The Facts About Farmworkers

A Second Look At the Numbers

In his October 21 Crimson article; Peter Ferrara argues that the considerable public support and sympathy for the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO has been generated by deliberate misrepresentations by union leaders regarding (1) the wages of farm laborers; (2) their living and working conditions; (3) the economic position of their employers and the extent of farm labor support for the UFW. Although there have been a number of very strong responses to it already, Mr. Ferrara's argument is so faulty in its use of data and so misleading in its inferences that we felt we should add our voices and some further material to the criticism.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Mr. Ferrara's article is its implication that the typical farmworker is a satisfied, relatively well-off citizen who has little need of or desire for a union such as the UFW. It is hard to square this image with even a minimal knowledge of the realities of farmworker life. Our own very different experiences (one of us spent many years in a community regularly employing migrant labor and the other worked for two years as a legal services attorney among farmworkers in Delano, California) only confirm what has been said and observed by countless others who have researched the farmworker problem. The farm laborer's existence has been and continued to be characterized by poverty, insecurity, injury and illness, as well as systematic resistance to attempts to better conditions through unionization.

Mr. Ferrara would have all of us who have responded to appeals from the UFW for aid and support believe that we are the victims of a concerted and quite massive misrepresentation. No fair and reasonable assessment of the relevant date could support such a conclusion.


Mr. Ferrara argues that "most farmworkers' wages are far from substandard," and quotes wage figures of $8000, $12,000 and $15,000 per year. He claims the far lower wage figures usually cited are the result of (1) aggregating part-time workers and full-time workers, thus artificially lowering average earnings, and (2) failing to include earnings from piece rates which he claims are a substantial element of farmworker income. Neither of these assertions in remotely defensible.

USDA figures published in 1972 indicate that there are 2.8 million farmworkers (defined as anyone who did farm labor for money any period of time) who averaged 88 days of work per year and $1160 in annual wages. It can hardly be argued that aggregation distorts this figure, since the USDA breaks the general category down into subcategories, and no subcategory of workers averaged earnings anywhere near the figures quoted by Mr. Ferrara. (See Table.) The USDA's finding that no subcategory of farmworkers averaged even a minimally decent average wage is confirmed by three separate studies (by the USDA, a research group at the University of Denver, and by a subcommittee of the California Assembly). Each of these studies show that 75 per cent of all farmworkers have annual incomes below federal poverty guidelines.

Mr. Ferrara is correct that USDA figures may not include all wages from piece rates, but, given the realities of agricultural production, it is inconceivable that piece rates would substantially increase the income of a significant number of farmworkers. First, there are only a few instances where piece rates are paid as an increment to a base hourly wage, and piece rates alone generally produce low earnings. (Testimony before the 1969 Senate Sub-committee on Migratory Labor indicated that only 10-25 per cent of all farmworkers worked on a piece rate basis and that, at a maximum, a worker might earn 50 per cent above the hourly wage by piece rate.) Second, because piece rates are available only at harvest a laborer must follow the crop in order to maximize piece rate earnings. Third, weather and crop conditions must be excellent in order for a worker to make any significant amount of money on a piece rate basis.

Perhaps the best way to examine the assertion that piece rates regularly generate farmworker earnings in the range of $8000-$15,000 annually is to consider the potential yearly earnings under, ideal conditions, of the highest paid farm laborers--the lettuce and grape workers under union contracts. The lettuce worker contracts provide for wages of $2.44-$2.49 per hour and piece rates of 42-45 cents per box. If (1) climate and crop conditions are excellent; (2) a worker follows the year-round lettuce harvest from Arizona up the California valleys; (3) the laborer cuts lettuce (the most back-breaking job in the harvest); (4) there is a minimum of dead time (when crops aren't ready or transportation is slow); (5) the laborer works a 6 day week, 50 weeks a year; and (6) the worker is skilled enough and fast enough to earn as much as $35 per day at peak season in late summer, then, and only then, might yearly earnings be as high as $7000 or $8000 per year. Of course, the work load and pace would be grueling and the likelihood is almost negligible that all of the necessary conditions would coincide for any length of time. Even less likely is the possibility that they would occur for other farm laborers. In the grape crop, for instance, even if a worker followed the harvest, the season runs, in the best of years, only from May to October. There is no conceivable basis for suggesting that individual earnings could generally be as high as $15,000 per year.

Living Conditions

As to living conditions, Mr. Ferrara focuses on the issue of whether laborers are "migrant," which he defines to mean without a permanent residence. He ignores the considerable data on the poor working conditions, health, education and housing of farm laborers and seems to imply that if workers have a permanent place o residence living and working conditions will be adequate. This is as factually incorrect as it is logically unsound.

Mr. Ferrara establishes no connection between permanence of residence and the conditions under which farm laborers live and work. For example, many California farmworkers with permanent residences must follow the harvests up the California valleys for as many as eight months a year, enduring the deprivations of labor camp life, despite their "non-migrant" status.

