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interviews

Beware of Pity

by David Bacon
February 26, 2021

This interview with David Bacon, journalist and author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, was conducted and condensed by franknews

David | I come from a left-wing union family. I was born in New York City, but my dad brought us out to California when I was little to avoid the blacklist. I grew up in Oakland and there were certain things I understood growing up, like unions and picket lines.

I didn't understand the lives of people in rural areas. In my neighborhood in Oakland the big racial dividing line was Black and white, and I didn't know anything about the lives of Chicanos or Mexicans. I didn't speak Spanish.

I was sort of caught up in the ferment of the 1960s, so when the grape strike started in Delano, I supported it. I would stand outside of stores with the union flag, asking people to not buy grapes. 

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Veterans of the 1967 march from Delano to Sacramento. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

As time went by, I became more and more interested in who the workers were that we were supporting. Eventually, I had a friend who was working for the union down in Oxnard, and I asked him if I could volunteer. My first job was to take statements from workers who had been fired because of their union support. The education I received with the union lasted a lifetime. I have been thinking and writing about migration and labor ever since. 

The organizers taught me how to get workers to go from being very fearful people who were scared of the foreman, to people who rose up and demanded their needs. That's a particular kind of organizing that happens in crews of people working in the fields. But the idea of listening to workers and understanding what workers' demands were, and then trying to help them build organization based on those demands is applicable wherever you go. 

Organizers have to help workers understand how to respond, how to protect each other, how to get power in the workplace, and then how to use that, to defend themselves and how to get better working conditions. 

But the union belongs to the workers and in the end, they have to run it and make the decisions.

There is something that's very, very democratic about organizing. It really involves people talking about what their lives are like, and understanding power, who has power, and if it's not you, organizing to get that power.

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Early in the morning striking farm workers stop a pickup bringing strikebreakers into a field. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

Organizing to ensure that the workplaces respond to the needs of the workers and not just the need to make a profit. That is the lesson that I took from the unions that I worked with — whether the unions were for farm workers or garment and factory workers, whether they were in cities or in rural California or Washington state or the border towns. 

Which part of the border?

The California border, the border between California and Arizona, and Baja, California. 

Militarization in border towns is so aggressive and obvious.

Yes, it's very antithetical to the lives of the people that politicians say they're protecting. You know, very few of the farm workers who do the agricultural work in the Imperial Valley, live there. Most of them live in Mexicali and cross the border every day. I can tell you a lot of organizing stories about meeting the workers at the border, going with them to work, and so forth because that's the reality. Making the border more difficult to cross and militarizing it, makes no sense to the people who have to do it every day. 

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At the edge of Canon Buenavista, the town merges into the desert hills that surround it. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

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Miguel Martinez and his son race onto the beach next to the U.S./Mexico border wall. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

The militarization of the border patrol turns the border into an armed camp, acting as though they are an occupying army. The assassination of ordinary people on the U.S. side of the border, or border patrol agents shooting through the fence, tells you something about who they think their enemy is and what they think their job is. 

Racism is inherent in the way that U.S. society treats workers of color, but the impact of the border on the lives of the people who live there and who cross it, by whatever means, also demonstrates the racism of the entire system.

People didn’t ask for this kind of border. This was done in Washington by politicians and political leaders who thought that appealing to racism and to anti-immigrant sentiment, would produce political power. 

How do you see unions gaining political power? 

Today many unions function, at least in part, as political lobbying groups and the main instruments of power are money and the ability of unions to mobilize voters.  Those can make a critical difference in the lives of workers, as we've seen in winning overtime for farm workers in California, or the hotel workers and others ending Trump's presidency by going door to door in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

There are two political strains of unions: a radical left-wing tradition or history, and a conservative one. 

A key question for unions these days is to determine the social priorities for the jobs workers need. 

Should unions represent just their own members, or should they speak for workers as a whole?  Should we build prisons because of the jobs building them, or schools, which we need, while rejecting the whole criminalization system and its racist structure?  William Winpisinger, the former head of the Machinists Union, called for converting defense plants from producing war weapons to producing everything from mass transit vehicles to alternative energy systems.

These questions very quickly become very big political questions in our world.  They decide elections. How unions go about answering them tells you what side of this conservative-radical divide a union is on. Some unions have a very narrow view of their interests and other unions take a much more broad, political view.  But taking a good position isn't enough.  Workers have to understand the choices they face, and be willing to fight for the power to change the direction of the society they live in, and that places a big responsibility on unions to help educate people.  That tells you the difference between radical and conservative unions too.

In terms of the Farm Workers Union, how have you seen their priorities shift over time?

