Oregon Farmworkers’ Decade of Struggle

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

Michael Connor

TO THE CASUAL observer this winter, Oregon’s agricultural class forces appeared to line up opposite their interests.  Consider the following:

  • Conservative rural legislators, citing the needs of farmworkers for legal union rights, introduced legislation extending collective bargaining “protections” to Oregon farmworkers—changes long sought by workers and long opposed by growers.
  • Farmworkers, led by Oregon’s militant agricultural workers’ union, demonstrated by the hundreds OPPOSING the legislation.
  • Oregon’s moderate Democratic governor, citing the needs of farmworkers, and under pressure from workers, students, radical lawyers, and religious groups, vetoed the legislation.

This maneuvering came after ten years of struggle by Oregon’s farmworker union had resulted in a historic agreement between workers and growers.  A review of union efforts, including strategic choices, losses, and victories, helps explain this surreal ending.


Oregon agriculture isn’t used to losing.  For decades the $3.5 billion/year industry has cranked out grass seed, blackberries, beans and hazelnuts (or filberts to those folks stuck East of the Rockies).  Oregon production for thirty-five crops ranks in the top ten nationally.

What Big Ag wants, it usually gets. Historically, agriculture directed federal and state legislative bodies to exempt farmworkers from collective bargaining laws. That which most workers take for granted, on the farm is excepted.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) exempts farm workers from its overtime rules, and the Oregon statute covering maximum working hours does not apply to farm workers.  Employees of small farms are not covered by FSLA minimum wage rules, and a similar small-farm exclusion is made in the Oregon statutes governing minimum wages.

Oregon rules relating to minimum meal and rest periods and other working conditions do not apply to farmworkers either.  They have no right to strike recognized by law, no legal redress for union harrassment, no mechanisms for enforcement of agreements with growers.

Even paltry legal protections for farmworkers suffer under a malignant neglect of poor funding, favoritism, and racist bureacracies.  The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, which is charged with inspecting the health and safety of farm labor camps, has inspected each registered camp an average of only once every seventeen years and has not actively searched out unregistered ones.

In another arena—pesticide use—grower interests run roughshod over even the few formal limits on the books, with disastrous results for farmworker health, water quality, consumer safety and so on.

With one crucial exception, farmworkers enjoy far fewer legal protections than most every other kind of laborer.  Before we get to the exception, however, it’s worth further exploring the power of agriculture.

On Goliath’s Toxic Farm

Snap beans, one of Oregon’s top ten crops, used to be grown commercially in the pole variety, climbing tall triangles of rough wood for hand-picking.  The Blue Lake variety, in particular, won popularity for its straight seven-inch pods and succulent flavor.

To boost profits, growers switched from Blue Lake to bush beans, a less tasty variety suitable for mechanical harvesting.  (For those scoring at home that would be Growers: 1, Consumers: 0.)

Trouble was, the harvesters couldn’t distinguish between fresh beans and old moldy ones (known in technical circles as “has beans”), so to control molds farmers turned to a pesticide, Benlate.

Within a few years gene frequencies changed in the molds under the artificial selection pressures of the pesticide.  In other words, the molds evolved resistance to Benlate.  (Translation for fundamentalists: In 1979 God created a new mold which didn’t succumb to Benlate.)

So the growers switched to Ronilan, a more potent poison that mimics sex hormones, a common way that chemicals disrupt unwanted organisms.

Such toxins send out ripples of harm. For farmworkers, short-term problems include skin, breathing, and other troubles.  Existing conditions like asthma and allergies can be made worse.  Cancers and other tragedies lurk. Birth defects occur more frequently among the male children of workers who apply such pesticides.

Hormone-disruptors like Ronalin (a trade name for the anti-androgen Vinclozolin) provoke serious problems in other mammals.  In one study, Vinclozolin-dosed mother rats exhibited no symptoms, but gave rise to baby male rats that all appeared to be female at birth.

The newborn male rats developed nipples (which, in rats, only females normally have), and neither their testicles nor their urethras developed correctly.  Furthermore, they were all sterile, with sperm production insufficient for reproduction.

The drive for profit sits at the fulcrum of a series of disastrous decisions here—the switch from pole to bush beans triggering changes that down the line flood the planet, and all who depend on it, with chemicals linked to worldwide declines in sperm quality and production.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agricultural use of just eighteen of these hormone-disrupting chemicals totals 550 million pounds per year in the United States.  This is on top of 350 million pounds of chemicals officially classified as carcinogens.

A grower’s use of Ronalin requires a special exemption to federal pesticide regulations.  And here’s one of the places where the power of agriculture shows: Every year since 1982, Oregon growers have been receiving this special permit, known as a “Section 18 exemption,” even though federal law allows such an exemption to be issued only for a total of three consecutive years.

As we said, agriculture gets what it wants.

And in this Corner .  .  .

Oregon’s farmworkers loaded up the proverbial slingshot a dozen years ago, when they launced a boycott against a key grower cooperative, NORPAC.

The union of workers, known by its Spanish acronym PCUN (Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United), had tried for years to force farmers to the bargaining table, seeking better working conditions, seniority rights, and better and fairer pay structures for the mostly Mexican workforce.

And by better working conditions, we’re talking about the improvement of truly horrible situations: Last year several dozen Oregon farmworkers won a $63,000 settlement from one grower for, among other things, the lack of showers that would emit water more than occasionally.

Delegates from an Oregon ecumenical group recently toured a large farm complex—one of the more powerful enterprises within NORPAC—and found appalling conditions: a single toilet for eighty people; one non-functioning shower; washing-up facilities desperately in need of washing.

Facing the political clout of a powerful group of owners, PCUN organized a counterweight: an ambitious network of community-based organizations.  The union built housing, hosted citizenship classes, and developed an archive of union/ community history.

They sought, through this social network, to counteract the social weakness of farmworkers—which include isolation, tenuous immigration status, grinding poverty, political weakness, blacklists, and growers who manipulate worker supply to drive down wages and put down struggle.

For years the union organized in the fields.  Workers protested awful conditions, crummy wages, company-town conditions.  Toothless state bureacracies, charged with protecting workers, issued lists of violations by growers—spraying workers by cropdusters, a dozen workers housed in a shack built for four, and on and on—but often refused to take action beyond token fines.

Still the union pushed, and in 1991 workers struck one farm—the first known strike by farmworkers in state history—and won higher wages.

When growers retaliated the next season by refusing to hire strikers, and refused to disarm gun-toting straw bosses on the farm, the union upped the ante—and here the workers wielded as a weapon the exception to labor law mentioned earlier.

Within the “protection” offered to most workers by U.S. code lurk a number of restrictions on worker power.  Union pipefitters, for example, can’t conduct a sit-in on the job, as the great sit-down strikers did in auto sixty-five years ago; U.S. labor law bars sit-down strikes.

Among the forbidden activities legally available to farmworkers because of their exclusion from the mainstream of labor law: the secondary boycott.

When, in 1991, growers on Oregon’s Kraemer farms refused to rehire strikers, refused to take away the guns of field bosses, refused to negotiate, refused to take action against farm foremen who had attacked union activists, the union took the fight to NORPAC, the large owner combine and broker for many Willamette Valley farms.

PCUN demanded that NORPAC discipline its member farm, Kraemer.  When NORPAC declined, the boycott was on.

Throughout the nineties, the union slowly built its power.  In the fields, workers repeatedly protested poor conditions.  Fines mounted against growers.  Renters of lousy grower-owned housing withheld money.  Community groups took an interest.  Wildcat strikes broke out.

Contracts were signed at a few small farms, undercutting growers’ claims that union agreements preclude profitability.  Foremen attacked, but workers stood their ground, winning small raises, court settlements and media coverage.  Allies staged week-long marches through Oregon’s Willamette Valley, deepening the understanding and commitment of hundreds of union supporters.

The boycott gathered steam.  Religious groups signed on. Student groups got involved, pressuring their school administrations to dump contracts with NORPAC-supplied food service companies.  Slowly the tide began to shift.

Student pressure first convinced campus-food provider Bon Appetit Management Company (BAMCO) to drop NORPAC.  With contracts in twenty-two states, 8,000 employees, and $275 million in annual revenues, BAMCO’s defection rattled NORPAC’s composure.

But when Sodexho threatened to pull its $4.5 million/year contract with NORPAC, the 240 Oregon growers saw the writing on the wall. Without Sodexho (North America’s largest food service provider, with 130,000 employees at over 6,000 locations pulling in $5 Billion in annual sales) NORPAC knew its strategy of harrassment and stonewalling had failed.

In February, facing a collapse in demand for their products, NORPAC agreed on paper to union demands.  In exchange for a “suspension” of the boycott, NORPAC entered into negotiations with PCUN to create a mechanism for farmworkers to win better working conditions and union representation.

Where before NORPAC had refused to respond to union letters, now NORPAC sat down to haggle over the details of the union’s victory.

With NORPAC brought to the table, Oregon’s Farm Bureau discovered an overwhelming concern for farmworker rights.  “Quick,” they shouted, “let’s bring farmworkers into state collective bargaining laws.”

This maneuver, attempted with all the subtlety of a Shaq free throw, made sense only as a last-ditch effort to sabotage PCUN. For years growers had insisted on excluding farmworkers from the laws. In 1997, for example, the Farm Bureau proposed exempting farmworkers from voter-approved minimum wage increases.  But now, facing a strategy that had finally forced capitulation to key worker demands, farmers mobilizied for a bill to include farmworkers in state labor law.

The deal negotiated by PCUN and NORPAC “could leave the agriculture industry with a lawless system of union organizing where PCUN ruled like a 300-pound gorilla,” in the hyperbolic words of one writer for the state’s agriculture weekly.

So PCUN opposed the legislation, since it sought directly to undermine farmworkers’ interests.  And growers favored it, for the same reason.

When a Reform is not Reform

A piece of legislation which contains some benefits for farmworkers is neither progressive nor reactionary in and of itself.  Only within the context of class antagonism can we discern the character of change.

As the boycott strategy reached fruition—student groups winning contract fights, large buyers shying away from NORPAC, workers in the fields maintaining solidarity—the owners broke apart under pressure.

NORPAC, unable to match the combined power of workers and students, came to the table, agreeing to PCUN’s framework.  Other growers appealed to the state for relief.  Toady legislators sought to undo, through “reform” legislation, the advances which had been won in the fields and on the campuses.

Pieper Sweeney, a grower from Dayton, Oregon, captured the dialectic of reform well, though perhaps unwittingly: “PCUN is opposed to (the Farm Bureau legislation) because if it passes they will have to play by the rules.”

But the rules can be rewritten.  And will be, whenever owners face more radical writing on the wall. In this case, rules written to contain labor in the fields had long protected the growers.  Faced with a rewrite not of their choosing, growers tried to get their own draft approved.

More than a hundred years ago, Rosa Luxemburg wrote (in her Reform or Revolution): “We know that the present State is .  .  .  itself the representative of capitalist society.  It is a class state.  Therefore its reform measures .  .  .  are forms of control applied by the class organisation of Capital to the production of Capital.  The so-called social reforms are enacted in the interests of Capital.”

Her meaning of course was that fighting for reform and revolution go together: Social reforms would be required “in the interests of Capital” when struggle adjusted the balance of social power; revolution would mean transforming the balance entirely.

As the present struggle in Oregon continues, the balance of power seems, well, balanced.  The growers are unable to accomplish in the legislature what they cannot force in the economy, while the union, with its boycott suspended, continues to negotiate the framework of the agreement between growers and farmworkers.


PCUN’s website (www.pcun.org) offers a variety of chronologies, incident reports, and documents—a lively contrast to the typical union offering.  The Environmental Research Foundation publishes Rachel’s Environment and Health News (www.rachel.org), an invaluable source of scientific and ecological analysis.

Michael Ames Connor is a member of Local 3571 of AFT. He helps edit the zine, LeftField: Baseball, Politics, and More, and can be reached at LeftField@post.com.  He thanks Mia Butzbaugh and Michael Rogner for help with this article.

ATC 99, July-August 2002