jump to navigation

Migrant Workers and America’s Harvest of Shame August 2, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Labor, Race.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

 

Roger’s note: I participated in the Cesar Chavez lead farmworkers struggle in California in the late 1960s, and it is more than disheartening to know that fifty years later things have not improved.  But why am I not surprised?  Under capitalist economic relations, things always get worse, with only occasional temporary mitigation that results from intense labor organizing.  That exploitation and degrading working conditions are rife in the realm of harvesting the very food we eat is a tribute to the dehumanizing world of capitalism we inhabit.  Big agri-business and the whores (with apologies to honest sex trade workers for the use of the term) in all three branches of government that are responsible for this disgrace are criminals by any logical definition of the term.

The great reporter Edward R. Murrow titled his 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame on the merciless exploitation of the migrant farmworkers by the large growers and their local government allies. Over fifty years later, it is still the harvest of shame for nearly two million migrant farmworkers who follow the seasons and the crops to harvest our fruits and vegetables.

(Photo: FLOC)

As a student I went through migrant farmworker camps and fields and wrote about the abysmally low pay, toxic, unsafe working conditions, contaminated water, housing hovels and the complete absence of any legal rights.

It is a perversely inverted society when the people who do the backbreaking work to harvest one of the necessities of life are underpaid, underinsured, under-protected and under-respected while the Chicago commodity brokers – where the white collar gamblers sit in air-conditioned spaces and speculate on futures in foodstuffs’ prices – are quite well off, to put it modestly.

It probably won’t surprise you that the grapes, peaches, watermelons, strawberries, apricots and lettuce that you’re eating this week are brought to you from the fields by the descendants of the early migrant workers. Their plight is not that much better, except for the very few working under a real union contract.

Start with the exclusion of farmworkers from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Then go to the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which is aimed at protecting farmworkers and their families from pesticides but is outdated, weak and poorly enforced.

Continue on to the unyielding local power of growers and their campaign-cash indentured local, state and Congressional lawmakers. The recent shocking description of the tomato workers in central Florida in Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, shows how close defenseless migrant workers can come to involuntary servitude.

In a recent television interview, featuring Baldemar Velasquez – a vigorous farm worker organizer – Bill Moyers summarized the period since Harvest of Shame: “Believe it or not, more than fifty years later, the life of a migrant laborer is still an ordeal. And not just for adults. Perhaps as many as half a million children, some as young as seven years old, are out in the fields and orchards working nine to ten hour days under brutal conditions.” (See the full interview here.)

Among the conditions Moyers was referring to are the daily exposures to pesticides, fertilizers and the resulting chemical-related injuries and sicknesses. Far more of these pesticides end up in the workers’ bodies than are found in our food. President of Farmworker Justice, Bruce Goldstein writes: “Short-term effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, headache, coma and even death. Pesticides also cause infertility, neurological disorders and cancer.”

In a recent letter appeal by the United Farm Workers (UFW), the beleaguered small union representing farmworkers, these ailments were connected to real workers by name. Focusing on the large grape grower – Giumarra Vineyeards of California – the UFW describes one tragedy of many: “After ten hours laboring under a blazing July sun, 53-year-old Giumarra grape picker Asuncion Valdivia became weak, dizzy and nauseated. He couldn’t talk. He lay down in the field. The temperature was 102 degrees.

Asuncion’s 21-year-old son, Luis, and another worker rushed to his aid. Someone called 911. But a Giumarra foreman cancelled the paramedics. He told Luis to drive his father home. They reached the emergency room in Bakersfield too late. Asuncion died on the car seat next to his son.”

For backbreaking work, kneeling 48 hours a week on crippled joints, 29-year-old Alejandro Ruiz and other farmworkers are not making much to live on. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour does not apply to farmworkers. Workers without documents are often paid less than those with documents. In most cases, they are too frightened to consider objecting.

