David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Farmworkers
Class War in the Tomatoes and Roses
by David Bacon

SACRAMENTO (5/1/95) - Twenty years ago, Sacramento was surrounded by a sea of red flags and black eagles. In the capitol's ornate chambers the legislature debated the historic bill which finally gave farmworkers the same union rights federal law grants almost all other U.S. working people. Outside the city, wave after wave of strikes and picketlines rolled through the tomato fields. It wasn't hard for most Assembly and Senate members to see the alternative to giving farmworkers the right to vote for a union - it was right before their eyes.

The 1975 tomato strike involved all the classic elements of the titanic agricultural labor struggles which have shaped California history. Desperately poor men and women, and often their children, surrounded the tomato fields, singing and calling out to those working inside to lay down their tools and leave. Sheriffs and police patrolled in force, escorting strikebreakers through the lines. Even the Posse Comitatus, a resurrected version of the old Associated Farmers, threatened to make armed vigilante reprisals against the strikers.

It was class war.

Last year it almost seemed that those old days were on their way back. Once again, tomato workers marched through the streets of Stockton with their red and black flags. Organizers were out in the fields talking to the crews every day. The effort by tomato pickers to organize a union had taken twenty years, and it still wasn't over. The season ended without a contract once again, but workers and their organization, the United Farm Workers, vow they'll be back again this year.

UFW Vice-president Dolores Huerta, originally from Stockton herself, returned to organize both the strikes and elections of 1989, and the effort to get the companies to sign contracts last year. Huerta, together with Cesar Chavez, were founders of the modern farmworkers movement. Even before the great grape strike of 1965, they spent two years going from house to house through the San Joaquin Valley, from labor camp to labor camp. While workers washed off the dust and pesticides of a day's labor in the fields, Chavez and Huerta talked union.

Today, when she walks into a Mexican cafe in any small farm town, from Yuba City to El Centro, she has long since lost the comfort of anonymity. People recognize her. The older ones often walked picketlines with her in one of the innumerable strikes which have swept California valleys. Huerta is the union's most experienced negotiator. She says she enjoys confronting growers, forcing them to talk directly to farmworkers as equals, across a bargaining table.

But when growers are like those in the tomatoes, who are among the state's largest farmers and also among the most resistant to unions, bargaining can be difficult. Huerta recounts her conversation with one of them: "The companies were pretty impervious to pressure. I spoke to the owner of Triple E Tomato, Mr. Sorum. I told him that we had all these violations and complaints. He told me, 'Look, I'm not a virgin. You can hit me with whatever you want.' To them any penalties are just peanuts, because they make so much money, and every day they're robbing workers."

According to Huerta, farmworkers in the tomato fields were systematically cheated when they brought a full bucket of picked tomatoes to the crew foremen. "Some tomatoes they call 'cat's faces.' They're not rotten or anything. They're just ugly-looking tomatoes. The company would throw these tomatoes out of the bucket, and keep the rest. But they wouldn't pay the workers for the whole bucket. And they would do this every single day to every single worker."

The UFW also alleges that tomato companies paid wages below the legal minimum of $4.25 per hour to many workers. A video filmed by the union shows children working in the fields as well, in apparent violation of state child labor laws. An investigation by the state labor commissioner bore out many of these complaints.

The duration of the effort to get a union contract in the tomatoes highlights the achievements of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 1975, but shows up its flaws as well. Despite passage of the act in the mid-70s, tomato workers didn't organize a union for some time afterwards. Then, in 1989, declining wages and conditions for farmworkers across the state generally led to an upsurge in the tomato fields. Workers organized strikes, and filed petitions for union elections at some of the largest companies, including Triple E and Ace Tomato. In strike situations, the law allows elections to be held quickly, within seven days. The anger and upsurge led to huge majorities voting for the union.

But after the voting was over, the legal machinery effectively ground to a halt. Before the union could sit down and bargain with the growers, it had to have the elections certified by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Under pressure from the lawfirm of Littler, Mendelssohn, Fastiff and Tichy, a well-known anti-union firm hired by the growers to challenge the election results, the Board held a lengthy series of hearings. A decision by the hearing officer favored the union, and the Board ultimately granted the certification. But then the companies appealed to the courts. They were finally ordered to begin bargaining in 1994, five years after the elections.

"It had been many years since workers voted for the union, from 89 to 94," Huerta recalls, "so basically we had to reorganize from scratch. We were very hopeful at the beginning, because the tomato companies seemed to be agreeing to all of our language. But just when it seemed we were going to reach agreement, they threw in two proposals. One said that if we signed a contract with lesser terms with any other company, we would have to pay penalties - real money - to these tomato growers. The other was a wage proposal which would lower the wages of the workers. They would actually make less money than they were making when they voted for the union."

