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Imperial Valley: Agriculture and Farm Labor -- Philip Martin

Imperial Valley: Agriculture and Farm Labor


Prepared for Changing Face, January 16-18, 2001

Imperial Valley Agriculture......................................................................................................................... 2

Population, Labor, Welfare.......................................................................................................................... 3

Labor......................................................................................................................................................................... 5

Welfare.................................................................................................................................................................. 10

Farm Labor Shortages................................................................................................................................... 12

Commodities........................................................................................................................................................ 12

Development, Border....................................................................................................................................... 13

Farm Labor History.......................................................................................................................................... 14

The 1979 Vegetable Strike............................................................................................................................. 14

The Strike Aftermath................................................................................................................................... 16

TIPP............................................................................................................................................................................. 18

Bibliography.......................................................................................................................................................... 19

Imperial is an agricultural county in the southeastern corner of California that confronts a dilemma: high unemployment and reports of farm labor shortages. About one-third of the average 43,000 wage and salary jobs in the county in 1999 were on farms, and the unemployment rate varied from a low of 19-20 percent in February-March to a high of 27 percent in July-September.

There seems to be a consensus on several facts about farm workers and Imperial Valley agriculture:

1. The acreage of many vegetable crops is shrinking due to low prices, disease, and other factors; some vegetable growers have shifted winter vegetable production from California to Arizona.

2. Most of the 15,000 to 18,000 seasonal farm workers employed during the peak harvest season in January-February live in Mexicali and commute daily to Imperial Valley farm jobs. Farm labor contractors recruit these daily commuters at the port of entry early each day, and take workers to the fields in buses between 5 and 6 am.

3. Most harvest workers are paid hourly wages that are close to the California minimum wage, $5.75 an hour in 2000, and $6.25 an hour beginning January 1, 2001; some farm employers pay $0.50 to $1 an hour more than the minimum, especially for more difficult jobs, such as harvesting cauliflower. Very few workers are employed under union contracts: one exception is Bud of California (Teamsters 890).

4. Most equipment operators, irrigators, and other regular or year-round workers employed on Imperial Valley farms live in the US. Most of these workers earn more than the minimum wage, and many own homes.

Three major factors help to explain the persistence of high unemployment and farm labor shortages:

· Many of the farm workers employed in Imperial county live in Mexicali, the capital of Baja California. [1] Mexican workers based in Mexicali add to Imperial county employment when they are working (employer reported payroll employment), and some add to Imperial county unemployment when they are jobless, since they can draw Unemployment Insurance benefits if they are available for work. Many allegedly use local addresses and draw UI benefits under one social security number while working under another.

· Farm wages in Imperial county have fallen. In 1979, when the minimum wage was $2.90, the UFW called a strike in support of a demand for a 40 percent increase in the general laborer or entry level farm wage, from $3.70 to $5.25 an hour. Most of the large vegetable farmers eventually agreed to raise wages to the $5.25 to $5.75 an hour range in fall 1979, but some went out of business, and the growers who replaced them tended to pay the minimum wage. In 1999, UC cost studies put the general laborer wage at the state’s minimum, $5.75 an hour.

· There is a great deal of seasonality in nonfarm businesses-- tourist-related, commodity packing and processing—and many nonfarm employers seem quick to lay off workers when work slows. Workers laid off seem willing to rely on UI benefits during seasonal lay offs, ready to return to work when needed.

Imperial Valley Agriculture
Imperial county is in the southeast corner of California, with Mexicali, the capital of Baja California, to the south, the Salton sea to which drainage water from Imperial Valley farm land flows into in the north, San Diego about 120 miles to the west, and the Colorado River and Arizona about 50 miles to the east. The Imperial Valley has been described as a 100 mile long below sea-level “trench” that contains about 600,000 acres of farm land irrigated by relatively low-priced--$15 per acre foot—about one-fifth of Imperial county is irrigated. Colorado River water brought into the Valley by the 80-mile long All-American Canal, which was built in 1934.[2] The Imperial Valley tilts south to north, so Colorado river irrigation water is delivered to Imperial farm land primarily by gravity.

