Wednesday, May 1, 2024


Will California's new farmworker labor law survive the assault by the Wonderful Company?
By David Bacon
The Nation, 5/1/24

UFW President Teresa Romero and marchers at the beginning of the 22-day march to Sacramento to win the card check bill.

It took  two marches from the southern San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento, and months of mobilization and pressure on Governor Gavin Newsom, to get a card check law for farmworkers.  In the end, though, on September 28, 2022 he signed AB 2183, giving California field workers the best agricultural labor law in the country.  

Today that law is in danger.  In a courthouse in Visalia, a small city in the heart of Republican grower country, a hearing opened last week to undo the law's first landmark achievement - the certification of the United Farm Workers as the union for workers at Wonderful Nurseries.  A union in this 640-worker operation could lead to organizing the rest of the gigantic Wonderful agribusiness complex, which employs over seven thousand grape, nut and tree fruit laborers.  

At stake, however, is more than just a union at Wonderful.  The hearing has become the focal point of a campaign combining politics, media and union busting, that takes aim at the law itself.  

Inside the hearing room, Wonderful attorney Ronald Barsamian, a lawyer with a long record of fighting unions, claims that the  UFW's certification should be set aside because organizers tricked workers into signing union cards.  Supporting the company is James Young, a lawyer for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, who says he represents twenty anti-union workers. The foundation's website says it seeks "to eliminate coercive union power [and] provide free legal aid to these victimized employees."

Outside the building a noisy group shows up periodically, waving placards claiming Wonderful workers don't want a union, demanding that the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) rescind the certification.  As TV cameras zoom in, one demonstrator in particular, Ana Lopez, makes an oft-repeated anti-union speech, in English - a language most farmworkers don't speak.

According to the UFW, Ana Lopez is not even on the list of nursery employees supplied by the company as part of the legal process.  One worker told me she is the sister of a company foreman.  In reality, her presence is part of a theater organized by Wonderful management, and orchestrated by Raul Calvo, a well-known California union buster.  

If the Board invalidates the certification, Wonderful wins and doesn't have to bargain.  Other companies would likely pursue the same strategy, perhaps shutting down implementation of the new law.  But if the Board upholds the certification, then Wonderful will undoubtedly appeal the decision in court.  Not only could a judge then throw out that certification, but he or she could go beyond that to invalidate the law itself.  In an increasingly conservative court system, that outcome is all too possible.  Heads I win - tails you lose.

"The goal here is to get rid of card check," says Chris Schneider, who retired two years ago as regional director of the ALRB Visalia office.  "I suspect the industry is supporting this, and possibly even helping to fund it."

Wonderful wouldn't need much assistance, though.  Its sales topped $4 billion in 2023, and its co-owners, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, are worth over $10 billion, which made them the wealthiest growers in the U.S. in 2018.  Today their Wonderful brand of pistachios, almonds, pomegranates and grapes is only rivalled by Driscoll Berries as the most recognizable agricultural products in the world, dominating supermarket shelves everywhere.  



Marchers in Sacramento at the end of the 22-day march to win the card check bill.

A union campaign under the new law

Workers began to challenge Wonderful's power when they started meeting with UFW organizers in the fall of 2023, after the new law went into effect.  AB 2183 modified the original Agricultural Labor Relations Act, passed in 1975, by allowing workers to sign union cards outside of work, and then use those cards to force their employer to recognize their union.  The old 1975 law needed to be strengthened, its proponents said, because over 40 years growers have used massive intimidation to prevent workers from voting freely in union elections on company property.

Using the new law, once a majority of workers have signed up, the union gives the cards to the ALRB.  After the Board verifies the union has majority support, it certifies the union as the workers' bargaining representative.  The company is then obligated to negotiate a contract.  If it refuses, the union can ask for a mediator, and the Board can impose a contract on the grower.  Even if the grower appeals the certification, it still has to bargain unless that certification is overturned.  That mandatory mediation of first time contracts was itself a modification of the original law in 2002, caused by growers' almost universal refusal to negotiate contracts even when workers did win elections.

Last year UFW organizers began holding house meetings to let workers know about the new way to get a union contract.  Rosa Silva held one of those meetings in her San Joaquin Valley home, inviting friends from a number of companies.  They included some from Wonderful Nurseries, where she worked.  "Erika [Navarette, the UFW organizer and vice-president] told us the history of the union and Cesar Chavez," she remembers.  "She explained the new law, and how negotiating a contract would work.  If we put together a proposal we could fight for it, and the union would back us up.  Then she passed out union cards, and said if we wanted to join, we could sign up.  Everyone did.  We even took photos of each other, laughing and holding the card."


Marchers in Sacramento at the end of the 22-day march to win the card check bill.

At the end of the meeting, Navarrete told workers about a $600 benefit the union had pushed for with the Biden administration, a payment to farmworker families struggling because of the COVID pandemic.  Last year the US Department of Agriculture established the Farm and Food Worker Relief (FFWR) Grant Program "to distribute $670 million to fourteen nonprofit organizations and one Tribal entity [giving] one-time $600 relief payments to eligible farm and food workers."  In addition to the UFW Foundation, other distributors include Catholic Charities, the Cherokee Nation, the National Center for Farmworker Health and the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association.  

