CIRS Blog about Rural California
Noé Montes has photographed and interviewed people in the Eastern Coachella Valley for two and a half years as part of a photo documentary project (which can be found at https://coachellafarmworkers.com). Recently, he answered the Rural California Report's questions about what the work.
Rural California Report: What is the Coachella Valley Farm Workers project and how long have you been working on it?
Noé Montes: It is a photo documentary project about the community of farmworkers in the Eastern Coachella Valley. It focuses on the individuals that are working in various capacities to address the many social justice issues and issues of inequality that exist in the community. Most of the people photographed and interviewed have been farmworkers themselves or are the children of farmworkers. It is comprised of photography, writing and audio interviews. I started working on this in January of 2015.
Photo of Castulo Estrada by Noé Montes
RCR: What inspired you to pick the Coachella Valley? Why did you want to photograph farmworkers and other community members there?
NM: One of the main reasons I wanted to photograph and interview farmworkers is that I myself come from family of farmworkers and I know that there is a lot of value on the community. There is a lot to learn from about how to develop our communities in a positive way. A lot of the previous work done about farmworkers focuses on the problems in the community and often farmworkers are depicted very simply, either as examples of inequality or to illustrate some social justice issue. I wanted to add to the conversation and our understanding of this community and see what we can all learn from them.
I picked the Coachella Valley because it is a good representative example of a rural farmworker community in California. It is a microcosm that contains all the elements present in many rural American communities. Logistically it also worked in that it is close enough to where I live (Los Angeles) that I was able to travel there regularly and often.
Seasonality is a characteristic of agriculture. Some seasons are busy, others less so. Busy times mean more employees — and less busy times – well, seasonality in farming is why it has always been hard for farmworkers to find year-round steady work. Most people still think of farmworkers as migrants, moving from one part of the country to the next, following the harvest as crops mature. For migrant farmworkers from time immemorial, there have always been periods of time when work is scarce. This is unlike almost any other profession. Sure, teachers have traditionally had time off in the summer. Landscaping and construction are also kind-of seasonal. But I think not to the extent that is built into the very nature of farming. Harvest time is fraught with urgency — the crop must be in the barn and out of the rain, or at the processing plant and out of the field, in a short window of time, or it will be lost. All the effort of keeping the crop safe, growing it from a seed to a grain, or from a bud to a fruit, can be for naught, if the harvest fails for one reason or another.
Consuelo Mendez was 23 when she arrived in the United States 45 years ago, looking for work. In Ventura County she found it, harvesting strawberries, tomatoes, cabbage, parsley and spinach. She got those jobs by going from field to field, asking other workers to tell her who was hiring. Picking is hard work, and getting enough work to live on required her to move all the time from one farm to another.
“When I emigrated from a small town in Michoacán I had never worked before,” she remembers. “I was young, raising my children. Then I went to work in the strawberry harvest. My husband was running an upholstery business, but that didn’t pay very well, so he worked alongside me in the fields to make extra money. I never thought I would be working like that, and that the work would be so hard. I did it for three years, but after that I couldn’t because I got so tired. I couldn’t drive and didn’t know how to speak English – to this day I struggle with it.”
Mendez wanted something more stable, and she found it. A woman told her Brokaw Nursery in Saticoy was hiring. She asked a foreman there again and again to hire her, and finally the owner took notice. “We told him we were looking for work because we had a family to support,” she remembers. “He told us to come back the next day and gave us a job. I got a job indoors and my husband went to work in their fields. I’ve been here and never been unemployed since.”
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.
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.
California's most recent agricultural report, released early in 2014, reported that the state's farm sales approached a record $45 billion in 2012, almost 50 percent more than Iowa, where farm sales were $32 billion. Farm sales are divided between crops, with $32.6 billion in sales, and livestock products, worth $12.2 billion in sales.
Within crops, fruits and nuts were worth $17 billion, and over half of the value of fruits and nuts came from grapes and almonds. Vegetables and melons were worth $6.8 billion, and lettuce worth $1.4 billion was a fifth of the value of all vegetables. The value of field crops was $5 billion, including a quarter from the hay grown primarily to feed to dairy cows. Tulare is the dairy county, generating over a quarter of the state's sales of milk and cream, and Tulare is also the leading county for cattle sales.
Three counties had farm sales over $6 billion in 2012: Fresno ($6.6 billion) Kern ($6.2 billion) and Tulare ($6.2 billion).
Farm commodities are often packed and processed by nonfarm workers in nearby plants. For example, Taylor Farms is a major producer of bagged salads, with sales exceeding $1.8 billion a year. Taylor's Salinas bagged salad plant has 2,500 employees who are represented by the Teamsters union, but its 900-employee Tracy salad plant is non-union.
The ballots in a March 2014 election at the Tracy plant were impounded by the National Labor Relations Board because the Teamsters alleged Taylor unlawfully interfered. The Teamsters argue that, because the 600 workers brought to the Tracy plant by temp agencies SlingShot and Abel Mendoza earn $0.50 an hour less than Taylor's Salinas workers, Tracy workers need a contract. The Teamsters say that Taylor intimidated its employees, some of whom are unauthorized, by threatening to introduce E-Verify to check the legal status of employees, and that the E-Verify threat makes workers reluctant to support the Teamsters.
