CIRS Blog about Rural California
Gail Wadsworth is the executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies.
By Gail Wadsworth and Elizabeth Henderson
The goal of fair labor standards is to achieve decent and humane working conditions for all employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law which establishes minimum wage, overtime pay eligibility, recordkeeping, and child labor standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in federal, state, and local governments. Agriculture in the U.S. is exempt from several of the FSLA requirements, such as overtime pay and child labor laws.
Many consumers are not aware of these legal exemptions but are aware of poor working conditions for workers on farms. Several organizations are working within the U.S. to improve standards on farms for laborers.
The Fair World Project recently examined some of the key challenges facing farmworkers and analyzed seven of the eco-social certifications that appear on our food. They found two programs with strong standards and good enforcement to help ensure workers are well treated: the Fair Food Program and the Agricultural Justice Project.
Only one of these recommended certifiers actively operates in California, the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). We recently contacted AJP to get some questions answered for consumers in California who are interested in eco-social justice certification.
Consumers in the United States are especially fortunate to have access to fresh food at all times of the year. In our supermarket produce aisles it’s hard to tell what season it is when fresh fruits and vegetables are available all the time. We can be thankful for this abundance and especially in California where we have a year-round growing season. But hidden in the abundance of produce on the shelves is a darker story of food chain workers who struggle to eat the foods they grow and package.
Food Equity along the Chain
Equity is an essential characteristic of a healthy food system. Access to healthy, fresh, sustainably grown food is a basic human right. Ironically, this right is often denied to workers who are directly engaged (frontline workers) along the food chain.
The Food Chain Workers Alliance recently updated their report “The Hands that Feed Us” from 2012 with the new report, “No Piece of the Pie.” The report is full of sobering data. The food industry, employing 21.5 million people is the single largest employment sector in the US. And, despite steady growth of the sector, wages for workers have only risen twenty cents an hour in the last four years. As a result, food workers are increasingly turning to food assistance programs, like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Access Program also known as Food Stamps) to help feed themselves and their families. Median wages for front line food workers are $16,000 while industry CEOs have a salary of $120,000.
- Despite employment growth, the food chain pays the lowest hourly median wage to frontline workers compared to workers in all other industries.
- The annual median wage for food chain workers is $16,000 and the hourly median wage is $10, well below the median wages across all industries of $36,468 and $17.53.
- Food chain workers rely on public assistance and are more food insecure than other workers. Thirteen percent of all food workers, nearly 2.8 million workers, relied on SNAP to feed their household in 2016.
- This was 2.2 times the rate of all other industries, a much higher rate than in 2010 when food workers had to use food stamps at 1.8 times the rate of all other industries.
- Food insecurity in households supported by a food chain worker rose to 4.6 million during the Great Recession ("No Piece of the Pie," Executive Summary, Pages 1-2)
In 1938 the federal government passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA). This act guarantees most workers a minimum wage and overtime pay—requiring time and a half over 40 hours in a work week. It also requires employers to keep records of payroll receipts. (Among FLSA's many provisions were those allowing child labor in agriculture. In addition, it created the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor to enforce all provisions of the law. Additionally, all other federal laws governing benefits to workers (Social Security, unemployment insurance, etc.) also excluded agricultural workers, but later were amended to include some agricultural workers. Women were also excluded from protections under the law because they were employed part-time or seasonally and were not considered part of the workforce.)
Farmworkers were excluded from minimum wage under the FLSA until 1966 at which time the federal minimum wage and record keeping were applied to farmworkers as well as all other members of the work force. Now even farmworkers paid by the piece are entitled to the minimum wage. But overtime provisions are not applicable to farmworkers and farms with a very small work force (11 or fewer) are exempt from minimum wage and all other provisions of the FSLA. The large majority of farms that hire farm labor directly have fewer than 10 employees (just 40,661 out of 566,469 farms have more than 10). In fact, 46 percent of all hired farm labor jobs are exempt from the FSLA.
