SOUR GRAPES: Decades after the Harvest of Shame, the lives of farm workers are worse than ever
- SOUR GRAPES: Decades after the Harvest of Shame, the lives of farm
workers are worse than ever
LA WEEKLY August 12-18, 2005 VOL. 27/NO. 88
Decades after the Harvest of Shame, the Lives of Farm Workers are Worse
BY MARC COOPER
ARVIN, CALIFORNIA -- When I knock on the door of the Orange Street
address I've been given in this dusty down-at-the-
heels agricultural town, I get only a shrug when I ask for Pedro Cruz.
Pedro works the same Valpredo bell-pepper farm
as did 41-year-old Salud Zamudio-Rodriguez, who passed out and died in
105-degree heat, one of three California farm workers to die last
"Never heard of Pedro Cruz," the obviously middle-class Latina woman at
the doors says brusquely. "Maybe in the back,"
she adds, cocking her head toward the backyard. Indeed, there, along a
rutted alley, are some improvised rental units
stacked on top of each other.
I find Pedro and his wife, Felipa, both 45, in the bottom unit--a clean
but claustrophic 350-square-foot apartment with a combination living
room/bedroom, a tiny bathroom, and a galley kitchen where an old man,
one of their parents,
I presume, sits in khaki pants and a T-shirt and swats at flies. An
aging window cooler loudly grinds away and reduces the room temperature
to an almost bearable level.
Like 75,000 or more of California's field workers, Pedro and Felipa are
indigenous Mixtec from Oaxaca, and their Spanish is heavily accented.
They are gracious but shy and reticent, and their demeanor is marked by
an air of\
resignation. They live a life in which there is little guesswork.
And having just come back from work, they are bone tired. Pedro drives
a tractor on the bell-pepper farm, a relatively skilled job for which
he is paid, he says, $6.85 an hour--a dime more than minimum wage. He
the name of the grower he works for. In fact, he's not exactly sure,
because it's really a middle-man labor contractor who employs him.
"He's the one who pays us, and he's the one who sets the rules," he
says. And now, clearly having said all he wants to, he politely but
decidedly turns his gaze to the floor.
Felipa fills the opening. She works grapes for Sun Pacific--which she
pronounces "soon-pacie"--but she says she can
imagine how her husband's co-worker Salud died. "To pick the chiles,"
she says, "you have to run behind the tractor
and then be on your knees all day. You are under those vines, bent over
in the heat, and you can't breathe. "Pobre
senor," she says of the deceased, putting her hands over her heart.
"In my work, it is also very hard," Felipa continues. "The foreman
demands that each team of three people produce 72
tubs of grapes per day." A tub holds 23 pounds of grapes, sorted,
cleaned, bunched and packed in plastic ready for
supermarket shelves. "Sometimes it goes up to 96 tubs," Felipa says.
"We don't have time to take our breaks. If you
turn in less than they ask for, they run you out after three days."
I ask her if she knows that the law requires farm workers be given at
least two 10-minute breaks a day, apart from a 30-minute lunch.
Unmoving and silent, she merely smiles back at me--as if to say, "What
kind of idiot are you?"
As last month's heat wave peaked on a sweltering Friday afternoon, the
scene unfolding in this farm town on the outskirts of Bakersfield, only
an hour and a half, but two worlds, removed from Hollywood Boulevard,
might have seemed
to many like a sun-induced mirage.
Some 350 people, young and old, many holding the red-and-black flags of
the United Farm Workers union, others lofting hand-lettered signs in
Spanish reading "No more deaths!" and "Stop the Speed-ups!" braved the
thermometer and trudged
an hourlong path from a local park to rally on the patio of the
historic St. Thomas the Apostle Church.
The crowd sweated and sucked on frozen fruit bars in the oven-hot
church courtyard, as a handful of union speakers--
including the near-legendary UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta--denounced
the recent spate of heat-legendary deaths,
called on the state legislature to finally enact a long-languishing
heat-abatement bill, and kicked off an organizing
drive to win a livable field-worker wage of $8 to $10. The assembled
hundreds punctuated the oratorial jabs with choruses of "Si se puede!"
and "Viva Chavez!"