Navarrete had a computer tablet with the USDA website application, and helped people at Silva's house who wanted to apply.  The new program, she said, was better than earlier relief programs because, unlike them, families didn't have to provide a Social Security number.  That had disqualified many undocumented farmworkers from pandemic aid.  The National Agricultural Workers Survey estimates that about half of all farmworkers lack legal immigration status, and the Cooperativa Campesina says that in California it's over 70%.  Although undocumented workers pay into the Social Security fund from their wages, the government will not give them Social Security numbers.

Maria is another worker who signed a card.  A union organizer came to her home and told her that other workers in the nursery were trying to form a union and get a contract.  "I wanted a union because there's a lot of favoritism and discrimination," she told me.  Maria, who wanted her name kept confidential to avoid retaliation for speaking out, is not employed directly by Wonderful.  She works for Guerrero Farm Labor, one of four labor contractors Wonderful uses to supply workers without directly hiring them.  Because she works for a contractor, she gets no benefits like a medical plan or paid holidays.  Under the state labor law, however, she is considered a Wonderful employee, and can sign a card and join the union.

People employed directly by the nursery work year around, but contracted workers only have jobs from January to June.  "When the season ends they select certain people who can stay on, the favorites of the foremen," Maria charges.  "The rest of us get laid off."  When she's working she makes $16.35 per hour.  She and her husband, also a farmworker, have three children.  "Everything is so expensive we can hardly make it when we're working, and what we can buy is very limited.  When the work ends, we try to get other jobs, but we can hardly survive."

On February 23 the UFW handed the cards signed by Wonderful Nurseries workers to the ALRB.  The Board asked the company for a list of workers, to verify that a majority had signed them.  It concluded that 327 Wonderful Nurseries employees who were farmworkers, working in the appropriate period, and who weren't supervisors or management, had done so - a majority of the its 640 employees.


United Farm Workers members and supporters march to the capitol building in Sacramento, to demand that Governor Newsom sign a bill providing absentee ballots for farmworkers in union elections. Newsom vetoed the bill the same day.

The union busting campaign unfolds

Three days later, Wonderful hired Raul Calvo, who then met with its human relations managers.  Together they practiced a script prepared by company lawyers to use in meetings with the nursery workers.  The next day the meetings began.  ALRB staff later investigated the meetings and met with workers who attended.  The day before the Visalia hearing began, the ALRB's general counsel filed charges against Wonderful over illegal activities in those meetings.  Foremen stopped work in area after area, the complaint says, and told workers to meet with Calvo and the lawyers.  Calvo read from the script, and added his own anti-union messages.  

In at least some of those meetings, Calvo asked workers if they had signed union cards, an illegal interrogation.  He asked workers to put their names on a list of those who wanted to revoke their signature, another violation.  He and other supervisors told workers not to sign the cards, and that the company wanted "to remain free of the union."  Workers who put their names on the list were called individually to the company office, where lawyers and agents wrote out declarations for them to sign.

According to Maria, in the meeting she attended, "Raul asked who had signed for the $600.  He had a piece of paper for people to put their names, to revoke their signatures.  He said they'd meet with their lawyers to write a statement.  I was called in to Ana's office [a human relations manager], where Raul asked if I'd signed and if it was for $600.  Then he wanted me to talk with the LA Times to say good things about the company.  I didn't want to tell lies, so I said no."

Once the hearing began to challenge the union's certification, Calvo and other company supervisors began organizing groups to travel to Visalia, to demonstrate in front of the ALRB office. Another anti-union rally was held during work time outside the Wonderful office in Wasco. Although workers can't normally get time off during the work day, Seth Oster, a Wonderful manager, told reporters that no one would be punished for leaving work to rally against the union.


Marchers in Sacramento at the end of the 22-day march to win the card check bill.

 At the same time, the company gave declarations to the Board to support its challenge of the certification, in which they say workers claim they were tricked into signing union cards, or told they had to sign in order to get the $600. In the hearing, Wonderful is represented by nine or ten lawyers, according to UFW attorney Mario Martinez.  Their claims have been seconded by the National Council of Agricultural Employers, whose president Michael Marsh says the union used the same tactic in New York State, where a card check law has also gone into effect.  In both states, "they were tricked, lied to, and coerced by UFW organizers."  The grower association is presumably challenging card check laws wherever they appear.

"People began to be very afraid," Rosa Silva says.  "They were told that a judge would give them a paper saying they had to testify against the union."  Maria adds, "They know the company wants them to go [to the rallies].  If they don't go, people will say they're on the side of the union.  They're afraid they'll lose their jobs or won't have work when the season comes next year."  

Raul Calvo has organized this kind of campaign before.  Following years of wildfires in California's wine country, he appeared in Sonoma County in 2022 to oppose proposals for worker protections.  A coalition of labor and community groups, North Bay Jobs with Justice, proposed hazard pay, disaster insurance, community monitoring and safety training in indigenous languages like Mixteco, for farmworkers laboring in smoke and other dangerous conditions.  Calvo organized a committee of pro-grower workers, who testified at hearings in opposition.  Nevertheless, an ordinance including some of the protections was finally passed by the county Board of Supervisors later that year.

At the Apio/Curation Foods vegetable processing facility on the state's central coast, Calvo was paid more than $2 million over eight years to convince workers not to organize with the United Food and Commercial Workers.  After the union was defeated in 2015, Curation Foods was bought by ag giant Taylor Farms for $73 million.  

