According to the fruits of their labor

A photo-essay about blueberry workers in eastern Maine by the outstanding photojournalist David Bacon resurrected my own memories of picking blueberries in Maine as a young boy.

I was roughly 9 or 10 years old. Over summer vacation, a school bus would pick up and transport a group of us to nearby fields where we would harvest green beans and blueberries.

The beans were low to the ground and picked by hand in an open field, usually under a bright sun. When a good-sized basket was full, it was weighed and the picker would be paid by the pound.

It was stoop labor, no fun. And I was an unenthusiastic and exceedingly slow worker, spending more time daydreaming about baseball or swimming in my favorite waterhole than picking beans. I wasn’t long for the job, but fortunately for me, my best friends joined me in getting fired not long after we got the job.

The best pickers by far were older women who did this work every summer. Their hands moved at warp speed compared to mine. Even so at day’s end their pay was slim, probably adding a little extra money to family income. By no means was it the primary source.

Raking blueberries was a tad or two worse than bean-picking. Actually, it was in the blueberry fields that my friends and I met our Waterloo.

It too was stoop labor, sometimes raking from your knees. Unlike green beans, blueberries were harvested with a heavy metal flat-bottom rake with a short handle and fork-like prongs. You had to sweep the rake through the low growing blueberry bushes, and that is tiring.

If the bushes were not full of berries (and many times that was the case), it would take a long time to fill a box, so our pay seldom amounted to much when we called it quits for the day. Compared with the exertion and sweat expended, it hardly seemed worth it in my young mind.

Which brings me back to Bacon’s short article and photos. They suggest few things have changed in the blueberry fields, except for the labor force. When I picked blueberries, most if not all of us were locals earning some supplemental income. It wasn’t our main income, and we went home at the end of the day. But in today’s blueberry fields, Bacon points out, most of the pickers are Mexicans, Hondurans and MicMac Indians from Canada who have traveled far from their homes, live in labor camps, and depend on this income to feed, clothe and house their families, here and in their home countries.

Moreover, they encounter racism and discrimination as immigrants and workers of color.

Out of curiosity I called Wyman Industries, the Maine blueberry company that Bacon wrote about, and asked a company representative what conditions are like in the fields. Guess what? His story didn’t square with Bacon’s photos or comments.

To hear him, life is good for the blueberry workers whether picking in the fields or processing berries in the factories. Wages are more than respectable, he said. Housing is free. And Sunday, well that’s the Lord’s Day, except for many of the blueberry workers who labor on Sunday.

The workday for the rakers starts at 5:30 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m, so I was told. (It’s too hot by that time to work in the fields). Meanwhile, the immigrants in the factory labor for 12 hours a day at roughly $8.50 to $9 per hour with overtime after 40 hours. The company rep also said the rake handle was a bit longer now, after I mentioned that the handles were very short when I raked 50 years ago.

Not a word was said about injuries and the quality of the housing.

By the time he finished talking, it seemed almost idyllic, more like a summer camp than a labor camp. I could almost visualize myself laboring in those fields, this time with a look of contentment, knowledge that I would be well remunerated, and with a lovely home nearby to rest my weary body.

But thanks to David Bacon we know the real story, one of exploitation and racism, of an unchanged labor process, of invisible unpaid and underpaid labor in every blueberry we eat.

It should give inspiration to all of us to fight for another world in which democracy, justice, sustainability, and peace are the bedrock.

In this world that has yet to be born, farmworkers and immigrants will receive the full fruits of their labor, possess a powerful voice in the organization of their work, and enjoy society’s profound respect. Justice will no longer be denied.

It can’t come too soon.

Photo: One of David Bacon’s photos of migrant workers in the Maine blueberry camp.



Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.