Land­mark deal nets farm­worker raises

Strike against grow­ers in Mex­ico who sup­ply U.S. con­sumers ends as la­bor­ers win an in­crease in daily wages of up to 50%

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Richard Marosi

SAN QUINTIN, Mex­ico — It started as a door-knock­ing cam­paign by poor in­dige­nous vil­lagers, then grew into a well-or­ga­nized move­ment that mo­bi­lized thou­sands and brought pow­er­ful agribusi­nesses and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

The tense farm­worker strike in Baja Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cially came to an end this week with a land­mark agree­ment that, ex­perts say, marks the most sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment by a farm la­bor move­ment in re­cent Mex­i­can his­tory.

Daily wages for thou­sands of work­ers will in­crease as much as 50%, and la­bor­ers will begin re­ceiv­ing gov­ern­ment-re­quired benefits long de­nied by many agribusi­nesses in the San Quintin val­ley, 200 miles south of San Diego.

“We have awak­ened. We’re not go­ing to ac­cept work­ing for 100 pe­sos a day any­more. We’re not go­ing to ac­cept be­ing de­nied our so­cial se­cu­rity benefits,” la­bor leader Fidel Sanchez told a throng of cheer­ing la­bor­ers who had gath­ered in the vil­lage of Vi­cente Guer­rero on Thurs­day night to hear de­tails of the agree­ment.

Although work­ers fell short of their goal of a 200-peso daily wage (about $13), and it re­mains to be seen whether the gov­ern­ment will fol­low through on its pledge to en­force ba­sic la­bor laws, ex­perts said that didn’t di­min­ish the sig­nif­i­cance of the achieve­ment.

“This is a wa­ter­shed mo­ment,” said Sara Lara, a farm la­bor re­searcher at the Na­tional Au­ton­o­mous Uni­ver­sity of Mex­ico. In decades of study­ing farm is­sues, Lara said she has never seen agri-

busi­nesses buckle to la­bor de­mands for higher wages.

“It’s in­cred­i­ble,” Lara said. “It changes the par­a­digm and cre­ates a new prece­dent in the la­bor move­ment.”

The agree­ment, reached late Thurs­day af­ter a six­hour ne­go­ti­at­ing ses­sion, calls for a three-tiered com­pen­sa­tion sys­tem. Large farms will pay work­ers 180 pe­sos per day (about $11.50); medium farms, 165 pe­sos (roughly $10.50); small farms; 150 pe­sos (ap­prox­i­mately $9.50). Since most work at large agribusi­nesses, the raises are about $4 per day more for many of the es­ti­mated 30,000 work­ers in the San Quintin re­gion.

The deal also guar­an­tees work­ers’ rights to so­cial se­cu­rity benefits and over­time pay, re­quires the gov­ern­ment to im­prove in­fra­struc­ture and al­lows for worker over­sight of farm in­spec­tions by la­bor of­fi­cials.

The deal, ex­perts say, re­sulted from a con­ver­gence of fac­tors not seen in pre­vi­ous la­bor move­ments. La­bor lead­ers in San Quintin — some of them with ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in U.S. farm la­bor unions — main­tained sol­i­dar­ity and were able to con­sis­tently mo­bi­lize large protests that drew in­ter­na­tional me­dia cov­er­age.

In­dus­try and la­bor rep­re­sen­ta­tives and aca­demic re­searchers also cred­ited “Prod­uct of Mex­ico,” a se­ries pub­lished by The Times in De­cem­ber that doc­u­mented la­bor abuses at Mex­i­can ex­port farms. They said it height­ened aware­ness of la­bor abuse in Mex­ico, which led to greater scru­tiny by con­sumers of U.S. re­tail­ers’ sup­ply chains.

Ev­ery large U.S. re­tailer, in­clud­ing Wal-Mart, Costco and Safe­way, buys berries, toma­toes, cu­cum­bers and other pro­duce from Baja Cal­i­for­nia. Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry com­pany and a ma­jor dis­trib­u­tor of Baja Cal­i­for­nia pro­duce, faced boy­cott threats.

“I think [the se­ries] in­tro­duced the is­sue of work­ing con­di­tions on farms in Mex­ico that sup­ply the U.S. con­sumer on the agenda, and [the strike] was the next in­stall­ment in that con­ver­sa­tion,” said Erik Ni­chol­son, na­tional vice pres­i­dent of the United Farm Work­ers.

Farm­work­ers’ griev­ances in San Quintin fes­tered for years. Long de­nied gov­ern­ment-re­quired benefits and salary in­creases, work­ers walked out March 17 in protests that turned into vi­o­lent clashes with po­lice. La­bor­ers in­vaded and torched gov­ern­ment build­ings, threw rocks at po­lice and, for sev­eral hours, blocked the main high­way to ex­port mar­kets in Cal­i­for­nia.

