Members of Unite Here 2850, the hotel union for the East and North San Francisco Bay Area, show their opinion of Trump in the march protesting his inauguration.
"From Mission to Microchip - A History of the California Labor Movement" By Fred Glass University of California Press, 2016, 544pp, $34.95
A recent New York Times article detailed the ways California as a state has become the Trump administration's bête noire. According to reporter Tim Arango, the morning after Trump was elected, "Kevin de León, the State Senate leader, and his counterpart in the Assembly, Anthony Rendon, said they 'woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land.'"
In the past year, California has declared itself a sanctuary state. It raised the minimum wage and expanded worker protections. It legalized recreational marijuana. Legislators declared they would not permit offshore oil drilling. They proposed making state taxes charitable contributions to keep them deductible with the IRS.
It might seem strange to activists under 40 to think that Los Angeles was the "citadel of the open shop" for almost a century. That the city that elected Rendon and De Leon had as mayor a conservative ally of President Nixon -- Sam Yorty -- and the country's most active and violent police "red squad." That Berkeley sent an extreme right-winger into the legislature who headed up California's own "Un-American Activities Committee." That the state was ruled by agribusiness with an iron hand, and farm workers who went on strike were beaten and murdered.
Arango credits California's rebellion to its racial diversity and growing Latino population. There's no doubt that state Republicans sealed their unpopularity in the days of Gov. Pete Wilson two decades ago. Their campaign for Proposition 187, which would have denied education and hospital care to the undocumented, convinced hundreds of thousands of immigrants to apply for citizenship just to be able to vote against the juggernaut.
But there's another good reason for the state's current politics: unions.
California has 2.55 million union members, more than any other state, more even than all the jobs in Minnesota. Runners-up New York has 1.9 million and Illinois has 812,000. About 15.9 percent of California workers belong to unions -- unchanged for the last few years. Because of its large population and workforce, it doesn't have the highest density -- New York (23.6 percent), Hawaii (19.9 percent), Alaska (18.5 percent), Connecticut (17.5 percent) and Washington State (17.4 percent) have a greater percentage of union workers.
But the state's labor movement has been able to translate its membership into a solid voting base, which has made these political changes possible.
Members of the San Francisco hotel union, Unite Here Local 2, march in support of undocumented immigrants in a Labor Day march in 2006.
How California got from one place to the other is an important story. It's not just that we're faced with a political onslaught that wants to return to what California looked like a hundred years ago; we need to know how we got here, and what lessons we can draw from this experience.
That's the knowledge that Fred Glass gives us in From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (University of California Press, 2016). Glass helped found the Labor in the Schools Committee of the California Labor Federation two decades ago. He then produced Golden Lands, Working Hands, which has become the basic resource for educators introducing class concepts into classroom curricula. His new book is based on the research he did for the video, and on the lessons learned in using it.
The book's title is too limiting, I think. You can't look at the history of unions and working-class struggle in California as something isolated from the broad social movements that have changed the state, and the book is a deep and entertaining examination of that relationship.
Glass sees racism, discrimination against women and anti-immigrant pogroms as the fundamental social barriers that had to be fought in order for a progressive change to take place. Strikes, organizing drives and political mobilizations, he shows, all took place within this broader context.
In looking at the role of immigrants, he notes,
The demographic trend by which immigrant workers have fueled California's population increases will continue, in California and increasingly in other states. The high proportion of immigrants who come to this land to work ensures that a sizeable number will bring along familiarity with, and often sympathies for, the goals of organized labor. In some cases, that will include histories of union involvement ... young workers of color, including a high proportion of immigrants, are the future face of the workforce and the electorate. Because the labor movement has understood this fact and designed its efforts around it, California's unionization rate remains at 16 percent while the national average is 11 percent.
Glass begins his examination with the original inhabitants and workers of California: the Indigenous peoples who were enslaved by the Spanish missions, and then "produced the surplus agricultural products" that supplied the military stockades and the beginning of foreign trade. It is an important point, not just because he shows, as does Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in her work, the ghastly cost to Indigenous communities of Spanish and Mexican colonization, but because he sees in class terms the basic operation of the system: the production of value, and its expropriation by those with power. This class framework continues throughout the book.
