Wendy’s, What Are You Waiting For?: Calling on the Fast Food Giant to Stand up For Farmworkers May 18, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Human Rights, Immigration, Labor.
Tags: agriculture, anna lappe, christina bronsing, fair food, farm labor, fast food chains, immokalee, immokalee workers, labor, labour, roger hollander, taco bell, wendy's, workers rights
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Who has freckles, pigtails, and is still holding out from joining the Fair Food Program? If you guessed the fresh-faced mascot of Wendy’s, give yourself a gold star. As part of its efforts to improve conditions in the fields, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farmworkers based in Florida, is calling on the fast food giant Wendy’s to step up for farmworkers and their families.
The Coalition has had an impressive wave of wins as many companies — eleven to date — have signed an agreement to improve conditions for farmworkers. Of the top five fast food chains, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Yum! Brands (owners of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC and A&W) have all joined the Fair Food Program. In response to pressure from the Coalition and its allies, the list has grown to include Chipotle, food retailers (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s), and food service companies (BAMCO, Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group). The overwhelming majority of tomato growers now participate in this farmworker-driven commitment through the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents 90 percent of the industry.
By signing on to the agreement, companies must now comply with a code of conduct that includes protections for cases of wage theft, sexual harassment, and forced labor. Companies also agree to pay a small premium for tomatoes — just a penny more per pound. As a result, workers have safer working conditions and have started seeing increases in their paychecks for the first time in more than 30 years.
Think a penny a pound doesn’t sound like much? It adds up. Over $10 million has been paid out through these victories since January 2011. That number will only keep growing as more companies sign on.
Hey, Wendy’s, are you listening?
Wendy’s, of all companies, can afford paying this premium. One of the highest earning fast food chains in the country, Wendy’s comes in at number two behind McDonald’s. Nearly 6,600 restaurants in the U.S. and around the globe afford the company serious market power– influence that can go a long way to shift purchasing practices. Instead of leveraging that power to demand lower prices from suppliers, Wendy’s could be rewarding growers who respect workers’ rights.
Other fast food companies have stepped up, like Taco Bell. The fast food giant was the first company to sign on to the Coalition agreement back in 2005, after four years of pressure and organizing. In its announcement, Taco Bell said:
“As an industry leader, we are pleased to lend our support to and work with the CIW to improve working and pay conditions for farmworkers in the Florida tomato fields… We recognize there is a need for reform… We hope others in the restaurant industry and supermarket retail trade will follow our leadership.” – Emil Brolick, Taco Bell President (2005)
Brolick and Taco Bell showed that signing on to the agreement wouldn’t threaten a company’s bottom line. In fact, Brolick’s tenure is credited with boosting sales and ‘turning things around at Taco Bell. Proof that profits don’t come at the expense of workers’ rights.
Seven years later, Wendy’s is still dragging its feet instead of following Taco Bell’s example — or more accurately Brolick’s own example, since he has now taken over as CEO of Wendy’s.
This week, as Wendy’s convenes its annual shareholders’ meeting in New York City, the Coalition is in town to make sure the company has its priorities straight. On Saturday, May 18th, farmworkers and allies will march from Union Square to nearby Wendy’s locations, reminding shareholders that farmworkers aren’t an abstract budget line item, but hardworking women and men who deserve respect. (And, sure, to give Wendy’s CEO Emil Brolick a dose of déjà vu. He already has some experience with this, after all.)
If you’re in or around New York, show your support: join the march from Union Square this Saturday at 2pm. And if you’re miles from the action: raise your virtual voice and sign the e-petition!
As farmworker and organizer with the CIW, Gerardo Reyes Chávez says, “The change we are seeking is underway–and it is unstoppable. And it is unstoppable not because we say it is — but because there’s people like you taking action.”
Bayer Bee Killer January 31, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Environment.
Tags: bayer, bayer chemicals, bees, food, global food supply, neonicotinoid, roger hollander, toxic chemicals
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Bayer, the global chemical company, is manufacturing a chemical that new evidence shows is killing off bees. The global die-off of bees represents an enormous danger to the planet. 30% of our crops — and 90% of wild plants — rely on bees to thrive. Without bees, our entire global food supply is in serious trouble.
