Landscapes and Labor in California By: Joshua Mandell
October 7, 2014
“What It’s Like to Live on Low Pay in a Land of Plenty.” Narrated by Laura Sydell. Morning Edition. NPR.
This NPR Morning Edition piece is part of a series about the effects of income inequality on the San Francisco Bay Area. This installment focuses on the disparities that exist within Silicon Valley offices. The narrator interviews Jose Cardenas, a young security guard at Google, about his experiences with income inequality.
Cardenas works for a security contractor, so he cannot enjoy many of the well-known perks that Google offers its employees. He can get lunch at Google's free buffet, but he cannot take food home like a regular employee. With a maximum monthly income around $1,400 and no benefits, Cardenas and his daughter could use the extra food; he sometimes has to visit a community food pantry after work.
Santa Clara County has a median household income of $91,000 and a high cost of living. But 38% of jobs created in Silicon Valley in 2012 paid $18 an hour— not enough to support a family there. This piece makes listeners and online readers aware of the difficult circumstances that low-wage laborers are facing in the heart of California's lucrative technology industry.
Mitchell, Don. The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape. (Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 1-109.
In the opening chapters of The Lie of the Land, Mitchell explores the concept of "landscape" in California. He describes the relationship between how the state's landscapes have been perceived in the imagination, and the labor that actually created them. He argues that social structures in California have attempted to alienate workers from their labor and "naturalize" capitalism and the power of the elite (2,7).
In Chapter 1, Mitchell presents scenes from John Steinbeck's classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, to illustrate the disparity between the "California Dream" and the harsh reality that makes this vision possible. Mitchell argues that the perception of the California landscape as "morally neutral" is false; the landscape is both beautiful and damned, and "beautiful because it is damned" by the struggles of the people who make it (17).
Chapter 2 tells the story of the 1913 Wheatland Riot, focusing on how the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the California Commission of Immigration and Housing (CCIH) responded to it. CCIH leaders believed that the migrant workers of IWW were biologically unfit, and saw strikes and riots as a Freudian "inferiority compensation." (46-51). After the riot, CCIH brought about improved conditions at the labor camps, reshaping the landscape to exercise "benevolent repression" (57).
In Chapter 3, Mitchell explains how IWW sought to control space through "subversive mobility" and free speech (66). IWW was not a union but a mobile movement that appeared wherever poor industrial conditions existed (65). It exercised power through threats and acts of sabotage (70-73). However, the U.S. government successfully repressed the movement during the First World War (74-82).
In Chapter 4 examines the racialization of labor after the IWW's decline. When the number of white migrant laborers in California decreased during the war, growers brought Mexican and Asian workers to their farms. Mexican workers were often held captive and threatened with violence (90). Growers and government officials both believed that Mexicans, like IWW workers, were biologically inferior; the former saw them a stupid and docile (91), the latter believed they were "prone to being stirred up by agitators" (102). Mitchell describes the objectification of Mexican bodies that "made them represent only labor power" (109).
While California is still known for its agricultural riches, Silicon Valley is now California's most famous "land of plenty." The technologies invented there have transformed daily life and made thousands of people wildly rich. Recent films have presented Silicon Valley as a place of limitless opportunities to acquire wealth, and sometimes as a futuristic utopia. Low-wage workers like Jose Cardenas are absent from this vision, even though their labor is essential to the building and maintenance of the Silicon Valley landscape. This is quite similar to the formation of landscape that Mitchell describes in The Lie of the Land. Americans in the early 20th century were fascinated by California's verdant and fruitful landscapes, but ignored the migrant workers who created it with their labor (14). What's more, these workers were considered a burden to society despite their essential contributions of labor (104). As Kate and Karen noted last week, this attitude towards foreign workers persists in California today. Clearly, the disassociation of landscapes from labor is still a fundamental process of capitalism in California, from grape farms to the Googleplex.
Mitchell's theories about landscape are broadly applicable. Can we apply them to the landscapes of elite universities like Yale?
Mitchell describes California fruits and vegetables as "their own advertisements of the California Dream as reality" (19). Do you think Silicon Valley technology carries a similar message throughout the world?
Since low-wage workers are generally not involved with most aspects of producing Silicon Valley technology, is their labor even less visible than that of the migrant farm workers century ago? Is this still a concern when labor conditions have improved so greatly?
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