Monday, June 22, 2015


By David Bacon
Working In These Times, 6/17/15

Severiano Salas and Amadalia Patino are two workers who were fired from their jobs as grape pickers for Gerawan Farms.

FRESNO, CA -- On May 18 in Fresno, California, the state's Court of Appeals for the 5th District ruled that a key provision of the state's unique labor law for field workers is unconstitutional.  Should it be upheld by the state's supreme court, this decision will profoundly affect the ability of California farm workers to gain union contracts. 

At issue is the mandatory mediation provision of the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Act.  Using this section of the law, workers can vote for a union, and then 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 Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) adopts the report, it becomes a binding union contract.

Associate Justice Stephen Kane, in a 3-0 ruling, said the law illegally delegates authority to the mediator.  The Fresno district of the appeals court is well known for its conservative bent.  United Farm Workers Vice President Armando Elenes immediately announced that the union would appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

The case has attracted the attention and support of some of the country's most powerful conservative and anti-union organizations.  Some have intervened to file briefs challenging the law.  Others have joined with the grower in this case, Gerawan Farms, in an elaborate campaign to remove the United Farm Workers as the bargaining representative for the company's workers.

Workers say they already feel the impact of the challenge to the law.  According to Ana Garcia Aparicio, "At this company we've had many issues and injustices. This is the reason it is so important for us that our contract be implemented."

Gerawan Farm's 5000 workers pick peaches and grapes in the Fresno region of California's San Joaquin Valley, one of the richest and most productive agricultural regions in the world.  The grape harvest takes place during the summer, when temperatures in the fields normally rise to over 100 degrees every day.  To pick peaches, workers have to carry tall aluminum ladders through the trees, along with the heavy buckets of fruit.

One worker, Inez Garcia, says that not only is field work physically exhausting, "but that the worst part was that the men two rows away from me were picking at $11.00 dollars an hour, while I was doing the same work and getting paid $9.00 dollars an hour."

Another worker, Guadalupe Martinez, says she was threatened after criticizing a supervisor for making it hard for her to get to the drinking water, a crucial issue during the summer heat.  "Now," she worries, "I am afraid that for next season I will not be recalled to work since she is accustomed to doing what she wants with her crew."

A mediator recommended a union agreement at Gerawan, using California's mandatory mediation law.  It dictates equal wages for the same job, and prohibits discrimination.  It also mandates a system for recalling workers each harvest season that bars favoritism or retaliation.   Gerawan Farms workers, however, are still waiting for the courts to mandate implementation of this contract.

Workers here are trying to overcome the impact of their exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935.  Outside of California, no state has a law giving farmworkers a legal process for union recognition and bargaining.  Union agreements do exist in the fields elsewhere, but they've been won only after years-long campaigns and boycotts. As a result, less than one percent of the nation's farmworkers are covered by union agreements.  Wages and conditions in farm labor are worse than in almost any other occupation.
In the absence of Federal law, however, California has been able to use state legislation to address grower intransigence.  The original Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) was passed in 1975, and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in his first term.  That law gave farm workers, for the first time, a legal process in which they could vote for a union, and made it illegal for a grower to retaliate against workers for exercising their right to organize.  The law, however, gave no teeth to the ALRB to actually force growers to negotiate and sign contracts.

As a result, workers could vote for the union, but had great difficulty negotiating contracts afterwards.  According to professor Philip Martin at the University of California in Davis, workers were unable to win agreements in 253 of 428 farms where they'd voted for the United Farm Workers between 1975, when the ALRA went into effect, and 2002.

That year then-Governor Grey Davis signed two bills that set up the mandatory mediation process. Growers predictably challenged the law, but finally lost in another district of the state Court of Appeals in 2006.  Judge Kane and the Fresno court are trying to undo this earlier decision. 

After 2006 the UFW successfully used the new law at several large employers, negotiating agreements covering about 3000 workers.  In 2013 the UFW implemented the law again, this time at Gerawan Farms. 

The UFW won an election among Gerawan's workers in 1992, when the grower employed about 1000 peach and grape pickers.  Company opposition was intense, and one worker, Jose Gonzalez, recalls that, "The company had houses for workers then, and tore them down when they knew we were talking about the union."  The ALRB leveled multiple charges of retaliation against Gerawan as a result.

The company unsuccessfully appealed the union election victory, and finally in 1995 Mike Gerawan, one of the company's owners, sat down with the union.  He declared, however, "I don't want the union and I don't need the union."  That ended bargaining.

The union says it maintained contact with the workers in the years that followed, but had no way to force management to negotiate until mandatory mediation was passed and upheld.  By then Gerawan had grown much larger, employing 5000 farm workers.  Judge Kane, in his decision, nevertheless accepted the company's argument that the UFW had "abandoned" the workers.

