Tuesday, December 5, 2017


By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 12/5/17

Members of the United Farm Workers in San Francisco protest the case brought by Gerawan Farms in a demonstration in front of the State Supreme Court.

California's gigantic peach and grape grower, Gerawan Farms, reached the end of its legal road last week at the state Supreme Court, when justices unanimously threw out its claim that the company was not bound by the Mandatory Mediation Law, a provision of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). In doing so, the court dealt a defeat to a cluster of right-wing think tanks, grower organizations and Republican politicians who sought to use the company's case to have the law itself declared unconstitutional, and to drastically weaken the collective bargaining rights of California farm workers.

"After four years of stalling," United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez told Capital & Main, "Gerawan Farming Inc. should immediately honor the union contract hammered out by a neutral state mediator in 2013 and pay its workers the more than $10 million it already owes them."

The Gerawan case goes back a quarter of a century, to a union election held in 1990 and certified in 1992, when the company employed 1,000 workers. The election was marked by serious legal violations, and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) charged the company with tearing down housing for its workers among other efforts to intimidate them. Nevertheless, a majority of workers voted for the UFW.

The company challenged the election. After its appeal was rejected in 1995, the union asked to begin bargaining a contract to raise wages and provide benefits. In their one meeting, co-owner Mike Gerawan told union negotiators, "I don't want the union and I don't need the union." That ended bargaining.

In 2002, however, then-governor Gray Davis signed a bill to change that situation. Using this new section of ALRA, workers could vote for a union and later call in a mediator if their employer refuses to negotiate a first-time contract. The mediator, chosen by the state, hears from both the union and the grower, and writes a report recommending a settlement. Once the ALRB adopts the report, it becomes a binding union contract.

Growers challenged the law, taking it to the state Court of Appeals, where they lost in 2006. The union has since used mandatory mediation to negotiate contracts covering about 3,000 workers with several large California agricultural corporations, including D'Arrigo Brothers in Salinas and Triple E Produce in the San Joaquin Valley.

At Gerawan there was little union activity in the years following the company's refusal to negotiate, although the UFW says it maintained contact and relationships with the workers there. In 2012 the union sent the company another request to negotiate. A series of meetings were held, but agreement was never reached, so the UFW called for a mediator.

The mediator finally made a report to the ALRB, which adopted it in November, 2013. Under the law, that report should then have become the agreement. Gerawan, however, refused to implement it. Instead, by then it had already begun a multi-pronged campaign to avoid the contract and to challenge the law itself, including an aggressive campaign to get its employees to decertify their union. Gerawan benefited from the financial support of the Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation. Its legal campaign was advised by the far-right Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence.

Inside the company, management organized a pro-company, anti-union group, which circulated the decertification petitions. Signatures were gathered by foremen, who canceled work shifts and pressured workers to attend pro-company rallies in Visalia and Sacramento. The rallies' expenses were borne by grower groups, including the California Fresh Fruit Association (formerly the Grape and Tree Fruit League). The Center for Worker Freedom, headquartered in the Washington DC offices of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), publicized the pro-decertification demonstrations through, among other things, billboards in Sacramento attacking the UFW and ALRB. The ATR is funded by Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers, and its powerful political allies in the San Joaquin Valley include Republican Congressmembers Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy.

According to one worker, Jose Gonzalez, "When they passed around the decertification petitions, they looked at the crews who didn't sign them. Then those crews didn't have any more work." Severino Salas, another worker, says simply, "People were afraid to support the union, even though they wanted it, for fear of losing their jobs."

Under intense pressure from growers and their political allies, the ALRB scheduled a decertification election, despite pending charges of intimidation, company interference and even forged petition signatures. Before the ballots could be counted, however, board agents sealed the ballot boxes, saying no count could be made without hearings to determine if the election was free and fair. The charges were eventually upheld by the ALRB.

Gerawan's attorneys then convinced the State Court of Appeals for Fresno's conservative 5th District to rule in May, 2015, that the mandatory mediation section of the ALRA was unconstitutional. That decision, in which the court essentially ruled against its earlier decision validating the law, was appealed to the state Supreme Court. That tribunal finally decided the issue for good November 28.

In its argument, Gerawan claimed that its workers had been "abandoned" by the UFW during the years after the company refused to negotiate. The union's certification as the workers' bargaining agent, it therefore alleged, had expired sometime before the UFW made its 2012 renewed bargaining demand. Gerawan was joined by another grower making the same claim, Tri-Fanucchi Farms. The union and the ALRB argued that this abandonment idea would reward growers who could delay negotiating for years, replace their old pro-union workforces, and then claim the workers had been abandoned by the union. The state Supreme Court ruled specifically against this "abandonment" defense.

The Appeals Court had claimed in its 2015 decision knocking out the law that it would result in different standards for different employers. The Supreme Court also disagreed that this possibility was enough to invalidate the law.

Behind the legal arguments, however, lies ideology and economic self-interest. Gerawan opposes even the idea of unions and contracts for the 5,000 people who now pick its fruit. "We believe that coerced contracts are constitutionally at odds with free choice," Dan Gerawan said in an email to the Associated Press after the ruling. The company did not respond to Capital & Main's request for comment.

The UFW calculated that the difference between what those workers would have been paid under the mediator's 2013 union agreement, and what they were actually paid in the years since then, is about $10 million.

"Had the negotiations been successful many years ago you would have had years to deal with the union," noted Cruz Reynoso, a former California Supreme Court justice, in a letter to Gerawan in 2014. "What is troubling ... is that your refusal to implement the contract issued by the neutral mediator and the ALRB board means your workers continue to be denied the many millions of dollars in wage increases and other benefits they are already owed."

Now that the Supreme Court has essentially ordered Gerawan to implement the mediator's contract, the UFW will have to build a union at the company and enforce the agreement - no easy task given the years of Gerawan's anti-union campaign.

Meanwhile, membership in the UFW has been growing slowly in the past several years. The union has won representation elections and contracts in places like the Gourmet Trading blueberry farm, where a 2015 strike led to a contract covering about 450 pickers that was signed this past May. The Supreme Court decision itself won't likely lead to many new contracts based on past elections. But it will convince other growers that when workers vote for the union, the state has teeth that can force them to negotiate. That can encourage workers in other companies to organize, and to raise the abysmal wages now current in California agriculture. 

Farm workers demonstrate in front of the State Supreme Court.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


By David Bacon
The Progressive - 12/1/17

SAN DIEGO, CA - Just after arriving from Mexico, a Mixtec farm worker lives with her son in a tent on the hillside in Del Mar.

At the end of the 1970s California farm workers were the highest-paid in the U.S., with the possible exception of Hawaii's long-unionized sugar and pineapple workers.  Today people are trapped in jobs that pay the minimum wage and often less, and mostly unable to find permanent year-around work.

In 1979 the United Farm Workers negotiated a contract with Sun World, a large citrus and grape grower.  The contract's bottom wage rate was $5.25 per hour.  At the time, the minimum wage was $2.90.  If the same ratio existed today, with a state minimum of $10.50, farm workers would be earning the equivalent of $19.00 per hour. 

Today farm workers don't make anywhere near $19.00 an hour.  In 2008 demographer Rick Mines conducted a survey of 120,000 migrant farm workers in California from indigenous communities in Mexico - Mixtecos, Triquis, Purepechas and others -- counting the 45,000 children living with them, a total of 165,000 people.  "One third of the workers earned above the minimum wage, one third reported earning exactly the minimum and one third reported earning below the minimum," he found. 

In other words, growers were paying an illegal wage to tens of thousands of farm workers.  The case log of California Rural Legal Assistance is an extensive history of battles to help workers reclaim illegal, and even unpaid, wages.  Indigenous workers are the most recent immigrants in the state's farm labor workforce, and the poorest, but the situation isn't drastically different for others.  The median income is $13,000 for an indigenous family, the median for most farm workers is about $19,000 - more, but still far from a liveable wage.

Low wages in the fields have brutal consequences.  When the grape harvest starts in the eastern Coachella Valley, the parking lots of small markets in farm worker towns like Mecca are filled with workers sleeping in their cars.  For Rafael Lopez, a farm worker from San Luis, Arizona, living in his van with his grandson, "the owners should provide a place to live since they depend on us to pick their crops.  They should provide living quarters, at least something more comfortable than this." 

In northern San Diego County, many strawberry pickers sleep out of doors on hillsides and in ravines.  Each year the county sheriff clears out some of their encampments, but by next season workers have found others.  As Romulo Muñoz Vasquez, living on a San Diego hillside, explains: "There isn't enough money to pay rent, food, transportation and still have money left to send to Mexico.  I figured any spot under a tree would do."

