The Strawberries of Wrath

The haciendas of Spanish America were based on enormous land grants from the Spanish crown and became the sites of large plantation farms worked on a neo-feudal basis by servile or near-servile labor. Such farms, typically, were situated near large concentrations of native labor, and that labor was controlled primarily through debt-peonage. The haciendas of California were established on the preexisting pattern of Mexico, and located in places where large Indian populations were available to work the farms.

When California was annexed by the United States, the most influential Anglo settlers took over many of these haciendas and transformed them into modern agribusiness operations. The big California agribusiness plantations, built on the legacy of the haciendas, continued to rely on large amounts of cheap farm labor from segments of the population whose bargaining power was, for one reason or another, effectively nil. During the Depression and Dustbowl era, they relied on migrant farm workers from Oklahoma and other places who’d been tractored off their land by bank foreclosures.

In the 1940s, the U.S. government created the Bracero program to supply foreign guest workers from Mexico. Whether or not the irony was lost on them, I can’t say.

When workers got too uppity and attempted to fight for better pay and working conditions, the agribusiness plantation bosses had the U.S. government to enforce discipline on foreign workers by deporting them. When native-born migrant workers became unruly and tried to organize, the farm owners resorted to vigilantism — as recounted by John Steinbeck — using the same kinds of terror tactics as the blackshirts hired by Italian factory owners in the 20th century and the Central American death squads still operating today.

The armed assault on Bangladeshi strawberry pickers at New Manolada Farms in Greece fits into this background narrative like a foot into a well-worn shoe. The farm employs several thousand foreign migrant workers, many of them not government-documented. Around 200 migrant workers demanded six months’ back wages from the farm’s owners. The supervisors told them they would not be paid, and ordered them back to work.  When a group of workers refused to comply, a supervisor opened fire, wounding 28 of them. New Manolada has been associated with high levels of anti-worker violence in recent years, including one case in which an Egyptian man was beaten and then dragged for a kilometer with his head jammed in a car window.

Although the local mayor dismisses this latest atrocity as an isolated incident, labor activist Natassa Panagiotara said such slave-labor conditions are common among the big strawberry farms employing foreign laborers in the area. The shooting took place against the background of economic collapse in Greece and the increasing prominence of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, which is associated with quasi-private paramilitary vigilantism against workers and immigrants.

In contemporary America, native-born wage-workers are intimately familiar with how it feels to have their livelihoods and subsistence subject to the whims of an employer. But at least they’re able to organize and expose their employer to public humiliation, as Imolakee migrant tomato pickers have in recent years and as Walmart workers did late last year. And if they get fired, at least they don’t have to worry about being deported for it.

But for undocumented immigrants, and even legal “guest workers,” this dependency is turned up several notches. As with Greece’s foreign farm workers, the genuinely slave-like conditions that exist for many American garment workers, sex workers,  etc., are enforced by immigration law.

The enforcement of imaginary lines on a map results in an “illegal” status for many human beings which, despite being utterly imaginary in its moral basis, is all too real in its effects. Closed borders are a powerful tool for labor discipline by employers. They magically transform some workers into “illegal” beings dependent on a patron for their continued survival. And, much like racial divisions that weakened the labor movement (land owners in the south destroyed the tenant farmers’ union by exploiting such divisions), they facilitate a divide-and-rule strategy that pits native-born and immigrant workers against each other and makes them see each other rather than the employer as their enemy.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory