Farmworkers’ defiance pays in California

January 18, 2019

Héctor A. Rivera reports on a strike by farmworkers in California against the Wonderful Co., a massive agricultural corporation owned by billionaire Democratic donors.

AFTER FOUR days on strike, farmworkers in Kern County, California, forced Wonderful Co. to reinstate the price it pays to workers for boxes of mandarins.

Wonderful had been paying $53 per bin of mandarins picked, but in early January, it announced it would slash prices to $48 per bin. The price cut equals a $1.50 to $2 cut in the hourly wage for workers who already earn close to the minimum wage.

Wonderful Co. made headlines in December 2018 when it raised its minimum wage to $15 for 2,000 of its employees, including warehouse workers and packers of fruits and nuts. However, the strikers work for contractors, and according to Wonderful, they are seasonal employees.

Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers (UFW), told the Los Angeles Times that the company was “trying to wash their hands by saying these are employees of labor contractors,” even though California law holds contractors and growers equally responsible for labor issues.

Farmworkers and their families build solidarity on the picket line in Kern County, California
Farmworkers and their families build solidarity on the picket line in Kern County, California (UFW | Facebook)

Disgruntled workers began to organize in the fields and on social media to call on mandarin pickers to abstain from work starting January 12. With chants of “What do we want? Fair prices. When do we want them? Now!” farmworkers lined up outside the mandarin fields early in the morning and asked other workers not to cross the picket line.

Farmworkers also called on the UFW to help them organize workers in other fields to join the strike. By January 13, only 100 of the 1,800 workers had shown up to work, effectively crippling Wonderful’s operations.

UFW organizers and the farmworkers who led the campaign organized morning rallies at gas stations in and around Bakersfield and other places where workers gather before starting their morning shifts. Rallies and speak-outs were also organized in the fields, where farmworkers talked about the unfair price cut and the contractors who had threatened them if they didn’t show up to work.

STEWART AND Lynda Resnick are the Beverly Hills billionaires who own Wonderful, which markets Wonderful Pistachios, Halos Mandarins and Fiji bottled water. The Resnicks are also backers of two charter schools branded under the name Wonderful College Prep Academy, one in Delano and one in Lost Hills.

Upon learning of the strike, the Los Angeles branch of the International Socialist Organization launched the Tacos for Farm Workers campaign as a spin-off of the wildly successful Tacos for Teachers campaign launched recently to support striking Los Angeles teachers.

The farmworkers also issued a statement of solidarity with the striking teachers in Los Angeles and closed their solidarity message with chants of “¡Sí se puede!”

Most of the striking workers are immigrants from the Mixteca region of Guerrero and Oaxaca in southern Mexico. They organize social and political gatherings through social media outlets with a big following.

After four days of strikes that affected the mandarin harvests, Wonderful issued a statement saying that it would reinstate the $53 rate per bin. However, it refused to meet with workers or UFW representatives.

When the company raised the per-bing rate, farmworkers returned to work, but they also vowed to continue organizing in the fields, the warehouses and the packing plants. With the money raised from the Tacos for Farm Workers campaign, a luncheon will be organized to get workers together to celebrate their victory.

The UFW and the farmworkers who led the strike have pledged to continue fighting abuse by managers and contractors as well as to extend the $15 minimum wage for all workers at Wonderful. Eventually, the UFW hopes to extend the demand for $15 an hour and a union across the state of California.

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