Bringing workers to demonstrate outside ALRB offices to pressure the Board was the most public feature of an earlier campaign to get rid of the mandatory mediation section of the labor law.  Another big California grower, Gerawan Farming, tried to have the law declared unconstitutional in 2015, in an effort supported by the National Right to Work Committee, the California Fresh Fruit Association and rightwing politicians around anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.  The Board charged that forged signatures on anti-union petitions had been turned in by Anthony Raimondo, the then-partner of Wonderful's lawyer Ronald Barsamian.  Workers were bussed to media events in Sacramento to rally against the union in front of TV cameras, expenses paid by growers.

Ultimately the California Supreme Court upheld the law's validity, but the Board yielded to political pressure and in the end the UFW lost its certification.  A few years later the company went bankrupt and several thousand workers lost their jobs.  "Wonderful is taking a page from the Gerawan playbook," according to UFW lawyer Martinez.  "And the objective is the same - to get rid of the law itself."


UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta and UFW President Teresa Romero in Sacramento, after marching for 22 days to win the card check bill.

Wonderful is better positioned to mount that challenge than were the Gerawans, who were extreme Republicans in a Democratic state.  In the ten years before 2018, Wonderful spent over $1 billion on the image of its famous brands - Halo mandarins, Fiji water, Pom juice, Justin wines, Teleflora flowers and Wonderful pistachios.  

The Resnicks cultivate California media, support Democrats like Governor Newsom (to whom they contributed at least $220,000), and spend money on high profile projects in California farmworker towns.  The couple gave $25 million to the Wonderful College Prep Academy, a charter school in Delano, and donated $55 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The new student union building at California State University in Fresno bears their name.  "Our company has always believed that success means doing well by doing good," Stewart Resnick says on the Wonderful website.  "We are deeply committed to doing our part to build a better world and inspiring others to do the same."

But just as Andrew Carnegie built 3000 libraries in cities across the country, while fighting unions among his steelworkers with Pinkerton detectives, the Resnick's paternalism also obscures a history of intense opposition to organizing among its own workers.

As early as 1998, workers at Paramount Farms, a large fruit and nut enterprise owned by the couple, began joining the Laborers Union in its huge Avenal almond packinghouse.  The company responded by hiring union busters Mendez and Associates.  Using the same kind of captive meetings held at Wonderful this spring, supervisors told workers the company would help them get their signatures on union cards revoked.  Two union supporters were fired, and workers voted down the union in a climate of fear.  A complaint of illegal tactics was later upheld by the National Labor Relations Board, but the decision was too late and too weak to change anything.  

By 2010 Paramount was cultivating 5 million trees on 120,000 acres in Kern County.  The company bought the Westside Mutual Water Company, and through it gained control of the Kern Water Bank.  Pumping to irrigate its almonds and pistachios then led to a 115 foot drop in the water table in three years.  Rob Yraceburu, Wonderful's current president, is a water bank director.  Another director William Phillimore, who today runs Westside, was a Paramount Farms vice-president for years.  

In 2015 Paramount changed its name and became Wonderful.  A year later, Wonderful's labor contractor, Family Ranch, fired a crew of eight older workers just after Christmas.  They'd protested dirty drinking water and company pressure to work faster. The workers filed a complaint, and after two and a half years of appeals, the Board concluded that they were fired "because they complained about working conditions."  Chris Schneider, at the time the ALRB Regional Director prosecuting the case, asks, "What would it have cost the company to settle the case?  Far less than what it paid the attorneys for years of appeals.  But Wonderful was fundamentally opposed to the idea of workers having any say."

In 2019 the company announced it would cut the pay for 1800 pickers of its "Halo" mandarins by 12%.  The workers stopped picking for four days, with help from the UFW, and the cut was rescinded.   But after the harvest restarted, fear kept workers from taking further steps to join the union.  



Marchers in Sacramento at the end of the 22-day march to win the card check bill.

Will the new law work?

It was the new law that provided a way for Wonderful Nurseries' workers to organize and bring the union in, despite this history.  And while almost to a person growers want to keep the union out, in the first two ranches where the UFW filed petitions the outcome has been different, at least so far.  Last fall DMB Packing Corp was the first company where workers signed cards, and the union asked for certification under AB 2183.  Its appeal was dismissed by the ALRB, and it is now in contract negotiations with the UFW.  In January the union filed a petition for workers at Olive Hill Greenhouses, a small nursery.  Again, the employer is negotiating.  

Those results give some hope to Rosa Silva, who says she wants a contract with a grievance procedure because she puts her job at risk to complain about bad conditions.  "A few days ago we were getting stomach problems from the water, and one of us went to human relations to ask them to do something," she remembers.  "They told her the problem was in her head, and that the water is fine.  It was brave to complain the first time, but doing it again would get you in a lot of trouble.  If we had a union we could force the company to have good water, and complain without fear."  

Silva is a divorced mother of three, making $16.55 per hour.  Although she has a year-around job, "it's not possible to survive on this wage," she says.  "We pay one bill and put off the next.  It hurts to tell my kids I can't buy them a burrito.  Nothing for them.  So we have meetings each week, and talk about our problems at work and what we want in our contract.  It's hard.  A lot of people are afraid to come, that if the union doesn't win we'll get fired.  But I think that if the company has all this money for lawyers and consultants, they can raise the wages and make conditions better.  We're just asking for what's fair."

The union still has its certification, even while the appeals process drags on.  Silva and the other union workers at Wonderful Nurseries face the difficult problem of continuing to organize inside the company, in an atmosphere where workers fear for their jobs and can see the company's obvious hatred for the union.  Whether their beginning organization can get better water, or oppose the favoritism in hiring and layoffs, or pressure Wonderful into a wage raise, will depend in part on their ability to get workers to advocate openly for changing these immediate conditions.  Signing cards is only the beginning.  Making real changes through their collective action is what will build their union.

