Blood On The Field

In the California heat, strawberry-pickers die at 50. Even so, union-busters went in and tension ripened into all-out war
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The Independent Culture
WHEN, ON A fresh clear morning last July, a small group of anti-union agitators moved in on a field full of strawberry pickers in the farmlands of central California and started beating them up, Sandra Rocha had every reason to think she would be a target. In a sense, as others in the company had muttered to her for weeks, she had been asking for it.

For two years she had been renting living space off her foreman, one of the most dedicated anti-unionists in the company where they both worked, and she had also been offered promotion and better money on the understanding that she would do her bit to keep United Farm Workers activists at arm's length from the fields. In fact, Rocha had herself joined the farmworkers' union and started to recruit others - something she began under a veil of great secrecy but had gradually become more open about. She had already been on the receiving end of intimidating threats. So when fists began to fly on the Coastal Berry Company's Silliman Ranch on the outskirts of Watsonville on the morning of 1 July, there were plenty of disgruntled people delighted at a chance to get even with her.

At first she was just jostled. Then an anti-unionist, whose husband was the company's Inland Division supervisor and another staunch anti-unionist, screamed insults at her and hurled a full crate of strawberries at her head - a gesture that was captured by a local television cameraman and subsequently broadcast on news programmes up and down the West Coast. Things might have got nastier still but for the presence of the media and a hastily assembled platoon of 50-odd riot police, who came under heavy attack themselves before finally taking control of the situation. As it was, at least five people were hurt badly enough to require hospital treatment, including one policeman.

"We want justice, and punishment for those who attacked us!" Rocha proclaimed angrily after the assault as several of her colleagues, their shirts ripped and bloodied, staggered around in a concussive daze. But it was not to be, or not the way she envisaged. Of the agitators involved, just one was arrested - for apparently attacking a police officer with a length of pipe - and he was released almost immediately. Rocha, on the other hand, lost her job shortly afterwards and has depended ever since on union- organised assistance to feed herself and her two children.

When her fellow picker Efren Vargas, one of the victims of the violence, asked his superiors why they had stood idly by instead of working to prevent intruders coming into the fields, he was told in explicit terms that he and his friends had been punished for their union activities. "That's good they fucked you up," Vargas said he was told, "to get the stupidity out of you."

The "stupidity" is in fact one of the bitterest struggles to unionise California's farmworkers since the pioneering days of Cesar Chavez, the legendary founder of the United Farm Workers, in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The strawberry industry is a particularly fraught battle-ground for labour relations because it relies on skilled pickers to work at high speed for long hours each day to garner the fruit in the brief interval between ripening and turning to mush. Labour costs account for at least 40 per cent of overall production expenses, making them a constant target for company accountants watching their bottom line.

California's growers have in fact engineered a major boom for themselves over the past 25 years, taking advantage of the long season (at least six months a year) and the fertility of the soil to triple output and push their share of the US strawberry market to more than 80 per cent. This success, however, has come largely through the exploitation of immigrant workers from Mexico, whose living standards started out pitifully low and, until the unionisation drive started in earnest three years ago, were falling ever lower. Days are usually 12 hours long and punishing on the back; the average life expectancy for a strawberry picker is just 49.

Since 1989, the UFW has tried three times to organise union elections among the workers of strawberry-producing companies, only to see the company in question each time decide to plough over the fields, dismiss all its employees, and start again with a fresh workforce in a different location. In 1996, the UFW launched a major strawberry campaign after reporting that many workers were living in shacks or caves with no access to clean water, toilets or medical care. Women complained of being forced to perform sexual favours in exchange for employment. Overtime was going unpaid and salaries were declining in real terms. Because everyone worked on short- term contracts lasting no more than one season, anybody who tried to complain was simply fired and replaced.

Even without a formal structure, the very presence of the UFW has brought improvements in sanitation and housing, and the restitution of at least half a million dollars in back-pay. The UFW had high hopes of achieving a major breakthrough this year, but has found itself coming up against a deeply entrenched, almost primeval power structure in which worker rights are restrained by a powerful agglomeration of political and commercial interests.

The picture that emerges from the union's sworn testimony and conversations with ordinary pickers is not unlike the organisation of the great landed estates in Sicily at the end of the last century: a near-feudal system in which the rights of the lowliest workers are kept in check by a class of hand-picked members of the peasantry (in Sicily, the nascent Mafia; in this case, Mexicans willing to enforce the industry's anti-union policies). These act as foremen and supervisors and run their own power structure based on intimidation and violence against their own people.

Sandra Rocha's story is instructive because she started out with no preconceived idea about labour organisation. After two years working as a picker, she and her family moved into a garage belonging to one of her foremen, which she had heard advertised on the radio. Soon she was promoted to be a puncher - someone who checks the quality of a picker's work and certifies it by marking a punch-card. "I got the promotion not because I deserved it but because my landlord wanted to be sure I could pay the rent," she said. "Also, I was getting my rides to work from the landlady. Punchers work shorter hours than pickers, so she didn't need to hang around while I finished my shift."

With the promotion, though, came the understanding that she would become an anti-union activist. "I was told that if someone was a UFW supporter I had to double-check their work, be tough about the tiniest things. There was a union/management neutrality agreement so I didn't understand why all this was going on."

Rocha began informing the union of what she was witnessing. She says she saw UFW workers coming to the fields at lunchtime, as the agreement with the company allowed, only to be scared off by groups of thugs who confronted them head-on. She claims she was ordered to keep workers away from UFW meetings so it would look as if they had no support. Finally, she was told to wear anti-union caps and badges - something she refused to do. As the tension rose in May and June, Rocha was demoted from her puncher job, along with a number of others suspected of "unsound" attitudes to the union, and - after her husband let a number of UFW activists into their garage without thinking about the consequences - had to find herself new housing in a big rush.