Class conflict is, of course, part of the history of the United States and its capitalist system. The primitive accumulation of capital in California wasn't based on the chattel slavery of Africans, as it was in the US South. In fact, one of the most important fights as California was incorporated as a state in 1850 was to keep the slavers from expanding into its territory. Instead, the heaviest price was paid first by Native people, and then by the Mexican and Chinese population.
California became a state because of the gold fever, and Glass tells the story of gold's "discovery" at Sutter's Fort, and documents the terrible conditions for miners as they came pouring in. Yet the first miners were the Mexicans, who earlier traveled north from Sonora. They then found themselves foreigners in their own land after California and other states were taken from Mexico in the war of 1848. A guerilla war raged for several years, as those miners fought to keep their claims. The names of the many people hung in the gold fields were all Spanish, and California's first law was the foreign miner's tax act, intended to dispossess the Sonoran miners.
Glass balances his respect for the way workers then organized themselves over the following decades with a careful account of the attacks, especially on Chinese workers brought to build railroads and drain river deltas. He tells the story of the first teacher activist, and an early woman labor leader, Kate Kennedy, and the birth of the first unions -- for typographers, teamsters and carpenters.
Alexander Kenaday, founder of the typographical union, organized San Francisco's first labor council, and began the fight to get the eight-hour day in 1865, when the Civil War wasn't yet over. A long fight it's been. This year, California's legislature finally passed a bill giving farm workers and domestic workers overtime after eight hours -- people excluded from laws passed even at labor's moments of greatest strength. California is still the only state (except Hawaii) that has such a law for farm workers, and one of only a handful with a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights.
Members of the janitors union, United Service Workers West, sit down in a downtown Los Angeles intersection in 2011, to protest the firing of immigrant workers.
In tracing California workers' and unions' long movement toward racial unity, a movement far from complete, Glass pays particular attention to one of the most important and formative efforts: when workers harvesting sugar beets in Oxnard organized the Japanese Mexican Labor Association and struck in 1903. They applied to affiliate their organization with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and AFL President Samuel Gompers refused a charter because their union included Japanese workers. The head of the Mexican workers, J.M. Lizarras, supported by Socialist leaders of the Los Angeles Labor Council, replied, "We would be false to them and to ourselves and to the cause of unionism if we accepted privileges for ourselves which are not accorded to them."
Glass notes the role the Mexican anarcho-syndicalist brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón played in the growing Los Angeles labor movement. When they sought to build the Liberal Party to overthrow Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz, LA's labor movement mounted their legal defense. The book makes plain that debates over the role of Mexican immigrant activists in the US and the need for cross-border solidarity were going on almost a century before NAFTA went into effect.
Glass covers the seminal events in the labor movement's growth, and in the debates over its tactics and political direction: the bombing of the LA Times (now in the midst of another union organizing drive), the rise of the IWW in the state's fields, the first unions in Hollywood, and finally, the great debate over industrial unionism in the wake of the Depression.
During Occupy Oakland in 2011, the unions of the Alameda County Labor Council organized a march in support of Occupy.
From Missions to Microchip doesn't just cover events, it describes the politics and political organizations of labor's activists and organizers, especially on the left. Communists organized the great strikes in the fields. Los Angeles's garment workers were organized by Socialists.
This complete way of telling labor's story is most important in recounting its two watershed political moments. Glass gives readers the San Francisco General Strike in detail, and the role of left-wing organizers, especially Communist workers, is clear. An organized left, and the struggles and debates it provoked, prepared the ground for the fight for unions along the waterfront, the rise of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (one of the country's most progressive), and the consolidation of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] on the West Coast. San Francisco became a labor town, and has stayed a labor town, because of that conflict. In the middle of that strike, longshore leaders forged an alliance with the city's Black communities to end discrimination on the docks. ILWU Local 10 is a majority-Black union today as a consequence.