It was a labor-driven political demonstration of enoromous proportions
for this sleepy village of only 12,000 people
where most of the inhabitants' days begin with a silent predawn ride
into the unforgiving fields and then melt into the midafternoon, lazing
in front of the room fan with a cold beer and some mu'sica ranchera on
the radio. But one, no doubt, fueled by the banner headline in that
morning's Bakersfield Californian: "Farm worker may be the latest heat
The corpse of 40-year-old fruit picker Augustine Gudino had been found
the day before in the triple-digit heat baking
the local Giumarra Vineyards. For the previous week, the United Farm
Workers had been scrambling to mount the rally
to protest the heat-exposure deaths of two other local pickers in the
past 10 days. It was by macabre coincidence that the third fatality was
reported the day of the protest itself, adding an extra dollop of
indignation and stoking
"This is the first time in more than 15 years we've seen anything like
this," said Fausto Sanchez, a 34-year-old Mixtec community-outreach
worker who works at the local office of the California Rural Legal
Assistance (CRLA). I've
been around here since 1988 and can't remember any march like this."
For those Californians who live outside the Central Valley, Sanchez/s
wonderment over the UFW rally might seem a little odd. There's a
prevailing popular assumption that superexploitation of the state's
farm workers is a closed
chapter in some deep, dark past. And that while immigrant fruit pickers
and packers might not be getting rich, some-
how the struggle of the late Cesar Chavez and his UFW has "solved" the
most pressing problems of these workers and forever curbed the worst
abuses of the growers.
But exactly 40 years after Chavez's UFW exploded into the national
consciousness by leading the great 1965 Delano grape workers' strike
and forced America to recognize the plight of those who put our food on
the table, nothing could
be further from the truth. The golden years of California farm workers
lasted barely a decade and then sharply began
to fade. "Since the late 1970's, it's all been downhill, it's all been
on the defensive," says Oxnard-based CRLA attorney Jeff Ponting.
The landmark 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) that passed
during the Jerry Brown administration promised a
New Deal for farm workers. Today it is little more than a historical
asterisk. Wages among California's 700,000 farm
workers, 96 percent of whom are Mexican or Central American, more than
half of whom are undocumented, are at best stagnant, and by most
reckonings are in decline. With almost all workers stuck at the minimum
wage of $6.75 an hour,
it's rare to find a farm worker whose annual income breaks $10,000 a
year. "Twenty-five years ago, a worker made 12,
13, 14 cents for a bin of oranges," says economist Rick Mines, until
recently research director at the Davis-based
California Institute for Rural Studies. "Today that same bin pays maybe
15 or 16 cents--in spite of 250 percent inflation." Virtually no
workers have health insurance or paid vacations. The cyclical nature of
the crops throws most out of work for two or more months per year.
In a pattern that one academic calls "ethnic replacement," succeeding
waves of ever poorer, more marginal Mexicans,
many of them from indigenous communities where Spanish is a foreign
language, increasingly constitute the field labor
force. The downward-spiraling Mexican economy feverishly churns those
waves to the degree that, at any moment, as many as 20 percent of
California's agricultural workers have been in the U.S. for less than a
Family ranchers and corporate growers have shirked legal and moral
responsibilities by outsourcing more and more employment through
unscrupulous middleman contractors who feast on the undocumented and
the desperate by rountinely
shortchanging them, forcing them to work unpaid overtime, ignoring
safety standards, bilking them for rides and rental
of tools, and, more frequently than one can imagine, straight-otu
stiffing them on payday.
The confluence of labor-contracting schemes, hostile Sacramento
administrations, historic stategic mistakes by the UFW, and the flood
of ever more desperate undocumented workers have, meanwhile, eroded
unionization to the minuscule
level of less than 2 percent of the work force.
