The Central Valley California: “The Beautiful and the Damned”

This is a excerpt from my manuscript on 2004/2005 Intermodal trucker organizing in the Stockton area. It is still rough. Below are the sections on the Central Valley. I’m really interested in the question of how might we charactorize a place like the Central Valley. The stats on poverty in the area- making it one of the most impoverished region in the US- are shocking. You can read an earlier draft of the introduction in one of the older posts below.

2. Gritty Realities: Intermodal Truckers in the Central Valley


“We’re getting paid the same as 10 years ago, but everything else keeps going up. Insurance goes up. Everything goes up. And now gas. We make no money”

 -Jatinder Singh, Oakland port trucker



            What struck me hardest in organizing with the truckers in Stockton was the convinced resolution of the truckers of the need to fight their companies. Even the reluctant or scared drivers would not deny the reality of the conditions they faced. It didn’t seem anything like what might be called the trade union consciousness that urban workers I had previously organized with might develop. Perhaps owning, or at least mortgaging, their own trucks gave them a greater attachment to the industry as would any skilled worker who owned the tools that their employer depended upon. I would describe it as more of a gritty class consciousness than anything else, a consciousness that understood the daily necessity of the trucking companies to squeeze the truckers for profit and to maintain their competitiveness in relation to the logistics brokers.


            The city of Stockton could be described as gritty as well. With a poverty rate comparable to the similarly sized Birmingham, Alabama[1] of the deep South and sharing with nearby Modesto a listing in the top five US cities for auto theft.[2] Though Stockton is a far cry from the metropolitan centers of wealth in the Bay Area, less than two hours away, the Stockton Intermodal truckers move the products and goods to the warehouses that supply the Bay Area’s consumer markets. More than anything I was reminded of Franz Fanon’s discussion in The Wretched of the Earth of the divide between the consciousness of the privileged urban proletariat, who rubbed shoulders with the elites, in relation to the rural population excluded from the wealth and culture of the metropolitan centers.[3] While Fanon provides us with an examination of the psyche and consciousness of the dominated and colonized, which may lend its use to a region such as the Central Valley, a more material explanation is needed in characterizing the political economy of the region, which is clearly not colonial. Here I think that most useful analysis would be Immanuel Wallerstein’s  concept of core and periphery production processes which creates a “constant flow of surplus-value from the producers of peripheral products to the producers of core-like products.”[4] This is a situation which allows what Richard Walker describes in the Central Valley as akin to the “primitive accumulation” of Adam Smith.[5] Just as the global south relates to the north, or the southern states of the US relate to the industry of the Midwest, so does the Central Valley to the metropolitan areas of the Bay Area and Los Angeles- as the periphery feeding wealth of labor and resources into the core.


Intermodal Trucking: Contingent Labor in a Global Economy

            Intermodal truckers working out of port and rail yards are models of itinerant workers in the global economy. They are a key link in the global supply line of a “just in time” economy, whereby ships, Intermodal yards and trucks have become the mobile warehouses of large corporations. The push towards this economy is driven primarily by large retailers such as Costco, IKEA, Target and Wal-Mart moving imported and shipped goods from the nation’s ports to warehouses and distribution centers in the interior of the country.[6] Working without the benefits of a formal employment relationship, the truckers are classified by the trucking companies not as workers, but as “independent contractors.” They work on an on-call basis, receiving a piece rate and taking on the risks of employers by owning their truck while paying fluctuating fuel prices and maintenance costs out of pocket.


            The industry is also structured in several layers through a contractor system. The starting point in the chain begins with customers ranging from small businesses, warehouses, processing plants or increasingly large retailers who need containers moved over long distances. These customers sub-contract this task through Intermodal logistics firms who organize and manage the movement of the containers. In port trucking these firms are referred to as “shippers” and are large, international firms moving container ships across the globe. In Intermodal rail these firms are referred to as “brokers,” whom are sometimes firms or sometimes individual agents working on a commission basis. Large retailers or manufacturers will either develop their own logistics operations in the case of Wal-Mart, create subsidiary logistical firms or exclusively contract with a single logistics firm. The shippers and logistics firms then coordinate container movement with rail shippers and arrange the sub-contracting of trucking firms who dispatch the individual container movements to independent contractor truckers who are also referred to as ‘owner-operators.’




            Outlining this shift in the economy and the advent of what is known as the ‘logistics revolution’ in the movement of goods and production is Edna Bonacich’s piece “Pulling the Plug: Labor and the Global Supply Chain.” Here she describes the paradigm shift in the methods of supply chain management, whereby firms manage the flow of the goods from the producer to the consumer. This shift is rooted in the decline of the mass standardization of goods, known as the Fordist mode of production, and the emergence of what is called flexible specialization, aiming to directly link production and supply, which is referred to as the Post-Fordist model of production. This mode of production aims to produce only those goods that consumers actually purchase, specialize them directly to the needs of consumer markets and attempts to overcome problems of overproduction inherent in a market economy. She argues that while many of the shifts in supply management are ostensibly for the purpose of increasing efficiency, the use of “‘flexible’ employee relations, such as piece rate, independent contracting, and part-time and temporary status for their workers” reflects the ultimate goal of firms to reduce labor costs and stem unionization. She further frames this shift within the development of what is referred to as the global sweatshop and the ‘race to the bottom’ of globalization. For Bonacich, “of all the global trade related logistics workers, port truckers are the most oppressed”[7] with rail Intermodal truckers facing largely similar conditions.


            The shift within the US economy towards flexible specialization also has to be seen as integrally linked to a shift from an industrial and producing economy to a largely service based economy relying on imported goods within the last several decades.[8] This increasingly makes Intermodal trucking a key link in the logistics supply chain and in the growing movement of goods imported into the US economy. As discussed in trade journal Inbound Logistics, “The U.S. logistics industry is in the midst of a growth spurt, as we shift from a producing economy to an importing economy. This adjustment means import containers will continue to come into the country, regardless of whether oil hits $100 per barrel or we experience a ‘flat’ economy.”[9]


            The turn towards these conditions for Intermodal truckers began with the introduction of deregulation in the trucking industry by the passing of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which lowered barriers to entry within the industry and eliminated restrictions on carriers, the rates they could charge, the type of freight that they could carry and destinations to which they could deliver.[10] Consequently this worked to steadily erode the influence of unions, largely the Teamsters, within port and rail Intermodal trucking. “By 1985 only 28 percent of [port] truckers were organized, down from 60 percent in the 1970’s … And since 1985 the competitive squeeze has lowered rates and wages on the least powerful competitors, [Intermodal] truckers.”[11] No specific statistics could be found on rates of unionization among Intermodal rail truckers prior or following deregulation, but I believe it can be assumed to be a largely similar trajectory to that of port Intermodal truckers.


            But this network of transportation, especially within California, has grown overstretched and fragile. West coast port traffic has exploded as well with “the number of trailers and containers on rail cars nationwide grew by more than 60 percent between 1990 and 2003.”[12] Jennifer Bronson, an employee of shipping company APL said “[w]ith everything so inter-dependant, any little wrinkle can screw up the entire chain.”[13] And this is exactly what happened in the ‘summer 2004 meltdown’ where a combination of labor shortages and faulty projections by the railroads caused the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s main entry point for goods based in Asia, to come to a halt. Estimates of effects on the economy for the “11 days of idling ships and trucks, cargo back-ups and empty railroad tracks was $70 billion.”[14]


            Similar to the conditions of the Intermodal truckers working out of the rail yards of Stockton are the approximately 10,000 Intermodal port truckers working out of the bustling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. One of these truckers in the Los Angeles area for over 25 years is Chicho, who fled Nicaragua in the 1980’s to escape the violent political conflict that engulfed the country. Similar to the fate of many Intermodal trucker’s daily struggle to earn a living in a precarious piece rate system, a press account describes his experience:


If port truckers like Chicho … are lucky, they can squeeze in two or three loads a day, at anywhere from $70 to $180 each, depending on the shipper and the route. … At most, a driver earns about $300 a day, including the fee for returning the empty container. Working 50 weeks a year, he can gross close to $80,000. But since drivers work as independent contractors – or “independent owner-operators” according to industry euphemism – they pay their own fees, taxes, insurance and fuel. These expenses, combined with monthly payments on that $69,000 truck, easily whittle a trucker’s salary down to around $30,000.[15]


Central Valley Stockton: “The Beautiful and the Damned”

            The Intermodal truckers of this story work in the rail yards just south of the city of Stockton, one of the major urban areas of the San Joaquin Valley and part of California’s Greater Central Valley. “California- the Beautiful and the Damned” was a slogan of 1910’s IWW organizers working among the farm laborers of the Central Valley- and it still speaks to today’s realities in describing the regions contrasting abundance of wealth and massive disparities.[16] The San Joaquin Valley stands unique in both the billions of dollars worth of crops produced annually in one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, and also as one of the most economically depressed regions of the United States. Dominated by a small elite of land owners, the region has always relied upon a massive low-wage labor force composed of successive waves of immigrant groups.[17]


            Geographically defined, the San Joaquin Valley is the southern region of the Great Central Valley of California stretching from Mt. Shasta in the north to the Tehachapis of the south, at 450 miles long and averaging 50 miles wide through the center of California.[18] The San Joaquin Valley is defined as encompassing the eight counties of Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera and Tulare, covering a land mass of 27,280 miles and with a population of 3.3 million at 10% of California’s population.[19]


                Important to understanding the San Joaquin Valley region is the role of the dominant industry of agriculture and by all accounts the industry is framed by “the glaring disparity between the bounty of the agricultural industry and the conditions and wages of its workers [which] remains as painfully evident as it has been for the past hundred years”[20] Part of “the most prosperous agricultural region in of the advanced industrial nations”[21] the San Joaquin Valley produced over $15 billion worth of agricultural products in 2002, which averaged at about half the state’s $30 billion total agricultural output.[22] In contrast, the mean wage in the agricultural industry averaged between the northern and southern counties of the San Joaquin Valley is $8.24 with an annual income of $17,155 and stands at roughly 13% of the regions workforce.[23] Throughout California the shifting workforce of 200,000 to 250,000 field workers as a whole is composed of up to 80% undocumented workers largely from Mexico, though a recently growing one-fourth originate from Miztecan indigenous communities in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Also present are thousands of refugee population Southeast Asians, including Vietnamese, Hmong, and Cambodians.[24] Similar to Intermodal trucking, the workforce is managed predominantly through a contractor system of intermediaries working on behalf of the growers[25] and has maintained “flexible production before flexibility became a buzz word of the New Economy.”[26]


            In a massive study produced by the Congressional Research Service, which is the public policy research arm of Congress and an agency within the Library of Congress, the region of San Joaquin Valley is demographically analyzed and compared to another, though well known, impoverished region of the US: Central Appalachia. While the greater Appalachia has improved as a region over a period of four decades of federal intervention, the report lays the San Joaquin Valley region in such stark contrast that an at length quotation of the summary is helpful:


In 2000, the SJV [San Joaquin Valley] … had substantially higher rates of poverty than California or the United States. Poverty rates were also significantly higher in the SJV than in the ARC region [Appalachia Regional Commission, the area spanning several states designated by the federal government for economic development of the Appalachia region], although the rate is somewhat lower than that of the Central Appalachian subregion [the most impoverished core area of Appalachia]. Unemployment rates in the SJV were higher in California or the United States and the ARC area. Per capita income and average family income were higher in the SJV than in Central Appalachia, but per capita income in the SJV was lower than in the ARC region as a whole. SJV households also had higher rates of public assistance income than did Central Appalachian households.[27]


            This availability of low cost labor and land in the area of San Joaquin County has also shaped the region to serving a growing role as the hub of distribution operations for major retailers and warehouses that were once located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Notably the same major retail corporations leading the shift in the economy towards the supply chain management model- Costco, IKEA, Target and Wal-Mart- all have major warehouses in the San Joaquin County or the broader San Joaquin Valley area.  Statistically we can see this shift where between 1990 and 2004 in San Joaquin County, “[t]ransportation and warehousing employment increased by 137 percent, from 5,100 to 12,100 jobs, led by a 1,367 percent increase in warehousing and storage from 300 to 4,400 jobs.”[28] In sum the region of San Joaquin Valley lies at the intersection of the forces in the global economy and its sweatshop inducing race to the bottom in wages and conditions; and this is where this narrative takes place.