Four states in the U.S. have enacted more progressive overtime policies for farmworkers than the FLSA. California has the largest agricultural economy in the U.S. All farm employers are required to abide by minimum wage laws in the state. Additionally, farmworkers are paid overtime after 10 hours in one day or 60 hours in a week. Minnesota pays overtime for farmworkers who are paid hourly after 48 hours in a week. Hawaii pays overtime for farmworkers after 40 hours in a work week but allows employers to select up to 20 weeks a year for which they do not have to pay overtime until 48 hours in a week is accumulated. And finally, Colorado includes farm labor in all labor laws including overtime pay after 40 hours in a week.
In 2016, New York, Oregon and California passed new minimum wage laws with the goal of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in a step wise manner over a number of years. All three laws have a differential standard for raising the wage. New York and Oregon schedule wage increases regionally while California’s is based on business size.
New York, Oregon and California—Comparison of new wage laws
There is a three tiered minimum wage schedule in New York. The state has separated its minimum wage increases by region in the following way.
1.New York City
2.Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties
3.Everywhere else in the state
In New York City, businesses with 11 or more employees will have to raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour at the end of 2016. The minimum wage will increase by $2 every year until it reaches $15 an hour by the end of 2018. For businesses with 10 or fewer employees, the minimum wage will increase to $10.50 an hour by the end of 2016 and then increase $1.50 an hour every year until it reaches $15 an hour by the end of 2019.
For workers in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties, the minimum wage will increase to $10 an hour by the end of 2016, then will go up $1 an hour every year until it reaches $15 an hour by the end of 2021.
For workers in the rest of the state, the minimum wage would increase to $9.70 an hour by the end of 2016, then will increase by 70 cents an hour every year until it reaches $12.50 an hour by the end of 2020. From 2020 on, the minimum wage in these rural counties will continue to increase to $15 an hour on an indexed schedule that will be set by the director of the Division of Budget in consultation with the Department of Labor.
The map below shows the areas of the regions of New York as designated by the minimum wage increase. It is clear that the minimum wage increases are most beneficial to a very small area of the state.
In March 2016, Oregon passed a progressive minimum wage law. Like New York, Oregon has a three tiered regionally-based minimum wage schedule. The state is divided in the following way:
1.Portland Area Counties—employers located within Portland’s urban growth boundary
2.Frontier Counties – employers located in “frontier counties”
3.All remaining counties – employers located in all the remaining counties
Increases in each of these regions are scheduled differently as well. Below is a graph showing the timed phase in of wage increases by region. This graph shows that by July 2022 workers in the Portland urban region will be making $14.75 per hour, followed by those in the frontier regions at $12.50 per hour and all the workers in the remaining regions will be paid $13.50 per hour by 2022. From July 1, 2023 onward, the rate will be adjusted annually for inflation in Portland counties but the increase must be no less than $1.25 per hour more than the rest of the state. The frontier counties will receive annual rate increases at no less than $1.00 per hour and the remaining counties will receive increases annually based on inflation.
“Frontier areas are the most remote and sparsely populated places along the rural-urban continuum, with residents far from healthcare, schools, grocery stores, and other necessities. Frontier is often thought of in terms of population density and distance in minutes and miles to population centers and other resources, such as hospitals.” Rural Health Information Hub
On April 4, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown of California approved Senate Bill 3 to raise the minimum wage across the state. The bill includes all industries with an adjusted implementation schedule for small businesses.
“This bill would require the minimum wage for all industries to not be less than specified amounts to be increased from January 1, 2017, to January 1, 2022, inclusive, for employers employing 26 or more employees and from January 1, 2018, to January 1, 2023, inclusive, for employers employing 25 or fewer employees, except when the scheduled increases are temporarily suspended by the Governor, based on certain determinations. The bill would also require the Director of Finance, after the last scheduled minimum wage increase, to annually adjust the minimum wage under a specified formula.”
Under the new plan, the state's hourly minimum wage would increase from the current $10 to $10.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2017, then to $11 an hour in 2018. It would then increase by $1 an hour annually until it reaches $15 an hour in 2022. However, if the state experiences an economic downturn or budget crisis, the governor has the power to slow the implementation of minimum wage increases.
The schedule for implementation across the state is as follows. As can be seen in the chart below, businesses with 26 or more employees (blue) achieve $15 per hour faster than businesses with 25 or fewer employees (gray). By 2023, all businesses in California will be required to pay $15 an hour at the minimum.
All three of these state plans for raising the minimum wage are more progressive that other states. See the map below for minimum wages in all states in the US from the Department of Labor.
