Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Photoessay by David Bacon
San Joaquin Valley, CA, December 2014
New America Media

In October in California's farm worker towns, the unemployment rate starts to rise as the harvests end.  In Coachella, not far from the wealth of Palm Springs, one of every eight workers has no job.  In Delano, where the United Farm Workers was born in the grape strike 50 years ago, it's one of every four, as it is in other small towns of the southern San Joaquin Valley.  On the coast in Santa Maria and Lompoc the rate is 13.8 and 15.5% respectively.  In the Imperial Valley, next to the Mexican border, the unemployment rate is over 26% in Brawley and Calexico.

This is a reality invisible to the state's urban dwellers.  Los Angeles has a high unemployment rate for a city, but it is still less than rural towns at 8.7%, or one of every twelve workers.  And in San Francisco and Berkeley the percent unemployed is 4.3 and 5.9 -- less than a quarter of the rate in Delano.

Then the winter really hits.  By February one of every three workers in Delano and Arvin is unemployed.  In Salinas it goes from October's one in ten to February's one in five.  Coachella is one in every six.  And in Brawley, Calexico, Lompoc and Santa Maria unemployment just never goes down.

Winter is the hard time, when the money made in the summer and fall has to keep the rent paid and kids fed while nothing is coming in. With immigration papers workers can get a little unemployment insurance benefit, but with no papers workers can't collect it -- in fact, any benefit that requires a Social Security number is out of reach.  Everyone in this season can use a little work, but for undocumented people especially, even a few days of work make a lot of difference.

Much of the work in the winter is cleanup.  With the onset of the drought in California one farmer in a watermelon field near Merced began using drip irrigation to cut down on his water consumption. In the winter, therefore, the plastic tubes that carry water to the plants have to be collected so that leftover fruit and vines can be plowed under, and the field made ready for planting again in the spring.  The tubes are only good for one season.  After they're collected a recycler is paid to dispose of them.

Drip irrigation is an important technique for organic growers because it waters only the plants growing fruit, helping to keep out weeds without using herbicides.  This kind of irrigation also decreases the vulnerability of the watermelon plants to diseases that can occur with the older system of overhead sprinklers.

Organic or not, few growers and contractors here supply any protective equipment for field cleaners.  Workers purchase their own cotton gloves to keep their hands from getting scratched and infected, but the thin cloth doesn't keep out water.  The field is full of mud, and workers buy big black garbage bags, tearing holes for their head and arms.  That's some protection, but water still seeps in quickly through sleeves and pants.  No one knows what chemicals might have been used here, or what's in the water that soaks their clothes after a few hours.

Most of the workers in this field come from Sinaloa.  Twenty years ago they might have gone home during the off-season, where the cost of living in their hometowns of Guasave or Los Mochis is a lot lower.  They might have spent the holidays with their families, and returned when the work starts up again in the spring.  Not any more, though.  Going home is too expensive for workers at minimum wage, regardless of their immigration status.  And those with no papers are held virtual prisoner in the U.S. by the combination of economics and immigration policy.

Taking inflation into account, wages have been falling in California fields for two decades.  Today a bus ticket home, or gas for the car, costs at least a week and a half of full time work at the minimum wage of $9 an hour.  For those who don't have papers, going home is virtually impossible.? Just the cost of a coyote to take a returning worker through the desert and across the border is at least $2000.  At $9/hour that's more than a solid month of full time work.

And many people don't make it.  The cemetery in Holtville in the Imperial Valley holds the remains of hundreds who die on the border journey every year, many of whom are found in the desert with no identification, and buried with no name.

So in the west San Joaquin Valley town of Gustine, the trailer parks are full in the winter.  The town is evenly divided between residents descended from the Portuguese immigrants who arrived two or three generations ago, and more recent arrivals, mostly from Moyahua in Zacatecas, even further from California than Sinaloa.?

Some people get jobs pruning grapevines and cleaning almond orchards, two of the few relatively dependable sources of winter work.  But unemployment hits hard here too.  The town was once a center of the dairy industry, supplying milk and cheese to nearby cities.  The dairy industry has grown elsewhere in the San Joaquin Valley, but Gustine's cheese plants closed one after another over the last two decades.  Its original cheese factory, the New Era Creamery, was built in 1907 when the railroad line was extended down the valley's west side.? New Era closed in 2005, just short of a century in operation.  Last year what remained of the structure burned down, leaving residents with even fewer alternatives to labor in the fields.

In the winter, even that labor is hard to find.