While the 30-year-old pro-worker provisions of the ALRA still look
great on paper, field enforcement by the state has become less than
lax. Whether through indifference or through sheer lack of
resources--including an almost total absence of representatives who can
speak the indigenous languages of many workers--the result is grim.
takes about nine months for a worker to even get a state wage hearing,"
laments Fresno-based CRLA lawyer Alegria de la
Cruz, whose grandparents were key players in the UFW. "By then the
contract is usually out of business. It's basically, 'Fuck you, I'm not
going to pay you." For that majority of workers who hold no legal
immigration status, there are no hearings, no legal remedies
Also defying the stereotypes of the popular imagination, most
California farm workers are no longer roving bands of migrants,
following the trails of differnt crops and periodically returning to
Mexico. The decade-old U.S. border policy of blockading traditional
crossing points and forcing migrant traffic into ever more perilous
routes has bottled up California farm workers into more permanent, more
settled, more impoverished communities, creating a vast
rural underclass that further strains already underserviced Central
Valley towns. "Field work is no longer a way to
improve your life," Fausto Sanchez said as we stood next to sprawlintg
grape orchard just west of town and listened
to the booms of shotgun blanks fired to scare off the birds. Until
seven years ago, when he was hired by CRLA, Sanchez worked these same
fields. His wife still works the crops. "In the past, a family could
save up three or four
thousand dollars from a good season of grapes and then return to
Mexico. Now, maybe you can make a thousand dollars,
and you're stuck here.
And STUCK is the right word. One recent survey estimated that nearly a
third of farm-worker families lived in "informal dwellings," lacking
legal addresses. Cruise the side streets of this town, or nearby
Lamont, or virtually
any of the hamlets and towns north to Stockton, and you are sure to
drift into the unpaved nether neighborhoods in which ramshackle
trailers, plywood sheds, collapsing wood-frame shacks, converted
garages and out-of-code apartments--
many of them managed by slumlord rental agencies--are jam-packed with
beds and tenants.
Yes, they are all chiche's: The New Grapes of Wrath. The New Harvest of
Shame. The Appalachia of the West. And yet,
they are all befitting. When journalist Carey McWilliams published his
historic expose' of California's treatment of
farm laborers in 1939--the same year that "The Grapes of Wrath"
appeared--the title of his book decried what he saw as
"Factories in the Field." But today, California farm workers would be
downright blessed to work with the same wages and conditions that
define the average American factory--even with the long-term decline
experienced by industrial workers. Instead, today's field workers toil
in what are little more than sweatshops in the sun.
ARLA lawyer Jeff Ponting takes me on a driving tour of the Arvin-Lamont
area, and his default mode is indignation.
"Throughout this valley we see the rise of Latino elected political
leadership," he says as we pull into the flyspeck
settlement of Weedpatch and the car-dashboard thermometer reads 111
degrees. "But because Latinos have so little
economic force, they have little real power. The poor people here have
Founded in 1965 alongside the UFW, the nonprofit CRLA, and its network
of ascetic offices stretched through the valley, acts as one-stop
no-fee legal defenders of farm workers. A strangely surviving remnant
of the Great Society,
it continues to receive federal funding--but with increasing
begrudgement and limitations (Governor Ronald Reagan terminated its
state funding in the early 70's). Under the tutelage of the
congressionally created Legal Services Corp., the CRLA can no long
press class-action lawsuits. And no longer can represent the
But along with a private Los Angeles firm, Ponting is currently leading
a fight on behalf of locals who got doused in a massive pesticide
drift. There's been at least one major drift incident in each of the
last four years in this area--most recently last May, when 27 people
fell ill. The worst case was in October 2003, when a cloud of the
fumigant chloropicrin--the same active ingredient that's used in tear
gas--floated off the Yaksitch Farms and enveloped scores, including 165
who are now suing. "People were vomiting, throwing up on the streets,
kids were cry-ing and screaming," Ponting says. "It was chaos. And this
happens every year. But medical people don't know how to
deal with it. They don't speak the language of the workers. The clinics
don't know how to recognize the symptoms.
