from the pages of October 1995

../


 

Strawberry FarmWorker Organizing

By Robert C. Dash

 

Oregon’s agriculturally-rich, western Willamette Valley has been struck by two major seismic convulsions in the past two years. The 1993 "Spring Break" earthquake caused widespread structural damage throughout the Willamette Valley, demonstrating to its shocked inhabitants that they share a vulnerability which until then had been only associated with Oregon’s southern neighbor -- California. The Willamette Valley’s vulnerability to seismic activity was demonstrated for a second time this summer, when its important agribusiness sector was shaken by the largest ever labor organizing effort in the region. At a time when organized labor in many U.S. industries is on the defensive, the organizing of migrant farm workers in Oregon is a bold effort to initiate change of historical dimensions for one of the most vulnerable labor sectors in the region.

While it is overshadowed by the tremendous dimensions of California’s agricultural production, Oregon is nonetheless one of the top producing states in the country. Surpassing its better known forest products and tourism industries, agriculture is Oregon’s leading industry, generating some $3.1 billion yearly in direct economic output. The Willamette Valley -- anchored by Portland on the north and Eugene 100 miles to the south -- contributes nearly 50 percent of the state’s total value in agricultural output and is the state’s most diversified agricultural region, producing such high-value specialty crops as grass seed, hazelnuts, hops, wine grapes, nursery products, and berries.

The first harvest of the summer season is strawberries in June. Nearly all of the state’s strawberry growers are located in the Willamette Valley where, in 1994 (an average year) 72 million pounds of strawberries were produced, earning growers almost $31 million. While strawberries are only the state’s 20th crop by gross dollar sales, the harvest is watched closely by all growers and food processors because the success of that harvest indicates how well crops have endured the winter. Also, importantly, the presence of a "good" labor supply for the month-long harvest signals to growers that adequate numbers of pickers will be available for the subsequent harvest of other labor-intensive crops, such as caneberries, cherries, cucumbers and hops.

The production and profitability of strawberries can be adversely affected by several conditions: a late frost, too much rain and not enough sun, too much sun and not enough rain, or an insufficient labor force. Strawberry growers complain about the difficulties they face in squeezing a profit from their crop, given their high production costs, the competition provided by strawberries grown in California (the country’s largest producer by far), Mexico and elsewhere, and the fact that processing companies determine what will be paid for the crop (90 percent of Oregon strawberries are processed). However, growers continue to plant strawberries because they remain a prestige and potentially high-profit crop; the industry anticipates that markets abroad (especially in the Pacific Rim countries) will continue to expand for the high quality Oregon berry; and many of the (largest) processors are producer cooperatives which growers control and from which they receive annual dividends above and beyond what they are paid for their crops. While strawberry acreage in the Willamette Valley demonstrates an erratic pattern over the past two decades, it has increased each year during the 1990s.

The rotten core of the strawberry industry -- one that growers refuse to acknowledge or for which they disclaim any responsibility -- is that the harvest is totally dependent upon a coercive and corrupt labor system that is not unlike indentured slavery. About three-quarters of the approximately 30,000-35,000 farm workers who move into the Willamette Valley for the strawberry harvest are recruited through a labor contracting system that exploits the continuing economic deterioration of rural Mexico. A majority of the workers arrive directly from Mexico (mostly from the traditional "sending" region of Central Mexico but increasingly from the heavily indigenous southern state of Oaxaca) or via California where they have worked its earlier strawberry harvest. A substantial number, many without legal documents, come from year-round residency on the West Coast. Additionally, a sizable minority are local "settled out" residents, some with and some without legal documents. The general characteristics of the migrant labor force -- the majority without legal documents, being hundreds or thousands of miles from their family support networks, not being conversant in English (or, in some cases, Spanish), and having no viable alternative job options -- make it extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The fulcrum of the farm labor system is the labor contractor, some of whom have worked in the fields in the past and nearly all of whom are Mexican (or Mexican-descent) and male. Many labor contractors are semi-independent, working for growers for a fee, while others are on the growers’ payroll. While contractors are required to be licensed by the state, the law is sometimes ignored. Contractors use networks of agents (often family members) along the Pacific Coast to recruit and transport workers to Oregon for fees that range up to $500-$600. Once the workers arrive in the Valley, they are housed in contractor or grower-controlled camps. The vast majority of the camps provide abysmally deficient housing, food, and sanitation. Overcrowding in the camps is the rule; a common practice is to have two adult males share one "bed" -- consisting of a wooden platform, perhaps with a remnant of carpet serving as a cushion. Workers who arrive late during the harvest when camp accommodations have already filled may be forced to sleep in their cars -- for a fee. Sanitation facilities typically include putrid outdoor pit or chemical toilets and showers, which serve many more people than they are designed for. Exaggerated fees are charged for lodging, food (consisting mostly of beans and tortillas), and for rides to and from fields, stores and banks. Despite the scores of studies and reports that have been generated over the decades by government agencies and private organizations on labor camp conditions, the situation in the Willamette Valley remains an arrant disgrace.