MERCED, CA  -- Bonifacio Villegas, an immigrant farm worker from Guasave, Sinaloa, cleans watermelons from a field after harvest. Villegas is a photographer who worked in Merced before he lost his camera, and went back to the fields to earn enough to get another.

MERCED, CA  -- Vidal Cota is an immigrant farm worker from Los Mochis, Sinaloa.  He cleans the plastic tubes used for drip irrigation from a watermelon field, after the melons have been harvested.

MADERA, CA -- A crew of farm workers clean almonds from trees in a field near Madera.  The crew is made up of immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico.  They have to knock the old almonds off the branches, because they'll become infected with worms if left on the trees. Enrique Zavala breaks open an almond to show how it can become infected.

MADERA, CA -- A crew of farm workers from Oaxaca prunes the vines that grow grapes for raisins, in a field near Madera.

MADERA, CA -- Juan Florencio Martinez Alvarado lives in Madera, and gets a few weeks of work in the winter in a crew of farm workers pruning vines that grow grapes for raisins.  During the summer he goes north to Oregon and Washington, when the heat in the San Joaquin Valley rises to over 100 degrees.  In the winter, though, it can get so cold he says his hands get numb.

MERCED, CA -- Francisco Acosta, an immigrant farm worker from Guasave, Sinaloa, cleans the plastic tubes used for drip irrigation.

GUSTINE, CA -- A trailer home of immigrant Mexican farm workers in Gustine, a poor town on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

GUSTINE, CA -- The abandoned New Era Creamery cheese factory in Gustine, which closed in 2005 and burned down in 2014.

GUSTINE, CA -- Little casitas, or cabins, in the farm worker trailer park.

GUSTINE, CA -- In front of this trailer home a Mexican family has planted a pomegranate tree, which bears its fruit as the winter starts.

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Photos by David Bacon

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE (9/29/14) -- During the town fiesta of San Miguel de Allende musicians and food stalls line the streets at night.  The fiesta includes a blessing of the horses from surrounding ranches. Then the town sets off two sets of fireworks.  In one handmade paper mache dolls explode while young people rush to collect the pieces. At night big fireworks are set off on tall towers in the zocalo while the crowd watches.

San Miguel was the first town liberated from Spanish rule in 1810 by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Ignacio Allende (for whom the town is named) in Mexico's War of Independence.  The muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros taught at the art school founded here during the presidency of General Lazaro Cardenas.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Photos by David Bacon

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE (9/29/14) -- For three days during the town fiesta of San Miguel de Allende indigenous dance groups converge here, and dance through the streets from morning until late at night.  Costumes celebrate everything from religious symbols to mythologized history to a common bond with the culture of native peoples north of the U.S. border.  Almost 40% of San Miguel residents are Otomi and 20% Nahua, but the dances are performed by groups from all over Mexico.

Indigenous people in Izcuinapan, the original native community located here, had a long history of resistance to the Spanish colonizers.  Guamare and Chichimeca people attacked the first Spanish settlement, and the Spanish viceroy was eventually forced to recognize a limited independence for the indigenous people here. 


Tuesday, November 4, 2014


By David Bacon
Working In These Times, 10/31/14
** http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17306/recycling_workers_strike_temp_agency

SAN LEANDRO, CA-Within days of each other last week, two groups of recycling workers declared they'd had enough of what they see as regimes of indignity and discrimination. One group voted to unionize, and another, already union members, walked out on strike.

"They think we're insignificant people," declares striker Dinora Jordan. "They don't think we count and don't value our work. But we're the ones who find dead animals on the conveyor belts. All the time we have to watch for hypodermic needles. If they don't learn to respect us now, they never will."

Workers celebrate the union election victory at Alameda County Industries.

Jordan's employer is Waste Management, Inc. (WMI), a giant corporation that handles garbage and recycling throughout North America. In just the second quarter of 2014 WMI generated $3.56 billion in revenue and $210 million in profit, "an improvement in both our net cash provided by operations and our free cash flow," according to CEO David P. Steiner.

Shareholders received a 35-cent per share quarterly dividend, and the company used $600 million of its cash in a massive share buyback program. Two years ago Steiner himself was given 135,509 shares (worth $6.5 million) in a "performance" bonus, to add to the pile he already owns.

But at its San Leandro, California, facility, WMI has been unwilling to settle a new contract with Jordan's union, Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, for three years.