They give the workers aspirins and send them back to work."
Ponting walks me from the field across the two-lane state Highway 184.
Here are the grotesquely named Spic N' Span
apartments, eight small wooden bungalows with peeled paint and warped
linoleum floors, lined up on a dirt alley. I
pace them off as being about 20 by 15 feet. Though they rent for about
$300 a month through a management agency, they
wouldn't even qualify for as much as slum status. More like Tobacco
Spic N' Span was ground zero for the 2003 chloropicrin episode. But
when we enter one of the units, 19-year-old Rocio
Diaz, with her 10-month-old baby, Maire, parked in a basket in front of
the window air conditioner, knows nothing of the incident. Freshly
arrived from the Mexican state of Guerrero, she begins at zero in
California farm-labor history. Rocio's 22-year-old husband is off
working at Lucky Farms, she says, earning minimum wage for only six or
seven hours of work a day. In the face of the recent farm-worker
deaths, his employer is apparently being cautious.
Though the rent is $295, she says, the family will now have to make do
on the $700 or so per month that her husband will bring home. She has
had to quit working the fields this week because paying a babysitter
$10 a day and forking
out $5 every day to the "raitero," the van driver her contractor was
forcing her to use, was eating up most of her
take-home pay. "We were living in East Los Angeles, but it got too
expensive, so we moved here, she says. "I hope we
can make it."
Late that afternoon, Ponting and I randomly come across a nearby group
of about 40 laborers, just finishing up a day's
worth of picking and packing for El Rancho Farms. At the end of each
row of vines, packers, usually wearing straw hats
and bandannas across their faces, work standing up at a table under an
umbrella. Talking to them, we learn they are paid minimum wage plus a
bonus of 30 cents per 23-pound tub of grapes. They can produce about
three tubs an hour, adding about $7 a day to their earnings--a grand
total of about $60 a day gross.
We also learn that this crew is allowed to take only one break per day,
not two. That's one labor-code violation. The
workers also say they are forced to take home the grape tubs every
night and it is their responsibility to wash them and clean them on
their own time. Another violation.
"This may seem like little," says Ponting. "But add it all up and it
saves the contractor a lot of money, allowing him to undercut others."
This "layered" structure of contractors and subcontractors has always
been present in the farm-labor market, but it has become dominant only
since the late 1980s. As immigration, especially illegal immigration,
began to soar,
California growers were anxious to insulate themselves from legal
responsibilities. Farm-labor contractors became a
convenient back channel for workers. The FLCs, as they are known, offer
the growers not onoly a package price for labor, but also plausible
deniability. It's also a great way to foil union organizing.
"Agribusiness's reliance on contractors as intermediaries in recruiting
and maintaining their work force is a disastrously irresponsible
policy," says Ed Kissam, senior researcher at Aguirre International, a
Bay Area consulting
firm specializing in farm labor. "The contractors are squeezed by the
growers, and the workers are squeezed by the
contractors, who often are not very sophisticated business planners.
They often figure the easiest way I can make a profit is to cheat my
workers," says Kissam.
Some contractors have worked their way up from being foremen. Others
have constructed their niche by mining the fertile recruiting fields of
their hometown Mexican villages, opening free-flowing pipelines of
labor. Many are out-of-pocket fly-by-night operations. Yet others have
mushroomed into major business enterprises.
"Some FLCs issue 15,000 W-2 forms per year," says Don Villarejo,
founder and director emeritus of the California
Institute for Rural Studies. "They lease not only the workers but also
the tools and equipment to the growers. Some
run 140 buses a day."