The other experience that shaped California unions, as it did labor throughout the country, was the Cold War. The story of The Hollywood Ten is, after all, a labor story. The Cold War and its blacklists followed, by no coincidence, the strikes to win unions in Hollywood, and eventually propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House. The expulsion of the left, and purge of Communist, Socialist and left-wing workers and leaders in the Cold War weakened unions across the country. California unions survived better than they did in many places. Although the ILWU was expelled from the CIO because of its Communist and left-wing history, it had consolidated control over the waterfront to such a degree that it couldn't be dislodged, and helped keep progressive politics alive in West coast cities.
Glass pays a lot of attention to the long history of farm worker unions, and makes it plain that the United Farm Workers (UFW) didn't rise from nowhere, but called on the experience that Filipino, Mexican, Black and white workers gained in organizing and strikes over previous decades.
Labor activists still debate many of the questions around the life of the UFW. Today we see the growth of guest-worker programs again, much like the bracero program whose end in 1964 set the stage for the great Delano Grape Strike of 1965. California's Supreme Court just upheld part of the state's farm worker labor law that requires the mandatory mediation of first-time contracts, the only law of its kind and one that most unions would kill for. The union itself is still active, but has far fewer members than it did at its height at the end of the 1970s. From Mission to Microchip describes the history and notes the debates, leaving it to the activist to plunge into them by reading further.
Finally, Glass takes the reader through the rebuilding process coming out of the Cold War: the organization of teachers (his own union) and other public employees, health care workers, janitors and drywalleros. The changing politics of Los Angeles, it makes clear, came as a result of the rise of Justice for Janitors, the hotel workers union UNITE HERE Local 11, and the organization of workers' centers among immigrants, women and workers of color.
With a history so filled with contention and debate, strikes and their violent repression, and conflict over racism and left-wing politics, it might be counterintuitive to think that California's labor movement would emerge strong and progressive. Yet this is what happened. From Mission to Microchip tells the story. Perhaps the lesson here is that left-wing politics, debate and class conflict are not harmful to workers and unions, but in fact the very things that help them find direction and organize.
That is a lesson that deserves to be in the classrooms where the children of working-class families lay claim to their own history.
Paola was standing outside the West County Detention Facility, a prison in Richmond, California for 150 to 300 people awaiting deportation, when she got the phone call. She'd been fearing it for days. Florencio, her husband, was in another detention center in Arizona, calling to tell her that la migra (immigration agents) had caught him in the desert, walking north with a dozen others.
Paola (not her real name) hadn't spoken to Florencio for several weeks, not since the day before he crawled into the luggage compartment of a bus in Puebla in southern Mexico. The bus, he hoped, would take him close to the U.S. border.
It had already been a harrowing journey for himself and Paola's brother Lorenzo. "After we left Guatemala and crossed the river into Mexico, we wound up in a kind of camp in Chiapas," Florencio recalls. "There were hundreds of people there." When the day to leave on the long trip north finally arrived, the coyotes running the camp organized a kind of shape up. It was not that different from the stories told by an earlier generation of migrants, the braceros (contract farm laborers), who remember being herded together at Mexican way stations, inspected and shipped to the border between 1942 and 1964.
"Different coyotes called us by numbers, separating us into groups," Florencio says. "Then they put 80 or 90 of us into the back of a truck. There was so little space we had to stand pushed up against each other like sardines. It was a bumpy ride, and soon people began to get sick and faint, especially the pregnant women. They stopped the truck and gave us pills and lemons, but people were already throwing up and the smell was terrible."
The ride resumed, but after 12 hours the people inside began to bang on the walls. Hearing the noise, the driver pulled over. "He let us out and told us to run around a little," Florencio says. "Then we got back in, and it was another 12 hours." When the truck got to Puebla, Florencio called Paola to tell her he was coming.
During the vigil organized by Mujeres Unidas y Activas
He got through the next stage from Puebla hidden in the luggage compartment of a bus. That took him to Sonora. There, in a house near the border, the group faced another obstacle. "The mafia guys came and told us they controlled this territory, and we had to pay another $1,000 to get to the line to cross," Florencio says. "Some of us knew this would happen, and we'd already paid the coyote. I don't know what happened to the others. Soldiers came, but they didn't see any problems, and let us keep moving."
