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J U L Y  1 9 9 8

77 North Washington Street
Justicia Dignidad THREE years ago in The Atlantic Monthly, Eric Schlosser reported on the plight of farm workers employed by California's strawberry industry. "In the Strawberry Fields" (November, 1995), which was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for reporting, described the workings of an industry that relied largely on an imported peasantry at harvest, that offered some of the lowest wages in the United States, and that profited from cruel sharecropping arrangements.

The living and working conditions in that industry have scarcely improved since then. Its workers remain among the most impoverished in the nation. Rulings by the California Supreme Court have tried to limit the ability of growers to trap farm workers in exploitative sharecropping schemes. But a variety of factors have allowed growers to continue business as usual.

Following the publication of Schlosser's article, the United Farm Workers decided to launch its first major organizing drive among California's strawberry workers. The aim is to hold elections in the near future. The organizing drive is the UFW's largest in a generation, and it has received strong backing from the AFL-CIO. After years of declining membership, the UFW has recently won contracts in California's lettuce, rose, mushroom, and wine industries. The union's economic demands are rather modest. The UFW wants strawberry workers to receive contracts (at the moment, they are employed on a day-to-day basis), a decent wage, and health benefits. Increasing the cost of a pint of strawberries by just one nickel, the UFW argues, could raise the piece-rate wages of strawberry workers by as much as 50 percent.

The UFW campaign is fiercely opposed by the strawberry industry. In the past growers have plowed their fields under and fired all their workers rather than negotiate. Growers have recently created phony farm-worker organizations to sow confusion, have dismissed workers who express sympathy for the UFW, and have threatened to shut down operations if the union is endorsed. Tensions are running high in Watsonville and Salinas, the focuses of the UFW campaign.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the twenty-five-day hunger strike and grape boycott organized by Cesar Chavez which first brought the UFW to national prominence. In recent years the hardships faced by the nation's farm workers have received little attention. The UFW hopes that events in Watsonville and Salinas will mark a turning point in its organizing drive.


Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 282, No. 1; page 4.

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