Up and down the Pacific Coast, a largely indigenous workforce does the grueling labor to grow and harvest the fruits and vegetables that land on grocery store shelves. Now their relentless struggle against poverty wages and demeaning treatment is picking up speed like a freight train.
In March of 2015, tens of thousands of farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley in the Mexican state of Baja California waged a heroic strike against powerful agribusiness conglomerates. While not winning the wage gains they sought, the strikers planted the seeds of further rebellion. Their tenacity, willingness to take on corrupt official unions, and border-crossing solidarity point the way forward for a Mexican labor movement that has been under siege for decades.
A war for justice. The San Quintín Valley strike expressed workers’ anger over their everyday lives. Claudia Reyes explained to journalist David Bacon her wages in terms of cartons of eggs, saying “it takes half a day’s work just to buy one.” She also described how families in her barrio live with salty water. “It makes the children sick, and gives them a rash if they wash with it.”
Strike demands included a minimum daily wage of 300 pesos (three times the previous average of $7.50 per day), and an end to sexual harassment in the fields. Farmworkers also want inclusion in the Mexican Institute of Social Security, with access to healthcare. This is required by law but ignored by growers.
Strikers interrupted production at some 230 farms, and then used roadblocks and burning tires along 120 miles of the Transpeninsular Highway to stop all produce traveling north. The line held for 26 hours, until the Mexican government sent soldiers and federal police to clear the blockade with tear gas, clubs and rubber bullets. In May, police invaded workers’ homes, arresting activists and beating them and their families. In one barrio the workers’ reply — a torched police headquarters and armored truck.
A union of their own. The strikers are up against more than the armed might of the state. They also confront corrupt unions that sign “protection contracts” for the workers, who often don’t even know they are being “represented.” The protection here is for the boss — against any protest by union members over the low wages agreed to by their “representatives.” These employer-friendly unions are quick to use thuggish methods to enforce their sweetheart deals with the bosses.
The close ties between the official unions, the state, and the bosses is the cornerstone of Mexico’s repressive system of labor control, established in the 1930s. This system is a disaster for the working class. Since the 1990s every government, regardless of the political party in power, has pursued a neoliberal agenda of privatization, gutting of labor laws, and repression of unions. As a result, wages in Mexico have fallen behind China, and the unionization rate is a third of what it once was.
In response, unionists have struggled for decades to build a movement of independent unions, even pushing for this through caucuses within government-recognized unions, such as the national union of educational workers. One of the main stated goals of the farmworkers in Baja is the establishment of their own independent union. This ongoing aspect of their campaign makes it a crucial one for all of Mexican labor.
A border no more. Another lesson from the farmworker rebellion is that solidarity can cross the Rio Grande as quickly as any truckload of produce. Many of the laborers in the San Quintín fields are indigenous Mixtec and Triqui migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero in southern Mexico. Often their family members are picking crops along the west coast of the U.S.
The successful tactics and lessons learned in Mexico also go north. For years, protests have erupted against conditions in Baja’s fields. Four years ago strikes by migrant workers hit the pea harvest in Salinas Valley, Calif. In 2013, strikes interrupted the berry harvest in Skagit County, Wash.
The San Quintín strike was launched by the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice (Alianza). “We have faces, names and families. We are tens of thousands, because with us are our children, who are also workers just like their parents have been,” said Fidel Sanchez, a Mixtec leader of Alianza.
Another prominent group is the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB), which has chapters in California and Mexico. FIOB raised thousands of dollars to support the strike and organized a caravan of Los Angeles activists to deliver three tons of food.
This type of powerful cross-border solidarity is gaining momentum. Now, San Quintín workers have joined forces with their counterparts in the U.S., including Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ). FUJ is in a two-year pitched battle to unionize berry pickers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Burlington,
Wash. In April, Alianza and FUJ launched an international boycott of Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company. Driscoll’s utilizes a vast network of suppliers that stretches from Canada to Argentina. Sakuma Brothers is one of their exploitative suppliers, along with Berry-Mex in Baja California.
Readers can learn more about the boycott by visiting boycottsakumaberries.com.
The farmworker justice movement is also attracting growing support from unions, and student and community activists in the U.S. The San Francisco Labor Council passed a strong resolution of support, and FUJ has affiliated with the Washington State Labor Council.
Working people throughout the hemisphere can take inspiration from this unfolding struggle. The growers and givers of life have the courage. With international labor and community solidarity they can win!
Published originally in the Freedom Socialist newspaper.