Thursday, June 16, 2016


By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 6/16/16

ARVIN, CA - Two farm workers pull weeds in a field of organic potatoes. By mid-afternoon the temperature is over 100 degrees. Workers wear layers of clothes as insulation against the heat.

For the state's first hundred-plus years, certain unspoken rules governed California politics. In a state where agriculture produced more wealth than any industry, the first rule was that growers held enormous power.

Tax dollars built giant water projects that turned the Central and Imperial Valleys into some of the nation's most productive farmland. Land ownership was concentrated in huge corporate plantation-like farms. Growers used political power to assure a steady flow of workers from one country after another-Japan, China, the Philippines, Yemen, India, and of course Mexico-to provide the labor that made the land productive.

Agribusiness kept farm labor cheap, at wages far below those of people in the state's growing urban centers. When workers sought to change their economic condition, grower power in rural areas was near absolute-strikes were broken and unions were kept out.

The second unwritten rule was therefore that progressive movements grew more easily in the cities, where unions and community organizations became political forces to be reckoned with. In the legislature, these rules generally meant that Democrats and pro-labor proposals came from urban districts, while resistance came from Republicans in rural constituencies.

That historic divide in California politics is changing, however.

On June 2 the State Assembly failed to pass a bill that would give farm workers the same overtime pay that workers in urban areas have had since the 1930s. In the outcome, echoes can still be heard of those old rules. But the vote also makes clear that past certainties are certain no longer.

Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which established the nation's first overtime pay requirement-time and a half after forty hours in a week. In the debate, Congress members from the South, heavily dependent on Black workers in cotton and tobacco, opposed making the law apply to farm labor.

Representative J. Mark Wilcox of Florida openly justified this exclusion: "Then there is another matter of great importance in the South, and that is the problem of our Negro labor," he declared. "There has always been a difference in the wage scale of white and colored labor... You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it. Not only would such a situation result in grave social and racial conflicts but it would also result in throwing the Negro out of employment and in making him a public charge."

The enslavement of African Americans set a pattern of inequality that lasted long after slavery itself was abolished, and the pattern was then applied to other people of color. While the descendants of slaves worked without overtime pay on the farms of the South, immigrants from Mexico and Asia faced the same exclusion in the West.

The rise of California's farm worker movement began to change the power equation in the 1960s, however, forcing some growers to agree to union contracts, an unprecedented step. Yet even when the legislature debated the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the nation's first law guaranteeing union rights for farm workers, the votes in favor came from urban Democrats, while rural Republicans maintained a solid front against it.

Nevertheless, the farm workers movement sparked a sea change in the politics of rural California. Growers did not lose their power, but even in rural communities that power was no longer uncontested.

In 1975, the year the ALRA was passed, Democrats in the legislature also passed the first proposal to give farm workers overtime pay. But it was still a standard below that of other workers - time and a half after ten hours in a day instead of eight, and 60 hours a week instead of 40. Growers have to pay overtime on the seventh day of work, but only if none of the previous workdays are less than six hours. In practice, few California farm workers today get overtime pay.

Through the 1980s and '90s, when Republicans held the governorship and a majority in the legislature, changing that overtime rule was not in the cards. Even when Democrats regained their legislative majority and passed a bill to restore the 8-hour day to most California workers in 1999, farm workers were still excepted. Finally, in 2010, Democrats passed SB 1121 to remove the exception for farm workers in the 8-hour overtime standard. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

In his veto message, Schwarzenegger said the 8-hour day and 40-hour week would "not improve the lives of California's agricultural workers and instead will result in additional burdens on California's businesses, increased unemployment and lower wages." He used the argument put forward by grower groups in every overtime battle, predicting that "multiple crews will be hired to work shorter shifts, resulting in lower take-home pay for all workers. Businesses trying to compete under the new wage rules may become unprofitable and go out of business."

In 2012 Assemblymember Michael Allen introduced a similar bill sponsored by the United Farm Workers. It passed the Senate, but this time it failed in the State Assembly. Fractures in the Assembly Democratic Caucus surprised even the state horse breeders association, part of the grower opposition to the bill. It listed five Democrats "all of whom voted 'no.' (Amazing!)," including urban liberals like Joan Buchanan, Fiona Ma and Toni Atkins, as well as others, like Susan Bonilla who skipped the vote.

"Unfortunately, there are a lot of terrible reasons why farm workers have been excluded for 74 years," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez commented bitterly at the time. "Often people ask us why? As should now be apparent, Democrats are just as vulnerable to big money as Republicans are."

In the years since the 1965 grape strike, however, rising number of Democrats have been elected from rural districts where agricultural interests still wield economic power. Pressure from growers in these districts to vote against farm worker legislation is predictably high. But the 2012 vote revealed that the commitment to farm worker protections had weakened among urban liberal Democrats, where resistance to growers had been historically stronger.