At that point negotiations broke down, and the demonstrations started.

Huerta and other UFW leaders credit the union's monthlong march from Delano to Sacramento last spring with creating the pressure which finally got the Board to move in the case of the tomato companies. In the months which followed the arrival of the peregrinos (those who marched the whole length of the pilgrimage, or peregrinacion, to Sacramento) the union received the certification to negotiate with a number of companies. Most of those cases had been stuck at the ALRB for months, and even years.

Breaking loose cases stalled before the Board was only one purpose of the march, which started from Delano on March 31, the birthday of the UFW's founder, Cesar Chavez, and ended in Sacramento April 24, on the first anniversary of his death. As the long trail of Chavistas with their red and black flags wound through the fields and small valley towns along route 99, workers were its main audience. According to the union, they signed union authorization cards at the rate of 500 a day.

Passing through Stockton and Lodi, the march grew from a couple of hundred participants to 5000 as it approached Sacramento. It finally became a sea of fifteen thousand people as it reached the state capitol on the last morning. And although supporters arrived by the busload from cities in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, it was overwhelmingly a march made up of farmworkers themselves.

A year after the death of Chavez, the union needed to win their support, and drew on the powerful symbolism of the UFW's history to accomplish it. The march itself repeated one of the seminal events which won the union national recognition in its earliest days. In a mass before starting the walk, the new UFW president, Arturo Rodriguez, along with Huerta, washed the feet of twelve of the union's founders, workers who made the original peregrinacion in 1966. Paying respect to these older workers was not just an emotionally moving tribute. It was an important step for Rodriguez and Huerta in demonstrating the continuity of their leadership with that of Cesar Chavez, at a time when the union had to change in order to survive.

Huerta emphasizes that the union is returning to its roots. "We have to go back to the tactics we were using when we first built the union, in the sixties and seventies," she says. Huerta, Rodriguez, and other UFW organizers are introducing that history to a new generation in California fields, where a majority of workers are so young that they were only small children when the formative battles of the union were fought.

Workers are not only young now, they are drawn more from Mexico's indigenous population. Workers of the generation of Chavez and Huerta came from the states of central Mexico, especially Michoacan and Jalisco, where the colonial European legacy is strong. Farmworkers now immigrate from southern Mexico - Oaxaca, and even Chiapas. Workers from these regions often don't speak Spanish, using only their indigenous language. Recognizing this shift in demographics, the UFW two years ago signed an agreement with the Mixtec/Zapotec Binational Front, an organization of indigenous immigrants from Oaxaca. Each organization recognizes the legitimacy of the other, and its right to represent its members.

Despite changing demographics in the fields, however, farmworkers continue to suffer the same economic pressure. Old or young, veterans or novices, Oaxacans or Jaliscenses, everyone has to pay the bills with the same wages.

In the first fifteen years of its existence, from 1965 to 1980, the union raised the minimum wage for field work in California from $1.25 to about $5.50 per hour. When Filipino workers walked out of the rows of table grapes in Delano, and started the first great grape strike in 1965, they were fighting for a 15 raise - from $1.25 to $1.40 an hour. Farmworkers had no law at all which gave them union bargaining rights. Although the rest of America's workers won those rights in 1936, the National Labor Relations Act excluded farmworkers. Instead, they learned to organize on the ground, in a grassroots style which many unions have emulated since.

From that first Delano grape strike, UFW members watched in anger as growers brought in crews of strikebreakers to take their jobs. An oversupply of farm labor in California has ensured a virtual army of hungry, unemployed workers ready to take the jobs of strikers.

When local labor was insufficient, growers often brought strikebreakers across the border with little or no interference from the Border Patrol. During the lemon strike in Yuma, Arizona, in 1974, trucks hauling strikebreakers roared up through the Sonora desert every night, and crossed the border freely into Arizona. Many UFW veterans still remember the tent camps the union erected along the border in a futile attempt to stop the trucks. When the strikebreakers were brought to the fields, the local police and sheriffs broke through the picketlines so that they could go to work.

The UFW is a unique union in part because so many of its members, the overwhelming majority, are immigrants from Mexico. Strikes in the fields pitted immigrant against immigrant, legal residents against the undocumented, and often the undocumented against themselves.

