Friday, January 14, 2011

About Bitter the Fruit

by Nick Whitehead
January 14, 2011

The story of the play is based on actual struggles of teachers, parents and students against Methyl Bromide use on strawberry fields next to school campuses. Simultaneously there was a huge Union-organizing drive by the

A Strawberry Picker photo courtesy LA Times

United Farm Workers of America. Strawberry pickers sought collective bargaining rights to raise their family incomes and provide their families with guaranteed health insurance.

These labor and environmental demands, heavily resisted by the Strawberry Industry, drew prominent celebrities to Watsonville, including Hollywood actor Martin Sheen and Robert Kennedy Jr. Local clergy chained themselves in protest to the gates of one big employer. Eventually, top U.S. Labor officials flew in from Washington D.C., joined by Rainbow Coalition figure Jesse Jackson. A huge rally and march brought statewide prominence to the small agricultural town.

There were two final outcomes. On the Methyl Bromide front, growers started voluntarily withdrawing from proximity to school classrooms. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation commenced monitoring the "chemical drift" in air currents that threatened the health of local residents. The second outcome gave labor a big breakthrough when a purchase deal was arranged behind the scenes so that new progressive owners acquired the biggest berry grower. Within a year, the workforce voted to be unionized under the U.F.W.

The outcome was not so sanguine for the activist teachers intent on protecting their students. One was forced to leave, the other was transferred away from students she loved. These women had applied their conscience. The School District had retaliated.

In our story there is also a fictional budding romantic relationship between an Irish-American environmental scientist and a Latina "fraisera" (strawberry picker). But this possibility is not so fanciful. In the real-life struggle, a committed love relationship evolved between a leading UFW organizer and an Anglo woman journalist. In times of historic pressure and tumult, people find the comfort and affection they need.

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