No fruits for their labor

Julia Preston, a New York Times reporter writing from Washington, D.C., describes pears rotting on trees in Lake County, Calif., owing to a lack of farm workers to pick them. Growers tell her 70,000 of the state’s 450,000 farm workers are missing. America’s newspaper of record is being spun by agribusiness, which wants a new bracero program, and complains of a labor shortage to get it.

Two weeks ago, in the olive groves of nearby Tehama County, I saw hardly any fruit on the trees. Rain and cold weather this spring hurt the crop, and workers were leaving to find work elsewhere.

There are always local variations in crops, and the number of workers needed to pick them. But the Times is painting a false picture. I’ve spent eight months traveling through California valleys and I have yet to see rotting fruit. I have seen some pretty miserable conditions for workers, though.

Californians need a reality check about farm labor.

Today more and more agricultural workers migrate from small towns in southern Mexico and even Central America. In the grape rows and citrus trees, you’re as likely to hear Mixtec or Purepecha or Triqui — indigenous languages that predate Columbus — as you are to hear Spanish.

They are making California a richer place, in wealth and culture. For those who love spicy mole sauce, that’s reason to celebrate. Today the Guelaguetza festival showcases Oaxacan dances in Fresno, Santa Maria and San Diego. Families of Triqui weavers create brilliant rebozos, in the off-season winter months when there’s not much work in the fields.

But the wages these families earn are barely enough to survive. As Abe Lincoln said, “labor creates all wealth,” but farm workers get precious little of it. Twenty five years ago, at the height of the influence of the United Farm Workers, union contracts guaranteed almost twice the minimum wage of the time. Today, the hourly wage in almost every farm job is the minimum wage — $6.75 an hour. And taking inflation into account, the minimum is lower today than it was then.

Farm workers are worse off than they’ve been for over two decades, while the supermarket price of fruit has more than doubled.

Low wages have a human cost.

In housing, it means that families live in cramped trailers, or packed like sardines in apartments and garages, with many people sleeping in a single room. Indigenous workers have worse conditions than most, along with workers who travel with the crops. Migrants often live in cars, sometimes even sleeping in the fields or under the trees. Income is too low to rent anything better.

Housing is in crisis in rural California. Over the last half-century, growers demolished the old labor camps for migrant workers. They were never great places to live, but having no place is worse.

I’ve seen children working in fields in northern Mexico, but this year I saw them working here too. When families bring their kids to work, it’s not because they don’t value their education or future. It’s because they can’t make ends meet with the labor of adults alone.

What would make a difference?

Unions would. The UFW pushed wages up decades ago, getting the best standard of living California farm workers ever received. But growers have been implacably hostile to union organizing. And for undocumented workers, joining a union or demanding rights can mean risking not just firing, but deportation.

Enforcing the law would better workers’ lives too. California Rural Legal Assistance does a heroic job inspecting field conditions, and helping workers understand their rights. But that’s an uphill struggle too. Many workers still get paid less than the minimum, are poisoned with pesticides, or work in illegal conditions.

Giving workers real legal status — a green card, or permanent residence visa — would help them organize without risking deportation. Immigrant families need equality, stability and recognition of their important contribution.

But growers don’t want to raise wages to attract labor. Instead, they want to recruit workers outside the country on temporary visas, not permanent ones — a steady supply of people who can work, but can’t stay. This is a repeat of the old, failed bracero program of the 1940s and ’50s.

With a temporary labor program, farm wages will not rise. Instead, farm workers will subsidize agribusiness with low wages, in the name of keeping California agriculture “competitive.” Strikes and unions that raise family income will be regarded as a threat.

We’ve seen this before. During the bracero program, when resident workers struck, growers brought in braceros. And if braceros struck, they were deported. That’s why Cesar Chavez, Ernesto Galarza and Bert Corona finally convinced Congress to end the program in 1964. The UFW’s first grape strike began the year after the bracero law was repealed.

Giving employers a bracero program is a failed idea, one we shouldn’t repeat. Farm labor that can support families is better.

David Bacon is a photographer and reporter who specializes in labor issues. This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted by permission of the author.