The Central Valley's Poor West Side

Labor journalist David Bacon investigates the efforts to unionise Latino workers in California

AVENAL, CA (10/1/99) - Today Dolores Llamas lives in a doublewide trailer in Avenal, a small town on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Here the land rises into dry rolling hills, and then into sere mountains separating the valley from Salinas and the coast.

This is the central valley's poor west side. To the east, Route 99 bisects the big cities of Modesto, Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield. But on the west, little farmworker towns are strung out along the valley's edge - Lost Hills, Huron, and finally Avenal.

On Llamas' street, neighbors' trailers sit comfortably behind wrought-iron fences and well-tended rose gardens. But twenty years ago, when she first came from Guadalajara, she spent her childhood on the outskirts of town, where kids still perform acrobatics on their bikes in the dust between long low apartments that face the road like labor camps or old motels.

Llamas worked in the fields with her family in the days when Avenal's farmworkers made their living from lettuce. During their heyday, lettuce cutters, or lechugeros, were the backbone of the United Farm Workers in small lettuce towns like Avenal. They cut and packed through the fields at breakneck speed in three-man crews, stopping work often to boost their piecerate. Their strong organization and readiness to strike built the union in a wave of industrial unrest.

When it was time to cut the crop, the town belonged to the wild west. Its dancehall was famous even in Mexicali, down on the Mexican border where most lechugeros had their permanent homes. Cutting lettuce was a culture of young single men. They often earned good money on the piecerate in an industry where even growers were gamblers, piling up a fortune in one season when iceberg's price was high, only to lose it the next when it dropped.

In the 1980s, growers brought in machines, and when the culture of the lechugeros faded, the strength of the union faded with it. But Avenal's atmosphere of labor strife never settled comfortably into the past. This year the town again promises to become the site of labor conflict just as hot as that of three decades ago.

Labor wars began again this summer. A local contractor decided to bring Avenal workers to King City, across the mountains to the west, to break a long-running Teamster strike at the giant Basic Vegetable garlic-drying plant.

Strikers followed one of the buses back to Avenal. As they sought to talk to workers getting off to go home, the contractor and his friends suddenly confronted them. Strikers were pummeled with fists and feet. One striker ran down the street, pursued by his adversaries. A local woman, taking her children home, passed by in her car and opened the door, urging him to take refuge inside. Strikebreakers broke every window in her car, while a local sheriff's deputy looked on, talking amiably with the contractor.

This year also, Llamas and her friends began organizing a union at the packing plant of the west hills' largest employer, Paramount Farms. Partly replacing the region's dependence on lettuce, pistachio and almond orchards have sprung up along the west side. Paramount Farms is not only is the largest grower of the nuts - its packing facility near Lost Hills is a modern agricultural complex where over a thousand workers labor around the clock.

Paramount's owner, Los Angeles-based Roll International, is one of a new group of corporate growers now at the hub of the region's economy, who are pushing lettuce growers aside. The company's nut operation, with $250 million in annual sales, is a cog in a huge structure extending from citrus groves in Visalia to the Franklin Mint, whose Pennsylvania foundry churns out coins and collectible knickknacks.

"I was afraid when my friend Luisa came and started talking to me about the union," Llamas says. "I knew they could fire me whenever they wanted." Her fear was underlined by a company policy manual stating that Paramount "may terminate an employee's job at any time and without cause, for any reason or no reason."

Llamas's friend Luisa Lara came to Avenal from Honduras fifteen years ago. She worked on the hulling machines at Paramount for 12 years. When she was fired on March 29, the reason for Llamas's fear was clear. Losing a job in Paramount's packing shed is a big blow in Avenal. The only alternative is working in the fields, labor Llamas had grown up with and already knew too well.

But even fear was no match for economics. She makes $6.00/hour, and her husband, who works in the same plant, makes $6.75, giving the family about $450 a week to live on. But rent on the doublewide is $528, food for five kids runs $175 a week, and other bills absorb another $450 every month. "I didn't even have money to buy the kids new clothes when school started this fall," she says.

On top of economic woes, workers were incensed when a sorter at the plant, Obdulia Diaz, was found murdered in a nearby almond grove this spring. Diaz had been fired in mid-shift over an altercation with another worker. Not having a ride home until the shift ended for her coworkers, she asked to use the office phone to call home, or to just wait at the plant until her friends got off work. After being refused, she began the long trudge along the road from Lost Hills to Avenal. "We never saw her alive again," says Gonzalea, "and as if that wasn't bad enough, we were then told that we couldn't talk about what happened to her at work."

The Paramount drive may not only unionize the largest shed on the west side, but it may give the union the workers are joining, the Laborer's Union, a big base for organizing similar sheds across the central valley. Building the union there are two veteran organizers, Humberto Gomez, who grew up in the UFW, and Yanira Merino, a Salvadoran refugee who's now one of the Laborers' most adept strategists.

Demographic change is sweeping through the Laborer's Union, as California's demographic shift continues to bring millions of Mexicans and Central Americans into the workforce. Today the union, whose membership historically has been largely Black and Latino, is growing even more Mexican at its base. Now the heads of many locals up and down the state are Spanish-speaking, and they are starting to target industries where immigrant Latino workers predominate, outside of the Laborer's traditional base in construction.

Local 550 was chartered in Selma four years ago as a union for San Joaquin Valley's packing sheds and food processing plants. Paramount Farms could be its biggest organized unit yet.

But the influx of thousands of workers is sure to be a source of turmoil as well. In the past, the Laborers were widely perceived as uninterested in militant fights to uphold wages and good conditions, but it's clearly that kind of fight which Paramount has in mind. The prospect fills Llamas with both worry and bravado. "They have meetings with us every day," she says. "They show us videos which say the union will go on strike, burn our cars and hurt our families. We've already seen some of us get fired."

Charles Goldman, Paramount CEO, declined to be interviewed. The company issued a press release, which says that "employees are doing well and do not need a union." It says its pay and benefits "are superior to most employers in the area."

Paramount has hired the anti-union consultant firm of Mendez and Associates, whose operative on the site, Pat Lopez, is well-known in the valley for fighting union drives among Spanish-speaking workers. According to Gomez, the local farm bureau has also sent a representative to campaign for the company, Jose Ibarra. Meanwhile two more union activists have been fired, accused of bothering non-union workers. Workers are set to vote on union representation on October 7.

According to Yanira Merino, when immigrant workers like Llamas and Lara risk organizing a union in the face of such opposition, it gives them high expectations that a militant campaign will win them not only a voice at work, but one in the union itself. "That's the challenge the labor movement has to meet here," she declares.

"I worked in a shrimp-processing plant when I first came here," Merino explains. "I've felt the terror employers use when their workers start organizing. Coming from El Salvador, I never thought I'd see that in a first-world country like this. But even though you put your life on the line to organize a union back home, you have to fight for your rights in either place. I don't see much of a difference."

With Avenal's history, it's not a surprise that fight would take place here.

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david bacon - labornet email david bacon
internet: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 1631 channing way
phone: 510.549.0291 berkeley, ca 94703
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