Card checks, unions and guest workers

July 6, 2011


California agriculture has some real possible tough sledding coming down the pike this summer. Revised card check, E-Verify, new regulations from the State Water Quality Control Board and Air Resources Board, and increased audits by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE) just to name a few.

Many of you probably think “way to go” but standing in front of the bull’s-eye most of us in agriculture are thinking of the old Charley Brown song and the part – “Why is everybody always picking on Me?

This Card Check idea is completely out of wack with our American ideals. It passed both the California Senate and Assembly. To his credit, it was just surprising vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle even urged Brown to veto it because they reported it only benefits the union and not the farm workers.

This one-sided law would have allowed unions to wait in the fields, go to homes, or anywhere else farm laborers conjugate and sign up the people to form a union. Up to now, after petition signup, it has always been decided by the secret ballot process whereby the employee cannot be harassed by either side on which way to vote. That would have all changed with this law because a farmer would have to recognize a union just from the submission of petition cards signed by a simple majority of employees.

You can not tell me that these workers weren’t going to be pressured into signing after encountering these bounty hunters, probably fairly intimidating, who know where they and their families live. There were penalties in this new proposed law for employers if they tried to interfere with farm labor organizing efforts but none for the unions that might intimidate or coerce farm workers into signing up.

Once signed with the farm worker’s address, which is a requirement to be on the petition, this information would also become public record and be on file with the State. That alone might keep some from signing up because ICE would also know where they live. If many of the farm workers in California are illegal, why and how can they even legally sign these petitions?

In any case, it sure puts them into an unnecessary tough position and against everything the Agricultural Labor Relations Law signed by Brown in 1975 has been about – a legal and fair secret up or down vote on union representation without fear or pay back.

This was a short-cut last ditch attempt by the United Farm Workers who have been having trouble signing up workers. Along with E-verify of I-9 employment forms, which is a data bank which has already shown serious flaws, it would have put added pressure on employers to serve as immigration enforcers with nowhere to turn. “

“Damn if you do and damn if you don’t.”

Once again, it brings up the need for secure borders and a guest worker program that brings these workers out of the shadows to work in the fields under the protection of the government.

Along with no guarantees for citizenship, they will be held accountable for taxes, driver’s licenses, insurance, place of residence and work, and not getting into trouble or face a quick ride to the border. It would let them go safely back and forth across the border and in time, for many, have enough money to stay home and start a business like many of the Braceros did decades ago.

Mexico needs these comparatively cash-rich entrepreneurs to come home and start businesses.

It was only after the Bracero program was dissolved, and the border closed, did the workers start bringing their families across the border causing some of the social problems we have today. These farm workers would much rather live amongst their families and friends in Mexico and Central America, even if just seasonally, where their wages ($10 plus an hour here versus $1 an hour or less there)  buys so much more. A guest worker program fills the needs on both sides of the border.

Don’t start with me that we would be creating a second class of workers because that is what we have now. With an official guest worker program that would cease and these workers and employers would be held accountable. They would have option to go home anytime they want. Plus, we will know who they are, where they live, who is responsible for them, and tax them to offset their social costs.

With all the unemployment in California, there are very few in that group looking for work in the fields that you drive by daily. I can tell you it is a .001 percent increase if that much. Face it; Americans will not do the work!  Without these fine hard working family- oriented workers, your food prices would be astronomical.

Reforma, a Mexico City newspaper, did an article taking information from Mexican state and federal authorities, National Human Rights Commission, and newspaper articles reported that since 2007 at least 100,000 illegal immigrants (more than twice the size of San Luis Obispo) from Latin America were abducted and disappeared on their way through Mexico to our border. There was over 150 in one mass grave near my grandmother’s (Estrada) ancestral home outside of Durango, Mexico.

These numbers do not even take into account the toll of Mexicans trying to cross the border and then disappeared thanks to the cartels controlling the border. Imagine the fear for these people, just trying to feed their families, that are accosted on both sides of the border by these thugs who beat, rob, rape, and kill. Then if they make it through that gauntlet, they still have to cross the hostile desert.