Nor can his attempt to portray the farm laborer as a "non-migrant" blunt the reality of both HEW's and the Department of Labor's findings that:

The average farmworker's life expectancy is 49 years (as compared to a national average of 72); `

Infant and mortality rates of farmworkers are 125 per cent higher than the national rate;

Incidence of influenza and pneumonia among farm laborers is 200 per cent higher than the national rate;

Incidence of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases is 260 per cent higher than the national rate; and,

Accidents are 300 per cent more likely to occur to farmworkers than to other Americans.

As to the permanent residences Mr. Ferrara makes so much of, the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor found in 1969 that 42 per cent of all farm housing was substandard, or three times higher than all other housing (including urban slums). The issue of concern in the UFW's requests for support, of course, is not home ownership or "migrancy" but the real circumstances of farmworker life.

The Growers and the UFW

Finally, Mr. Ferrara claims that growers have been victims of UFW misrepresentations regarding grower size and economic power and that the growers cannot afford nor do the workers want unionization. The image presented is one of farm workers being goaded by "outside volunteers" to make demands against economically marginal producers. In support, Mr. Ferrara asserts that large corporations and conglomerates comprise only a small part of the agricultural industry (1 per cent of all farms and 7 per cent of all farm acreage). He also points to low returns on farm investment in recent years.

Again, his use of data is very misleading. Mr. Ferrara mentions only farm corporations, but USDA figures indicate that in 1968 40 per cent of all farm tax returns over $500,000 were filed by sole proprietorships. In addition, USDA definitions of "farm corporation" include only those corporations where farm products account for the largest part of business receipts. Therefore Tenneco, which owns approximately 1,000,000 of California's 36.6 million acres of agricultural land, would not be included in Mr. Ferrara's statistics. It is estimated that the 1 per cent of farm corporations that Mr. Ferrara refers to receive from 25 to 30 per cent of the nation's farm income.

As even a cursory perusal of the available date would indicate, figures which aggregate farm profits for the entire nation are extremely unreliable because of the large number of small poor farmers, particularly in the South. The following figures are more relevant to any discussion of the UFW's claims because they pertain to that sector of the market that employs large number of farm laborers. California Department of Food and Agriculture figures show in 1973, farm income in that state was a record $77 billion, up 32 per cent over the 1972 figure of $5.8 billion. Bureau of the Census figures for California published in 1972 indicate that (1) lettuce was an $850 million crop; (2) Salinas lettuce companies control 49 per cent of the California-Arizona lettuce market during peak seasons and (3) 38 Salinas growers control 98 per cent of all lettuce production. This same document reports that 6.1 per cent of California farms own 78.6 per cent and 3.8 per cent own 68.8 per cent of the state's agricultural land; 8.6 per cent of California growers pay 70.8 per cent of all farm laborer wages paid in the state. Figures for Arizona and Florida, two other states with large number of farm laborers are similar.

Mr. Ferrara may be quite right that there are few large farm corporations (in fact there are not many large farms). But the number of large farms is simply no indication of their power and influence in the market. As the above figures show, a few farms dominate that sector of the market that employs farm labor, and it is primarily against these large farms that UFW has struggled in California, Florida, Arizona and other states.

The workers, of course, seem far more cognizant of these facts than Mr. Ferrara. Over the past eight years, farm workers have voted for unionization in every election that has been held. In all but one (since reversed) they have voted to be represented by the UFW, and they have ratified every contract negotiated by the Union.

It is inconceivable that a series of strikes involving thousands of workers and lasting over eight years has been manned by "hippies" and "outside volunteers." The most that can be said for this view is that the UFW has received support from many of us who, though not farmworkers ourselves, find their treatment and situation inconsistent with any notions of equity or justice. It is the reality of their living and working conditions, and not misrepresentations, that has produced massive farmworker support for the UFW's efforts.

We cite this date not to initiate a battle of numbers but to point out the necessity of looking very carefully at the sort of "facts" being advanced in an article which claims to be reportorial. It is significant that the article closes with an assertion that union shop agreements--a traditional demand of organized labor--are "a major violation of the civil rights if thousands of farmworkers." Such characterizations have a long history in anti-labor rhetoric. It would be well for those who advance such slogans to be forced to reply more on the available data and less on the sort of partial and inaccurate statements they purport to condemn.

Gary Bellow and Jeanne C. Kettleson are both on the faculty of the Law School. Bellow is professor of Law, and Kettleson is the school's director of administration for clinical programs. A Breakdown by Category Of Farmworkers' Wages Category of Farm Labor  Number of Laborers  Average Number of Days Worked/Year  Annual Income Casual Worker less than 25 days/yr.  1.1 million  9 days  $94.05 Non-Casual  1.7 million  141 days  1877.00 Seasonal 25-149 days/yr.  1.0 million  66 days  765.00 Regulars 150-249 days/yr.  0.3 million  198 days  2673.00 Year-Round 250+ days/yr.  0.4 million  306 days  4358.00

Source: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1972