Editorial
Editorial

Farmworkers win big -- maybe -- in Baja

History is made in Baja California's fields; will farmworkers actually be rewarded?

The deal struck last week by growers and farmworkers in Baja California's San Quintin region was in many ways a by-the-book labor victory. Workers were unhappy with their conditions, so they organized against a powerful agribusiness industry and bargained for a significant raise — an occurrence so rare in Mexico as to be astonishing.

This is a historic and possibly transformational win for Mexico's nascent labor movement. Thousands of farmworkers will see their wages increased by up to 50%. Benefits that were long promised but also long denied will finally be granted — if the agreement is enforced.

Still, this is only a first step, and even as a first step it leaves much to be desired. No one was dancing in the streets over the pay hikes. Depending on the size of the farm that employs them, workers will earn from $9.50 to $11.50 a day (not an hour). And the "benefits" negotiated as part of the agreement are things that many workers in the U.S. have taken for granted for decades, such as social security and overtime pay.

Nor was the agreement a binding, legally enforceable contract. So plenty of things can still go wrong. Growers could transfer ownership of farms or hire new workers or simply renege on their promises. The government has promised to oversee the agreement, but it doesn't have a track record or a mechanism yet to do so.

The leaders of the San Quintin strike — the alianza — are planning a victory tour to other agricultural regions and hope to start building a national farmworkers labor movement. But it's not at all certain the victory can be replicated in other parts of Mexico, particularly those areas rife with governmental corruption or in the grip of violent drug cartels. The Baja farmworkers had some unique advantages. For one thing, some of the strike leaders had worked in the U.S. farm labor movement, which left them with both higher expectations about compensation and a better understanding of effective organizing tactics than other Mexican workers.

But there is one big lesson from the San Quintin deal that Mexican workers can employ: International attention is crucial. Observers and labor leaders credit this agreement in large part to coverage by the international media, including the Los Angeles Times, of the plight of farmworkers. In 2014, The Times published an investigative series, "Product of Mexico," that followed the trail of produce from U.S. tables to the fields in various regions of Mexico, exposing appalling working and living conditions for farmworkers. The series put pressure on U.S. retailers, which in turn put pressure on Mexican growers.

Occasionally, the global market can work to improve the lives of people. In this case, it did.

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