-- by Shea Cunningham*
It has to do with men, women and children
who harvest the crops in this country of
ours, the best fed nation on Earth. These
are the forgotten people, the
underprotected, the undereducated, the
underclothed, the underfed. If it were
not for the labor of [these] peopleIyou
might not starve but your table would not
be laden with the luxuries that we have
all come to regard as essential.
-- Edward R. Murrow,
Harvest of Shame, CBS television, 1960
On Thanksgiving Day of 1960, the nation was shocked by
the scenes of poverty depicted in Harvest of Shame, the
CBS documentary about those whose labor produces our
food. Edward R. Murrow told us that the average life
expectancy of US farmworkers was only 49 years, while
the national average was 70. Thirty-four years later the
national average has risen to 75, yet farmworkers can
still expect to live for only 49 years.(1)
In 1993 the average hourly wage for farmworkers was
$5.00, or $5,000 per year for 25 weeks of farm work.
That represents a drop in wages of $2.00 per hour in
inflation corrected dollars since 1980.(2) Nearly 50%
of all farmworkers live below the official US poverty
line (62% for those born outside the U.S.), a figure
that hasn't changed since the 1960's.(3)
During the Republican decade there was an overall
deterioration in farmworker's economic well-being. And
so, for the approximately 3 million men, women and
children who toil in our fields, poor working
conditions, low wages, long hours and lack of benefits
continue to be the norm.
The Faces of Farmworkers
Since the Bracero program of temporary immigration began
during World War II, the vast majority of US farmworkers
have been Mexican immigrants and their children, though
earlier decades saw substantial numbers of Chinese,
Japanese, Filipinos, and Native and African-
Americans.(4) By 1983, 90% of the 500,000 seasonal farm
laborers in California were Mexicans or Chicanos, while
nationwide the figure was 60%. Mixtec Indians from the
impoverished Mexican state of Oaxaca make up the latest
wave of migrants working in California fields,(5) and
the fact that they are mostly non Spanish-speaking has
made them easy prey for unscrupulous labor contractors.
>From Hope to Hardships:
The Rise and Fall of the UFW
During the 1970s California farmworkers in particular
achieved significant improvements in their living and
working conditions, as an upsurge in organizing and
collective bargaining gave their community a new sense
of hope. Thanks to the efforts of the United Farm
Workers Union (UFW), the 1975 California Agricultural
Labor Relations Act granted the right to collective
bargaining, and the administration of Governor Jerry
Brown supported an increase in social services.
In the 1960s and 70s Csar Chavez, founder of the UFW,
helped to focus public attention on the plight of
migrant farm workers. Among the UFW's successful
strategies under his leadership were hunger strikes and
boycotts of grapes and other food crops. Chavez, once
fasted for 36 days, proclaiming,
"A person who fasts and suffers for a much-needed
societal changeIcan elicit from others the desire to
share that suffering and thereby participate in
eradicating a specific social injustice."(6)
Hundreds of people around the U.S. participated in the
UFW hunger strike to call attention to the plight of the
US farmworker and support the eventually victorious
grape boycott. Chavez's famous chant, "Si se puede"
(Yes, it is possible), inspired many.
At its peak in the 70s the UFW had some 120,000 workers
under contract, and between 1966 and 1980 had succeeded
in obtaining two 40% wage increases in the grape
industry, among other gains.(7) But during the 1980s
contracts began to expire and successive Republican
administrations stacked the California Agricultural
Labor Relations Board with pro-industry members,
effectively gutting the law which created it. Facing a
hostile political climate and internal differences, the
UFW, together with the rest of U.S. organized labor,
went into a decade long slump. Today the UFW has only
some 20,000 workers under contract in the states of
California, Texas and Florida.(8)
Last April, after the death of Csar Chavez, the UFW led
a 350-mile pilgrimage to Sacramento, California. By
retracing Chavez's historic march of 30 years ago, the
UFW hoped to rebound from recent setbacks and demand
pro-farmworker action from the Legislature. The 1994
march ended with a rally attended by nearly 13,000
people, demonstrating continued public concern and
support for farmworkers and the UFW. It's still early to
say whether the UFW can recapture its past glory, though
so far this year they have won three elections and
negotiated two new contracts in California, involving
more than 1,000 workers.(9)
Labor Contractors and Corruption
The 1980s saw the rise of independent labor contractors
as key players in the farm industry. These middlemen,
hired by growers to round up laborers and deliver them
to the fields, have a reputation and history of
mistreating farmworkers and cheating them out of a part
of their wages.