Not having money to pay at this stage could have been fatal. In the last decade mass graves of migrants have been discovered across the desert of Mexico's northern states. Many guess that these were migrants too broke to pay the toll. Perhaps others were robbed and then killed.
For Florencio's group, actually crossing the line wasn't the big problem. It was getting to a place north of it, where they could get picked up by a van to take them to Phoenix. To get to the meeting place, they had to walk three days in the heat through rocks, sand and sagebrush. "On the third day one boy from my hometown got pains in his stomach, and began fainting," Florencio says. "At first I said we had to stay with him, but the coyote said we had to leave him and that the Border Patrol would find him. If we stayed we'd all be caught."
Paola and Teresa
In the end, that's what happened anyway. The group passed across a freeway, but then Florencio began hearing helicopters. They all ran. He tried hiding under a bush, but an agent on a motorcycle found him. He was taken to a detention center close by. When he called Paola, it was the day of the monthly vigil in front of the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, nearly 900 miles north.
"I was there with people from the church who were helping us," Paola remembers. "We'd been praying for people they knew who were inside, and we began singing. Then my cell phone rang. I was so afraid of getting that call, but I knew what it would be. Then they were praying for me." She collapsed into the arms of a church member next to her, both of them weeping.
At the end of the detention center vigil, the people assembled there clap, shout and make enough noise that the detainees inside can hear them. "We want them to know we're here, that someone knows they're inside, and that our community cares what happens to them," explains Reverend Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity (IM4HI). "When we started in 2011 our idea was to put out a call to people of faith and conscience concerned about what was happening to immigrants, to bear witness and provide a way for them to act on that concern."
On the first Saturday of the month, a church or congregation brings its members to the center to bear witness. For an hour they speak out, much in the style of a Quaker meeting, remembering migrants who've suffered as a result of U.S. policies of detention and deportation. They sing, pray, make impassioned political speeches condemning the immorality of the center looming behind them, and talk about the reasons why people are forced into migrating to begin with.
As the years have gone by, the vigils have changed. At first they were made up mostly of congregations from progressive, middle-class churches. Then some of those churches went from hosting vigils to providing sanctuary to migrant families threatened with deportation. Churches have raised funds for bonds and emergency support, found housing and rides for released detainees, and accompanied newcomer families. "Accompaniment," a term used by faith and solidarity activists, came out of efforts to protect activists in El Salvador from the death squads in the 80s. People show their solidarity with those who are in danger by accompanying them, physically or by helping them survive. Today it's applied to migrants as well - activists support a family by giving them sanctuary, helping them find food and shelter, getting them legal help.
As sanctuary congregations have multiplied to 32 throughout the Bay Area, migrants themselves have increasingly participated in the vigils. "We always include testimony from directly impacted families as well as a call to action," Lee adds. "We started very small-15 to 20-and now it's averaging 100 people."
Rev. Deborah Lee
Berkeley's St. John's Presbyterian Church helped Paola and her mother, who fled violence in Guatemala in 2014, gain refugee status. The family then came to the vigil at the West County Detention Facility to speak out. "Because these families are with us, they provide a first-hand account of why they were forced to leave home,"Lee said at the vigil, urging other congregations to get involved. "We hear the pain of the separation of their families in their voices and see it in their eyes."
St. John's was one of the first churches to give sanctuary to immigrants. "In the early 1980s we saw people fleeing the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and felt we had to do something to help them," says Fred Goff, a member of the congregation who brought Teresa and Paola to the vigil.
The vigils have grown to involve more than people of faith. Some have been organized by immigrant community organizations, like Mujeres Unidas y Activas, which organizes immigrant working women in San Francisco and the East Bay. Local high schools and colleges have organized others, and a Jewish congregation, Kehilla Community Synagogue, has started its own vigil on second Sundays. When workers at a local foundry were fired for not having immigration papers, Lee and the East Bay Interfaith Immigration Coalition began meeting with them in the Lutheran Church near the University of California, Berkeley campus, working with a labor/community coalition called the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE). A few workers came to a vigil, and people of faith helped organize a community march and hunger strike to protest anti-immigrant firings.