But much still depends on the ALRB.  The Board's complaint about illegal interrogation and pressure on workers is a powerful tool to open up space for worker organizing.  The new law was also written so that the Board has the power to impose a mediator and even a contract.  So talking about what people want in that agreement isn't just a theoretical discussion.  Putting together workers' demands is also a basic way to organize.  

A lot is at stake in that Visalia hearing room.  Whether the Board can stop the fear campaign.  Whether the union's certification will be protected.  Whether the workers will have a real right to organize and bargain.  Most of all, whether the Board will stand up for its own law and process in the face of money, media and political power.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024


By David Bacon
Civil Eats, 4/24/24

Guillermina Diaz, a Mixtec immigrant from Oaxaca, picks strawberries.  She and her sister Eliadora support three other family members, all of whom sleep and live in a single room in a house.

Driving north on California's Highway 101 through the central coast, a traveler approaches the Santa Ynez Valley through miles of grapevines climbing gently rolling hills.  Here humans have mastered nature, the landscape seems to say - a bucolic vision of agriculture with hardly a worker in sight.  Perhaps a lone irrigator adjusts drip pipes or sprinklers.  Only during a few short weeks in the fall can one see the harvest crews filling gondolas behind the tractors.  Even then, you'd have to be driving at night, when most grape picking now takes place under floodlights that illuminate the rows behind the machines.

As 101 winds out of the hills, the crop beside the highway suddenly changes.  Here endless rows of strawberries fill the valley's flat plane. Dirt access roads bisect enormous fields, and beside them dozens of cars sit parked in the dust.  Most are older vans and sedans.  Inside this vast expanse dozens of workers move down the rows.  

From the highway, many fields are hidden by tall plastic screens.  Growers claim they keep animals out, but they are really a legacy of the farmworker strikes of the 1970s.  Then growers sought to keep workers inside, away from strikers in the roadway calling out to them, urging them to stop picking and leave.  The abusive and dangerous conditions of strawberry workers today, and the eruptions of their protests over them, make the screens more than just a symbol of past conflict.  

Picking strawberries is one of the most brutal jobs in agriculture.  A worker picking wine grapes in the hills can labor standing up.  But the men and women in the strawberry rows have to bend double to reach the berries.  As strawberries ripen, they hang over the side of raised beds about a foot high, covered in plastic.  In a ditch-like row between them, a worker pushes a wire cart on tiny wheels.  Each holds a cardboard flat with 8 plastic clamshell containers - the ones you see on supermarket shelves.  

Eduardo Retano plants root stock of strawberry plants.

The pain of this labor is a constant.  Many workers will say you just have to work through the first week, when your back hurts so much you can't sleep, until your body adjusts and the pain somehow gets less.  At the start of the season in March, rain fills the rows with water and the cart must be dragged through the mud.  When summer comes the field turns into an oven by midday.

Through it all, workers have to pick as fast as possible.  "At the beginning of the season there aren't many berries yet," Matilde told me.  She'd been picking for three weeks, her fifth year in the strawberries.  "The mud makes heavy work even heavier.  It's hard to pick even 5 boxes an hour, but if I can't make that, or if I pick any green berries, it gets called to my attention.  The foreman tells us we're not trying hard enough, that they don't have time to teach us, and if we can't make it we won't keep working.  Some don't come back the next day, and some are even fired there in the field."  

Mathilde didn't want to use her last name because being identified might bring retaliation from her boss, a fear shared by another worker, Juana.  "Not many people can do this job," Juana told me in an interview.  She came to Santa Maria from Santiago Tilantongo in Oaxaca and speaks Mixtec (one of the many indigenous languages in southern Mexico), in addition to Spanish, like many strawberry pickers living in the Santa Ynez Valley.  She's been a strawberry worker for 15 years.  "I have permanent pain in my lower back," she said, "and when it rains it gets very intense.  Still, I get up every morning at 4, make lunch for my family, and go to work.  It's a sacrifice, but it's the only job I can get."  


Eliadora Diaz, a Mixtec immigrant from Oaxaca, picks strawberries with her sister Guillermina.

Low Wages, High Cost of Living

On April 1 the Alianza Campesina de la Costa Central (Farmworker Alliance of the Central Coast) organized an event timed to gain public notice at the beginning of the strawberry season.  The objective was to pressure growers to raise the wages.  The Alianza issued a powerful 44-page report, Harvesting Dignity, The Case for a Living Wage for Farmworkers, that documents in shocking statistics what Mathilda and Juana know from personal experience.  

Those statistics reveal that the mean hourly wage for farmworkers in Santa Barbara County was $17.42 last year, which would produce a yearly income of $36,244 for a strawberry picker working fulltime, all twelve months.  But this calculation includes the higher wages of foremen and management employees.  Juana, after 15 years, made $16, the state minimum wage, and Mathilde after five years made the same.  

In reality, their annual income was much lower because even working the entire season, they would get no more than eight months of work, and often less.  At the beginning of the season there are not enough berries for 8 hours each day, so Mathilda only got 6 hours, or 36 hours in a week working on Saturday too.  Juana's week in late March was 15-20 hours.  

