Saturday, September 16, 2017

Ricardo Flores Magón, PLM, and the Labor Struggles of California Farmworkers

“Cipriano Ricardo Flores Magón (known as Ricardo Flores Magón; September 16, 1874 – November 21, 1922) was a noted Mexican anarchist and social reform activist. His brothers Enrique and Jesús were also active in politics. Followers of the Magón brothers were known as Magonistas. He has been considered an important participant in the social movement that sparked the Mexican Revolution.”

“Periodically throughout their history, California farmworkers have fought vigorously, sometimes in small, local battles unknown to anyone but the immediate participants, and at other times in large campaigns—directed by radical or even openly revolutionary leaders—that have lasted for several seasons. The nature of these fights is rooted in the special character of agricultural production and in the real opportunities that farmworkers have encountered in the fields for nearly a hundred years.” Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2011)

The “special character of agricultural production” Bardacke refers to above includes the “short-lived harvest” period, as it is only during this precious time of year that a commodity is produced (although various kinds of work on the land are performed throughout the year), thus leaving the commercial farmer vulnerable to interruptions or delays. Another conspicuous vulnerability arises from the dependence on migratory workers, the demand for labor varying greatly throughout the year. Hence, Bardacke informs us,

“Time is often on the workers’ side, and they have not hesitated to seize it. Brief harvest walkouts, sit-downs, slow-downs, and stay-at-homes are part of farmworker tradition, weapons used much more regularly by agricultural workers than by industrial workers.”

Before the Depression-era upheaval that led to various forms of worker militancy, both spontaneous and organized, there were several years of “militant farmworker action [and] significant wage gains” that presaged patterns of future farmworker struggles. Unfortunately, these early battles did not result in a lasting union for those who labored on the land. Again, Bardacke:

“Between 1914 and 1917, in a period of overall labor scarcity, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), at times in tandem with the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) [organized by Ricardo Flores Magón and later led by both Ricardo and his youngest brother, Enrique], led a series of walkouts in the California fields, orchard, and vineyards that pushed up wages, forced labor-camp managers to provide better food, and prompted the state of California to build an extensive series of new labor camps, which improved the lives of many migrants. A harvest-time strike in the hops in 1914 doubled piece-rate wages, and by 1917, the average wage of California farmworkers had risen to nearly 90 percent of the average wage of California’s city workers.”

Ricardo Flores Magón had been a leader of university student protests in Mexico City in the 1890s and as early as 1904, the “Magonistas” (largely anarchist in political ideology) who found sanctuary in the U.S., “began to send emissaries—revolutionary culture brokers—into the mining camps of the Mexican north and into the agrarian villages as far south as Veracruz and Oaxaca.” And for this and other reasons, Flores Magón “is celebrated in Mexican secondary school textbooks as a ‘precursor’ of the [Mexican] Revolution.”

In California, Flores Magón “and a small band of comrades” whose “interest was not primarily California farmworkers,” continued to publish their weekly newspaper, Regeneración (in turn smuggled back into Mexico), and “for which [Ricardo] wrote political and social commentary.” As Bardacke reminds us, Flores Magón and the PLM were nevertheless indirectly active in the agricultural fields of California, as Ricardo and Enrique, together with a “substantial number of displaced Mexican revolutionaries,”

“… set up a series of PLM clubs in the Southwest and California. Those clubs attracted Mexican migrant workers, some of whom began to call themselves Magonistas. The clubs were linked through Regeneración and several other local, less regular PLM newspapers. Club leaders read the newspaper out loud to assembled groups of workers, who then discussed the situation in Mexico and their own troubles in the United States.

The hub of PLM power was Los Angeles, which was still an agricultural town in 1907 when the Flores Magón brothers settled there, and already was the center of the Mexican community in the United States. The PLM’s LA clubhouse became a center of multilingual, multiethnic activity where socialists and Wobblies famous and obscure mixed with Magonistas. Regeneración, its back page printed in English, built up an LA circulation of 10,000, making it both the first bilingual paper in California and the largest Spanish-language newspaper in town. The PLM club, which was also considered a Spanish-speaking IWW local, had 400 active members, most of who were farmworkers.” 

Magonistas were soon found throughout Spanish-speaking IWW locals in Southern and Central California. Whatever their cultural and language differences, Wobblies and Magonistas were united in their political ideology and political praxis:

“In San Diego in 1910, a joint IWW-PLM local organized a strike at the local gas and electric company that won equal pay for equal work. That same year a fight for free speech that ultimately did much to popularize the IWW among California farmworkers, began in Fresno in the midst of a battle to organize Mexican workers who were being contracted to build a dam on the outskirts of town. In hop fields, vineyards, sugar refineries, and citrus orchards, many farmworker walkouts were joint Wobbly-Magonista efforts.”