Bayer has paid for biased research that “proves” its chemical isn’t a problem. But now independent scientists in Europe has discovered that Bayer’s chemical is a high risk to bees.
The chances are high that most of us reading this email have bought a Bayer product at least once. It makes everything from Alka-Seltzer to Berocca to flea treatments for pets. Bayer knows that it needs to keep its customers happy. If Bayer realises that its customers are up in the arms about the European research findings that show their chemical is killing bees, it will have to put its chemical from the market.
The dangerous chemical Bayer makes is a neonicotinoid. Neonicotonoids are soaked into seeds, spreading through the plant and killing insects stopping for a snack. These pesticides can easily be replaced by different chemicals which don’t soak so deeply into our crops. But companies like Bayer make a fortune from selling neonicotinoids — so they’ll do everything they can to protect their profit.
It’s not just bees that are hurt by these chemicals. Research on rats found that neonicotinoids may also hurt human health, especially the developing brain. But as with the bees, we don’t know as much as we should about the health hazards, because companies like Bayer spend millions on research which muddies the water with biased studies. For Bayer, people’s health plays a distant second to the company’s huge profits.
Members of the European Parliament are calling for an outright ban on these toxic chemicals. But we don’t know when or if they’ll pass the ban, and Bayer’s global reach threatens bees across the planet. That’s why we need to use our power as citizen-consumers to push Bayer to pull the poison now.
Claiborne and the rest of us
Public Service Europe: Crop pesticides are ‘killing our bees’ says MEP, 25 January, 2012
Natural News: Deception causes honey bees to disappear and threatens crops, 07 January, 2011
EFSA Journal: RSS Conclusion on the peer review of the pesticide risk assessment for bees for the active substance clothianidin 16 January, 2013
Care about Your Food? Then Care about Your Farmworkers Too January 31, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Human Rights, Labor.
Tags: fair food, farm workers, farmworker, farmworker wages, food, food justice, labor, labour, laura-anne minkoff-zern, organic farming, organic farms, organic food, roger hollander, worker rights
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It’s organic. It’s local. But did the workers who picked it have health insurance?
These days, most people involved in buying and advocating for local and organic food say they want to support their farmers. They imagine (Photo: MRader)
the people that grow their vegetables as sweating in the fields, cheerfully smiling as they pull carrots from their own land, which they till until the sun goes down.
The image of the independent and industrious farmer is upheld in places where “alternative” or sustainable food is sold and promoted, such as farmers markets and food stores, which often encourage consumers to “get to know their farmer.” Grocery stores that carry natural, local, and organic foods, such as Whole Foods and food purchasing cooperatives, commonly post large, glossy photographs of local growers.
But who, exactly, is a farmer? Is it the person who owns a farm? The person who sells food at a farmers’ market? Or could a farmer be the immigrant who follows the work from place to place and picks the fruit of the season?
Almost all farms, even small and organic ones, require hired help. In most cases, that consists of immigrant farmworkers who are paid less than a living wage.
People need to ask not only, where does my food come from, but also, who performs the labor to grow this food? For a food system to be truly sustainable, we must prioritize the well-being of workers as well as consumers.
For a food system to be truly sustainable, we must prioritize the well-being of workers as well as consumers.
Who’s behind your food?
Farm labor is one of only a few occupations exempt from most federal and state minimum wages and work-hour limitations. Of the farmworkers who responded to the most recent National Agricultural Workers’ Survey (NAWS), about one-third earned less than $7.25 an hour and only a quarter reported working more than nine months per calendar year. The California Institute for Rural Studies found that one-fourth of farmworkers live below the federal poverty line, and 55 percent are food insecure on average. (An individual or family is considered food insecure when members of a household lack access to enough food for an active, healthy life at all times, according to the USDA.)