Non-violence is a basic principle of the UFW because violence in the fields was always an immediate possibility under such circumstances. In the second grape strike in 1973, after growers signed contracts with the Teamsters Union and tore up their UFW agreements, Nagi Daifullah and Juan de la Cruz were shot and killed as they walked on UFW picketlines in the Central Valley. Rufino Contreras lost his life to a bullet picketing a lettuce field in the Imperial Valley in 1979. Beatings were common.

The first national boycotts of grapes and lettuce became the great equalizers. Farmworkers crossed the enormous gulf between fields and cities, and appealed to the general public to stop growers from selling their products when strikes couldn't halt the harvests. The model they developed of the community/union alliance is today the bedrock of progressive tactics among union activists across the country. Together, the strikes and boycotts gave the United Farm Workers its character as a social movement.

The passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 was a tribute to its power. After ten years of class war in fields and supermarkets, growers and legislators decided to recognize legally, for the first time, the right of farmworkers to organize unions.

But farmworkers also discovered that the law was a weak protection compared to union strength on the ground. Although tens of thousands of farmworkers voted for the union in hundreds of elections, the law had no teeth to force the negotiation of contracts. In 1982, state administrations changed. After accepting huge campaign contributions from agricultural interests, first Governor George Deukmejian, and then Pete Wilson, put growers in charge of enforcing the law. They began refusing to renegotiate union contracts in the early 1980s, and wages started to drop.

Between 1982 and 1994, the field labor wage in California didn't rise at all, and in many areas, it fell below the minimum wage. Taking inflation into account, the current wage rate is close to the level it was when the farmworkers' struggle began. Labor contractors, who assemble crews of workers, and then sell their labor to growers, returned to the fields after being virtually eliminated under UFW contracts. By the late 1980s and early 90s, things had gotten so bad for farmworkers that they began to organize spontaneous work stoppages. The 1989 strike in the tomatoes was just one of many. In 1992, 4000 grape workers in the Coachella Valley struck, and won their first general wage increase in a decade - 40 an hour.

When the UFW marched last year from Delano to Sacramento, it was making a bid to lead these burgeoning efforts by workers to redress their economic grievances. In the year that has passed since, the union has won eight elections to represent farmworkers, and negotiated or renegotiated 21 contracts covering 3700 workers.

The most important of those campaigns unfolded last year at the world's largest rose grower, Bear Creek, whose fields have supplied flowers to California cities for 127 years. Workers like Daniel Sanchez, who helped bring his coworkers into the union, had their wages frozen in 1992, when the company told its employees that it was experiencing an economic crisis. Many of the workers were frozen at the base rate of $5.65 an hour. Sanchez was making $7.80, after 16 years at Bear Creek.

"As time passed, we began to see things," Sanchez recalls. "Many people were still making the beginning wage, even though they had been with the company for years. We began to see the foremen hire in their friends at a higher wage. We asked ourselves, what's happening here? We were still all frozen."

Bear Creek was bought out by Yamanouchi Corp. a year ago. Yamanouchi is a Japanese pharmaceutical firm which also distributes Shaklee products and over-the-counter medicine like Maalox. Yamanouchi in turn instituted an incentive program to increase productivity. "It was just a way to rob workers," according to Sanchez. "A worker who would make normally $60 in a day, for instance, would find his pay was only $50 when he got his check. When he would ask, the company would tell him it was because he was making so many mistakes. I think the company was using this system as a way to force the older workers, those with most seniority, to leave. They were eliminating older workers the way they throw away old tools."

Bear Creek workers went to the union, as they had on many other occasions over the last two decades. In fact, workers at the company had earned a reputation at the UFW Delano field office for talking union whenever they wanted to scare the boss into giving them a raise, but stopping their union activity as soon as they got one. That made union organizers a little leery about marching out to the rose fields and starting another campaign right away. Instead, veteran organizer Lupe Martinez told the workers that if they were serious, they had to organize their own committees, and sign actual union membership cards.

This tactic marks a return to organizing methods the UFW used in its earliest years, when there were no contracts or elections. In the mid-1960s, the union asked workers to pay $3.50 per month, and offered a burial plan as its main benefit. Farmworkers in that era were so poor that often families had no money to bury their dead. Four years ago, the union instituted an associate membership plan, which harks back to that period. Associate membership allows workers to actually join the union and pay minimal dues, in companies where there is no union contract. They qualify for a stripped-down medical plan, and other union services.

"We're trying to improve the benefits for workers under this program, so we can expand our membership base," Huerta explains. "Last year we got over 10,000 new members this way all over the state."