While there is much debate about the impacts of raising the minimum wage, with economists weighing in on both sides of the issue, no research has been done on the impacts of raising the minimum wage on agricultural workers.
Economists Daniel Aaronson and Eric French at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Sumit Agarwal of the University of Singapore find that increasing the minimum wage boosts the consumption of affected workers. And a battery of other research shows that raising the minimum wage does not reduce local employment and reduces employee turnover. The U.S. Department of Labor has an entire page dedicated to “mythbusting” around raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour. You can see it here.
Nonetheless, there are some arguments against raising the minimum wage. According to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, minimum wages can disrupt the economy driving some operations out of business. However, even this upset can be offset by upsurges in new businesses and jobs.
MINIMUM WAGES BY STATE IN USA
View the state minimum wages map online.
“Still, the uncertainty of the new $15-per-hour world is why even economists relatively sympathetic to minimum wage increases…argue that it makes the most sense to treat cities like New York and San Francisco differently from other parts of their states, to say nothing of less populous states where wages are much lower.” New York Times
The Assumed Impact of Wage Increases on Farm Workers
The new minimum wage law has the power to increase living standards of the almost 4 percent of California’s 19 million working residents who earn minimum wage. In return, there is an assumption that this will increase their buying power and improve the economy.
There is push back from the agriculture industry in California. Both employers and some economists believe that the increased minimum wage will lead to fewer hours for workers, thus reducing their incomes or to more mechanization in the fields, reducing the number of jobs. Some agricultural employers state that raising the wage will limit their ability to compete with low wage workers in other stated and countries, like Mexico.
Joe Del Bosque from Firebaugh stated in the Sacramento Bee, “We’re already at a disadvantage with Arizona, (where farmers) pay their workers $8.05 an hour and we’re at $10. Any further increase is going to put us at a serious disadvantage.” In the same article, Yolo County farmer Duane Chamberlain said his workers, who mostly make well above the minimum wage, are starting to cut alfalfa hay this time of year. He said he wouldn’t mind paying all his workers at least $15 an hour with the exception, perhaps, of those just learning.
“My workers are all worth 15 bucks an hour because they’ve been around,” said Chamberlain, who also sits on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.
However, farmworkers interviewed for articles in local newspapers are looking forward to a wage increase. Isaias Aguirre, who works for Duane Chamberlain is glad his employer is on board with the wage increase. He sees an increase as a way to help his family through paying for education for his children by continuing his monthly remittances to his family in Mexico.
In the Visalia Times-Delta, Rafael Gutierrez believes the wage increase will allow him to treat his family to dinners out on the weekends and potentially to a family vacation. His last job harvesting peaches paid him $11 an hour and while his girlfriend makes $14 an hour at Target, they still have problems making ends meet.
Reviewing data for farm worker wages over time, it is clear that in constant dollars, farmworkers are making less per hour than they did in 1974. There is compelling evidence that raising the minimum wage statewide has a substantial effect on farm worker wages. In 2014-15 wages rose from $6.75 to $9 an hour and direct hire farmworkers experienced a 30 percent wage increase (Personal communication, Don Villarejo, 2015).
In New York, farmworkers are also covered by minimum wage laws. The phased increases to minimum wages in New York have also been subsidized with $30 million in funding from the state to assist farm employers. Despite the slower phase-in and additional funding from the state, farm employers oppose the raises.
Fight for $15 and Food Chain Workers
In 2012, fast food workers started what would become a national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Moving on to Chicago, fast food workers called for a wage increase and were supported by labor unions and community groups. The Fight for $15 model expanded to more than 300 cities and towns and includes tens of thousands of workers. Industries in the food chain have historically underpaid their workers. More than 86 percent of food chain workers surveyed by the Food Chain Workers Alliance for a report published in 2012, reported earning low or poverty wages. These data include workers in production (farm workers), slaughterhouse and other processing facilities (processing), warehouses (distribution), grocery stores (retail), and restaurants and food services (service).
In order to increase wages for food workers effectively without impacting employers, workers would need to receive a larger proportion of the cost of food paid by consumers. To increase wages to farm workers, consumers would face a fairly small increase in their yearly food bill. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), knowing that their direct employers could not afford to pay them more, took their fight to consumers by asking them to pressure large scale buyers like Walmart into paying a penny more a pound for fresh tomatoes that they pick. Field workers directly receive this penny. This has had little impact on consumers.