It is so deplorable how little the members of Congress from these farm Districts have done to improve the plight of migrant farm workers. Members of Congress could be raising the visibility of deplorable working conditions faced by farmworkers and allying themselves with urban district Representatives concerned about food safety. This partnership could raise awareness of the safety of the food supply, the careless use of agricultural chemicals, and press the EPA to issue a strong WPS that emphasizes training, disclosure of chemical usage, safety precautions prior to spraying and buffer zones.

Is there a more compelling case for union organizing than the farm workers who sweat for agri-business? Federal labor laws need to be amended to improve national standards for farmworkers and eliminate existing state fair wage and health barriers. California has the strongest law, passed under the first gubernatorial term of Jerry Brown in 1975. Even this law needs to be strengthened to overcome the ways it has been gamed by agri-business interests.

Next time you eat fruits or vegetables, pause a moment to imagine what the workers who harvested them had to endure and talk up their plight with your friends and co-workers. Remember, every reform starts with human conversations and awareness. (For more information see the United Farm Workers of America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.)

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His latest book is The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future. Other recent books include, The Seventeen Traditions: Lessons from an American Childhood, Getting Steamed to Overcome Corporatism: Build It Together to Win, and “Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us” (a novel).

Care about Your Food? Then Care about Your Farmworkers Too January 31, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Human Rights, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
Published on Thursday, January 31, 2013 by YES! Magazine

It’s organic. It’s local. But did the workers who picked it have health insurance?

 

by Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern

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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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.

Gov. Brown denies farm workers the tools to protect themselves from heat-related death October 1, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

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.”

Why Are People Dying to Bring You Dinner? The Shocking Facts About Our Food System March 31, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
            We hear of the sweatshops behind our computers, sneakers and other attire–yet the exploitation of farmworkers has become normalized.

March 30, 2012  |
Cesar Chavez, the champion of farmworkers’ rights who gets his annual day of state recognition this Saturday, must be rolling in his grave. It’s been 37 years since Governor Jerry Brown, in an earlier life, signed the landmark agricultural labor relations act–and soon California legislators will debate whether to enforce rules to provide water and shade to the 400,000 farmworkers who harvest our food.

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.

Christopher D. Cook is the author of “Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis” (New Press). He has also written for Harper’s, the Economist, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. His Web site is www.christopherdcook.com.

Cesar Chavez: A True American Hero March 31, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

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.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers Brings Farmworker Movement to the Streets August 7, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Florida, Immigration, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
Published on Saturday, August 6, 2011 by In These Times

  by Michelle Chen

The hot summer has brought in a bumper crop of food activism from coast to coast. For the past few weeks, a group of Florida farm workers has embarked on a marketing coup that challenges the country’s food business giants by educating consumers about exploitation in the tomato industry.

(Image: Coalition of Immokalee Workers) The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has made a name for itself by using creative consumer-driven campaigns to promote fairer wages and working conditions for tomato harvesters, a workforce fueled by Latino migrant laborers. Though corporate resistance has been formidable, the group has scored a series of victories over the past few years over the likes of Taco Bell, Burger King and Subway. Partnering with consumer groups and fair-food activists, the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food seeks to educate people about the brutal labor that goes into each tomato.

Farmworkers’ backbreaking toil will be spotlighted on some of the trendiest sidewalks in Manhattan on Friday, with rallies at Trader Joe’s stores in the Village and Chelsea. The actions follow a similar campaign on the West Coast in which protesters in San Francisco and Berkeley wielded paper-bag picket signs and marched through the Mission District calling on drivers to “Honk for Farm Worker Justice.” The CIW now counts a number of religious leaders and gourmet food activist Barry Estabrook among its allies.

The Coalition says its multi-pronged struggle involves “all the elements of our country’s food industry,” from the folks hauling baskets all the way up to the florescent-lit supermarket aisle. Most importantly, the organization banks on the political leverage of consumers to push stores and suppliers to abide by ethical standards. With an active membership of several thousand, the workers themselves participate as well through organizing and educating people on “humanizing our farm labor system.”