Our short story ends on a tragic note, for “[i]n 1918, Ricardo Flores Magón, along with other PLM and IWW leaders, was convicted of violating the Espionage Act … for ‘obstructing the war effort.’” Ricardo died on November 21, 1922 at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. Alas, and for motley reasons, one of the foremost being the appeal of communism and the rise of Communist parties following the Russian Revolution, the IWW and PLM did not formally survive World War I. All the same, 

“… Magonismo never totally disappeared from the California fields. Remaining underground in unfavorable times such as 1939, Magonismo has reappeared whenever farmworkers have had an opportunity to fight. It is there when they slow down on the job, sabotage the crops, or strike at the beginning of a harvest. Magonistas played a part in Imperial Valley melon and lettuce strikes in the late 1920s. They worked together with other militants when California farmworkers shook the state in the early 1930s. A generation later a few Magonistas would play a small role as the movement that produced the UFW was getting under way. And in 1979, the ghost of Ricardo Flores Magón would make a cameo appearance at one of the most dramatic moments in UFW history.”

Further Reading:

  • Albro, Ward S. Always a Rebel: Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mexican Revolution. Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1992.
  • Chacón, Justin Akers. Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, Forthcoming.
  • Daniel, Cletus E. Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers, 1870-1941. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
  • Dyson, Lowell K. Red Harvest: The Communist Party and American Farmers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
  • Hart, John M. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978.
  • Lomnitz, Claudio. The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón. New York: Zone Books, 2014.
  • MacLachlan, Colin M. Anarchism and the Mexican Revolution: The Political Trials of Ricardo Flores Magón in the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Rethinking Agricultural History

A comparatively short(!) new article I believe worthy of your attention: Nathan A. Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki, “The Butz Stops Here: Why the Food Movement Needs to Rethink Agricultural History
Abstract
“From the 1890s to the 1930s, rural Americans played a vital role in radical leftist politics. Over the decades, some of those people chose to leave, but more of them were driven out due to policy — agricultural policy, in particular. Republicans and Democrats, alike, have supported laws that favor corporate agriculture, which continue to drive small farmers out of business and depopulate the countryside. While specialists know this history well, the public tends to know a folk history, written by figures associated with contemporary food movements.

This folk history rests on several key myths, which cover different periods of modern history from the New Deal to the present. We challenge these myths, not to attack particular authors or engage in pedantry, but to reveal the causes and extent of the suffering endured by rural families in the 20th century, which in turn, decimated the populist left. A reconsideration of the history of agricultural policy will help food-system reformers develop a more radical — and more effective — vision for rural America.”

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Agricultural Hegemony and Farm Workers

          Patrick O'Donnell's recent posting of Marion Nestle's interview with a Western grower CEO and  attendant commentary, contributes greatly to understanding the irreconcilable differences between farm labor skills with the risk of agricultural enterprises facing decreasing labor shortages.  At this juncture, a brief reminder is further required and the goal of this post.

One avenue suggested is to increase immigration entry to meet growers' labor needs.  This trajectory however will not satisfy the laborers needed to cultivate and harvest the crops worth billions across the nation.  This results because federal law, agricultural policies and the agricultural hegemony that purports to seek protecting small owner operations are skewed to facilitate large scale agricultural industries.

In contrast, attempts to amend or revise federal law to protect workers are met with the unmitigated force of agricultural lobbyists, political representatives of agriculture dominated states, and a host of other political actors surging against the proposed legislation.

For example, the Department of Labor (DOL) ignited a firestorm when it sought changing the Fair Labor Standards Act to protect children employed in agriculture.  The inherent systemic danger of farm employment necessitated the proposed changes.   With the full force of Hurricane Katrina, the  agricultural industry without haste rejected the proposed "Child Labor Regulations" (CLR).  The CLR would have obligated imposed standards and would have shifted the agricultural norms of employing youth in agriculture without regard to the dangers they confront.  In contrast, an ocean of lobbying, political jockeying during a presidential race, opposition from governors of agricultural states and a host of others, shifted the intent and purpose of the CLR with misrepresentations.  This oppositional army campaigned the media to skew the CLR as intruding on "family relationships" and "small family farm" operations.  One principal argument against the CLR further encompassed the notion that farm work grants children necessary discipline and beneficial working benefits.

It is not difficult to wonder how the opposing forces could reconcile their assertions with the families of Jade Garza and Hannah Kendall.  Both fourteen-year-olds, Jade and Hannah, joined an army of youth to detassel corn.  Their goal was to save money for school supplies and clothing.  Instead Jade and Hannah identified as the best of friends met their untimely deaths.  During this regional "summer rite of passage" the two girls were killed "after they came in contact with irrigation equipment or a nearby puddle conducting high voltage."  The girls worked for Monsanto Corp., through a labor contractor.