Compounding the problem of low wages is the lack of work during the winter months.  Workers have to save what they can while they have a job, to tide them over.  In the strawberry towns of the Salinas Valley, the normal 10% unemployment rate doubles after the harvest ends in November. While some can collect unemployment, the estimated 53% who have no legal immigration status are barred from receiving benefits. 

Yet people have strong community ties because of shared culture and language. Farm workers in California speak twenty-three languages, come from thirteen different Mexican states, and have rich cultures of music, dance, and food that bind their communities together.  Migrant indigenous farmworkers participate in immigrant rights marches, and organize unions.

Indigenous migrants have created communities all along the northern road from Mexico to the U.S. and Canada.  Migration is a complex economic and social process in which whole communities participate.  Migration creates communities, which today pose challenging questions about the nature of citizenship in a globalized world.  The function of these photographs, therefore, is to help break the mold that keeps us from seeing this reality.

The right to travel to seek work is a matter of survival for millions of people, and a new generation of photographers today documents the migrant-rights movements in both Mexico and the United States (with its parallels to the civil rights movement of past generations). Like many others in this movement, I use the combination of photographs and oral histories to connect words and voices to images - together they help capture a complex social reality as well as people's ideas for changing it.

Today racism is alive and well, and economic inequality is greater now than it has been for half a century. People are fighting for their survival. And it's happening here, not just in safely distant countries half a world away.  As a union organizer, I helped people fight for their rights as immigrants and workers. I'm still doing that as a journalist and photographer. I believe documentary photographers stand on the side of social justice - we should be involved in the world and unafraid to try to change it.

FRESNO, CA - Raymundo Guzman and his partner, Miguel Villegas, do a rap number in Mixteco at a place in the fields outside of Fresno, where indigenous farmworkers get together to eat, drink and listen to the latest creations by the pair combining traditional culture with the music of the U.S. streets and barrios.


I'm going to be a rapper with a conscience - Raymundo Guzman

I was very young when my mother first took me to work in the fields -- about eight or ten years old.  At first only she and my older brother were working.  My brother would work with her, while the rest of us went to school. She took me to the fields so that I could start to learn, so that I would be ready when I was old enough to work.

It was just her and us kids, and she couldn't earn enough to support us all.  She sold tamales and chicharrones, and tried to make money any way she could.  In December she pruned trees.  She was our mother and father.  She had to look out for us.  When there wasn't work in the fields she would kill a pig and make tamales, make mole and sew.

My memories of those times are good because I was working with my family and the people from my hometown.  We all came from the same town in Oaxaca, San Miguel Cuevas.  When I first arrived in Fresno I only spoke Mixteco. I had to learn Spanish to speak with other people in the street and in school. 

I graduated from high school.  I was the first in my family to do it.  My mother was so proud that she threw me a party.  It felt good to stand on stage and hear my name being called.  I felt sad immediately afterwards, though, because I didn't know what to do with my diploma.  It's like accomplishing something so big, and then everything comes crashing down.  It's very depressing. 

I was already working in the fields then, so I actually lost a day of work for graduation practice.  I went to work in Oregon right after graduating, because I was saving up for a car.  But the money seems to slip away.  It's not much to begin with.  The money you earn in a week goes to rent, food, gas and the cell phone bill.

I'm going to be a rap star. I think I'm going to be big, but I'm going to be a rapper with a conscience.  My idol is Tupac Shakur.  He spoke about politics and told the truth about all of us kids in poverty.  He talked about our lives.  It's like Tupac used to say, we're a flower that grew in concrete.  You can see the rose and stem is twisted, but it grew out of the hard concrete.  We're from the hood but we're going to come up.  Some people may not want us to achieve much, but we're human too. 

Rómulo Muñoz Vazquez


Here on the hillside - Rómulo Muñoz Vazquez

In San Pedro Muzuputla, the town I'm from, we're very poor, and I have four children.  JThis is my second time coming to the United States, and I've been living in this encampment in San Diego for a year.   When I first arrived I rented an apartment, but I couldn't make enough money to pay rent, food, transportation and still have money left to send to Mexico.  I figured any spot under a tree would do, so I asked a coworker and he told me about this place. I bought some nylon and a tarp for the roof, and built my shack myself.  My main goal is to save money and send it to my family. 

We're outsiders.  If we were natives here, then we'd probably have a home to live in.  But we don't make enough to pay rent. We're poor and can't afford to go elsewhere. 

Here in the camp very few speak Spanish.  Most just speak their indigenous language.  Those from Guerrero speak one language; the people from San Pedro Muzuputla speak another.  We speak Amuzceñas.  We don't understand Mixteco or Triqui -- it's very different.  That's why it's good to speak Spanish.

When we aren't working, we're looking for work.  Sometimes Americans stop by, and even though we only communicate by hand signals, they can tell us what job they want done.  I was beaten at work five years ago, on a ranch by the freeway in San Diego.  The boss asked us why we weren't working hard.  I told him we weren't animals and we had rights.  I still remember everything they did to me afterwards.

SAN DIEGO, CA - Jose Gonzalez, San Diego coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, urges farm workers living on the Del Mar hillside to participate in the big immigrant rights march on May Day, 2006. Workers gather around the lunch truck at the bottom of the ravine below the camp to buy food or clothes, recharge cellphones and socialize with friends.

COACHELLA, CA -A crew of farm workers harvests romaine lettuce for Pamela Packing Company near Mecca, in the Coachella Valley.  This crew cuts and packs the lettuce into boxes on the ground, the way lettuce harvesting was organized until the 1990s.  This system gave lettuce workers control over the speed of the work and the amount cut.  Growers replaced this work system in most places with lettuce machines, to end control of the harvest by workers.

MECCA, CA - Rafael and his grandson Ricardo Lopez work picking grapes in the Coachella Valley.  They come from San Luis, Arizona, and live in their van in a parking lot in Mecca during the harvest.  Ricardo says, "This is how I envisioned it would be working here with my grandpa and sleeping in the van.  But it would be better if they put up apartments for us to live in.  It's hot at night, and hard to sleep.  There are a lot of mosquitoes, and the big lights are on all night.  There are very few services here, and the bathrooms are very dirty. At night there are a lot of people here, coming and going.  You never know what can happen, it's a bit dangerous.  But my grandfather has a lot of experience and knows how to handle himself.  I'm working here to save money for school. I look at how hard my grandfather has worked.  He tells me to get an education, so I won't be in the situation he's in.  I don't want to do field work for the rest of my life because it is very hard work and the pay is low.  But I'm happy being here because I'm going to earn money."

COACHELLA, CA - Members of the Purepecha community in the Coachella Valley gather at night to rehearse the Danza de Los Ancianos (the Dance of the Old People), preparing to perform it during a procession celebrating the Virgin de Guadalupe at Christmas.  The rehearsal happens outdoors in the Chicanitas trailer camp.

TAFT, CA - Horacio Torres, a farm worker from Mexicali, tops onions late at night.  Onion harvesters sometimes work at night, in order to get as many hours of work as possible, and also because of the heat during the day.  Workers are not paid overtime wages for night work.

TAFT, CA - Ignacio Cruz Cruz, Marcelino Cruz Cruz, Francisca Santiago Bautista, Antonio Santiago Bautista, Teresa Santiago Gonzalez, Lourdes Cruz Santiago (baby),  Jose Domingo Cruz Morales, and Antonio Cruz Morales. This extended family is part of a community of Mixtec farm workers from Oaxaca, who live in Taft.

REEDLEY, CA - Three Mexican farm workers share a small camp under the trees. They called it living "sin techo," or without a roof.  Humberto comes from Zihuatanejo in Guerrero.  Pedro, who wears an earring in his ear, comes from Hermosillo in Sonora.  Ramiro comes from a tiny town in the Lancandon jungle of Chiapas, about halfway between Tapachula on the coast, and Palenque, the site of the Mayan ruins. None of the men has worked more than a few days in the last several months.  The riteros (people with vans who give workers rides to the fields to work) won't pick them up, because they say they live with the vagabundos (vagabonds).

CHOWCHILLA, CA - Ana Lilia Avila, an immigrant from Acapulco, Guerrero, flirts with Heronimo Lopez, a Mixtec immigrant from San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca, while they work picking bell peppers.  She used to work in restaurants in Acapulco, but didn't make enough to live on, so she came with her family to Fresno.

STOCKTON, CA - Angela Ruiz and Claudia Diaz are two lesbian farm workers who told their stories as part of Proyecto Poderoso, a project initiated by California Rural Legal Assistance, for ending discrimination against lesbian and gay farm workers in rural California.

HOLLISTER, CA - At the Hollister Public Library Triqui women dance to traditional music from their communities in Oaxaca.  Hollister is another center of Triqui people in California.