Imperial Valley agriculture depends on imported water. In 1900 the California Land Company dug the canal from the Colorado river that brought the Imperial Valley to life; there were reported to be 100,000 irrigated acres in 1904, anchored by Calexico on the U.S. side and Mexicali on the Mexican side. Harry Chandler’s (LA Times) Colorado River Land Company imported Chinese workers into Mexico to dig canals to irrigate the Mexican side of the Imperial Valley, but a flood in 1905 diverted the entire lower Colorado River into the Imperial Valley, creating the Salton Sea. Chandler’s man-made canal is today called the New River; it begins in Mexico and flows about 60 miles north through Imperial county to the Salton Sea.

Imperial Valley farm land sells for $2,000 to $5,000 an acre; at an average price of $3,000 an acre, Imperial Valley crop land worth $1.8 billion generates total farm sales of $1 billion a year. There are three major agricultural sectors—field crops, livestock and vegetables and melons. About half of the irrigated crop land is used to grow field crops such as alfalfa, wheat and cotton or used for pasture for beef cattle and lambs—much of the alfalfa is shipped out of the area to dairies in southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Another 100,000 to 125,000 acres of land are planted in vegetables and melons—the most valuable are lettuce and carrots. There are also important seed crop, wheat, and nursery industries in the Imperial Valley.

The largest employers in the county are government agencies, including the state prison in Calipatria and the El Centro Naval Air Facility as well as two agribusinesses—crop farmer Jack Brothers & Mc Burney Inc in Brawley, and FLC L & S Harvesting in El Centro.

Population, Labor, Welfare
Imperial County had 145,300 residents in 1999, with 60 percent in three cities-- El Centro (38,000), Calexico (26,000), and Brawley (22,000). The county's population was 75,000 in 1970, 93,000 in 1980, and 111,000 in 1990; it is projected to be 300,000 in 2020.

Imperial county has the highest percentage of Hispanics of any California county--104,000 or 72 percent of county residents were Hispanic in 1999, and 21 percent were non-Hispanic white. In Imperial county schools, 82 percent of students were Hispanic in 1998, and 13 percent were non-Hispanic white.

Imperial county often has the state’s highest unemployment rate. Imperial county’s unemployment rate averaged 27 percent between 1983 and 1999, while the state’s rate averaged 7 percent, i.e., the Imperial county unemployment rate was four times higher than the state’s rate. The unemployment rate gap was narrowest in 1988, and widest in the mid-1980s.

Imperial county is unusual because industry employment reported by employers is larger than civilian employment based on the Current Population Survey of US households. In September 2000, industry employment was 53,000, even though civilian employment based on the household survey was only 43,500, reflecting the fact that some workers employed in Imperial county live in Mexicali. Workers living in Mexicali are included in employer reports, but not in the household survey. Imperial county employment in September 2000 included 15,000 wage and salary workers employed in agriculture, 13,000 in state and local government, and 8,000 in retail trade.

The two major employers in Imperial county are agriculture and government. In 1999, farm employment was 28 percent of average payroll or employer-reported employment, while government accounted for 27 percent of employment. Government employment has been rising faster than total employment in the county, while farm employment is rising slower than total employment.

Agriculture remains a dominant employer. The 1990 Census reported that 6,600 or 15 percent of the 43,000 workers had farming occupations—half of the 1,000 whites were farm operators and managers, while 71 percent of the 5,500 Hispanics in farming occupations had non-managerial positions. Imperial county farm employment mirrors statewide trends, meaning that overall farm employment is rising, farm production employment is falling, and farm services employment more than offsets declining farm production employment.

Imperial county employment and unemployment fluctuates from month to month because of the seasonality of its major industries—agriculture and “snowbird tourism,” the movement into the area of residents of cold weather states, many of whom arrive in mobile homes.[3] In 1999, unemployment peaked in July-September at 27 percent, and reached a low of 19-21 percent between December and March—unemployment was 21-22 percent again in May-June. There are three cities for which unemployment rates are calculated—Brawley, Calexico, and El Centro, and Calexico had an unemployment rate of 42 percent in September 2000.

Within agriculture, employment fluctuates more from month to month for farm service employers than for farm producers. Peak-trough ratios for farm service firms are typically larger than for farm production employers—January farm services employment is 1.5 to 2.5 times August farm services employment, while the ratio for farm production employment is 1.3 to 1.8.

EDD projected growth and decline by industry and occupation in the mid-1990s. Imperial county is expected to add an average 600 jobs a year between 1977 and 2004, with the occupations adding the most jobs being retail salespersons, cashiers, teacher aides, and jailers.

