“We Are Workers, Not Slaves!”
Farmworkers in Baja California Stand Up!

April 11, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


As many as 50,000 Mexican farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley of Baja California, just 200 miles south of the U.S. border, walked out of the fields March 17, at the peak of the growing season, demanding an end to horrific conditions—including extremely low pay, inhuman working and living conditions, child labor, and sexual abuse of women workers. The fruits and vegetables grown under these conditions are sold to many of the leading grocery chains in the U.S.

After leaving the fields, the striking farmworkers took over the Trans-peninsular Highway, the only way to ship produce out of Baja into the U.S. They set truck tires on fire on the highway and stopped vehicles trying to go north, shutting down the highway for over a day. With the link broken between these sites of extreme exploitation and the U.S. grocery giants that profit from them, companies like Walmart, Costco, Safeway, and others began reporting shortages of tomatoes, strawberries, zucchini. and other fresh produce. More than 225 farms were paralyzed, including the 12 largest, which dominate production in the region and are the main suppliers of this produce to the U.S.

It is the first time in decades that farmworkers in Baja California have stood up and challenged the brutal—and extremely profitable—production relations of capitalist-imperialist exploitation that dominate agriculture in Mexico and other oppressed countries around the globe; and the political structures as well as the violent force of this U.S. client state used to enforce and maintain those conditions.

The Mexican government wasted no time in coming to the aid of these agribusinesses, sending in the federal police and military troops. Using tear gas, rubber bullets, and clubs, they reopened the highway and arrested 200 farmworkers. A thousand police and military forces were then spread out in this area of Baja.

Intolerable Conditions

The majority of workers on these farms are indigenous people brought by contractors from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, as well as other impoverished southern states like Chiapas and Guerrero. These workers once continued to migrate north into the U.S., following the harvests up the West Coast. But the ever-increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border in recent decades has led these workers to settle in and around San Quintín.

Told they would be able to make enough money to send some back to help the families they have left behind, migrant workers find that in reality the $8 or so a day they make is barely enough to support themselves. This daily pay includes mandatory overtime and they work seven days a week. It is also common practice for the employers to break the law and not pay the workers till the end of the harvest season, to ensure the workers won’t leave early. By the end of the season, there is less produce left to harvest, so their pay, which is tied to the amount they harvest, drops even further. Many of the workers putting fruits and vegetables on American tables are themselves malnourished.

Many of the employers also violate the law by refusing to provide the medical benefits the workers are entitled to through membership in the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS), the public health system. The housing in the labor camps, where the workers are forced to live, is overcrowded and filthy. Workers have had to carry water to the camps for drinking and washing at times because there was no water.

San Quintín has become one of the most productive agricultural regions of Mexico, with as many as 80,000 people working in the fields and packing plants. Because it is so close to the U.S., major agribusinesses have poured millions and millions of dollars into developing the infrastructure. This has dramatically transformed farming, with modern, large scale irrigation systems and greenhouses for many of the crops. These state-of-the-art facilities stand in sharp contrast to the horrific working conditions and social relations, which have been described as “19th century.” The fact that the U.S.-bound produce is more precious than the people who produce it is symbolized by the requirement that farmworkers who handle produce like peaches cut their fingernails so that they cause no harm to the fruit.

The largest agribusinesses in the San Quintín area have deep political connections with the politically powerful in Mexico—such as ex-president Felipe Calderon—who are deeply invested in agribusiness exploitation.

The farmworkers’ strike also challenged the government- and business-controlled unions. This strike was organized by a coalition of groups called the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice, which is representing the workers in opposition to the company-run unions. Its organizers have had experience organizing farmworker struggles in the U.S. One of the leaders was involved with the Immokalee workers union in the tomato fields of Florida; another led a battle in Oregon to get rid of a contractor stealing wages. The United Farm Workers—UFW—has also been involved, circulating a petition supporting the Baja workers which it plans to give to the major supermarket chains.

By the end of the first week, with produce rotting in the fields and packing plants, and millions of dollars being lost, the workers forced the alliance of company representatives—the Agricultural Council of Baja California—to negotiate directly with the Alliance, bypassing the official unions.

“We Are Workers, Not Slaves”

With negotiations approaching an impasse, on March 26, thousands of the striking farmworkers marched 15 miles alongside the Baja Peninsular Highway in an angry show of force. Carrying banners saying “We Are Workers, Not Slaves,” and surrounded by police in riot gear, they marched to state government offices in San Quintín.

The following day the talks broke down when the growers’ representative walked out after their offer of a 15 percent increase in wages was rejected by the workers’ representatives. The growers’ statement claimed that raising the wages any higher “would lead to economic collapse.”

On March 29, a 10-bus caravan traveled from San Quintín to Tijuana, Mexico, where workers went to the border and reached out in solidarity to farmworkers and supporters on the U.S. side, and spoke out about their strike. A 19-year-old youth, who has worked in the fields of San Quintín since he was 12, said: “We all thought it was normal that they suspended people for 3 or 4 days or fired them for demanding that our rights be respected, for trying to force the bosses to pay overtime or to pay us for working on our days off... We got used to earning 100 pesos (a little over $6) for more than 10 hours a day, but now that’s not enough even to cover the bare necessities, to live, to support a family.”

And a Mixtec Indian from Oaxaca, who started working in these fields at the age of seven, described the discrimination and abuse from the bosses she faced because she didn’t speak Spanish. She went on, “That’s how it was for many years. That was too much already. During all that time we were asleep, but now the people have stood up and we will continue in this struggle for what is right, so that our grandchildren will have a better future.”

But by March 31, nearly two weeks since the beginning of the strike, the majority of the farmworkers began returning to the fields. Although the companies claimed “the people are happy with the raises”—which amount to about 12 cents an hour—the strike leaders say the farmworkers “are returning under protest, under threat.” The supplies that had been collected to support the strikers had been used up, and many workers feared that those who didn’t return then would be blacklisted, with no chance of being hired in the future.

“Product of Mexico”

A part of the backdrop to this strike was a four-part series on agriculture in Mexico published in December, 2014 by the Los Angeles Times entitled; “Product of Mexico.” The 18-month investigation by reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Bartletti revealed that over 100,000 children under age 14 are employed in agriculture for pay, and that many workers are held almost as slaves.

Interviewed on NPR, Marosi called the farmworkers “the invisible people of Mexico, the poorest, the most discriminated.” They “live in rooms 6-by-8 generally, and shedlike housing, sometimes no furniture. They sleep on scraps of cardboard.” He said, “A lot of these places, they illegally withhold the wages of the workers; they’re there on three-month contracts, they’re not paid until the end. That means they don’t even have the money to catch a bus and escape the farm.”

This strike and the fallout in its wake come at a time when all across Mexico, there has been upheaval and protest, particularly focused on the disappearance and murder of 43 students in the state of Guerrero. An opinion column in the national daily La Jornada called the killing and disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students “a state crime”—“repression carried out by a government that has brought organized crime violence into its service.” With a deepening political crisis and a government losing its legitimacy, this strike by the farmworkers has stung the Mexican ruling class and its U.S. backers. It could well signal the emboldening of new sections of Mexican society, further fueling the upheaval and revolt from below.

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