The workers’ key demand, an additional penny per pound of tomatoes picked, seems a tiny cost for consumers and producers to absorb, given the workers’ long hours, arduous working conditions and their vulnerability to maltreatment and even slave labor. The pennies do add up for laborers, potentially boosting yearly earnings by several thousand dollars. (Typical wages amount to less than $12,000 annually, according to the Coalition, and after years of virtually stagnant wages, “a worker today must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in a typical 10-hour workday.”)

CIW’s summer Truth Tour demonstrations, which focus on big-name grocers, have been decried by the right-wing blogosphere as a “Prototypical Example of Alinsky Tactics and Smug Self-Immortalization.” Translation: an effective protest action.

The campaign puts Trader Joe’s hip, liberal brand in a bind: the company complained publicly in May that while it was willing to comply with CIW’s demands in general, specific provisions of the draft agreement were “overreaching” and “improper.” CIW responded with lengthy point-by-point rebuttals and declared, ‘It seems that the longer Trader Joe’s resists the Fair Food movement, the more its leadership — from the CEO to the public relations department — is determined to tarnish the company’s reputation as an ethical, progressive grocer.”

The organizing model evokes interesting historical comparisons with another wave of farm labor activist in the 1960s and 1970s led by United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, which pioneered union organizing in agriculture. Yet the UFW has lost political salience over the years, as working conditions have deteriorated.

The younger, nimbler CIW is not a union, but in many ways neither needs nor desires the conventional union structure. The fluid, precarious nature of migrant labor is a barrier to movement building, yet at the same time, the tomato industry’s severe consolidation across the supply chain provide fertile ground for focused, visible campaigns that mobilize consumers and workers in tandem.

Last fall, Kari Lydersen reported that faced with pressure from consumers and workers, some of Florida’s big growers had finally agreed to the penny-per-pound wage subsidy. Soon after, the Coalition clinched a groundbreaking deal with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which bound major growers to a contract that includes “a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process.” The agreement, estimated to cover more than 90 percent of Florida’s tomato industry, helps close a crucial gap in the chain, since retailers and restaurants agreeing to the penny raise could guarantee that the benefit would trickle down to workers.

The enforcement mechanism within the binding agreement is designed to keep growers and suppliers in check, using an outside nonprofit group to monitor compliance, so that, at least in theory, any grower that violates the code won’t be able to sell to retailers also bound to the agreement. CIW organizer Lucas Benitez told Naples Daily News that employers have to answer to both their buyers and their workers:

With this agreement, we will be working with growers to identify and eliminate abuses through a cooperative complaint investigation and resolution system, with real consequences for violations, including zero tolerance for forced labor.

In the absence of strong government regulation, the Coalition’s strategy aims not just to force employers to obey labor laws but also strive for decent working standards overall, in order to turn Florida’s tomato industry from a bastion of poverty into, in Benitez’s words, “a model of social accountability for the 21st century.”

Whether such industrial change can be wrought by a motley alliance of some of the country’s poorest workers, the biggest food brands, and the savviest customers, has yet to be seen. But if a bunch of migrant farm workers can get Manhattan hipsters to think seriously about who picked their salad this summer, they’re on the road to victory.

© 2011 In These Times

Farm Workers Witness Historic Vote on Fair Treatment of Farm Workers Act May 19, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

 

By Edgar Sanchez
Special to the UFW

SACRAMENTO – California’s farm workers would be able to vote without fear for union representation under a historic bill approved Monday by the State Assembly after lengthy debate.

SB 104 – the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act – passed by a 51-to-25 party-line vote, prompting applause from 160 farm laborers packing the Assembly Gallery. Another 100-plus farm workers and their supporters watched the debate on television, in a legislative hearing room.

The bill, previously passed by the Senate, now awaits the signature of Governor Jerry Brown to become law.

The measure, granting farm workers the same organizing rights enjoyed by all state employees, is strongly opposed by the state’s $36 billion agricultural industry.

Introduced by Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), SB 104 would give the state’s more than 400,000 farm workers an alternative to on-the-job polling place elections to decide whether to join a union. The new option would allow them to fill out state-issued representation ballots in their homes, away from bosses’ threats and other interference.  If a simple majority – more than 50 percent — of workers sign the ballots, their jobs would be unionized.