Below is a keynote speech given by Eric Holt-Giménez at Terra Madre in Oct. 2014:
This year’s Terra Madre/Salone del Gusto is being held during the United Nation’s “Year of Family Farming.” This is a wonderful way to celebrate good, clean, fair food produced by family farmers, peasant farmers, smallholders, fishers and pastoralists from around the world.
This event is more than a celebration of food and family farmers. It’s a celebration of the millennial culture of peasant and smallholder farming and of their importance—not just in the world’s food systems—but in our societies, our economies, our politics and, we hope, in our shared future.
We are here to celebrate all the incredible things that smallholder, family farmers do: They:
- Produce 70 percent of the world’s food on 25 percent of the agricultural land;
- Still maintain the largest in situ reservoir of GMO-free agrobiodiversity on the planet;
- Are the practical knowledge base for agroecology—the people’s science of sustainable agriculture;
- Provide the food for an infinitely diverse, nutritious and delicious cuisine;
- Provide livelihoods for nearly a third of humanity;
- Help cool the planet by capturing carbon in naturally-fertilized soils
- And they do many other things both material and intangible that are too vast and diverse to list.
But we should also celebrate what small, sustainable producers don’t do: They,
- Don’t make record profits while people go hungry (I’ve never seen a farmer let anyone go hungry);
- Don’t spread superweeds and resistant pest populations by using GMOs (though their farms do get contaminated by GMOs and they get sued by Monsanto);
- Don’t contribute 20% of the planet’s GHG or use up 80% of its fresh water;
- Don’t invent or traffic in deadly agricultural poisons (though farmers and farm workers are systematically poisoned by pesticides and herbicides);
- Don’t produce antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria (though, like you and I, they are vulnerable to resistant bacterial infections);
- Don’t speculate with our food in global financial markets (though they suffer both when prices rise and when they drop);
- Don’t speculate with land in global financial markets, either (though they are the largest private investors in agriculture in the global economy);
- Don’t grab large tracts of land from others (though they have been massively displaced by the 86 million hectares of land grabbed in last 7 years by corporations and sovereign wealth funds—that’s an area five times the size of Italy).
- No, peasant and smallholder farmers don’t do any of those things (but I suspect you can guess who does).
Ever since the food crises of 2008 and 2011 that sent over a billion people into the ranks of the hungry—even at a time of record global harvests and record corporate profits—and ever since the global financial crash—suddenly, peasant and family farmers have captured the interest of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, USAID, Bill Gates, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, John Deere, Cargill, ADM, Bunge, Monsanto, Syngenta, WalMart, Tesco, Carrefour and other agrifoods giants. Even Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street financiers are paying special attention to family farmers—or at least to their land.
These are the big planetary players of what some of us call “the corporate food regime” those international institutions and oligopolies that dominate the global market in inputs, seeds, agricultural commodities and food.
By Megan Beaman and Kevin Kish
Low-wage workers—regardless of immigration status—shoulder more than their fair share of workplace violations, including unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination and harassment. Immigrant low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable—working under constant fear that if they exercise basic workplace rights, they will suffer retaliation that could result in the separation of their families; loss of homes and property; or return to violence or extreme poverty in their home countries.
This fear of retaliation is based in fact. We as advocates have seen it happen time and time again—and it overwhelmingly leads to workers staying silent, leaving employers without even a slap on the wrist when they break the law.
Scofflaw employers do not and will not stop violating the law if they are not held accountable for their violations to all workers. Any other type of piecemeal enforcement, or lack of enforcement, encourages employers to hire vulnerable undocumented workers, disregard labor laws as basic as the minimum wage, and then fire them when they complain – all to the economic disadvantage of employers who do follow the law.
Earlier this summer, the California Supreme Court in the Salas v. Sierra Chemical Company case agreed, deciding that companies that hire undocumented workers (knowingly or not) do not get a free pass to discriminate against them.
The Census of Agriculture, conducted in years ending in 2 and 7, reported that there were 2.1 million U.S. farms with farm sales of $395 billion in 2012, including $212 billion in crop sales (54 percent) and $182 billion in livestock sales (46 percent). In almost all previous COAs, livestock sales slightly exceeded crop sales, but a combination of high crop prices and a drought that encouraged some livestock operators to sell cattle to avoid high feed costs made crops the majority of farm sales in 2012.
Farm sales have been rising by about $100 billion between the five-year COAs; they were about $200 billion in 2002 and almost $300 billion in 2007. However, most farm sales are from a relative handful of large farms. The 81,600 U.S. farms that each had farm sales of $1 million or more in 2012 collectively had farm sales of $264 billion, two-thirds of total farm sales of $395 billion.
The COA reported 2.1 million U.S. farms in 2012, down from 2.2 million in 2007. Farmers are aging; their average age was 58 in 2012, up from 57 in 2007. There are twice as many farmers age 75 and above, 258,000, as under 35, 120,000. Of the 2.1 million farm operators in 2012, 1.1 million had a primary occupation other than farming.