As the March for California’s Future left Bakersfield, marchers trudged past almond trees just breaking into their spring blooms. From Shafter and Wasco across dozens of miles to the west, white and pink petals have turned the ground rosy, while branches overhead are dusted with the delicate green of new leaves.
The San Joaquin Valley’s width–over seventy-five miles at its widest point–is even more impressive than its length, as it stretches several hundred miles from the Tehachapi Mountains in the south overlooking Bakersfield to the delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers in the north. In the heart of that delta lies Sacramento, the state’s capital and the marchers’ goal.
This immense space is filled with almond orchards, grape vineyards, dairies, and alfalfa and cotton fields. A myriad of crops, grown on a huge industrial scale, make obvious the historical source of the state’s wealth. For almost two centuries, that wealth has located California’s political center here. The conservatism of the valley’s political and economic establishment has been the main obstacle to the growth of progressive politics, which long ago shaped the coastal metropolises of San Francisco and Los Angeles. For decades growers succeeded in preventing rural industrialization, for fear it would bring unions and higher wages. Even mass housing was discouraged, until the corporations that own the land realized that the profits of development rivaled those of grapes and pears.
The March for California’s Future is challenging that power, and the stranglehold it still exerts over the state. Holding the budget hostage while California unemployment tops 12 percent, growers and their political allies here have slashed the funding for schools and social service. Now teachers, homecare workers and those who depend on public services are walking into the growers’ front yard, defying the past.
When cotton was king and thousands of workers were still needed to bring in the harvest, immigrants and Dust Bowl refugees rose in rebellion in 1933. The Associated Farmers kept the valley under virtual martial law, while growers gunned down strikers in front of the sheriffs’ station in Pixley, a town along the march’s route. In the ’60s the United Farm Workers was born in another town on the marchers’ way–Delano. The UFW’s most implacable enemies were always here–the San Joaquin grape growers, and the politicians who protected their crops, their water, their cheap labor and their profits.
Valley Republicans are still mounting the watchtowers along that same wall of protection. Two brothers, Tom and Bill Berryhill, represent adjacent districts in the state assembly. Tom, a fourth-generation farmer, lives in Modesto, home of the Gallo wine empire. Bill, who represents Ceres, sits on the board of the Allied Grape Growers. Both inherited their membership in the political class here from their father, legendary Republican legislator Clare Berryhill.
Today Valley Republicans are a primary obstacle to the passage of a budget that would continue to fund basic services for Californians, especially schools and healthcare. The state has a requirement that two-thirds of the legislature approve any budget. Even more important, any tax increase takes a two-thirds vote as well. So even though urban Democrats have had a majority for years in both chambers, a solid Republican block can keep the state in a continual economic crisis until Democrats agree to slash spending. With huge deficits from declining tax revenues, and a recession boosting state unemployment to over 10 percent, converting a budgetary crisis into a political one is not difficult.