Finding the Proletariat in the Fields of California
Revolutionary Worker #1086, January 14, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
The following presentation, given by some youth who have done social investigation for the new programme, was presented at the RCP 25th Anniversary Celebration in the San Francisco/Bay Area.
Introduction by the MC: As many people here know the RCP is in the process of forging a new programme for revolution right here in the belly of the beast. All around the country a lot of new people have been working with our Party to investigate the conditions of the people in order to help contribute to the upcoming draft of this new programme. So now we're going to hear from some of the youth who have been working on this task here in the Bay Area. They've been out among the farm workers, they've interviewed factory workers, and they took part in investigating the conditions in the Oakland Public Schools as it affects the life of the youth.
XXX: As the RCYB, we went through a process to find out who is the proletariat and why they are on this historic mission. This process included digging into Marxism-Leninism-Maoism deeply and dealing with fundamental questions of communism. And all of the youth who took part in this investigation learned quite a bit. The system says we are ridiculous--that there hasn't been a working class here since the 1970s. They say, "Where are the auto plants? Where are the factories?" And when we went out to the schools and the fields--Bam!--there they were. We found the proletariat in the structure, amongst the service industry, farm labor, in the sweatshops where they force people to slave to death producing clothes and computer chips. And the youth are being trained in the educational system to be the next generation of the working class, all of whom are a part of the world international class of the proletariat. And now we are going to hear some stories of our class.
YYY: One thing I want to say overall as a reflection of doing work on this programme is that in all the stories we hear in the mainstream media, about "the booming economy" and how well the economy is doing, there is an entire section of people who have been made completely invisible to public knowledge. We have no idea that right here in the Bay Area there are sweatshops, there is a massive proletariat that lives at starvation levels, people forced to work 12 to 14 hour days every single day. People who have to pay $100 a week for the privilege of sleeping on somebody's floors. Conditions like this have been made completely invisible to us and learning about the conditions of these workers was part of the process of doing investigation for the new programme.
One of the things that I got to do was I helped interview an immigrant worker from Mexico. He works at a mattress factory. He works 12 to 14 hour days at the factory every single day of the year. He gets one day off a year--Christmas. He's done this for years. This is the lot that they give you when you come to this country. He and his family share a small two-bedroom house with two other families. I was in that house--it's not very big. He had some education in Mexico, he studied civil engineering. He's been here for eight years and he still hopes that someday he can finish his education so that he can make a better life for himself and his children.
As I listened to this man I was reminded of the story of Sisyphus--a well-known Greek story about a man who is doomed to forever push a heavy boulder up a hill but just as it gets to the top it rolls back down and he has to go back and start all over again. And he does this over and over and over again, repeating the same process forever. And this man, even though he's worked so hard and every time he does he gets nowhere, he told us he still retains the hope that if he can just work hard enough he'll get somewhere. And it broke my heart because I know deep down in my heart, and I think that he knows deep down in his heart, that he probably won't. The reason why he retains this hope even though it probably won't happen is because people can't live without hope.
The reason why I am a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade is because I believe firmly that we can give people real hope, based on the history of our class and the history of our people and the real struggle that it is going to take to bring this fucking system down and give the millions of people like this man a real chance at a better life for himself and his children.
ZZZ: On May 5, I woke up at 6:00 in the morning so that I could observe the conditions of those who work the fields in Salinas, California. The group of us had to get there early in the day in order to catch the workers. We learned their hours of work were from 6 in the morning to around late afternoon. Driving around the numerous fields we park at one where people are working for Dole which is linked to the company Bud Antle.
We step out to talk to the line of busy people picking lettuce. They all appeared to be Mexican. It was difficult for me to ask questions because I don't know how to speak Spanish so I stuck by someone in our group who translated their responses. All the while working, men would bend over to cut the lettuce while women would wrap it and add it to the other piles of lettuce. Every other lettuce head they would skip and pick the next one. When we asked them why they did this they told us they had to pick a limited amount, otherwise there would be too much for the market and prices would go down. We sort of winked our eyes and asked them if they ever retrieved the remaining food to take home but they defensively nodded in fear of losing their jobs.
