Jose Luis Herrera, a stocky, calm, and persistent organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers, emphasizes that he is not opposed to new sources of employment in the valley, just as long as those employers treat workers with respect and control their pollution. “Dairy workers do not get 10 minute breaks or meal breaks after 5 hours, in violation of California law,” he says. “I’ve seen workers eating a taco with one hand ungloved, with excrement all over their arms up to their wrists while operating a machine with the other hand.”
In 2004, just months after the Goyenetche dairy flooded the Ecological Reserve at Buttonwillow, the California Labor Commissioner determined that Goyenetche was denying lunch breaks to workers on 10-hour shifts, leading to a $36,000 settlement. Still, the first thing that dairy workers express is their relief at being employed year round, as opposed to working in the fields on row crops, which require intensive labor for only a few months out of the year. Jorge Orelia* has been working at a dairy for 8 months, after 10 years picking cilantro, carrots, and broccoli in the valley. At the dairy he earns $1,200 a month working from 6 AM to 4 PM, with an hour off for lunch.
Another man, Jaime, is thin and speaks in a low, hushed voice. “In the field it’s hard in the winter when there’s no work,” he says, “but in the dairy there is work all the time.”
The men and women who labor in California’s industrial fields perform among the most dangerous, physically
exhausting, and wretchedly underpaid jobs in the nation. From the annual deaths due to heat exhaustion, and acute vomiting and rashes from pesticide exposure to the long-term effects of breathing the dirtiest air and drinking the dirtiest water in the state, California’s farm laborers—mostly undocumented migrants—are treated like cogs in a vast,
unwatched machine: when they wear out, replace them.
And while industrial dairies provide year-round work, they also adopt the same patterns of exploitation as the row crop industries. Several workers who were not warned, trained, or provided with required safety equipment drowned in manure lagoons after passing out from the gases. And many dairies have followed the old practice of firing injured workers and those who sympathize with union organizers by signing union cards.
In early 2004, Rafael Miranda hurt his back in a fall shortly after a union vote and was fired the next day. After
a year he has been unable to get the company to pay for
X-rays or hospital visits, and he has not been able to work since his accident. His legs cramp and at times go numb. “This got me really depressed,” he says. “I got mad easily.
I couldn’t play with my kids. I started to lose feeling in my hands. Once I was putting air in my son’s bike tire and I couldn’t pinch my fingers together to take the nozzle off the tire. I got so mad that I picked up the bike and threw it and made my kid cry.” Rafael had worked for the Goyenetche Dairy for 9 years.
But some dairies fit Herrera’s description of providing a respectful work environment. Jager’s workers, for example, are all clean and wearing sturdy boots and uniforms. Those I speak with—once they find out I am a reporter and not from a union—say they are content here. It gets muddy in the winter, but they are happy to have work year ’round.
*Workers’ names have been changed to protect their identities.