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Deaths Rally Farm Laborers

Times Staff Writer

There was no eulogy for Salud Zamudio-Rodriguez after his death in the fields here.

In the 24 years since he left his village in rural Mexico, family and co-workers said, he made but one lasting impression. Whether picking lemons in Riverside County, grapefruit in the Coachella Valley or oranges in Tulare County, he moved like a machine up and down the rows, they said.

But two weeks ago, in the 105-degree sun of a brutal July, he could not keep up with the tractor that was dictating his pace in a bell pepper field near this Kern County town.

Co-workers said that for more than two hours, the tractor doubled its speed in a dash to finish the last pick of one field so the grower could begin a fresh field the next morning.

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Zamudio-Rodriguez, 42, was so spent that a few minutes before the shift ended on the afternoon of July 13, he broke away from the machine and collapsed.

As the others were boarding their vans to go home, he began to shake violently from heatstroke.

“We watched him dying in the field,” said Soledad Reyes, 43, who had been working next to him.

The bell pepper field belonged to Donald Valpredo, a longtime cotton and vegetable grower in the Bakersfield area. Valpredo called the worker’s death a tragedy. He declined to comment on allegations by the co-workers that the crew had been pushed to go faster.

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“There’s an investigation and we are trying to cooperate. I don’t think it’s fair for me to say anything else without all the facts,” he said.

“What’s proper for me to say is our sympathies and regrets go to his family and friends,” he said.

Even before Zamudio-Rodriguez’s funeral Saturday, two more farmworkers died in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. Both had worked in temperatures of about 108 degrees. The body of a melon picker was found July 14 next to a patch of ripe cantaloupes in west Fresno County. The body of a grape picker was found a week later beneath the shade of a vine in Kern County.

Their deaths have come amid a statewide debate over a proposed law (AB 805) that would require growers to add rest periods and shade to protect farmworkers when temperatures rise above 95 degrees.

The bill generally pits Southern and Northern California legislators who favor the tougher regulations against Central Valley lawmakers who consider the proposals too burdensome for growers.

In his Saturday radio address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threw himself into the fray, calling on employers to voluntarily give workers breaks in the shade and train supervisors about heatstroke. Cal/OSHA, 15 years after first considering the death of a field hand in the heat, is developing a set of emergency regulations to accomplish those goals, though it probably will take a month to fully implement them.

Not surprisingly, the deaths have brought new energy to the United Farm Workers union, which held a march through Arvin on Friday night reminiscent of those in the 1960s and early 1970s when Cesar Chavez led a grape boycott and paralyzing labor strikes up and down the Central Valley.

Though it represents only a fraction of the grape pickers it once did, the union vows to use its organizing muscle and four radio stations statewide to press for higher wages and the passage of AB 805’s tougher standards.

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“It’s not like the industry didn’t have a warning,” said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. “Last year, after the death of Asuncion Valdivia from heatstroke, we sent letters to the major table grape growers. We asked them to take voluntary steps to deal with the heat.

“Not one grower responded to our call or implemented any changes.”

Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said agriculture has not ignored the issue.

“For a year now, we’ve been holding seminars with growers, supervisors and workers on how to recognize and prevent heat-related illness,” he said.

In the vast fields of Kern County, which stretch from the base of the Tehachapi Mountains to the outskirts of Delano 60 miles north, farmworkers talk about a few big growers who, they say, act with a kind of impunity. Rarely do state workplace regulators make their way into these fields, they say.

They pointed to Giumarra Vineyards, one of the largest table grape growers in the world, where the 53-year-old Valdivia died last July after working 10 hours in 100-degree heat. It was also a Giumarra vineyard where Augustine Gudino, 40, was found dead last week.

Farmworkers said Giumarra pushes its laborers to pick and pack at a fast pace and meet production quotas even in extreme heat. This season, they say, the pressure to harvest the grapes is even greater because the fruit, damaged by mildew, is deteriorating by the day.

It doesn’t help that Giumarra is one of the few growers that requires its packers to work in the sun without umbrellas, they say.

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“A lot of us work for Giumarra because they are big and give you steady work,” said Martha Arredondo, who quit her packing job last year after Valdivia’s death. “But if you don’t make the Giumarra quota, they will fire you.

“They provide no tables or umbrellas. We had to pack the grapes on our hands and knees.”

John Giumarra, whose family has been a leader in the California table grape industry for four generations and packs under the label “The Grape King,” said farmers and farmworkers are destined to see things differently.

Yes, his foremen make sure that workers meet a minimum standard for production, he said, but it wasn’t exactly a quota.

“Whether you’re picking grapes or producing Chevy automobiles, a worker who is way off the average needs to be given more training,” he said. “But it’s super-rare that we walk someone off the job.”

