Revolutionary Worker #905, May 4, 1997
Times have been good for the California strawberry industry. In 1995 California growers sold a record $576 million dollars worth of the fruit. And California produced 80 percent of all berries eaten in the United States. From 1974 to 1994 California's output more than tripled and the U.S. doubled its consumption of fresh strawberries. Although growing strawberries can be risky, they are one of the most profitable crops in California--turning annual profits of up to $10,000 to $20,000 per acre. American farmers now receive more money for fresh strawberries each year than for any other fresh fruit except apples.
Meanwhile life is a living hell for the workers who pick the berries. Farmworkers call the strawberry "la fruta del diablo"--the fruit of the devil. "Working in the fields is hard," a 38-year-old farmworker told the San Francisco Chronicle, "but working in the strawberry fields is the hardest of all." While strawberry production booms the real wages earned by the farmworkers have plummeted. According to one study the hourly wages of California farmworkers, adjusted for inflation, have fallen 53 percent since 1985.
Years of picking strawberries literally sucks the life out of the workers. The life expectancy of a strawberry picker in the U.S. is just 49 years--over 20 years less than average for the country as a whole!
Spring is the start of the strawberry season in California which lasts nine months. And the stage is now set for an important battle as 20,000 strawberry workers fight for decent conditions and union contracts with the United Farm Workers Union.
Strawberry plants are 4 or 5 inches tall and grow in beds 8 to 12 inches high. To pick the strawberries, farmworkers have to bend over from the waist for 10 to 12 hours. Many suffer permanent injuries to their backs, causing constant pain. And harvesting strawberries requires more than stamina; it also takes skill. Strawberries are extremely fragile and bruise easily. Workers must select only the berries of the right size, firmness, shape, and color. They must know how to arrange the berries neatly in a basket to catch a shoppers' eye. The worker is often responsible for tending plants and picking berries. The irrigation system has to be checked continuously. Rotting berries have to be tossed away or they will spoil the rest.
The workers slave in conditions that are not fit for animals. While elaborate irrigation systems are used to bring water to the strawberries there is often no fresh water available to the workers. Bathrooms, if available, are usually filthy, with no running water.
There is no seniority system for strawberry workers. Strawberry pickers who have worked for years must line up each year to be hired again. And when their bodies, ravaged by years of hard labor, can't pick the berries as fast as a younger worker they may not be able to find any work to feed themselves or their families. It is common for woman farmworkers to face demands for sex in exchange for employment.
The state of California estimates that the average strawberry worker earns only $8,500 during the nine-month season. This is little more than half of the absurdly low $15,000 poverty level for a family of four. Most workers earn between $5 to $6 an hour with some earning less than minimum wage.
These sub-poverty level wages mean that the strawberry workers are constantly on the edge of not being able to feed their families. A recent article in The Nation told of an 18-year-old woman, a single mother, who had already worked four years in the strawberries fields making only $30 per day. Her expenses for bare necessities total $700 a month for her and her baby while her wages are only $750. She was fired for passing out union buttons on the job.
Pesticides are used extensively in strawberry growing and are a major health risk to the workers. A look at the use of toxic chemicals in the strawberry fields reveals that the state government officials, politicians, and the growers value profits over the life and health of the workers.
One of the main chemicals used in growing strawberries is methyl bromide. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified methyl bromide as a Category I acute toxin--its most deadly category of substances. Methyl bromide is toxic to the central nervous system and damages lungs, kidneys, eyes and the skin. It has been shown to cause birth defects in lab animals. It was banned as a residential fumigant in 1990, after people died because of it. But it's still used in the fields.
Strawberry fields are covered with plastic before the methyl bromide is pumped into the ground. The plastic is supposed to prevent the toxin from leaking too far away from where the strawberry workers work. Neighborhoods have been evacuated due to drifting methyl bromide and scientists believe it depletes the ozone. Workers have to go into the fields immediately after the methyl bromide is sprayed and shovel dirt over the edges of the plastic. One worker who did this job for several years said he had to stop due to recurring vision problems. "If you're not fast enough you get hit with little blasts of poison."