SANTA MARIA, CA - Hieronyma Hernandez reaches for strawberries as she moves down a row, filling the plastic boxes that later appear on supermarket shelves.

BURLINGTON, WA - Outside the labor camp, the children of strikers at Sakuma Farms set up their own picket line on a fence at the gate.  Their sign reads Justicia Para Todos - Justice for Everyone.

David Bacon's photographs and stories seek to capture the courage of people struggling for social and economic justice in the Philippines, Mexico and the United States. The text and photos are excerpted from his 2017 book, In the Fields of the North / En Los Campos del Norte, published simultaneously by the University of California Press in the U.S. and the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Mexico.

Thursday, November 9, 2017


By David Bacon
The American Prospect,  November 7, 2017

The border wall between California and Baja California, in the hills east of San Diego.

As the talks to renegotiate NAFTA unfold in Washington, most attention in the United States has understandably focused on its domestic impact. Yet the treaty also had an enormous effect on Mexico, spurring a wave of forced migration of millions of people. Today a growing number of union members in all three NAFTA countries believe the treaty should be renegotiated-first, just to heal the damage done to workers. But a new treaty, or a new relationship between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, they say, should also ensure that a new NAFTA and other treaties like it never cause the same devastation.

Like the other trade agreements of our age, NAFTA is not really about trade. U.S. tariffs on Mexican imports were relatively low before it went into effect. In actuality, the treaty is an agreement to allow market penetration and investment, the relocation of production and the creation of supply chains in manufacturing. Up until the mid-1980s, Mexico had a very protective policy that restricted foreign investment and controlled the exchange rate to encourage domestic growth. A sharp shift in the late 1980s included market opening measures, privatization, and economic reforms. These reforms were accelerated by NAFTA's provisions on foreign investment.

The maquiladora industry had begun the movement of U.S. jobs to low-wage Mexican factories as far back as 1964. Today the original maquiladora program no longer exists, but the exceptions it established to Mexican and U.S. labor law and customs rules now apply through all of Mexico, and have spread into the U.S. as well.

NAFTA produced an increase in U.S. investment in auto plants, electronics and garment factories, meatpacking plants, and other enterprises. Foreign direct investment rose from $17 billion in 1994 to $104 billion in 2012. U.S. companies-not only in manufacturing-expanded into Mexico generally, using economic reforms and privatization as their wedge. Walmart became Mexico's largest private-sector employer. Union Pacific and Grupo Mexico bought up the nation's railroads and ended passenger service (which Union Pacific had long since ended in the U.S.).

Big Mexican capital also moved into the U.S., where Mexican investment last year reached $16 billion-the level of U.S. investment in Mexico in 1994, when NAFTA went into effect. A number of these corporations brought with them the anti-worker policies they had honed at home. Grupo Mexico, which began as the Mexican subsidiary of American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), grew larger than the parent. Directed by the Larrea family, it bought out the U.S. stockholders, making it the owner of mines in Arizona and the Southwest, where it is now trying to enforce the same union-destroying cuts on U.S. miners that it imposed in in its Mexican mines, Cananea and Nacozari. El Super, a division of the Mexican Chedraui retail corporation, has become a large supermarket chain in southern California, fighting with the UFCW (the leading union of supermarket workers) and trying to operate as many stores without unions as it can.

These changes put Mexican workers increasingly into competition with U.S. and Canadian workers. At the time of its enactment, some NAFTA champions argued that it would reduce the wage differential between them. Though the wages of U.S. workers have largely stagnated, that differential has nonetheless grown. The average Mexican wage was 23 percent of the U.S. manufacturing wage in 1975. By 2002 it had fallen to less than 12 percent. NAFTA hurt Mexican wages, rather than reducing the differential. In the 20 years after NAFTA went into effect, the buying power of the Mexican minimum wage dropped by 24 percent.

A U.S. autoworker earns $21.50 an hour, and a Mexican autoworker $3, but a gallon of milk costs more in Mexico than it does here. It takes a Mexican autoworker over an hour's work to buy a pound of hamburger, while a worker in Detroit can buy it after 10 minutes. That doesn't mean that the Mexican workers are less productive: Mexican workers in the General Motors plant making the Sonic, Silverado, and Sierra produce the same number of cars per hour that the workers do in the U.S. plant making the same models. The difference means profit for GM, poverty for Mexican workers, and the migration from Mexico to the U.S. of those who can't survive.

The treaty forced yellow corn grown by Mexican farmers without subsidies to compete in Mexico's own market with corn from huge U.S. producers, subsidized by the U.S. farm bill. Corn imports rose from two million tons to more than ten million tons from 1992 to 2008. NAFTA prohibited price supports, without which hundreds of thousands of small farmers found it impossible to sell their corn or other farm products for what it cost to produce them. Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork in 1995, and by 2010 that had grown to 811,000 tons, costing 120,000 jobs. The World Bank in 2005 found that the extreme rural poverty rate of 35 percent in 1992-94, prior to NAFTA taking effect, jumped to 55 percent in 1996-98, after NAFTA was in place. By 2010, 53 million Mexicans were living in poverty, about 20 percent in extreme poverty, almost all in rural areas. 

Zacarias Salazar plows his cornfield in Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, behind oxen, in the traditional way with a wooden plow.  Because of corn dumping enabled by the North American Free Trade Agreement, it is almost impossible for Salazar to grow and sell corn in Mexico any longer, and his crop is now mostly for the sustenance of his family.

In the agreement's first year, 1994, one million Mexicans lost their jobs, by the government's own count. According to Jeff Faux, founding director of the Economic Policy Institute, "the peso crash of December, 1994, was directly connected to NAFTA." And as the border maquiladora factories were tied to the U.S. market, Mexican workers lost jobs when the U.S. market shrank during recessions. In 2000-2001, at the time of the dot-com crash, 400,000 jobs were lost on the U.S./Mexico border, and in the Great Recession of 2008 thousands more were eliminated. With the border so close, many crossed it to survive.

NAFTA's purpose went beyond freeing investment. The treaty also produced displaced people, who then became the workforce in the maquiladoras and the fields of Baja California, and swelled an immense wave of migration to the U.S. and Canada. This was more than a foreseeable consequence of NAFTA-it was literally foreseen, and was as much a part of its purpose as the relocation of production.

In fact, Congress had been warned that NAFTA might increase poverty and fuel migration. When it passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, Congress set up a Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development to study immigration's causes. Its report, delivered in 1990-three years before Congress ratified NAFTA-recommended negotiating a free trade agreement between the U.S, Mexico, and Canada. But it also warned, "It takes many years-even generations-for sustained growth to achieve the desired effect," and in the meantime would create years of "transitional costs in human suffering." Nevertheless, the negotiations that led to NAFTA started within months of the report's delivery.

People were migrating from Mexico to the U.S. long before NAFTA, but the treaty put migration on steroids. In 1990, 4.5 million Mexican migrants were living in the U.S. By 2008 the number reached 12.67 million-roughly 9 percent of Mexico's total population. Approximately 5.7 million of these immigrants were able to get some kind of visa, but another seven million couldn't, and came nevertheless.

The 1986 immigration reform act, which led to the negotiation of the free trade agreement, also re-established the bracero program, which had been abolished by the civil rights movement in 1965. Beginning in 1986, various categories of "guest worker" visas have been created, like the H2-A visa for agricultural workers. The Southern Poverty Law Center called these programs "close to slavery." In the last five years the number of H2-A workers recruited to come to the U.S. has risen from about 60,000 to 165,000 last year, and is predicted to reach 200,000 workers this year. That's 10 percent of the whole farm labor workforce, and in states like Washington, it's over a third. The laws that created this migratory workforce operate as a huge subsidy to U.S. agribusiness. U.S. employers don't have to pay the social cost of producing their workforce-the schools, health care, housing, or basic services in the Mexican towns from which the workers come. Instead, the burden falls on workers in the U.S. Mexican communities have become dependent on remittances by Mexican workers in the U.S., which totaled $27 billion in 2016. In 1996 they came to just $4 billion.

During the debate on NAFTA's original enactment, executives of companies belonging to USA•NAFTA, the agreement's corporate lobbyist, made extravagant claims that U.S. exports to Mexico would create 100,000 new jobs in the U.S. in its first year alone. Michael Wilson, director of the Heritage Foundation, predicted, "it will create an estimated 200,000 new jobs for Americans, reduce illegal immigration from Mexico, help tackle drug trafficking, strengthen Mexican democracy, and human rights, and serve as a model for the rest of the world." President Clinton claimed: "I believe that NAFTA will create 200,000 American jobs in the first two years." When he said "I believe that NAFTA will create a million jobs in the first five years," the claim was so extravagant that his press secretary had to walk it back the following day.