Contractors function in the system to shield large
growers from labor actions and legal claims, distancing
them from the actual hiring of workers. When judgements
come down against labor contractors, they often vanish
or put their businesses into bankruptcyQonly to emerge
shortly thereafter in a new place or under a new
The labor sub-contracting system is now a principlal
obstacle to improving the welfare of farmworkers.
Contractors pay less than growers, offer few benefits
and little job security. The incidence of poverty is
higher among contractor employees than among those
directly hired by growers (71% vs. 56%), and they now
make up at least 28% of migrant workers.(11) A key
demand of the labor movement, therefore, is for
legislation that makes growers legally responsible for
their workers, whether or not they use contractors.
Poisoning the People
One of the many health risks farmworkers face is their
exposure to pesticides. National estimates of the number
of farmworkers, farmers, and their families potentially
exposed to pesticides range from 3.2 to 4 million
people. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has
estimated that there are 300,000 acute illnesses and
injuries attributable to the occupational use of
pesticides each year.(12)
Many families are forced to sleep, bathe and cook near
the fields where they work and have no option but to use
water that may be contaminated with pesticides. "We have
to bathe in the irrigation channels by the fields," says
one migrant worker. "We know they are filled with
pesticides, but we can't live without removing the dirt
of our daily work."(13) A 1990 study of migrant children
working on farms in Western New York found that more
than 40% of them had been sprayed while in the
Farmworkers frequently endure stomach ailments,
headaches, rashes, burns, and other pesticide-related
problems. Many suffer and die from cancer, while too
often their babies are born with severe birth defects.
In 1989 farmworker children in two towns of California's
San Joaquin Valley contracted cancer at a rate between
800 and 1200% higher than the national average.(15)
Legislation offers little help without pressure for
enforcement from the public and strong unions. In 1983
the EPA recognized that its worker protection standards
were inadequate to protect farmworkers from exposure to
harmful pesticides and subsequently revised its
standards, which now have once again been found to be
deficient. On April 21, 1994, the EPA planned to
implement new safeguards guaranteed under the Worker
Protection Standards Act. But pressure from growers and
agribusiness persuaded Congress to postpone the date
until January 1, 1995, and further attacks on the
legislation by agribusiness are foreseen by farmworker
Globalization and Farm Labor
In addition to the 1980s Republican rollback at home,
U.S. policies during the decade enforced neo-liberal
structural adjustment programs abroad, leading to the
near collapse of rural economies in Mexico, Central
America and elsewhere.18 The resultant drop in corn
prices throughout the Mesoamerican region has driven
peasants off their lands, and, in many cases, into the
U.S. where the number of farm laborors now far exceeds
demand. This excess labor pool has decreased the
bargaining power of unions and strengthened the hand of
labor contractors and growers. Nothing short of overdue,
but politically difficult policy changes in Latin
America can turn this aspect of the situation around.
The passage of NAFTA has made this more unlikely than
ever, as it locks Mexican corn prices into a fifteen-
year process of "ratcheting down," though Zapatista-
induced political instability may yet make changes
FLOC: Three-way Bargaining and International Organizing
One farmworker union has long stood out for its vision
and strategic ability to plan for the future. The Farm
Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), based in Ohio, has
been defending migrant workers since 1967. FLOC has some
6,000 members and is best known for its innovative
"three-way bargaining" strategy.
When FLOC first began organizing Midwestern tomato
workers striking against individual growers, they
rapidly won contracts only to find growers abandoning
crops because of the squeeze between labor costs and the
low prices paid for tomatoes by processors like the
Campbell's Soup Company. FLOC changed tactics in the
80s, targeting the processors directly with a boycott,
and eventually won a hard-fought agreement creating
annual three-way negotiations between workers, growers
and processors.(20) The agreement recognizes that the
growers are in effect sub-contractors for the
processors, in a way analogous to the role of labor
contractors in agriculture in general.
This strategy has set a major precedent for not only the
agricultural sector, but for labor as a whole. By
revealing the manner in which many industries, like
textiles and clothing, use labor contracting to over-
exploit workers, FLOC has paved the way to innovative
labor organizing in manufacturing as well.
FLOC began by organizing farmworkers in the Midwestern
U.S., obtaining wage increases, better housing and
increased social and health services. But just prior to
winning their initial agreement with Campbell's in 1986,
the first threats were made to move production south. In
fact, Campbell's produces large quantities of processed
tomato products in the Sinaloa Valley in Mexico, and has
repeatedly tried to play off U.S. and Mexican
farmworkers against one another, making them compete to
see who can work for less.