California has higher than average welfare dependency rates--about 12 percent of US residents and 25 percent of US recipients of cash welfare assistance, and Imperial county has higher than average welfare dependency rates within the state—an average about 7 percent of California residents received cash assistance in 1998, versus 13 percent in Imperial County.

The average number of welfare recipients in California rose 57 percent between 1988 and the peak levels of dependency on cash assistance that were reached in 1995--welfare rolls fell 20 percent from the 1995 peak by 1998. The result is a hump pattern for the state and the major farm county, Fresno—the number of welfare recipients in Fresno county rose 45 percent between 1988 and 1995, and then fell by 21 percent from the peak by 1998. Imperial county has the same hump pattern, but its welfare rolls rose far more between 1988 and 1996—up 91 percent—and fell slower, down 14 percent between 1996 and 1998.

More recent data confirm that the number of welfare recipients is continuing to fall. There were 20,000 Imperial county residents receiving cash assistance in July 1997, and 15,000 in July 1999. As throughout California, the decline was sharper for adults (down 27 percent) than for children (down 20 percent), perhaps reflecting the fact that, if adult recipients “give up” the adult portion of the grant, they (1) stop two- and five-year clocks and (2) give up only about $125 of the typical $600+ monthly payment. The tendency of adults in welfare-receiving households to be “happily sanctioned” is believed to explain the tendency of cash welfare assistance to be an increasingly child-dominated program in California.

Hispanics are 90 percent of those receiving welfare assistance in Imperial county, and thus county-wide trends are shaped by trends in Hispanic recipients. The decrease in adult recipients was sharpest for Hispanics (down 26 percent). There was no change in the number of white adult recipients, and the number of Black adults receiving cash assistance rose between July 1997 and 1999.

In 1995, when the poverty line for a family of four was $15,569, Imperial county had the highest poverty rate--41,732 people, or 31 percent of its population, living below the poverty line. The median income in Imperial county was $22,200 in 1995. In California in 1995, about 5.2 million people, or 16.5 percent of the population, had incomes below the poverty line—the median income in California was $36,767 in 1995, above the national median $34,076.

Farm Labor Shortages
Imperial county farm employment peaks in January, when a variety of winter vegetables are harvested. Most of the farm workers are employed by agricultural service firms: in January 2000, some 8,900 workers were employed by employers with crop (01) or livestock (02) SIC codes, and 10,600 were employed by farm service firms, including farm labor contractors, according to data employers report to UI authorities.

The California Agricultural Bulletin, which uses data from the survey that generates average hourly earnings data for the USDA’s publication Farm Labor, groups Imperial with Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and reported that there were 7,100 production workers employed on crop (6,400) and livestock farms (900), and 8,500 workers employed by farm service employers—CAB data are for the week that includes the 12th of the month.

The CAB generates average hourly earnings data, and in January 2000 reported that average hourly earnings were $8.19 in farm services, $8.08 in livestock, and $7.84 for workers employed on crop farms. FLCs, who employed 3,500 workers, paid them an average $7.60 an hour. Local reports say that most harvest workers were paid hourly wages of $5.75 in winter 2000, and are expected to be paid $6.25 an hour in winter 2001.

Farm labor shortage complaints center on asparagus, a crop that hires 500 to 600 workers to harvest 5,000 acres in Imperial county in 1999. According to some observers, the asparagus labor shortage can be traced to decisions made after the 1979 lettuce strike to shift from piece rate to hourly wages. Workers who are offered the same hourly wage to harvest lettuce or broccoli, it is said, prefer to harvest these crops because the work is easier—asparagus requires workers to walk carefully in dry rows, constantly bending to cut asparagus. Given the alternatives, some workers reportedly avoid harvesting asparagus.

UC estimated the hours needed to produce selected crops in the Imperial Valley in 1998-99, and assumed an hourly wage of $5.75 and total labor costs of $7.50, with $1.75 an hour covering payroll taxes and supervision.

Lettuce—an estimated 37 hours of pre-harvest hand labor are used per acre to thin, weed, and irrigate. Field pack harvesting (and cooling and marketing) is done by workers following and riding on a conveyor belt machine that travels slowly through the field for a cost to the grower of $4.45 per 24-head or 50 pound carton of wrapped iceberg lettuce, i.e., about $0.18 a head (the yield was assumed to be 500-50 pound cartons per acre or 12.5 tons an acre).

