By Elizabeth Henderson

Alannah Kull and I attended this highly informative, though rather depressing, conference on farm labor issues in California. Despite decades of farm worker organizing, most of the housing is lamentable and wages have actually gone down. Farm workers have the right to organize and there is an Agriculture Labor Relations Board (ALRB).  However, 100% of the orders it hands down are challenged in the courts (in contrast to 30% for the National LRB). You can find a full report with most of the presentations with their slides at

The first panel analyzed the different approaches to improving conditions for farm workers.  Nathan Smith of SureHarvest reviewed FairTradeUSA, CIW’s Fair Food, the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) and Food Justice Certification (FJC), and noted that so far, the bottom up approaches are rarely self-sustaining and rely on foundation support.  Referring to himself as a “capitalist pig,” Ernie Farley, one of the managers of Andrews and Williams, a large produce operation that is a founding participant in EFI, noted that this program is bringing about real cultural change. As proof, he says he now talks to people like Margaret Reeves of Pesticide Action Network and Eric Nicholson of United Farm Workers.  Hector Lujan, representing Reuter Affiliated, the parent company of Driscoll’s, gave a glowing account of his company’s efforts to improve labor conditions, wages and housing, claiming that they offer the same standards in the many countries where they operate. Lujan’s main theme is an important one – “the economic model has to resolve things for everyone in the supply chain, including workers.”

In the next section, on “Responding to Aging and Settling Worker,” Philip Martin, a researcher at UC Davis, reported on the state of farm workers in California.  In summary, use of farm labor contractors (FLCs) is on the rise, the number of farm workers has increased along with their average age. However, wages have not increased: annual pay is $17,000, with only $10,000 for those employed by FLCs. Immigration has decreased, and the use of H-2A nationally reached 165,000 in 2016, up from 60,000 just a few years ago.  Don Villarejo, the founder of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), decried the continuing lack of affordable housing for farm workers.  He cited the example of Tanimura and Antle, a huge produce company, which has eliminated the need to hire H-2A by building 100 units of decent housing.

On the panel on “Immigration and Farm Labor,” Kevin Johnson of UC Davis detailed how under Obama 400,000 were deported, ten times the number in 1990. Trump has not yet dismantled DACA, the program for “dreamers,” young people who came to the US as children. Attorney Sessions wants to “remove filth” from US by eliminating bond for arrested immigrants and expanding expedited removal.  Ed Kissam of WKF Fund pointed to a key part of Sessions’ strategy – psychological war for self-deportation.  The aggregated impact is that there are 5.7% fewer farm workers in CA. Cynthia Rice of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) discussed how H-2A workers replace the undocumented, aggravating poverty.

William Gould, professor emeritus and the first director of the ALRB, and Genevieve Shiroma, current chair of the ALRB, presented a discouraging overview of the work of the board as long on promise and short on implementation.  Their conclusion: the ALRB should be independent, have the ability to engage in rulemaking, and bring cases including cases against FLCs.

The final section of the conference focused on cannabis, now legal in CA, though 80% of production is exported to other states where it is not legal.  Pete Maturino from the agricultural division of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) reported that his union covers the 2000 workers in CA cannabis dispensaries, offers safety training for workers and banking services to the cannabis industry.