When the vote on AB 2757 was taken on June 2, that trend was even more pronounced. The bill needed 41 votes to pass-a majority of the Assembly-and it received 38. Fourteen Democrats either voted 'no,' or were "not present," which in effect counted as a no vote, since it denied the bill the majority it needed.

'No' votes included Ken Cooley (District 8-Rancho Cordova), Jim Cooper (9-Elk Grove), Bill Dodd (4-Woodland), Jim Frazier (11-Fairfield), Adam Gray (21-Merced), Mark Levine (10-San Rafael), Evan Low (28-Cupertino) and Bill Quirk (20-Hayward). 'Not present' were Richard Bloom (50 - Santa Monica), Tom Daly (69 - Anaheim), Susan Eggman (13-Stockton), Jacqui Irwin (44-Oxnard), Adrin Nazarian (46-Van Nuys) and Jim Wood (2-Ukiah).

Calls placed to urban Democrats, who had little to lose in supporting the bill yet failed to do so (including Levine, Low, Quirk, Bloom, Daly and Nazarian) were not returned. The justification for their votes is unknown.

But the 38 Democratic votes that the bill did receive shows that demographic change is working in favor of farm workers in the long term. Giev Kashkooli, legislative director for the United Farm Workers, notes that "Democrats from rural areas all voted 'yes' this time. All African-American Assemblymembers but one voted yes, and all Asian Pacific Islander members but one voted 'yes' too."

Perhaps the biggest change is that among Democrats, especially rural Democrats, are several legislators who come from families of farm workers themselves. They include Joaquin Arambula (31-Fresno), Rudy Salas (32-Delano), Luis Alejo (30-Watsonville) and Eduardo Garcia (56-Coachella/Imperial Valley). AB 2757 itself was written by Lorena Gonzalez (80-San Diego), whose grandfather was a bracero farm worker, and cosponsored by Rob Bonta (18-Alameda), who grew up at the UFW headquarters in La Paz, where his parents worked on union staff.

In other words, less dependable liberal white support in urban areas has been offset by a growing demographic shift, not just in color and nationality, but also in terms of family history and experience in farm worker communities themselves.

The Republican Assembly Caucus was united in opposition to AB 2757. The Caucus includes not only conservatives from the upper middle class suburbs at the urban fringes the state's metropolitan areas, but also, as always, representation of growers themselves. Assemblyman Brian Dahle (1-Redding), told the Assembly, "If I could pick my dirt up and leave, I would. My dream is to leave a flourishing farm to my children. You stand in the way of allowing my children to continue their great-grandfather's aspirations."

Devon Mathis (26-Visalia) told the Visalia Times, "They [farm workers] get paid quite well. In our area, they get paid more than minimum wage."

Gonzalez and Bonta crafted a bill designed to ease the impact on growers.

It would gradually phase in standards by lowering the current 10-hour day to the standard 8-hour day by annual half-hour increments for four years. The 40-hour workweek would be achieved by lowering the 60-hour week in five-hour steps. Smaller farms would get two extra years to meet the requirement.

Determining the bill's impact on growers is not easy, since no direct statistics are collected on how many hours of work farm workers put in over 8 in a day or 40 in a week. Nevertheless, some idea of the stakes is clear. Farm worker payroll in California is more than $6 billion per year, but it makes up just over 10 percent of the $56 billion in growers' annual receipts.

The median annual income for farm workers is only $14,000.

Pedro Agustin, one of the 450 farm workers who took time off to come to Sacramento to lobby in the two days before the vote, said he earned an average of $12,500 a year. "It isn't fair that us field workers are excluded from receiving this benefit," he told legislators, "when other workers who work under a roof and some with air conditioners are getting paid overtime after 8 hours per day or after 40 hours per week. We work in very high temperatures and harvest food that everyone eats. What we want is for all of us to be treated the same."

Growers didn't argue that they couldn't pay, but claimed the bill would harm workers. According to AgAlert, the weekly newspaper of the California Farm Bureau Federation, "the higher cost of providing overtime pay-particularly when coupled with scheduled increases in the state minimum wage-would force farmers to reduce employee work hours to control labor costs." Federation President Paul Wenger predicted that it would cut farm worker income by a third. Growers, he said, would actually hire two shifts of workers, where currently one crew of workers labors throughout the day.

Kashkooli laughed at the idea. "These are the same growers who are telling Congress that they need guest workers, since they face a labor shortage. They don't have a lot of credibility. Even if their costs would go up, why is it farm workers who always have to take the economic hit? The truth is that we've had 78 years of racism, and this distinction was wrong then, and it's wrong now."

Bonta says the bill was well designed, taking business needs into account. "But we have to face the fact that racism was a factor when this different standard was established," he emphasizes. "A status quo inertia based on discrimination and exclusion isn't an OK reason for carrying it forward today."

