DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Fifty years ago this summer, farmworkers in South Texas walked off the fields to protest poor wages and appalling working conditions. They marched 400 miles to the state capital of Austin and Cesar Chavez joined them. Ultimately, they succeeded in publicizing their cause, but the strike failed. A half-century after that historic moment, what has changed? NPR's John Burnett went to the Rio Grande Valley to find out.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: You get a new appreciation for watermelon after standing in the fields and watching it being harvested. Two pickers walk the rows. They bend over and grab the 20-pound fruits and pitch them to a man perched on the side of a dump truck who heaves them up to another catcher in the truck bed. The melon pickers have arms like Popeye and the timing of acrobats. They like this crop because the bigger the melons, the more they can earn.
A lot has improved since 1966, when watermelon workers here in the borderlands went on strike. Today, they have port-a-potties and fresh water in the field. Crop dusters no longer spray pesticide on them. And they're supposed to earn at least minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. What hasn't changed is the work. It's as brutal as ever.
JUSTINO DELEON: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "I've seen watermelon has no friends," says Justino DeLeon. He fell off a melon truck, hurt his arm and had to retire from farm work. "They're sweet to eat, but hell to harvest."
DELEON: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "You have to be in great condition to toss melons all day," DeLeon continues. "You work hard in the heat, and it's easy to get dehydrated."
It's not just that field work is grueling. Workers are vulnerable to getting cheated by growers and crew bosses. Since 2010, the McAllen, Texas, district office of the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division has filed more than 650 cases against growers and farm labor contractors, affecting nearly 2,500 workers. Francisco Javier Alvarez is one of six plaintiffs who sued Bauer Farms for not paying the minimum wage to workers who picked jalapenos there in 2010 and 2011. He's translated here by a paralegal.
FRANCISCO JAVIER ALVAREZ: (Through interpreter) So our pay was very low, and we ultimately got paid very little. And one day, we even only made $30 for the day, even though the four of us worked late into the night.
BURNETT: Alvarez says only a handful of workers were willing to step forward and file a lawsuit.
ALVAREZ: (Through interpreter) So yeah, some were documented, but some were residents or had legal status and still would not speak up, almost as if they had grown accustomed to that type of treatment from Bauer.
BURNETT: In addition to not receiving minimum wage, workers had to buy knives and work gloves from the contractors, which further reduced their pay. The Bauer Farms lawsuit was settled out of court two years ago. The owner Ed Bauer, reached by phone, declined to discuss the case.
Daniela Dwyer is a lawyer at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which handled the lawsuit against Bauer Farms.
DANIELA DWYER: It's always been a problem that farmworkers are not paid, certainly, a just wage and are not even paid the minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour.
BURNETT: Texas has some of the lowest farm wages in the country, in contrast to California where the presence of the United Farm Workers Union has raised salaries for all field hands.
DWYER: Oftentimes, when we national farmworker advocates get together, we joke about California being the land of Narnia.
BURNETT: Whether in California or Texas, agribusiness is suffering from a labor shortage.
FRANK SCHUSTER: It's a very difficult job. It's - there are other options for labor besides the backbreaking labor of farm work - flipping burgers.
BURNETT: Frank Schuster is a 63-year-old grower whose father came from Austria to farm in this fertile delta along the serpentine Rio Grande. Schuster hires about 200 farmworkers a year. Growers have heard the criticism. If you want to solve the labor shortage, pay your workers better. But Schuster says it's not that simple. He says agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley is at the mercy of market forces and geography.
SCHUSTER: We have to put our product to the consumer at a price as cheap as other areas can do it, have to compete with people that have a cheaper freight rate into the markets than what we do. And Georgia is a whole lot closer to the northeast than South Texas.
BURNETT: Many farmworkers interviewed for this report believe another reason for depressed wages in South Texas is the heavy presence of unauthorized field hands from Mexico. Of the estimated 2.5 million laborers working on U.S. farms and ranches, from 50 to 70 percent are thought to be in the country illegally, according to the national advocacy group Farmworker Justice. And Texas is unique. With its long international border and network of federal checkpoints on outbound highways, these immigrants are effectively trapped in the tip of Texas.
ANDRES JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "The majority are undocumented," says Andres Jimenez, who used to work illegally in the fields. "I think labor contractors choose them because they'll work for less. A legal American does not want to work 12 hours under the sun picking onions and pitching watermelons." As soon as Jimenez got a work permit, he quit the fields. Now he's a manager at a dollar store.
This is where history repeats itself. In 1966, growers, in cahoots with the Texas Rangers, brought in pickers from Mexico to break the farmworkers strike. Mexicans harvested the melons, and picketing Texas workers were out of a job. Today, Mexican laborers pick much of America's produce. But 50 years later, they're not necessarily replacing legal pickers. The fact is fewer and fewer U.S. residents and citizens will do this work.
AURORA GONZALEZ: '75?
ARNULFO GONZALEZ: (Laughter).
AURORA GONZALEZ: 1975?
BURNETT: Arnulfo and Aurora Gonzalez live in a tidy mobile home across the road from a field of spiky Aloe vera plants. Aurora retired last year at age 80, after spending 60 years in the fields, first as a picker, then as a labor contractor. Her bronze, furrowed face attests to a life outside. Though she was not part of the '66 strike, Aurora remembers the conditions back then.
AURORA GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) We worked from sunup to sundown, and we earned almost nothing. When you had to relieve yourself, you just went out in the open. Now everybody earns more. They get an education. Now they have everything. And before, no.
BURNETT: She exaggerates the current status of farmworkers. Today, young people who have other options shun field work. Her grandson, fresh-faced 19-year-old, Aaron, sits on the sofa next to her. As a kid, he worked in the fields with his family. But he vowed that last summer would be his last watermelon harvest. Aaron is going to college to be an athletic trainer.
AARON GONZALEZ: I did not enjoy it. I'd rather be in air con and in college than be in - working in the fields from 5 in the morning all the way to 3 o'clock in the afternoon.
BURNETT: As the injured worker at the top of this report said, watermelon is sweet to eat, but hell to harvest. John Burnett, NPR News in the Rio Grande Valley.
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