Read Joseph Wambaugh’s true story “Lines and Shadows“ to get an idea of what really happens at the border and this was written 30 years ago! It is time to make sense out of this mess and create at least some sort of a bridge to let in and control these workers of whom we are all so dependent. The sad truth is that nobody has the guts and nothing is going to be done for at least two years because of the upcoming elections. This problem should have been taken up before health care. Look for more of my take as a farmer on immigration.

As many of you know, we have trolley tours in the vineyard usually on Sundays in the summer after Schoolhouse Rock or anytime we can at least fill up half of the trolley. The idea is to get folks out to the vineyard and show them how, why, and what we do to produce fine wines. It constantly amazes me, I guess since our family has been doing this farming gig for over 160 years in California, that some people have never been on a farm nor have any idea where their food comes from.

After reading part of the following Letter to the Editor, we need to promote more farm visits in agriculture because I fear this person is representative of way too many consumers. It started out in part writing about a controversy in San Francisco about the selling of live chickens near Chinatown and generated into this: “To all you hunters who kill animals for food, shame on you; you ought to go to the store and buy the meat that was made there, where no animals were harmed.”  – nuff said!

“We could learn a lot from crayons… Some are sharp; some are pretty; and some are dull. Some have weird names; and all are different colors: but they all have to live in the same box.” – Anonymous.

John is a 6th generation California farmer whose family has been continuously farmed in California for 160 years starting in the Sacramento Delta in 1850. John now concentrates on farming 45 acres of wine grapes in the Avila Valley and Paso Robles producing Salisbury Vineyard wines.



  1. Randy Sheila says:

    Its hard to find fault with this argument, very provocative and well-written.

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  2. Nancimeek says:

    I totally agree Just out of curiousity are you being harassed by union organizers?

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    • johnthefarmer says:

      No, we haven’t since the 70’s because we have always paid top wages and have excellent working conditions mostly because I am also working alongside our employees daily. Three of our employees have been with us for going on 16 years. They get $15/hour, 40 hours/week, 52 months out of the year, 2 weeks off Christmas/New Years, major holidays off, sick and family leave, doctors & dentist appointments, help with gas to come to work, etc. The other full time employee, 13 years, gets $13/hour and free housing. Heck, we even pay when it rains! When we need help with harvest we pay $10/hour with a guarantee of 8 hours which usually is 6 hours ($13.33/hour) worked because we want to get the grapes to the winery while still cool. When we get a little more flush, we are going to set up a retirement fund from our Estrada brand of wine (Devil dog Red).

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  3. Cindy says:

    I was the financial controller for a large farming industry in Northern Cal for several years. We had seven ranches, several vineyards and also produced dried organic fruit and dried tomatoes. I can tell you that we do need a guest worker program for the seasonal migrant Employees. While 95% of our Employee’s were Hispanic, 15% were legal and had full time job’s, full medical benefits, paid vacation, holidays and sick pay and they earned between $10 – $25 per hour. The remainder were seasonal and most were undocumented although they did produce documents each year.

    Seasonal workers, like any other temporary worker (60-90 days per year) did not receive benefits but they did receive above minimum wage starting at $8.00 per hour with a 15 cent raise every month. Each year that they returned, they would start with the pay that they ended with the previous year. Many would return year after year and it wasn’t uncommon for them to be earning over $10.00 an hour. They all received all the breaks and overtime pay that would be afforded any other Employee and those in the hot fields got extra (paid) breaks in the shade with cold drinks available at all times.

    E-verify has existed for many years. The INS required me to use it as far back as 1998!! The system would confirm that the social security number matched with the individuals name and it was all accessed on line so I don’t know what this big deal about e-verify is suddenly all about. It was strictly a hiring tool.

    The undocumented got around it by coming up with a name and SS# that matched from somebody they knew. It wasn’t uncommon to see Jose (who had been showing up for the last 4 years ) suddenly become Miguel! No one working for the company ever tried to unionize, even when it was once suggested to the full time Employees. They loved their jobs and the 200 undocumented seasonal workers would have been happy to qualify for a seasonal work pass. We would have been happy if they had guest passes too. A Guest Worker program would solve a great deal of misery and open safe passage for needed migrant workers and we do need them. It will be a long time before we manage to force the healthy, American, entitled, welfare recipients to work on a farm.

