February 2, 2017


The Collapse of Organized Farm Labor


By Mike McPhate

More than four decades ago California passed a landmark law protecting the state’s farmworkers from abuse and helping them to organize.

But the recent resignation of the head of a board that oversees the implementation of the law highlights the extent to which organized labor among farmworkers has collapsed since the days of the pioneering labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Chavez’s activism was instrumental in the creation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the passage of which Gov. Jerry Brown described as a major accomplishment of his first stint as governor.

In his recent resignation letter, the head of the board, William B. Gould IV, described the law as “irrelevant to farmworkers.” He estimated that less than one percent of the agricultural work force is now represented by a union.

As chairman of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, Mr. Gould was charged with overseeing the certification process of union elections. Yet Mr. Gould said virtually no workers came to the board during his tenure.

“During the entire three years that I was chairman of the board there was only one petition for representation filed by a union in the state of California,” he said.

Mr. Gould says a major factor for the decline of organized farm labor is the fear that undocumented workers have of dealing with the government. Around half of the Californian agricultural work force is in the country illegally.

“There is not only no incentive to complain but there is no incentive to become involved with government in any way,” Mr. Gould said.

California’s agricultural industry is bigger than ever. It produces roughly a third of all fruits and vegetables grown in the United States and has about a third of the nation’s farmworkers.

Philip Martin, a specialist on organized farm labor, paints a less stark picture than Mr. Gould of the plight of farmworkers.

Farmworker wages “have gone up significantly,” Mr. Martin said, and some workers have the benefit of voluntary agreements that growers sometimes enter with their suppliers. The average hourly wage of farmworkers in California is around $12, he said, above the state’s current minimum wage of $10.

Mr. Martin, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, says estimates on unionization rates among farmworkers in California are not very reliable because there are no government requirements to report them. But he says it is undeniable that unionization rates have plummeted from the heyday of union power in the late 1970s.

“There’s not near the union activity that there used to be,” he said.