Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, appeared on "The Colbert Report" on Thursday to invite Americans of all races and backgrounds to participate in the farm labor that feeds our nation. The UFW, Rodriguez said, only partly tongue in cheek, is ready to welcome folks who want to put an end to the need for foreign nationals to pick our crops.
Colbert volunteered; the audience chortled. But it shouldn't have been all that funny. The truth is, if the very thought of doing farm work didn't make so many Americans laugh, we'd all be better off.
I worked in the fields for more than a dozen years in the 1970s and 1980s, picking and packing grapes at Almaden Vineyards, at Tenneco Farming Co. and at David Freedman Co. in the Coachella Valley, all under contract with the UFW. Those were some of the best years of my life. They did not make me rich, or even middle class. But they were years when I was treated with respect by my employer; years when I or my union representative sat down at the table with my bosses to determine working conditions and benefits; years when the company followed and obeyed labor laws and regulations.
True, the sun was just as hot under a union contract as without one. There were still dust and spiders and, every now and then, a snake. But each little packing table had a shade umbrella or roof, and we pickers were mostly up under the vines, filling our boxes with fresh grapes. The crews were their own little societies, with soloists and family groups; raucous political discussions going on; flirting among the young folks; wonderful homemade tortillas and food at break time. And at the end of the day I could be proud of the 400 pounds or more of grapes I had picked and packed at their peak. In addition to my wages, I would be taking home the sweetest grapes (too ripe to ship!) for my family to eat that day or for making raisins.
David Freedman Co. was led by Lionel Steinberg and his son, William (known by the workers with real respect and affection as Billy). As a teenager, Billy traveled the migrant trail from Coachella to Fresno County with one of the worker families to learn the trade; the older Filipino men taught him the art of vineyard pruning. By the time I began working there, he was running the field operations of the company while his dad concentrated on sales. They negotiated in good faith with the workers, they made a living and so did we, and for almost 20 years they offered an alternative to factory farming as a way to put food on American tables.
Though Freedman was not totally organic, a wide variety of chemicals were banned under the union contract, and other chemicals were carefully regulated — a tremendous benefit for workers and consumers. By 1981, the contract provided about double minimum wage, at which point we were probably the best-compensated grape pickers in the world. We had paid holidays, and for high-seniority workers, two weeks' paid vacation; disability and unemployment insurance; family medical insurance (with 60 hours of work or more in a month); even a modest pension plan. The Coachella Valley had a UFW medical clinic for the workers and their families, and a legal aid center to help with taxes, Social Security and other issues.
Sadly, only one UFW contract remains in the Coachella Valley, and wages and benefits are not as generous as they were 25 years ago. Today, without a union contract, farmworkers are lucky to get minimum wage, with no benefits, no insurance, no enforcement of labor laws that protect other American workers. Agriculture is ranked among the three most hazardous occupations in the nation. Well-fed politicians heap scorn on undocumented workers, including much of today's farm labor force, and de-fund the most minimal programs that might help them. Calls for arresting and deporting 11 million illegal immigrants are not a solution for a broken system. It's just "biting the hand that feeds."
Of course, farm labor will never be for everyone. But neither should it be a laughable prospect. It should be honored work, with decent wages and working conditions. Our civilization is possible because someone plants the seeds, prunes the vines and picks and packs the fruit and vegetables that feed the nation. The legacy of David Freedman Co. under the UFW contract is one all Americans can be proud of. It is proof that American agriculture does not have to be based on the labor of an underclass denied the rights and benefits of other workers.
Douglass Adair is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Pomona College. He combined work in the fields with work for the UFW through the 1990s, and he now pays his UFW dues as a pensioner. He grows — and picks — dates on his 5-acre organic farm in Thermal, Calif.