David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Twenty-Two Years is Too Long to Wait
by David Bacon

SALINAS, CA (10/5/98) -- Twenty-eight years ago, at the end of the great Salinas lettuce strike of 1970, virtually all the valley's largest vegetable growers signed contracts with the United Farm Workers. Among them was the D'Arrigo Brothers produce company. For two years, its workers had a union contract, with a hiring hall, medical benefits, and wages which set a new standard for agricultural labor.

Then, in 1972, D'Arrigo and other growers refused to renegotiate those agreements. Four years later, in 1976, hoping to regain what they had lost, the company's workers voted for the UFW in one of the first representation elections held under the newly-passed Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

The union met with D'Arrigo's owners over and over again in the following years. Workers wore union buttons in the fields. They marched through Salinas' streets to the D'Arrigo offices to back up their negotiators. But the law betrayed them. While it says companies have the obligation to bargain when workers vote the union in, D'Arrigo was never willing to reach agreement.

This summer, in late July, the company added the final straw -- it brought in machines. Workers cutting lettuce and rapini, who had previously worked at their own pace, found themselves instead following a conveyor belt through the fields at a speed set by the machine's driver. To make matters worse, the company cut ten cents from the piecerate, using the money to pay the driver's wages.

Nick Pascouli, D'Arrigo's media spokesperson, says the wages for rapini harvesters run between $8.81 and $15.23 an hour. But according to one experienced rapini worker, "I used to be able to make $60 on a good day, and now I make less."

"We finally just came to the end of our patience," says Efrain Lara, another rapini cutter who heads the union committee. "Twenty-two years is too long to wait anyway. But cutting our wages -- that was even more serious."

On August 5, Lara and his coworkers walked out on strike.

For the next four weeks, picketers congregated early every morning on the dirt roads leading deep into the vegetable fields south of Salinas, trying to keep the company from bringing in workers to harvest its perishable crops. UFW organizers and activists appealed directly to them every morning -- as they were being brought in and even once they had gone into the rows to start work.

On one morning a week into the strike, just before dawn, groups of picketers stopped the busses as they arrived at the entrance to the fields. Other strikers opened the emergency doors at the rear of the vehicles. Cries of "Unanse! -- Come out with us!" filled the semidarkness, as union supporters called to the workers on board, appealing to them to join the strike.

Some of them did, climbing out with their lunchbags. Others stayed in their seats, squirming uncomfortably, trying not to look out of the window at the strikers below.

Monterey County sheriffs deputies arrived, forcing the picketers to let the busses through. The strikers then formed a line at the end of the road, calling out to the strikebreakers with bullhorns. Meanwhile, a few union organizers followed the crews to the field, and continued the conversation. After an hour, UFW organizer Jesus Corona, holding his red-and-black flag aloft, marched out of the field to the picketline, followed by a trail of workers who had decided not to break the strike.

Of the sixty workers originally on the two busses, only a handful were left working.

"It was kind of hard this morning, and it took a long time to convince them," Corona later explained, "but we do this every day. And the workers usually support us, once they really think about what we're fighting for. They can see that the strike will benefit everyone."

"Every day we go visit D'Arrigo workers at home, to ask them to join us," says UFW vice-president Efren Barajas, "We find family after family living in garages, all over the valley. And they work all day for this company, every day. What does it say about the wages here, where you find people living in garages? It says we don't earn enough to even rent a real place to live."

Corona, Lara, Barajas and the other strike activists have had a lot of success in stopping D'Arrigo crews because the union has been a visible, active presence in the company for all the years since the original contract was signed in 1970. "We've had work stoppages before, when the company did things we didn't like," Lara explains. "In 1986, for instance, when they cut the hourly guarantee from $7.05 to $6.00, we tried to fight that. We always had a committee here to negotiate with the company, and we always fought with them to try to keep our benefits. What's different now is that we've decided to strike until we get our contract."

D'Arrigo Brothers, the U.S.' second-largest vegetable producer, employs 900-1000 people in the Salinas Valley during this season. About 600 of them left work during the strike, according to the union. After striking for three weeks, however, David D'Arrigo, one of the company's owners, was killed suddenly in a Salinas car accident on August 24. The union, which had renewed discussions with the company during the work stoppage, decided to suspend the strike as a gesture to the family. All the strikers returned to their jobs under a back-to-work accord between the union committee and D'Arrigo Brothers.

Barajas says the company's attitude softened as a result of the strike. Negotiations resumed on September 23, and "for the first time, it seemed like the company was there to actually bargain with us, instead of looking for a pretext to break it off," he noted.

"We will continue to review and discuss the union's proposed contract," says Pascouli. "The company requires time to thoroughly analyze the UFW's proposal and develop our own counter proposal." D'Arrigo did finally present that counterproposal to the union on September 23, and another bargaining session is set for October 7.

Meanwhile, D'Arrigo workers continue to maintain pressure on the company at work. The UFW's recent national convention in Fresno was highlighted by their demonstration demanding progress in bargaining. Two years ago, the UFW signed an agreement with Bruce Church, formerly the world's largest lettuce grower, after more than two decades of similarly bitter battles. If the UFW signs D'Arrigo as well, it would again become a major economic force in the vegetable industry, as it was in the years following the 1970 Salinas lettuce strike.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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