In reality, however, farmworker conditions are even worse than those numbers suggest. Much of the research concerning farm labor is based on information gained from formal systems of employment, such as labor contractors. That leaves the majority of farm laborers who work informally, such as daily workers, unaccounted for.
Are conditions better on organic farms? Not as much as you’d think. Entry-level workers on organic farms in California make only 29 cents an hour more than their counterparts on non-organic farms do. That’s still less than a living wage.
And those workers on organic farms are actually less likely to have paid time off, health insurance for themselves and their families, and retirement or pension funds. Certified organic farmers have proven resistant to including labor standards in organic certification, according to a study published in 2006 in the journal Agriculture and Human Values.
Looking beyond the city
Some in the sustainable food movement work with the goal of directly addressing human rights issues in the food system. These groups and individuals make up what many call the “food justice movement.” Yet even in these circles, some organizations seem to have trouble focusing on the rights of farmworkers.
The Student/Farmworker Alliance has worked to bring farmworker injustice into the picture on college campuses.
Why are these workers so hard to see? Maybe it’s because most of our organizations are located in cities and staffed by young people attracted by urban life. Consider a group like Planting Justice, an organization in Oakland, Calif., which describes its work as “democratizing access to affordable, nutritious food.” It does this by “empowering disenfranchised urban residents with the skills, resources, and inspiration to maximize food production, economic opportunities, and environmental sustainability in our neighborhoods.”
Groups such as Planting Justice often work on initiatives to encourage and popularize urban gardening and to increase the availability of fresh food in poor urban neighborhoods. Although these are important efforts to improve the health of often underserved urban residents, they tend to limit the conversation to the urban core. Issues that affect rural places—including the plight of farmworkers—are left out of the discussion.
If the growing food justice movement is to truly confront injustice in the food system, it must address the rural poor as well as the urban poor. The fact that the workers who actually grow and harvest the food we’re talking about are also poor provides a natural opportunity for solidarity and makes this even more important to the movement.
Good news and next steps
Some in the food justice community are starting to work more broadly on issues of farm and food system labor, coordinating with farm, food processing, and restaurant worker unions. These new coalitions include The Food Chain Workers Alliance, The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, The Rural Coalition, and the Student/Farmworker Alliance.
Working together, many groups are finding more power to motivate policy change and raise working standards, increasing the visibility of food worker issues in the mainstream food movement.
The Student/Farmworker Alliance, for example, has played a major role in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Campaign for Fair Food, bringing farmworker injustice into the picture on college campuses. In addition, The Food Chain Workers Alliance is working directly with rural as well as urban food justice groups, bringing labor issues into the conversations of foodies who may previously have thought only about whether their carrots were local and not about whether the people who picked them had health insurance.
By working in coalition, people who are used to advocating for healthier food in urban centers are beginning to learn from rural activists, as well as the other way around. If we are to truly see the creation of a more just food system, then organizations, individuals, and communities that claim sustainable and food justice ideals must start to expand their vision for a food system that is just in both environmental and social terms. That may mean pushing for revised agricultural trade and immigration policy, including stricter labor regulations and higher minimum wages.
Both sustainable food proponents and food justice organizers have shown interest in addressing labor-related injustice. But to truly make that change, those that care about our food system must broaden their views of food sustainability to include the rights and health of all producers and consumers of food.
Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern has spent many years working on farms and with agriculture and food organizations in Guatemala, New York State, and California. She holds a doctorate in geography from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Goucher College in Maryland.
Tags: agribusiness, agriculture, capitalism, food, joanna blythman, nutrition, quinoa, thrid world
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Adventurous eaters liked its slightly bitter taste and the little white curls that formed around the grains. Vegans embraced quinoa as a credibly nutritious substitute for meat. Unusual among grains, quinoa has a high protein content (between 14%-18%), and it contains all those pesky, yet essential, amino acids needed for good health that can prove so elusive to vegetarians who prefer not to pop food supplements.
Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the “miracle grain of the Andes”, a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider’s larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn’t feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarified black, red and “royal” types commanding particularly handsome premiums.