What a near totality of the contractors have in common is that they
were once themselves farm workers. "If you ask me
what the single greatest problem is that we face," says CRLA's Fausto
Sanchez, "I'd say it's just getting the workers
their minimum wage. A lot of contractors just pay cash, a fixed amount,
maybe $35 to $40 a day. It's sad how these
contractors have forgotten who they once were. They have no shame. They
have even less compassion."
Not that workers employed by the bigger growers have it any better.
Forty-year-old Mixtec Pedro Ramirez has worked the last three years for
Giumrra Vineyards, one of the largest grape growers in the world, with
4,000 workers. I meet
him on the porch of his dilapidated trailer, which he bought 10 years
ago for $6,000. The space he leases in the Arvin-area Buena Vista
Trailer Park--a collection of tin that seems taken from a
post-hurricane damage report--runs $230 a month. He works a daily
nine-hour shift with no overtime, which is perfectly legal in
agricultural labor. With
the standard 30-cents-a-tub bonus, he makes about $70 a day before
deductions. "At Giumarra, they don't give us umbrellas, they don't give
us a table, and we have to take home the tubs and wash them," he says
"They make us do four tubs an hour," Ramirez continues. "One struggles,
but sometimes you can't make that number. If you don't, you stay after
work another half-hour or hour until you do."
"With no pay?" I ask.
He nods his head. "You can't say anything," he continues. "Raise your
voice and the foreman comes right down on you."
Ramirez and his wife have spent the last 18 years working in the
California fields and now have five children--none of
whom have been or will be allowed to work the fields. "I don't want
that for their education. I don't want them to have to do the work I
In 1936, reporter John Steinback came to this same area and became so
engrossed in the lives of Okie farm workers that he decided to live for
a while in Weedpatch--where Jeff Ponting and I retraced the pesticide
drift of two years ago.
His eventual "The Grapes of Wrath" was set, in part, in the federally
managed Weedpatch Camp for migrant farm laborers
that opened a few hundred yards down the road from where he was staying
in that same year of 1936. When the classic
Henry Fonda movie version of the book was filmed, the camp figured
prominently as a set.
Now it's called the Arvin Migrant Labor Camp. It's run by Kem County
and not the feds. Its primitive wooden cabins have been replaced by
truly gleaming and modern multibedroom bungalows surrounded by lush
green sod. But the camp's
88 units still house migrant farm workers, who can stay here with their
families for up to six months at a time for about $75 a week. There's
also a fully equipped and up-to-date playground for the children.
Altogether it provides
a dignified, comfortable and affordable have for families who work the
fields. It's a reassuring reminder of what
effective government--even local government--can do for people if
there's sufficent political will.
Near the gated entrance to the camp, a couple of thousand square feet
have been fenced off to preserve the original wooden community center,
one of the clapboard migrant cabins and some rusted farm implements.
Local activists are
raising money to build some sort of park and monument to the Dust Bowl
refugees on the fenced-off plot.
When I meet with 48-year-old Gregorio Santiago in Unit 151, he knows
none of this history. Never heard of Steinbeck.
Never heard of "The Grapes of Wrath". Never heard of Tom Joad. He's
rather excited by all this information I'm giving
him, and he writes down the title of Steinbeck's novel in Spanish so
he'll remember to buy a copy.
I'm also struck by the glaring ironies of this situation. Santiago's
ignorance is not because he's a stupid or unworldly man. On the
contrary, he's an eloquent autodidact, a worker-intellectual with a
long history in radical
Oaxacan politics. He has two computers and a shelf of books. His grade
school daughter possesses a graceful refine-
ment and openness way beyond her years. He's had his own radio show in
Baja California. He writes essays about his
Mixtec heritage. Apart from working full time in the grape fields, he
leads local events that celebrate indigenous
culture. Coming back and forth to American fields since 1979, he
organized a grassroots political committee in Arvin
20 years ago to take on a hostile local police force.
Now, he and a dozen or so other workers--all Mixtecs--have once again
formed a new activist organization, called El
Comite' de Unidad Popular, the Popular Unity Committee.
