The farm workers of the San Quintin Valley have gotten the federal government to commit to facilitating negotiations for a wage hike, the central demand of the more than 80,000 agricultural laborers in this region of Baja California. But Lucila Hermandez, a spokesperson for the movement, warns that the agreement is still not a clear victory.
Representatives of the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice succeeded on May 14 — after negotiations with representatives from federal and state agencies that lasted more than 14 hours on end — in opening up negotiations starting June 4 to establish and formalize agreements.
The central bargaining point is the wage increase to 200 pesos that is at the core of the farm workers' movement. The wage increase is the only outstanding point of a list of 14 agreements reached between the Alliance and the government on May 14.
Although the media framed the story as if it were a done deal, the more than a hundred farmers who make up the Agricultural Council of Baja California still have to accept the increase to 200 pesos demanded by the workers. The Mexican government has already announced, before the June round of negotiations, that "where appropriate," it will provide any difference between what the growers accept and the demand. Many people have denounced this move as an unacceptable government subsidy that, in effect, Mexican taxpayers would pay for the benefit of the large growers.
In the meeting held in Ensenada, the representative of the Ministry of the Interior, David Garay; the governor of Baja California, Francisco Vega de Lamadrid; and the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Rafael Avante, among other government representatives, participated.The spokesperson and leader of the San Quintin farm workers movement, Lucila Hernandez, told the Americas Program that the result of the negotations is so far "just an agreement, and we will wait to see if it is actually applied."
"We're watching closely to see what happens these next few days," she said.
The peasant leader, who has worked in the fields in Baja California since she was 11 years old, indicated that the success of the agreement with growers depends on them "doing their part" to resolve the work stoppage that has been going on for the past two months. At the start of the strike on March 17, the day laborers of San Quentin demanded wages of 300 pesos per eight-hour day, but then lowered their demand to 200 pesos per day before the growers broke off the dialogue after offering only a 15 percent increase.
The Mexican federal government, represented at the Ensenada meeting by the Under-Secretary of Labor, Rafael Avante, promised the striking workers to help negotiate the pay hike the workers are demanding as minimum.
Government representatives have also promised to work for the release of 18 prisoners related to the movement, ensure affiliation of workers to the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS), and establish an independent union. The federal representatives also agreed to review requests for improvements in housing and basic services, such as health and safety in boarding houses or settlements of the laborers.
Police Attack on Workers' Homes
The agreement came five days after the violent events of May 9, when state police made incursions in the local neighborhoods of Lomas San Ramon, Nuevo San Juan Copala, May 13 and Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. The police raid injured 70 people including men, women and children, many with injuries caused by rubber bullets.
On May 13, the First District criminal judge assigned to the town of San Quintin set bail at seven million pesos for three laborers accused of destroying State Preventive Police patrol cars.
These events happened after the Under-Secretary of Government of the Interior Ministry, Luis Enrique Miranda Nava, stood up the laborers, saying he had no means of transportion to San Quentin and then that he had to be hospitalized. Although many of the workers had returned to the fields, the leaders of the farm workers laborers say they were working under protest as they await a resolution to their demands. Fidel Sanchez, one of the five leaders of the Alliance, said that the large demonstrations held after producers left the negotiating table were proof that the workers continue to demand results.
The latests events cannot be seen as a total triumph for the thousands of men and women who put food on the table for millions of consumers in Mexico, the U.S. and other countries. However, many recognize that this is a first step toward recognizing and improving the appalling conditions they live and work in.
Of the approximately 84,000 farm workers, about half are indigenous Mixtec and Triqui migrants from Oaxaca, and Guerrero Nahua and other indigenous groups in Chiapas and Veracruz. Hernandez stated that half of the people who work in planting, harvesting and packing of fruits and vegetables produced in San Quentin are women. "Many women laborers have contributed to the dialogue. They have participated in marches, in sit-ins and they have been very active. Women have walked alongside the men in this fight," said the labor leader.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this epic struggle has been the way it has been guided by its leadership. Although some people have criticized the shortcomings, the achievements of the movement are evident: the leadership has remained cohesive, and when, for example, the negotiations reached an impasse, the leaders did not give in on their demand to free the 18 laborers imprisoned for taking part in the movement. Collective leadership is a common feature of indigenous communality, which is very strong in the migrant workers' settlements in northern Mexico and also in the United States. The farm workers' persistence, based on their conviction that their struggle is just, backs up the values that sustain the movement.
If they continue to stand their ground, the farm workers of San Quintin have a good chance of winning. While far from over, it seems they have already begun to reap justice.