Carrots— an estimated 11 hours of pre-harvest hand labor per acre are used to irrigate, with harvesting by machine. Harvesting (and packing and marketing) cost growers $3.65 per 50 pound poly container (the yield was assumed to be 850-50 pound poly containers or 21 tons an acre).

Broccoli-- an estimated 21 hours of pre-harvest hand labor per acre are used to thin and irrigate. Field pack harvesting (and cooling and marketing) is done by workers following and riding on a conveyor belt machine for a cost to the grower of $4.25 per 26 pound carton; the yield was assumed to be 500-26 pound cartons or 6.5 tons an acre.

Water remains a major issue in the Imperial Valley. The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) is responsible for the delivery of about 3 million acre feet of Colorado River water a year—farmers can generally use all the water they want, but cannot sell water without IID permission. The IID operates the 82-mile-long All-American Canal, 1,442 miles of lateral canals and 1,457 miles of drainage

ditches. In 1989, the IID agreed to use $250 million from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District to line canals to reduce seepage, with the water saved going to the MWD. In December 2000, the IID and the Coachella Valley Water District agreed with the MWD to transfer 200,000 acre feet of water a year through MWD facilities to San Diego.

The Texas-based Bass brothers bought about 45,000 acres of Imperial Valley farm land (Western Farms) in the 1990s, making them the second-largest private landowner; the land was sold to U.S. Filter Corp in 1997 for $276 million.

Development, Border
The US-Mexican border is 2,100 miles long, and there are about 12 million people within 100 km or 65 miles of each side of the border. Population growth in the border area is faster than population growth in Mexico or the US. The population growth rate in US border counties is about 3 percent a year, while, and 4 percent a year in Mexican counties—the US population grows about 1 percent a year, and the Mexican population 2 percent a year.

The wage gap in the border area is lower than the wage gap between the US and Mexico. US wages tend to be lower than average in border counties, and Mexican wages tend to be higher than average, so the hourly earnings and annual per capital income gap is 5 or 6 to 1 rather than the 8 to 9 to 1 for the US and Mexico.

Economic development in Imperial county in the 1990s has been driven largely by government and snowbird tourism. Both the federal and state governments expanded employment in the 1990s with new prisons and more Border Patrol agents, while additional state funds that reduced class sizes created jobs in education. There appear to be more “snowbirds;” often retirees with mobile homes, who move to the desert for the winter months.

What is not yet noticeable are employment spillovers into Imperial county from NAFTA, even though Mexicali, the capital of Baja California, is attracting more maquiladora assembly operations. In other places along the Mexico-US border, maquiladora expansion on the Mexican side has been accompanied by a significant expansion of warehousing, design, and managers living on the US side of the border. Some say that Mexicali is primarily a manufacturing rather than a headquarters or design center, with maquiladoras attracted by lower costs and a more stable work force than in Tijuana assembling electronic products such as computer monitors and televisions.[4]

Imperial county sometimes sees the border as more of a burden than a benefit. In November 1998, the Imperial county Board of Supervisors unanimously declared a state of “local emergency” because of illegal immigration, and asking for federal reimbursement. One supervisor said: “We are a rural community with limited resources and the medical care being provided to illegal aliens is having a serious impact on our limited resources." IV supervisors estimated that the cost of burying each migrant who died trying to enter the US at $927.

Mexicali has several thousand ethnic Chinese residents and over 100 Chinese restaurants, a legacy of importing workers into the area to dig irrigation canals. Three Mexicali universities enroll 9,000 students.

Farm Labor History
One of the first significant strikes called by Mexican farm workers occurred in 1928 in the Imperial Valley, when the Confederation of Mexican Labor Unions got melon harvesters to go on strike to demand higher wages and an end to the requirement that they be hired via FLCs. Although no contract was signed, the strike ended with growers agreeing to stop withholding 25 percent of each worker’s wages until the harvest was completed, and growers rather than FLCs became responsible for assuring that workers received their full wages (Jamieson, 1945, 77).

Imperial Valley labor conflicts were in the news again in 1934-35. In 1934, some 8,000 workers, many displaced Dust Bowl farmers who became farm workers in California, went on strike for higher wages and toilets in the fields; there was violence. The Imperial county district attorney prosecuted the leaders of the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU), a union that led a wave of farm labor strikes in 1933, culminating in the cotton harvesters strike of October 1933. The Associated Farmers of California was reportedly heavily involved in the prosecution of CAIWU leaders, which ended that era’s “labor troubles.”