Capital as we know it today has no nationality.It goes
where it wants to, when it wants to, almost however it
wants to, in order to reproduce itself," said Baldemar
Velasquez, FLOC's president. "It dawned on me," said
Velsquez, "that we are citizens of the company we work
for, it makes no sense to exclude Mexican workers from
wage and working conditions negotiations for the same
company. You can't be an isolationist in Michigan when
the same corporation produces in Ohio and Indiana. So
what's the difference when it's the US and Mexico?"(21)
Before NAFTA, FLOC had began to work in consort with
Mexican unions to pressure Campbell's on both sides of
the border, and recently established a US-Mexico union
commission to oversee negotiations in both countries.
They are in the process of contacting their counterparts
in other states and countries to fight for agreements
crop by crop and company by company, and this year
formed a federation of farmworker unions called the
Farmworker Network for Environmental and Economic
Justice, to which eight unions now belong.(22)
Will a Phoenix arise from the Ashes
of U.S. Labor?
The fate of farmworker unions during the 1980s mirrored
that of organized labor in general, as hard-won gains
were eroded or rolled back entirely, and the percentage
of the workforce belonging to unions dropped
precipitously. The UFW, as the biggest target in
agriculture, suffered the most. But as with groups like
Teamsters for a Democratic Union and similar insurgent
forces in other industries, FLOC and some younger unions
developed new strategies that may blossom in the 90s.
Though the international tendency toward free trade
marked by NAFTA and GATT increasingly plays off workers
in one country against those in another, there are signs
that labor is awakening from the doldrums and that a new
generation of leaders is thinking creatively about
trans-border organizing. NAFTA can thus be viewed two
ways: both as a powerful blow against both U.S. and
Mexican workers, but also as a watershed event in the
revitalization of labor. The UFW is showing new signs of
life, and FLOC and other regional unions are picking up
the tempo of organizing. The missing piece of the puzzle
may well be for the U.S. public to awaken to the plight
of migrant farmworkers in the 90s, as it did through the
Grape Boycott in the 70s, forming the apex of a
triangle, the basis of which will be solidarity between
organized workers on both sides of the border.
What can you do?
1. Write an op-ed piece for your local newspaper,
explaining the need to refocus the public's attention on
the plight of US farmworkers.
2. Honor UFW and FLOC boycotts. Offer your time and/or
financial support to these unions; UFW, P.O. Box 62,
Keene, CA 93531, tel. (805) 822-5571, and FLOC, 507 S.
Saint Clair St., Toledo, OH 43602, tel. (419) 243-3456.
3. Support the National Farm Worker Ministry, an
ecumenical organization dedicated to supporting
organizing efforts, boycotts and campaigns. The NFWM
provides information on how to support farmworker
struggles nationally. Contact them at 1337 West Ohio,
Chicago, IL 60622, tel. (312) 829-6436.
4. Contact your legislators and press them to support
the EPA Worker Protection Standard without further
delay. For more information contact the Farmworker
Justice Fund, 2001 S St., NW, suite. 210, Washington,
DC, tel. (202) 462-8192.
5. Get involved with Student Action with Farmworkers
(SAF), an organization which brings farmworkers and
students together to share resources and skills, improve
farmworker conditions and build coalitions for change.
For more information contact SAF at P.O. Box 90803,
Durham, NC 27708, (919) 660-3652.
Bananas and Pineapples
Dole's subsidiary, the Oceanview Produce Company of
Oxnard, CA, is carrying out a campaign of intimidation
against workers and UFW organizers. In June, 1994, the
California Agriculture Labor Relations Board ruled the
UFW official winner of the Oxnard union election, and
issued a complaint against Dole for illegally firing two
employees, discriminating against others for union
activity, denying the UFW access to workers, and
refusing to negotiate. So far Dole has not responded or
changed their practices.(17)
You can help by pressuring Dole. Declare that you will
boycott all Dole products if they do not reinstate
illegally fired workers, end acts of intimidation,
discipline company agents and labor contractors, respect
election results, and negotiate a contract in good
Write to David Murdock, Chair & CEO, Dole Company,
P.O. Box 5132, Westlake Village, CA 91359.
Tel: (800) 232-8888, Fax: (818) 879-6628.