Many workers say the pesticides have caused permanent dimming of their vision, loss of feeling in their fingers, welts and raised spots on their skin. Methyl bromide was scheduled to be banned in 1996 but California Governor Pete Wilson called a special session of the legislature to delay the ban when strawberry growers claimed it would hurt production.
Methyl bromide is not the only poison in the fields. In 1992 strawberry growers used 11,400 pounds of Benomyl, 40,000 pounds of Captan, 11,500 pounds of copper products and 368,000 pounds of sulphur. Captan is an agent known to cause cancer. It was banned for use on many crops in 1989. But its use on strawberries and a few other crops was permitted when the industry argued that banning it would cost them too much. Federal regulations require that workers who enter the fields within 48 hours of Captan treatment must wear protective clothing. The strawberry industry was able to get a special exemption so that they could send workers unprotected into Captan treated fields after only 24 hours. Captan use in strawberry fields has increased sevenfold over the last six years.
"Perhaps half the migrants in San Diego County--at least 14,000 people--are now living outdoors. The shortage of low income housing became acute in the early 1980s and large shantytowns began to appear, some containing hundreds of crude shacks. As suburbs encroached on agricultural land in northern San Diego County, wealthy commuters and strawberry pickers became neighbors. At one large shantytown that I visited, women were doing their laundry in a stream not far from a walled compound with tennis courts, a pool and a sign promising COUNTRY CLUB LIVING."
Eric Schlosser in a 1995 Atlantic article describing strawberry workers' housing outside of San Diego
In the 1960s, many farmers provided housing, though substandard, to their workers. Federal laws were enacted 10 years ago to set standards for such housing. And many growers responded, not by improving the housing, but getting rid of it altogether. As a result, farmworkers must pay for their own shelter, a cost that often claims at least one-third of their pay. And many now have to pay $15-25 a week for rides to work since they no longer live on the farm.
Eric Schlosser describes how, rather than build decent housing for farmworkers, the authorities have declared "states of emergency" and bulldozed many large encampments. This has forced the workers to go even deeper into hiding. He describes a newer camp which he had to get to through a hole in a chain link fence and tall bushes that were "like a medieval maze." "We came upon the first shack--short and low, more like a tent, just silver trash bags draped over a wooden frame....They were built of plywood and camouflaged. Branches and leaves had been piled on their roofs..."
In Watsonville, many workers live in small houses, seven or eight people in a room. Others pay $100 to 200 a month to sleep in a garage with anywhere from four to 10 other people. A recent survey in Soledad (in California's agricultural central valley) found 1,500 people living in garages--about a quarter of the town's official population. Sometimes workers pay to sleep in parked cars. Newer workers often sleep outdoors. A few years ago, on hillsides overlooking the Salinas Valley, hundreds of strawberry workers were found living in caves.
The majority of strawberry workers are undocumented. They are driven to the U.S. by hunger and wages in Mexico that are $5 a day or lower. The wages they earn in the U.S. are not enough to support a family here. But it is up to ten times what they could earn in Mexico. An increasing number of strawberry workers are Mixtec Indians from Oaxaca (a province in Mexico). The Mixtec Indians are some of the poorest and most exploited peoples in the hemisphere. A professor of anthropology at the University of California at Riverside described the choice facing the Mixtecs: "migrate or starve."
The Mixtec Indians face a perilous route to the strawberry fields. In Mexico City they run a gauntlet of officials demanding bribes. In San Diego County they have been the target of what racists call "beaner raids,"--random beatings by racist white teenagers from the suburbs, Marines from Camp Pendleton, or other organized racists.