But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.
In fact, the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there. It’s beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting premium foods can damage the producer country’s food security. Feeding our apparently insatiable 365-day-a-year hunger for this luxury vegetable, Peru has also cornered the world market in asparagus. Result? In the arid Ica region where Peruvian asparagus production is concentrated, this thirsty export vegetable has depleted the water resources on which local people depend. NGOs report that asparagus labourers toil in sub-standard conditions and cannot afford to feed their children while fat cat exporters and foreign supermarkets cream off the profits. That’s the pedigree of all those bunches of pricy spears on supermarket shelves.
Soya, a foodstuff beloved of the vegan lobby as an alternative to dairy products, is another problematic import, one that drives environmental destruction [see footnote]. Embarrassingly, for those who portray it as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America, along with cattle ranching, where vast expanses of forest and grassland have been felled to make way for huge plantations.
Three years ago, the pioneering Fife Diet, Europe’s biggest local food-eating project, sowed an experimental crop of quinoa. It failed, and the experiment has not been repeated. But the attempt at least recognised the need to strengthen our own food security by lessening our reliance on imported foods, and looking first and foremost to what can be grown, or reared, on our doorstep.
In this respect, omnivores have it easy. Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods for them to enjoy. However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places. From tofu and tamari to carob and chickpeas, the axis of the vegetarian shopping list is heavily skewed to global.
There are promising initiatives: one enterprising Norfolk company, for instance, has just started marketing UK-grown fava beans (the sort used to make falafel) as a protein-rich alternative to meat. But in the case of quinoa, there’s a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant’s staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon “foodprint”. Viewed through a lens of food security, our current enthusiasm for quinoa looks increasingly misplaced.
• This footnote was appended on 17 January 2013. To clarify: while soya is found in a variety of health products, the majority of production – 97% according to the UN report of 2006 – is used for animal feed.
Farmers Rally at White House to Protest Monsanto’s GMO Empire January 11, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food.
Tags: agri-business, agriculture, food, food democracy, food labeling, genetically engineered, genetically modified, gmo, monsanto, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: this is not a very high-profile issue, but it affects each and every one of us. We all eat food! Under capitalist economic relations, huge amounts of wealth (capital) accumulates, and this creates a kind of unstoppable power that has the capacity to smother small and independent enterprise. The result is that the interests of those who own and control capital trump the interests of the general public. The destruction of our environment and the material destruction caused by endless war are far more dramatic than the contamination of our food supply, but, as we used to say, “we are what we eat.”
As court hears pivotal case for small farmers and organic seed growers, opponents to industrial agriculture speak out
Hundreds of small farmers and advocates for organic seed growers gathered outside the White House Thursday, calling on President Obama and other lawmakers to come to their aid as they continue their fight against Monsanto, one of the world’s largest, most powerful—and to them sinister—industrial agriculture corporations.
(Image: Ecowatch.org) The farmers and citizens assembled demanded the end of Monsanto’s “campaign of intimidation against America’s family farmers” and their relentless push for GMO (or genetically engineered-GE) crops. The rally followed a court hearing earlier in the day in the ongoing and landmark Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al. v. Monsanto case, in which OSGATA and other plaintiffs sued the biotech firm for its continual and aggressive harassment of organic farmers and independent seed growers.
“Family farmers need and deserve the right to farm. We have a right to grow good food and good seed for our families and our communities without the threat of trespass and intimidation,” Jim Gerritsen, an organic potato farmer from Maine and President of OSGATA, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, told the enthusiastic crowd.
Since 1997, Monsanto has sued, or brought to court, more than 844 family farms over “patent infringement” after their GMO seeds spread to nearby farms. The legal battles are more than most small farmers can battle, and Monsanto’s size and financial muscle make it nearly impossible for individual farmers to fight back. Many are forced to settle and submit to Monsanto sanctions.
“We need Court protection so that our families will be able to carry on our farming tradition and help keep America strong,” said Gerritsen.
