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Class Conflict in Mendocino County

Menodcino County denizens have organized several different projects as part of the Occupy Movement, the most innovative being Occupy Hendy Woods and the Occupy Mendocino County Food Initiative, each of which dovetails nicely with a prominent aspect of regional culture (respectively, redwood trees and locally-grown organic food).  Occupy Ukiah and a Fort Bragg contingent of Occupy have also conducted fairly regular activities during the past two months, including marches and bank pickets.

In recent weeks, the Occupy Ukiah group has turned its focus mainly to opposing the Wal-Mart expansion on the south end of town.  The most recent of the Mendocino Coast group’s “peaceful protests” (e.g., sign-waving at Highway 1 motorists on Friday afternoons) have been increasingly peaceful in the sense that attendance has fallen off, leaving mainly the diehards.

The Occupy upsurge has provided an opening for meaningfully discussing the blatant inequalities and extreme segregation that exist in Mendocino County, which typically receive only shallow attention, even in progressive circles.  It’s become more imperative than ever to address these things openly and honestly, given that the yawning economic disparities in this area have grown steadily worse in the last few years.  They were already intolerable.

In a previous piece, I focused mainly on Mendocino County’s housing market, which is characterized by severe gentrification – i.e., the rich pricing out the poor.  The most immediate culprit is the US housing market in general, with its regional proxies including wealthy real estate speculators, marijuana gold rushers, and winery owners, who have collectively caused housing and land prices to skyrocket, all the while without giving much of anything back.  Meanwhile, real wages have remained stagnant, at best.  It’s an increasingly two-tiered economic structure, one dramatically skewed toward the already-wealthy.

Of course, this is complicated economic terrain: Mendocino County is home to a multi-billion dollar marijuana industry, which provides relatively high wages to untold thousands of people.  In strictly economic terms, cannabis is a massive boon to the area.  At the same time, the industry incidentally helps to obscure the economic plight of the working class and underclass people, by promoting an individualistic culture centered on personal entreA Marxist friend of mine described the matter in relation to the campaigns to alleviate poverty of the 1930s and 1960s, in a conversation a few weeks ago: “I think there is much to be said here, about how the Vietnam War, which was accompanied by the rejection of Johnson and the Great Society, split liberals into those who clung to New Deal values and those who rejected ‘The Great Society’: consumerism, conformity, war (sometimes racism and sexism, sometimes not).  The counter-culture never got agency, aside from extreme individualism.  This is why (in part) campaigns for housing, schools, integration, and the old social democratic issues don’t get far in Mendocino County.”

So, local people have waged some extremely important and successful environmental campaigns through the years (if not nearly successful enough, in most cases).  The majority are anti-war.  Most are opposed to big banks, or at least to the role the banks played in precipitating the 2008 economic crash.

Where the rubber really meets the road vis-a-vis class politics, however, is support for the economically exploited and dispossessed, something which simply doesn’t exist in any concerted way in Mendocino County.  In the recent past, two significant revolts by Mendo’s economic underclass have come and gone, neither of which garnered meaningful support from “progressives.”

I’m referring, first of all, to the Roederer workers strike and unionization drive of 1998, which occurred after the French wine corporation attempted to impose a severe cut on the already-meager wages of the mostly migrant laborers on whose back-breaking work – much of it involving heavy exposure to deadly agricultural chemicals, which have been proven to dramatically shorten lifespans and otherwise destroy people’s quality of life — the company’s exorbitant wealth is based.

During harvest time, Roederer had pre-arranged the attempt to force down their field rates with Scharffenberger Winery (which Roederer now owns, ironically). Both companies’ bosses suddenly informed the fieldworkers that they would be splitting their already-meager pay with the tractor drivers, who were theretofore paid directly and separately from those doing the grape picking.  It was a calculated move to transfer the company’s cost of doing business onto its lowest-rung employees.

To keep the matter in perspective, Anderson Valley Roederer’s enormously wealthy parent company was consistently fetching around $500 a bottle at that time for its Cristal brand, with regular customers ranging from France’s creme-de-la-creme to hip-hop moguls like Master P and Jay Z, who favorably referenced the brand on countless tracks back in the late-’90s and early-’00s.  Roederer  owned – as it still does — by far the most vineyard acreage of any company in Anderson Valley.

Roederer’s workers simply walked off the job, soon thereafter forming a union under the umbrella of the United Farm Workers.  As the Anderson Valley Advertiser reported at the time, “The French instantly, and apparently reflexively, reached for expensive lawyers and ‘labor consultants’ to strangle the union in its infancy.  Roederer’s hired guns, who’d stood in the vineyard the morning of the election putting each worker-voter through an excruciating screening process to weed out as many potential voters as they could, immediately claimed that the [UFW union] election was flawed.”

The “labor consultants” Roederer hired included perhaps the biggest, baddest union-busting corporation in the western hemisphere, Littler Mendelson of San Francisco, which has made millions by hiring itself out to governments and multi-national firms in heavily repressive areas like Colombia, where murder of union leaders is commonplace.  The company also works closer to home, such as its contract work for University of California Regents and UC Office of the President, for whom it engineered a campaign to undermine the entirely reasonable demands of UC nurses and clerical workers for better pay and benefits.

