-2A recruiter Fresh Harvest brought 4,623 H-2A workers to the United States, and Elkhorn Packing (which provides workers to D'0Arrigo) brought in 2,653.

"We're all very worried about this," says longtime D'Arrigo worker Fraide. "We can see other companies laying off direct hires, and hiring H-2A workers. At D'Arrigo, because of the contract, at least we're protected for the next three years. Basically, we got what we wanted, and I'm happy. Now there's respect at work, where they used to darnos carrilla [give us a bad time]."

John D'Arrigo is a board member of the Western Growers Association, where other growers will likely question his wisdom in signing a UFW contract. "One guy already told me I'm going to cost him money," he laughs. "But we're all fighting for the same workers. We understand competition, and I'm a strong competitor. If this causes ripples, so be it. But I believe the answer to our labor shortage is investing in the workers."

He cites the contribution the company made to Natividad Hospital, which launched the D'Arrigo Family Specialty Services clinic. Natividad has hired trilingual interpreters in Spanish, English, and the indigenous Mexican languages spoken by many valley farmworkers, including Mixteco and Triqui. D'Arrigo promotes the Agricultural Leadership Council, which has 160 members and donated $2.7 million to buy equipment for the hospital.

Nevertheless, a union contract does represent increased costs. D'Arrigo says he plans to offset them by increasing the number of boxes of produce harvested per acre, and maintaining a high level of quality. The company uses increased technology, like GPS devices on tractors, and systems for using fertilizer spray to thin young plants instead of manual labor. These jobs require more highly trained workers, and keeping turnover in the workforce to a minimum.

Technology can also threaten jobs, however. "Technology is going to happen, we know that," Rodriguez says. "We remember the tomato machine and can see the industry has changed a lot and will continue to change. But we want workers to have the opportunity to change with it, to get the jobs that are created."

With a new contract, D'Arrigo Brothers is providing a set of answers to growers trying to find workers and fill harvest crews. It's an answer that differs substantially from the program laid out by Republicans in Congress.

For the last two years Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has proposed legislation that could result in issuing two million new "H-2C" guest-worker visas within two years. His proposal would lock in farm labor wages near the minimum-wage level, and withhold 10 percent of guest workers' pay until they return to their country of origin. Growers would no longer have to provide them with housing or transportation, and would only have to promise to recruit local workers first. Legal aid organizations could no longer represent guest workers, who would be unable to go to court if they were cheated.

While growers' use of the H-2A program has increased sharply to more than 200,000 workers per year, immigration raids in rural areas of California have increased as well, especially following the election of President Trump. Goodlatte's proposed anti-immigrant legislation would deny legal status to the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States, including half of all farmworkers. Instead, it would require their employers to identify and fire them, while prohibiting guest workers from bringing their families to the United States.

"If people disappear, that would be catastrophic for us," D'Arrigo charges. "We need to wise up. We have to get people into legal status. They're already harvesting our food. And when we look at what's happening on the border, we can see there are people who want to come here. We should let them come and treat them with dignity, so they can set up life here. We certainly don't want to separate them from their families. We can't say, 'Come work for me', but your kids are starving and in danger."

Sunday, July 8, 2018


Photographs by David Bacon

On June 27 thousands of union and non-union Marriott workers organized demonstrations in San Francisco, Oakland, Honolulu, Boston, San Diego, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Jose.  Workers carried signs saying, "One Job Should Be Enough!" About 20,000 Marriott workers are represented by Unite Here. As contract negotiations get underway, some 12,000 of those employees have contracts expiring later this year. 

Marriott is the largest and richest hotel company on the planet, earning $22.9 billion in 2017.  Profits have gone up 279% since the recession, while hotel workers' annual income only increased 7%. 

According to D. Taylor, International President of UNITE HERE, "Too often workers welcome guests to Marriott hotels and deliver an unforgettable experience to them, just to leave their shift and go to a second job because working full time for Marriott isn't enough to make ends meet."

Marriott became the biggest global hotel chain when it acquired Starwood for $13.6 billion in 2016. The company's 30 brands include Ritz-Carlton, Westin and Sheraton, accounting for more than 1.2 million rooms in over 6500 hotels in 127 countries and territories. It opens a new hotel every 18 hours.

