Forty years after the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) in California, the economic status of California’s farm laborers has deteriorated, despite the remarkably positive performance of the industry as a whole.


A 2015 study by Don Villarejo compared the hourly wage rate for field workers in California over a 54-year period (1960-2014) (A New Paradigm is Needed for Labor Relations in Agriculture: California Agriculture and Farm Labor, 1975-2014. California Institute for Rural Studies) The long view shows that since 1974 farmworkers “have made no progress whatsoever in improving their earnings relative to other production workers in the state.” 


strawberry picking


In fact, California’s farmworkers remain the state’s poorest-paid production workers. Current annual average wage rates paid to California’s direct-hire farm laborers are lower, when adjusted for four decades of inflation, than they were in 1974, before the law was passed. Seasonally employed crop worker wage rates are even lower. And fewer farmworkers today are covered by labor-management agreements than in 1974.


While employers say they cannot afford to pay higher wages, adjusting for inflation, the agricultural industry’s profits from farm commodities sharply increased during this same 40-year period, to a record high $54 billion in 2014 despite the continuing drought.


“CHANGES IN AGRICULTURE could have led to fewer workers employed for longer periods on one farm. With more trees and vines, double cropping of vegetables, and long-season berry crops, many workers have settled in one area of the state. Farmers report that most of the workers they hire directly are employed more than 150 days on their farms. However, most workers employed on crop farms are brought there by intermediaries such as FLCs. 


A worker may be employed by a single FLC, but have very intermittent work, working six days one week and two the next. By outsourcing especially seasonal work, farm employers have less incentive to give seasonal workers more employment, provide housing for seasonal workers, and take other steps stabilize seasonal farm work.


Tulare county had farm sales of over $7 billion in 2015, but 25 percent of families had below-poverty level incomes and 25 percent relied on SNAP or food stamp benefits; over 40 percent of children are in poor households.” Phil Martin, Rural Migration News, October 2015, Vol 21, No 4.


Implementation of the ALRA led to prolonged struggles in the legislature, the courts, and in the agency, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), itself. During its initial 6-month period, hundreds of union representation elections were conducted and numerous labor-management agreements signed.


 Initially, annual average wage rates for farmworkers rose dramatically.


The industry fought back.




Labor-management agreements expired, pro-union farmworkers were fired or blacklisted without recourse, and the ALRB General Counsel in the 80s publicly campaigned against union activities.


“The annual reports submitted by the ALRB to the legislature reveal a pattern after the early 1980s of fewer petitions for union elections, fewer union victories and diminished support for workers. Unfair labor practice charges.”

(Strawberry Fields, Wells, M. 1996. Cornell University Press. P92)


The United Farm Workers of America responded to the anti-union administration of the law by pouring substantial resources and effort into a struggle to beat back pro-employer actions. The UFW stopped organizing in the fields to focus on defending the law.


This strategy has clearly not worked.


Low incomes and poverty for farmworkers have continued and union membership has dropped. And to reduce culpability of farm owners for infringement of labor laws, there has been growth in the number of farm labor contractors, intermediaries who bring workers to farms to complete work “on contract.”


While the ALRA instituted important regulatory changes aimed at protecting farmworkers, these regulations have not included increased wages.


And wage increases have not kept step with farm profits. For example, in 1974, California farm employers reported an average cost of $2.60 per hour for farmworkers, which would be the equivalent of $12.49 per hour in 2014. However, reported hourly wages in 2015 were in fact $11.75.


In 2012, a movement for increasing wages among minimum wage workers started and became the Fight for $15 among fast food workers in New York. The workers in New York were successful in gaining a $15 minimum wage for all fast food workers in the state.


This effort to raise minimum wages to $15 per hour and give workers union rights has become a national movement that has been driving debate in the 2016 presidential elections. It has moved beyond fast food workers to envelope all minimum wage workers. Seattle and San Francisco have passed laws raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and there is a call for national action.


Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Keith Ellison introduced a federal $15 minimum wage billthat would phase in this wage in five steps by 2020, index it to the median wage, and gradually eliminate the sub-minimum tipped wage, which currently stands at a $2.13 per hour in states that allow it. 


These two members of Congress have been joined by a growing roster of congressional progressives, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Sherrod Brown and Ed Markey, more than 40 House members including Nancy Pelosi, candidates for Congress, and more than 200 economists.”


In California, with its high cost of living, including astronomical rents, $15 may not be enough. The Alliance for a Just Society completed an analysis in late 2015 that shows single adults in California need to earn $19.39 per hour to cover basic living costs. Those costs increase with the addition of dependents.


It’s clear that farmworkers earning $11.75 per hour in California are not able to cover their basic living costs. Three studies completed by CIRS show that farmworker families frequently go without nutritious meals because they cannot afford them. (Increasing Food Security Among Agricultural Workers In California’s Salinas Valley, Kresge,L and C. Eastman. 2010. California Institute for Rural Studies; Hunger In The Fields: Food Insecurity Among Farmworkers In Fresno County, Wirth, et al. 2007. California Institute for Rural Studies; Assessing And Addressing Farm Worker Food Security Yolo County, 2015, Wadsworth, et al, in press. California Institute for Rural Studies)


And many live in substandard housing.  Raising the minimum wage will pull farmworkers up with the rest of minimum wage workers but it won’t solve all of the issues crop workers face. To do this, Californians need to have a clear eyed look at the structure of agriculture and why it seems to depend on an underclass of workers.


Allowing for an entire group of workers to live in poverty is exploitative and extractive.  The human resource won’t last forever and at some point, it won’t be worthwhile for people to participate in agricultural work.  We can no longer accept unfair practices. Exploitation like this dehumanizes workers and negatively impacts each of us. In the long run, we are minimizing our ability to maintain a labor force for a business that relies heavily on labor.


We have created an invisible population that suffers from ill health, depression, isolation, insecurity, fear and powerlessness.


We need to make a decision about our food supply. Are we willing to give up on agriculture in California and rely on imports?  Because at the end of the line, if we are unwilling to provide laborers in our farm fields with high enough wages to support themselves, stay healthy and provide for their families, we will no longer have a legal and local workforce.