In the supermarket, increases in farmworker wages may have a direct impact on consumers. Currently, in California, workers picking strawberries (a $4.4 billion industry in Monterey County) receive about 6 percent of the supermarket price. They get paid twenty cents for picking a plastic clamshell of berries that sells for $3.00 in the supermarket. By increasing their pay by five cents, we could increase their wages by 25 percent and not notice much change. To give an example of the impact to consumers from a wage increase to farmworkers, economist Philip Martin from UC Davis predicts that if farmworker wages increase by 47 percent, household grocery bills would increase by a mere $21.15 a year, or $1.76 a month. But that is assuming that the employers pass on the cost of increased wages to consumers.
Rural Urban Wage Equity?
“U.S. ‘rural’ areas have been primarily defined and differentiated from other areas by two methods: nonmetropolitan vs. metropolitan and rural vs. urban residence. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) designates as metropolitan those counties consisting of or adjacent to core county with a large population nucleus, where its surrounding counties having a high degree of social and economic integration with that core. The counties not defined as metropolitan are, by elimination, termed nonmetropolitan. This is a fairly broad characterization that treats small, densely populated eastern counties the same as large counties with more variable population densities in the west. Federal and state agencies are often required by statute to use metropolitan area designations for ‘allocating program funds, setting program standards, and implementing other aspects of their programs (OMB, 1998).’” Pearlanne T. Zelarney and James A. Ciarlo
How rural regions are defined has huge implications for funding from all governmental agencies and in how municipalities raise their minimum wages. In California, almost all of the most productive agricultural counties are designated as metro counties and even the most remote counties in the state are not considered “frontier” counties. As a result, western counties, particularly those in California, are challenged to define their populations as “rural” and are equally limited in the level of federal funding they receive from rural programs.
Now, let’s examine briefly the “rural urban divide” in the minimum wage structure in New York and Oregon. There is the assumption that rural workers should get paid less because the cost of living in rural regions is lower. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, urban households spend 18 percent more than rural households but receive 32 percent more in income, a 14 percent disparity.
According to an article in The Daily Yonder in 2008, “a high school graduate living in a rural county earns 13 percent less than a city dweller with a high school diploma. A rural college graduate, however, earns 23 percent less than a college grad living in the city. And someone living in a rural county who has an advanced degree (law, medicine, doctorate) earns 25 percent less than a person with the same qualifications who lives in an urban county.”
Interestingly, there is an economic model that states that migration from rural to urban regions is actually based on the expected income differentials between rural and urban areas. The Harris-Todaro model states that rural-urban migration in a context of high urban unemployment can be economically rational if the expected urban income exceeds expected rural income. Therefore, migration from rural areas to urban areas will increase if urban wages increase. The model’s main point is that equal wages in urban and rural areas reduce the incentive for rural workers to migrate to urban regions.
In the 2014-15 data analyzed by the USDA Economic Research Service nationwide show that “the total population in nonmetro counties stood at 46.2 million in July 2015—14 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the Nation's land area. Annual population losses averaged 33,000 per year between 2010 and 2014, but dropped to about 4,000 in 2015.” This change in the outmigration of residents from rural to urban areas “coincides with a marked improvement in rural employment growth and suggests that this first-ever period of overall population decline (from 2010 to 2015) may be ending.”
Based on these data, doesn’t it make sense to aim for wage equality in rural and urban regions of the country?
If the U.S. wants to maintain a stable work force in the agricultural sector in states like New York and California where the cost of living is high, shouldn’t we ensure that agricultural workers are paid a wage that essentially keeps them on the farm? (According to the MIT living wage calculator, comparing two productive agricultural counties in the state, in Merced County, a living wage is $22.71 for a parent with a spouse and 2 kids, while in Ventura County, the costs are $27.18 for a parent with a spouse and 2 kids).
“Raising the minimum wage for everyone says something profound and profoundly good about the society we want to live in,” said Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party, which has helped secure minimum wage increases in several cities and states across the country. “That all work has dignity and worth, and people deserve a living wage.”
Forty years after the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) in California, the economic status of California’s farm laborers has deteriorated, despite the remarkably positive performance of the industry as a whole.