During the vigil organized by Mujeres Unidas y Activas
After hearing from people like Teresa and Paola, Rev. Lee and IM4HI began holding meetings throughout the Bay Area to talk about the reasons for forced displacement and migration, and for the growth of the detention and deportation industry. For two years she's organized delegations to Central America together with La Fundación SHARE, to support social justice movements there, and to give congregations in California a first-hand experience of the reasons why people leave home.
Over many Saturdays, the vigils have provided a way for activists to reach out to people inside the center as well. On a recent Saturday, Lourdes Barraza and her daughters Sofia, Isabel and Anna, waited to hear news of Fernando, her husband and the girls' father. The following Tuesday would be Fernando's birthday, and he'd already spent three months inside, staring at the concrete walls of his cell.
Reverend Pablo Morataya gathered members of his congregation at the First Hispanic Presbyterian Church in east Oakland, a sanctuary congregation, as well as other pastors and lay ministers serving immigrant congregations throughout the Bay Area. They went to the detention center to hold a vigil for Fernando. "There are risks," Pastor Morataya says, "but for us it is a calling of our faith."
Rev. Pablo Morataya comforts Lourdes Barraza
At the vigil for Fernando, one of Lourdes' daughters had written birthday greetings on a large card, and placed it on an overturned milk crate covered with a cloth. First one boy stepped forward and signed it. Then two older congregants did the same. Finally a line stretched out of people adding their names and greetings.
Despite the support and greetings for Lourdes and her daughters, it was still an awful experience to think of Fernando inside. They'd tried to arrange bail for him so that he would be able to come home. "But they told me he didn't qualify because he'd already been deported once," Lourdes explained. "He's been living in this country for many years. He is not a threat to society. All he does is work, and all I do is work, too. I don't know how we'll survive without him. I need my husband and the girls need their father."
She broke down and began crying.
Lourdes Barraza speaks out in front of the detention center
In October Fernando was dropping off the youngest of their three daughters at her daycare center in San Jose. As he pulled away from the curb, he saw he was being followed by the vehicles that figure in the nightmares of millions of immigrants-the green cars of la migra.
He must have wondered whether he could run for it, and what that might mean for his family. He decided instead to pull into a shopping mall parking lot. The ICE agents jumped out of their cars, put him in cuffs, and took him to a detention center. When he was finally able to call his home, all he could do was leave a message: "Don't worry. I am not going to get deported right away; just stay calm."
Children of a detainee
Quick deportation was indeed a big danger. Fernando had been deported in 2012, Lourdes recalled. He was picked up on a Friday and in Tijuana by the following Sunday. But he came back because she was here. His family, his life - all were in San Jose, not Tijuana. Like Paola and Florencio, the bonds of love and life would not and could not be denied.
To ICE, however, being deported once before makes you a criminal subject to jail and to their euphemism for deportation-"removal." Since October Fernando has been imprisoned in the West County Detention Facility, nearly 60 miles from San Jose. When he appealed to be released on bail, ICE field director David Jennings refused.
"I could not believe it was all happening again," Lourdes told Cindy Knoebell, a volunteer for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). "I told our daughters that their father had been detained and they completely broke down sobbing. My oldest is now on an independent study program because she can barely get out of bed in the morning. It is tough because I am alone now and have to take care of my daughters' needs without any help. I am completely consumed by fear and anxiety. I worry constantly about how long I'll be able to keep a roof over our heads."
A daughter thinking about her father
Knoebell reports that Lourdes debated for a long time whether to come to the vigil and speak. She'd heard about many other families facing the same disaster. "But we have nothing to be ashamed of," she said.
Inside the detention center the monthly noise has not only let Fernando know there are supporters outside. It has also encouraged detainees to begin protesting what they say are terrible conditions.