Clinton also promised that NAFTA would curtail the border crossings from Mexico. Speaking at the White House in September 1993, as the treaty was up for ratification in Congress, Clinton declared, "there will be less illegal immigration because more Mexicans will be able to support their children by staying home. This is a very important thing." At a time when the recession of the early '90s had devastated the Southern California economy in particular, Clinton's promises of reduced immigration played off voters' fears. Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his aides toured the U.S. for a year, also vowing that NAFTA would take pressure off U.S. workers. Full-page ads appeared in newspapers in which Citibank joined the chorus. In the end, the treaty was supported by almost all Republicans, joined by a minority of Democrats-just enough to ratify it.

If workers in the U.S. were worried about NAFTA's effect on their jobs, they had good reason to be.  In the treaty's first decade the U.S. Department of Labor tracked of claims for unemployment benefits for workers who could show their employers had moved their jobs to Mexico.  When the total passed 500,000, however, President George W. Bush ordered the Department of Labor to stop counting. "By 2010, trade deficits with Mexico had eliminated 682,900 good U.S. jobs, most (60.8 percent) in manufacturing," according to Robert E. Scott of the Economic Policy Institute. "Jobs making cars, electronics, apparel and other goods moved to Mexico, and job losses piled up in the United States, especially in the Midwest where those products used to be made."

Detroit lost half its population as the auto industry left, and today every engine in a Ford comes from Mexico. Huge swaths of other industrial cities have also taken on that abandoned look that comes with boarded-up homes and storefronts. But the working families who lost those outsourced jobs didn't disappear. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people began an internal migration within the U.S. larger than the dustbowl displacement of the 1930s. Former machinists and factory workers went on the road, landing low-wage jobs in fast food restaurants or Walmarts. Many lost their families. Some began living on the streets.

Job losses had a particular impact on workers of color. Plants that freeze broccoli and strawberries for frozen food companies like Green Giant moved from Watsonville to Irapuato. That cost the jobs of thousands of women who'd come north from Mexico, and then spent years on the freezer lines in Watsonville. In auto and other manufacturing plants, African American workers had long since broken the color line into more skilled and better paying jobs, only to see them relocated and the plants close.

Employers bent on lowering wages or canceling health care plans quickly learned to use NAFTA to inspire that fear. In 1997 Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner found that one out of every ten employers facing a union drive told their workers they'd move to Mexico if the employees voted in a union. In 2009 a second Bronfenbrenner report, "No Holds Barred," found that 57 percent of employers facing a union election threatened to close their worksite. According to Jeff Faux, "NAFTA strengthened the ability of U.S. employers to force workers to accept lower wages and benefits."

When NAFTA had come before Congress, its supporters argued that any race to the bottom by corporations determined to lower labor costs or violate workers' rights could be blocked by the so-called labor protections in a side-agreement to NAFTA-the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation. This made NAFTA more politically palatable for those Democrats in Congress who wanted to ratify the treaty anyway.

The record of the side agreement is dismal.  In its most recent status report, the Department of Labor lists the 37 cases-24 against Mexico, 13 against the U.S., and two against Canada-that have been brought under the agreement in the quarter century since NAFTA's passage. Almost all against Mexico concerned violations of the right to freedom of association, to strike and to bargain. Cases against the U.S. involved violations of union rights and the rights of immigrant workers. The two cases against Canada concerned violations of the right to collective bargaining.

The most any union or group of workers ever got from filing a case was "consultations" between the governments, and public hearings. There is no provision in the agreement for assessing penalties for violation of union rights. There are minor penalties for violating child labor or occupational health laws, but they've never been invoked. Not a single union contract was signed as a result of the side-agreement process, nor was a single worker rehired. Those unions that have filed cases have generally sought to use the process to gain public exposure of abuses, and exert indirect pressure on employers.

Silvestre Reyes, a striker at the Han Young maquiladora.  Many unions from southern California sent delegations to Tijuana to support the workers in their effort to set up an independent union.  But when the strikers went to a meeting called by the Mexican government as a result of a labor side agreement complaint, to advise workers of their right to an independent union, the strikers were beaten up in the ballroom of Tijuana's prestigious Camino Real Hotel.

Was this just a flaw in the enforcement mechanism or something deeper? The purpose of NAFTA and other trade agreements has been to open economies for corporate investment, using lower labor costs as incentives to attract investment. It is unrealistic to expect that a side agreement to enforce already weak labor laws could mitigate the treaty's fundamental purpose.

Despite its corporate tilt, however, NAFTA did produce a new relationship among unions and workers in all three countries. Many working people in the United States, especially if they belonged to unions that campaigned against NAFTA, started to open their eyes about the real conditions of their fellow workers in Mexico, and could see how those conditions encouraged employers to relocate their jobs. In response, workers and a number of progressive unions on both sides of the border have come closer together.

When the Mexican government, for instance, tried to change Mexico's labor law, or passed corporate-backed education reform, or began to privatize the electrical and oil industries, U.S. unions have joined with Mexican unions to fight these changes. Many U.S. unions today understand that the impact will be felt in the displacement of Mexican workers and their migration to the United States and Canada, in the pressure their own workers will feel to accept concessions, or in the closure of plants and workplaces.

Even before the treaty passed, activists in all three countries set up networks like the Border Committee of Women Workers, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, Enlace and the Workers' Support Center. The United Steelworkers became the crucial support base for Mexican miners in their eight-year strike in Cananea, one of the world's largest copper mines, and gave sanctuary to the union's leader, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, when he was forced to leave Mexico. The United Electrical Workers and Mexico's Authentic Workers Front developed a permanent strategic alliance, assisting in each other's organizing drives.

This kind of cross-border cooperation and solidarity is now a fact of life in the labor movements of all three countries-a consequence the authors of NAFTA certainly did not intend.

The debates around the treaty, which came at the same time as the breakup of the Soviet Union, also helped spell the death knell of the U.S. labor movement's Cold War support for free-trade policies and its opposition to other nations' more radical unions. Over the past two decades, the labor movement has been moving towards new principles of solidarity with other nations' unions.

NAFTA had an equally great impact in changing U.S. labor's way of looking at immigration and immigrant workers. In 1986 the AFL-CIO supported IRCA, the immigration reform legislation that made it illegal for undocumented workers to hold a job. But the wave of immigration that NAFTA produced changed the demographics of many U.S. workplaces, and with it, the demographics of U.S. unions.  Not only did the number of immigrant workers increase, but over the years they took on a growing role in organizing unions in many industries, and eventually, in the leadership of those unions themselves.

At the same time, U.S. unions saw immigration law and policy used against them.  In Washington state 1000 apple pickers were fired when they tried to join the Teamsters, and in Nebraska 3000 meatpacking workers, many of whom either belonged to unions or were trying to organize unions in their plants, were driven from their jobs.  In some cases their employers called in the federal immigration agents, but in others the Federal government itself demanded massive firings.  In consequence, in 1999, the AFL-CIO changed its official position on immigration policy, calling for an end to the deportation and firing of undocumented workers, for legalizing people without papers, and for a trade policy that doesn't produce poverty and displacement.

Today the AFL-CIO's statement on NAFTA renegotiation declares that, "all workers, regardless of sector, have the right to receive wages sufficient for them to afford ... a decent standard of living." The federation would prohibit the export of products made by companies paying less. Progressive Mexican unions and community organizations support this, because it would give workers and farmers a future without having to leave their homes in search of a living wage.

On the other hand, the Mexican government now argues that Mexican wages must stay low to attract investment, and has accused independent unions there of betraying the national interest by seeking to raise them. With its presidential election coming next year, that position may well doom its ruling political party, not just to unpopularity, but to massive rejection at the polls. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a past leftwing candidate now leading in the polls, has condemned the policy of using low wages to attract investment, and called for an economy based on producing jobs and social services that would give Mexicans a future in Mexico.

The basis of labor solidarity is in many ways stronger today than it was in 1994, but labor is still playing a catch-up game. Border workers have gone on strike in four Juarez maquiladoras and the fields of San Quintin in recent years, and in Cananea and the Rio Sonora valley miners are still on strike after nearly a decade. In the U.S., where millions of workers are very aware, and fearful, about the loss of their jobs because of NAFTA and globalization, unions have yet to convince many people that solidarity, not hatred of Mexicans or of immigrants, is the real answer to their desperation.

But when unions began to respond to NAFTA in 1993 and 1994, they knew they were in for a fight, yet they believed that change was possible nonetheless. It still is. Facing one of the most labor-hostile U.S. governments in decades, and trade proposals likely to undermine their strength even further, unions can still be a standard bearer for workers in all three countries.