A 2015 study by Don Villarejo compared the hourly wage rate for field workers in California over a 54-year period (1960-2014) (A New Paradigm is Needed for Labor Relations in Agriculture: California Agriculture and Farm Labor, 1975-2014. California Institute for Rural Studies) The long view shows that since 1974 farmworkers “have made no progress whatsoever in improving their earnings relative to other production workers in the state.”
At California Institute for Rural Studies we believe:
•Farmers and farmworkers should be able to support their families in a healthy environment and with dignity.
•There is power in independent scientific research.
•Farming is essential to civilization.
•All members of our communities have valuable knowledge.
•Collaboration for the common good is essential.
For 38 years we have acted on these values by conducting sound independent research. Below you will see what we did in 2015 and what we plan to do in 2016.
We hope it motivates you to support our work today. Your donations keep us independent!
We did a lot in 2015
We've been concerned about farmworker housing for decades and in 2015, we commissioned Dr. Don Villarejo, to write a summary on the current status of farmworker housing and health. Our work on housing in the Eastern Coachella Valley is generating results with the completion of community-wide surveys in Coachella, Mecca and Thermal. We are currently working in North Shore, on the troubled Salton Sea.
We helped other advocates understand the importance of scientific sampling methods with a presentation on our methods to housing advocates in Washington, DC.
"CIRS successfully brings the much-needed voice of disenfranchised men and women working in the food industry to the attention to those who would otherwise not hear about these stories. I appreciate Gail and Sarah's attention to including the various diverse missing narratives that make up the rural food movement. As a new filmmaker working with African American farmers, CIRS invited me to participate in screening the film trailer of my upcoming documentary. Since that initial screening two years ago at a CIRS program, the organization has continued to support my work and the work of farmers of color. Thank you and keep up this important work!”
Dr. Gail Meyers, Co-Founder, Farms to Grow
We took a look at the Agricultural Labor Relations Act on its 40th anniversary. What we found is that farm workers are actually making less money now than they did in 1974. The legacy of the ALRA is unfortunately, farm workers living in poverty.
We are proud to have CIRS as a member of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. CIRS' research in partnership with farmworkers organizations is a model for everyone everywhere - they conduct research with, not just about, farmworkers. That is so important in lifting up the challenges facing farmworkers and the solutions that they want.
Joann Lo, Co-Director, Food Chain Workers Alliance
Our new project, Cal Ag Roots, spearheaded by Ildi Carlisle- Cummins, is unearthing stories of California agricultural history to help food movement leaders craft informed change strategies. The project launched this fall, producing a series of three stories that focused on three pivotal moments in California farming: the end of the Bracero Program, the battle to enforce acreage limitations in the Central Valley, and the invention of the mechanical tomato harvester.
“Historically, the California Institute for Rural Studies took on research questions that were too politically controversial for traditional universities in the state to even consider. Today, CIRS continues this work through programs like the Cal Ag Roots project and as a location for critical studies of food and agriculture in California.”
Daniel O’Connell, PhD, Co-Director of Food Commons Fresno
Our sold-out Docks to Delta event on the Capitol Corridor Amtrak train featured live podcasts of all three stories, performed for 90 riders. Two of our stories have made an impact in traditional media as well-- the National Land for People story was recently featured in the Fresno Bee, and both Civil Eats and Davis Enterprise published the tomato harvester story.
"For young farmers and food advocates looking ahead to the future, understanding the past and the broader context in which they work is crucial. The California Institute for Rural Studies brings that, with a cultural, historical and social perspective desperately needed for a more holistic conversation about how we in California feed ourselves."
Evan Wiig, Executive Director, The Farmers Guild
2015 was the International Year of Soil! We responded by posting a series of articles on the Rural California Report on soils: why they’re important, how to care for them and what we lose when we lose them. These posts will be compiled into a folio for easy access.
In Merced County, we worked with a group of growers to help them focus on their needs. We found out that there are currently mechanisms available to them for cooperative marketing but that there are still many needs to help promote their products.
Keeping in line with our past work on farmworker food security, we completed a study of Yolo County.
Look for the results soon!