The West County Detention Facility is housed in a much larger jail, one of four Contra Costa County lockups. Its official capacity is 1,096 people, of whom 150 to 300 are detainees in the facility run by ICE, which pays $6 million a year to the county for using it. Some immigration detainees are held because ICE says they're in the country illegally. Others are asylum seekers who are detained immediately on arrival in the U.S. or legal residents with past offenses (often very minor ones) that makes them deportable.
So they await a hearing before an immigration judge. That hearing, however, is not the normal courtroom procedure one might imagine. The judge sits in a room in the ICE building on Sansome Street in San Francisco. The immigrant sits in a room at the detention center in Richmond. The hearing takes place over the Internet. If immigrants have a lawyer, their chances of staying in the U.S. are better, but odds are not good even then.
A vigil participant shows support for the people inside
People like Fernando wait, while weeks stretch into months and even years.
In October the immigration detainees went public about what that waiting is like. In a letter written to CIVIC by one of the prisoners, Nancy Meyer, and signed by 27 others, women described being held in cells for 23 hours a day. While regular inmates in the county jail section of the facility get classes and other resources, the immigration detainees don't.
The cells are grouped in pods, with a bathroom that is supposed to serve them all. There are no toilets in the cells. If the cell door is locked, a prisoner has to ask to be let out in order to go to the bathroom. While Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston says doors are normally open, the women signing the letter denied this. Instead, they charged, they're told to "hold it" and have to urinate or defecate into plastic bags.
One detainee told immigration Judge Joseph Park in October that she that she preferred being deported to staying in the jail. In a phone interview with San Francisco Chronicle reporter Otis R. Taylor, Dianny Patricia Menendez said detainees put the plastic bags over a trash can in order to go to the bathroom. Their one hour of free time to make calls to family or take a shower is often canceled, she added.
ICE did not respond to the allegations of bad conditions. However, Taylor wrote that the detainees who spoke with him were later punished by being denied soap, shampoo and the chance to brush their teeth.
Immigrant women supporting each other
Senator Dianne Feinstein was one of several elected officials to protest. She wrote acting ICE director Thomas Homan in December, saying, "It has been reported that the conditions are so deplorable that detainees are requesting deportation over pursuing claims in immigration court." Criticism also came from U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Richmond), State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond), Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia and Richmond Mayor Tom Butt.
Outside the West County jail, a few minutes after Paola got the call from Florencio saying he'd been caught, she got a second one that frightened her even more. Her brother Lorenzo was hiding in a small community between Tucson and the border. He'd been traveling with Florencio, but the coyotes separated them in northern Sonora.
Holding hands is part of the vigil ritual
Once across the border, Lorenzo lost his own group, and a friendly resident gave him temporary refuge in a garage. Terrified that the Border Patrol, which was constantly circulating in the area, would find him, he called Teresa. At the vigil, church members began making calls to Arizona, trying to find help. Finally a person was contacted who drove down from Tucson and rescued him.
It was only a temporary respite, however. Not long afterwards Lorenzo was picked up and deported. When he calls Teresa and Paola these days, it's from Guatemala once again.
Paola is comforted after getting the call
Since Florencio had tried to cross the border twice before and had been caught, he wasn't deported immediately when he was picked up in Arizona. Instead, he was charged in the special court for immigrants in Tucson, Operation Streamline. Afterwards he spent seven months in an Arizona prison before finally being released on bail while he appeals his deportation order.
To Rev. Lee, the stories of Florencio, Lorenzo and Fernando, with their repeated attempts to cross the border to reunite with their families, are a natural human response to separation. She cited another example in an opinion piece she cowrote with Bob Lane, a faith leader at EBASE, for the San Jose Mercury News. "Consider the story of Alfonso Martinez Sanchez, a 39-year-old father of five U.S. citizen children and his family's main breadwinner, she wrote. "Five years ago, a trip to a store to buy milk led to a senseless deportation. Alfonso repeatedly tried to come home to his family. Wouldn't you? The Border Patrol arrested Alfonso several times, but he never gave up on his family. He died of heatstroke in the desert trying to reunite."
