What’s the difference between White privilege and essential work?
Well, for starters, essential work looks like this:
(No, those field workers are not on Mars. They’re actually working by the light of their cell phones, because this is what the Willamette Valley sky looked like in early September.)
On the other hand, White privilege looks like this:
White privilege is volunteering to harvest grapes for your winery owner friends, once a year on a Saturday morning, on your terms. You have the option not to go if it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, too COVID-y, or too smoky. White privilege is performing this work as a recreational activity, and being provided lunch and wine after only three hours of picking.
By contrast, essential agricultural workers–the vast majority of whom are Brown folks–do this work all day, every day, regardless of how they feel, what the weather’s like or the fire burning a mile or two away that’s not only endangering their lives, but making it extremely difficult to see and breathe.
They plant, weed, prune, harvest and clear for the next crop: they can’t opt out–not if they want to pay their bills and support their families. Their hardship results in my being able to drink wine (and eat fruits and vegetables) whenever I want. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Harvest time can be hot or cold, wet or dry. Comfort-wise, this translates into the potential for heat exhaustion, dehydration and sunburn or ending the day soaking wet and muddy up to your knees. Either way, harvesting grapes full-time is exhausting.
According to Emerson Vineyards Assistant Winemaker Nina Cassidy, many field workers carry two 20-25 lb. buckets of grapes in each hand. They don’t stop to take selfies or arty photos.
In fact, they barely stop to hydrate, eat lunch or use the toilet.
According to a United Farm Workers Facebook post, Samuel (above, wearing a plaid shirt) earns $2.10 per bucket of grapes at a vineyard in Dayton, Oregon. Other winery owners pay contractors by the ton and have no way of knowing what each individual field worker is paid. They may also pay contractors a per-worker hourly rate for pruning or other jobs, but again have no knowledge about how much of that trickles down to individual workers. Sebastian, the vineyard manager at Airlie Winery, is Latino, as is his right-hand man, Guadalupe; Sebastian, in turn, works with winery owner Mary Olson to hire field workers and choose contractors. They’re among the lucky ones: they work for a winery owner committed to workers’ rights and social justice.
While I was picking grapes, eating lunch and enjoying my wine that day, I thought a lot about the glaring contrast between our enjoyment and the experience most essential workers have, compounded this summer by a pandemic and the worst fire season in Oregon’s history. I thought about the 2014 movie Cesar Chavez and how much of that history I still know nothing about. I thought about the hundreds of bottles of Oregon wine we’ve consumed with family and friends since we moved here eight years ago, and how much time and effort went into those bottles.
Even if you take no further action, at the very least, be mindful when you eat and drink, and know how much effort went into making it possible for you to do so.