The Farm Labor Contractor’s Dilemma
It was on one of the visits I’ve made to the Salinas Valley over the last few years with video students from the Bay Area. The students had come to see for themselves conditions among people who harvest the food, those “invisible” workers most people take for granted. Driving around the valley we came to a strawberry field in sight of the old concrete silos, once part of a giant Spreckles sugar factory. There, the foreman, a bit nervously, I thought, gave us permission to film the harvest crew.
The students were busy filming and photographing the workers harvesting. I stood by the crew’s checker as she cheerfully looked over the trays of picked berries brought to her by the workers and punched the cards pickers carried as a receipt for the work. A pickup truck pulled off the paved street on to the dirt access road that bordered the field and screeched to an abrupt stop. The figure that emerged from the pickup looked imposing as he approached me at a fairly brisk pace. “Oh, here’s the contractor”, said the checker in a tone that was neither alarming nor particularly reassuring. The crew foreman had allowed us into the field, but it wasn’t clear that the contractor, his boss, would be as accommodating. The rapid approach of the contractor’s hefty figure left no time for inquiring and I prepared for a hostile encounter.
The contractor stopped an arm’s length from me. His stern look and coarse features had a menacing aspect to them. Without introduction he said, “If I was walking down a street in New York, d’you think I’d scare people?” “Shit, are you kidding”, I said looking up at his imposing figure, “I think you’d scare Godzilla”. At that he reached a large thick hand towards me, grabbed my shoulder and burst out laughing. He looked at the camcorder in my hand, “Taking pictures of my crew, heh?”
I introduced myself and explained that the students walking among the rows of strawberries, had come to see for themselves how workers harvested their food and to learn about the workers lives and conditions. At that, the contractor’s tone changed abruptly, and he launched into an angry commentary. “I’ll take you and your students around this whole goddamn valley. Then you can see how my people are treated and you can take all the video you want and then I want you to show the world how the people who put food on everyone’s tables are treated by these growers – with less respect than the dirt we’re standing on!”
This caught me short. I hardly expected a labor contractor to talk this way. I assured him that I shared his sentiments and that I be happy to take him up on his offer. “Contact me, and we’ll arrange something”, he said.
A few weeks later in a downtown Salinas coffee shop “Sam”, the contractor, saw me at a table and pulled up a chair, flipped it around and sat his bulky frame across from me. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you but you don’t answer your phone”, I said as I grabbed a beefy hand put out in greeting. “That offer to take the students around to the fields, is that still on?” “Sure” he said. Then he paused and looked at me with his menacing face. I now understood this was his natural look and that his joking about it was just his way of putting strangers at ease.
I was sitting at a laptop and confessed that I was working on a book about the farmworker movement of the 1970s. “I’m working on a chapter about the fields today”, I said, “so I’m interested in learning more”. “Well, you’re studying it”, he said, “so you should have some idea how the conditions are. I’ll tell you what my people in these fields need!” Sam leaned forward for emphasis, “They need another Chavez!” -- a surprising observation from a contractor. My years working in the fields and my contact with farmworkers since lead me think of and to describe labor contractors as the human equivalent of ravenous vultures feasting off the vulnerabilities of unorganized and undocumented workers. “Sam” I said, “you make a living off this setup, and you want to see a union movement challenge that?” Sam looked down for a moment, then back at me. His hands were gripping the back of the chair facing me. He shrugged, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t be shitting in my own bed, eh?”
In the conversation that followed Sam described growing up in one of the Valley’s farming towns south of Salinas. Despite the more comfortable material conditions he enjoyed as labor contractor’s son – his father was a contractor and ran a labor camp -- in the eyes of his white classmates, and society at large, he was “just another Mexican”. In a system of racialized exploitation, which has always been dominant in the fields of California, this was not a complement. Racial oppression is as much a factor in California agriculture as it was in the plantation system of the old South, and for the same essential reasons – it is the ideological glue that holds this form of extreme exploitation of labor together. Even those who are part of exploitative apparatus, cannot escape its social consequences. So Sam’s resentment had stayed with him as the conditions – the production relations, if you will -- that give rise and constantly reinforce this chauvinist attitude continue to pervade the fields and the society surrounding them. And it was clear Sam understood this quite well, even if he chose not to think about all its implications.
After our conversation I pressed Sam on his offer for the tour of the fields. He took down my number again. He assured me that he’d be attentive and be sure to answer my call. But it never happened.
Sam, and perhaps others like him, notwithstanding, labor contractors are an odious lot, deservedly despised by farm workers -- petty tyrants who live off the crumbs of exploitation. This is not a personal condemnation – I actually liked Sam personally -- but a social one. The contractors are the creation of the growers. Many were set up in business by the same growers who use their services. They are the modern incarnation of the plantation overseers serving the slave masters – in this case managers of modern global systems of production like those that command the fruit and vegetable industry in California. Contractor control over hiring and firing is the source of many abuses, including the very widespread sexual abuse of women farmworkers.