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Dolores Huerta, together with Bobbie Delacruz and a Bear Creek union committee member, present the union's proposal for a contract to managers of the company, at one time the world's largest rose grower. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

At the peak of its power in the late 70s, the United Farm Workers represented about 60,000 farm workers throughout rural California. Even if you weren't in a union, you knew what the United Farm Workers was. And the union had enough power that it was able to establish a much better standard of living for farm workers. For instance, the minimum wage for a union contract in that period was about three times the state minimum wage. Today that would be $36 an hour. The union was able to win that through organizing strikes among workers, and through organizing boycotts in cities. 

That tells you something about political alliances. When people in rural areas and people in cities join forces, they can accomplish some pretty important things.

That changed conditions pretty radically for farm workers, and the union also changed the way they thought about themselves. 

Over the last 40 years, things changed a lot. The California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, passed by Jerry Brown, made organizing possible through a legal system of elections. At the beginning of the 1980s, however, a series of Republican administrations in Sacramento gutted the law. Growers tore union contracts up. 

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After a group of strikers are arrested, the remaining strikers leave the field. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

The union also made mistakes during that period. It didn't look for new ways to organize laborers on the ground the way it had in the 1960s and 1970s. After 1982, there were no big strikes in California on the industry-wide scale of the grape and lettuce strikes or where the union would strike a whole geographical area, like the Imperial Valley. The union didn't set up locals that would allow workers to participate and elect leaders. Rather, it was centralized and lost much of its presence in the fields. Because the turnover in the industry is so quick, in the span of 10 to 15 years, the union was viewed completely differently by workers, a majority of whom no longer had any experience of the huge strikes and boycotts. 

In the 1990s, the union had to begin the process of rebuilding, which, I think, is continuing to this day. The union continues to fight, but the fights are not on the scale of those of the 60s and 70s.   Workers have also organized other farmworker unions in other parts of the country, from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio and North Carolina to Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Washington State, and all of them, to one degree or another, are products of the farmworker upsurge that began with the United Farm Workers in Delano.

Part of the issue in organizing farm workers has been the rise of a program that looks just like the Bracero Program, the H-2A Visa. This brings workers into the US through private recruiters and private labor contractors. The system is supposedly overseen by federal law, but there is really no oversight. There are very few regulations that protect these workers. This program treats these workers as though they are in bondage to the growers. 

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Farm workers and their supporters march to protest the H2-A guestworker program and the death of Honesto Silva. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

I think that there is really no way that this program can be reformed so that it doesn't treat those workers as powerless people. People working as immigrants in the U.S., in farm labor or elsewhere, need a visa that doesn't condition their presence in the U.S., on whether they're working or on their employer. 

Organizing is hard enough  — immigration adds a layer. Has the Biden administration said anything of significance about these sorts of programs? 

On a macro scale, Biden has said that he's going to introduce legislation into Congress to give legal status to the undocumented people who are living in the United States. There are about two and a half million farm workers in the United States, and the majority of them are undocumented. Here in California, probably way more than the majority are undocumented. That would benefit farm workers a lot. That would make workers less vulnerable and make it less risky for them to organize. 

Trump was very much in favor of the H-2A program. There is a wage regulation in the H-2A program that is supposed to be established state by state and Trump, by executive order, weakened it, allowing the growers to make more money off of the backs of workers. Biden, on his first day in office, got rid of those efforts. So that's a start.  But Biden has to stop the H2-A visa program as a whole, and ensure people have visas and legal status that makes them the equal of those around them, with the same rights.

Responding to Trump immigration and migration policy is going to be a big part of the Biden administration – but he also has to acknowledge the legacy of Obama-era immigration policy.  Particularly with the pandemic, I wonder how changes in organizing will change the way politics responds to the demands of laborers? 

There has actually been a lot of organizing going on during the pandemic. I think the pandemic has forced certain groups of workers to organize in a way they haven't before. 

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One Million March on May Day in Los Angeles. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

Think about Los Angeles. Los Angeles these days is quite a liberal city. When I was growing up, Los Angeles was called Citadel of the Open Shop. The most anti-union town in America. It was run by an extremely racist, nativist city government. After all, think which political machine Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan came out of. 

So how did LA shift? One part of the answer is the changing demographics of LA. Huge waves of people came from Mexico and Central America. But demographics alone don’t change a place.  People have to be organized and understand the need for social change and social justice.  Unions and political activists recognized what was happening and saw a way to change the political system in Los Angeles. And, on top of that, the Republican Party made one of its worst political mistakes. In the early 90s, they championed an initiative on the ballot in California called Proposition 187, which essentially would have prevented undocumented immigrants from getting care in hospitals and from sending their kids to school. That encouraged people to start the process of applying for citizenship, and also changed the political consciousness of generations of immigrants. 