For one year, the United Farm Workers represented Roederer as the company zealously rid itself of strikers and even potential strikers.  Once the fix was all the way in, Roederer orchestrated another union vote, which the UFW lost.  That was the last anyone heard from agricultural unions here in the liberal bastion of Mendocino County, where agriculture in its multifarious forms dominates the economy.

Few, if any, local residents joined workers on the picket line.  Few, if any, applied pressure to public officials who were in a position to intervene. Nobody organized a boycott campaign in solidarity. Nobody occupied Roederer’s Oakland headquarters, or even its rustic tasting room facility in Philo (its rusticity being a marketing strategy based on its attractive rural surroundings).  Absent any solidarity from Mendo’s progressives, the workers were completely isolated, and thus easy pickings for the likes of Roederer and Littler Mendelson.

A larger, if even more fleeting, rebellion with important similarities took place in early-May 2006.  Local Latino workers gathered in impressive numbers as part of a nationwide one-day strike on May Day, with large marches in Ukiah and Fort Bragg.  They were demanding immigration reform, particularly in the face of an ongoing rein of terror being carried out by federal police agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and white vigilante groups such as the Minutemen.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of Latino people along with a scattered number of supporters of other ethnicities lined Fort Bragg on May 1st, 2006 across nearly 10 city blocks, in one of the largest demonstrations in local history.

Then, on May 2, 2006, scores of Mendocino County employers fired employees who had gone on strike.  In fact, various “progressive” businesses were among those who summarily discarded the field workers, housekeepers, and clerical workers in their employ.  Again, no political support from largely white progressives.  Such is the extent of segregation in this area, however, that few people outside those immediately affected even knew about the firings.

The point here is not to make people feel guilty.  Nor is it to suggest that middle-class people in Mendocino County have a responsibility to go out and organize Latino workers in the local wine and tourist industries, conduct union drives for them.  Rather, the workers themselves need to make the moves in that direction.  Something similar will come along again, and when it does, it’s crucial that we organize in support of it.

To that end, try the following thought experiment.  What if a political movement similar to Occupy had existed at the time of the Roederer strike or the May Day strike?  Occupations of Roederer, Scharffenberger, or the businesses that fired their Latino workforces would have been ripe.  Economic boycott campaigns could have been mounted, public officials pressured – all of those forms of meaningful solidarity I referenced a few paragraphs earlier.

The point is also to force an issue into the political discourse that has, in fact, been actively suppressed.  An acquaintance who used to MC a prominent hippy-centric NorCal concert festival, one that explicitly promotes multiple aspects of regional marijuana culture, recently told me how he once implored concert-goers to pick up after themselves.  Then, he made the salient recommendation that people should appreciate the underpaid all-Latino workforce who come through in the wee morning hours, cleaning up the monumental piles of trash many of the self-proclaimed Gaia worshippers (“Drainbows,” in the Rainbow Gathering lexicon) invariably leave in their wake.  For the event organizers, this was a case of the MC ruining the “positive vibe,” or something to that effect, so they declined to hire him back the next year.
Tellingly, the very same companies that put the screws to their fieldworkers in 1998 – again, their names are Roederer and Scharffenberger, they’re based in Philo – are among the main reasons the Navarro River watershed is so thoroughly depleted, having only greatly worsened since the wine industry took over from the timber industry as the river’s primary despoiler.  It’s fair to say, then, that the greatest worker exploitation in Anderson Valley has been carried out by its greatest environmental criminals.
In the early 1990s, Scharffenberg patriarch John Scharffenberger proposed building a series of reservoirs to store 180 acre feet of water for irrigation and frost protection. The reservoirs were to be supplied by one of the many unnamed former streams that fed the Navarro. He also proposed to divert a whopping three cubic feet per second of water from Indian Creek for frost protection. By comparison, the City of Fort Bragg drew 2.7 cubic feet per second of water from the much larger Noyo River, with which it supplied some 6,000 people and businesses. It would have been one of the largest permitted ag diversions ever on the North Coast.

The son of a real estate tycoon whose multi-billion dollar investment firm owned such national outfits as Motel 6 and Home Insurance, Scharffenberger (the man, not the company) has recently been the subject of numerous favorable media profiles, including in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, which have portrayed him as an eclectic self-made entrepreneur, whose chocolate and tofu brands have enjoyed national success. In various Mendocino County circles, Scharffenberger has also cultivated an image of himself as an environmentally sensitive steward of the land. The details of the 1990 application he submitted to the California Division of Water Rights, however, utterly belie that image.

Scharffenberger was probably never serious about gaining approval for so large a diversion. Rather, he was engaged in a classic developer ploy. By striking a compromise later on, whereby he withdrew the original application, he came across seeming reasonable by way of comparison. He struck a compromise with a local NGO, which got the enthusiastic blessing of my friends at the State Water Board, and which also happened to allow him to draw more water – directly out of the river, keep in mind – than he ever could have expected otherwise.  The NGO misleadingly paraded this around as a great victory for the environment.