Santiago is, in many ways, a Mixtec descendant of Tom Joad, even though
he knows nothing of Joad or of his creator.
Santiago's world is strictly in the here and now of rapacious
contractors, intimidated workers, detestable working
conditions and the cultural survival of a people forced to work in an
alien world where they are powerless if not just
plain invisible. Nostalgia over the Okies is about as relevant to
Santiago as would be discussion of Oaxacan farming
techniques in the Silver Lake Democratic Club.
Activist groups like his are not at all uncommon in the valley,
especially among the Mixtecs, the fastest-growing
minority among California farm workers. They have tried, with mixed
success, to fill the void left by the shrinking
of the UFW. Most prominent among these grassroots groups is the
Bi-National Oaxacan Indigenous Front, which has a lot
more presence around Fresno than it does here in the Bakersfield area.
The Front may have as many as 10,000 members
on both sides of the border, and in the Central Valley, it has bcome
the leading Mixtec nonprofit.
Santiago's fledgling group is much more modest. But talk about the
ghost of Tom Joad. Sitting in his camp bungalow,
just back from the fields, still dressed in a dusty undershirt, jeans
and work boots, a black cap on his head,
Santiago speaks of his grand vision:
"Maybe even four years ago, things were better here. The supervisors
were more attentive, made sure you have water, more or less respectful
of the law. Now it's constant psychological pressure to work aster and
pick more. They say if you don't work fast enough, you won't work
again. Decent treatment? That's all in the past.
"We need to re-introduce our youth to our culture. Over the long run,
we need direct political participation. But before we can think about
that, our community needs a deep political education.
"We come from a very different culture, but we live here and we have
rights. We have earned our rights and earned out voice through our
"More than anything, we need to organize ourselves, just like other
workers do, to achieve our goals. In the long run, we need a union. A
real union. But in the short run, we need political consciousness, a
real understanding of who
we are, how we fit in and how we can achieve what we need.
"We hear a lot about the achievements of Cesar Chavez. But we can't see
any of them. Where are they? Truth is, the
UFW has no strength here, not among our people. We remember how, when
the Mixtecs first began to organize, Cesar called us 'communists.'
That's okay, he's gone. We need our own organizations now that speak to
our heart, our own
When we're finished speaking, I walk out with Santiago to gander once
again at the preserved remnants of the original Okie camp. He stares at
them a moment and then shakes his head and smiles at me. "That's an
incredible story you told me about these people," he said. "They must
have been very strong."
Last year the daily Bakersfield Californian published a devastating
multipart investigative series on Cesar Chavez's
United Farm Workers that portrayed the union as remote from workers,
tiny in numbers and hotbed of Chavez-family
nepotism. The series characterized the union founded by Chavez as
nowadays just one part of a $150 million group of
interlocking nonprofits, including housing, education and
property-management agencies, along with a network of nine
radio stations--together providing comfortable employment for the heirs
of Chavez, who died in 1993, while simultane-
ously organizing and unionizing a scant few farm workers.
"The Californian" reports also detailed how staff salaries rose
six-fold since 1992. And while public contributions,
not union dues, were the primary source of revenue for the farm-worker
movement, expenditures on administration and
staff were far greater than those spent on charitable projects by the
UFW and its allied organizations.
At the same time as the union was claiming 27,000 workers (down from
its historic high of 80,000 in the mid-'70s),
the newspaper could account for only about 5,000 UFW members under
"If you ask me on the record what I think about the "Californian"
series, I will tell you it's all a pack of lies,"
says a veteran farm-worker advocate who still works in alliance with
the UFW. "If you ask me off the record, I will tell you it was
absolutely on target."
Perhaps what's most damning about the "Californian" series is how
little it resonated, how little attention and reaction it drew. The
relative silence didn't reflect so much on the integrity of the
reporting (which was rock-
solid) but instead suggested that the paper was feverishly punching out
a straw man.
Anyone who works among California farm workers, anyone who counts them
in the valley, can easily recite and lament
the sorry decline of the UFW.