Once the union renewed its bargaining request in 2013, and then called for the mediator, the company unleashed a campaign to decertify it.  According to a complaint later issued by the ALRB, Gerawan sought "to prevent the UFW from ever representing its employees under a collective bargaining agreement."

Two petitions, one featuring forged signatures, were circulated, often by foremen, calling for an election to decertify the UFW.  Supervisors organized rallies in front of ALRB offices to pressure it into holding a vote. According to 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." 

Despite charges by its own investigators that the company was manipulating the process, the ALRB finally gave way in November of 2013 and held an election.  The ballots were all impounded, and have yet to be counted pending the resolution of multiple legal cases against the company.  A Gerawan statement claims, "We support [workers'] right to choose, but the ALRB staff and the UFW do not.  Our sole message to our employees has never wavered:  'We want what you want.'"

The company campaign got the support of conservative groups nationally.  The Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, a far-right legal institute, filed briefs at the appeals court together with grower associations.  In recent years the Center has joined the Harris v. Quinn suit against the Service Employees International Union in Illinois, in which the U.S. Supreme Court undermined the ability of unions to collect agency fees from non-members.  It has argued for Hobby Lobby Stores against birth control, and supported the initiative to end affirmative action in Michigan.

Another Gerawan supporter is the Center for Worker Freedom, which organized and financed demonstrations against the labor board.  The center was set up by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, allegedly with money from the Koch brothers.  The center's director, Matt Patterson, first achieved notoriety when he managed the campaign against the United Auto Workers two years ago, at the new Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Employing a similar strategy, the Center bought billboards in Sacramento attacking the UFW and the ALRB.

California growers and these conservative organizations clearly view mandatory mediation not as a local issue, but a national one.  The law could be extended to other states, and the campaign's goal is to kill it before it spreads.  If the Fresno appeals court decision is upheld, the passage of laws mandating enforceable union rights for farm workers in other states becomes much less likely.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


By Rosalia Martinez, as told to David Bacon
Greenfield, CA - New America Media

Rosalia Martinez and her daughter Eloina Merino.

I'm Triqui, from Rio Venado in Oaxaca.  I've been here 7 years, working in the fields all the time.  Right now I'm picking peas.  Other times in the year I work in the broccoli.

The worst part about working in the peas is that you have to work on your knees. After a day on your knees they hurt a lot, and when you stop it's hard to extend your leg.  It hurts, even when they give you a break for 15 minutes every two hours.  I don't take pills for the pain, but I know many people who do. 

Sometimes your knees break down.  That's happened to a lot of people.  Their knees go out permanently and they can't work anymore. 

Another problem is the dust, which has chemicals in it.  Until two years ago they didn't give you glasses to keep the dust out.  Now they do, but by now most people who work in the peas have problems with their eyes.

What they pay us is not fair.  They want you to pick 130 pounds in ten hours, and the piece rate is 45¢, so we make very little.  The hourly wage is supposed to be $9.50 per hour, but when you're working on the piece rate it's less.  You can make $100 in a day sometimes, but other times it's $80 or $70.  It depends on how much you can pick.

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

I have a family I have to support.  There are six of us -- myself and my husband, and our four children.  These wages aren't enough.  We live in an apartment and have to pay rent, electricity and food.  The little they pay us doesn't cover it.

It's a disaster if anyone gets sick because we don't have any insurance. If it's not really bad we don't go to the doctor.  But if it's really serious we have to, and then we end up owing a lot of money.  We're just now recovering from the last time we had to do this.  We had to take one of the kids and didn't have the money to pay.

Normally we get six months every year when we can work all the time.  Other times work is hard to find.  A paycheck for a week is $300, or even $100. When the work is good we try to save a little for the times when work slows down. 

The majority of the people in my crew are Triqui.  There are also Mixtecos, and people who speak Spanish.  Almost everyone is indigenous. 

The Triqui people don't agree with the low wages.  We want a salary that our work deserves.  The boss now says they have a water crisis, but I really think he says this to intimidate us.  When we complain about the wages they tell us, "If you want to work, there's the work, and if you don't, so what?"  What can we do?

Two brothers live in an apartment complex of Mixtec and Triqui families in Santa Maria.

If people get together and demand more, I think things could change.  But instead we stay quiet.  Many of my coworkers are afraid they'll lose their jobs.

I heard about what was happening in San Quintin on Facebook [when thousands of indigenous Triqui and Mixtec farm workers went on strike in Baja California this spring].  I worked down there for a number of years, picking tomatoes.  They paid really low there.  I think what they did there was really good.  They tried to do something for themselves. 

We agree with what they did.  We come from the same towns.  We're brothers. We are the same community.  We are indigenous people, and we have to do whatever we can to keep our children eating, no matter what they pay.  But if we don't work and harvest the crops, there's nothing for the growers either. 

