he Powers That Be constantly try to keep the progressive majority divided: workers against environmentalists, enviros against farmers, farmers against consumers, consumers against workers, and around and around it goes. As we squawk and squabble with each other, they scoot off with ever more of our money and power, laughing all the way.
It’s when we break this self-defeating circle that we put a little progress back in “progressive,” much to the consternation of those Powers That Be, as we’ve seen recently with coalition efforts to pass everything from living-wage ordinances to public financing of elections. It’s never easy to forge such coalitions–about like trying to load frogs in a wheelbarrow–but it’s essential to the development of a true progressive movement that can be stronger than our separate parts.
If you were to map out a rational coalition strategy for a movement, you probably wouldn’t start by trying to link farmers and farmworkers, two groups that have a long history of animosity and conflict. But organizing a movement sometimes has less to do with rationality than it does with creativity and opportunity, and, as Guadalupe Gamboa puts it, “In times of trouble is when people are open to new ideas.”
A Different Way
Lupe Gamboa is a regional director of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), and from his base in Washington State this grassroots union leader knows plenty about times of trouble. The number-one crop there is apples, mostly produced around the central Washington towns of Wenatchee and Yakima. The apples are picked and packed by some 60,000 farmworkers, of whom 95 percent are Mexicans, averaging only $7,000 a year in pay, with no benefits. They live in cramped and often squalid housing, are constantly exposed to pesticides and suffer everything from ruined backs to early death as they toil in one of America’s most dangerous industries.
So, time to strike against the apple growers, right? ¡Huelga!
No, says Gamboa and the UFW, we need a different way, because family farmers are not really the power in this multibillion-dollar industry. Indeed, farmers are suffering too, typically getting less money for their apples than it costs to produce them, which means they’re being squeezed out of business. It’s not that they’re inefficient producers but that, ironically, both the apple farmers and workers are literally at the bottom of a food chain controlled by massive, monopolistic middlemen dictating prices from far-away corporate headquarters.
In the big-business fresh-apple economy, those who do the most get the least, which is perverse since, after all, an apple is an apple. From tree to you, very little has to be done to it. Yet only a pittance of what you pay in the supermarket trickles back to the actual producers. Here’s how today’s apple dollar is sliced: Workers get 4 cents, the farmer gets 7 cents, wholesalers and transporters take 21 cents and then comes the hog. The retailers, dominated by Wal-Mart and Safeway, grab 68 cents of every dollar.