Technology is transforming hotel work, with self-check-in kiosks, robot room-service delivery, and mechanical bartenders.  In negotiations, workers want guarantees that jobs will not only pay enouogh to live on, but will last during this period of change. 

Meanwhile, hotel work is not just underpaid, but is dangerous.  In Chicago the union found roughly half of hotel housekeepers had been the victims of sexual misconduct from guests.  One man assaulted housekeepers in DC eight times over eight years.  A Florida Marriott worker was assaulted in a hotel bathroom.  In San Francisco a man committed suicide after attacking and critically injuring a housekeeper.

In negotiations Unite Here is not only demanding increases in wages and benefits, but greater protections, including panic buttons.  This year the Chicago union won them for workers with a campaign, Hands Off, Pants On.

These are a few of the many photographs taken of Marriott workers in San Francisco and Honolulu as part of the campaign at Marriott, One Job Should Be Enough.

Monday, July 2, 2018


Republican immigration reform proposals may be dead, but Republican guest worker proposals live on...
By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 7/2/18

On Wednesday, June 27, the Republican effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill went down in flames for the second time in a month, due to divisions within their own party. The Republican effort to create a vast new guest worker program, however, has not ended.

That effort has been headed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and is supported by many growers around the country, particularly on the west coast. Originally Goodlatte introduced a stand-alone bill in 2017, the Agricultural Guestworker Act. Although that bill didn't get a vote in Congress, its main provisions were folded into a much larger, comprehensive bill Goodlatte tried to pass this spring, the Securing America's Future Act. That bill failed by a vote of 193 to 231. Goodlatte then incorporated his guestworker provisions into the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act (H.R. 6136). That fared even worse, 121 to 301.

Nevertheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan made a promise to Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-WA) , a cosponsor of H.R. 6136, that he would hold a vote on agricultural worker issues before Congress adjourns at the end of July. After noting his minority votes for the two comprehensive immigration bills, and criticizing fellow Republicans for torpedoing them, Newhouse said in a statement, "the House has yet to address the crisis facing agriculture producers who cannot find enough workers, and I will not stop advocating for improvements to create a reliable legal guest-worker system. If our nation's farmers are to continue providing food for America and the world, it is incumbent on Congress to act to address labor needs. I thank the Speaker for committing to hold a vote on this matter in July."

Goodlatte's guestworker bill has not yet been reintroduced, but when it is, the  contents will undoubtedly be the same as in previous iterations. The latest guestworker provisions, in the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act, are a window into what's to come. Those provisions would create a massive new guestworker program, based on a new visa category called H-2C. This would take the place of the current H-2A visas, whose numbers have increased from 44,619 workers in U.S. fields in 2004 to 200,049 last year - a growth of over 450 percent in a little over a decade.

Critics of H-2A visas have two chief complaints: first, that workers in the program are exploited and often cheated, and second, that resident farm workers are displaced by growers who see H-2A workers as easier to control, and potentially less expensive. The proposed H-2C program would put the H-2A program on steroids, according to Bruce Goldstein, director of the Washington DC-based farm worker advocacy group, Farmworker Justice.

"Over the last year," Goldstein charges, "Rep. Goodlatte has made it his mission to create a massive new guestworker program of millions of captive workers who have even fewer labor rights than the current workers they would replace. His new guestworker program would convert an entire industry, from the farms and ranches to the packing houses and processing plants, from lettuce and grapes to dairy cows and poultry, into a labor force of exploitable temporary guest workers with virtually no workplace protections and with no opportunity to join the communities they are helping to feed."

Goodlatte's H-2C provisions might result in 2 million visas issued in the first two years, Farmworker Justice predicts, supplying contract labor to meatpacking and food processing in addition to agriculture. Growers would be able to employ workers year round, and continuously from one year to the next. Current H-2A workers have to return to their home countries within a year, and can come back the following year if they receive a new contract. In either program, workers have the same vulnerability. If they fail to meet grower production demands, if they complain or organize, or if they simply get on the wrong side of a foreman, they can be fired, and must leave the country immediately.