    (2) 2 Total Votes - 2 up - 0 down
  4. FineWine says:

    A lot of people say white people won’t do that job, but the truth white people would not be hired. Most ag ventures depend on labor brokers. The farmer pays the broker a decent wage for all the workers. The broker pays the worker whatever they want, and if the labor broker is the same person that smuggled the worker into the country the worker has to work off that debt first. No way they hire citizens.

    (4) 6 Total Votes - 5 up - 1 down
    • Typoqueen says:

      The farmers are all required to get documentation that their workers are citizens. I’m not saying that the documentation isn’t forged or fake but the farmer do have SS numbers from each employee.

      (-4) 4 Total Votes - 0 up - 4 down
  5. bobfromsanluis says:

    As long as employers turn a blind eye to immigrations status of potential workers, NOTHING will change. Look at what is happening in Georgia where they have decided to actually enforce their anti-illegal immigration laws; they have crops rotting in the fields because they cannot find enough workers to harvest the crops. The employers there have real consequences if they do not follow through to make sure their workers are truly, legally allowed to be in the country. If everyone who thinks that illegal immigration is such a problem that needs to be stopped, then push for prosecution of the EMPLOYERS who give jobs to people without regard for their immigration status. If there are no jobs available for people who are so desperate for work that they will pay to be transported over the border ILLEGALLY, guess what; they will, for the most part, stop coming.

    Card check is nothing more than an honest attempt to try and balance the access union organizers should have to potential union members that the employers restrict with every available means. Being cited for trespassing, being told to come back at lunch time to avoid interrupting working hours, and generally being hostile towards union organizers is standard operation procedure for employers over and over. The biggest fear the employers have is that a union represented work force will demand more humane working conditions, a safer working environment, and of course, higher wages. The old song and dance about Americans not wanting to do the work OR (and there is always the OR) the wages that would have to be paid would result in food prices being too high for people to be able to afford is just that, an old “song and dance” of propagating fear; “don’t make us have to pay a real living wage that Americans would consider as job they would do, you won’t be able to afford to eat!” Bullshit. The real problem for the very big farmers and ranchers is that their profits would be reduced, they wouldn’t be able to afford that new Escalade every other year, that $40,000 pickup truck or the new addition to the 4000 square foot “ranch home”. I am not against every single farmer and rancher being able to make a living; I just don’t see how many of them can honestly say that they will fail if any part of their balancing act is changed, like having to pay higher wages or provide a safer working environment. You have every right to run your operation as you wish, as long as you follow the laws and regulations governing your operations and you don’t take advantage of undocumented workers by instilling a fear of being discovered and sent back home; you don’t have a “right” to get very rich off of the backs of those same undocumented workers.

    (-8) 18 Total Votes - 5 up - 13 down
    • Typoqueen says:

      I usually agree with you and I agree with most of what you said here. But I must say that having local farmers in my family that I can tell you that they pay thier workers very well for the job they do. They along with most of the farmers don’t instill fear in their workers. They are tightly regulated. They have to follow the regulations ie bathrooms, sinks, breaks just like any job they must provide those things. It is hard work and hispanics are willing to do it. When you buy broccoli at the store it can be identified not just what farm it was grown on but which row and where in that row it was grown. As I said, breaks, sinks, bathrooms, they get paid over min. wage, they aren’t forced to work over 40 hours and when they do work over 40 they get over time. Farmers are highly scrutinized by govt. regulation, environmental groups and housing developement. If we regulate these small farmers any more they they will disappear and all that will be left are the big corp farms. Yes they make a good living but the farmers that I know work very very hard and deserve every penny of it. The farmers that I know are good employers. Why should they have to do so much more than any other employer?

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      • Robert1 says:

        Ya , and we the public supply FREE housing, medical and education for their anchor babies.
        You show me a poor farmer, and I will show you a bad businessman.

        Immigration, World Poverty and Gumballs – Updated 2010

        County’s Monthly Welfare Tab For Illegal Aliens $52 Million –

        Illegal immigrant population of the United States,about 4 percent work in farming;
        The rest take American jobs, period.

