Oxnard, Calif. — In fields knee-high with strawberry plants, clusters of workers' backs are turned up toward the warm spring sun. They splash a pink, blue, and white patchwork onto the lavish green field.
The bent backs - occasionally bobbing - suggest at a glance that most Americans, perhaps, couldn't last out the day at this work. These are farm laborers, who have played a significant part in the success of California's mammoth agriculture industry.
The history of the farmworker in California - especially during the 1960s and '70s and the rise of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) - has been marked by confrontation and controversy. But changes are taking place in the fields that may alter the nature of farm labor.
The most significant change: More major growers are bucking the historical trend of hiring casual, seasonal labor by improving salaries and benefits to cultivate stable, skilled, and legal work forces.
The change results from a number of factors, not the least of which has been the UFW's ability to organize workers. Another key factor has been the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Act, passed in 1975. This act set up the nation's only Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which growers have consistently decried as pro-labor.
But growers have also upgraded life on the farm as an investment in efficiency. They do it because it pays, says Jack Lloyd, manager of a harvesting cooperative here in Ventura County and a pioneer in using more permanent, stable farm labor.
In 1964, the last year of the ''bracero'' guestworker program, the average lemon picker for Coastal Growers Association here clipped 3.4 boxes per hour. Now the average is 9.8 boxes an hour. Part of the difference lies in better tools and less frequent harvesting. But the real difference, according to Mr. Lloyd, is the crew's professionalism.
The braceros were casual, inexperienced laborers. The pickers now clipping quietly away inside the lemon tree's branches have, most of them, worked here many seasons.
''They're professionals,'' says Trino Llamas, a crew foreman, as he travels around the grove checking off the bins each man fills for his piece-rate pay. These pickers have paid vacations, seniority rights, off-the-job insurance, pension plans for retirement at 62, and they are thoroughly checked for legal status. They earn an average of $7.51 an hour, a figure to go up 8 percent this month.
The shift toward developing more professional farm labor ''has been going on more and more,'' says Howard Rosenberg, a labor management specialist with the University of California's Cooperative Extension.
It is the big companies, he notes, especially those with ties to other industries, that are moving first to upgrade the level of farm labor.
Some, like Tenneco West Inc., in Bakersfield, have initiated quality circles to improve efficiency in the field. Others have planted unprofitable crops, Mr. Rosenberg says, in order to keep their employment levels up.
In places, this sophistication has begun to filter down to smaller companies, too. Edward Agundez, a farm adviser with the cooperative extension in the Imperial Valley, says that his mother, a farm worker, has an employee handbook in Spanish now nearly everywhere she works, whether the grower is under union contract or not.
''From my family's experience,'' he says, ''it (farm labor) has come a long way.''
Still, these changes are coming slowly and unevenly.
In areas like the Imperial Valley, Ventura County, and Salinas Valley, where the United Farm Workers have been able to set the standards for wages and conditions, there has been significant improvement. But taking the state as a whole, Richard Mines, an agricultural economist who has formally interviewed several hundred farmworkers around the state and talked to perhaps 1,000, is skeptical that farmworkers overall are in fact better off than when Cesar Chavez formed the UFW, well over a decade ago.
Statewide wage levels for farmworkers haven't changed much in comparison to manufacturing wages, according to the Employment Development Department in Sacramento.
In northern San Diego County, there are still migrant workers sleeping in their clothes in the open air.
These young Mexicans don't often displace Americans from their jobs, Mr. Mines says, but they do displace more settled Mexicans who have begun to reach for an American standard of living.
If there is one factor accounting for the UFW's failure to strengthen its profile in agriculture and make better working conditions more widespread, it is the glut of undocumented workers coming across the Mexican border. The most common estimate is that 10 percent of the farm work force is under UFW contract. The union claims a third of the work force over the course of a year.
Observers on both sides of the issue point up how difficult it has been for the union to organize the ''indocumentados.''
''In history,'' says Lloyd, ''no one has ever organized something that was in inexhaustible supply.''
Because of this glut of cheap and willing workers, labor contractors have lured away nearly a quarter of the growers once in Lloyd's harvesting cooperative. These growers thus duck the association's union contract and revert to hiring more casual labor.
In the Imperial Valley, next to the Mexican border, the union had 6,000 members in 1978. Now they have perhaps 500, according to Ron Hull, manager of Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association. The union held a strike in 1979, and the growers there held out and broke it.
Internal squabbles also have hobbled the union. Most of the controversy centers on the union's founder and president, Cesar Chavez. Labor historian Irving Bernstein articulates a widespread judgment when he describes Mr. Chavez as ''an extraordinary organizer and, as far as I can see, a miserable administrator.''
Chavez fired nine elected union representatives in 1981 for not doing their jobs. They had attempted to put up a set of candidates to the union's executive board. Complaints about sluggish union handling of medical plan claims by members were common a couple of years ago, and were at least partly responsible for the schism in the union leadership.
A federal judge ruled that Chavez had surpassed his authority in dismissing the dissidents, as they had been directly elected by union members. Chavez has countersued for libel.
In the meantime, the UFW is now trying to organize packing sheds. The union is looking for new leverage, spokesmen say, over growers who use the packing houses that are slipping out of their union contracts.
Despite these troubles, the union's influence is still felt. ''As long as Cesar Chavez is involved, they have the potential to raise the consciousness of a lot of workers,'' says Ron Hull, manager of Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.