Farm Work Can Be a Skilled and Permanent Job

(David Bacon)

Up and down the Pacific coast, many of the largest growers are rapidly increasing their use of guest workers recruited in Mexico as temporary harvest labor. Farm labor, in their view, is unskilled. The workers who perform it should show up at harvest time, work as hard as possible, and then effectively disappear until the next season. 

This has been the common view for over a century. It is the justification for a renewed Republican push to establish a vastly expanded guest worker program. But is the road to improving the lives of farmworkers to legislate even more massive contract-labor programs? Or is it to treat farm labor as skilled and permanent work, and provide security and decent wages to those who do it?

One Salinas grower, D'Arrigo Brothers Company, is choosing the second alternative, a choice its workers feel reflects the value of their labor. “I started working at D’Arrigo in 1979,” says Efrain Fraide, who works in a company broccoli crew. “I’ve cut and packed every crop they have—celery, cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli, lettuce—here in Salinas and in the Imperial Valley, too. The company was poor when I went in, and now they’re one of the biggest.”

“We’re ready to invest in our workers,” says John D’Arrigo. “It’s hard to find workers today, and our answer is to make the jobs attractive, and to retain the workers we have. We need a long-term workforce, and we want direct hires—people who work directly for the company.”

That understanding led to a labor agreement signed in a televised ceremony in Salinas on June 29 by D’Arrigo Brothers Company and the United Farm Workers (UFW). The contract covers 1,200 D’Arrigo employees in the Salinas Valley, most of whom work about nine months of the year, and another 300 in the Imperial Valley, who work a three-month harvest.

Wages in the new contract start at $13.35 per hour—$2.35 above California's minimum wage of $11. They rise to $13.85 in the second year, and $14.40 in the third year, when the state minimum rises to $13. Many D’Arrigo workers, however, work on a piece rate (called a production incentive), which increases by 3 percent in the first year, 3 percent in the second, and 2.5 percent in the third over the three-year duration of the contract. The company has a bonus system, giving workers an additional percentage of their pay at the end of the year, and the required number of hours has been reduced so that Imperial Valley workers will receive it for the first time.

“The most important thing to me,” says Odilia Aldana, a lettuce worker on the union negotiating committee, “is that the company is now going to pay for our medical plan, plus six holidays every year.” The UFW administers the Robert F. Kennedy medical insurance program, and D’Arrigo has agreed to pay the whole $612 monthly premium providing medical, vision, and dental coverage for workers’ families. 

Workers pay deductibles for treatment, including $15 for a visit to the doctor or for prescriptions. The plan pays 90 percent of major medical bills, and the union has negotiated lower rates with local hospitals.

“For the last three years, I’ve cut lettuce in a crew where we’re all women, except for the men who load the boxes on the truck,” Aldana says. Cutting lettuce used to be a job reserved for men, who in past decades earned some of the highest wages in agriculture for backbreaking work.

Since then, the work system has changed and the pay is not what it was. Nevertheless, a few years ago the company told its women employees that it couldn’t find enough men to cut all its lettuce, and asked them to take cutting jobs. “When there’s a lot of lettuce in the field, we can work piece-rate and make good money,” Aldana explains. “But we really earn it, and go home very tired. And if the field isn’t so good, we have the hourly guarantee to fall back on.”

Inside the company, the union has a workers’ committee with five members, and is trying to encourage the participation of more women. Each crew has a union steward, and when workers have grievances or problems they try to resolve them directly with the supervisor.

 

ACCORDING TO UFW PRESIDENT Arturo Rodriguez, D’Arrigo Brothers has always relied on workers employed directly by the company. “That’s good for the workers,” he says. “It’s more stable. The workers get educated and become more skilled, which is better for the company. And as a union, we develop a better relationship with the company because of that stability.”

D’Arrigo Brothers is one of the Salinas Valley’s oldest companies. Two Sicilian immigrants, Andrea and Stefano D’Arrigo, started distributing produce in Boston in 1923. After moving to California soon after, they developed the refrigerated railroad cars that allowed the state’s vegetables and fruits to reach markets across the country, and the first brand-marketed produce label—Andy Boy. John D’Arrigo, the current president, belongs to the family’s third generation.

The brothers were not always friends of the union, however, and the new contract represents a change in an often-contentious relationship going back half a century. The nascent United Farm Workers Organizing Committee signed a first agreement with D’Arrigo Brothers during the great Salinas lettuce battles of 1970, but it only lasted two years, and was followed by a strike. When California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the company’s workers voted for the union the year afterward, but were unable to get the company to sign a union agreement.

Nevertheless, a core of union supporters have worked for the company through the decades, and over the years organized job actions to try to win better wages and conditions. In 2002, California passed a law allowing the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to impose a mediated contract settlement on an employer when the union has been certified to represent its workers. Because of the 1976 election, the law applied to D’Arrigo, and the company and UFW finally signed a contract three years ago. It is one of the largest growers to sign a union agreement as a result of the mandatory mediation law.

