Victory for Baja’s farm­work­ers

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The deal struck last week by grow­ers and farm­work­ers in Baja Cal­i­for­nia’s San Quintin re­gion was in many ways a by-the­book la­bor victory. Work­ers were un­happy with their con­di­tions, so they or­ga­nized against a pow­er­ful agribusi­ness in­dus­try and bar­gained for a sig­nif­i­cant raise — an oc­cur­rence so rare in Mex­ico as to be as­ton­ish­ing.

This is a his­toric and pos­si­bly trans­for­ma­tional win for Mex­ico’s nascent la­bor move­ment. Thou­sands of farm­work­ers will see their wages in­creased by up to 50%. Benefits that were long promised but also long de­nied will fi­nally be granted — if the agree­ment is en­forced.

Still, this is only a first step, and even as a first step it leaves much to be de­sired. No one was danc­ing in the streets over the pay hikes. Depend­ing on the size of the farm that em­ploys them, work­ers will earn from $9.50 to $11.50 a day (not an hour). And the “benefits” ne­go­ti­ated as part of the agree­ment are things that many work­ers in the U.S. have taken for granted for decades, such as so­cial se­cu­rity and over­time pay.

Nor was the agree­ment a bind­ing, legally en­force­able con­tract. So plenty of things can still go wrong. Grow­ers could trans­fer own­er­ship of farms or hire new work­ers or sim­ply re­nege on their prom­ises. The gov­ern­ment has promised to over­see the agree­ment, but it doesn’t have a track record or a mech­a­nism yet to do so.

The lead­ers of the San Quintin strike — the alianza — are plan­ning a victory tour to other agri­cul­tural re­gions and hope to start build­ing a na­tional farm­work­ers la­bor move­ment. But it’s not at all cer­tain the victory can be repli­cated in other parts of Mex­ico, par­tic­u­larly those ar­eas rife with gov­ern­men­tal cor­rup­tion or in the grip of vi­o­lent drug car­tels. The Baja farm­work­ers had some unique ad­van­tages. For one thing, some of the strike lead­ers had worked in the U.S. farm la­bor move­ment, which left them with both higher ex­pec­ta­tions about com­pen­sa­tion and a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of ef­fec­tive or­ga­niz­ing tac­tics than other Mex­i­can work­ers.

But there is one big les­son from the San Quintin deal that Mex­i­can work­ers can em­ploy: In­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion is cru­cial. Ob­servers and la­bor lead­ers credit this agree­ment in large part to cov­er­age by the in­ter­na­tional me­dia, in­clud­ing the Los An­ge­les Times, of the plight of farm­work­ers. In 2014, The Times pub­lished an in­ves­tiga­tive se­ries, “Prod­uct of Mex­ico,” that fol­lowed the trail of pro­duce from U.S. ta­bles to the fields in var­i­ous re­gions of Mex­ico, ex­pos­ing ap­palling work­ing and living con­di­tions for farm­work­ers. The se­ries put pres­sure on U.S. re­tail­ers, which in turn put pres­sure on Mex­i­can grow­ers. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the global mar­ket can work to im­prove the lives of peo­ple. In this case, it did.

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