Back in January, nearly 1,800 citrus pickers went on strike outside Bakersfield, California. Now some of the workers involved in the protests are pushing to form a union.
The workers are primarily undocumented immigrants working under harsh conditions. Although some are employed directly by the Wonderful Company (which markets “Halos” mandarins), most are subcontracted. They are hired by third party staffing corporations, then do piece work for the so-called Wonderful Co. Piece work is any type of employment in which a worker is paid a fixed piece rate for each unit produced or action performed. This type of employment was common in the early industrial revolution, but it’s making a comeback. (Uber and Lyft are good ex-amples.) In the fruit pickers case, the workers hired out to pick mandarins and clementines get paid per bin of fruit picked.
On January 11, the Wonderful Co. announced that it was reducing its rates up to 10 percent, going from paying $53 per bin to $48. According to United Farm Workers Secretary-Treasurer, Armando Elenes, “Workers showed up and they were told the price was $5 less than the day before.” He add-ed that during an eight-hour shift, most workers are only able to harvest 1 1/2 to 2 bins of fruit. This is back-breaking work for low pay, while the company bosses raked in $4.2 billion in profits in 2018.
About 1,800 workers walked out of the fields the very day that the pay cuts were announced. They carried out protests around the edges of the farms for four days, with the United Farm Workers coming in to provide support. The company gave in, restoring the original bin rate.
In the months afterward, some workers are carrying on agitation to form a union with United Farm Workers, which would bring the possibility of health care benefits, pensions, sick time, and more. The UFW and the newly-emerging grassroots organizers among the pickers are considering staging a vote to unionize. In the meantime, the UFW has connected the workers with a law firm. The firm is currently helping them to fight for more concessions, like forcing the Wonderful Co. to provide workers with tools so they do not have to buy and clean their own.