The violence of 1 July came on the second of two days of work stoppages organised by anti-union truck drivers. UFW sympa-thisers were the only ones out in the fields, which made them an easily identifiable target. The attack, as it turned out, was only the most visible moment in what they believe has become a concerted anti-union campaign.

Two weeks later, the man arrested for assaulting a policeman emerged as the main petitioner for the establishment of a workers' representation group called the Coastal Berry Farmworkers' Committee. The idea was to hold an election in short order; the UFW suspected that the committee was no more than an anti-union front and refused to participate in any vote. In the run-up to the election, which was sanctioned by the ALRB - the Agricultural Labor Relations Board - and took place on 23 July, a flurry of new complaints about worker intimidation were made. Union pickers were told they had to sign the petition for the election or else risk being fired. The few who resisted this pressure found themselves under a constant barrage of intimidation, according to the union.

"The foremen played games with each other, daring each other to issue tickets [for substandard work] and fire people," said Lupe Lara, a pro- union picker with 15 years' experience who lost his job the day after the election. "If I got up for a minute to catch my breath, the foreman would say 'no, no' and force me to stoop down again. They told me: 'We're going to fire you, we're going to fire you.'"

After the vote, which the hitherto unknown committee won unopposed, that threat was carried out to the letter. The man who usually drove Lara to work failed to show. When Lara called in to explain what had happened, he was told he had been dismissed. He turned up for work again the next day to be told he had been let go because he had missed five working days in a row. "That's not true and I have my punch cards to prove it," he said. He is now fighting his dismissal with the ALRB.

Others have shared a similar fate. A husband who was dismissed continued to drive his wife to work at the fields because she had no other transport. He was then told that he had no right to approach the fields because of his dismissal, and his wife, unable to arrange alternative transport, lost her job shortly after as well.

The UFW is fighting back on all fronts, accusing the Farmworkers' Committee of being an illegal front for the company and producing cheque stubs it says proves that the operation is being bankrolled by numerous interest groups in Californian agribusiness. Certainly, it is hard to see what kind of union the committee is: even Coastal Berry's president, David Smith, has admitted it has no platform and plans no agitation for improved work conditions. It does not even intend to collect union dues.

What makes all this so strange is that Coastal's owner, David Gladstone, has made clear he wants UFW intimidation to stop - this summer he recently consented to a non-aggression pact with the UFW known as a neutrality agreement. This month he even took the extraordinary step of filing complaints himself, only to have them rejected by the ALRB on the grounds that a company cannot make a complaint against itself. But Gladstone is a continent away in Maclean, Virginia, and unionist are pessimistic that his record of cooperation with organised labour can be repeated in California.

"There are big interests at stake here all the way along the line," explained Beka Langen, a UFW organiser based in nearby Salinas. "Landowners would perhaps no longer give Coastal the land if unionisation went ahead."

Coastal's president and other company officials have made little effort to give their account of recent events. After the confrontation of 1 July, David Smith sought to describe the violence as no more than UFW propaganda, even though much of it had been captured on television. Since the contested election, he has scarcely talked at all.

The ALRB, which has endured considerable criticism for recognising the Farmworkers' Committee election, has seemed similarly cowed. At a rowdy meeting with Coastal pickers this month, the ALRB's regional director Freddie Capuyan deflected every searching question by claiming he was not familiar with the details. All the suits filed by the UFW appeared to be proceeding with painful slowness. Nothing about the ALRB building seems designed to make the pickers welcome: it is decorated with Asian, not Hispanic, art, and Capuyan himself speaks no Spanish - the lingua franca of the fieldworkers.

Since the Seventies, when the UFW was riding high and the ALRB was an energetic champion of the workers' cause, the political pendulum has swung round completely to the side of the companies. California's labour laws have been relaxed and contract workers have increasingly been replaced with illegal or semi-legal immigrants whose vulnerable status makes them easy to manipulate.

Agricultural lobbyists have even managed to delay bans on highly toxic pesticides like methyl bromide, which wreaks such havoc on the atmosphere that fields have to be covered in heavy sheeting as it is injected into the ground. Another pesticide called Captan, which has been shown in some tests to cause cancer and severe eye damage, is supposed to be applied only if humans stay away from the treated area for 48 hours; California's strawberry industry, however, has negotiated a special waiver empowering its companies to send the workers back after just 24 hours.

Pesticides are an issue right at the top of the UFW's list. Workers regularly suffer dizziness or nausea, either because they are working a recently sprayed field or because of drifting from other fields nearby. "Often workers are given no advance notice, they just see the signs when they arrive at work. And even then it is not always clear what the waiting period should be," Beka Langen said.

As the unionisation battle has intensified, it has also spread beyond California's borders. Most of the pickers come from the southwestern Mexican region of Michoacan, which enjoys a similar landscape and climate to the rolling hills of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. The UFW has sent missions down there to teach would-be emigrants about the treatment they can expect if they work in the Californian strawberry fields. Anti-unionist groups have also travelled there, offering jobs on condition that the applicants shun the UFW when they reach America.

And all this in an industry that makes around $650m a year, but pays its 20,000-odd workers less than $10,000 on average for a season of back- breaking work. The percentage of company revenue going to the workers actually halved between the mid-Eighties and mid-Nineties, according to official statistics.

The UFW argues that increasing the price of a pint of strawberries by five cents would be enough to guarantee the workers a livable wage and decent conditions - a campaign cry now supported by several US supermarket chains. "I've left my sweat and my life in the fields," Lupe Lara said. "All I am after is just treatment for what I have done."

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