The 1979 Vegetable Strike
The Imperial Valley loomed large again in 1979, when the first wave of UFW contracts with vegetable farmers negotiated in 1976-77; many of these first contracts expired December 1, 1978 or January 1, 1979. On January 5, 1979 the UFW submitted its economic demands to growers, and published them in the Mexicali newspaper, La Voz. The UFW demanded 42 percent wage increases for field workers, bringing the entry wage from $3.70 to $5.25; 60 percent wage increases for tractor drivers and irrigators, from $3.75 to $6 per hour; and a 53 percent increase in the piece rate for harvesting lettuce, from $0.57 per 24-head carton to $0.87 per carton. The UFW also demanded five more paid holidays, COLA, and standby and reporting pay.

The UFW was negotiating with a coalition of 26 growers, most of whom operated in both the Salinas and Imperial Valleys. They submitted their counterproposal on January 11, 1979, which included eliminating the UFW hiring hall and ALRA good standing from the union security clause. On January 18, 1979 the employers offered a 7 percent one-year wage increase, and told the UFW to allocate the 7 percent between wages and benefits as the UFW saw fit; the growers cited the recommendation of President Carter that wages not increase more than 7 percent to avoid inflation.

On January 19, 1979, the UFW called a strike against 8 vegetable growers in the Imperial Valley, and positioned pickets at the port of entry from Mexicali to discourage strike breakers from entering the US. The strike soon spread to 11 vegetable farms. On January 25, 1979, employers offered a 21 percent wage increase over 3 years, i.e., 11+3+7. The growers also hired a PR firm to conduct an advertising campaign in Mexicali newspapers urging striking workers to return to work.

The UFW said 4,300 workers were on strike, and there was a great deal of violence and property destruction, as strikers attempted to intimidate strike breakers and to flood fields by sabotaging irrigation canals. Growers hired replacement workers as well as security guards, and a UFW striker, Rufino Contreras, was killed February 10, 1979 by a foreman near a field owned by Mario Saikhon. Reflecting the tensions of the time, Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., a close ally of Chavez, marched in the funeral procession for Contreras, while Imperial County authorities ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the foreman for killing Contreras.

On February 21, 1979, the group of 26 growers gave their final offer to the UFW, the UFW made a counteroffer on February 28, 1979, and the growers declared impasse on February 28, 1979; many of the growers made unilateral changes after the declaration of impasse. On March 1, 1979, the UFW filed 1153e ULP charges accusing the growers of bad faith bargaining, and there was no further bargaining until August 1979. In September 1979, 15 of the growers reached the Sun Harvest agreement with the UFW in 9/79 that paid lettuce cutters at least $0.75 a carton and settled the ULP charges.

The ALJ issued a decision on the UFW charge on March 4, 1980, concluding that growers had bargained in bad faith and ordering makewhole wages and benefits from December 8, 1978 or January 1, 1979. The growers had countercharged that the UFW did not bargain in bad faith, and on September 30, 1980, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that the UFW failed to provide growers with information on the benefit plans to which it wanted them to contribute. However, the ALJ concluded that the UFW’s bad faith bargaining did not eliminate the requirement that the growers pay makewhole.

The ALRB, in a 3-1 decision, modified the ALJ’s decision and remedy, concluding that employer bad-faith bargaining began on February 21, 1979, when the employers gave the UFW a “complete contract” on a “take it or leave it basis” that included some provisions never discussed with the UFW. The ALJ/ALRB held that the growers’ ads in Mexicali papers in January-February 1979 that asserted that “The contract is complete in each of its clauses and it is already accepted and signed by the 27 affected companies. Now, the Union must sign it so that you can return to work” was evidence of take-it-or-leave it bargaining.

The dissenting ALRB member argued that the UFW and the growers were so far apart in bargaining that further bargaining would not have resulted in a contract, so he said that makewhole should not be paid. A state Court of Appeals in 1984 agreed in a 2-1 decision with the dissenting ALRB member, concluding that the employers’ February 21, 1979 proposal was not presented in a "take-it-or-leave-it" manner. The employers, the court held, were willing to bargain further, but only if the UFW was also willing to make concessions. The Court of Appeals said that the growers could declare impasse on February 28, 1979 because of the gap between the union’s 123 to 190 percent wage increase demand, and the employers 22 percent offer.