Those that gathered called for President Obama to fulfill his promise to support the labeling of all GMO products, and also halt pending approval of GE salmon until independent long-term safety tests can be conducted.
“America’s farmers deserve to be protected from unwanted contamination of their crops and the continued harassment by biotech seed giant Monsanto,” said Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots farmer advocacy group and plaintiff in the case.
Additionally, he said, “our current regulatory structure here in the U.S. has failed America’s farmers and consumers. The Obama administration needs to do the right thing to protect our farmers and make sure that new GE crops go through rigorous safety tests,” said Murphy. “It’s time that President Obama live up to his campaign promise to Iowa farmers in 2007 and label genetically engineered foods. It’s the least that he could do.”
And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports:
The protest suggested an uptick in efforts to demand labeling, which was defeated in a California ballot initiative in November. Creve Coeur-based Monsanto spent at least $8 million in an industry-wide effort to sink the California proposition.
Vermont state Sen. David Zuckerman said at the rally that he is leading an effort in his state seeking legislation requiring labeling of genetically modified food.
Organic farmers, who are pressing a lawsuit against Monsanto, often complain that their products are threatened by wind-blown pollen from genetically altered crops.
“We want and demand the right of clean seed not contaminated by a massive biotech company that’s in it for the profit,” Carol Koury, who operates Sow True Seeds in Asheville, N.C., said at the rally.
Complete background on the OSGATA et al v. Monsanto lawsuit is available here.
Canada: Conservatives Putting Your Safety at Risk — Again November 29, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Canada.
Tags: agriculture, Canada, canada government, food inspection, food safety, malcolm allen, Stephen Harper
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You and I both know that the first priority for Canada’s food inspectors should be the health and safety of Canadian families.
But does Stephen Harper agree?
Today, Canadian families woke up to yet another food safety scandal. A leaked memo confirms that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ordered meat inspectors to not enforce health standards for meat going to Canadian consumers. Instead, they were instructed to focus on meat that would be exported.
“Our number 1 priority is to ensure this standard is met with Japan-eligible carcasses. Ensure that non-Japan-eligible carcasses are not inspected for spinal cord/dura-mater, OCD (other carcass defects) and minor ingesta … Ignore them.” (emphasis added)
This double-standard directive was issued in 2008, and then again in 2010 and 2011. It confirms that the Conservatives have been mismanaging food safety for years, endangering the safety of food that Canadians put on their dinner table every day.
We cannot let the Conservatives get away with this shocking neglect. Help us fight back – right now.
Under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, we’ve already faced a fatal listeriosis outbreak and the largest beef recall in Canadian history.
But even now, they aren’t taking this threat seriously. This year alone, they cut $46 million from food safety, forcing inspectors to do more with less.
Help spread the word about the Conservatives’ attack on food safety in Canada.
Let’s pressure this government now – and make sure they start putting our food safety first.
Malcolm Allen, MP Agriculture Critic
Gov. Brown denies farm workers the tools to protect themselves from heat-related death October 1, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
Tags: agribusiness, agriculture, California, farm workers, jerry brown, labor, labour, ufw, workers rights
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On Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown rejected The Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act – authored by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) – that would make it a misdemeanor crime, punishable by jail time and fines, to not provide appropriate water or shade to workers laboring under high heat conditions. The governor also vetoed AB 2346 – The Farm Worker Safety Act – by Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Los Angeles). It would have allowed workers to enforce the state’s heat regulations by suing employers who repeatedly violate the law. The United Farm Workers strongly supported both bills. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez issued the following statement:
“The UFW is appalled at the governor’s decision to deny farm workers the basic legal tools to protect themselves from employers who intentionally put their lives at risk by refusing to provide them with adequate water and shade despite the dangerously high temperatures. By vetoing AB 2676, the governor continues the policy of giving animals more protections than those currently offered to farm workers.
Since California issued regulations in 2005 to keep farm workers from dying of extreme heat, preventable farm worker deaths have continued. State regulators are investigating two possible heat-related farm worker deaths that occurred this summer. There are over 81,500 farms and more than 450,000 farm workers working under a corrupt farm labor contractor system. It’s time the government admits that without adequate enforcement, regulations are ineffective. We are weighing our legal and other options to determine how we better provide the protections farm workers deserve as human beings.”