At the height of the season wages go up because growers begin to pay a piece rate, which last year was usually $2.20 for each flat of eight clamshell boxes.  To make the equivalent of the minimum wage, a worker would have to pick over 7 flats an hour, and earning more than minimum wage on the piece rate means working like a demon, ignoring the physical cost.  At the beginning of the season, "champion pickers can do 8 or 9 an hour," Mathilde explains.  "but not everyone can.  6 or 7 is normal."    

Fulltime work at minimum wage for eight months would produce $21,760.  Out of her strawberry wages Juana and her husband, who works in the field with her, are paying $2000 a month rent, or $24,000 a year.  Three of her children are grown, and the other three are still at home.  "We have to save to pay the rent during the winter when there's no work.  If we don't, we don't have a place to live," she explains.  "During those five months there are always bills we can't pay, like water.  By March there's no money at all, and we have to get loans to survive."  The loans come from "friends" who charge 10% interest.  "Plus, I have to send money to my mama and papa in Mexico.  There are many people depending on me."


Sabina Cayetano and her son Aron live in an apartment complex in Santa Maria.  In the spring and summer she works picking strawberries.

Mathilde and her husband and their two children share a bedroom in a two-bedroom house.  Another family of three lives in the other, and together they pay $2,200 in rent.  "Fortunately, my husband works construction, and gets $20 an hour," she says, "but the same months when there are no strawberries the rain cuts his hours too.  It would be much harder if we didn't have his work, and we try to save and save, and look for work in the winter, but often there's just enough money for food.  We don't eat beef or fish, just economical foods like pasta, rice and beans.  And even with that sometimes we have to get a loan too."

According to Harvesting Justice, the median rent in Santa Barbara County is $2,999 per month.  Using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's living wage calculation formula, the report estimates the annual food cost for a family with two children at $12,880, and the total income required for all basic expenses at $99,278. As a result, a UC Merced/California Department of Public Health survey found that a quarter of all farmworkers sleep in a room with three or more people.  

This poverty affects all farmworkers in the state, in all aspects of life.  Less than a quarter of undocumented field laborers have health insurance, and the Harvesting Dignity report estimates that people without immigration documents make up 80 percent of those living in Santa Maria.  Because reporting bad conditions, and even more so protesting them, is much riskier for undocumented workers, having no papers affects survival at work as well.  "In Santa Barbara County in 2023 there were two farmworker deaths," it noted, "both related to poor supervision and training. In one instance, farmworkers reported they were told to continue working in a Cuyama carrot field alongside the body of their fallen coworker."

Workers Calling for Change: The Wish Farms Strike

Santa Maria strawberry workers have mounted many challenges to this low wage system.  In 1997 a Mixteco worker group organized a strike that stopped the harvest on all the valley's ranches, which lasted three days.  More recently workers at Rancho Laguna Farms protested the owner's failure to follow CDC guidelines during the pandemic, and won a 20¢ per box raise by stopping work.  In 2021 forty pickers at Hill Top Produce used the same tactic to raise the per-box piece rate from $1.80 to $2.10, which was followed by similar action by 150 pickers at West Coast Berry Farms.  At the beginning of the next season in 2022 work stopped at J&G Berry Farms in another wage protest.

Last year, workers carried out a dramatic and well-organized strike at Wish Farms, a large berry grower with fields in Santa Maria and Lompoc, and headquarters in Florida.  At the height of the season, to increase production the company promised a wage of $6/hour plus $2.50 per box, a rate they'd paid the previous year.  When workers saw their checks, however, the piece rate bonus was a dollar less.  They met with Fernando Martinez, an organizer with the Mixteco Indigenous Community Organizing Project (MICOP), which belongs to the Alianza Campesina.  Martinez and MICOP organizers had helped workers during the earlier work stoppages, and urged the Wish Farms strikers to go out to the fields to call other workers to join.  "We helped them form a committee," Martinez says, "and in a meeting at the edge of the field they voted to form a permanent organization, Freseros por la Justicia [Strawberry Workers for Justice]."


Strawberry workers on strike against Wish Farms, a large berry grower in Santa Maria and Lompoc  Most were indigenous Mixtec migrants from Oaxaca and southern Mexico, but who now live in the U.S.  

Workers say they discovered, however, that after they walked out the company brought a crew of workers with H-2A guestworker visas into one of the fields to replace them.  The H-2A program allows growers to recruit workers in Mexico and other countries, and bring them to work for less than a year, after which they have to return home.  Workers are almost all young men.  Those who can't work fast enough, or who protest conditions, can be fired at any time and sent back.  Federal regulations establish a wage for them, which last year in California was $18.65 per hour.

Replacing domestic workers with H-2A workers during a labor dispute is a violation of Federal regulations.  Wish Farms did not respond to requests for comment about the strike.

Concepcion Chavez, one of the strikers, told me in an interview that "when we would work by the hour, the company was paying them [the H-2A workers] $18.65 [per hour], and us $16.25.  Many of the workers who live here felt the company really wanted us to leave.  We are always afraid they'll replace us, because they give a preference to the contratados [H-2A workers].  That's what the supervisors say, that they'll replace us and send in the contratados."

After two days strikers reached an agreement with Wish Farms and went back to work.  In September, however, as the work slowed for the winter, Chavez asked if she would be hired again the following season.  "In the office they told me they had no job because the company was already filled up," she recalled.  "But when I went back to my foreman, he said the company had told him not to give me a job.  That happened to other workers who were in the strike too."