Area teachers and others recruit youth to satisfy the need for cheap labor contingent on parents giving their permission. Nothing however is provided on the forms as to the inherent dangers employment in agriculture entails.  The legal relationship moreover between labor contractors and employees remains murky with case law exemptions that distance the employer of the contractor from workers in the event of accidents or deaths.

The CLR provides but one example seeking to change agricultural norms against the dire working conditions and plight of youth and children in the fields.  Yet not unlike other protective legislative attempts, an unrelenting backlash further resulted in political representatives introducing their own version of protecting small farmers.  Reinforcing their version also included a clause that disallowed DOL Secretary Hilda Solis from re-introducing further youth related measures.  In its totality, this war against protecting children caused the DOL to retreat from its first attempt to substantively change the FLSA since the 1970s.

Outside of deaths and injuries, the environment also imposes its own type of hardship from illnesses specific to the crops harvested, intense heat, and distance from water, rest breaks or other forms of relief.  Pesticides and herbicides and other dangers also instigate their own brand of toxicity and illnesses in the workplace. The grueling nature of cultivating and harvesting crops thereby exacts a tremendous realm of body injuries and at times deaths of workers in the fields.  Yet repeatedly decade after decade federal law and agricultural policies fail them.

Neither increased mechanization nor the reliance on economies of scale or even enlarged immigration entries of farm laborers will protect farmers. In exchange, placing state and federal agricultural economies at risk.  New trajectories and legal compromises that escape the hegemony of agricultural employment are thereby obligated.

If and whenever new protective legislation is introduced to protect workers and youth a new trajectory is required to counter the lies, deceit and false constructs so adhered to within the agricultural sector.  Specifically the regulatory agency should require objective and empirical primary evidence to test the generalized misrepresentations that perpetuate agricultural false norms.

Notwithstanding the false norms that dominant federal law, agricultural operations need farmworkers or risk economic ruin.  Farmworkers require improved terms and conditions of employment even against the false norms that dominate federal law agricultural operations and the political zeitgeist of the times. This template accordingly signals it is beyond time to change federal law to not only protect workers from unsavory working conditions but to prevent crops from rotting in the fields.


Resources
1.  Child Labor Regulations, Orders and Statements of Interpretations, 76 Fed. Reg. 54386 (proposed Sept. 2, 2011).
2.  Preserving America's Family Farms Act, H.R. 4157, 112th Cong. (2012).
3.  For further resources see Guadalupe T. Luna, Unsavory Associations--Placing Migrant Children in Harm's Way: The Withdrawal of Child Labor Rules from the Fair Labor Standards Act, 16 St. Mary's Law Review on Race and Social Justice, (2014).





Thursday, May 18, 2017

An Agribusiness Perspective on Farm Labor & Immigration

Migrant workers harvest corn on Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, California (2013). U.S. Department of Agriculture 

At Food Politics, Marion Nestle shares an interview with Tom Nassif, the CEO of the Western Growers. “Nassif represents this trade association for industrial agricultural producers in the West and Southwest. He discusses how immigration issues affect farm labor from the perspective of producers.”

The entire interview is worth reading, but I want to highlight the following two questions and answers, commenting—by way of the work of Frank Bardacke—on the second one below: 

1. Some people say farmers just have to pay more for their labor.
“Anyone who is an enlightened observer of immigration reform and agriculture knows that’s not true. Wages have continually gone up. And the supply of labor keeps diminishing. … It’s not the wages, it’s the work. This is a difficult job. This is seasonal. This is migratory. This is not full time. This requires people to be away from their families. So that’s not very attractive work. And money alone isn’t going to do it, because farm workers aren’t raising their kids to be farm workers and certainly people here lawfully in the United States are not willing to do that kind of work when they have so many economic opportunities. As you know, Mexico is now importing farm workers [from other countries], because even in Mexico they are seeing better economic opportunities than being a farm worker.”

2. How in danger are produce growers of being put out of business by the current labor situation?
“I think several of the smaller to midsize operators are in danger of either having to cease farming or sell their operations to larger producers who have the wherewithal to withstand some of the things that are happening because they are able to invest in and develop more mechanical harvesting and other robotic operations. In many cases it will take the farmer a million dollars or more just to develop a harvesting machine for a particular commodity.”
*           *           *
As a prelude to the topic of increased mechanization of harvesting processes (and consequent devaluation of manual labor or Marx’s ‘cunning of the hand’), permit me to quote from Frank Bardacke’s “masterpiece,” Trampling Out the Vintage: César Chávez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2011):

“Not all farm jobs require equal skill. Different techniques are required for thinning, weeding, or harvesting, for working on the ground or climbing on ladders, for working by the hour or doing piece work, and each crop has its craft secrets and know-how. It is one thing to pick lettuce, another to girdle table grapes, another yet to pick lemons. Not all the physical skill of farmwork depends on the coordination of accomplished hands and sharp, experienced eyes. The work also requires physical endurance. Farm work is hard not only in the sense of being skilled but also in the sense of requiring toil, exertion, and extended physical effort. When arriving in the early morning to begin work, Pablo Camacho would often say, ‘Ya llegamos al campo de la batalla’ – ‘Now we arrive at the field of battle.’ Although intending to provoke a smile, Camacho was not being ironic. Most people who have worked in the fields say that it is the hardest work they have ever done. It is hard to put up with the inevitable pain and physical exhaustion, to last until the end of the row, the end of the day, the week, the season. ‘To last’ is not quite the right word. The right word is a Spanish one, aguantar: to endure, to bear, to put up with.

