The Diary of Joaquín Magón Entry 13
Gonzalez, Calif. — On Monday, June 18, roughly 200 farm workers from a vegetable company walked out on strike around 5:30 a.m.
The following is an account on the four-day strike that took farm workers from this company from no union to proud future members of a union contract.
Day 1- The Strike Begins
Before the sun rose through the Salinas Valley farm workers at Amaral had already been molding a question in their minds – to strike? Not to strike? To strike? The answer, of course, was to strike.
“We went out on strike because a lot of us have received bad treatment on the part of the forepersons,” says Andres Mejia, “they don’t give us the work equipment, wages have always been low. That’s why we went out on strike.”
Fields of broccoli, lettuce, and cauliflower lay ready to be picked but not a hand to pick them; those hands were all clutching the iconic UFW flag as workers shouted “¡Huelga!”
The strike lasted all day. It was the beginning of a campaign for recognition. If the majority of the workers in a company go on strike the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) would try to hold an election for union representation within 48 hours. The challenge, then, was to keep the momentum going for an election.
Day 2 – The Pre-Election Hearing
By this time the lettuce begins to wither a bit but it can still last. The morning began with workers arriving at 5 a.m., coffee in hand. Mejia is the first worker to show up. He smiles and says simply “si se puede.”
By mid-morning the hourly workers had gone on strike forcing the company to really consider not meeting the worker’s demands. With the “regadores” (irrigators) on strike the crop cannot receive the water it needs to survive.
It becomes amazing. Truly. To see workers come out again after an entire day of shouting, standing out in the sun, an entire day of not getting paid.
And around 9 a.m. we made our way into Salinas for the pre-election conference. Over 200 workers filled the block in front of the tiny ALRB office.
Workers and organizers took their turn chanting on the bullhorn – “the election when?” “NOW!” “Do you want paid days off?” “YES!” “Do you want to be paid for overtime?” “YES” “Do you want a medical plan?” “YES!” “Do we want the company’s word?” “NO!” “Do you want it written down in a contract?” YES!”
The ALRB hosted elections at 5 p.m. and continued them at 5 a.m. the next morning. By 8 p.m. the polls closed.
Day 3 – The Election Concludes
By now what I thought, what I felt, the fatigued that had crept in and built a nest in my brain was irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was the election and the worker’s struggle. The only thing that mattered was the election and the worker’s struggle.
The ALRB set up the polling booth in one of the fields. The lights of cars lit the booth with small bits of dust dancing here and there.
By 9 a.m. the polling booth closed and the ALRB agents to set up the table and opened the ballot box, and proceeded to pull out the votes one by one. Everyone stood around watching, biting their nails, looking at each vote come out one by one, some counted in their heads, others had a pen and paper to mark the tally.
“No union,” said the ALRB agent as he took out one ballot with a vote against the union. “Union,” said another as she took out another ballot and moved it so that the crowd could tell what the vote was.
It was, indeed, a tense moment as the first few votes were against the union and little by little the “no union” votes were ahead of the “union” votes, then the tie, then ahead, then the tie.
The sun began to climb in the moment so tense that even the heat of the day came close to watch the votes being counted. “Union,” announced the ALRB agent taking out the ballots one by one, “union….union…no-union…union…union…union…union…”
The workers slowly began to smile, and then to laugh a bit as the pro-union votes kept piling on. And so it went until the final count was reached – 265 votes for the union, 65 votes against.
“We are seeing here the farm workers united,” says Antonio Lopez Ramirez, “And we want farm workers to all united. All of them unite. Not just here (in Gonzalez) but we can go all the way to Coachella. Farm workers stand up, wake up, so you can see what is happening here today. We are here united today. The union is the strength.”
You could feel the energy of celebration as the workers waved the flags and chanted “¡Si Se Pudo!”
The battle had been won but it was not over yet . The workers decided to stay on strike until there was a resolution to the process to negotiate a contract. And so on it went through the morning. Some half a mile down the road workers got together to elect two workers from each crew to represent them during the negotiations.
In the afternoons in this part of the valley the wind starts to pick up real fast. Such conditions are ideal for grapes to grow and for lettuce to dance but not for humans to stand waiting for the response from the company on whether to start negotiations now or later. By law negotiations can’t formally start until the union is officially certified by the ALRB; however, when the workers demand something in such a unified manner the base can be laid for a swift resolution of the contract when the Union is certified.
As the day wore on the strike began to resemble more of a celebration than anything else. Workers ate and talked with each other, smiling and celebrating their victory. A sense of community came through and around the atmosphere. The workers they talked, laughed, and joked with others as brothers and sisters often do.
Day 4 – The Strike Ends
The morning air smelled of rain, the dark clouds threatened it, the dust ran as if trying to get away and the vegetables prayed as their thirst grew on. The workers arrived in groups, a smile on their face still feeling the victory from the day before.
Through the morning everyone looked down the empty road waiting for a bit of news from the meeting where the company, the union representatives, and the crew representatives debated on what the contract process would look like.
But the lettuce began to wither and it was becoming visible that to drag this on would be reckless; the workers had gone from having nothing to having union representation. The victory had been assured.
And so it was with that sense of victory after four days of striking and a union election that it was decided that they would return to work the next day.
Friday, June 22, at 5 a.m. we meet a group of workers where the strike began. “Buenos dias,” handshakes, and coffee. They are still smiling, they are still wearing their buttons, and hardly anyone can believe the immense victory they have just achieved.
We wait for the workers to arrive. My co-worker wanted to host a meeting to congratulate them on their victory, insure that they will return to work without any problems, and answer questions they might have as soon-to-be UFW members.
I stand to one side talking to Andres Mejia. He tells me that he has been waiting ten years to vote for a union. Now he has.
Slowly the sun begins to rise over the Salinas valley. The forewoman arrives with the hoes and workers begin to choose their favorite ones and start to sharpen them. Mejia and I continue to talk as the day begins to look more alive we hear the sounds of hoes being sharpened which sounds like saws grinding through wood.
I walk with Mejia a little more, kicking up dirt and enjoying the morning wind. I ask him if he knew why the hoes now have a long handle instead of a short handle. “Of course,” he explains, “it’s because César Chávez fought to have them banned.”
He begins to tell me that he used to use the short handled hoe back in the 70s when he was a young man working in my home state of Sinaloa. He made his trek form his home state of Oaxaca slowly to the United States. One long struggle to survive. And now, as his hair grows grey he smiles looking at the workers getting ready to start a new day of work. Except today they start knowing that they have a union and to Mejia that makes the entire struggle worth it.
View more photos from the strike: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joaquinmagon/sets/72157630282225400/
“The Diary of Joaquín Magón” is written by Jesús E. Valenzuela Félix, a reporter from Coachella living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers. He contributes blogs regularly for Coachella Unincorporated.