Grapes: Declining Pay, Dying Workers
No single crop symbolizes the saga of immigrant labor better than California grapes.
Nearly half a century after Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta led the historic grape strike and boycott of the early 1960s, Latino workers continue to struggle for decent wages and workplace protections as they produce America’s table grapes, raisins and wine.
California’s grape workers earn 1 to 5 cents per pound for clusters they pick. The average wage has dropped to about $5 an hour, far below the state’s minimum wage of $8.
Pay is declining, workers are dying, and fear and discrimination are on the rise, largely because the grape industry has turned to undocumented workers who are easily exploited.
One of civilization’s most delicate and delicious fruits, cultivated since the Bronze Age, grapes have been part of the California “dream” since the 18th century, when Catholic missions transplanted vines from Mexico. Today, the U.S. grape industry generates $3 billion in sales each year.
Virtually all of the country’s table grapes, and 90 percent of its wine, comes from California, which boasts 1 million acres of vineyards. Forty-eight percent of this acreage is used for wine, 40 percent for raisins and 12 percent for table grapes.1
Grape vines require delicate handiwork. Several times a year, they are tied, trained and trimmed to expose grapes to both breezes and sun.
The August-September harvest is a stressful, backbreaking race against rot and rain as table grapes, handled like china, are rushed to market and raisin grapes are dried on paper on the ground. The single most labor-intensive activity in U.S. agriculture is the harvesting of 250,000 acres of raisin grapes near Fresno, a job involving some 30,000 workers.2
After harvest, workers prune 80 percent of the vine back, leaving just enough shoots and buds to optimize grape production year after year.
Latino labor has dominated California’s grape industry since 1942, when the U.S. government created the Bracero program (from the Spanish word brazo, meaning arm). The program, the forerunner of today’s guestworker program, allowed Mexican Braceros to enter the country legally for farm work. The year after it was abolished in 1964, Chavez and Huerta’s United Farm Workers won a 40 percent wage increase for grape workers and, eventually, a law to allow farmworker unions. At one time, union contracts covered more than 50,000 grape workers.
But beginning in the 1980s, the industry began to chip away at these gains, using labor contractors to hire undocumented workers. Today, raisin workers are increasingly “non-Spanish speaking indigenous people from southern Mexico and Guatemala,” according to migrant labor expert Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis.3
Because undocumented workers fear being deported, they accept what they can get for their labor. When pruning, they are paid by the “piece” — 13 cents per pruned point. “To earn $80 or $90 a day, you have to do 500,” said Isabel, 39, a Mexican worker. Harvesters earn 1 to 5 cents per pound for grape clusters that sell in grocery stores for $1.40.
The result is that, in the California vineyards made famous by the grape strike, pay has dropped to about $5 an hour, far below California’s minimum wage of $8.4
The workers must also contend with horrendous cold or heat, accidents, a lack of water and shade, and exposure to pesticides. In 2008, a pregnant teenager and a 37-year-old man died of heat stroke while working in vineyards in California’s San Joaquin Valley.5