But getting benefits isn't really the point. Associate membership means that the workers can begin organizing themselves and acting like a union long before they win a formal, written agreement with their boss. That's what the workers did at Bear Creek last fall. By the time the company became aware that workers were organizing a union, workers had set up committees in every crew. "The company expected the union to organize the old way," Sanchez explains. "They thought they'd see organizers come out to the fields with union flags. They didn't realize the flags were already flying inside the company."

The union finally filed a petition for an election, and won it in December with the support of a large majority of the company's 1400 workers. To the union's surprise, Bear Creek decided not to mount a legal challenge to the election results, and instead began negotiating a contract shortly afterwards. That contract was signed in Los Angeles on March 17. It gives workers the first wage raises they've had in three years, and medical insurance for the first time. Sanchez, who has two sons and whose wife is expecting another child, was disqualified from Medi-Cal in December "because they said I earned too much." For him, the contract comes just in time.

Another reason given by Sanchez for the success of the union drive at Bear Creek was worker anger over Proposition 187. When the UFW began organizing marches to protest 187 in small valley towns throughout the state, Sanchez and some of his coworkers decided to participate. "We just got angry at the injustice of it. That helped make us strong enough to organize," he declares.

For the United Farm Workers, Proposition 187 presented an age-old problem. On the one hand, its prohibition of schooling and medical care to undocumented immigrants probably affects a larger percentage of its members than any other union in California. On the other hand, few of the union's members can vote, because they are not citizens.

Over the years, the UFW has been uniquely vulnerable to politics in Sacramento, and to the sentiment of the state's voters. Riding the crest of the civil rights movement, and broad support for issues of social justice during the sixties and seventies, the union itself tried to pass initiatives to strengthen the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and to defeat others which threatened workers' rights. But the current wave of anti-immigrant hysteria, sponsored by a governor who has been the union's enemy at every turn, is one of the greatest threats the union has had to face in its 30-year history.

According to Huerta, "in every single town where we have a union office we organized a march. In Stockton, for instance, the march involved all these tomato workers who were also fighting for a contract. Over a thousand workers went into the streets in Stockton against 187." In midsummer, the union assigned half its staff to campaign against the proposition, and by November, the whole staff was working on the campaign.

"We gave it all we had," Huerta says. "Even though immigrants can't vote, they can go out and knock on doors and talk to people who can. We know that the big problem among people who are eligible is that they just don't vote. In Los Angeles, in some areas we got 100% higher voter turnout than the previous election. In all the places we worked, it was never less than 20% higher, and mostly it was 60 to 90%." The activity had a big impact on the union's own members as well. Enrollment in citizenship classes has doubled since the election, a phenomenon reported in Latino communities around the state.

When the union negotiated the new contract at Bear Creek, it made sure to include a provision which allows up to sixty farmworkers to take time off to participate in union activity, including political campaigns like the one opposing 187. The company also agreed to contribute a full day's pay for each worker, called the Citizens Participation Day, into the union's political fund.

But the election also left the union feeling unsure and vulnerable in relation to the Democratic Party itself. For an organization with as long a history of involvement with the Party as the UFW, this is also a very threatening new phenomena. Like other voices in the Latino community in California, Huerta is very critical of Democratic candidates who offered weak opposition to 187, or no opposition at all. She points out that in the San Joaquin Valley, Democratic candidates who supported 187 were not reelected. "Why vote for a fake Republican if you can get a real one?" she asks.

Efforts since the election to move from attacks on immigrants to attacks on affirmative action worry her even more. "I think that the Democratic Party is in a tremendous dilemma," she says. "187 and the anti-affirmative action proposals are direct broadside attacks against it. They're chopping up the party. You peel away the Latinos with 187. Then you go after affirmative action and peel away the rest of the minorities. First you go after the undocumented. Then you propose to take public assistance away from legal immigrants. You knock off the women and the people of color, and what do you have left? You've got the liberals, which you know is not the vast majority of the population."

It's a difficult climate for the union to survive, but it already has a decade of experience living through hostile Republican administrations in both Sacramento and Washington. "They say in Spanish that every bad thing has something good that comes out of it," Huerta concludes. "We are, of course, very worried about what's going on. We know that we're going to be under attack by Republicans, as we were in the past, and that a lot of Democrats are going to chicken out. But the good thing that comes out of this is that it forces people to organize.

"It's making labor realize it has to do more. The Latino community is going to continue to fight against 187. Women are organizing a march on Washington. People are going to come together, and fight together. With a lot of unity, and a lot of militancy, hopefully we can stem the tide.

Meanwhile, Huerta is unsure about the Democratic Party's future. "I hope it survives," she says. If not, "maybe we'll have to have a new party, right?"

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