Another Roadblock to Change: Union Busting

According to Martinez, "There were a lot of strikes until last year, mostly to challenge low wages.  But after the strikes, workers usually don't want to continue organizing because the company brings in anti-union consultants.  Wish Farms brought in Raul Calvo, who has been in other farms also.  We've heard from workers that growers tell them not to participate in meetings with community organizations like us. They're trying to intimidate people, because they're afraid workers will organize."


Strawberry workers on strike call out to other workers to leave the field and join them.

Calvo has along history as an anti-union consultant.  At the Apio/Curation Foods processing facility in Guadalupe, a few miles from Santa Maria, Calvo was paid over $2 million over eight years to convince workers not to organize with the United Food and Commercial Workers.  After the union was defeated in 2015, Curation Foods was bought by ag giant Taylor Farms for $73 million.  

Following huge wildfires in 2017, Calvo appeared in Sonoma County in 2022 to oppose proposals for worker protections.  A coalition of labor and community groups, North Bay Jobs with Justice, proposed hazard pay, disaster insurance, community monitoring and safety training in indigenous languages like Mixteco, for farmworkers laboring in smoke and other dangerous conditions.  Calvo organized a committee of pro-grower workers, who testified at hearings in opposition.  An ordinance including some of the protections was finally passed by the county Board of Supervisors later that year.  Most recently, Calvo was hired by the Wonderful Company to organize another anti-union committee to oppose nursery workers in Wasco, CA, who are trying to join the United Farm Workers.

Opposition to unions and worker organizing activity is one reason why strawberry wages remain close to the legal minimum, according to the Harvesting Justice report.  One of its authors, Erica Diaz Cervantes, feels strongly that the wage system is unjust.  "During the pandemic, these workers provided our food, even though as consumers we can be oblivious of that fact.  So when the workers have initiated these strikes, it has put more attention on their situation."  Diaz Cervantes is the Senior Policy Advocate for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which formed the Alianza with MICOP.

Nevertheless, the strikes haven't resulted in permanent worker organizations.  "There are a lot of union busters who discourage workers," she says.  "They win small improvements and wins, but always in the piece rate, never the basic hourly wage.  And the actions don't go on longer because workers can't afford to."

Jamshid Damooei, professor and director of the economics program at California Lutheran University, and executive director of the Center for Economics of Social Issues, was a principal advisor for the report.  "Profit seeking by growers is greatly responsible for the low wages," he told me.  "If they can depress wages, the profit is greater.  Unionization can help workers because the function of a union is to give them the ability to negotiate."


The Diaz family, Mixtec immigrants from Oaxaca, slept and livet in a single room in a house in Oxnard, where other migrant families also lived.  The Diaz family are strawberry workers.  From the left, Guiillermina Ortiz Diaz, Graciela, Eliadora, their mother Bernardina Diaz Martinez, and little sister Ana Lilia.

The Impact of H-2A Workers

But workers' bargaining leverage is undermined by their immigration status, he believes.  "Eighty percent of farmworkers in Santa Maria are undocumented, and without them there is no agriculture.  Yet the median wage, which in 2019 was $26,000 a year for farmworkers born in the U.S, was only $13,000 - half that - for the undocumented."

While undocumented labor is cheap, nevertheless strawberry growers in Santa Maria increasingly use the H-2A program to bring workers under labor contracts from Mexico and Central America.  About 2 million workers labor in U.S. fields. Last year, the Department of Labor gave growers permission to bring 371,619 H-2A workers - or about a sixth of the entire U.S. farm labor workforce - a fourfold increase from 98,813 in 2012.

Growers provide food and housing for the workers, although there is a long record of complaints over crowding, substandard conditions, and enforce isolation from the surrounding community.  Because employment is limited to less than a year, workers must apply to recruiters to return each year.   

Growers say they face a labor shortage making this necessary.  According to Western Growers President & CEO Tom Nassif, "Farmers in all sectors of U.S. agriculture, especially in the labor-intensive fruit and vegetable industries, are experiencing chronic labor shortages, which have been exacerbated by recent interior immigration enforcement and tighter border security policies."


This trailer, at 1340 Prell St., was listed as the housing for six H-2A workers by La Fuente Farming, Inc.

That is not the case, at least in Santa Maria, Diaz Cervantes responds.  She says the 2022 census reported 12,000 workers in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Martinez believes the true number is double that, and that 60% are Mixtecos.  "I do not think there's a shortage of farmworkers here," Diaz charges. "We know it's a lot more because many undocumented people are afraid to be counted.  There are always people ready to work and put in more hours.  It's just a way to justify increasing the H-2A program.  Overall there are a lot of local workers in the county." 

What makes the H-2A program attractive to growers, Damooei says, is that "workers do not have much ability to negotiate their labor contracts.  Their living environment and mobility are restricted, and they face repression if they protest.  That has an impact on workers living here."

One recent case highlights the vulnerability of H-2A workers.  Last September at Sierra del Tigre Farms in Santa Maria, more than 100 workers were terminated before their work contracts had ended and told to go back to Mexico. The company then refused to pay them the legally required wages they would have earned. The company's alter ego, Savino Farms, had already been fined for the same violation four years earlier,.

One worker, Felipe Ramos, was owed more than $2,600. "It was very hard," he remembers. "I have a wife and baby girl, and they survive because I send money home every week. Everyone else was like that too. The company had problems finding buyers, and too many workers."  In March Sierra del Tigre Farms declared bankruptcy, still owing workers their wages.  Last year Rancho Nuevo Harvesting, Inc., another labor contractor, was forced by the Department of Labor to pay $1 million in penalties and back wages to H-2A workers it had cheated in a similar case. 