Outcry as Walmart OK’s Monsanto GM Corn August 4, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Health.
Tags: agricultgure, califoirnia, California, consumer protection, food watch, genetically modified, gm corn, gmo, monsanto, prop 37, proposition 37, roger hollander, wal-mart, walmart
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Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, has confirmed to the Chicago Tribune that despite protests from environment and food-safety advocates, it will not restrict sales of genetically modified corn in its stores.
The corn will not be labelled and consumers will not be notified that the sweet corn they are buying are engineered by agro-giant Monsanto and genetically-altered (GMO stands for genetically modified organism) to resist the toxic impact of being sprayed with chemical pesticides and herbicides.
“A lot of people who were their customers explicitly said we don’t want you to carry this product, and I think it’s unfortunate that they chose not listen to that feedback,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. The consumer group had submitted a petition to Wal-Mart with 463,000 signatures, she said.
Consumer advocates argue that too little research has been done on to be certain of the effects such products can have on those who eat or them, but say certain troubling health trends correspond to the rise of GMO foods in the marketplace. At the least, they argue, such products should be labeled so consumers are aware of what they’re purchasing.
“How would you ever know if there are adverse health effects?” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports. “There has been a doubling of food allergies in this country since 1996. Is it connected to genetically engineered foods? Who knows, when you have no labeling? That is a problem.”
Earlier this year, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and General Mills said they would not carry or use the genetically modified sweet corn.
In California this year, a state referendum is up for a vote that would require all GMO products to be labelled so that consumers are aware if modified ingredients are contained in the products they buy. The chemical pesticide companies and companies like Monsanto are fighting hard against the measure, fearing that if California, the country’s most populous state, passes such a sweeping consumer protection laws other states will likely follow.
The initiative, Proposition 37, will be voted on in November.
Tags: agribusiness, agriculture, betsy butler, cesar chavez, farm workers, farmworker deaths, farmworker safety, farmworker wages, farmworkers, jerry brown, labor, labor conditons, labour, roger hollander, ufw
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According to Assemblymember Betsy Butler, D-Los Angeles, author of the Farmworker Safety Act of 2012, “At least 16 farm workers have died since the state issued emergency regulations related to heat illness in 2005. Since all of the deaths were preventable, it’s clear that the regulations and their enforcement are ineffective.”
Let’s replay that: every year farmworkers are dying from thirst and heat exposure due to inadequate water and shade.
In announcing AB 2346, Butler added: “It is absolutely abhorrent to think that in this day and age, farm workers are not regularly provided with shade and water. These two commodities are essentially free and we all know that no grower would let their crops go without water.”
To rally support, the United Farm Workers union and other advocates will gather in Sacramento this weekend and laborers will speak of toiling thirsty and overheated in the fields.
You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but history shows a long, sorry resistance to treating farmworkers with even the most basic dignities. In July 2010, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill to give farmworkers overtime pay after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week (New York passed such a bill in 2009). This February, after lobbying from Kraft Foods, the American Meat Institute and others, the USDA withdrew a proposed rule requiring companies doing business with the agency to prove that their subcontractors–including growers–are complying with labor laws.
Can you imagine any other profession where such injustices would be allowed? We hear of the sweatshops behind our computers, sneakers and other attire–yet the exploitation of farmworkers has become normalized. Somehow food, so intrinsic to our daily lives, escapes the kind of justice we should take for granted in 2012.
Our ongoing “harvest of shame” is about more than water and shade. It is about toxic pesticide exposures that send farmworkers to the hospital–up to 20,000 are poisoned annually according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is about rock-bottom wages for back-breaking work: more than 60 percent of farmworkers live south of the poverty line. “Hired farmworkers continue to be one of the most economically disadvantaged groups in the United States,” the USDA says, noting, “they are sometimes forced to sleep in their vehicles, in tents, or completely outdoors.”
