The green Driscoll’s label on the organic berries that I buy each week are a comforting symbol of a family-owned company that got its start in California. Sometimes the berries are marked “Product of USA,” but more often than not, they are labeled as originating in Mexico. That is because Reiter Affiliated Cos., which sells berries through its affiliate BerryMex under the Driscoll’s label, grows much of its produce in Mexico. On its website Reiter claims to be “the largest fresh, multi-berry producer in the world and the leading supplier of fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries in all of North America.” Now, the farmworkers picking many of those berries are on strike, demanding a change to the brutally impoverished conditions under which they live.
The strike, taking place in San Quintín, in the Mexican state of Baja California, came just in time for Farmworker Awareness Week. As many as 50,000 mostly indigenous workers have stopped harvesting produce for more than a week in protest of labor law violations. They have carried out bold actions, including blocking traffic on a major highway. About 200 workers were reportedly arrested over such actions and have complained of mistreatment at the hands of police. What they want is for their basic needs to be met, such as obtaining health care, getting overtime pay and vacation days, and being paid wages higher than the dismal $8 a day that most of them earn.
David Bacon, a longtime labor journalist and photographer and author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration, has visited the fields of San Quintín. He told me in an interview on “Uprising” that “all of the ranches … are producing for the U.S. market, they don’t produce for the Mexican market at all. In fact,” he added, “they were started to supply the U.S. market especially with tomatoes and strawberries at a time when the only place in the United States that was growing and harvesting them was Florida.”
Years ago the sparsely populated San Quintín area was converted into an industrial agricultural center by growers who imported indigenous workers from southern states such as Oaxaca. Bacon compared the dozen or so ranches in the area to the maquiladoras, or factories, that sprang up along the Mexican side of the U.S. border. He described the conditions of the labor camps where workers live as “really awful and terrible.”
Starting in the 1970s many of Baja California’s workers began to cross the U.S. border through California into the Central Valley, and even to states like Washington. “These are all connected communities,” maintained Bacon, which is why the San Quintín strike is big news among farmworker communities in the U.S. such as Washington’s Skagit County.
Sadly, it is not very big news elsewhere in the U.S. When the strike began last week, the Los Angeles Times was the only English-language media outlet in the country to initially cover it. (Since then, a week later, The Associated Press and others have begun to report on the strike.)