Bars on the windows of the complex at 1316/1318 Broadway, was listed as the housing for 160 workers by Big F Company, Inc. and Savino Farms.  It was formerly senior housing, and the contractor built a wall around it, with a gate controlling who enters and leaves.

According to Rick Mines, a statistician who designed the original National Agricultural Workers Survey for the U.S. Department of Labor, "There are about 2 million farmworkers in the U.S., mostly immigrant men and women who live as families with U.S- born children.  They are being displaced by a cheaper, more docile labor force of single male H-2A workers.  The H-2A program should be phased out and replaced with a program of legal entry for immigrants who can bring their families and eventually become equal American citizens.   We should not become a democracy that is half slave and half free."

A New Way Forward

As the strawberry season unfolds in Santa Maria, warmer weather will dry out the mud.  The berries will ripen faster and become more numerous.  It will be the time growers feel the most pressure to get them from the fields to supermarket shelves.  It will also be the time Juana and Mathilde depend on each year to pay past bills and hopefully save for future ones.  They will need the work.  How the Alianza Campesina uses this moment could have a big impact on their wages and lives.

"Perhaps there are different ways to change things," Martinez speculates.  "We've thought about a local ordinance like ones we've seen for other kinds of workers.  A union could also raise pay and bring benefits and holidays."

MICOP and CAUSA are holding house meetings with workers, and a general meeting every two weeks. "Right now we're trying to popularize the idea of a sueldo digno [dignified wage] and explain the justice of this demand.  The idea is to increase workers' knowledge.  And since so many of us are Mixtecos, we're getting workers to reach out to their workmates from the same home communities in Oaxaca."   


Alondra Mendoza, a community outreach worker for MICOP, talks with a farmworker outside the Panaderia Susy early in the morning before work.

Diaz adds that workers can see the labor activity happening elsewhere in the country.  "Our report is adding to what workers are already doing.  Whatever they do we're right behind them."

Mathilde has already made up her mind.  "It's necessary to pressure the ranchers so they value our work," she says.  "Without us they have nothing.  We do all the work, so why should we get $2 or $2.20 per box when $3 or $3.50 is what's fair.  People have to unite, and we need big demonstrations.  I am willing to help organize this, because it will make life a lot better.  I hope it will happen soon."

Sunday, April 21, 2024


Photographs by David Bacon

Shipping containers have deep meaning for the working people of the San Francisco Bay Area.  First and foremost, they're the material basis of the work of the longshore.  From miles away, you can see the container cranes on the Oakland waterfront.  The unions for the waterside workers, Locals 10 and 34 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, just won a long battle to keep one of San Francisco's legendary, or notorious, famiies, the Fishers (think, The Gap) from turning the Oakland waterfront into a huge condo development with a ballpark on the side.  The union and its allies argue that without room for the containers and cranes, the waterfront would die, and with it, the economic life of the city.

The containers have historic meaning as well, which makes the workers' defense of them a kind of bitter irony.  In the days before the containers and cranes, cargo was loaded and unloaded using many, many workers for each ship.  Even today the union's symbol is the cargo hook, used then to catch the cargo net and swing it into place.  In the 1960s, however, the union agreed that the containerization of the waterfront couldn't be stopped, and that it had no choice but to bargain for the terms under which it would take place.  Workers got a pay guarantee, and they still are so important to the movement of cargo that if they stop, the whole shipping system shudders to a halt.  But the price was jobs.  The container meant that only a tenth of the workers who worked the docks then, now work them today.

With so many containers, or cans, as the workers call them, floating through the Bay Area, it didn't take long to see them put to other purposes as well.  A lawyer friend has his office in a pile of containers not far from the port, welded together to make a building.  Around the corner from my house is the home of an architect couple, who put two containers in  their back yard for their home office.  When I visited longshore workers in Basra not long after the U.S. occupation started, I saw containers used by workers for housing in the wake of the enormous destruction.  Containers for housing is an idea floated in this country too, as a way to give shelter to people living on the sidewalk.

This year Berkeley administrators of the University of California gave the shipping container an entirely new meaning - the wall.  Two years ago the community in and around People's Park had repulsed the University's previous attempt to expel the public and grab back the city block on which the Park stands.  But activists pushed down a chain link fence, and then disabled the huge construction vehicles brought in to reduce trees and structures to dirt and rubble.  This year the University would not be defeated so easily.  On January 4, in the dead of night, police reoccupied People's Park.  After the people living in the park were removed, trucks brought in dozens of cans, and a wall of containers, stacked double high, was erected around the park.

Perhaps the University can name the wall the James Rector Memorial.  Or since they say they intend to build student housing on the site, it can be called the James Rector Dormitory.  Either way, the University can acknowledge, for the first time, that the price of taking the land away from the community 55 years ago was Rector's death.  On May 15, 1969, cops from the state and surrounding cities fought students and community activists who wanted the land for a park.  As tear gas filled Telegraph Avenue in the heart of the student ghetto, Alameda County Sheriff Deputies fired shotguns at people demonstrating.  A cop then trained his sights on Rector, as he stood on a building's roof watching the battle going on below.  The cop fired, and Rector died.  Alan Blanchard was permanently blinded by buckshot, and 128 others were wounded.  The city was occupied by the National Guard, on orders of then-Governor Ronald Reagan.  "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with," he said later.

