From TheCalifornian.com, “Editorial: Lettuce strike a mixed bag of changes,” 26 Mar 2011.
Farmworkers Remain Pawns in a Political Tug-of-War
Salinas has been a witness — and participant — to much of farm labor history, especially the strikes and protests of the 1970s. On Page 1A today, The Californian revisits the end of the lettuce strike of 1970-71 and the changes it spawned. It was March 26, 1971, when, after eight months of a bitter and violent turf war, the United Farm Workers union sat down with the United Brotherhood of Teamsters and signed an agreement allowing the UFW to organize farm laborers. That ended a boycott against non-union lettuce and the biggest farm labor strike in U.S. history.
The truce resulted in UFW contracts with Salinas Valley lettuce growers and a decade of growth and power for the farm labor movement. Elected officials and then-new Gov. Jerry Brown gave impetus to UFW organizing efforts by enacting the Agriculture Labor Relations Act. The ALRA created the Agriculture Labor Relations Board to enforce the law. However, in the 1980s, the union’s political influence would begin to fade as conservative leaders such as Gov. George Deukmejian stacked the ALRB with pro-industry members and gutted the agency’s budget. At the same time, the proliferation of farm labor contractors used by growers to supply workers cut into the union’s influence.
Throughout the decade and into the 1990s, both the UFW and the ag industry would take their battles out of the fields and into the courtrooms in their zeal for ultimate control of the workers and their labor. Both the unions and the ag industry deserve credit and condemnation for how the living and working conditions of farm workers simultaneously have changed and stagnated in the past 40 years.
As Mike Antle, vice president of Tanimura & Antle observed: “A lot of good came about because of the strikes. … Wages were very depressed; there wasn’t sanitation facilities in the fields, and the people were being treated very poorly.”
Of course, a lot of that has changed. The farmworkers got their very own set of labor laws, working conditions improved with company-provided buses, portable toilets and drinking water; wages increased, pesticide regulation was strengthened.
The UFW introduced health insurance coverage and continued its consumer education campaigns to bring public awareness to the plight of farmworkers. As a result, farmworker issues in health and education were added to the research agendas of universities and think tanks.
Yet even with these advancements and safeguards in place, the farmworker remains a pawn in a political tug-of-war.
Shamefully, little has changed economically for farm workers. They remain at the bottom rung of the American economic ladder, earning on average a measly $11,000 a year, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures for 2010. Their education levels seldom reach a high school graduation.
Meanwhile, the plight of American farmworkers is compounded by the influx of undocumented workers, primarily from Mexico and Central America; workers “in the shadows,” who are easily exploited, willing to work for the lowest of wages and, the unions would say, nearly impossible to organize.
Those of us who share the Salinas Valley with farm workers know well their contributions and complications. If a rising tide lifts all boats, what can be done to lift prosperity for farmworkers? What are we willing to do to help improve their quality of life and, by extension, ours?
A study out of the University of California, Davis, poses a fascinating “what if.” Philip L. Martin, professor of agricultural economics, has shown that even a dramatic increase in ag labor costs would have only a modest impact on the average American household budget. He took the average amount — $322 — spent by the American family on fresh fruits and vegetables in 2000 and applied it to his analysis of the ag industry that year. He concluded that if the produce industry were to raise the wages of farmworkers by 40 percent, even passing on the total cost to consumers, it would raise a family’s budget by $8 to $330. Imagine: $8 more per year per American household to boost the wages of some 2 million farmworkers in the US.
UFW founder and legendary leader Cesar Chavez used to tell workers that the strike wasn’t about wages or benefits. He said it was about respect. When they finally respect you, he said, that’s when real change comes.
Forty years after the Salinas Valley lettuce strike, if their wages are any kind of indicator, farm workers still haven’t gained the respect they seek and deserve.