* Shea Cunningham is a research assistant at Food First
and is a co-author of Dark Victory: The US, Structural
Adjustment and Global Poverty.
1. Homeless Farmworkers and Day Laborers: Their
Conditions and Their Impact on the San Diego Region,
Regional Task Force on the Homeless. San Diego, February
1991. p. 8.
2. "March for farm labor reaches Capitol: TPilgrims'
retrace steps Csar Chavez took in 1966," Edgar Sanchez.
San Francisco Examiner, section B-4, 4-24-94.
3. US Farmworkers in the Post-IRCA Period, Research
Report No.4, March 1993. US Department of Labor, Office
of the Assistant Secretary for Policy and Office of
Program Economics. p. 13.
4. "Farmworkers and Pesticides" by Marion Moses in
Confronting Environmental Racism. South End Press,
Boston, 1993. p. 164.
5. A New Cycle of Poverty: Mixtec Migrants in
California Agriculture, Carol Zabin et al. California
Institute of Rural Studies, 1993. p. 1.
6. Food and Justice, United Farm Workers, vol. 6, no.
1, Feb. 1989. p. 2.
7. The Endless Quest: Helping America's Farmworkers,
Philip L Martin and David A Martin, Westview Press,
1994. p. 170.
8. Phone interview with Cruz Philips, Farm Worker
Ministry, July 1994.
9. "Union's Field Work Starts to Bear Fruit," Mark
Arax. Los Angeles Times, 7-18-94.
10. "A Growing Influence," Fred Alvarez. Los Angeles
11. US Farmworkers in the Post-IRCA Period. p. 59
12. Hired Farmworkers: Health and Well-Being at Risk,
US General Accounting Office (Report to Congressional
Requesters). February 1992. p. 3.
13. Food and Justice, United Farmworkers, vol. 6, no.
2, Sept. 1989. p. 9.
14. Hired Farmworkers: Health and Well-Being at Risks.
15. Food and Justice, vol. 6, no. 3, Nov. 1989. p.3.
16. "Congress Delays New Pesticide Standards," Rural
California Report, vol. 5, issue 4, Spring 1994. p.5.
17. Farm Worker Ministry alert.
18. Dark Victory: The United States, Structural
Adjustment and Global Poverty, Walden Bello with Shea
Cunningham and Bill Rau, Food First, 1994.
19. Understanding Chiapas, Peter Rosset with Shea
Cunningham, Food First Action Alert, Spring 1994.
20. "The Power of Organizing: Securing Farmworkers'
Rights," An interview with Baldemr Velsquez.
Multinational Monitor, 5-93. p. 14.
21. 1992 keynote speech by Baldemr Velsquez.
22. Phone interview with Andrea De Urquiza, FLOC, July
Copyright 1994 Food First. All rights reserved. Please
obtain permission from Food First to photocopy.
The Institute for Food & Development Policy -- Food
First -- is a member supported "people's think tank"
that provides the activist community, policy makers, the
media, universities and the general public with
alternative viewpoints and analyses of the issues of
food, hunger and development. If you read this piece
and found it useful we would like you to consider
becoming a member of Food First. Only with the support
of people like yourself can we continue to provide our
brand of independent analysis -- independent of the
government and of major foundations to the extent that
individuals like yourself give us your support.
Please print out and mail us the following coupon:
I'd like to become a member of Food First
Here's my tax deductible donation of $30 $50 $100
All members receive Action Alerts and Food First News &
Views (by mail, laid out and with photos). $40 or more
gives you New Member Plus (includes a one year
subscription to The New Internationalist)
Please send me the following books:
The Greening of Cuba: A National Experiment of Organic
Agriculture, by Peter Rosset and Medea Benjamin
Biodiversity: Social and Economic Consequences, by
Shiva, et. al.
Family Farming: A New Economic Vision, by Marty Strange
Dark Victory: The US, Structural Adjustment and Global
Poverty, by Walden Bello with Shea Cunningham and Bill
Alternatives to the Peace Corps, edited by Annette Olson
Action Alerts: 50 each, 5/$2, 50/$11.50, 100/$17,
Minimum order $2.
Farmworkers in the 90s ____
Greening of Cuba ____
Creating a Wasteland ______
CA residents add 7.5% (Bay Area 8.5%), add $2 per book
Tax deductable donation $100, $50, $30, $20
Charge my : Visa ___ MC___
Send to: Food Fist, 398 60th Street, Oakland, CA 94618
or call: 800-888-3314 or 510-654-4400
or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org