Farmworkers receive just half the average hourly wage of other private-sector workers, yet their pay represents up to 40 percent of food production costs for “crops such as fruits, vegetables, and nursery products,” according to the USDA.
The dirty big secret of our food is that highly exploited labor is a major cost (particularly in organic farming), and even well-meaning growers fight to keep their costs down. If food prices get too high, consumers howl for price relief. Something has to give.
This Cesar Chavez Day, let’s renew a national conversation about justice and fairness for America’s roughly one million farmworkers. Here’s a start: in the 2012 Farm Bill coming before Congress this summer, let’s create an income and health support fund for farmworkers–and a Farmworkers’ Bill of Rights. Currently, taxpayers subsidize agribusiness to the tune of roughly $15 billion a year–most of it benefiting large-scale production of additives for fast food and fuels that deplete our health and the environment. Let’s redirect some of that money to prevent severe farmworker poverty, chronic disease and premature deaths.
Why spend taxpayer dollars to make sure farmworkers get basic justice? We’re already paying the bill every day for uninsured farm laborers who end up in emergency rooms due to acute and chronic pesticide exposures or heat exhaustion; and we’re already paying the bill for impoverished underpaid farmworkers who need welfare and other supports just to survive. We can pay now to prevent farmworker suffering, or pay later for the inevitable health and economic emergencies.
Farmworkers are often undocumented and vulnerable–but not powerless. They’ve won some impressive battles recently, with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers extracting better pay from Taco Bell and Trader Joe’s. Like Cesar Chavez’ great boycotts of the early 1970s, these campaigns organized farmworkers and consumers in common cause.
It’s time for consumers and policymakers to demand an end to the sweatshops hiding behind our dinner plates. It’s not just one company or a few bad apple growers–it’s our whole economy and policy of “cheap food,” which has cost many farmworkers an arm and a leg.
Cesar Chavez: A True American Hero March 31, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
Tags: agriculture, boycott, cesar chavez, child labor, dick meister, farm workers, grape boycott, history, immigrant labor, labor, labor organizing, labour, non violence, roger hollander, ufw, union rights, unions
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Cesar Chavez. (Photo: Wikimedia)
Saturday, 31 March 2012 09:22
Dick Meister, Dick Meister’s Blog | Op-Ed
I hope we can all pause and reflect on the extraordinary life of a true American hero today (March 31). It’s Cesar Chavez Day, proclaimed by President Obama and observed throughout the country on the 85th birth date of the late founder of the United Farm Workers union. It’s an official state holiday in California, Texas and Colorado.
As President Obama noted, Chavez was a leader in launching “one of our nation’s most inspiring movements.” He taught us, Obama added, “that social justice takes action, selflessness and commitment. As we face the challenges of the day, let us do so with the hope and determination of Cesar Chavez.”
Like another American hero, Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez inspired and energized millions of people worldwide to seek and win basic human rights that had long been denied them, and inspired millions of others to join the struggle.
Certainly there are few people in any field more deserving of special attention, certainly no one I’ve met in more than a half-century of labor reporting.
I first met Cesar Chavez when I was covering labor for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was on a hot summer night in 1965 in the little San Joaquin Valley town of Delano, California. Chavez, shining black hair trailing across his forehead, wearing a green plaid shirt that had become almost a uniform, sat behind a makeshift desk topped with bright red Formica.
“Si se puede,” he said repeatedly to me, a highly skeptical reporter, as we talked deep into the early morning hours there in the cluttered shack that served as headquarters for him and the others who were trying to create an effective farm workers union.
“Si se puede! – it can be done!”
But I would not be swayed. Too many others, over too many years, had tried and failed to win for farm workers the union rights they absolutely had to have if they were to escape the severe economic and social deprivation inflicted on them by their grower employers.
The Industrial Workers of the World who stormed across western fields early in the 20th century, the Communists who followed, the socialists, the AFL and CIO organizers – all their efforts had collapsed under the relentless pressure of growers and their powerful political allies.