"We are at your side!"
When Rev. Lee thinks about what's happened to Paola and Teresa, to Florencio and Lorenzo, to Lourdes and her three children, to Fernando, it's clear to her that for them to survive people have to act. "We can't just watch the immigration policy of this country play itself out and do nothing, while ICE and the Border Patrol hunt people down and tear their families apart," she said at a recent vigil. "The administration talks about our efforts to protect people and fight this detention system as though this was just a state or a city passing a law to defy their enforcement efforts. What they don't understand is that these laws exist because our community is making a moral commitment and acting on it, and our representatives are responding to that. Sanctuary isn't just a law. It's our community defending people in danger."
Sanctuary is a vigil in front of the detention center.
Watsonville, California. A farmworker pulls brussels sprouts from a stalk and tosses them into a bucket. These workers are paid according to the amount of sprouts they harvest.
Printed in English and Spanish, In the Fields of the North puts a close-up focus on people deemed disposable by many in the United States. Get the book now with a donation to Truthout.
In an exquisite synergy of documentary photographs, journalism and personal stories, David Bacon reveals the dignity and integrity of seasonal workers from Mexico who harvest much of the nation's fruit and vegetables under squalid conditions. In this excerpt, Bacon talks about his journalistic philosophy in an introductory chapter, "A Photographer Looks Through a Partisan Lens."
Eighty years ago, many photographers were political activists and saw their work intimately connected to worker strikes, political revolution or the movements for indigenous people's rights. Today, what was an obvious link is often viewed as a dangerous conflict of interest. Photographers must be objective and neutral, the word goes, and stand at a distance from the reality they record. But I believe our work gains visual and emotional power from its closeness to the movements we document. We are not "objective" but partisan -- documenting social reality is part of the movement for social change.
Can photographers be participants in the social events they document? As a documentary photographer and journalist, I don't claim to be an unbiased observer. I'm on the side of immigrant workers and unions in the United States and share their struggle for rights and a decent life. I take the side of people in Mexico trying to find alternatives for democratic political change. If the work I do helps to strengthen these movements, it will have served a good purpose.
For three decades I've used a method that combines photographs with interviews and personal histories. Part of the purpose is the "reality check" -- the documentation of social reality, including poverty, homelessness, migration and displacement. But this documentation, carried out over a long period of time, also presents some of the political and economic alternatives proposed by those often shut out of public debate. It examines peoples' efforts to win the power to put some of these alternatives into practice.
So for me photography is a cooperative project. When I began to work as a photographer and writer, documenting the lives of migrants and farmworkers, I took with me the perspective of my previous work as a union organizer. Carrying a camera became for me a means to organize for social and racial justice, the same goals I had as an organizer. Bob Fitch, who spent years in the US South as a photographer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, thinks about himself the same way. In the recent book, "This Light of Ours," he remembers, "I did various kinds of organizing for the balance of my life and photographed those activities as I went through. And I perceived myself as an organizer who uses a camera to tell the story of my work, which is true today."
Advocating for social change is part of a long tradition of social documentary photography in the United States and Mexico, and I hope my work contributes to this tradition today. San Francisco photographers Otto Hegel and Hansel Mieth took their cameras into the huge cotton strike of 1933 and the West Coast waterfront strike of 1934. They saw themselves as part of these movements. One Mieth image from the 1930s shows the shape-up system where workers were hired to unload ships -- a scene reminiscent of today's day laborers clustering around a contractor's pickup truck in front of Home Depot. Mieth's photograph became a symbol of humiliating conditions and an appeal to go on strike. She would be proud that longshore workers today have a union hiring hall and no shape-up.
For over a decade I've worked with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, a Mexican migrant organization, California Rural Legal Assistance and Familias Unidas por la Justicia to document this contradiction. Our project, which led to this book, shows extreme poverty, the complete lack of housing for many people and the systematic exploitation of immigrant labor in the fields. But through the photographs and accompanying oral histories, migrants also analyze their situation and demand respect for their culture, basic rights and greater social equality.