Since the bill only failed by three votes in the Assembly, Bonta, Gonzalez and the UFW plan to bring it back. "AB 2757 is the third attempt in recent years to provide overtime after an 8-hour day, but it won't be the last," Gonzalez predicted. "We're going to get this done for the 400,000 Californians who deserve the dignity of an 8-hour day.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


By David Bacon
Saticoy, CA5/16/16
Capital & Main:
New America Media:

Consuelo Mendez worked forty years at Brokaw, then retired, but came back to work because Social Security benefits didn't cover her bills.

Consuelo Mendez was 23 when she arrived in the United States 45 years ago, looking for work. In Ventura County she found it, harvesting strawberries, tomatoes, cabbage, parsley and spinach. She got those jobs by going from field to field, asking other workers to tell her who was hiring. Picking is hard work, and getting enough work to live on required her to move all the time from one farm to another.

"When I emigrated from a small town in Michoacán I had never worked before," she remembers. "I was young, raising my children. Then I went to work in the strawberry harvest. My husband was running an upholstery business, but that didn’t pay very well, so he worked alongside me in the fields to make extra money. I never thought I would be working like that, and that the work would be so hard. I did it for three years, but after that I couldn’t because I got so tired. I couldn’t drive and didn’t know how to speak English - to this day I struggle with it. "

Mendez wanted something more stable, and she found it. A woman told her Brokaw Nursery in Saticoy was hiring. She asked a foreman there again and again to hire her, and finally the owner took notice. "We told him we were looking for work because we had a family to support," she remembers. "He told us to come back the next day and gave us a job. I got a job indoors and my husband went to work in their fields. I’ve been here and never been unemployed since. "

That was 41 years ago.

Consuelo Mendez grafting avocado seedlings.

Most farm workers can't find steady employment for such a long time. About 2. 5 million people are wage workers in U. S. agriculture. More work in California (about 750,000) than any other state. And like Mendez, over a third have been working in agriculture more than 15 years - a majority, more than 10 years.

The number of older farm workers is growing. According to the U. S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, almost a third of all farm workers are over 45. About 12 percent are 55 and over, and another 17 percent between 45 and 55. That percentage is rising - in 2001 only 19 percent were over 45.

Over the course of a long worklife, Mendez has become a very experienced worker, with skills that are crucial to the operation of the nursery. Brokaw Nursery supplies seedlings of avocado and citrus trees to orchard growers all over the world. "I graft citrus and avocado trees and then plant them outside," she says. As a skilled grafter, she was deeply involved in finding new and better growing methods. "It used to be that most of the avocado trees were grafted and planted outside in June and July," she says. "After experimentation, we found the avocado trees did better when planted indoors first.

"I have had many jobs here and I consider myself a skilled worker. I know how to graft citrus, plant citrus, tie citrus, graft avocado and tie it, fill cups, rubber band the plant and inject hormones. I know how to do almost every job."

Milian Sorto grafting seedlings.

Mendez's expertise provided her with job security that is uncommon for farm workers. "It's the reason I’m still here," she explains. "This job is very different from picking strawberries. This is meticulous work. But I also believe that when a person is kept on that long it is not only because of experience and knowledge. There is a sense of respect. If there weren’t, they wouldn’t care that I do good work. They would simply let me go. I have had to learn a lot here - another reason why they have kept me on."

Grafting requires knowledge gained from experience. "Some tasks cannot be done simply with a month or two months of work," she asserts. "Most of the work takes a lot of experience and knowledge. One of the easiest tasks is washing and placing the seeds. Knowing how to graft and recognizing one plant from the other takes a lot more time. There are many varieties of avocados, like Haas and Pinkerton. One must become familiar with the different varieties and know one graft from another."

There is no school for learning this kind of work. Everyone gets trained on the job. And after learning, "then comes speed," Mendez says. "There are many people here who work quickly -- who can move their hands rapidly. To stay you have to be a skilled worker, but you also have to have manual dexterity. When I make a graft I cut the plant and connect it with another so that it grabs the side of the cutting. Then I grab the rubber band and wrap the grafted plants tightly together, label the different plants with sticks, and brush on a kind of sealant that helps attach the plants and prevents them from drying."

 Fausto Mendoza grafting seedlings.

Working rapidly with extremely sharp knives is dangerous, and sometimes workers cut themselves. "Many people fear the knife," she says. " I've cut myself three times in 40 years. But I don’t cut myself anymore. Now my problem is that my fingers hurt at the end of the day. I think I have arthritis, because I work in a place that’s so hot and humid. I wash my hands constantly because the plants are dirty and may carry bacteria."