Monday, November 6, 2017




Sunday, October 29, 2017


By David Bacon
Capital and Main, The American Prospect, 10/26/17

A man on the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. looks through the bars, where the wall runs into the Pacific Ocean.

For almost an hour Laura, Moises and I drove through the dusty neighborhoods of Tecate, looking for Kikito.  Tecate is a small city in the dry hills of Baja California, next to the U.S. border.  It's famous for a huge brewery, although today most workers find jobs in local maquiladoras.

When we asked for directions, a couple of people had heard of Kikito, but couldn't tell us where he was.  Most didn't know who we were talking about. 

We figured that if we kept driving along the border fence we'd find him.  On the hot empty streets not much was moving.  In these neighborhoods the second storeys of large comfortable homes, mostly built in the 40s and 50s, rise above adobe walls enclosing their courtyards.  But unlike downtown, with its colorful bustle, there was no street life out here, hardly anyone on the sidewalk.

Finally we passed the one man who could surely tell us how to find Kikito  - the cable guy.  He even volunteered to lead us in his van part of the way. Using his directions, we bumped along a dirt road next to the border fence, up and down a couple of hills where the city fades into scrubland.  Then we found Kikito.

He was much larger than I'd imagined.

The "Kikito" art installation at the U.S. Mexico border wall, created by French artist JR.  From the U.S. side it seems the child is grabbing the wall and looking over it to the U.S. side.  From the Mexican side it is impossible for Mexicans to see it in this way.  Laura Velasco stands on a little hill near the structure, giving an idea of it huge size.

Kikito is an enormous photograph of a one-year old child, pasted onto cut-out plywood sheets.  The assemblage is mounted on a huge, complex metal scaffold, about 65 feet high, much like what painters erect to embrace the buildings they work on.  Kikito's scaffolding, however, doesn't embrace anything.  Instead, it pushes the enormous photograph towards, and above, the border wall's severe vertical iron bars.

The structure is so big that to bring the photo into position, part of the hillside had to be excavated, and a hole dug deep into the ravine at the bottom.  A few walled houses in the distance line the rim of the hill above.

I felt like Dorothy going behind the curtain, when she suddenly confronts the Wizard as he manically pulls levers to present his fierce, disembodied face to the audience out in front.  Like the Wizard's, you can only see Kikito's visage the right way from the other side of the curtain - in this case, the metal fence separating Tecate from the U.S. 

Viewed rom the U.S. side, Kikito becomes an enormous black and white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he seems to look over it, into the mysterious United States.  He has a slight smile.

If we'd been on the U.S. side, driving east from San Diego, we could have followed the directions Kikito's creator, the French artist JR, posted on his website.  There you can even see JR's photograph of two U.S. Border Patrol agents staring at the baby.  Apparently they often help visitors find the right spot.

We now have 20,000 Border Patrol agents, whose parked vans dot the desert all along the border wall from California to Texas, as they wait to grab someone trying to cross.  Helping visitors find Kikito must provide a welcome break in the tedium of watching and waiting, sitting in sweaty vans on shadeless hills, where the temperature climbs to 105 degrees and above.

At this spot along the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., Border Patrol agents fired through the wall, and killed Ramses Barron-Torres.  His portrait and a cross are on the wall of the building in Mexico below, where he fell.  Agents say they were justified in shooting because people were throwing stones at them, but the street is far below and there is little danger that a stone could even pass through the iron bars at such a distance.

It's obvious that Kikito's audience is located in the U.S. "The piece is best viewed from the U.S. side of the border," JR's website explains.  In fact, the optical illusion can only be seen from that side - Mexicans standing in Tecate, where it's actually located, can't see it the right way. JR says Kikito is looking "playfully," but then admits, "Kikito and his family cannot cross the border to see the artwork from the ideal vantage point."

I took a photo of Laura on a nearby hummock, just to give an idea of the structure's immense scale.  She seems diminutive next to it.  In her classes at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana, and in her books and research about the migration of Mexico's indigenous people to Baja California and eventually to the U.S., Laura Velasco is hardly dispassionate.  She advocates for migrants, and has no love for the wall and its unsubtle messages of "Keep Out!" and "Stay in Mexico!" 

That's one reason she liked Kikito.  "He shows us to be human beings," she said, looking up at his half smile.  "That's a good message for people in the U.S.  And he does it without shouting, just by being who he is."  If people in Mexico can't see him properly, she thinks, they're not the ones who need to get the message anyway.

When the installation went up, President Trump had just issued his threat to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA ) program, withdrawing the legal status of 800,000 young people brought by their parents to the U.S. without visas as children.  Many of those youth - the Dreamers - saw a baby looking over the border wall as a symbol of their own humanity in the face of fear and possible deportation.

Yet my visceral reaction, as I looked down the hillside at this immense toddler, was more skeptical.  In a desert where hundreds of people die every year of thirst and exhaustion, trying to dodge Border Patrol agents, trekking on foot across the wall in the intense heat, is it enough to simply say, "Immigrants are human beings"?  Why such a soft message in such a harsh context?

Migrants found dead on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potters field graveyard in Holtville.  The identities of many are not known, and are buried as "John Doe" or "Jane Doe."  Immigrant rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves, most of which say "No Olvidados" or "Not Forgotten."

The wall, and the border militarization of which it is a part, is exacting a terrible cost.  It's paid by uprooted Oaxacan farmers needing work and money to send home, by parents and children desperate to reunite families fractured by earlier migrations, by Honduran refugees fleeing violence.  When many die crossing the desert (232 in the first seven months of 2017), they're buried in the Holtville cemetery, 89 miles east of Kikito in the Imperial Valley.  

Successive U.S. administrations beef up the Border Patrol's numbers, build multiple walls, hand out contracts for high-tech surveillance devices, detain hundreds of thousands of people in for-profit detention centers, and then deport them.  In President Trump's election rallies crowds chanted, "Build the Wall!"

It's a big media story, and produces a fascination with the border among U.S. photographers and artists, who then create photodocumentaries and art projects currently popular in the mainstream media.  The border sells, in other words.  Kikito is part of a growing genre.

Richard Misrach, a well-known photographer, produced a large book of photographs, Border Cantos, which shows the absurdity of a wall of iron bars that suddenly stops at a golf course, allowing real estate agents to play through.  He communicates an atmosphere of violence in images of spent shells on the range where Border Patrol agents practice shooting, and the possibility of death from thirst in images of flags signaling the water cans left by immigration activists and Good Samaritans along the migrant trails.  But like Kikito, his audience is in the U.S.  The photographs, almost all without people, look at the border wall from that northern side. 

Some projects are less documentary.  In the New Yorker , writer Jonathan Blitzer recounts that Magnum photographer Carolyn Drake "set out for the U.S.-Mexico border just after Donald Trump won the Presidency."

"Where is Drake taking us?" Blitzer asks. "This is an American project, she told me. She's less concerned with who's crossing to or from Mexico than she is with who's already on the American side, living alongside the border as though wedged between two worlds." 

Luisa, a homeless woman, collects cans and plastic from garbage dumpsters, near the Tijuana River, in downtown Tijuana, just south of the U.S. Mexico border.

The New Yorker labelled Drake's work "Haunted Photographs of America's Borderlands," a phrase that signals that we're only looking at the border from the U.S. side.  , "'Our obsession with the border has a lot of fantasy involved,"  Drake explained to Blitzer. "You're searching for something, but it's not really there."  Her 22 photographs on the magazine's website are all taken in the U.S. -- Mexicans only exist once they've arrived in the north.

"When did this contemporary diaspora become a 'fantasy'?" asks Don Bartletti, who in his years at the Los Angeles Times probably took more photographs of the border than any other U.S. photographer. "The border is certainly clearly defined for millions of people searching for something better on the other side."  

Another New Yorker writer, Alexandra Schwartz, calls JR "a magician who conjures people onto walls."  She notes that he's done other photographic projects on the same scale, pasting black and white portraits of immigrants onto buildings and walls in Europe and elsewhere.  He too got his impetus from Trump.  ""When Trump started to talk a lot about a wall along the Mexican border, one day I woke up and I saw a kid looking over the wall,'" he told Schwartz.  "'We know that a one-year-old doesn't have a political vision, or any political point of view. He doesn't see walls as we see them.'"

I'm sure JR doesn't see Mexicans as one-year-olds.  But the way the border is objectified and used can make people in Mexico suspicious about how people on the other side of the wall see them, when they see them at all. 

"The subject of the border is profitable for artists," Enrique Botello, a photographer in Ensenada and founder of Galeria 184, told me.  "I think most U.S. photographers don't understand the price we're paying on the border, in terms of the number of people dying.  They're motivated mainly by self-interest because the subject of the border is easy to sell.  A lot of photographers only want to come and take pictures without being very critical - just exploit the subject."