"Go out in the fields and ask today's workers what they think of Cesar
Chavez and they will say, 'Oh, you mean Julio Cesar Chavez the boxer,'"
says Don Villarejo, founder of the Institute for Rural Studies. "A
focus on Cesar and his
legacy has much more traction with middle-class liberals than it does
with actual farm workers, many of whom have
just arrived in the U.S."
UFW influence crested in 1975 with passage of the Agricultural Labor
Relations Act, which brought state regulation to
the fields, with the union administering scores of contracts up and
down the valley. For a brief historic period,
farm-worker wages and conditions were visibly and markedly rising.
Within a decade it would all go into reverse. The last time the UFW
actually led a strike was in 1979--26 years ago.
The Republican Deukmejian and Wilson administrations turned state
government away from workers' rights and toward the
growers. "But Cesar must also be assigned part of the responsibilities
here," says Villarejo. "In the early '80s he
abandoned any real notion of organizing and instead poured the union's
resources into politics. And if you don't organize, you will die."
There were other strategic mistakes. The UFW's platinum-level legal
department fell apart when Chavez tried to force
its lawyers to move to the union's remote hillside compound and accept
$5-a-week salaries. The marathon grape boycott
of the 1980s (and '90s) sucked up union resources, and while it
inspired two generations of college students, it failed to obstruct
nonunion grape production.
Chavez's union was also deeply inbred with a native Chicano movement,
U.S.-born Latinos who populated the fields. Until his death, Chavez
opposed illegal immigration, which he saw as little more than an
employer gambit to drive down
wages. But by that time of Chavez's 1993 passing, the world had shifted
under his union's feet. Undocumented immi-
grants who didn't know what the word "Chicano" meant were already the
bulk of field workers.
Writing in the "Nation" magazine on the heels of Chavez's funeral, UFW
sympathizer and leftist chronicler Frank Bardake sharply declared:
"[A]t the time of Cesar Chavez's death, the U.F.W. was not primarily a
tion. It was a fund-raising operation, run out of a deserted
tuberculosis sanitarium in the Tehachapi Mountains, far from the field
of famous Delano, staffed by members of Cesar's extended family and
using as its political capital Cesar's legand and the warm memories of
millions of aging boycotters."
Chavez died a dozen years ago, and the union has, often erratically,
been trying to regroup ever since. Chavez's successor, his son-in-law
Arturo Rodriguez--who still heads the union--has made various stabs at
restarting La Causa.
Ironically, the UFW today has more punch in Sacramento lobbying than it
does in the fields. And the mystique of the
Chavistas still inspires considerable fear and loathing among the
growers and their allies.
On the ground, however, the UFW remains weak. A full-on push to
organize strawberry workers in the late '90s, a drive
supported with the muscle and millions of the AFL-CIO, failed. The
union did have some successes in organizing mush-
room workers. And it has a model contract for the 800 workers of the
Kern County Bear Creek Corp., a major rose pro-
ducer owned by a Japanese pharmaceutical company.
UFW leader Rodriguez also reversed the union's anachronistic position
on immigration. And a few weeks ago, he allied
the UFW with the Change to Win coalition, the dissident unions, some of
which departed the AFL-CIO, wanting to put a
greater emphasis on organizing.
But in 2005, Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers doesn't have a single
contract with a Central Valley table-grape grower.
Villarejo, and other sympathetic observers, put the current, real UFW
membership at about 8,000 to 9,000 members--a tenth of its historic
high. Two other unions, the Teamsters and the Food Workers, together
represent another 7,000
California field workers. All told, a paltry 2 percent or so of
California's field laborers have any union repre-
UFW spokesman Marc Grossman freely admits the obstacles to union
organizing. "The only way you can get recognized is to win an election,
and nowadays that is very difficult. We know in many areas most of the
workers are undocumented,
and that makes it very, very hard. As does labor contracting."