One of the lies told by anti-immigrant forces is that undocumented workers are a "drain on the economy." The reality is that these workers are subsidizing an important section of agriculture in the United States. In the late 1970's, at the height of the United Farm Workers organizing, there were an estimated 200,000 migrant farmworkers in the U.S. Today it is estimated that there are around 900,000.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, anti-union and pro-grower policies by the state have led to union workers being fired and replaced by undocumented workers. The share of every dollar spent on strawberries that goes to the workers has declined from 17.5 cents in 1985 to 9.2 cents in 1995.
In response to widespread support for the struggle of the strawberry workers, the media and the growers are trying to portray a typical strawberry grower as a small farmer who is being victimized by the unions. This is a big lie. At one time the strawberry industry in California was a highly fractured business consisting of many growers and a weak distribution system. Today, however, a pyramid structure of large corporations and mega-growers dominate the industry.
At the top of the pyramid are the eight large cooler-shipper corporations--Driscoll, Well-Pict, Gargiulo and others. Gargiulo is a subsidiary of the Calgene Corporation, which is in turn owned by Monsanto--a giant corporation, worth over $8 billion, that makes Nutrasweet among other things. Because they control the cooling and shipping of the strawberries (strawberries have to be cooled immediately after picking or they will spoil), the cooler companies are able to dominate the growers. The cooler companies set standards for the industry--everything from the types of berries grown to the pesticides used and the number of acres farmed.
The next level in the pyramid are the growers. A relatively small number of large strawberry growing corporations dominate the industry. Forty-two large growers account for 70 percent of the strawberry acreage in California and the top 10 growers account for 26 percent.
Many of the so-called small growers in the region are actually subcontractors. These subcontractors are often referred to as sharecroppers even though these arrangements are different than classical sharecropping. About half of California's strawberry "growers" are subcontractors. According to Eric Schlosser, these arrangements "have often resembled not so much a type of agricultural production as an elaborate, well-organized fraud."
Subcontractors in the strawberry industry are farmworkers who are offered the chance "to own their own land and become growers." The land owner dictates virtually everything about the growing of strawberries. The subcontractor must borrow and rent machinery from the owner who sets the price. The owner loans money to the subcontractor and charges interest rates as high as 19 percent. Once harvested, the strawberries must be sold to the landowner at a price set by the owner. Often the amount paid is substantially below the going rate. Almost all subcontractors end up deep in debt to landowners. One California Rural Legal Assistance attorney said, "It's basically a form of debt peonage."
The complex social and economic relationships in the strawberry industry are very beneficial and profitable for the large corporations. They profit from the super-exploitation of the strawberry pickers while trying to escape responsibility for the conditions of the workers. This is similar to what Nike does when it hires subcontractors in Indonesia to make shoes. The subcontractor pays the workers $1 a day and Nike rakes in the profits. Because of this web of relationships the UFW has said that it is targeting the whole strawberry industry including the giant cooler-shippers.
Strawberry workers organizing for decent conditions face violence and firing. Anti-union thugs have beaten up union organizers and pro-union workers. Many workers have been fired for supporting the union. Workers are threatened with the possibility that the growers will call in the INS to deport those who support the union.
A strike by strawberry workers at a Watsonville grower, VCNM, two years ago, says a lot about what the workers are up against. The workers, upset about working conditions and mistreatment of workers, including sexual harassment of women workers, marched off the job and down to the UFW office. Two days later they voted for UFW representation with 87 percent of the workers voting for the union.
Instead of negotiating with the union VCNM plowed under its fields, ripping the jobs away from more than 400 workers. A VCNM foreman told workers that all strawberry growers have agreed not to hire VCNM employees who supported the strike. Later a foreman said that workers who opposed the strike would get jobs at a new ranch operated by VCNM management.
The strawberry growers hope that these kinds of tactics will crush and demoralize the workers. However, there is a legacy of decades of struggle by farmworkers against all sorts of brutal attacks. And the farmworkers have many allies in this battle, as the huge march in Watsonville on April 13 revealed.
We are on the edge of the 21st century, yet workers are living in caves and unable to feed their children after working 10 or 12 hour days. This capitalist system treats our brothers and sisters, who harvest the food that feed us all, worse than animals. It's time is up!
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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