With their inflated charges for room, board and transportation and their minimum maintenance costs, labor camps serve as important profit centers for contractors and growers. For example, a rough calculation revealed that one of the larger camps was grossing in the range of $6,000-$7,000 during this year’s one-month long strawberry season. The camp housed some one hundred workers in "cabins," for which plastic canopies served to protect the workers at night from 40-degree weather and incessant rain. Like many of the labor camps, it was located far from any urban area, thereby isolating the workers and strengthening the coercive dominion of the grower and contractor. In another camp, armed "security" guards were posted by the grower this summer. A tight vertical system of surveillance and control characterizes the labor system: the grower and/or labor contractor is positioned at the top; the campero (in charge of the labor camp), the mayordomo (crew boss) and the surquero (row boss) in the fields are the intermediaries; and the farm worker is at the bottom.

The price paid to strawberry pickers over the past decade has stagnated, even in high production years, at 10-12 cents per pound for the first pick. (Because it ripens unevenly, three to four separate picks over the month-long harvest are necessary in order to gather the entire strawberry crop, with the price per pound paid to the picker usually increasing slightly as the crop is progressively thinned.) Growers boast about their good workers earning $7-$8 per hour and point out that all pickers, regardless of productivity, are covered by the state’s minimum wage of $4.75 per hour. Yet, wage abuse is reported to be common in the industry. Growers’ scales that are used to weigh the flats of strawberries in the fields may be untested and unlicensed by the state. A widespread practice this year was for duct tape to be placed above the 35 pound mark on the face of the scales (an illegal action), thereby cheating workers of their total pick. The net result for many farm workers is that, after paying for room, board, transportation, and replacement clothes and remitting a small amount of money to their families in Mexico or California, barely enough money remains for them to get to the next harvest on the West Coast.

Instrumental in the struggle to change the plight of farm workers in Oregon has been the Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United), a union of farm, nursery and reforestation workers that is based in the mid-Willamette Valley town of Woodburn. Founded in 1985 as the outgrowth of an immigration project, PCUN is the only farm worker union in Oregon and it is also the state’s largest Latino organization, with nearly 4,000 members. The aims of PCUN are to change the fundamental power dynamic between growers and workers, to counteract worker isolation and break the cycle of intimidation and turnover which undermine work place organizing, and to improve the working and living conditions for farm workers. PCUN’s ultimate goal is to achieve collective bargaining agreements with area growers, which would establish enforceable work guarantees and standards.

PCUN’s approach to organizing farm workers combines a class-based political economic analysis with appeals to Latino solidarity. Over the past decade it has mobilized, trained and deployed to the fields many dozens of paid and volunteer bilingual organizers to support and organize striking workers. It also assists farm workers in documenting wage claims and camp violations and in filing immigration papers. With broad support in the Latino community -- a sizable number of the Valley’s Latinos have worked in agriculture at one time or another and remember well the conditions associated with field labor -- PCUN has been an important participant in community organizing, fighting against police brutality and taking the lead on immigration issues.

In 1991, PCUN supported a three-day strike by cucumber pickers at Kraemer Farms, one of the Valley’s largest growers, which resulted in a substantial wage increase. The strike leaders were denied re-hire in 1992, however, and PCUN launched a nationwide consumer boycott (still in effect) against grower-owned and Kraemer Farms-supplied NORPAC Foods (FLAV-R-PAC and Westpac frozen fruits and vegetables and Santiam canned goods), Oregon’s largest food processor.

PCUN’s organizing campaign this summer aimed to pressure strawberry growers to raise the wage rate for the first pick above the traditional 10-12 cents per pound and to establish, thereby, a precedent for subsequent work in other crops. Farm workers arriving in the Willamette Valley for the harvest expressed tremendous discontent about the stagnant wages in the industry (and deep resentment towards measures in several states and at the federal level that target migrants and immigrants for cutbacks in a range of social services). The rebellious attitudes of many workers resulted in, when the strawberry harvest began in early June, workers walking out of the fields at farm after farm. The consequence was an unmistakable overall upward movement in wages over the course of the strawberry harvest. PCUN estimates that farm workers boosted their earnings by 20 percent, or upwards of $1 million. In some cases, the growers quickly agreed to pay higher wages, while publicly denying that they were responding to pressure from the workers. Dozens of growers paid in the range of 12-15 cents for the first pick and, in a few cases, as high as 18 cents. Other growers held fast and suffered substantial financial losses while recruiting replacement workers. Without a doubt, the collective and assertive actions of hundreds of farm workers exacted a measure of reparation for the many years of stagnating wages in the industry.

This year’s organizing effort by PCUN has not, as yet, resulted in any growers agreeing to bargain collectively with the union and farm workers. The general history of futility in organizing efforts in agriculture in this country foreshadows the difficulty that farm workers will have in overturning the advantages that Oregon growers reap from a plentiful, vulnerable, and "cheap" work force. The state’s growers and contractors will vigorously defend the current system against any pressures for meaningful change. However, farm workers, by their actions this summer, have started to reconfigure the terrain upon which future confrontations will take place

 PCUN can be contacted at 300 Young St., Woodburn, OR 97071.

Robert C. Dash is Associate Professor of Politics, Willamette University, Salem, OR., and is an Associate Editor of the journal Latin American Perspectives.