Last week, she and other members of the negotiating committee returned to the facility after another fruitless session. They called workers together to offer a report on the progress in bargaining-standard practice in Local 6. One supervisor agreed to the shop floor meeting, but another would not. The workers met anyway. Then the second supervisor told them to clock out and go home, a disciplinary measure that would at least dock the rest of the day's pay.

Strikers at the Waste Management recycling facility.

"That's when we finally said 'Enough!'" Jordan explains. "As a union, we support each other. If some of us can't work, then none of us will." They walked out on an unfair labor practice strike, and immediately met at the union hall and voted to strike.  That strike ended on October 30, after a week.

At another facility in the same city, workers at Alameda County Industries were equally angry. At the end of a late night vote count in a cavernous sorting bay, surrounded by bales of recycled paper and plastic, agents of the National Labor Relations Board unfolded the ballots in a union representation election.

When they announced that 85 percent had been cast for Local 6, workers began shouting "¡Viva La Union!" and dancing down the row of lockers.

Sorting trash is dangerous and dirty work. In 2012, two East Bay workers were killed in recycling facilities. With some notable exceptions, putting your hands into fast moving conveyor belts filled with cardboard and cans does not pay well-much less, for instance, than the jobs of the drivers who pick up the containers at the curb. And in the Bay Area, the sorting is done almost entirely by women of color, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America and African Americans.

Just after voting, in the ACI barn with pallets full of recycled waste.

This spring, recycling workers at Alameda County Industries, probably those with the worst conditions, began challenging their second-class status.   Not only did they become activists in a growing movement throughout the East Bay, but their protests galvanized public action to stop the firings of undocumented workers.

At ACI, garbage trucks with recycled trash pull in every minute, dumping their fragrant loads gathered on routes in Livermore, Alameda and San Leandro. These cities contract with the firm to process their trash. In the Bay Area, only one city, Berkeley, picks up its own garbage. All the rest sign contracts with private companies. And even Berkeley contracts recycling to an independent sorter.

ACI contracted with a temp agency, Select Staffing, to employ the workers on the lines. Sorters therefore have no health insurance, vacations or holidays. Wages are very low, even for recycling: After a small raise two years ago, sorters get $8.30 per hour on day shift and $8.50 at night.

A year ago, workers discovered this was an illegal wage. San Leandro passed a Living Wage Ordinance in 2007, mandating (in 2013) $14.17 per hour or $12.67 with health benefits. Last fall, some of the women on the lines received leaflets advertising a health and safety training for recycling workers put on by Local 6.

The union's organizing director Agustin Ramirez says, "When they told me what they were paid, I knew something was very wrong."

Ramirez put them in touch with a lawyer, who sent ACI and Select a letter stating workers' intention to file suit for back wages. In early February, 18 workers, including every person but one who'd signed, were told that Select had been audited by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) a year before. ICE, the company said, was questioning their immigration status.

Workers cheer after the vote total is announced at Alameda County Industries.

Instead of quietly disappearing, though, about half the sorters walked off the lines on February 27, protesting the impending firings. They were joined by faith leaders, members of Alameda County United for Immigrant Rights, and workers from other recycling facilities, including WMI. The next week, however, all eighteen accused of being undocumented were fired.

"Some of us have been there 14 years, so why now?" wondered sorter Ignacia Garcia.

Despite fear ignited by the firings and the so-called "silent" immigration raid, workers began to join the union. Within months, workers were wearing buttons and stickers up and down the sorting lines. At the same time, sorters went to city councils, denouncing the raid and illegal wages, asking councilmembers to put pressure on the company processing their trash.

By the time Local 6 asked for the election, ACI had stopped campaigning against the union in fear of alienating its city clients and had ended its relationship with the temp agency. In last week's balloting, only one worker voted for no union, while 49 voted for the ILWU.

Because cities give contracts for recycling services, they indirectly control how much money is available for workers' wages. That's taken the fight for more money and better conditions into city halls throughout the East Bay.

Waste Management, Inc., has the Oakland city garbage contract, and garbage truck drivers have been Teamster members for decades. When WMI took over Oakland's recycling contract in 1991, however, it signed an agreement with ILWU Local 6. Workers had voted for Local 6 on the recycling lines, at the big garbage dump in the Altamont Pass and even among the clerical workers in the company office.

At WMI, workers also faced immigration raids. In 1998, sorters at its San Leandro facility staged a wildcat work stoppage over safety issues, occupying the company's lunchroom. Three weeks later, immigration agents showed up, audited company records and eventually deported eight of them. And last year, three more workers were fired at WMI, accused of not having legal immigration status.

