We need to look at our communities and ask ourselves whether we want to move forward toward a society and a world in which people are, relatively speaking, equal in terms of their rights and in terms of their social status—or move backward to an era which reminds me of the era before the civil rights movement in which a huge section of our population had significantly fewer political, social, and economic rights.
Economic prosperity in Silicon Valley and San Francisco has created high demand for real estate and a short supply of housing. This has caused rents to skyrocket and displaced much of the working-class population. Lower-income workers, many of whom are immigrants, have been forced to move away from city centers and commute long distances for work. Many families live jammed together in order to pay rent, and many people lose housing entirely. Yet immigrant workers are essential to the American economy. Based on 2018 US Census data, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) estimates that 19.8 million immigrants work in “essential critical infrastructure” categories. These workers meet the health, infrastructure, manufacturing, service, food, safety, and other needs of all Americans. Since the 1990s, David Bacon has been photographing this demographic.
Unions such as UNITE HERE Local 2 have fought back. In San Francisco this union has organized hundreds of workers and led multiple successful strikes against some of the largest corporate hotel chains in the country, winning wage increases to meet the rising cost of living in California. Other attempts at organization have been less successful, as evidenced by the Cal Spas strike in the 1990s in Pomona, California. More than 200 workers went on strike for a month in protest of unfair labor practices by Cal Spas and ultimately lost their jobs. David Bacon’s photographs document the success of mass actions that win, and the high cost workers pay when attempts at organization and job strikes fail.