The strike caused losses of about $80 mil­lion, in­dus­try of­fi­cials said.

Af­ter weeks of ne­go­tia- tions, vi­o­lence f lared again in early May as po­lice fired rub­ber bul­lets at pro­test­ers, in­jur­ing dozens. Video images of in­jured farm­work­ers were broad­cast across Mex­ico, gen­er­at­ing sym­pa­thy for la­bor­ers.

Agribusi­ness re­mained unswayed, say­ing rais­ing wages more than its 15% of­fer could lead to an eco­nomic col­lapse. The break­through came af­ter the fed­eral gov­ern­ment on May 14 of­fered to sub­si­dize a por­tion of the wage in­crease. The pro­posal was widely crit­i­cized in Mex­ico and deemed un­law­ful, but it bought time for fed­eral ne­go­tia­tors to pres­sure grow­ers to boost their of­fer.

De­spite the land­mark achieve­ment, many la­bor­ers re­acted somberly to the agree­ment. Weary af­ter three months of protests, they con­sid­ered the gains mea­ger given how much they sac­ri­ficed.

“Af­ter all th­ese days with­out eat­ing, with­out bathing, leav­ing kids at home and for- go­ing work, and this is all we get?” said Matilde Her­nan­dez, a 47-year-old mother of three, re­fer­ring to the $4 raise. “We’re fight­ing for crumbs.”

Some took a prag­matic at­ti­tude, say­ing that over the long term things would con­tinue to im­prove. “We’re ad­vanc­ing lit­tle by lit­tle,” said Mar­garita Gabriel, who said her wages would go up $3.

The sit­u­a­tion grew tense Thurs­day af­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions at a sa­lon in a San Quintin restau­rant. Baja Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Fran­cisco Vega de La­madrid beat a hasty retreat, fear­ing that news of the ac­cord could up­set la­bor­ers. He and his body­guards pushed their way through an an­gry crowd shout­ing ep­i­thets and bang­ing on his SUV. “Cow­ard! Rat!” yelled the crowd.

Since The Times’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has as­sumed a greater role in farm la­bor is­sues. In Fe­bru­ary, Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture Enrique Martinez y Martinez an­nounced the cre­ation of an al­liance of in­dus­try groups tasked with im­prov­ing the lives of more than 1 mil­lion farm la­bor­ers.

In San Quintin, a fed­eral ne­go­tia­tor steered the par­ties to a com­pro­mise.

Ex­perts said the fed­eral gov­ern­ment was forced to take a stronger role be­cause it needed to pro­tect its ex­port econ­omy and im­age as a sta­ble coun­try in which for­eign com­pa­nies could in­vest. The gov­ern­ment was reel­ing from in­tense me­dia cov­er­age of la­bor abuses and the vi­o­lent clashes be­tween po­lice and pro­test­ers.

Ex­ec­u­tives at Driscoll’s, a large buyer of Baja Cal­i­for­nia fruit, said it urged Mex­i­can of­fi­cials to take charge of ne­go­ti­a­tions af­ter its brand was un­fairly tar­nished in protests and so­cial me­dia cam­paigns in the U.S.

Soren Bjorn, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Driscoll’s of the Amer­i­cas busi­ness unit, said Fri­day that The Times’ se­ries and gen­eral me­dia cov­er­age of the Baja strikes raised aware­ness among U.S. con­sumers, who are in­creas­ingly de­mand­ing that the goods they pur­chase be eth­i­cally sourced.

Gen­er­ally re­garded as one of the more so­cially re­spon­si­ble com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in Mex­ico, Driscoll’s has been try­ing to get its re­tail buy­ers to pay more so it can con­tinue im­prov­ing work con­di­tions at the com­pany’s sup­plier farms in Mex­ico, Bjorn said.

Con­sumer at­ti­tudes al­ready were shift­ing, Bjorn said, but the me­dia cov­er­age ac­cel­er­ated the process and com­pelled the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment and the in­dus­try to act, he said.

“What it did was touch a nerve that was al­ready kind of itch­ing, and once it did that, then all of a sud­den a whole bunch of peo­ple jumped to ac­tion,” Bjorn said. “And then layer on the Baja protest and that added fuel to the fire.”

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

“FOR ALL th­ese years, we’ve barely been able to sur­vive. Now we hope things will get bet­ter,” Juana Villa, the ma­tri­arch of a farm­worker fam­ily in Mex­ico, said about the agree­ment to raise wages.

Pho­tog raphs by Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

FARM­WORKER REP­RE­SEN­TA­TIVE Justino Her­rera applauds Mex­ico’s his­toric wage in­crease.

JIL REYES SORIANO picks black­ber­ries in Mex­ico for Driscoll’s, a U.S.-based dis­trib­u­tor.


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