After looking at Kikito, we drove over to Tecate's new municipal art center for the presentation of a book about California farmworkers, published jointly by COLEF in Tijuana and the University of California Press in Oakland.  Afterwards we went to drink wine at a local restaurant with friends - poets and artists.

A memorial at the border fence for those who have died trying to cross.

"Kikito means nothing to me," announced Francisco Morales, Baja California's celebrated poet and activist.  His partner, Rocio Hoffmann Silva, is a portrait painter.  Between them, they live project to project, book to book, and often have a hard time putting together the income to pay the bills.  "I look at the resources needed to create Kikito, and think about what we could use them for here," she thought.  "There's so much available in the U.S.  When we want to create art that looks at our lives here, support is hard to find."

Oscar Contreras, a sociologist at COLEF born in Tecate, thought Kikito didn't have to make an overt political statement.  "It can exist in its own right," he argued, "and we can appreciate it or not based on how well it communicates its aesthetic ideas."  Kikito, however, and photographs of the wall and the "borderlands" are created as social documents, not just art abstracted from reality.  That's the basis for their media popularity - why photographers and artists get the funding needed to create them.  "If they're measured against social reality, I think that's fair," he added.  "After all, can Kikito exist without the wall?"

Morales isn't angry at Kikito in particular, but like many of his colleagues believes Tijuana's vibrant culture is ignored in U.S. media coverage of the border.  Mexican artists create their own art about the migration experience, because it is such a fundamental aspect of Mexican life.  Virtually every family has a member or friend who's crossed to the U.S., where over nine percent of the country's population now lives.  One famous work mounted crosses on the border wall's metal plates, where it runs along the road past the Tijuana airport.  Gallon jugs symbolizing the water carried by border crossers were stacked against it, each with the name of someone whose body had been found in the desert.

At the ironically-named Friendship Park (Parque de la Amistad) in Playas de Tijuana, the graffiti on the wall's bars is itself an art project. The wall, both there and on the fence leading to Mexicali's crossing gate, has become a venue  for photographers and artists.  Their art is sharp, critiquing mass deportations and the hard lives of migrants on the other side.  And these works can only be shown on the Mexican side - the Border Patrol will not allow art installations on the side they control.

Much of the Mexican art about the border focuses on the wall and its human cost, but photographers like Botello also insist that the coverage has to include the roots of migration.  "The problem of the border is bilateral," he says.  "U.S. policy toward the border is becoming very radicalized, with the death of so many migrants.  But the problem of the border is also that of the countries exporting those migrants." 

A worker is deported back into Mexico at the border gate in Mexicali, under the stare of a Border Patrol agent.

To Enrique Botello, the problem of Kikito is that he is too distant, both from the deaths at the border and from the reasons people risk it - what they are migrating from.  "JR says that he has no political position!" he exclaims.  "His interest isn't in in making a commitment, just in his art."

Bartletti is angrier.  "Many photographers who parachute in to the U.S./Mexico border portray its cultural anthropology as simple theater," he argues.  "'The Border' has become a convenient stage, with little documentary evidence of the causes and consequences of migration for survival.  But it's probably good for their bottom line." 

Art or photography can help change the world, if it arises from the political commitment and involvement of the artist and photographer.  "We should strengthen solidarity on all the borders of the world," Botello urges, "so that that someday all those borders will disappear."  Therefore photography projects, he believes, can be produced in cooperation across the border, in active solidarity.

While there are few examples of this today, it is an idea with historical precedent.  In the 1930s and '40s Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco came to the U.S. and created radical murals that were cultural weapons of that era in movements for social change.  They inspired a generation of radical U.S. painters in the process.  Rivera's Rockefeller Center mural, "Man at the Crossroads," was viewed as so dangerous that its patron, Nelson Rockefeller, had it painted over.  Tina Modotti, born in Italy and raised in San Francisco, and Mariana Yampolsky, born in Chicago, created photographs that became part of the revolutionary cultural upsurge in Mexico from the 1920s to the 1950s.

In making Kikito, a Mexican child visible to the United States, JR has created a border focused project.  But if part of its purpose was to make the invisible visible, other subjects carry a sharper critical edge, and pose deeper questions about the reality people experience on the border.  What happens, for instance, to those pushed back through the gate in the border wall, once they're deported from the U.S.?

Today scores of young people live in the concrete channel built to contain the floods of the Tijuana River, which runs through the middle of the city near the border between Mexico and the U.S.  Like the Los Angeles river channel, it is mostly an empty cement expanse, but in Tijuana it is filled with deportees with no money and no home.

Juan Manuel Barragan Corona, recently expelled from the U.S. and living in the river bottom, has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas.  "We are the invisible people," he says.  "In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican."

Juan Manuel Barragan Corona and his friend are homeless men who live in the Tijuana River flood control channel.  Many deported homeless people live in the concrete river bed.

Two poems from "San Ysidro Zone," by Francisco Morales
Translated by Iliana Hernández Partida

Warm coffee
words had left me dry
the hate helicopter flies again
looking for migrants through the wired.

Warm coffee
at the crackling corner of hunger
a patched tunnel
fears and mastiffs are after feeble dogs.

The coffee and the chipping bowl got cold
                without tenderness...

Ah, these men! :
How many fences they build!
how much misery
for so many nomadic skeletons!

More common than shadows and noise
a wall rises upon us.

That humidity scented wall
does not scream nor crackles
                no groans come from it.

It cuts maliciously
the Psalms history that we traced
our elucubrations fiercely built
                roughed up.

    like a coastline without sowings
    or a private lilies swamp.

The silence wall.

The seed growing missing a life seed
along the sunset working as a watchman
and the stubborn eyes browsing
from the chiaroscuro grid.

The seven vigils bitch
giving birth to new sarcasms.

Kikito is gone now.  After a month, JR's crew took down the image and scaffolding.  Nothing but a big hole remains.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017


In the Fields of the North /
En los Campos del Norte

Photographs and text panels by David Bacon
documenting the lives of farm workers
Fotografias y paneles de texto por David Bacon
documentando las vidas de los que trabajan en el campo

Arbuckle Gallery / Pacific Hotel
History Park of San Jose, 1650 Senter Rd., San Jose, CA
10/26/2017 - 6/3/2018,
11A-4.30P, Tues/Martes - Sun/Domingo


By David Bacon
Dollars and Sense - September/October 2017

Pablo Alvarado, organizer for the Day Labor Union (and now director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network), talks to a group of day laborers getting work on the corner at Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood.

One winter morning in Los Angeles, a group of health care activists set up a street-corner clinic for day laborers. One of the day laborers who lined up for medical tests was Omar Sierra. He got to the head of the line and then took his seat at the testing station. A nurse tied off his arm and inserted the needle to draw blood, when all of a sudden Migra agents came running across the street. Everybody panicked and ran. Omar tore off the tourniquet, ripped out the needle, and ran as well. He was lucky that day, because he escaped. But a lot of his friends didn't. So when he got home, disturbed about what had happened, he decided to write a song about it, which for a while became the anthem of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network.

I'm going to sing you a story friends
That will make you cry
How one day in front of K-Mart
The Migra came down on us
Sent by the sheriff
Of this very same place ...

We don't understand why
We don't know the reason
Why there is so much
Discrimination against us
In the end we'll wind up all the same in the grave ...

With this verse I leave you
I'm tired of singing
Hoping the Migra
Won't come after us again
Because in the end we all have to work.

Omar Sierra tells us the truth: We all have to work, at least if you're part of the working class. But today's reality is also that working has become a crime for millions of people. A few years ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents went to the Agriprocessors meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa, and sent 388 young people from Guatemala to prison for six months for using bad Social Security numbers (see David Bacon, "Railroading Immigrants," The Nation, October 2008 and Peter Rachleff, "Immigrant Rights Are Labor Rights: Postville and the Lessons of the Hormel Strike," Dollars & Sense, September/October 2008). Those folks were deported immediately afterwards. One of them-we know this because ICE told us in the affidavits they used to get the paperwork for the raid-was a young man who had been beaten with a meat hook on the line by his supervisor. He was picked up along with all the rest, imprisoned, and deported. His supervisor went on working.

Teresa Mina

Teresa Mina was a janitor in San Francisco, and she lived there for six years. She couldn't see her kids grow up-even though it was for their sake that she came to San Francisco-because she couldn't go home and then pay the thousands of dollars it would have taken for her to re-cross the border and get back to her job. She says, "The woman in the office wouldn't pay me. She said the papers I had when I was hired were no good. I told her I didn't have any other papers. I felt really bad. After so many years of killing myself in that job, I needed to keep it so I could keep sending money home. This law is very unjust. We work day and night to help our children have a better life or just eat," she continues. "My kids won't have what they need now because I can't work."

