Thirty years ago, the state’s farm workers were the best paid in the country. Now some don’t even make minimum wage

48hillsfarmworkersminwage

By David Bacon

June 3, 2015 — At the end of the 1970s, farm workers were the highest-paid in the U.S., with the possible exception of Hawaii’s long-unionized sugar and pineapple workers. Today, their economic situation is not much different from that of their coworkers elsewhere around the country. ’s agricultural laborers are trapped in jobs that pay the minimum wage and often less, and are mostly unable to find permanent year-round work.

The decline in income is apparent in three ways. The minimum wage is the current wage standard for most farm workers. They receive a tiny percentage of the retail price of the crops they produce. And their living conditions reflect incomes that are at the bottom of the U.S. wage scale.

In 1979, the United Farm Workers negotiated a contract with Sun World, a large citrus and grape grower. The contract’s bottom wage rate was $5.25 per hour. At the time, the minimum wage was $2.90. If the same ratio existed today, with a state minimum of $9.00, farm workers would be earning the equivalent of $16.30 per hour. At the end of the 70s workers under union contracts in lettuce and wine grapes were earning even more.

Today farm workers don’t make anywhere near $16.00 an hour.

In 2008, demographer Rick Mines conducted a survey of 120,000 migrant farm workers in from indigenous communities in – Mixtecos, Triquis, Purepechas and others. “One third of the workers earned above the minimum wage, one third reported earning exactly the minimum and one third reported earning below the minimum,” he found.

In other words, growers potentially were paying an illegal wage to tens of thousands of farm workers.

Indigenous workers are the most recent immigrants in the state’s farm labor workforce, and the poorest, but the situation isn’t drastically different for others. The case log of Rural Legal Assistance is an extensive history of its battles to help workers reclaim illegal, and even unpaid, wages.

Five cents more for strawberries

To raise wages absolutely, workers need to increase the share of the money paid at the supermarket checkout stand that goes into their paychecks. In recent years the price paid to workers for picking a flat of strawberries, for instance, has hovered around $1.50. Each flat contains eight plastic clamshell boxes, so a worker is paid about 20 cents to fill each one. That same box sells in a supermarket for about $3.00 — the people picking the fruit get about 6% of the price.

According to UC Davis professor Philip Martin, about 28% of what consumers pay goes to the grower. Produce sales from Monterey County alone, one of two counties where strawberries are concentrated, total $4.4 billion.

If the price of a clamshell box increased by 5 cents (a suggestion made by the UFW during the Watsonville strawberry organizing drive of the late 1990s), the wages of the workers would increase by 25%. Most consumers wouldn’t even notice, since the retail price normally fluctuates far more than that. Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers has used this idea to negotiate an increase in the price paid for tomatoes bought by fast food chains, which then goes to the worker in the field.

Low wages in the fields, however, have brutal consequences. When the grape harvest starts in the eastern Coachella Valley, the parking lots of small markets in farm worker towns like Mecca are filled with workers sleeping in their cars. For Rafael Lopez, a farm worker from San Luis, Arizona, living in his van with his grandson, “the owners should provide a place to live since they depend on us to pick their crops. They should provide living quarters, at least something more comfortable than this.”

In northern San Diego County, many strawberry pickers sleep out of doors on hillsides and in ravines. Each year the county sheriff clears out some of their encampments, but by next season workers have found others. Romulo Muñoz Vasquez, living on a San Diego hillside, explains: “There isn’t enough money to pay rent, food, transportation and still have money left to send to . I figured any spot under a tree would do.”

Compounding the problem of low wages is the lack of work during the winter months. Workers have to save what they can while they have a job, to tide them over. In the strawberry towns of the Salinas Valley, the normal 10% unemployment rate doubles after the harvest ends in November. While some can collect unemployment, the estimated 53% who have no legal immigration status are barred from receiving benefits.

“The fruit that brings growers the most money here is the strawberry crop,” says Oxnard picker Lucrecia Camacho, “but they pay us a wage that barely allows us to live.”

This story comes from New America Media.

  • Jorge Carolinos

    Thank you progressives for helping make sure there is a loose labor market for low end jobs.

    Big business couldn’t do it without you.

    • GarySFBCN

      Yes, because before ‘progressives’ and the union movement, everything was much better.

      • Jorge Carolinos

        Does anything you ever post ever have any relation to reality? Did you read the article? Can you follow a time line?

