CIRS Blog about Rural California
By Ken Jacobs and Ian Perry
This article comes from the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education website. It was posted on March 30, 2016, before Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in April that is scheduled to raise California's minimum wage to $15 by 2022.
California's minimum wage went to $10 an hour January 1, 2016.
California in April 2016 approved SB 3 to raise the state's $10 an hour minimum wage to $15 by 2022 for large employers, and by 2023 for employers with 25 or fewer workers. The minimum wage will rise by $1 an hour in January each year beginning in 2017, and increase with inflation from 2024. The governor can suspend minimum wage increases for a year in recessions or if there are serious budget crises.
SB 3 was enacted to head off a $15 an hour union-sponsored initiative on the November 2016 ballot that was expected to be approved by voters.
The minimum wage increase is expected to affect 5.4 million of California's 15.1 million workers, raising their wages by an average $2.20 an hour or $3,700 a year. The University of California, Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education estimates that almost 40 percent of those affected by the $15 minimum wage are 20 to 29, and that over half have a high school education or less. Over 55 percent of those expected to benefit from the rising minimum wage are Latino. A third of California workers affected are in retail trade and food services; less than five percent are in agriculture.
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.
The first in our Cal Ag Roots series of articles on pivotal moments in California Agricultural history. Photos by: Richard Steven Street
When you think of California cuisine, do you imagine baby lettuces doused in olive oil, and carefully arranged on white plates?
If you’ve ever driven down the Highway 99 corridor, which cuts through California’s Central Valley, you might have a different sense of the state’s contributions to global food culture. Driving 99 any hour of the day or night, from July through September, you’ll likely have to swerve around trucks mounded impossibly high with tomatoes. You’ll pass acres and acres of dense, low tomato plants being harvested by machines that spit them out into trailers bound for a string of processing facilities that dot the valley.
This year promises to be a record for processing tomatoes, with a projected 14.3 million tons harvested. California’s Central Valley will, yet again, play a critical role in ensuring that one of America’s favorite condiments—ketchup—remains in plentiful supply. On the surface, this cheap condiment might not seem to have anything to do with California cuisine. But, as it turns out, there’s an incredible tale that ties the two together in surprising ways.
California recently took action to protect some of the state’s most threatened agricultural lands by investing in conservation easements and land use planning. These tools have been used for many years by land trusts and local governments to permanently protect farmland from development.
But for the first time the state is focusing its farmland conservation efforts to meet its climate change objectives.
The Yankees are a wonderful people - wonderful! Wherever they go, they make improvements. If they were to emigrate in large numbers to hell itself, they would irrigate it, plant trees and flower gardens, build reservoirs and fountains, and make everything beautiful and pleasant, so that by the time we get there, we can sit down at a marble-topped table and eat ice cream.
—General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, 1863
Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites.
—William Ruckelshaus, first EPA Administrator, 1990
California’s drought is in its fourth year, with no end in sight and the dry season upon us. The : water supply is dwindling in reservoirs and aquifers, and the . More than 10 percent of the state’s irrigated lands have been fallowed due to reduced water deliveries from state and federal programs. The Colorado River Basin is as well, adding another layer of instability for southern California contractors that are reliant on water from the . The western United States has experienced a combined water loss of at least 62 trillion gallons during the current drought, causing a in the land surface of the entire region, with the greatest effects (up to a .5 inch rise) occurring in California’s mountain ranges. Simply put: when we use too much water for too long,
to cut urban water use by 25 percent are now in effect, with the State Water Board and Governor Brown warning that more restrictions will come, potentially even affecting . In addition to building awareness and ramping up enforcement of the “low-hanging fruit” of water conservation—lawn watering, car washing, etc.—the state also announced funding. Reality is increasingly setting in: Californians must conserve water, and we must do it now.
State lawmakers have already taken critical steps toward improved water management. Last year, Californians approved a long-debated that will help to fund emergency drought measures as well as and future improvements and maintenance to the state’s . The first-ever statewide became effective in January, but full implementation . Senator Fran Pavley, who sponsored the groundwater bill, is calling for expedited enforcement of key measures, e.g. that would help water officials to understand and address excessive groundwater withdrawals in drought-stricken basins.
The rainy season has finally arrived to California, and 2014 will end with one of the wettest months on record. Many of , , and some of the state’s most severely during recent weeks. However, , and needs a lot more rain in order for this historic dry spell to be declared over— according to NASA.
Water is (and always has been) a highly contentious issue in California; one that politicians have struggled to deal with in a way that appropriately balances the needs of urban and rural communities, industry, agriculture, wildlife and the environment. Thanks in large part to the multi-year drought, which intensified throughout 2014, some of California’s toughest water issues will be addressed at long last. State lawmakers and regulators stepped up to the plate by enacting a series of historic reforms including unprecedented (but still modest) fines for wasting water, drought relief packages, and increased enforcement of existing regulations.
Despite one of the most severe droughts in California history, the Coachella Valley's overall consumption of water largely held steady during much of this year.
A review of water agencies' data by The Desert Sun has found that the total amount of groundwater pumped during the first eight months of 2014 was down only about 0.8 percent compared to the same period last year.
The data show the area has made some progress in conserving water during the past five years: It used 5.5 percent less water in 2013 than it did in 2009. But the total amount pumped by all users — including water agencies, golf courses, farms and others — has actually increased since reaching a low in 2010 and has remained about the same since 2011.
From January through August this year, despite the drought, the area's total use of groundwater was up 3.9 percent as compared to 2010.
WASHINGTON -- Congress is returning to plenty of unfinished California business. Then, it will soon depart again, leaving most of the Golden State goals still unmet.
One California lawmaker hoped this 113th Congress would authorize grants for an Altamont Pass rail project. Some sought to add six new federal judges to serve busy Central Valley courts. Others wanted the San Joaquin Delta declared a “national heritage area.”
But with little time remaining before they resume full-time campaigning, lawmakers coming back Monday know most home-state bills are dying on the vine. Some attrition is typical: bills are always easier to write than to pass. Some failures, though, reflect a particularly toxic Congress.
“Unfortunately, with so many challenges facing our country, this Congress has been dismal,” Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said Friday. “It has been one of the least productive Congresses in history. It is disappointing and frustrating.”