We are thinking of doing something like they did in San Quintin. What we demand from the growers is that they recognize that just as we work for them they should work for us.  Things should be more equal between us.

I'm going to keep working in the fields, because I have no other work.  But I don't want my children to work in the fields.  We're doing it so that our children can leave the fields and move forward.  I want to give them a better life.


By David Bacon
Greenfield, CA - New America Media

Pedro Alvarez and his wife Ana Merino, leaders of the Triqui community in California

Pedro Alvarez was born in the Triqui-speaking town of Santa Cruz Rio Venado in Oaxaca, and came to the U.S. in 1985, after his father was murdered.  He was one of the first Triquis to migrate to the U.S.  Today he is a respected elder of a community that has grown to many thousands of people, spread through the farm worker towns of the Salinas Valley, Sonoma County and beyond.

"When I got my first job at Sonoma Vineyards, I didn't know how to do the work," he recalls.  "But eventually I learned how to prune, plant, tie vines and remove leaves, and then worked in the grape harvest."  He is an old man now, and still a farm worker.

In 1986 Alvarez got his permanent residence visa, or "green card," through the farm worker amnesty, part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.  Once he had legal status he brought his wife and children to California.  Here they had other children, and the family grew.

"Working in the fields has supported all of us, and made it possible to bring everyone," he says.  His children, however, don't do farm labor any more.  "They went on to study, and now they do other jobs.  None of them work in the fields.  But that's still the way my wife and I put food on the table."

Triquis in California are among the state's most recent migrants, and because they arrived after the amnesty, most are undocumented.  Triquis are also among the poorest workers in agriculture.  Perhaps because Alvarez came earlier and got legal status, his family gained a kind of economic stability that most Triquis don't have.  The Alvarez children may be leaving the fields, but they are still a big presence in the Triqui community.  Last weekend one of Pedro Alvarez' sons, Mariano, organized the country's first Triqui cultural festival in Greenfield, where indigenous migrants make up more than half the town's residents.

Porfirio Martinez in a crew of Triqui indigenous migrant farm workers thinning radishes in a field near San Juan Bautista.

Pedro Alvarez believes agriculture is still the path to survival for his community, but like many others he gets angry about the low wages. "Working here doesn't pay much, but if you haven't studied, there's no alternative," he concludes.  "There will always be work in the fields for those who need it, but maybe in the future it will pay better.  The price of food is always going up, and people aren't so willing to work in the places that pay the worst.  There aren't as many workers right now, so growers have to raise wages a little to get people."

The militarized border with Mexico makes crossing more expensive and dangerous, and traps many families here.  Yet people continue to cross, looking for work.  Pedro's nephew Federico recently returned from Oaxaca, where he'd gone to get married to Araceli Rosales [Their names have been changed to protect their identity].  As the couple ate tlayudas (tostadas on big Oaxacan tortillas) and watched the dances at the festival in Greenfield's Pioneer Park, Federico was looking forward to the coming work season in the Salinas Valley.  But he also worried that his new family might not be able to live on the pay.

"Economically, it's hard to support us with this work," he explained.  "When I'm working I can do it, but when there's no work it's impossible. There are really only five months when I have work all the time.  Other than that, I'm mostly working two or three days a week."

To Federico, field work is still a good job, "but really, there's no alternative," he says.  "I can't get a job in construction or working in a warehouse because they ask you for papers there.  If you don't have papers they won't hire you.  I'll be working in the fields for many years to come.  It has its ups and downs, but it's what my life depends on."

Alejandro Alvarez came to the U.S. as a Triqui migrant farm worker, with his father Pedro.

Alejandro Alvarez, Pedro's oldest son, is angrier.  He came with his father years ago, and put himself through high school, and later college, working beside him in the grapes.  Today he's a skilled technician in a winery, but he doesn't see field labor as unskilled work.

"Only the people working out there know how to do it," he charges.  "If it wasn't for them the crops wouldn't get grown or harvested.  Sometimes I think about what would happen if nobody went to work in the fields for one or two days.  It would be chaos."  Alejandro compares farm work to a job in the winery warehouse, "where they pay overtime and sick leave, where people get breaks and foremen can't just punish someone.  When I look at people working in the field, I see a lack of equality."

Nevertheless, he doesn't think Triquis accept these conditions passively. "Little by little people are waking up," he asserts.  "The people who have crops they need planted and harvested should listen and pay attention to what our lives are actually like. For the next generation, there will be a change." 

The festival shows Triquis are proud of their culture, he explains, and are trying to find a secure place in Greenfield.  The town has at times welcomed migrants, while at other times its leaders have been hostile and even called immigration authorities. 

Triquis will wind up following the path made by other migrant groups in California agriculture, Alejandro Alvarez predicts. "The Filipinos did it, and Triquis are now following them.  We are very creative, and here we are communicating the best part of ourselves."