ICE says on its website that "this kind of enforcement is targeting employers who pay illegal workers substandard wages or force them to endure illegal and intolerable working conditions." But curing intolerable conditions by firing workers certainly doesn't help the workers, and it doesn't change the conditions. Instead, ICE is punishing undocumented workers who earn too much or who demand higher wages or organize unions. Employers in these enforcement actions get rewarded, for cooperating with ICE, with immunity from prosecution. So the only people who get hurt by it are workers.

The Criminalization of Work

Michael Chertoff, who was the head of the Migra under Bush, said, "There is an obvious solution to the problem of illegal work, which is you open the front door and you shut the back door." He wants people to come as braceros, as contract workers recruited in Mexico. That's the front door. To make people do that, he would close the back door by picking people up at work or out on the sidewalk or crossing through the desert, because our government says all these things are a crime. That's the message of deporting 400,000 people a year. If you want to come, come as a guest worker, come as a bracero.

E-Verify is the same kind of solution, because it says that if you don't have papers, it is a crime to work. So you stand on a street corner and a truck stops and you get in. And then you work all day in the sun until you're so tired you can hardly make it back to your room. This is a crime. You do it to send money home to your family and the people who depend on you. That's a crime, too.

How many people are breaking the law in these ways? There are over 11 million people living in the United States without papers. But this is a global phenomenon. People are going from Morocco to Spain, Turkey to Germany, and Jamaica to the U.K. The World Bank says more than 213 million people worldwide live outside the countries where they were born. Two decades earlier the number was under 156 million. That number increased by 58 million people in 20 years. The number of migrants in the world is going up, and it's going up very quickly. The United States is home these days to about 43 million people born outside its borders, up from 23 million two decades earlier.

If working is a crime, then workers are criminals. And if workers are criminals and working becomes a crime, they will go home. That's one of the justifications for criminalization of migrants. But why don't we see people lined up at the border, paying coyotes thousands of dollars to get smuggled into Mexico? Because there are no jobs for people to go home to.

María Rosalia Mejía Marroquín, a Guatemalan immigrant, was arrested in an immigration raid at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and was released to care for her child, but had to wear an ankle bracelet to monitor her movements. 

The Drivers of Migration

The increase in migration to the United States coincided, by no accident, with the period in which neoliberal economic reforms were implemented in those countries that are the main sources of migration coming here.

In 1994, the year that NAFTA went into effect, there were about 4.5 million people born in Mexico living in the United States. In 2008, that number peaked at about 12.6 million. Of those people, about 5.7 million were able to get some kind of visa. But another 7 million people couldn't, and they came anyway. Fully 9% of the population of Mexico lives here on the north side of the border. People are coming now from the most remote areas of Mexico, where people are still speaking languages that were old when Columbus arrived-Mixteco, Zapoteco, Triqui, Purépecha, and others. The largest Salvadoran city in the world is what? San Salvador? No, it's Los Angeles. And remittances going back to El Salvador are 16.6% of Salvadoran GDP.

What produced the migration from Mexico is the same thing that closed factories here. NAFTA, for instance, let huge U.S. companies-Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Continental Grain Company-sell corn in Mexico for a price that was lower than what it cost farmers to grow it. Those companies are subsidized by the federal government. The last farm bill had $2 billion in subsidies for U.S. grain producers. Those companies took those subsidies and they sold corn in Mexico at 19% below the U.S. cost of production, according to Jonathan Fox and others who have studied the displacement of people that this has caused. Corn exports to Mexico went from 2 million to 10 million tons from 1992 to 2008.

It's not just corn. The price of pork in Mexico, because of pork exports to that country, went down 56%. That didn't mean that it got cheaper in supermarkets. It just meant that those people doing business made more money. Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork in 1995, and by 2010 it was 811,000 tons. One company, Smithfield Foods, now controls over 25% of the market for pork meat in Mexico, and as a result, Mexican pig farmers and slaughterhouse workers lost 120,000 jobs, according to the Mexican Pork Producers Association. The systems that helped rural farmers survive by buying corn, tobacco, or coffee at subsidized prices were all ruled illegal, a restraint of trade, under NAFTA.

Displacement doesn't just hurt farmers; it hurts workers, too. In Cananea, a small mining town in Sonora, just south of the U.S. border, miners went on strike in 2008 to stop a multinational corporation from eliminating their jobs and busting their union (see David Bacon, "Mexican Miners Strike for Life," The American Prospect, October 2007 and Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson, "The Assault on Labor in Cananea, Mexico," Dollars & Sense, September/October 2010). When they lost their jobs, the border was only 50 miles north. The Mexican government dissolved the Mexican Power and Light Company, which provides electrical service in central Mexico, and fired 44,000 workers. This was a prelude to the privatization of the electrical system in Mexico. Where did those people go? The lack of labor rights, when it gets combined with economic reforms to benefit large corporations, is a source of migration as well.

And then there is environmental pollution. In Veracruz, Smithfield took a beautiful desert valley and turned it into an ecological disaster by building the world's largest pig farm complex. The story of Fausto Limón shows the consequences. On some warm nights, Fausto Limón's children wake up and vomit from the smell. He puts his wife, two sons, and a daughter into his beat-up pickup, and they drive away from his farm until they can breathe the air without getting sick. Then he parks, and they sleep there for the rest of the night. They all had kidney ailments, all of his family, until they stopped drinking from the well on the farm, because Smithfield had contaminated the whole aquifer under the valley there. Less than half a mile from his house is one of the 80 pig farms built by Smithfield. Each one has over 20,000 hogs. That's where the swine flu started. (See David Bacon, "How U.S. Policies Fueled Mexico's Great Migration," The Nation, January 2012)

Victoria Hernández, a teacher in one of the towns in the valley, La Gloria, said that her students would tell her that riding to school on the school bus was like riding in a toilet. She began writing leaflets about it and the ranchers in the valley began protesting about the expansion of these farms. That's when Smithfield had them arrested for defamation in order to stop those protests. Defamation meant telling the truth about what Smithfield was doing.

David Ceja

David Ceja left his home in Veracruz near the Perote Valley and he eventually went to work in a Smithfield plant, the slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C. He says:

"The free trade agreement was the cause of our problems. They were just paying as little to farmers as they could. When the prices went up, no one had any money to pay. After the crisis, we couldn't pay for electricity, we just used candles at home. And when you see that your parents don't have any money, that's when you decide to come, to help them. In the ranches where we lived, the coyotes would come by offering to take us north. I was 18 years old when I left in 1999. My parents sold four cows and 10 hectares of land to get the money to get to the border. And then I walked across the river from Tamaulipas to Texas and walked through the mountains for two days and three nights. Some friends told me to go to North Carolina. And in Veracruz we had heard that there was a slaughterhouse there. When I was hired, I saw people from the area near where I lived. Lots of people from Veracruz worked at Smithfield."

NAFTA and the U.S. and Mexican governments helped big companies get rich by keeping wages low and then giving them subsidies and letting them push farmers into bankruptcy. That's also why it's so hard for families to survive: because they can't farm and because of those low wages. They get laid off to cut costs, their workplaces are privatized, or their unions get busted. On the border, an economy of maquiladoras and low wages was promoted as a way to produce jobs. But in the last recession, in Matamoros or Juarez or Tijuana, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs instead. When U.S. consumers stopped buying what those factories were producing, people were laid off. When they were working, it took half a day's wages for a woman to buy a half-gallon of milk for her kids. People live in houses made out of materials cast off from the plants, in homes that often don't have any sewer system, on dirt roads, in terrible conditions. And that's when people are working.

So when people lose those jobs and the border is right there, where are they going to go? We all will do whatever it takes for our families to survive. If it's going north, that's what people do.

The DACA youth, the "dreamers" are the true children of NAFTA-those who, more than anyone, paid the price for the agreement. Their parents brought them with them when they crossed the border without papers, choosing survival over hunger, seeking to keep their families together and give them a future.

Ramón Torres, head of the strike committee and president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a union of indigenous Mexican farm workers in Washington State, talks to strikers at Sakuma Farms about the effort to get the company to sign an agreement. After four years of strikes and the boycott of Driscolls' berries, the union signed its first contract in June.

American Apartheid

Today's criminalization programs, the raids and the firings, are very tightly tied to the labor supply schemes, because fear and vulnerability make it harder for workers to organize and for unions to help and represent them. The displacement of people is an unspoken tool of that policy, because it produces workers.

This is an old story in the United States. It was a crime for decades, for instance, for Filipinos to marry women who were not Filipinas, because of anti-miscegenation laws. At the same time, our immigration policies kept women from coming from the Philippines, so for the farm workers of the 1930s and '40s it was a crime to have a family. Many men stayed single their whole lives, moving from labor camp to labor camp, contributing their labor wherever the growers needed it.