The sun was throbbing and all of the workers were fully clothed with long sleeves and scarves over their faces to keep them unexposed to the sun. One of the workers had a large piece of lettuce shielding his face from the sun, which concerned us because of the dangers of pesticides.
We talked to many different people, most of whom had similar stories about coming to the U.S. from Mexico. Many said they either lived in a small apartment with many others, in order to afford it, or they worked the fields while their families and children live in Mexico. The only woman who spoke English, who we assumed was a foreman, told us the conditions were better and that all people working for Bud were documented, otherwise they wouldn't be employed by the company. This was proven wrong when we talked later with a man who had just arrived from crossing the border ready to work for Bud the next morning. They told us 30% of the workers were residents of Salinas while the other 70% followed the crops. We asked one female worker what the worst fieldwork was and she responded "pulling celery" because it requires bending down for extensive hours which is bad for her back.
We visited a lettuce field and then a strawberry field. Strawberry picking appeared to be the most tedious work because it required bending down while walking and picking at the same time. They were packaging the strawberries right after picking them into the same plastic cartons sold in grocery stores.
Visiting the camps, which many of the male workers live in, was a very shocking experience for me because it was blatantly evident how many sacrifices are made to work in these fields. The rooms are very small, housing 6 to 11 people. They sleep on steel-framed beds, similar to the ones in prison, with a very thin mattress. Some of them are confined to bunk beds. Women are not allowed to visit the camps. Walls had signs that said, "no se permiten prostitutas" (no prostitutes allowed). The rooms have no insulation, and this brought the most complaints because it gets very cold at night. I remember the only thing I could identify with in the small room, which looked so alienating at the time, was a brand new Sony stereo, similar to the one that is in my room. The bright glowing lights of the stereo looked so out of place to the conditions they endured. These conditions are clear in black and white: they are avoided by society and any government help, especially after Proposition 187 passed, keeping undocumented workers from health care and education. These immigrant workers are needed primarily to support the growth of agriculture here while their own countries are starving due to U.S. imperialist globalization. When we asked if any of them attended school they said their days were too busy and they had families to tend to.
At the time I was working a retail job at a fabric store getting the relatively low amount of $7.75 for cutting fabric and ringing people up. I couldn't believe I was getting paid the same amount as these farm workers--when the nation doesn't depend on my labor to keep from starving. These people have families in other countries to feed, bills to pay for their crowded apartments and camps, along with money needed for transportation and food. The men in the camps said they each had to pay $85 a week, $350 a month for the third of a room they were each entitled to. Some of the farm workers were on a contract that claimed to pay more depending on how much lettuce was packed. Each box they packed contained more than a dozen heads of lettuce-- they got $1.29 for this, which is barely enough to buy one head of lettuce. When we asked one of the workers what he would change he responded, "That I be paid more. Everything is really expensive. With what we earn here a family of five cannot survive." Taking into account the expenses their money has to stretch for, minimum wage is nothing more than slave wages.
Being a witness to the reality of what it takes and who these people are that raise the crops enlightened me to who the proletariat is. Boxes of lettuce picked and packaged come straight from those fields into less economically challenged homes. I discovered what society has claimed as globalization is very one-sided. These companies are taking advantage of all the cheap, miserable labor they can get away with while all the while convincing them that they are "lucky to have it."
It was easy to suspect many of the workers were undocumented, and this vulnerability remains a threat to the people and can easily be used against them. Which makes it easier for the government to ignore any basic needs such as health care and education claiming them to be illegal aliens once their work is done.
I am always reminded of what a carton of strawberries or a head of lettuce takes when I visit the local grocery stores, tempted to tell all the other shoppers how the food they place in their grocery baskets gets there.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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