Today each state has to calculate a wage rate for H-2A workers that, in theory, doesn't undermine local farm worker wages. H-2C worker wages, however, would be set at 115% of the federal $7.50/hour minimum wage, or applicable state or local minimums. This locks in farm labor wages at the minimum wage level, since local farm workers that demand more could be replaced with contract workers. Workers' fear of replacement by H-2A labor is already affecting strawberry wages in Santa Maria, for instance.

Further, 10% of each H-2C worker's wages would be withheld and could only be claimed by going to a U.S. embassy or consulate after returning to their country of origin. This was a feature of the old bracero program, which brought hundreds of thousands of guest workers to the U.S. from 1942 to 1965. Millions of dollars in withheld wages went missing, and those braceros still living are still trying to recover them.

Today growers who want to recruit H-2A workers have to be certified by the Department of Labor and local unemployment offices, and show that they first tried to hire workers locally. In reality, this provision is not strongly enforced.  Legal aid offices around the country have brought many cases on behalf of local workers who were either replaced or not hired to begin with. But the H-2C program would eliminate certification entirely. Growers could simply promise that they'd made a local hiring effort, and that they would obey labor laws. 

The legal aid organizations that today file cases on behalf of guest workers would be barred from doing so. H-2C workers wouldn't even be able to go to court against a grower, and would have to agree to private mandatory arbitration, a system that favors employers.

"These temporary workers have no other access to attorneys," says Cynthia Rice, litigation director for California Rural Legal Assistance, which currently provides legal services to H-2A workers.  "They are left intentionally unaware of the state and federal enforcement agencies who could take their complaints; and those agencies are severely understaffed.  Prohibiting legal services from representing them will leave them unprotected and without anyone to recover the wages stolen from them.  It will eliminate any real threat that unscrupulous employers will be held accountable, and will create an incentive to replace local workers, who have access to legal representation, with contract workers who do not."

Growers would no longer be required to provide housing to guest workers, or provide transportation to the job location or back home when the work is done. Today, in many parts of the country, farm workers sleep in cars or under trees because of the lack of rural housing for migrants, and rents run high for what housing is available. H-2C workers arriving from another country would simply be thrown onto this already-inadequate and expensive housing market. Growers, meanwhile, would have no responsibility.

Goodlatte's bills have all contained heightened enforcement provisions, especially a requirement that employers use the government's E-Verify database to identify and fire workers without papers. In his H-2C program, Goodlatte would require undocumented workers to return to their home countries, and then apply to come back to their homes in the U.S. with H-2C visas. They would have to leave their families behind, however, since his bills specifically prohibit issuing visas for family members.

According to Farmworker Justice, "Rep. Goodlatte's H-2C program would harm the hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers employed in agriculture, fails to take steps to stabilize our nation's experienced agricultural workforce, and instead creates a labor system that treats workers as commodities, with a revolving door of temporary exploitable workers."

Many Republicans rejected their own party's comprehensive bills because they oppose any legal status for Dreamers (young people granted temporary status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) and want a bill that simplyerects a border wall and increases enforcement. They might, however, be willing to give agribusiness a new guestworker program because it favors employers and denies workers a permanent legal status. During the June debates other Republicans, like Jeff Denham (R-CA) stated their public support for the Dreamers. But Denham, Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and David Valadao are all San Joaquin Valley Republicans, and are either growers themselves, or come from communities where growers are politically very strong. Depending on a fractured Republican Party, therefore, would not be a sure way to avoid new guest worker programs.

At the same time, some conservative Democrats have historically voiced concern over agribusiness complaints of "labor shortages." and support for guest worker programs. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, in particular, has a long record of support. In a 2009 speech, after introducing a guest worker bill, she said, "There is a farm emergency in this country, and most of it is caused by the absence of farm labor." In 2013 she introduced a bill to help legalize undocumented farm workers, but which also proposed 336,000 guest worker visas.

While Republicans debated their comprehensive bills in June, progressive Democrats introduced a measure that provides a political alternative, the Fairness for Farm Workers Act. The proposal, authored by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to remove the discriminatory denial of overtime pay to agricultural workers, as well as end their exclusion from many minimum wage laws.

The bill would enact on a Federal level the overtime provisions for farm workers that the California legislature passed this year, and has attracted many Democratic cosponsors. While it stands no chance in the current Republican Congress, it may serve as a vehicle for pro-worker Democrats to call the question on their own colleagues: Is the road to improving the lives of farm workers the expansion of guest worker programs? Or is it providing the existing workforce the same benefits enjoyed by most other workers, but denied to agricultural laborers by Congress eighty years ago?

