Does Salinas portend future ag labor peace?

Farm workers in Salinas Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the state, continue to fight for peaceful labor relations. (Pixabay)

Observers and participants in the 50-year struggle for peaceful relations between farm workers in California and those who hire them are seeing some encouraging signs emanating from Salinas.

One of the oldest and largest of the lettuce and vegetable growers in the area – D’Arrigo Bros. – is indicating it has had several friendly meetings with the president of the United Farm Workers (UFW). Assumption is that the friendliness may lead to the union becoming the representative of the company’s 2,000 or more farm workers as their bargaining agent.

Some, especially unionists, tend to celebrate, but further predict sweeping agreements between many other farming companies and the union. They need to recognize that the atmosphere and circumstances in Salinas are unique, and do not necessarily reflect the labor-management attitude among other California agricultural operations.

As far as an agreement is concerned, it is important to know that D’Arrigo’s farm workers voted to establish the UFW as their bargaining agent more than 25 years ago. But, for a lettuce carton full of reasons, a contract was never established. D’Arrigo management indicates it may be ready to forego any further resistance to a contract between its workers and the UFW.

Finding farm workers to harvest its lettuce and other vegetables during its 11-month harvest (assisted by a month or two in Arizona) has been unusually difficult this year for D’Arrigo and other employers in the industry. Many potential workers with questionable immigration status are keeping a low profile, perhaps south of the border, as Congress and federal agencies are embroiled in various aspects of the immigration issue.

Another major obstacle for anyone contemplating residence in the Salinas area is the unusually high cost of housing, something that hits farm workers hard. Two of the other major lettuce and vegetable grower-shippers in the area have either completed or planned large, modern housing complexes with occupancy restricted to their employees.

Unlike planners and developers in most other California communities, those in charge in Salinas and some adjacent parts of Monterey County regard the unusually fertile soil and prevailing climate as uniquely suited to the production of lettuce and other vegetables. They tend to reject suggestions by housing developers or others who propose covering the landscape with family housing. Consequently, housing available for those receiving typical farm worker salaries is extremely limited.

If these factors are not unique to the Salinas area, they are at least unusual for most other California communities, and they are not expected to change. Lettuce is king of the economy in the Salinas Valley in a way that no other crop prevails in any other California locale.

Noted American writer and Salinas native John Steinbeck apparently was captured by the Salinas Valley’s prevailing respect for the soil 75 years ago as he penned his overwhelming best seller “East of Eden,” following his earlier blockbuster “The Grapes of Wrath.” His memory and his Salinas connection are widely heralded, with his former Salinas home and other mementoes, tributes and honors prominently established in the community for this native son.

It is good to reflect on the unique personality and character of the Salinas Valley, and to allow it to guide our understanding and expectation of sound labor relations in agriculture. But it is important to remember that its location and its history of agricultural production is unique, and not easily duplicated elsewhere in the state.

The area’s sound and firm respect for the land and those who conduct business and work on it deserve honor, appreciation and peaceful labor relations.