The Farmworker Strike in San Quintin is a Perfect Illustration of How Class War Works


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Two things jumped out at me in thinking about the farmworker strike in San Quintin, Mexico. One about class war and police violence, and another about class war, immigration and trade deals.

Karl Marx may not have been the best economist in history, but he was a hell of a sociologist and student of history. While the surplus value theory of labor has largely been consigned to the dustbin of history, the concept of class war retains much of it’s explanatory power. That was on clear display in San Quintin this week as police were called upon by growers to control striking farmworkers. The police dutifully beat workers, fired rubber bullets into the crowd, even pursued them into their own homes. A reported 70 workers were injured.

What was really striking was just how dutifully the police came out to play their scripted role as the henchmen of Kapital, rather than law officers sworn to protect and serve the citizenry. The way the police will use force, often brutal force in response to what on paper are minor property crimes should be shocking, but it’s not. Under normal conditions refusing to move from someone’s property or blocking traffic generally results in a ticket and a fine. Not a bludgeoning. Or pepper spray. Or teargas. Or a bullet. There were strikers engaged in more serious crimes like torching vehicles. Still, the police are armed, trained, equiped with body armour, hand cuffs, zip ties and batons. If they wanted to arrest individuals for individual crimes they would. But they don’t. The reason why it’s not shocking is the roles in these confrontations have already been cast. Everyone knows their role and acts accordingly. They roles are determined through the intersection of culture and power relations and they have been surprisingly durable and portable across space and time.

Why is it that the police don’t show up to bust heads when a woman working in the fields files a complaint about sexual harassment? Why does it seem normal that police will beat up workers for standing in the wrong place, but they won’t beat up their bosses for denying workers water or the proper safety equipment for working with pesticides? Why don’t the cops show up and beat up your landlord when he refuses to bring your sewer and plumbing up to code?

The answer lies in the concept of hegemony. Hegemony was a refinement of Marx’s concept of superstructure developed by the Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci. According to Gramsci, the powerful maintain their power through culture, through manufacturing the consent of the governed. Aspirational advertising, toadying political commentators, Hollywood myth-making, etc. Our roles become internalized and power relationships that are politically determined are presented back to us as the natural order. But when the lower orders withdraw their consent, the apparatus of the state is readily turned against them in the form of the police, courts, and army (or National Guard, cough, Kent State, cough). In this state of affairs capitalism turns from a laissez faire market of goods and services to a more efficient, self justifying form of feudalism.

The system is working at its most sophisticated when it’s no longer a matter of the cronyism of the local power structure. We are no longer talking about the Sheriff of Nottingham or a southern mill owner calling upon a Jim Crow sheriff to run bust a union. No phone calls, personal relationships or kickbacks are required. The cops simply see it as part of their normal duties to defend the owners of the means of production from everyone else.  You know the system is working when the police turn on strikers and protesters, not for breaking the law, but for withdrawing their consent, refusing to play their role. It’s the lack of proportion in the response to the crime that gives away the game.

And that’s where trade deals and immigration come in. The strikers learned that farm labor doesn’t have to be feudal in the US.

In Mexico, farmworker strikes of this scale and duration are rare. The walkout began March 17 and is the first in decades in Baja California. For many it’s no coincidence that it has taken place in a region so close to the United States.

For decades, workers here migrated annually north of the border, following the tomato and grape harvests up the West Coast. But fortified border security largely stopped the migration.

By the end of the last decade, tens of thousands of laborers had settled permanently in and around the hub of San Quintin. Mostly indigenous people from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, locals jokingly call the area “Oaxa-California.”

After years living in the U.S. they were less tolerant of deteriorating social conditions in Mexico. Once fragmented along ethnic lines reflecting different indigenous groups — Mixteco, Triqui, Zapoteco — they united to demand better water and garbage service, then started pressing labor demands late last year.

“They came back from the U.S. with different ideas,” said Gabriel Neri, a local radio talk show host who thinks the American experience has been a key inspiration for labor leaders, especially the younger ones. “It gave them a different perspective.”

And influenced their tactics.

Fidel Sanchez, 44, a gruff, goateed father of six, has threatened to use a boycott strategy that led to landmark labor reforms in Florida. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a union in which Sanchez took part as a negotiator in the late 1990s, has succeeded in pressuring major retailers such as Walmart to improve wages and conditions at its supplier farms.

Sanchez at a recent meeting told government officials and an industry representative that if negotiations failed he would start pressuring major American buyers of the berries, tomatoes and cucumbers exported from the area.

The United Farm Workers of America — another U.S. union with which Sanchez participated in protests, during the few years he worked picking apples in Washington — said it has already gathered 20,000 signatures on a petition in support of Baja laborers. It plans to give it to U.S. supermarket chains such as Walmart, Kroger and Safeway.

“I don’t have educational experience. I don’t have an intellectual background. All I have is my education from life experiences, learning from others. Cesar Chavez was an example I learned from, that we shouldn’t live submissively,” Sanchez said.

This is precisely what our trade and immigration policy is designed to stymie and defuse. The policies that enable globalization have been geared to allow the free movement of goods and capital across borders. Workers meanwhile are pitted against each other in a race to the bottom, but without the freedoms that trade deals grant to capital. Money and goods can flow back and forth across borders to find their best and highest use, but not so for labor. Labor is not allowed to travel freely back and forth across borders to seek out opportunity, to gain knowledge and experience, or to build solidarity. Public policy works to confine labor by closing the border while capital is free to come and go as it pleases.

And again we are confronted with contradictions that only make sense in terms of class war. The economist Dean Baker has been very vocal in pointing out that free trade has been constructed in a way that protects US doctors and other professionals from direct competition with doctors and professionals from low income countries. Wealthy doctors are protected from competition and low income Americans are denied access to doctors who would provide services more affordably. We could easily set up a system for qualified doctors from other countries to work in the US, but we don’t. Why don’t we? Shut up and eat your porridge.

Meanwhile, illegal and limited legal immigration between our two countries means that Mexican employers don’t have to compete with US employers on wages and working conditions, Instead, the competition puts downward pressure on wages in the US as firms compete on cost. The Mexican workers who do manage to get to the US to work can’t demand the full protections of US employment and labor law. The result is further downward pressure on US wages and working conditions.

None of this would be the case if we had rational immigration and work visa rules, and a trade policy that allowed farm workers to move back and forth across the border as easily as the tomatoes they harvest.

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