Water diversions, including those that fill the multifarious illegal diversions in Wine Country and the Emerald Triangle, often start at the very peak of the mountain.  Virtually every ephemeral (seasonal) stream running down to the valley bottom is dammed.  The water is stored in huge ponds, which are only occasionally visible from major roadways, for irri­gation and frost protection.  Among many other wineries, this is one of the main forms of water storage practiced by Roederer.

As long-time local environmental activist Roanne Withers told me, having personally walked many of these vineyards while preparing a lawsuit aimed at saving the Navarro in the late-1990s and early-’00s.  “So there were little creeks that salmon used to spawn in that would be completely dried up, because all the water was sucked up and stored in these ponds.  To try to explain that to people, for them to have a visual experience and a feeling for it — it’s hard to fully understand unless you’ve actually seen the effects.”

The moral of the story is that entities like the wine and tourism industries – which account for most of local official GDP, and also a greatly disproportionate share of local exploitation – are deeply embedded in Mendo’s progressive culture.  In the case of wine, a great many politically liberal locals work for wineries, are social friends with the owners and managers of local wineries, turn out in large numbers for the endless local wine tastings and art shows sponsored by wineries, and even depend on the wineries for the funding of pseudo-liberal local institutions.  Even when wineries practice environmental desecration, they avoid – provided, so long, enough people recognize those wineries as “part of the community” (something I’ve heard before, curiously, in relation to companies like Scharffenberger).

Exploitation within the marijuana industry get a similarly wide berth, partly because the drug war in the US is so thoroughly militarized that whatever problems that exist within it become the domain of law enforcement by default, rather than a politically active local citizenry.

Back to the individualism that persists in Mendocino County.  People here have come alive for righteous campaigns like the corporate pillage of local forests, although more often than not progressive political mobilizations here revolve around matters of economic self-interest such as marijuana.  Even the prominence of PG&E “smart-meter” criticism in places like Albion, Philo, and Sebastopol – which have aroused at least 100 times greater outrage than, say, the immigration police’s rein of terror in many of those same areas – is curiously concentrated in places with enormous indoor marijuana growing scenes, with many of these indoor growers having a special investment in preventing new meter-reading technology.  Further back, people mobilized in large numbers in support of Class K houses because, crudely put, hippies wanted to make sure their hippie shacks had re-sale value.

Personally, I have a huge soft spot for neo-pagan movements involving things like herbal medicine and “natural healing,” even though those fields are beset with an overwrought and overwhelming concentration of new age confidence tricksters and hucksters.  In addition, the pervasive idea that individual enlightenment is the main or only way in which people have agency is not only insane, but also incredibly counter-productive politically.  Nowhere else do expressions of selfishness accompany so many profuse expressions of love.  A common refrain I’ve heard, even when I’ve attended so-called “progressive” events here in Mendo: “You have to find the truth within yourself. There is no real power other than the one within the self, within the soul.”

Actually, no.  The only real power we have is working with other people, by developing meaningful bonds of solidarity.  The entire of a self-contained self that exists autonomous from the world at large arose in conjunction with the historical development of capitalism.  Prior to that, it’s never been documented to exist anywhere in human history.  As psychotherapist Philip Cushman put it in his y useful 1996 book Constructing the Self, Constructing America, which provides a fascinating explanation of the social phenomenon of selfishness in the US:

“[The cultural emphasis on the individual] is configured in such a way as to exclude the social connectedness of the commons, the public meeting place where citizens exercise their political obligations to their community and experience a sense of common purpose and group solidarity.  The only place available for us in our current terrain is one that defines us as discrete, isolated individuals who have few loyalties and identities beyond our individual selves and families, and few available activities beyond acquiring and consuming.  We cannot develop communal commitments because we cannot think of ourselves as citizens — as active, involved, caring political beings.”

Working class politics are complicated, particularly with varying races and ethnicities involved.    Here in Mendocino County, we have the remnants of a blue collar working class with all its contradictions, including the fact that there is direct competition between the whites and the Latinos.  In this sector, as elsewhere, racism is often most overt (in expression, anyway) and most prone to violence.  In the case of Latinos, those politics are further complicated by the fact that many really are deeply involved in ganja trade, just as a great many local white people are, where the exploitation is far more opaque,and thus far less easy to solve politically.  So, the questions I’ve raised here are tricky, as they are most everywhere else in the country.

To its credit, Occupy Ukiah has accomplished some impressive feats so far.  It organized one of the largest marches seen in inland Mendo in some years.  I’m all the way in support of stopping the expansion of WalMart.

These things are only a start, however, and an exceedingly modest one at that.  Class politics need to go far, far deeper than simple themes like “Move Your Money” picketing of big banks; it even needs to go well beyond opposing encroachments by evil outside corporations.  Ironically, to borrow a familiar New Age trope, it needs to go deeper within; in other words, it needs to look much more deeply at the class structure where we live.

Will Parrish can be reached at wparrish@riseup.net.

 

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Will Parrish is a freelance investigative journalist based in Northern California.  His web site is www.willparrishreports.com. Follow him on Twitter @willparrishca.

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