The braceros were "legal" because they had visas, the same thing employers say today about contract workers recruited in the H2-A and H2-B visa programs. But let's remember the true history. The braceros lived behind barbed wire in camps. If they went on strike, they were deported. They didn't get all the pay they were owed, and when their contract was over, they had to leave the country.

But the history of this abuse is also a history of resistance. Filipinos fought to stay, and just for the right to have a family. The braceros fought to stay, too. Some people just walked out of those labor camps, and kept on living and working without documents for 20 years, until the immigration amnesty of 1986. They are the grandparents of many, many families living in the United States today.

In 1964, people like Bert Corona, Cesar Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and Ernesto Galarza, trade unionists and leaders of the Chicano civil rights movement, fought to get Congress to end the bracero program. The next year Mexicans and Filipinos organized a union and they went out on strike in Coachella and Delano, and created the United Farm Workers. But they didn't stop there. In 1965, they went back to Congress and demanded a law that would not make workers into braceros for the growers. They demanded a law that prioritized families, and won the family preference system. Today, once you have a green card, you can get your mother or your father or your children to come and join you in the United States. The civil rights movement won that law.

They've starved that system of the visas it needs to function. Now the waiting line is 20 years long for people to bring family members from Mexico City or Manila. Corporate proposals for reforming immigration laws would pull that family preference system apart. Instead they propose systems in which visas are given based on skills that employers want. These ideas would push us backwards into the bracero era again.

Poverty and Profit

Migration is not an accident. Here in the United States, we have an economic system that depends on migration-and on migrants. If all the migrants went home tomorrow, would there be fruit and vegetables in the supermarkets? Who would be cutting up those pigs in Tar Heel? Who would clean the office buildings? Without the labor of today's migrants, the economic system in this country would stop. But do the companies that are using that labor, whether it's growers or the ones who own office buildings and hotels, pay for the needs of the workers' families in the towns that people are coming from? Who pays for the school in San Miguel Cuevas, a town that sends strawberry workers to the fields of California? Who builds the homes there? Who pays for the doctor? Growers and the employers here pay for nothing. They don't pay taxes in Mexico, and a lot of them don't pay taxes in the United States either.

The hands of Zacarias Salazar, a farmer in Santiago Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, and the handle of the wooden plow he uses to plow his cornfield behind oxen, in the traditional way. 

Workers pay for everything. It's a very cheap system for employers. For employers, migration is a labor supply system, and for them it's not broken at all. In fact, it works very well. In the United States, it's cheap because workers without papers pay taxes and Social Security, but for them there are no unemployment benefits, no disability, no retirement. These are things that people fought for won in the New Deal. But if you don't have papers, the New Deal never happened.

We know that the wages of undocumented people are low and families can hardly live on them, but we also know that there's a big difference in wages between a day laborer and a longshoreman. If employers had to pay the same, people's lives would be a lot better. Before the longshoremen organized a union in the United States, they were like day laborers, hired every morning out on the docks. They were considered bums. You wouldn't want your daughter to marry one. Now they send their kids to the university. The union changed their lives. If employers had to raise the wages of immigrants, not to longshore wages, but just to the level of the average worker in this country, it would cost them billions of dollars. It's no wonder there's such fierce opposition when people organize unions or worker centers, or do anything to shake this system up.

But immigrants are fighters. It wasn't long ago when janitors sat down in the streets in Washington and across the country and won their right to a union, in a national campaign-Justice for Janitors. Immigrant workers have gone on strike in factories, in office buildings, laundries, hotels, fields. Some unions in this country are growing, and many of them are those that know that immigrant workers are often willing to fight to make things better. The battles fought by immigrant workers are helping to make our unions stronger today.

We had a big change in our labor movement in 1999 in Los Angeles. At the AFL-CIO convention that year unions decided to fight to get rid of the law that makes work a crime, and to protect the rights of all workers to organize. With immigrants under attack today, it's important that unions live up to that promise, especially to oppose the firing of millions of workers, including their own members, because of mandatory E-Verify. They need to oppose as well the administration proposals to reinstate S-Com and 287(g) agreements, that mandate cooperation between the police and immigration authorities. In the past these have led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Divide and Rule

This kind of enforcement has an impact on the ability of people to advocate for social change. At Smithfield Foods, one of the world's biggest packinghouses in North Carolina, two raids and 300 firings scared workers so badly that their union drive stopped. But then Mexicans and African Americans found a way to make common cause, and together they won their union organizing drive (see David Bacon, "Unions Come to Smithfield," The American Prospect, December 2008). They said to each other, in effect, We all need better wages and conditions, and we all have the right to work here and to fight for them.

Immigration raids are used to prevent unity between immigrants and other workers. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents made a huge raid on a factory belonging to Howard Industries in Laurel, Miss., and sent 481 workers to a privately run detention center. This raid occurred right before negotiations with the electrical workers union, in one of the few unionized plants in Mississippi. Jim Evans, president of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance and the AFL-CIO representative in Mississippi, says, "This was an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, white people, and unions."

The hands of Jerry Ball, an African American poultry plant worker and Laborer's Union steward in Laurel, Mississippi.

African Americans make up about 35% of the population in Mississippi. In ten years, immigrants will make up another 10%. The Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance and the Black Caucus in the Mississippi legislature believe they can combine those votes with the state's unions and with progressive white people, and get rid of the power structure that's governed Mississippi since the end of Reconstruction. Chokwe Lumumba, the lawyer for the Republic of New Africa, an Black liberation organization in Detroit, and later for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, was elected mayor of Jackson, Miss., and now his son Chokwe Antar Lumumba is mayor. So this strategy works. Firings and this workplace enforcement are intended to drive a wedge into the heart of that political coalition to stop any possibility for change.

The Emerging Resistance

Last year teachers went on strike all over Mexico trying to defeat a kind of education reform that was invented here in the United States. All around Latin America, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has set up business groups that call for privatizing schools and firing teachers. In Mexico, teachers are upset, not just over their own job losses, but because there is so little alternative to migration for their students, for young people in Mexico.

Oaxaca is one of the states sending the largest number of migrants to the United States today. About three-quarters of the 3.4 million people who live in Oaxaca fit into the Mexican government's category of extreme poverty. The illiteracy rate in Oaxaca is over 20%, almost half of all students don't finish elementary school, 12% of homes don't have electricity, a quarter don't have running water, and 40% of the families living in Oaxaca live in a home that has a dirt floor.

But Oaxaca and Mexico are not so exceptional. In developing countries all over the world, people want an alternative: They want the right to a decent life in the communities where they live. Advocating for the right to stay home means that migration should be a choice, something voluntary, not forced. But advocating for policies to give life to this right usually means defying the government. Teachers and their supporters were shot and killed in Nochixtlan during that strike. The lack of human rights is itself a factor that contributes to migration from Oaxaca and Mexico, because it makes it so difficult for people to organize for change.

There are alternative proposals for changing this system to benefit workers and families instead. The American Friends Service Committee's document, called "A New Path," lays out principles for a humane immigration reform. So do proposals from the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations and a network called The Dignity Campaign. They all start by asking not what Congress will vote for, but what will solve the problems of working people.

They propose legalization-green cards or permanent residence visas-that would let people live normal lives in families and communities. They advocate eliminating the criminalization of immigrants-no more deportations, no more detention centers, no more using the police as immigration agents, and no E-Verify database to target workers for firings. Instead, they propose a system based on equality and rights, and oppose guest worker programs.

Families in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, or the Philippines have a right to survive as well. Young people have a right to not migrate. And for that, people need jobs and productive farms and good schools and health care. Changing agreements like NAFTA should be part of any immigration reform proposal, and any process for renegotiating the treaty should look at its impact on the roots of migration.

It's not possible to win progressive changes in immigration law without fighting for jobs, education, health care, and justice. These demands unite people, and that unity can stop raids and create a more just society for everybody, immigrant and non-immigrant alike. This is not just a dream of a remote or impossible future. In 1955, change for farm workers seemed impossible too. In the depth of the Cold War, growers had all the power and workers didn't have any. If you were Black and tried to vote in Mississippi, you could be lynched or your home or your church might be bombed. Yet, ten years later, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had passed, a new immigration law protected families, the bracero program was over, and a new union for farm workers had just gone out on strike in Delano.

Many of the same members of Congress who voted against these things in 1955 voted for them in 1965. What changed this country was the Civil Rights movement. Today a movement as strong and powerful, willing to fight for what we really need, can win an immigration system that respects human rights. It can stop deportations and provide a system of security for working families on both sides of the border.