Mendez recalls an incident in which she did cut herself and ran to the foreman. "He laughed that he was going to have to bring another worker from Michoacán to replace me, instead of giving me a bandage," she remembers. It was a joke, but not really so funny, because it reminded everyone that there are lots of people looking for work. And behind the joke is the message that asking for higher wages can also lead to replacement by another worker hungry for a job.

According to Philip Martin, a professor at the University of California, Davis who studies the labor market in agriculture, the oversupply of workers helps keep agricultural wages down. Such labor shortages are largely imaginary, he believes, because "they have not translated into significant statewide wage and earnings increases. There is also little evidence that growers are offering workers new benefits such as housing in an effort to keep them from leaving for nonfarm jobs."


Jose Santillan works in an area where the grafted plants are rooted.

The family that owns Brokaw Nursery, however, was better than most growers. It did offer higher wages and benefits. "I had health care for my children when they were young, because my employer provided medical insurance," Mendez recalls. "In the beginning we had to pay part of the cost, but then it became free when the United Farm Workers union came in [in 1975]. After the union left, the employer continued to provide medical insurance. When my 13-year-old son died, this insurance covered 80-90 percent of the costs [of treating his illness]. It didn’t cover 100 percent because my son exceeded the $100,000 limit. But thanks to that insurance we were able to survive."

Very few farm workers have health insurance, but Mendez thinks it is essential.
"Medicine and doctor visits are so expensive," she emphasizes. "I'm taking about eight pills a day for high blood pressure, cholesterol, arthritis, calcium for my bones, iron and  vitamins. My children don’t need medication because they’re young, but I’m old. That health plan was necessary just to continue working. Here they provide many things that we wouldn’t have if we just worked in the fields -- like medical insurance, vision, dental, holidays and paid sick leave."

Mendez thinks the UFW lost interest in representing Brokaw Nursery workers during a period in the mid-1980s when the business slowed and the number of employees dropped drastically. "They left three months shy of the 10-year mark, and the owners didn’t want the union here either," she remembers. But some conditions established under the union contract remained. "The union brought the policy of respect for seniority. The owners promised that even after it left, they would continue to honor seniority, which to this day they have done in most jobs."

Antonio Roa plants tree seedlings.

The company medical plan only covered the foremen before the union contract, and they had to pay for family coverage. Under the contract the plan covered workers and their families. Later, even without the contract, "we still have it," Mendez says, "although just for permanent employees. They provide us insurance, holidays, sick leave, dental and vision."

Wages in all of California agriculture dropped in the decades after the peak of UFW strength in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the union contracts of that period, entry-level wages were twice the state minimum wage, and often even higher. If farm worker wages had kept pace with the minimum wage, they'd be double the current hourly minimum of $10, or over $20. Instead, according to Martin, in 2006 "workers employed by contractors earned an average $288 a week or $7. 20 an hour, just over the state’s then-minimum wage of $6. 75, while all workers employed on crop farms earned an average $466 a week, equivalent to $11. 65 an hour."Farm worker wages are still close to minimum wage.  The US Department of Agriculture reports that the average wage for " Farmworkers and laborers: crop, nursery, and greenhouse" in 2015 was $9.62/hour.

That's the story for Mendez too. "Today I make approximately $11. 79 an hour, after 40 years. I don’t think it’s fair to earn this type of salary, because I’ve worked here a long time. But perhaps it’s because I have no other skill. Farm labor is not well paid. "

Pedro Gallegos plants tree seedlings.

Mendez and her husband were among the hundreds of thousands of farm workers who gained legal status under the Special Agricultural Workers Program in 1986. They later became U. S. citizens. As legal residents and citizens, they got Social Security numbers, and eventually qualified for Social Security benefits based on their contributions.

Mendez tried retirement, and her husband, who became a foreman in a field crew, also retired. But then they couldn't live on Social Security, so she went back to work. "I’m still working, because you know that Social Security doesn’t cover our expenses, especially the mortgage payment each month. It isn't enough to allow me to stay at home, so I can’t afford to stop working. I'm also working for the health plan coverage. A health plan, even from the government, is expensive. Here I get it a little cheaper. We pay a share of the cost, and I pay for my husband’s coverage."

Nevertheless, Mendez feels that she succeeded in winning a better life for her children. "My children do did not work in the fields, only my husband and I," she says. "I gave birth to eight children, but I only have four who are living. We always encouraged them to get a good education so that they wouldn’t have to do this type of labor. My youngest son went to college and is now a telecommunications engineer. My daughter works in accounting. Another son is an upholsterer and the last is a mechanic. They've all done well.

"This job has been a good way to support my family," she concludes. "The owners of the nursery were very good to all of us. They lent us money when we needed it, and if they knew we couldn’t pay for our children’s medicine, they would offer us financial help. They were involved in our lives and knew what we were going through. I don’t regret anything."

Pablo Medina grafts a bud onto a citrus tree seedling in a greenhouse.