August 21, 1996
By Yolanda Reynolds
Photos by Mary J. Andrade
Late on a Wednesday afternoon, August 14, United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta and others who support the farm workers’ campaign to improve the working conditions and wages of strawberry pickers, gathered at the 2nd Street entrance to the Federal building for a rally.
The Salinas Valley and Watsonville farm area just south of San Jose produces 65% of the strawberries harvested and sold in the United States. Dolores Huerta explained that in the last few years “strawberry farmers have doubled their income, while the pickers are still making what they did in the 1980’s.”
The average, Huerta explained, is $25 a day. Annual pay for these workers average around $8,000 a year according to union reports and in order to earn that must work 6 days a week. It is obvious that the workers cannot afford much when they are paid so little. They are often housed in crowded and unsanitary conditions and have no beneﬁts or health insurance.
Carmen Diaz, a University student from New York who came to help the unionizing drive among the strawberry pickers, explained that strawberry pickers regularly work 10-12 hour days. The workers are “allowed a half hour break for lunch” are not “allowed breaks to drink water or to go to the bathroom.” They must have to carry their drinking (water with them and relieve themselves in the ﬁelds. She added that “many of the workers suffer from rashes because of the pesticides” used in growing strawberries and the “poor housing” in which they live.
Huerta pointed out that the cancer causing and very toxic pesticide, methyl bromide, is widely used. It early on causes serious and disﬁguring skin rashes and is a chemical that, scientists say, is a major contributor to the deletion of the-ozone layer surrounding the earth. The ozone layer protects humans and other forms of life from very harmful ultraviolet rays that cause cancer.
A recent attempt to end the use of methyl bromide in California was defeated by the Republican led senate in Sacramento and with the help of a key Democrat in the debate, Senator Henry Mello, in whose district many of these companies are located.
20,000 people, mostly immigrants from Mexico, work in the strawberry farms in the Salinas – Watsonville area. Labor leaders explain that the campaign is not only for an increase in pay but for other improvements such as; access to clean drinking water, bath rooms in the fields, job security, health insurance and an end to sexual harassment and abuse of the workers.
It was expected that more farm workers would have been at the rally, but the union organizers found that the workers were threatened with losing their jobs if they came and that they feared retaliation. It is obvious that this union organizing effort will be fought vigorously by the growers. Several years ago, La Oferta ran a multi paged article with photos demonstrating the appalling conditions on a strawberry farm in that area.
Huerta explained that cars in that area have bumper stickers stating “Protect your jobs, vote no union” and that the union busting law ﬁrm of Littler Mendelson Fastiff has been hired to help thwart the efforts to unionize the strawberry workers in the Pájaro and Salinas valleys.
Picking strawberries is literally back breaking work and, reports indicate, that few can continue this type of “stoop labor” after the age of 30.
Though this work is difﬁcult and offers poor pay, these workers are so hard pressed for opportunity in their homeland that they make huge sacrifices in order to improve the lives of their families. Knowing this, unscrupulous people stand at every turn to exploit them. Reportedly, the strawberry industry’s average annual earnings are $650 million per year. It is controlled by large corporations. not small family farmers.
Chavez’ siblings still live in San Jose. Huerta looks much younger than her age and still has the vigor she displayed many years ago, even though she was viciously attacked in a demonstration in San Francisco against the anti-immigrant Prop. 187. Huerta is a person who inspires dedication.
Huerta explained that the rally was a homecoming for her and the UFW and that she was “glad to be in it.”
Huerta pointed out that one of the large corporations in the strawberry growing business is Monsanto, a company that is also one of the largest pesticide producers.
Huerta explained that the Union had changed its tactics over the years and, rather than unionize just one farm at a time, the objective today, was to organize all of the workers at the same time. In the past, she said, if a grower lost a battle related to the workers involved in the production of a speciﬁc crop, they just plowed under the ﬁeld or changed the crap they grew the following season and the workers found themselves out of a job.
Huerta was encouraged that the Farmworkers Union had today, in 1996, a powerful ally in the AFL/CIO, under the leadership of the national president, John Sweeney. Sweeney has made labor organizing a top priority. No longer do union dues go for fancy hotels, yachts and long expensive lunches with the “captains of industry.”
Dolores Huerta was a very young girl when she joined the farmworker struggle for dignity and respect that was begun by the late Cesar Chavez. Chavez made his home in San Jose before moving to Delano.
She asked San Joseans to make a trip to the Salinas Valley and Watsonville strawberry ﬁelds for a first-hand observation of the working conditions described by the union leadership.
The Union wants its supporters to ask the grocery stores they patronize to promise to carry only those strawberries picked by union workers. So far, the union reports that “15 local supermarket managers have agreed to sign a pledge endorsing the efforts of the strawberry workers to gain representation by the United Farm Workers and improve their working conditions and wages.”
For more information on the Farmworkers and the Union drive, the UFW can be contacted at (408) 266-3790 Extension 606. © La Oferta Newspaper.