The contractor’s dilemma is full of irony. In the 1970s Salinas was ground zero for the powerful farmworker union movement in that era. Nowhere had the movement gained more ground, given rise to more powerful struggle, or produced more able rank and file union leaders than in the fields of Salinas. It put corporate agriculture, and, along with it, the labor contractor system, on the defensive. But by the early 1980s the growers, aided by divisions in the union, managed to crush the movement and dismantle what had taken 20 years of tenacious struggle to build.
Conditions in the fields quickly declined. Wages stagnated and benefits evaporated even while prices of things that workers needed to live, like housing and health care, shot skyward. The growers sought more than just revenge for the years of resistance that had forced them to make concessions on wages, benefits and working conditions; they used the moment to hammer into place a labor system to ensure against future resistance. They black listed, drove out or in some cases, coopted formerly active workers. They tore down the labor camps that had served as focal points of resistance. They dispersed the pick up spots that had aided organization. And they promoted a re-invigorated labor contractor system. Labor contractors largely replaced the established agriculture companies as employers of record relieving growers of the onus of declining conditions. Farmworkers working for the same grower were now separated into smaller, isolated work units. Competition among contractors has become so intense that the cheating on wages, social security payments and overtime hours has become, not just a perk of the contractor’s job, but a necessary condition for their survival. And so, for example, overtime pay (after 60 hours a week in the fields) which farmworkers gained in the mid-1970s as a victory of their movement, is, in the words of one veteran worker, just an “unsubstantiated rumor”.
In the mid 1980’s growers made good use of the Simpson – Rodino “amnesty” by pushing through a Special Agriculture Workers provision of immigration reform that flooded the fields with hundreds of thousands of new workers providing growers the leverage to ratchet down conditions.
These were a prelude to the changes that have reshaped the “factory farms” since the 1990’s brought on by a consolidation of giant monopoly retailers like Walmart, Krogers, Costco, and Safeway. As their marketing clout has grown -- between them they control more than 50% of grocery sales -- they have used their power to dictate prices and reshape the vegetable and fruit industry. In the 1990’s iceberg lettuce, once the unrivaled king of the vegetable industry, was pulled from its throne by leafy varieties as prepackaged lettuce and other vegetables, which require large capital investments, began to take hold of the market. Suppliers of vegetables have had to consolidate to generate the capital needed for new machinery and packaging facilities and to survive on ever-slimmer margins dictated by giant retailers. Out of this situation a few packer/shipper companies like Chiquita, Dole and Taylor Farms have emerged as powerhouses, threatening or driving out the small and even medium sized growers who lack the capital to compete.
The passage of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the rise of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the 1990’s eased the way for imports of cheaper vegetables and fruit from lower wage countries. According to Wenonah Hauter’s Foodopoly, by the early 2000s the U.S. was importing tens of billions of dollars of fruits and vegetables from scores of countries, and not only in the winter months. Imported fruits and vegetables tripled from 1993 to 2007, surpassing U.S. grown produce. An increasing portion of these imports are from U.S. affiliates. Expanded industrial scale vegetable and fruit production drives peasants fromtheir lands. Displaced farmers from Mexico and Central America risk their lives to join the army of farmworkers in U.S. fields for the survival of themselves and their families. In California the percentage of farmworkers deprived of documents is estimated to be about 85%. This includes highly exploited indigenous farmworkers from Oaxaca who are increasingly the backbone of the entire California fruit and vegetable industry.
Now farmworkers on U.S. farms are thrown into competition with their poorer paid brethren in other countries. The results are ever more precarious living conditions and health robbing working conditions. Unrelenting speedup on field machines wreaks havoc on workers’ bodies and psyches and has lead to death in some cases. Hourly workers in the vegetable fields today are pushed to work at a pace that was more typical of piece rate work in years passed.
Meanwhile farmworker families live in ever more crowded conditions. Salinas farmworker neighborhoods today are among the most densely populated places in the country. People studying the matter have linked overcrowded living conditions with the steady rise of youth violence.
It is misery at one pole, yielding wealth on the other. For retail giants like Walmart, Krogers and Target farm produce comprises 10% to 12% of these store sales and an amazing 17% of their net profits!
From 2009 to 2011 I spent time in places from Salinas to Calexico talking with farmworkers and hearing their stories. I found intense and harsh conditions, and a lot of anger and resistance. There’s a great need for much more. Support from a politically awakened population in the 1960s was critical to the movement that surged out of the fields, as it would be for such a movement today. Such a combination is certainly possible again. We’ve seen shades of this in the Immokalee tomato workers’ struggle in Florida. Any such movements of resistance in this era need to keep clear sight on the true source of misery--a global system of capitalist exploitation that stands in the way of realizing justice and human potential. There is absolutely no reason why those who produce the food that feeds nations and the world, should themselves be hungry and poor, except an antiquated social system based on ever more destructive and out of control competition, consolidation and exploitation. It is a powerful system, to be sure, backed by the repressive powers of the state. But a system so odious that even its benefactors and overseers are scandalized and repulsed by it, cannot be said to be invulnerable.