There is no James Rector Hall at UC Berkeley.  But today there are many buildings on the campus named after rich people and those who serve them well.  Giannini Hall memorializes AP Giannini, California's premier financier and founder of the Bank of America, while the Hearst Memorial Mining Building honors the ultra-wealthy newspaper owner.  According to author Tony Platt, former UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler argued for suppressing the birthrate of "inferior" peoples - his name now graces Wheeler Hall.  The Lawrence laboratory, where research helped produce the first atom bomb, is named for the scientist who headed that catastrophic project.  Gordon Sproul, as UC President, oversaw the McCarthy loyalty oath purge that led to firing 40 professors.  That got his name attached to Sproul Hall, where 800 students (myself among them) were arrested in 1964's Free Speech Movement.  

Since the university's reoccupation of People's Park, a group of active opponents marches from a local junior high school to the container wall every week.  Seeing their banners beneath the towering cans, the marchers can seem small by comparison.  But out in the port, where the containers have their true value and usage, people moving them also seem small.  Yet there is a power in work and protest that comes from human endeavor, which can bend a container to its will.  The marchers may yet overcome the scandalous use UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ has put to these objects, whose tradition and dignity she has ignored.

The People's Park Council ( "calls on the University to honor the recognition of People's Park as a nationally significant site, included on the National Register of Historic Places [and] to acknowledge the cultural and environmental importance of the park, returning it to the community that maintains it ... People's Park stands as a beacon of
community empowerment, environmental stewardship, and social justice. To fight climate chaos, we need all the green space we can find." 

Friday, April 12, 2024


Photographs of Zacatecas by David Bacon

A maze of constricted alleys spreads out at the bottom an old stone staircase that doubles back on itself, so convoluted that Zacatecanos call this place "El Labarinto", or "The Labyrinth."  Here Primitivo Romo sits in front of a wall of herbs packed into tiny bags, in a botanica stall he inherited from his mother when she died a few years ago.  He inherited her knowledge as well, and now his nephew runs another stall down a nearby alleyway with the knowledge passed on in the Romo family.

The stalls are half hidden in the lowest level of the Mercado del Arroyo de la Plata, or the Silver Canyon Market.  Two more levels are above.  Stalls on one sell Zacatecan mole, either picoso or dulce, hot or sweet, from big plastic buckets in front of the candy display.  On another workers and women shopping for their families sit on plain stools at the comedores economicos, or affordable eateries, where cooks spoon the famous goat mole, cabrera, into bowls.  

Unless you know the cook well, there's no point in asking for two other famous dishes, caldo de rata (rat soup) or caldo de vivora (snake soup).  These are soups from the traditions of people from the countryside, used to eating the animals that live there (the rat is a country creature, not the urban variety), and some think of them even as a kind of medicine.  Says Guadalupe Flores, a member of the state legislature, “Anybody that tries it once is going to love it and it will become their favorite dish. It is very similar to rabbit – only much more flavorful.”

Nevertheless, some laugh at these country traditions.  But once in a while a campesino will come in from the farm, and from his pack at the back entrance will pull the skinned bodies, along with those of rabbits and chickens. The meat counters in the market sell the meat from larger animals - the cows, the goats and the pigs.  For them, a truck pulls up at the same back entrance.  The driver climbs into the rear, and up a mountain of meat, to fetch a beef quarter ordered by a market stall.  Ernesto Serna lifts a several hundred pound piece onto his shoulders, and walks unsteadily beneath it into the labyrinth.  

Other farmers come into the city with fruit.  Francisco Cordero sells piles of strawberries, guavas and figs from his Campo Real farm in an impromptu stall on the sidewalk.  Another country seller comes with his donkey.  In the wooden saddle on its back it carries the big jars of pulque and colonche, agave and tuna (nopal) drinks with a little kick, under leaves to keep off the sun.

The streets of Zacatecas fill with people, selling and buying, walking or sitting.  Workers paint the buildings next to the Alameda Park.  A brass band and speeches celebrate the birthday of Benito Juarez, Mexico's first indigenous president.  Soldiers in the local contingent of the National Guard, the new police created by President Lopez Obrador, stand in the hot sun, submachine guns at the ready.

Like most Mexican cities, popular protest is part of Zacatecas' culture as well.  The women's movement is strong, and a recent march was met and prohibited by police protecting a government that somehow fears its own mothers, sisters and daughters.  Activists then went to the former cathedral of San Agustin, now repurposed as a municipal gallery.  At the inauguration of a show of paintings of peaceful landscapes, they confronted the government representatives there to open the exhibition.  Each held a card with two letters.  Standing together they read "Estado Terrorista" or Terrorist State.

And tucked away in this city filled with artists is the extraordinary project of the Fototeca Pedro Valtierra.  Here Carlos gives lessons in ways to create extraordinary prints from negatives, in a process invented 150 years ago.  In a vault behind a heavy metal door, aided by high tech climate controls, Karina Garcia protects the fototeca's archive of prints and negatives.  The most prized come from Pedro Valtierra himself, Mexico's renowned radical photojournalist and native son of Zacatecas, for whom the institution is named.

Today people joke that there are more Zacatecanos in Los Angeles than in Zacatecas, but this is still a city that remembers its working class history.  Aldo Alejandro Zapata Villa recalls on Facebook, looking at a photo of the market, "Memories of my childhood, of hard-working and entrepreneurial people, offering their merchandise, in those times when we learned all work has dignity."