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Han Young striker Miguel Angel Solorzano's right arm was injured in an industrial accident in a fall at the Han Young plant. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

I think one of the reasons for the anti-immigrant hysteria in the Republican Party is that they can see the demographics changing in California and Arizona and Texas. The idea of enfranchising the working class in a place like Texas, and then contesting for their votes, is anathema. Republicans are not going to do that. They have other ways of staying in power – force, trickery, manipulation.

The question that remains is whether people are going to be organized in such a way that they can overthrow the reigning political class.  

The idea of franchising the working class in a place like Texas, and then contesting for their votes, is like anathema. They don't have to do that, and they are not going to do that. They have other ways of staying in power – force, trickery, manipulation.

Do you think the national narrative about immigration from Latin America is changing?

One thing that the Farm Workers Union taught me is that language is a product of the social structure that we live in. When I hear the chants of Build the Wall, the first thing that I pay attention to is who stands to gain and who stands to lose. Who has the power and who does not? Language is a product of that. 

The border wall itself changes, but the function of the border does not. You were not illegal in Mexico, but suddenly you became illegal once you crossed the border. You entered into a country in which this illegal status already existed. Where does legality in the United States come from?

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Early in the morning striking farm workers at the edge of a field call out to strikebreakers working inside to stop and join them. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

This whole idea of the illegal person has its roots in slavery. It has its roots in the kidnapping of people and bringing them here from Africa and then forcing them to work as the property of slave owners on the plantations of the South. To reinforce that system they created the Black Codes and the "one-drop of African blood" to determine who was a slave and who wasn't,  or who was illegal and who wasn't. This history goes into defining and enforcing today's illegal status, which is applied to other people as they come into our country from other places.

The border has a social function as part of this system. And the system is built on the need for labor, because without it, without workers, the system doesn't exist. After all, the labor of slaves created the wealth that produced the cotton mills in New England. You cannot forget about that aspect of it. 

You could get rid of the wall tomorrow, and the border would still be there unless you changed the way our system functions. So language has a purpose, a political purpose. It gets Trump votes and it divides people so that they don't organize effectively because they're so busy fighting each other. Language is important, but language did not create the wall. 

How do you want language to be used to accurately depict U.S. workers?

I think my impulse to interview and record workers came out of being in unions. Part of what you do as an organizer is interview people and ask them questions. If you're a good organizer, you actually listen to what people tell you. When I first moved into journalism at the beginning of the 90s, I felt like an oddball. The idea of letting people tell their own stories was not a very popular idea at that time, especially in regards to farm workers and immigrants. That has changed over time. 

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A young girl watches her older brother cutting cilantro. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

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An older couple cuts cilantro. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

As a media worker, it is crucial to remember that part of what you're trying to do is help people to get a voice. Today people are paying more attention to the voices of people on the ground, to the farm workers, the immigrants. But there is a danger that journalists exoticize people or treat them in a paternalistic way. I have tried to focus my interviews on where people's ideas come from and how their views changed. 

For example, I did a long political biography of Rufino Dominguez, who came out of a very radical organization of mostly immigrants from Oaxaca. Rufino came out of the left in Mexico. 

I was trying to look a the influences of the Mexican Communist Party, the Marist tradition of liberation theology,  and the indigenous traditions of the town that he grew up in, which had very old ideas about collectivity. All of these produced Rufino’s political thought. Rufino and people like him have developed a new way of looking at migration and immigrant rights, in which they talk about both the right to migrate and the right to not migrate.

I interviewed Rufino a number of times over his life. He is dead now, but he was teaching me really through the interviews. He taught me how indigenous communities function and what kind of cultural traditions people are bringing with them from these towns.

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Rufino Dominguez, director of the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, speaks at a FIOB meeting in Fresno. Work & Social Justice: The David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford.

That is a long way of saying that, what's interesting to me is not only the stories that people tell as immigrants but how they analyze the world that they live in. And this analysis is sometimes much more developed and sophisticated than what you can find in an anthropology textbook. We have got to get away from the paternalistic stuff - either romanticizing people or treating them as unfortunate, oppressed victims.

As my dad would say, beware of pity. 

Pity never helped anybody. I think this happens is when people who do the work you and I do aren’t just trying to write the story and get it out there, but instead, try to make a reputation on it. There is a heavy-duty celebrity culture at work in this country — on the left as well as the right. That is one of the things that I think undermines our ability and willingness as journalists to act as participants in social struggle, in solidarity. Instead of looking at ourselves as being on the same level as everybody else, we buy into this idea of the career and the reputation. We have to get away from that.