The Strike Aftermath
The strike as well as bad weather and disease reduced the supply of winter lettuce by one-third, but the reduced output of lettuce raised grower revenues because lettuce prices tripled. In February, the Imperial Valley normally sent 10.4 million 24-head or 50 pound cartons of lettuce to market at an average price of $3.75 a carton, generating $39 million in lettuce revenues. However, in February 1979, Imperial Valley growers sent only 6.6 million cartons to market and the price rose to $10.50 a carton, generating $69 million in revenues, or $30 million more.

The UFW’s partially successful strike boomeranged, giving the Imperial Valley lettuce industry almost the price-quantity combination that a monopoly lettuce producer would have aimed for if it were a one-firm monopoly trying to maximize profits—about 5.8 million cartons sold at $12 a carton. The additional lettuce revenues in February 1979 were not distributed evenly—the major beneficiaries included Bud (now Dole), which had a Teamster's contract and was unaffected by the UFW-called strike, as well as lettuce producers in Arizona. “Labor troubles” in California encouraged many winter vegetable producers to shift production to Arizona.

The 1979 Imperial Valley vegetable strike was called the UFW’s Waterloo, an over-reach that accelerated the loss of contracts and members. There were several longer-term repercussions involving specific growers: Bruce Church, Maggio, and Abatti-Saikhon.

Bruce Church Inc. (BCI) was one of the vegetable growers against whom the UFW went on strike, and called for a boycott of BCI's Red Coach lettuce, which caused McDonald's and Lucky (now Albertson’s) grocery stores to stop buying BCI lettuce. BCI grew about 60 percent of its lettuce in California and 40 percent in Arizona, and BCI sued the UFW in Arizona for engaging in illegal secondary boycott activities; Arizona’s Agricultural Employment Relations Act prohibits secondary boycotts.

There were several trials in Yuma, Arizona in which BCI won significant damage awards from the UFW—Cesar Chavez was in Yuma testifying in one of the BCI trials when he died in 1993—but each award was overturned on appeal. In May 1996, the UFW and BCI settled their 17-year dispute with a five-year collective bargaining agreement covering 450 lettuce harvesters that raised wages to at least $6.62 an hour in 1996 and $7.23 in 2001. However, in 1998-99, BCI restructured its lettuce growing operations and stopped hiring harvest workers, so the contract in 2000 covers fewer than 50 equipment operators and similar workers.

The UFW was sued by Carl Maggio -- a grower of lettuce, broccoli and carrots—for “instigating violence during the 1979 strike that led to property damage and crop losses. An Imperial county judge found that the UFW engaged in repeated illegal acts, creating a "climate of violence" that prevented Maggio from recruiting enough workers to successfully harvest its crops, and in May 1986 he ordered the UFW to pay Maggio $1.7 million. In February 1991, a state Court of Appeal in San Diego upheld the judgement, and the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case, so the UFW paid the award.

At Abatti, the UFW won an election on January 28, 1976, and negotiated a first contract on June 7, 1978 that expired at the end of 1978. In November 1978, some Abatti workers began a decertification campaign; their major complaint was that the UFW's medical plan because it was slow to pay doctors, causing some doctors to refuse to see them. The two dis-satisfied workers who spearheaded the decertification campaign were helped by Abatti, who had a foreman drive them to get the correct petition from the ALRB, and hosted a party at which the petition was circulate.

On December 27, 1978, there was a decertification election, and the vote was 149 for no union, 125 to retain the UFW, and 121 challenged ballots. Abatti asserted that vote proved that Abatti workers no longer wanted to be represented by the UFW, and refused to bargain with the UFW. The UFW filed a ULP charge, saying that Abatti unlawfully interfered with the decertification election, so that the results were not valid, Abatti should have bargained in 1979, and Abatti owed his workers make whole wages and benefits. The ALRB agreed, and ordered Abatti to make his workers whole. The Abatti case became something of a cause celebre among growers because the ALRB initially concluded that Abatti owed almost $18 million in make whole wages and benefits. However, the UFW and Abatti settled this case in 1994 for $1.6 million.

Mario Saikhon Inc was once one of the largest vegetable growers based in the Imperial Valley. Between 1985 and 1990, Saikhon grossed about $130 million, and in 1992, Saikhon farmed 15,000 acres in California, Arizona, and Mexico, and had 2,200 employees in the Imperial Valley. Saikhon bargained in bad faith with the UFW over a two-year period in the early 1980s but avoided paying his workers a makewhole remedy by showing that other Imperial Valley growers who had bargained in good faith with the UFW were also unable to agree to the wage and benefit package proposed as the basis for Saikhon’s make whole award. In 1993, the estate of Mario Saikhon agreed to pay $2.5 million to the UFW to compensate 200 striking workers that Saikhon refused to rehire when they offered to return to work in 1979. Saikhon pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges and agreed to pay $22 million in back taxes, penalties and

interest -- the largest settlement of a federal tax case in U.S. history.