At the end of the 1970s California farm workers were the highest-paid in the US, with the possible exception of Hawaii's long-unionized sugar and pineapple workers. Today people are trapped in jobs that pay the minimum wage and often less, and mostly unable to find permanent year-around work.
In 1979 the United Farm Workers negotiated a contract with Sun World, a large citrus and grape grower. The contract's bottom wage rate was $5.25 per hour. At the time, the minimum wage was $2.90. If the same ratio existed today, with a state minimum of $10.50, farm workers would be earning the equivalent of $19.00 per hour.
Today farm workers don't make anywhere near $19.00 an hour. In 2008 demographer Rick Mines conducted a survey of 120,000 migrant farm workers in California from indigenous communities in Mexico -- Mixtecos, Triquis, Purepechas and others -- counting the 45,000 children living with them, a total of 165,000 people. "One third of the workers earned above the minimum wage, one third reported earning exactly the minimum and one third reported earning below the minimum," he found.
In other words, growers were paying an illegal wage to tens of thousands of farm workers. The case log of California Rural Legal Assistance is an extensive history of battles to help workers reclaim illegal, and even unpaid, wages. Indigenous workers are the most recent immigrants in the state's farm labor workforce, and the poorest, but the situation isn't drastically different for others. The median income is $13,000 for an indigenous family, the median for most farm workers is about $19,000 -- more, but still far from a liveable wage.
Low wages in the fields have brutal consequences. When the grape harvest starts in the eastern Coachella Valley, the parking lots of small markets in farm worker towns like Mecca are filled with workers sleeping in their cars. For Rafael Lopez, a farm worker from San Luis, Arizona, living in his van with his grandson, "the owners should provide a place to live since they depend on us to pick their crops. They should provide living quarters, at least something more comfortable than this."
In northern San Diego County, many strawberry pickers sleep out of doors on hillsides and in ravines. Each year the county sheriff clears out some of their encampments, but by next season workers have found others. As Romulo Muñoz Vasquez, living on a San Diego hillside, explains: "There isn't enough money to pay rent, food, transportation and still have money left to send to Mexico. I figured any spot under a tree would do."
Compounding the problem of low wages is the lack of work during the winter months. Workers have to save what they can while they have a job, to tide them over. In the strawberry towns of the Salinas Valley, the normal 10% unemployment rate doubles after the harvest ends in November. While some can collect unemployment, the estimated 53% who have no legal immigration status are barred from receiving benefits.
Yet people have strong community ties because of shared culture and language. Farm workers in California speak twenty-three languages, come from thirteen different Mexican states, and have rich cultures of music, dance, and food that bind their communities together. Migrant indigenous farmworkers participate in immigrant rights marches, and organize unions.
Indigenous migrants have created communities all along the northern road from Mexico to the US and Canada. Migration is a complex economic and social process in which whole communities participate. Migration creates communities, which today pose challenging questions about the nature of citizenship in a globalized world. The function of these photographs, therefore, is to help break the mold that keeps us from seeing this reality.
The right to travel to seek work is a matter of survival for millions of people, and a new generation of photographers today documents the migrant-rights movements in both Mexico and the United States (with its parallels to the civil rights movement of past generations). Like many others in this movement, I use the combination of photographs and oral histories to connect words and voices to images -- together they help capture a complex social reality as well as people's ideas for changing it.
Today racism is alive and well, and economic inequality is greater now than it has been for half a century. People are fighting for their survival. And it's happening here, not just in safely distant countries half a world away. As a union organizer, I helped people fight for their rights as immigrants and workers. I'm still doing that as a journalist and photographer. I believe documentary photographers stand on the side of social justice -- we should be involved in the world and unafraid to try to change it.
Copyright (2017) by David Bacon. Not to be reposted without permission of the author.
David Bacon is a writer and photographer, and former union organizer. He is the author of several books on labor, migration and the global economy, including The Children of NAFTA, Communities Without Borders, Illegal People and The Right to Stay Home.