Albion Monitor /Commentary

Strawberry Economics

by Alexander Cockburn

The UFW is pumping $100,000 a month into the small town of Watsonville, making it the largest new business in town
Driving down Highway One a couple of weeks ago through the strawberry fields around Watsonville, Calif., 90 miles south of San Francisco, I gazed at the millions of young green plants poking up through the plastic and thought of Karl Marx's famous remark about commodities in the first chapter of "Capital":

"A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But analysis shows us that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties."

In other words, there's more to a strawberry than what these days, courtesy of the University of California's bio-engineers, is a bland fruit abounding in wateriness, tasteless withal. Congealed in these berries, we can find the history of class conflict on California's Central Coast, a history hopefully helped to a new stage on Sunday, April 13, when John Sweeney and other leaders of the AFL-CIO will lead a march of many thousands through Watsonville, hoping to fire up the efforts of the United Farm Workers to organize the strawberry pickers and display to America the combative zeal of a revived labor movement. To this end, the AFL-CIO-financed UFW is pumping $100,000 a month into the small town of Watsonville, and this, as my old friend Frank Bardacke pointed out to me as we rolled on past the strawberry fields, makes the UFW the largest new business in town.

t's not the berry pickers, and it's not even the growers making bundles of money out of strawberries
Bardacke has lived in Watsonville for 25 years and worked in the fields for six of them. These days, he's writing a history of California farm workers, and so the history is vivid in his head. The organizing efforts of Chavez's UFW pushed the farm workers' entry wage from $1.25 in 1965 to $7 an hour in 1980. But by then, the union had serious internal problems, and Republican counter-attacks came rolling out of Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Today, farm workers are taking home the same -- which means less -- as they were in 1980. For a strawberry picker working eight or nine months a year, this means $9,000 a season. Spend $5 on strawberries in the supermarket, and the people who picked the berries get maybe 45 cents.

Mind you, as Bardacke also pointed out, at least they're still growing strawberries in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys, to the value of $300 million a year. In 1980, Watsonville was the frozen food capital of the world. Not anymore. These days, Irapuato in Mexico holds that title. The farm workers -- mostly from Michoacan -- who made $7 an hour in the Pajaro Valley now can make $6 a day in Irapuato. Watsonville lost 5,000 jobs, in a population of some 35,000.

The strawberries would have followed the broccoli and cauliflower down to Irapuato. In fact, the strawberry growers tried to move to Mexico in the 1960s but found they couldn't do without the University of California, whose scientists on the UC Davis campus have lavished millions of dollars of research time in the somewhat fetishistic pursuit of bigger, redder, more comely berries engineered with an appetite so zealous for surplus value that Marx would have positively crowed with delight. Mexico sends up only processed strawberries, which, on one recent notorious occasion, got relabeled as American and sold in yogurt to school-lunch providers, thus imparting Hepatitis A to some of the unfortunate consumers.

Given the $300 million annual take, some folks in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys are making bundles of money out of strawberries. It's not the berry pickers, and it's not even the growers. As Bardacke explained to me, strawberries are mostly raised by small growers who hock themselves up to the eyeballs to rent the fields, sterilizing them with methyl bromide pumped in under the plastic, putting in the plants and then spraying them with costly pesticides and water. Come harvest time, and the race is to get the berries into the coolers, of which there are about a dozen in the Pajaro and northern Salinas valleys costing $2 million each. The people who get the big slice of the $300 million are the cooler owners and the marketers, who therefore control the cash flow and hold the growers in the palms of their hands.

Two summers ago, the UFW successfully organized a ranch only to see the grower declare bankruptcy and the new owner fire all the newly unionized workers
So strawberry organizing is fiendishly difficult. Bardacke, who worked in one, recalled the intense solidarity of a celery- or broccoli-picking crew, which got paid as a unit and divided the day's take. These crews were the backbone of the UFW in the great days. But strawberry pickers don't work in crews, and they get paid by financially beleaguered growers teetering on the edge of ruin. Two summers ago, the UFW successfully organized a ranch -- VCNM Farms -- only to see the grower declare bankruptcy and the new owner fire all the newly unionized workers. Last summer, the UFW found it tough going in consequence.

So somehow, the UFW, with the AFL-CIO behind it, has to organize "cooler-wide," which means compelling the cooler operators to commit to buying berries only from UFW-organized growers. And how is that going to be done? The ultimate arbiter is the consumer, who buys those red berries so imbued with metaphysical subtleties or who listens to what union organizers recommend and maybe passes up Watsonville strawberries in the interests of justice.

The union leaders aren't talking about a boycott yet, but they must have one in mind. The famous grape boycott of the late 1960s lasted five years. My neighbor up here in Humboldt County, 400 miles north of Watsonville, is looking pleased. He's a one-man operation, and the berries are organic.

Start reading those labels!

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Albion Monitor April 25, 1997 (

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