The ALRB accepted Saikhon's argument that even good faith bargaining would not have produced a contract with higher wages so long as the UFW demanded that Imperial Valley growers such as Saikhon agree to pay Salinas “Sun Harvest” wages, the highest that the UFW was able to negotiate. The UFW's strategy, according to the ALRB: "was based on the Sun Harvest contract... [the UFW's] position was that this master contract represented the Union's final terms on the major issues of concern, from which the Union was unwilling to bargain."[5] The ALRB nonetheless ordered Saikhon to pay makewhole wages and benefits during the period that Saikhon refused to bargain, and Saikhon and the UFW agreed to settle the case for $2.1 million in 1993. In September 1992, Mario Saikhon was convicted of criminal tax evasion, and sentenced to 6.5 years in prison and $22 million in fines, the largest individual criminal tax case in US history.

The strike continued to cause controversy in the mid-1990s, when local leaders opposed a student-led initiative to name the library at the Imperial Valley branch of San Diego State University in honor of Cesar Chavez. The controversy of naming the library prompted several leaders to say that "It's like the strike happened yesterday. The wounds have never healed."

An advocate of naming the library for Chavez said “the growers still refuse to accept our heritage as legitimate and refuse to admit we have a right to be in this country. That's what Cesar was fighting for, and that's what we're fighting for, too.” A grower said: "Cesar Chavez hurt this valley very badly and chased a lot of farmers into Arizona by being too greedy and trying to push wages too high. We're still hurting from the 1979 strike.”

The Targeted Industries Partnership Program (TIPP), which was formed in

November 1992, conducted its first sweeps in the Imperial Valley, issuing 8 citations to farmers for failing to have proof of worker's compensation coverage. Six farm labor contractors were cited for operating without a license, and a total of $326,000 in penalties was assessed—many of these penalties were later negotiated to lower amounts because farm employers could prove e.g. that they had workers compensation insurance.

TIPP grew out of Gov. Wilson's Farm Workers Services Coordinating Council, which in turn arose from citrus freezes in 1990-91 that left many workers jobless. TIPP brings together a variety of agencies that enforce farm labor laws, including the U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division and the Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, Cal/OSHA, the Employment Development Department, the Department of Pesticide Regulation and the California Highway Patrol.

Carter, Colin, Darrell Hueth, John Mamer, and Andrew Schmitz. 1981. Labor Strikes and the Price of Lettuce. Western Journal of Agricultural Economics, Vol. 6, No. 1 July. 1-14

Daniel, Cletus E. 1981. Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers 1870-1941. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fuller, Varden. 1940. The Supply of Agricultural Labor as a Factor in the Evolution of Farm Organization in California. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, U.C. Berkeley, 1939. Reprinted in Violations of Free Speech and the Rights of Labor Education and Labor Committee, [The LaFollette Committee] Washington: Senate Education and Labor Committee. 19778-19894.

Jamieson, Stuart. 1945. Labor Unionism in American Agriculture. Washington. Bureau of Labor Statistics Bulletin 836.


[1] Mexicali has grown rapidly, from 25,000 residents in 1955 to 438,000 in 1990 (Mexican Census), with some estimates of the city and surrounding area population reaching one million in 2000. The population of Mexico was 94 million in 1995, including 2.5 million in Baja California, and 1.2 million in Tijuana, 760,000 in Mexicali, and 357,000 in Ensenada.

[2] As early as 1915 there were 300,000 acres of crops being grown in the Imperial Valley, irrigated by Colorado River water. The Imperial Valley gets about 3 inches of rain a year.

[3] EDD reports the number of employers (reporting units) by their number of employees for the third quarter of the year, and in 1999, Imperial county had 4,100 reporting units; 2 had 1,000 or more employees, 6 had 500 to 999, and 14 had 250 to 499 employees. The 8 largest Imperial county employers had 8,335 employees.

[4] Mexicali has about 500,000 irrigated acres of farm land, much of which produces wheat and cotton as well as vegetables