        (5) 7 Total Votes - 6 up - 1 down
        • johnthefarmer says:

          I agree that the following generations that are produced from the first time immigrants can be a social problem because they do not have the work ethic anymore than our domestic kids. Many do not assimilate, get educated, and can be a drain on taxpayers. When we had the Bracero Program, young men came, worked, and in time stayed home and started a business with their income. When that was cancelled is when they started bringing their families across the border with them and the related social problems. Again, the need for a Guest Worker Program so that these workers can come and go back to their homes in Mexico and Central America seasonally until they have enough money to stay home.
          Child labor laws for agriculture, in particular, makes it tough to hire kids so that they have a chance to earn some money and learn what it takes to put in a full day’s work. In fact, we have had some Cal Poly kids work for us in the tasting room and in the field in their early 20s and we were the first ones they have ever worked for. Some had a severe lack of work ethic – more of a sense of intitlement. They also had nicer cars and pickups than anyone in my family. This lack of work ethic transends across all social/eonomic classes because of regulations. Forutnately because we own our company my kids have, as well as my grandkids will, learned how to work at an early age.

          (1) 1 Total Votes - 1 up - 0 down
      • bobfromsanluis says:

        Mary: Thank you for your reasoned response; I was not trying to paint all farmers and ranchers as somehow evil and uncaring for their workers. The point that Mr. Salisbury raised about card check and unionization is how most, if not all farmers seem to react to the only true democratic institution we Americans have access to, which is a union. Card check, like I said before, is an attempt to even the balance of access to the workers and the employers are doing all they can to stop it at all costs. Most employers that are treating their workers well would, for the most part, not notice if their workforce were unionized, other than the fact that their workers would eventually have access to healthcare other than clogging up our emergency rooms. The fear that those in the agricultural field have of unions is irrational; instead of costing them too much now by having their workforce join a union, those workers would eventually end up costing them less due to in increase in productivity in having workers that are healthy and secure in their employment and much less likely to turnover as often.

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        • bobfromsanluis says:

          Whoops, that should have read “typoqueen” not “Mary”. My apologies.

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          • Typoqueen says:

            BFS, I agree with what you just said about the unions not costing too much. Farming work conditions have improved so much over the years I feel that the farmers for the most part would have nothing to lose with unions.

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    • johnthefarmer says:

      I am sure you would not appreciate someone coming in to your workplace and disrupt your workers when they are working. Organizers are legally allowed to talk to employees when they are not working. Many times employees just want to be left alone during their breaks to eat and take a quick nap. As far as getting domestics to do the work on the farms, the United Farm Worlers challenged Americans with a campaign called “Take Our Jobs”. They got at least 4,000 replies, some serious and others hate mail, and only a few dozen followed through with the process and this with 14 million out of work! In my reply to nancemeek you can see that we treat our employees very well because they are family. By the way my 4 year old pickup, which is the newest by far in our family operation, has over 120,000 tough miles on it. It replaced a 8 year old pickup that gave up at 300,000 miles. We are more regulated than any other business on working conditions as it should be because we work in a tough enviroment. It is a rare occasion when someone is cited for poor working conditions in agriculture. We are required to attend several hours a year in meetings on pesticides, working conditions, food handling, labor relations, etc. to qualify for permits to operate. Let’s get a tightly controlled guest worker program and put all this out in the open, make sure they get a fair wage, good working conditions, and let these workers go back and forth across the border without fear.

      (2) 2 Total Votes - 2 up - 0 down
  6. racket says:

    Yes, I believe that, then would represent a “conjugal visit” by the union … wherein everybody gets scr*wed.

    (1) 7 Total Votes - 4 up - 3 down
  7. unlisted says:

    Salisbury is concerned that unions will go “anywhere else farm laborers conjugate.”

    I’m not worried. Most farm workers don’t even know how to conjugate!

    (1) 5 Total Votes - 3 up - 2 down
    • johnthefarmer says:

      Yeah, I know. Thought I took it out when I first saw it. You would be surprised how many can conjugate since it is inherent in the Spanish vocabulary.

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