Our continued participation in the California Heat Illness Prevention Study (CHIPS) with UC Davis will help inform future workplace practices to better prevent heat stress, and protect farmworker health. We have completed focus groups with over 100 farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley since beginning the study in 2012. Through our continued research, we have gained a more complex understanding of how current regulatory policy and workplace practices inhibit or advance farmworker health. Our preliminary findings will be presented in the forthcoming winter edition of the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development.
"One time I got sick from overheating. I felt like I was suffocating, not really dizzy, but desperate to get out of the fields. It was in the blueberry fields. I went to find shade, drank water, and put water on my face, and I felt better after that. I put cold water on a paper towel, put it under my hat, and went back into the field. I didn't ask for any help, because I wanted to work and make money."
Farmworker woman in Stockton, from “The Story of Fruit”
Our plan for 2016
We’re in the process of looking at promising practices in farmworker housing. We will complete a review of these in 2016 and post a paper. We think it’s important to look toward improvements using examples of successes.
Our review of data on farm worker wages and the ALRA has spurred us to envision a farm worker wage initiative. Linking to the work of our colleagues at the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Fight for 15, we will be working on increasing wages to $15 an hour for farm laborers in one region of the state. If we are successful, we will replicate our work in other agricultural regions.
In 2016, all current Cal Ag Roots stories will be available as podcasts for download through the Cal Ag Roots Story Hub, which also features short articles on the stories. We will be performing our first three-part story series in Davis, Merced, Sonoma and Santa Cruz and will be working on a second set of Cal Ag Roots stories. Look out for these dates in upcoming e-newsletters.
In Merced County, as our next step, we will be working with growers to develop educational tools for outreach to their local community members. We think Merced residents should know about these remarkable growers.
And finally, in 2016 we hope to launch our Women in Agriculture project. Through several events (including the “Celebrating Women in Agriculture” event at Full Belly Farm, pictured right) we heard from women growers that they would like a forum for discussing challenges they face that are unique to them. We plan to hold a series of regional roundtables in rural California that bring together women employers and women farmworkers. We think these groups of women will be powerful in addressing barriers to success and in developing solutions together.
need your support
"There is so much interest in food these days and much talk about sustainability in agriculture, but mostly from an environmental vantage. Sustainable agriculture is not possible without a sustainable pool of labor - one that is treated well and paid fairly. Too few of our policy makers seem to understand this but, thankfully, CIRS is working assiduously to change this.
Social justice and food security go hand in hand. Thanks to CIRS, more and more influencers are realizing this. CIRS plays an absolutely critical role in linking the massive food supply chain to those on whose backs this system rests. If you eat, you should support CIRS."
Sanjay Rawal, Director of “Food Chains” documentary film
This all costs money and while we are able to secure funding for our large projects, some of our work goes unfunded. We especially need funds to complete our Promising Practices in Farm Labor Housing work, our collaboration with Merced growers and our Women in Agriculture initiative.
How to give
Since we don’t have members, we need people like you, all across the state to work with us. We’re looking for supporters who have an interest in seeing social justice for rural residents. Each of you is an important partner for our work. We need your donations to help us expand our work and conduct research that is responsive to the needs of rural communities and rural workers.
To ensure all that we do and all that we hope to do, please donate to CIRS. Help us empower rural residents, educate all sectors of the state about rural California, and improve policies related to rural regions.
Together we can affect real change.
Thank You and Happy Holidays
From All of Us,
Gail, Michael, Ildi, Sarah & Jaime
at California Institute for Rural Studies
Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, many of us celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving. We load our tables with foods that were said to have been eaten by the Pilgrims and the Native Americans back at the birth of our country. In reality, our Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863 under Abraham Lincoln.
There is a lot to be said for traditions but not all of it is good.
The European tradition in the United States is one of colonialism, as it is in many parts of the world. Colonial influences and outcomes include extraction of natural resources, genocide, and the subsuming of indigenous cultures. Many Native American cultures do not celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday based on the coming together of colonists and native residents. In fact, many feel a sense of loss on this day and spend the day in remembrance of the past lost generations.
By Don Villarejo and Gal Wadsworth
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). At the time that it was enacted, it was a progressive way to provide, for the first time, legal protections for farmworkers who engage in direct action to improve their wages. It is arguably the best pro-labor law in the nation.