When Teamster drivers were locked out at WMI for more than a month in 2007 over company demands for concessions, Local 6 members respected their lines and didn't work. That was not reciprocated, however, when recyclers staged their walkouts over firings last year.

A striking ILWU member appeals to a driver to respect the picket line.

Last week the Teamsters told drivers to cross Local 6 lines again. One unidentified Teamster officer told journalist Darwin Bond-Graham that Local 6 had not asked for strike sanction.  "Our members can't just stop working," he said.  Local 6 officers say they have asked for sanction. Relations between the two unions grew even tenser when the Teamsters, which also represent drivers at Alameda County Industries, appeared on the ballot in the election for the recycling workers. It received nine votes.

Under the contract that expired three years ago, WMI sorters got $12.50-more than ACI, but a long way from San Francisco, where Teamster recyclers get $21 an hour. To get wages up, recycling workers in the East Bay organized a coalition to establish a new standard, the Campaign for Sustainable Recycling. Two dozen organizations belong to it in addition to the ILWU, including the Sierra Club, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Movement Generation, the Justice and Ecology Project, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy.

San Francisco, with a $21 per hour wage, charges garbage rates to customers of $34 per month. East Bay recyclers pay half that wage, but East Bay ratepayers still pay $28-30 for garbage, recycling included. The bulk of that money clearly isn't going to the workers.

Fremont became the test for the campaign's strategy of forcing cities to mandate wage increases. Last December the Fremont City Council passed a 32 cent rate increase with the condition that its recycler, BLT, agree to raises for workers. The union contract there now mandates $14.59 per hour for sorters this year, finally reaching $20.94 in 2019.

Oakland has followed, requiring wage increases for sorters as part of its new recycling contract. That contract was originally going entirely to California Waste Solutions, but after WMI threatened a suit and a ballot initiative, it recovered its half of the city's recycling business.

The new Local 6 contract that ended the strike yesterday follows the pattern laid out by the new Oakland city requirement on its recyclers.  Workers will get a signing bonus of $500 to $1500, depending on seniority, to compensate for the three years worked under the old contract.  They will all get an immediate raise of $1.48 per hour, and 50¢ more on New Years.  Then starting next July, wages will rise $1.39 per year until 2019, when the minimum wage for sorters will be $20.94.  The strikers at WMI ratified their new agreement by a vote of 111 to 6.

Waste Management strikers stop a truck.

Yet this strike was about much more than money.  Over the last week, workers from Alameda County Industries would come by the picket lines after their shift ended, to help the strikers.  While they also undoubtedly would like their wages to rise to this new standard, for both groups this was really a battle to end the second-class status of the sorters.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


By David Bacon
New America Media, 9/24/14

In downtown Tijuana, a huge concrete channel was built to house the Tijuana River.  The river rises in Sierra de Juarez in the south, and eventually crosses the border five miles before it reaches the beach.  Only a trickle of water, however, runs down the middle of this vast expanse of cement.  Instead, its walls house people.  Many have come up from the south, especially Oaxaca.  Some thought they might get jobs in a maquiladora factory, while others thought they might have some luck jumping the fence.

Juan Guerra cooks dinner in the camp.
Juan Guerra lives under one of the bridges that cross the river channel.  In their camp of stranded migrants he heats tortillas and a stew of vegetables, gathered from food thrown out by nearby restaurants catering to tourists.  Juan speaks Zapotec, an indigenous language of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.  Some in the camp speak Mixtec, another indigenous tongue, while others from Mexican states further north just speak Spanish.  "I'm proud that I speak my language," he says, "but people look down on me here.  Maybe it's because I'm from Oaxaca, or maybe it's just that I have no money or place to live."

Mexico is a country of young people.  Its median age is 26.7 and the average age of border crossers is even younger - 20 years old.  Guerra says he's 25, and the others living in the camp under the bridge look younger.  In the streets of Tijuana live hundreds of street children even younger than that. 

One man eats dinner while another climbs the channel wall to the camp.

I had a friend, Mario, who was a Tijuana cop.  He talked about the kids in a very matter-of-fact way.  "There are so many living on the street here," he said.   "Some are abandoned by their parents when they go across the border, or when they arrive in Tijuana from other parts of Mexico."  Once I drove with him through the honky-tonk area of downtown.  Some of the buildings at the bottom of Avenida de la Revolucion, as it gets close to the border, have broken boards and doorways on their front facing the street.  Small, dirt-paved alleyways weave through the blocks, where many street children live.  "They sleep in hotel rooms, under food carts, or in abandoned buildings during the day," he explained.

