Peasants work in the winter harvest in fields of California.
By December in Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley, on California’s central coast, the work season is coming to an end for most farm workers. Many campesino families, who travel north to Oregon and Washington for the strawberry and fruit harvests during the summer and fall, have returned. Hopefully they’ve saved enough money to last through the winter until work here starts again in the spring.
A lucky few manage to get work during the winter. The last strawberries are still being picked, although there’s not much fruit in the rows any longer. Pruning in the grapevines doesn’t begin until January.
Some crops in the valley last through the winter, though. This is planting season for broccoli, a beautiful and delicious flower originally brought to North America by Italian immigrants.
Like many crops, its cultivation has become very systematized. On most modern farms, no longer does anyone scatter seeds on the damp earth. Instead, the first broccoli seedlings are grown in nurseries. Then, when the plants are a few inches tall, they’re put into plastic flats and loaded onto trucks for the journey to the field.
There workers sit on a mechanical planter, pulled through the field by a tractor. As it moves, they drop seedlings into plastic tubes, which then guide the young plants into the mechanism that inserts them into the dirt. Behind the planter come other workers, who catch the places the mechanical harvester misses.
Still, on some ranches, the old system prevails. There seeds are planted along the rows, and when they sprout, they need to be thinned so that each plant has room to grow. Workers work their way down the rows, chopping away the excess plants.
And on some ranches, the tool passed out by ranch foremen to do this chopping is an old enemy of farm workers — the short handled hoe, or “el cortito”. Workers using a regular hoe can work standing up. But a short handled hoe makes them bend over almost double. Foremen believe that this makes workers space the plants more accurately, and makes them work faster.
Even a day at such labor produces a lot of pain, and years spent using this illegal tool can lead to degenerated disks and other spinal injuries. In 1972, Mo Jourdane, a lawyer for California Rural Legal Assistance, filed a demand with the state’s Division of Industrial Safety, to stop California growers from using this tool. In 1975, under pressure from the United Farm Workers, Governor Jerry Brown, then in his first term, forced state regulators to implement a ban.
Yet some growers still haven’t heard the news.
Perhaps they believe there’s no longer a movement to enforce the ban. And in fact, conditions for California farm workers may have improved in some ways in the last three decades, but in others they have fallen backwards.
Finally, the planters and thinners leave the fields. Then irrigators come last. They lay out and connect the pipes to the well pumps, bringing water into the field, and screw on the sprinkler heads. As they open the valves, dry sandy dirt turns dark brown under the spray, and the troughs between the rows fill with water and mud. Even in the winter in a coastal valley, California is still a semi-desert. Joseph DiGeorgio, the king of California agribusiness and its largest grower for decades, said the state’s produce was made up of water, labor, more labor, and freight to bring it to market. With no irrigation, and with no workers, there would
certainly be no broccoli.
In other related news in immigration and immigrants rights
Growing clash between immigrant rights activists and washington dc power brokers
This fall, when Congress couldn’t pass immigration reform bills — even ones deeply unpopular among many immigrants themselves — one of the most important responses came from Oaxaca. In the capital of this southern Mexico state a representative of a Silicon Valley union sat down with a state agency and an organization of indigenous migrants, and signed an agreement for mutual cooperation.
All three groups pledged to work to protect the rights of Oaxacans who have migrated to the U.S. — about 800,000 now live in California alone. “Our objective,” the agreementreads, “is the protection of the human and labor rights of Oaxacan workers and their families, in the food and commercial industries.”
It lists a number of shared commitments, including explaining to immigrant workers their labor rights in the U.S., helping them file claims when they’re hurt at work, and advocating for them when they face government agencies.
According to Gerardo Dominguez, a union leader, “we have a state government in Oaxaca that’s willing to do something beyond its borders to help its people who now live here. Our relationship can grow in ways that will help our union, and give these workers much more power over their own lives.” The agreement was signed also by Rufino Dominguez, director of the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants (IOAM), and Bernardo Ramirez, the binational coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB).
The need for an agreement like this was dramatized this year by the debate over the “comprehensive immigration reform” bills in Congress.
While one of them, passed by the Senate in June, S. 744, does contains some protections for immigrant workers trying to organize unions, it also contains vastly increased enforcement measures that would lead to the firing and deportation of thousands of undocumented people. Even harsher bills in the House of Representatives contain stricter enforcement terms with no worker protections at all. Labor unions have been a vocal critic of those measures, particularly the provision that would require all employers to use the government’s E-Verify system to identify, and then fire, workers without legal immigration status.