Thursday, June 28, 2018


Photoessay by David Bacon
Civil Eats, 6/28/18

Next to a highway outside of Oxnard, California, I saw workers in a field near the ocean, cutting, packing, and loading cabbage. Their style of harvesting reminded me of the old lettuce crews of the 1960s and 70s, who worked in groups of three called trios - two men cutting and one man packing. This crew didn't have that trio formation, but they clearly worked at a speed they set for themselves, just as the lechugueros once did. That's not so common anymore. Most vegetable harvesters now work behind or in front of a big packing machine pulled through the field by a tractor. The machine sets the pace of the work. Not so here.

The crew moved down the field in a kind of collective rhythm. First came the cutters. Each reached for a cabbage head with one hand, and with the knife in the other, cleanly sliced the stem holding it to the soil. After trimming off dead or wilted leaves, the cutter placed each head next to the edge of the row for the packers who followed behind. Each of the packer's hands grabbed a cabbage and, holding the pair against each other, turned them and slid them into place in the box. And because a box has to be there, ready and waiting, other workers grabbed them from the truck, unfolded them, and tossed them into place as they ran ahead.

This crew, working for Pablo's Produce, was packing cabbage into plastic crates. A single man followed far behind the packers, stretching plastic film over the harvested heads. Finally came the loaders. On each side of a flatbed truck a worker lifted a full, heavy crate of a dozen or more heads to his chest. Hoisting it to shoulder height, he handed the box off to his partner high above, who lifted and tossed it into place in the growing stack, before turning for the next one.

Growing up, I used to think of cabbage as food from Irish and German tenements. Talking about the smell of boiled cabbage was a way people many times described the smell of poverty. Later, Salvadoran foundry strikers in San Francisco's Mission District introduced me to curtido, the combination of cabbage, carrots, and onions heaped on pupusas. Whether from Europe or the Americas, the idea that cabbage is the food of the poor and of immigrants is ingrained. According to the "Bourgeois of Paris," the anonymous journals of a 15th-century resident of Paris, in 1420 "the poor people ate no bread, nothing but cabbages and turnips and such dishes, without any bread or salt."

Cabbage cultivation began 3,000 years ago, by the Celts of Central and Western Europe. In Istanbul, Sultan Selim III wrote an ode to the cabbage at the height of the Ottoman empire in the late 1700s. The tight-leafed vegetable traveled across the Atlantic with artichokes and Brussels sprouts, and soon was grown and eaten by the original inhabitants here as well. Some communities claim to have discovered that, like menudo, eating cabbage even cures hangovers.

Whether or not they were thinking much about that history on that day in Oxnard, the men in the field (and it was only men) were very serious. Often, when I go into a field to take photographs, workers joke around. I do, too. Here they joked a little, too, but they didn't stop to do it, intent on keeping up their fast pace down the field.

I didn't ask how they were being paid, but my bet would be the piece rate, giving them a reason to work quickly. Even their jokes were about how fast they were, how they had what it takes to work bent over double, hours at a time, day after day, year in and year out. The loaders, doing the heaviest job in the field, really had that machismo. One, seeing me with the camera, struck a bodybuilding pose you might see in the gym.

However we eat it, and for whatever reason - kimchee, coleslaw, stuffed cabbage, or the strange British dish of bubble and squeak - all come out of this field and others like it. It can seem a far distance from the hands of the packer, or the exhaled grunt of the loader, to the pale, gelatinous leaves on the dinner plate. But we are connected - from the labor of these workers to our own appetite and hunger.

Jose throws boxes into the row, working ahead of the packers.

Refugio Lopez cuts cabbages.

Trimming the leaves after the head is cut.

The foreman watches as Avram cuts cabbages.

Loaders lift 45 pound boxes of cabbages up onto the bed of a truck in the field.

One loader jokes about how strong you have to be to do this work.

A worker packs cabbage heads into a box, holding two at a time.

A worker puts boxes together and throws them into the row.

Workers packing cabbage heads coordinate with each other to work quickly.

A worker puts plastic over the boxes of cut cabbage.