Next to the river's channel rise apartment houses for the luckier of Tijuana's working class residents.  These are the families who can pay enough rent to escape the dirt streets of the hillside barrios ringing the city.  In the trash bins behind the buildings, Luisa, a homeless woman, collected discarded plastic bottles.  She's doing the same thing homeless people do in San Diego, just a few miles north.  The border often seems a chasm separating wealth and poverty.  But the lives of people who have no home are basically the same, regardless of which side they live on.

Luisa finds plastic bottles in a bin behind an apartment house.

Mario had stories about street children that sounded like tales from Oliver Twist.  "Doña Lupe," he says, "has thirty three children.  She used to be a pollera [someone who guides people across the border].  Then she taught her kids to sell roses in the street in front of the clubs.  They'd surround a customer, and while they're asking him to buy roses, they've hidden a knife in the bunches.  Someone cuts the pocket of the pants of the customer, and their wallet falls out." 

Mario remembered the time when there was no fence on the border.  When he started he believed those crossing the border without papers were just criminals.  "I thought they deserved to be caught and punished because they were breaking the law," he said.  "But after a while, I began to understand that immigration and undocumented people exist in many countries.  After that, I began to look at myself as their protector, rather than as their enemy."

The wall.

Today no one can cross the border in Tijuana.  There are multiple fences, including one made of iron bars over twice the height of a person.  A concrete no-man's land on the U.S. side is lit by floodlights, and Border Patrol agents are omnipresent.  But there was a time, two and three decades ago, when people could still cross in Tijuana, hilariously dramatized in a famous scene in a Cheech and Chong movie.  Mario remembered a similar scene, but it wasn't as funny.

"Once the Grupo Beta squad [the Tijuana police group monitoring migrants] was called to a place where a lot of pollos [border crossers] had assembled to jump the fence," he recalled.  "A whole lot of them jumped over, and began to run.  The border patrol was about a hundred yards away.  There were two brothers among the pollos, and the migra got one.  After they had him, his brother began to throw rocks at the agents, to get them to let him go.  So then the migra began to chase the one throwing rocks.  He ran to the wall and began climbing back over into Mexico.  As his hand grabbed the top of the fence, and he was hanging there, the agents grabbed his legs and pulled him down.  They threw him down into the dirt, and one of the agents put his foot on his neck."

A camp in the Tijuana River channel.

There wasn't much love lost between the U.S. Border Patrol and Tijuana cops.  Border Patrol agents think the cops are all on the take from drug gangs, Mario said.  And the cops think the Border Patrol is filled with agents who look down on Mexicans.  "We criticize the U.S. government for sending army troops to patrol the border here, but the Mexican government sends troops to the border with Guatemala," he charged.  Once the Mexican government sent him there after the Guatemalan government asked the Mexican government to investigate complaints of beatings and rapes.  Mario said he found the crimes were committed by former police and border guards themselves. 

Mario's dead now, but I once asked him what he thought the border should be like.  "I've come to the conclusion that it's OK the way it is," he said.  "What would happen if our roles were reversed?  Lots of Americans live in Rosarito [half an hour south of the border], and have houses and jobs.  The government doesn't say anything because it thinks they're good for the economy.  But what would happen if the U.S. fell into the same kind of crisis we have now in Mexico, and millions of people wanted to come here?  We'd build a wall twice as tall as it is now."

Families at Playas de Tijuana.

In Tijuana the wall and the border are omnipresent facts -- taken for granted, yet a physical and social presence in each resident's life.  At Playas de Tijuana, going to the beach seems at first the same as anywhere.  Looking south along the sand families stand and sit in the sun and wade in the waves.  But looking north a 20-foot high barrier of iron posts marches into the Pacific, a wall whose other end terminates in another ocean entirely, 1,954 miles away.

Curious visitors go up to look between the bars, at the concrete barriers beyond, and then a similar stretch of sand that continues north to San Diego.  A little park -- Friendship Park -- welcomes families on the Mexican side, but the impenetrable wall (at least for humans) belies any visible sign of friendship with the U.S.   On the park's little platform and exercise bars, Jorge, a boxer, acts out his fantasy of the ring.  He moves through his exercise routine, from one stance to another.  They all seem to defy the border itself.

Jorge, the Tijuana boxer.