Despite this, California’s farmworkers remain the state’s poorest-paid production workers. Current annual average wage rates paid to California’s direct-hire farm laborers are lower, when adjusted for four decades of inflation, than they were in 1974, before the law was passed. Seasonally employed crop worker wage rates are even lower. And fewer farmworkers today are covered by labor-management agreements than in 1974.
Our main thesis in this article is that the economic status of California’s farm laborers has deteriorated, despite the Agricultural Labor Relations Act and the remarkably positive performance of the industry as a whole.
The prospect that ALRA’s paradigm of labor versus capital would ultimately benefit most workers has largely been a failure. Labor unions and employers now battle in the courts and state legislature to gain advantage against one another, while many workers’ meager economic gains come from increases in the state’s minimum wage.
Why have wages decreased?
Implementation of the ALRA led to prolonged struggles in the legislature, the courts, and in the agency itself. During its initial 6-month period, hundreds of union representation elections were conducted and numerous labor-management agreements signed.
Annual average wage rates for farmworkers rose dramatically.
But the industry fought back. A newly elected Republican governor (Ronald Reagan) appointed a pro-employer ALRB General Counsel in 1983, and the agency’s budget was slashed. By 1986, pro-labor members of the ALRB were a minority. Labor-management agreements expired, pro-union farmworkers were fired or blacklisted without recourse, and the General Counsel publicly campaigned against union activities.
Wage rates (measured in constant 2014 dollars), including earnings and paid employment benefits, have actually declined for direct-hire field & livestock workers since that initial rapid increase.
In 1974, farmers and ranchers reported to the USDA Farm Labor Survey (USDA FLSUSDA) the annual average wage rate for California’s direct-hire field & livestock labor (production workers) was $2.60 per hour ($13.50 per hour in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars). But in 2014, California’s farmers and ranchers reported the annual average wage rate for direct-hire field and livestock workers was $11.33 per hour, or $2.19 per hour below what was needed to keep up with inflation.
Employers say they cannot afford to pay higher wages. But impressive economic performance of California agriculture is exemplified by the increase of farm cash receipts from the sale of agricultural commodities during this same period. In 1974, sales were about $7 billion (or the equivalent of $34 billion in 2012 dollars), while the corresponding figure in 2012 was $43 billion [Martin. 2015].
Thus, California farm operators realized real sales growth of 26%.
At the same time and just as remarkable, California farm production became ever more concentrated. By 2012, California’s largest farms had a 63% share of all farm sales in the state. In all of the other states combined, farms of that size had less than a 28% share of all farm sales. California’s 64,200+ small farms accounting for 82% of all farms in the state had a combined total of just 5% of farm sales.
Size concentration is important in today’s context because many of the largest produce farms are vertically integrated – described as grower-packer-shippers – and more likely to negotiate year-round supply contracts directly with supermarket chains, fast-food venders, fresh-cut processors, and other large-volume purchasers. While benefitting from economies of scale, these arrangements may result in large grower-packer-shipper operations becoming more vulnerable to the concerns of retail customers, especially regarding food safety. During the late 1970/s protracted labor dispute and boycott of Red Coach brand lettuce, the UFW relied on this vulnerability to focus boycott activities.
The United Farm Workers of America, led by Cesar Chavez, responded to the anti-union administration of the ALRA in the 1980s by pouring substantial resources and effort into a struggle to beat back pro-employer actions. In fact, the UFW stopped organizing in the fields to focus on defending the ALRA. It’s clear from the data on income presented above that the law has not worked.
It is well-known that farmers and ranchers do not command the major share of consumer food expenditures. In other parts of the nation alternative forms of concerted action by farm workers have led to improvements in their earnings. Most significantly, these successful efforts have involved mobilizing consumers to leverage food processors, supermarkets and fast food outlets to assume a significant share of the responsibility for improving farmworker wages. Since most of consumers’ food dollars go to processors and vendors, not to farmers, it is increasingly apparent they must share responsibility for the wages of those who produce food products.
Farm worker organizations pioneered the mobilization of consumers to pressure food system vendors, whether processors, supermarkets or fast food chains, to underwrite increases in farm labor earnings. This approach has relied on boycotts outside the framework of traditional labor-management relations.