Both Rodriguez and D’Arrigo agree, however, that the new agreement has changed their relationship. When talks between the union and company negotiators stalled during the current bargaining, which lasted from December to June, Rodriguez and D’Arrigo met at a restaurant, and later talked by phone. “John said it made more sense to spend money on wages and benefits than on lawyers to fight with the union,” the UFW president recalls. “We got far more than we’ve ever gotten before.”

“I told my team that what happened in the past is over,” D’Arrigo explained in an interview. “After we signed the agreement, I had an hour-long meeting with them and the union’s negotiating team together. I told them that the company survives because of them, and that we have to develop a new way to work. We have a shrinking, aging workforce. We have to take care of who we have, and make our jobs attractive to the people who live here.”

 

LIKE OTHER SALINAS GROWERS, D'Arrigo does use labor contractors, and employs H-2A workers. Under the H-2A visa program, agricultural employers can recruit workers in other countries, under contracts of less than a year. Afterward, the workers must return home. Program regulations require growers to hire local workers first. If H-2A workers are fired for not meeting production standards or organizing, they must leave the country immediately. 

“I don’t have enough direct hires [directly hired permanent employees] to harvest all our crops, so I need additional workers,” D’Arrigo says. “The contractor and H-2A crews are all very good workers, but they’re really just a partial solution, a Band-Aid, not a real solution. Both Artie [Rodriguez] and I agree the goal is developing long-term, skilled people.”

According to UFW Vice President Armando Elenes, about 200 workers for D’Arrigo are employed by labor contractors, and under the new agreement they will all belong to the union and get the wages and benefits the contract provides. An additional group of fewer than 200 H-2A workers are represented by the union and get the union contract wages. Those wages are above the level required under the Department of Labor regulations, which set the minimum H-2A wage in California this year at $13.18 per hour. 

Since all the workers are receiving the same wages, there’s no economic incentive to replace permanent workers with H-2A workers or a contracted labor force. That is an important issue for workers in Salinas. Two large local growers, Tanimura and Antle, and Nunes Company, have built barracks with hundreds of beds for H-2A workers. Last year, California-based H-2A recruiter Fresh Harvest brought 4,623 H-2A workers to the United States, and Elkhorn Packing (which provides workers to D’0Arrigo) brought in 2,653. 

“We’re all very worried about this,” says longtime D’Arrigo worker Fraide. “We can see other companies laying off direct hires, and hiring H-2A workers. At D’Arrigo, because of the contract, at least we’re protected for the next three years. Basically, we got what we wanted, and I’m happy. Now there’s respect at work, where they used to darnos carrilla [give us a bad time].”

John D’Arrigo is a board member of the Western Growers Association, where other growers will likely question his wisdom in signing a UFW contract. “One guy already told me I’m going to cost him money,” he laughs. “But we’re all fighting for the same workers. We understand competition, and I’m a strong competitor. If this causes ripples, so be it. But I believe the answer to our labor shortage is investing in the workers.”

He cites the contribution the company made to Natividad Hospital, which launched the D’Arrigo Family Specialty Services clinic. Natividad has hired trilingual interpreters in Spanish, English, and the indigenous Mexican languages spoken by many valley farmworkers, including Mixteco and Triqui. D’Arrigo promotes the Agricultural Leadership Council, which has 160 members and donated $2.7 million to buy equipment for the hospital.

Nevertheless, a union contract does represent increased costs. D’Arrigo says he plans to offset them by increasing the number of boxes of produce harvested per acre, and maintaining a high level of quality. The company uses increased technology, like GPS devices on tractors, and systems for using fertilizer spray to thin young plants instead of manual labor. These jobs require more highly trained workers, and keeping turnover in the workforce to a minimum.

Technology can also threaten jobs, however. “Technology is going to happen, we know that,” Rodriguez says. “We remember the tomato machine and can see the industry has changed a lot and will continue to change. But we want workers to have the opportunity to change with it, to get the jobs that are created.”

 

WITH A NEW CONTRACT, D’Arrigo Brothers is providing a set of answers to growers trying to find workers and fill harvest crews. It’s an answer that differs substantially from the program laid out by Republicans in Congress. 

For the last two years Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has proposed legislation that could result in issuing two million new “H-2C” guest-worker visas within two years. His proposal would lock in farm labor wages near the minimum-wage level, and withhold 10 percent of guest workers’ pay until they return to their country of origin. Growers would no longer have to provide them with housing or transportation, and would only have to promise to recruit local workers first. Legal aid organizations could no longer represent guest workers, who would be unable to go to court if they were cheated.

While growers’ use of the H-2A program has increased sharply to more than 200,000 workers per year, immigration raids in rural areas of California have increased as well, especially following the election of President Trump. Goodlatte’s proposed anti-immigrant legislation would deny legal status to the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States, including half of all farmworkers. Instead, it would require their employers to identify and fire them, while prohibiting guest workers from bringing their families to the United States.

“If people disappear, that would be catastrophic for us,” D’Arrigo charges. “We need to wise up. We have to get people into legal status. They’re already harvesting our food. And when we look at what’s happening on the border, we can see there are people who want to come here. We should let them come and treat them with dignity, so they can set up life here. We certainly don’t want to separate them from their families. We can’t say, ‘Come work for me, but your kids are starving and in danger.’”

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