As for packers working on their knees without umbrellas, he said the company does employ such a practice but it is far less harsh than the one described by workers.

“Because we separate our grapes into three or four grades, it’s hard to do that on a table that only holds only two boxes at a time,” he said. “Yes, our packers work on plastic on the ground, but it’s not in the full sun. The vine shades them for the most part.”

Giumarra drew a distinction between the deaths of the two grape pickers a year apart in his fields. Valdivia was a company employee, while Gudino had been hired by a labor contractor to work as a fill-in. Only after Gudino’s death, he said, did the company learn that he suffered from diabetes.

Death from the heat, he said, remains a rare occurrence.

“Our family has been growing grapes since the 1930s, and to my knowledge last year was the first time anyone passed away while working in one of our vineyards,” he said.

“We have 4,000 men and women picking and packing grapes. When you consider all those people working eight hours a day and multiply that by 60 or 70 summers, that’s hundreds of millions of man-hours.”

Although local authorities are still investigating the precise role that heat played in the deaths of Gudino and the unidentified melon picker, there is no such mystery in the death of Zamudio-Rodriguez. The Kern County coroner’s office said the cause of death was hyperthermia related to severe dehydration.

Back in Los Naranjos, in the state of Michoacan, Zamudio-Rodriguez was many things: a son, a father, a brother. On this side of the border, family and friends said, he lived a mostly solitary life. He was small and skinny and hardly uttered a word. But just try to outwork him, they said.

“He came here in 1981, got his green card and was working to bring over his family,” said his younger brother, Aureliano, a truck driver for a furniture company in El Monte. “He felt it was too dangerous for them to cross the desert with a coyote. He wanted to do it the right way.”

He sent home a few hundred dollars every other month to his wife and four children who lived on the family ranch, a few acres of hard earth where the corn and beans grew only so tall.

Last year, he left the San Bernardino area, where his three brothers lived, and migrated to Kern County, where the agricultural work was steadier.

“He missed his wife and children very much,” said Jacqulyn Sotelo, whose family rented him a small apartment in Lamont. “He’d sit in the back with the other farmworkers and drink bottles and bottles of Miller beer. He’d listen to old Mexican folk songs and start to cry.”

Two weeks ago, with the help of a labor contractor, he secured a job picking bell peppers for Valpredo farms outside Arvin. The first day of the harvest, co-workers said, he felt ill and didn’t work.

The second day, in the intense heat of the afternoon, he vomited and cut short his shift by an hour, they said.

On the third day, he seemed fine. Co-worker Reyes said the lunch break was only 15 minutes that day, not the usual 30 required by law.

As soon as they returned to the fields, she said, the pickers could see that the pace had greatly accelerated.

“They wanted to finish the field that day. That way, they could move the equipment and start on a new field the next day,” she said.

Reyes, whose 17-year-old son was working beside her, has signed a written declaration for the UFW detailing the events. The son confirmed her account.

As the tractor moved through the fields, it pulled a conveyor belt onto which the pickers dumped their buckets of bell peppers, Reyes said in an interview. Typically, the tractor driver sets a reasonable speed, enabling the workers to drink water and still harvest three buckets of peppers every 15 minutes, she said.

But from 12:15 to 2:45 p.m. that day, the tractor driver, at the behest of the grower’s foreman, set a pace that required them to pick six buckets every 15 minutes, she said.

“In all my years of picking crops, I have never worked that fast,” Reyes said. “All of us were skipping plants to keep up, but Salud was trying to pick every pepper.”

Five minutes before the end of the workday, she said, Zamudio-Rodriguez told her he was feeling ill and needed to quit. Instead of resting, though, he kept walking back and forth in a delirious state.

At some point, she said, Zamudio-Rodriguez walked up to the crew boss and collapsed in his arms.

The crew boss took off his hat and tried to fan him. Workers set him in the shade of an adjacent almond orchard and tried to give him water. But it did no good.

“I told the crew boss we have to call the ambulance,” Reyes said. “It took 30 minutes for them to arrive. All in all, he was like that for an hour before he got any help.”

On the way to Bakersfield’s Mercy Hospital, still deep in the fields, Zamudio-Rodriguez died.

“They should know when it’s hot not to work people that hard,” Aureliano said. “You don’t expect your brother to die from the work when he’s only 42.”

To send his body back home would cost $3,322. Older brother Camilo took $2,000 from his savings. Aureliano asked his boss at the furniture store to lend him $1,500.

On Friday, his body will begin the 2,000-mile journey back to Los Naranjos. Because he was the first of the 10 siblings to die, family members said, Salud Zamudio-Rodriguez will be buried next to his father, a farmworker too.


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