What the union can do, Grossman says, is to "help farm workers through
what we call direct organizing, getting back to the early 1960s days of
the UFW. The old community-service model."
But it remains unclear what leverage can be brought to bear
politically, a shortcoming Grossman identifies, since the
UFW can't inspire and mobilize significant numbers of farm workers.
Even under the Democratic administration of Gray
Davis, the UFW had to stage a march on Sacramento and threaten a hunger
strike on the steps of the state Capitol to get the governor to sign a
bill that imposed labor mediation on recalcitrant growers.
And the UFW has been inordinately lucky under Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger, who has treated the farm-worker issues better than his
two Republican predecessors. He has kept a promise not to tilt the
Agricultural Labor Relations Board
to the right. Last year, Arnold signed a pesticides-drift bill that
enraged the growers, and he signed a regulation
banning hand weeding for which the UFW had long been lobbying. And last
week, after the outrage over the three farm-
worker deaths, Schwarzenegger announced emergency heat-abatement
regulations requiring employers to provide water and
shade for laborers who become sick in the scorching heat.
But in the long term, the viability of the UFW--the union--has to come
down to finding some way to organize. One
strategy is to adopt a model pioneered by the Service Employees
International Union, says UC Davis professor Philip
Martin, who has written two books on California farm labor. "You can
try and get the contractor issue by targeting
your pressure on the ultimate beneficiary of the work that's
performed," he says. And, with some luck, if compre-
hensive immigration reform now being considered is enacted and
significant numbers of agricultural workers are legal-
ized, the balance of forces on the ground might shift.
Some observers argue that the UFW's most significant role at present
is, precisely, to continue its lobbying for immi-
gration reform. As to its historic failures, economist Rick Mines
perhaps provides the most lucid broader context.
"The problems with the conditions of California farm workers are so
much bigger than the problems of the UFW," he says. "A head of lettuce
costs a dollar in the store, and only 3 or 4 cents go to the farm
worker. We could double that to 6 cents, not feel it at all, yet it
would make a huge impact in the lives of the workers. There are only a
few hundred farm-worker union activists, but there are 34 million
Californians. When you see that this society has chosen to have an
entire group of people living in very marginal communities--rife with
alcoholism, domestic violence,
health problemss, and leaving women and children abandoned back in the
sender areas--then you see something that is so
shameful that the problems with the UFW quickly recede."
Two days after the big UFW rally, on the third Sunday in July, there is
yet another protest march in the Arvin area,
again drawing about 300 people. This time it begins at the old
Weedpatch crossroads. Two days, two protests--after
years of relative inactivity. Something is happening here.
At the head of this protest is 75-year-old UFW co-founder Dolores
Huerta. She's not wearing her union hat, however.
This demonstration has been planned for months by the Dolores Huerta
Foundation. It's a relatively new group that
Dolores has set up, recruiting heavily among students and putting its
emphasis on community organizing. It's not
exactly a rival to the UFW, but there can be little doubt it's a
competitor of sorts. At least, that's the way some
UFW people see it. Some folks working directly with Dolores tell me the
UFW march of the previous Friday was hastily
assembled because the union was afraid Dolores' group was getting too
far out in front of them. "We knew if we went ahead with this campaign,
the union would feel it would have to jump in, and that's good," says
one of Huerta's
"Sueldos Justos" is the theme of this protest--Just Wages. Though it's
only 9 in the morning, the sun is already scalding, and Dolores is
sweating profusely as she buzzes around her marching troops. But she
seems elated, doing what she likes to do best. Marching up from
Weedpatch through the somnolent Sunday sidewalks of Lamont, the
blazing, the crowd chanting, Dolores is beaming. "This is what it's
about," she says to me enthusiastically. "It's about community
organizing. It's about house meetings. It's about college kids, it's
about bringing the women together. It's about going back to the way we
used to do things."
It seems that for better or worsde, 40 years later, it's about finding
the strength to start all over again from scratch.