I was certain this effort would be no different. I was wrong. I had not accounted for the tactical brilliance, creativity, courage and just plain stubbornness of Cesar Chavez, a sad-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken man who talked of militancy in calm, measured tones, a gentle and incredibly patient man who hid great strategic talent behind shy smiles and an attitude of utter candor.
Chavez grasped the essential fact that farm workers had to organize themselves. Outside organizers, however well intentioned, could not do it. Chavez, a farm worker himself, carefully put together a grass-roots organization that enabled the workers to form their own union, which then sought out – and won – widespread support from influential outsiders.
The key weapon of the organization, newly proclaimed the United Farm Workers, or UFW, was the boycott. It was so effective between 1968 and 1975 that 12 percent of the country’s adult population – that’s 17 million people – quit buying table grapes.
The UFW’s grape boycott and others against wineries and lettuce growers won the first farm union contracts in history in 1970. That led to enactment five years later of the California law – also a first – that requires growers to bargain collectively with workers who vote for unionization. And that led to substantial improvements in the pay, benefits, working conditions and general status of the state’s farm workers. Similar laws, with similar results, have now been enacted elsewhere.
The struggle that finally led to victory was extremely difficult for the impoverished workers, and Chavez risked his health – if not his life – to provide them extreme examples of the sacrifices necessary for victory. Most notably, he engaged in lengthy, highly publicized fasts that helped rally the public to the farm workers’ cause and that may very well have contributed to his untimely death in 1993 at age 66.
Fasts, boycotts. It’s no coincidence that those were the principal tools of Mohandas Gandhi, for Chavez drew much of his inspiration from the Hindu leader. Like Gandhi and another of his models, Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez fervently believed in the tactics of non-violence. Like them, he showed the world how profoundly effective they can be in seeking justice from even the most powerful opponents.
“We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons,” Chavez explained.
His iconic position has been questioned recently by outsiders claiming Chavez acted as a dictator in his last years as head of the UFW. But what the UFW accomplished under his leadership, and how the union accomplished it, will never be forgotten – not by the millions of social activists who have been inspired and energized by the farm workers’ struggle, nor by the workers themselves.
Chavez deservedly remains, and undoubtedly will always remain, an American icon who led the way to winning important legal rights for farm workers. But more than union contracts, and more than laws, farm workers now have what Cesar Chavez insisted was needed above all else. That, as he told me so many years ago, “is to have the workers truly believe and understand and know that they are free, that they are free men and women, that they are free to stand up and fight for their rights.”
Freedom. No leader has ever left a greater legacy. But the struggle continues. Despite the UFW victories, farm workers are in great need of fully exercising the rights won under Chavez’ leadership. They need to reverse what has been a decline in the UFW’s fortunes in recent years, caused in part by lax enforcement of the laws that granted farm workers union rights.
Many farm workers are still mired in poverty, their pay and working and living conditions a national disgrace. They average less than $10,000 a year and have few – if any – fringe benefits. They suffer seasonal unemployment.
Job security is rare, as many of the workers are desperately poor immigrants from Mexico or Central America who must take whatever is offered or be replaced by other desperately poor workers from the endless stream of immigrants. Child labor is rampant.
Most hiring and firing is done at the whim of employers, many of them wealthy corporate growers or labor contractors who unilaterally set pay and working conditions and otherwise act arbitrarily.
Workers are often exposed to dangerous pesticides and other serious health and safety hazards that make farm work one of the country’s most dangerous occupations. They often even lack such on-the-job amenities as fresh drinking water and field toilets, and almost invariably are forced to live in overcrowded, seriously substandard housing.
Cesar Chavez Day should remind us of the continuing need to take forceful legal steps and other action in behalf of farm workers – to help them overcome their wretched conditions and finally provide a decent life for all those who do the hard, dirty and dangerous work that puts fruit and vegetables on our tables.
We need, in short, to carry on what Cesar Chavez began. We could pay no greater homage to his memory.
Copyright © 2012 Dick Meister
This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.