[1] According to the 2000 Census estimates Stockton has a population of 243,771 with 56,783 individuals living below the poverty line at a rate of 23.9% and in comparison Birmingham, Alabama estimated population is at 242,820 with 58,339 individuals living below the poverty line at a rate of 24.7%. Available at

[2] Silicon Valley/ San Jose Business Journal, November 15, 2004.

[3] Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963).

[4] Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis; An Introduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), p. 28. For a broad introduction to Wallerstein’s concepts of the core and periphery see Chapter 2 ‘The Modern World-System as a Capitalist World-Economy,’ pp. 23-41.

[5] Richard A. Walker, The Conquest of Bread; 150 Years of Agribusiness in California (New York: The New Press, 2004), p. 5.

[6] Mark Brenner, “As Cargo Chains Grow, So Does Workers’ Leverage,” Labor Notes, February 2008.

[7] Edna Bonacich, “Pulling the Plug: Labor and the Global Supply Chain” New Labor Forum, Summer 2003, Vol. 12, Iss. 2.

[8] The advent of this shift is partly described in Daniel Bell, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting” in Social Theory; Continuity and Confrontation, Ed. Roberta Garner (Orchard Park, New York: Broadview Press, 2000). Also informative is the discussion of the rise of the low-wage service sector with the decline of manufacturing jobs in Robert Brenner, “The Economies of Global Turbulence: A Special Report on the World Economy, 1950-98” New Left Review 299, May-June 1998, pp. 1-265.

[9] Curtis Spencer, “Port Diversion Strategy: Consistency Beats Velocity” Inbound Logistics, October 2006.

[10] Kenneth D. Boyer, “Deregulation of the Trucking Sector: Specialization, Concentration, Entry, and Financial Distress” Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 59, No. 3 (January 1993), pp. 481-495.

[11] Tom Price, “More Port Trucker Action Back East” The Dispatcher, June 2004.

[12] Patrick May, “Red-Hot Rails” San Jose Mercury News, February 25, 2007.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Judith Lewis, “Heavy Load,” LA Weekly, July 15, 2007.

[16] Walker, The Conquest of Bread, p. 11.

[17] Coining it as a system of agrarian capitalism, Richard A. Walker, gives the most recent and up to date analysis of agribusiness in the region. Included are excellent discussions on the productivity and wealth produced by the extractive industrial agricultural industry and a succinct overview of California farm labor struggles in The Conquest of Bread.

[18] Great Valley Center, “The State of Great Central Valley of California; Assessing the Region Via Indicators, The Economy 1999-2004” (Modesto, CA: Great Valley Center, 2005).

[19] Tadlock Cowan, “California’s San Joaquin Valley: A Region in Transition,” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Services/Library of Congress, 2005). Available at:

[20] Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold,  201.

[21] Walker, The Conquest of Bread, 1.

[22] Great Valley Center, “The State of Great Central Valley of California.”

[23] Ibid. It bears mention that these figures include skilled and supervisory positions which skew the average upwards and that the southern counties of the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera and Tulare) have a greater concentration of agriculture, lower wages and higher indicators of economic distress.

[24] Walker, The Conquest of Bread, 74.

[25] Farm labor activist and scholar Ernesto Galarza’s work provides an in depth elaboration of the contractor system and agribusiness generally. Though dated, many of the basic conditions remain largely the same. See Farm Workers and Agri-business in California 1947-1960 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977).

[26] Ibid, p. 10.

[27] Cowan, “California’s San Joaquin Valley: A Region in Transition.”

[28] Great Valley Center, “Selected San Joaquin Valley Regional Statistics,” (Modesto, CA: Great Valley Center, 2006).






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