The first notable instances of this alternative form of concerted action were developed in the 1970s by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), initially among processing tomato workers in the Midwest. The national boycott of Campbell Soup Co. sought to bring the company to the table to underwrite a significant share of improved farm worker wages. Some years later, FLOC used the same tactic to force Vlasic Pickle Company to underwrite improved earnings for cucumber workers in North Carolina.
In Florida, since the mid-1990s the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has mobilized nationwide consumer pressure on large corporations like Wal-Mart to directly supplement tomato harvester earnings by an additional penny per pound. Wages increased up to 17%, depending on picker productivity. And all Florida tomato workers benefited, not just CIW members.
This past summer, Stop & Shop supermarkets, along with the other stores owned by Ahold, agreed to participate in the CIW program. Stop & Shop is the first of the major “pure” supermarket chains to sign up with CIW.
The CIW agreement with Wal-Mart contemplates expanding coverage in the future to other produce items, not just tomatoes. While the primary focus of this form of concerted action is to raise farm worker earnings, other changes in workplace conditions have also been developed under CIW agreements, including formal grievance procedures, workplace safety education, and training about sexual harassment in the workplace----all on paid company time.
More recently, consumer petitions to U.S. food vendors, stimulated by a dramatic Los Angeles Times exposé, directly led to increased wages for 30,000 Mexican farmworkers in Baja California’s produce export industry. Their main leader was Fidel Sanchez, a veteran of CIW organizing, and they mounted the same tactic as CIW, i.e., seeking to directly persuade major supermarkets to underwrite their demands. At least one grower-packer-shipper with operations in the affected region commented privately that a vendor contacted the firm directly wanting answers to the workers’ complaints.
Based on our review of current conditions, it is clear that a new paradigm is needed for labor relations in California agriculture. Food marketers, processors, farmers and ranchers, farm workers and farm labor organizations should be brought to the table to inform policy makers on developing mechanisms whereby all parties assume joint responsibility for improving the economic status of farm labor.
Representatives of farm labor, farmers, food processors, and food vendors need to be brought together in a new paradigm in order to organize and empower farm workers. Farmers and farm worker organizations need to recognize this opportunity and their common interests. Farmers and ranchers need workers. Workers and farmers have a common interest in coping with the current drought, in the immigrant rights crisis driving the farm labor shortage, and in the quality of rural housing and healthcare.
Unlike direct worker-grower discourse about wages and working conditions, the effective mobilization of consumers has become effective because some vendors realize they are the principal point of contact for consumers’ relationship to the modern food system. If consumers can be persuaded that improvements in farm labor wages and working conditions are a necessary component of food purchase choices, then underwriting those improvements may become a wise business choice.
Progress to improve the economic status of farm labor families requires cooperation among all the major players in the food system: farmers and ranchers, food processing companies, supermarkets, fast food vendors, and farm labor organizations.
It appears that farm labor organizations are currently the weakest link among the major players in the food chain. With fewer than 10,000 California farmworkers represented by collective bargaining agreements, and employers choosing to fight for every possible advantage in the courts and the state legislature, there is an obvious imbalance between labor and the corporations that now dominate the food system. Only when farmworkers are organized and empowered will cooperation of all participants in the food system become meaningful. There is an urgent need to examine alternatives to the ALRB. We propose that change will come only through cooperation of stakeholders across the food chain. And pressure needs to be exerted by consumers who care about the workers who grow and harvest their food.
Consumers can be instrumental in improving the lives of farmworkers.
You can start by telling your grocer to contribute a fair share of wages paid to those who put food on your table.
 See “Average Wage Rates for Field and Livestock Workers Combined, States and Regions, 1974-1980,” published by the United States Department of Agriculture (ERS-NASS) as electronic file flbulwg1.xls and distributed, on demand, via a 3.5” floppy diskette. The file was originally published in Lotus 1-2-3 format and converted to Excel format by the author. As noted in that document, “Estimates by State and Region, for the various methods of pay and types of workers begin with 1974.” Adjustment for inflation to 2014 dollars was accomplished by reference to the California Consumer Price Index published by the California Department of Industrial Relations. Cf. https://www.dir.ca.gov/OPRL/CAPriceIndex.htm
 See USDA, Farm Labor, November 20, 2014, “Annual Average Wage Rates – Regions and United State: 2013-2014,” p. 24.