The Press Democrat’s Labor Fantasies

by Mark Scaramella, June 19, 2013

Last week the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ran a story titled, “Winegrowers facing labor hurdles as harvest season approaches.”

The story began, “Grape growers and farmers throughout the state are facing a range of challenges finding and holding on to laborers as they head into harvest.”

That was followed by this claim: “State enforcement agencies are cracking down on wage and labor violations, labor groups and activists are targeting farm companies with negative campaigns, and fewer workers are crossing the border from Mexico, grape growers were told Friday at the annual trade show held by Sonoma County Winegrowers.”

And: “Unions have been emboldened by recent changes to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act…”

Trouble is, there’s no evidence that any of that is true.

“Unions”?

There’s only one “union” in California that might be “emboldened” by recent changes to the CALRA. That would be the United Farm Workers. A quick look at their webpage called “key campaigns” deals with immigration, heat-related injuries, a not-yet-passed bill to make it a bit easier for workers to join unions, the harm caused by methyl bromide and methyl iodide, etc. There’s nothing about “negative campaigns” against growers, nor does the UFW even have a facebook page.

There are no news stories, no press releases, no new government programs…

Nor could we find any evidence of “recent changes to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act.” (There are some bills pending, but they’re far from enactment.)

The California Farm Bureau issued a report earlier this month called “On-farm labor: As harvest pace builds, farmers report shortages.”

What does the very conservative Farm Bureau think the reasons for labor shortages are?

“California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little, who also serves as chief operating officer for the Farm Employers Labor Service, said he believes the reasons for the shortages are similar to those reported last year, including an aging workforce, people not coming to California to work, and an improved Mexican economy. Plus, Little said, people in Mexico talk to their relatives here and learn that the US economy remains sluggish. ‘Everyone that I've talked to seems to be having trouble finding people,’ Little said. ‘The side-effect of short labor is that workers have a lot more leverage, so they can be pickier about what work they'll accept. I think growers are already adjusting to that by paying higher wages’.”

There’s nothing in that lengthy Farm Bureau report about agency crackdowns, negative campaigns, or any targeting of farm companies for anything.

So where does all this obviously baseless paranoia come from?

It turns out that the PD reporter, Cathy Bussewitz, went to a trade show (ironically sponsored by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau) and wrote down what a self-described labor attorney out of the central valley named Michael Saqui said as if he was some kind of authority. Mr. Saqui’s business depends on scaring growers into thinking their workers are out to get them, when actually all most workers are out to get is fair wages and working conditions.

Mr. Saqui rattled off a standard list of rural labor myths, regardless of truth or applicability, and Ms. Bussewitz duly wrote them down and the PD duly printed them. Just like Mr. Saqui wanted.

The only labor problem mentioned by Saqui that has any validity is the obvious fact that border crossings have become difficult lately and the country’s immigration problems remain in the hands of people who either don’t want to solve it or have no clue how to solve it.

The closest Mr. Saqui got to a specific labor problem was, “In one case, a tomato grower represented by Saqui did not know it had been hit with a labor relations complaint until the retailer that sold its tomatoes was targeted in a social media campaign, Saqui said. ‘We had no idea that they had filed unfair labor practices against us, because we had not been served with them,’ Saqui said.”

Does that sound credible to you? Mr. Saqui, a supposedly experienced attorney for ag employers, didn’t know that a complaint had been filed against his client?

And, does that even sound like a serious problem at all?

Of course not.

Nor does Mr. Saqui describe the “labor relations complaint” itself, just that he said he didn’t get served with it — which means it was a legitimate complaint.

We were unable to find any examples of a tomato retailer being targeted in a social media campaign. (There were some labor complaints about fast food joints using burger-tomatoes picked by underpaid workers in Florida back in 2005 or earlier. Surely Mr. Saqui couldn’t be referring to that case, could he?)

We wasted almost an hour of on-line searching and we could not find any evidence of any state agency cracking down on any farm labor violations. Nor could we find any evidence of “labor groups” (aka unions) targeting farm companies with negative campaigns.

We did find that fewer farmworkers are crossing the border from Mexico.

But we also found that some farm workers in marijuana country have discovered that growing pot pays more than the non-unionized mostly seasonal jobs offered by grape growers, most of which come with no benefits, and the few “benefits” that are offered (such as water, field latrines, transportation, etc.) are offered grudgingly or because they are legally required.

 

When it comes to farm labor issues, you’re actually better off going to the obviously biased reporting of the California Farm Bureau than you are of the supposedly “objective” reporting of the most prominent daily paper on the northcoast.

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