  • Rod_North

    Then maybe we should go back to the name “Army Street”,now that it seems Mr. Chavez didn’t do such a great job after all.

    • GarySFBCN

      The sky is falling.

      • Rod_North

        Ask me if I care either way. I was merely pointing out the irony. Maybe we need a moratorium on changing street names in the Mission against the will of the residents of that street.

        • GarySFBCN

          Gee, after 20 years, the racists are still pissed about renaming Army Street?

          • Jorge Carolinos

            It is interesting, Army St was chosen in part because of SF liberals intolerance of people with other opinions and values, 24th would have been a much better choice for renaming.

            The choice of Army St for this stands more as a example of newcomer entitlement and a lack of tolerance, which they bemoan so much today in others.

            Progressives were really the first wave of gentrification and entitlement in the city, now trying to draw the bridge up behind themselves.

          • Rod_North

            The people who lived and worked on Army Street opposed it but the progressives overruled them. Funny now to hear progressives claim that the “community” should decide such things.

          • chompsky

            Only the progressive community, of course.

          • Rod_North

            It wasn’t racist to oppose the renaming any more than it is homophobic to oppose renaming SFO after Milk.

          • GarySFBCN

            Obviously, you weren’t around. While it is true that one didn’t have to be racist to oppose the renaming, most of the opposition was indeed racist.

          • Jorge Carolinos

            Hardly.

            Many of the cities lifers who were opposed to the name change were here long before the carpet bagger progressives. The from out of town progressives who claim “San Francisco values” by the way. The opposition to the name change came from a respect for the Army and the history of the name in the city. You know that whole “neighborhood they grew up thing” so popular now with progressives.

            Gary is falling back on the old progressive standard, scream racism to try and silence any other opinions.

          • GarySFBCN

            I bet you yell at children to get off your lawn.

          • Rod_North

            At least he has children

          • folderpete

            My understanding was that the merchants on Calle 24 didn’t want to change the name – cuz of the expense. So they pushed it on the residents of Army St.

            Sure Noe Valley may have offered resistance. But changing the name in the Mission would have been more appropriate anyway. Carlton B Good Place, anyone?

            I opposed the change. I’ve opposed most of the changes since, like Kerouac Alley. But I’ve become – I guess you could say – hardened. Just makes it easier not to hear when someone cries about the change in the Mission …

          • Kevin Smith

            Racist is “preserving” the “latino” “culture” in the Mission.

  • Sometimes the #paidwingnuttrolls are unintentionally hilarious, most of the time they’re just tediously boring. The reporting on this site is stellar – you’d lose absolutely nothing by dumping these assholes. Let ’em whine about how they were censored SOMEPLACE ELSE.

    • Jorge Carolinos

      Dave 1021 paid SEIU flunky at his very best.

  • folderpete

    So why do we have “Fair Trade” for Guatemala or Columbia, but not for Chowchilla or Imperial Valley? Many grocers now publicize where the produce comes from – why not what the workers were paid as well?

    I know, its embarrassing that only 6% goes to those who grow the food. But still, there’s a lot thats not right about this country that transparency might mitigate.

    • GarySFBCN

      Stop pretending that you care about anyone except yourself and those with money.

      • folderpete

        Well, you were up awful early today hating …

        I actually think this “Fair Trade” labeling is a good idea. Hasn’t it helped 3rd world growers?

        … ok, resume hating.

      • Kevin Smith

        Stop pretending your tired dogma will actually help anyone you allegedly care about. All your BS ideas have been tried and failed over the last century….

        • GarySFBCN

          Yeah, because the moratorium is the same as Venezuela. Another mind destroyed by Fox News and hatred.

          • Jorge Carolinos

            Your defense of your position is interesting in that post of yours a week or so ago that equated anyone who ever associated with Ron Conway being a right wing republican.

            Your daily opportunism is a hoot.

      • Jorge Carolinos

        Gary is now opposed to informed consumers.

        If it was documented I would buy food that paid it’s workers well, just as I buy clothes and other things that are American made when I can find them.

        Where the problem lays is when do-goooders get a hold of the wheels of government and make text book cases for unintended consequences.

        Thank you open borders progressives for driving down wages, big business thanks you.

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  • TheCher

    Experts around the world have been saying that food prices have to go up. At one time, eight hours a day of work was required to make enough money for one person to eat. Many people now pay ten hours of wages a month towards their food cost. Another factor is that you cannot grow everything everywhere. So, much of food cost is transportation cost.

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