Pablo Camacho was proud of his ability to aguantar, even arrogant about it, often claiming that he never felt pain while he was working. That is a pose that a lot of farmworkers assume, even among themselves. At work, no one complains about pain. Camacho believed that the ability to put up with pain was part of the Mexican national character, especially evident in sports. Like many farmworkers, he was an avid boxing fan. He could name all the boxing champions in the lighter divisions from the 1930s to the 1970s, as well as recount the ways Mexican fighters had been denied championship opportunities. Mexicans were the best boxers in the world, he argued, especially in their ability to withstand punishment. They were also good marathon runners and long-distance bicycle racers, he said, sports in which endurance and patience are the essential virtues.

But Mexicans do not have an exclusive franchise on the ability to tolerate hard work. Endurance is a trait of slaves and the oppressed in general, and also characteristic of peasants and other agricultural people – whether free or unfree. Agriculture by its very nature requires patience. Farmworkers have to wait for nature to do her work. They must plant, water, and wait. Weed and wait. And, finally, after enduring the wait, they may harvest.

[….] Aristotle contended that ‘occupations are … the most servile in which there is greatest use of the body.’ The dynamic relationship between the brain and the hand was ripped asunder by early philosophers, leaving two separate activities: valued intellectual labor (suitable for free men) and devalued manual labor (suitable for women and slaves). This philosophical predisposition against the work of the body had its greatest worldly triumph in the development of capitalism and the factory system. As Marx so passionately chronicled, English factories destroyed English handicrafts. What he called ‘modern industry’ – machines built by other machines strung together in a continuous process of production, where laborers are ‘mere appendages’ to the machinery – replaced the earlier system of production that ‘owed its existence to personal strength and personal skill, and depended on the muscular development, the keenness of sight, and the cunning of the hand.’

The cunning of the hand, what farmworkers call maña, remains the basis of California farm work as surely as it is the basis of a major league pitcher’s job, or a skilled craftsman’s. Many farmworker jobs are not only hard to do but hard to learn, often requiring years to master, and skills typically are passed from one generation to the next. Farmworkers use hand tools: knives, hoes, clippers, pruners. They do not tend machines or have to keep up with an assembly line.”

In brief, “Behind every fruit and vegetable for sale in the supermarket lies an unknown world of toil and skill.” The rhetoric of “factory farming” and “industrial agriculture” is thus misleading to the extent that contemporary agriculture remains highly dependent on manual labor, although it is true that “planting and harvesting of so-called field crops—grains, sugar beets, and dry beans—have been successfully mechanized and deskilled. But field crops take up a rapidly diminishing percentage of California farm acreage….” Nassif appears to suggest (or his answer may be taken to at least imply) that the only obstacle to increased “mechanical harvesting and other robotic operations” is its comparatively high capital cost to all but the largest agricultural producers, but it remains the case that not all planting and harvesting is amenable to mechanization. Again, Bardacke:

“In the early sixties, when growers realized that the bracero program, thus their cheap labor supply, was coming to an end, they and their collaborators at the University of California began to build machines and remake seeds that they predicted would mechanize farmworkers out of existence. The project has been a colossal failure. Eighteen years of research and millions of dollars were thrown away on the lettuce machine alone. [….]

Each failed attempt has its own story. The strawberry machine bruised the berries. The asparagus machine couldn’t cut the shoots without destroying the ability of the bulb to generate more shoots for a later harvest. The celery machine couldn’t cut the stalks cleanly enough to be suitable for the fresh market. The lemon tree shaker produced three to seven times as much unmarketable fruit as did hand picking. Most other tree shakers do too much damage to the tree roots, although many nut trees can withstand the shaking. The one great mechanical success is the contraption that picks canning tomatoes, which, combined with a reengineered tomato, did replace thousands of workers. Otherwise, fresh tomatoes, like most other fruits and vegetables, are harvested by proficient workers making judgments and wielding tools. As the anthropologist Juan Vincent Palerm quipped about the growers’ dream of mechanization, ‘What we have witnessed over the past years is not the mechanization, but rather the ‘Mexicanization’ of California agriculture.” 

Further reading and research: