The Community Action Center is located in a trailer that doubles as a daycare and evening educational center for the area's farmworkers. Once a week, around 6pm, it fills with young women, men, and kids who grab chicken and chile and sit down tired, sunned, and recently showered. Representatives from local non-profits explain some basics in Spanish: you cannot be fired for getting pregnant, you have to get water breaks, sexual harassment is against the law. When one of the representatives explains that farmworkers get less overtime than other workers, one of the younger women asks why. "¡Injustica!" shouts a man across the room, inspiring laughter from the crowd. The joker answered correctly. Farmworkers are paid less under the law because of an ongoing legacy of slavery.
Salinas, California, just two hours South of San Francisco's tech-topia, feels like a different planet. Gang violence is commonplace, Spanish is the default, and local-organic-small farm food an oxymoron. If Las Vegas is a symbol of America's hubris, the Salinas Valley is its industrial agricultural counterpart. Coastal deserts give way to massive fertile green fields, fed by scarce water, chemicals, and exploited labor. Every minute, refrigerator trucks dart out of enormous cooling plants where lettuce is packaged for a cross-country trip. Across North America, 80% of our lettuce, 90% of our Broccoli, 90% of our tomatoes, 85% of our garlic, and nearly 100% of our artichokes are grown in and shipped from Salinas.
Watching a crew pick lettuce, strawberries, or celery is mesmerizing. The women and men's hands move at an unimaginably fast rate. Without fail, a man picking celery repeats the same pattern--bend, pick, rip, cut, pack . . . bend, pick, rip, cut, pack . . . 20 times per minute for 1200 bends, picks, rips, cuts, and packs each day. Yet, the big agro-business companies, or growers, regularly fight workers compensation claims, arguing that back injuries aren't work-related. The women who pick strawberries cover their face with bandanas to block fuzz, dust, and pesticides as they place the berries directly into the plastic cartons that you buy at the store. Sexual assault is commonplace and work and safety violations normal. When the crews return home for the night, they'll face unaffordable rents and ground water poisoned by pesticides.
Our exploitation of people of color in Salinas today draws from a rich and lasting legacy. While planation owners sowed profits on the backs of African Americans in the South, lettuce growers profited from cheap Filipino and Chinese labor in Salinas. Today, workers from Mexico are underpaid and overworked with scant understanding of their rights. Growers make the meagerest of attempts to comply with workplace laws (one grower claimed that the single tree on an enormous field provided the shade mandated by law) and lasting legal carve-outs expressly allow growers to exploit farmworkers. One community worker, who has organized farmworkers for over fifty years at times side-by-by Cesar Chavez, explains "its always slavery."
We can and should make small consumer choices to signal to the big growers that we care how they treat their workers. We should buy organic (pesticides poison workers and bugs) and from small, local growers. But we need structural, meaningful, big reform; a shake down of the political order. We may not reckon with our reliance on exploited labor in this lifetime or the next, but we must struggle towards more humane food.