Editor, Manteca Bulletin,
In your opinion column of Sept. 9, 2015, you present an editorial regarding the troubles labor unions experienced in arriving at contracts, specifically with the grape growing industry. It really is ironic how facts over time take on the fictional qualities of a well versed story teller or simply get left out of the story entirely. I would like to present a different perspective having worked in that industry from June through September in 1966, 1967 and the months of June and July in 1968. Keep in mind that the minimum wage in California was increasing annually back then. It was $1.10 per hour my first summer, $1.25 per hour my second summer and $1.40 per hour my third summer if memory serves.
My work in the vineyards in my 15th through 17th summers was working for Guimarra in their vineyards around Delano, McFarland, Arvin and Lamont. Keep in mind this is at the southern San Joaquin Valley where there is no Delta breeze and it gets hotter for longer periods of time than ever experienced in and around Manteca. The work day was 10 hours a day, five days a week until grape harvest then six days a week. In June we started with girdling the grape vines. If anyone thinks there is a harder job, they should try being on their knees in rock hard dirt clods going from vine to vine, 400 to 500 a day, prying the pole away from the vine and at the same time cutting enough of the way through the cambium layer to allow the nutrients to go up to the grapes but still deep enough to keep the sugar produced in the grapes from flowing back down into the roots. If you didn’t do it right, the grapes would never be sweet enough to go to market or for wine production. We were paid an additional quarter cent per vine on top of the minimum wage at the time.
After girdling, the next job was throwing the vines. This involved walking down one side of a row of vines and throwing all the vines hanging over that side up on top of the row. The trick was to do it in such a way to keep those darn vines from coming back down. Of course, the sulfur dust the vineyards were all dusted with did nothing for our health but most of us were in our teens and twenties and we thought we would live forever. Still 10 hours a day and five days a week at whatever the minimum wage was that year.
When grape picking time came, we picked into 45-pound lugs that were transported to the packing shed for repacking into the standard 26-pound shipping lug. Each summer when we first started picking, we had to taste a sample from each bunch of grapes to determine if that bunch had enough sugar content to go to market. Ideally it would be rated at a minimum of 16 but I’ll admit sometimes mine were a 15 in sugar content. I was a pretty fast picker and could pick between 90 and 100 45-pound lugs a day. We received five cents for each lug in addition to the minimum wage for that year, still working 10 hours a day but now six days a week.
Now, let’s discuss the unionization effort. Guimarra was not unionized during that period, and to my knowledge there were no field workers working for Guimarra at that time who wanted to be unionized. If we drove to the fields, we had to dodge our cars through the line of picketing union thugs, hoping to make it through without any damage to our cars. We couldn’t leave the cars around the perimeter of the fields or they wouldn’t be drivable by the time our work day was over. Heaven forbid we ever leave the fields except in a large group. The fields were constantly surrounded by these union thugs some yelling at us to join the union and others yelling obscenities at us. The unions would call in the INS who would do a field sweep looking for illegals. I was the only Caucasian inside the fields while most of the thugs outside the fields were of my racial background. It wasn’t unusual once a week for me to have to pull out my ID to prove I was born and raised in Bakersfield. In my experience, there were no extra charges for a cup of water or anything else such as transportation to and from the fields, etc; that type of thing mostly came after the fields were unionized, not before, and mostly by the subcontractors who put the work crews together, not the employer who actually signed the contract with the union.
While grapes and wine are only a couple of the commodities produced here in the valley, there is a worldwide expanding market for these products that Wal-Mart and firms like them do not control. Further, let’s keep in mind that prevailing wage laws apply only to public works projects or when written into employer/employee contracts. There is no legal requirement for any employer, that does not do work for a public entity, to pay prevailing wages.