All elections would be supervised by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, with the workers choosing the process.

In a bid to derail SB 104, opponents in the Assembly described it as a job killer, “an anti-democracy bill” and a tool to “blatantly stack the deck against employers.”

Supporters called it a long-overdue proposal to end years of abuse by some unscrupulous labor contractors and growers fighting the United Farm Workers Union.

 “This is a great victory for us,” Felipe, a 30-year-old farm worker from Kern County, said after the vote.  “There won’t be any more intimidation on the part of contractors or farm bosses when union elections take place.

“There won’t be because if 104 becomes law, the vote could be in your house, without anybody pressuring you,” he said.

 Felipe – not his real name — requested anonymity because he fears reprisals from his employer, who he said intimidated workers into voting against unionization in 2006.

“Before the election, we were told we would lose our jobs if we voted for the union,” the $8-an-hour laborer  said. “I came to Sacramento today without my bosses’ knowledge. They don’t know that I came here.”

The Assembly passed SB 104 on the third anniversary of the heat-related death of Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, who had collapsed on a vineyard east of Stockton.  The pregnant laborer fainted after being denied proper access to water and shade in nearly 100-degree heat.

In all, 16 farm workers have died in the California heat since 2005, Luis A. Alejo (D-Watsonville), SB 104’s principal co-author, stated on the Assembly floor.

He cited two main reasons for the ongoing deaths:  Employers, including Maria Isavel’s, intentionally disregard heat regulations and the state seldom enforces the laws.

Even the justice system failed Maria Isavel, Alejo said, expressing disbelief that no one went to prison after she was “killed.”

“Those responsible for her death were ‘sentenced’ to community service,” despite prior worker-safety law violations, he said.  “Community service? For manslaughter?  I don’t need to be an attorney to know that that is a disservice to our justice system.”

Noting that Maria Isavel’s uncle, Doroteo Jimenez, was in the Assembly Gallery, Alejo urged colleagues to “consider telling him that we will not let Maria Isavel’s death be for nothing … but, not with our words.  But, with our actions today.”

Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), said that when Maria Isavel died, “her body temperature was over 108 degrees.”

“Members, can you believe that only six years ago there were no standards for working in the heat in California?” she said.  “…Today, we have an opportunity to take another step on the long, tortuous path for civil rights in the farm worker community.

“I ask for your ‘Aye’ vote” on SB 104, she said.

Asking for a “No” vote was Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks.

“I rise in opposition to this bill, even though I support the cause of protecting the farm workers in the field,” he said. “Right now, we tolerate a system where (they) are systematically abused.  They are exploited …

“SB 104 does nothing to protect farm workers,” he said.

Also blasting SB 104 was Bill Berryhill (R-Ceres), a longtime farmer who said that, if enacted, 104 would “get rid” of secret-ballot elections on ranches.

The bill runs counter to what Cesar Chavez fought for, Berryhill said, reminding that the UFW’s co-founder campaigned for farm workers’ right to choose a union through secret ballots.

William W. Monning (D-Carmel),  responded to Donnelly’s and Berryhill’s remarks.

“Mr. Berryhill is right,” Monning said.  “The philosophy of Cesar Chavez, (fellow UFW co-founder) Dolores Huerta and the union was to achieve secret-ballot protection for farm workers.”

That milestone came in 1975 when then-Governor Jerry Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act into law, he said.

Monning, a distinguished lawyer and former law professor, told colleagues he knows how the Act evolved.  In the mid-1970s, he worked in the UFW’s Legal Department as it lobbied legislators for the Act’s passage.

But, Monning said, “under the current rules … once a petition for election is filed it sets in motion a wave of disparate power – the power of the labor contractor, the power of growers to maximize threats, intimidation, closed company meetings (to) dissuade workers” from voting for union representation, “even in the privacy of that secret ballot.”

“So now, by the time we get to election day, the election’s already been determined,” he said.  “So we need to amend this law to level the playing field, to allow workers in the privacy of their homes, labor camps, to sign a card authorizing union representation” for themselves.

Then, in what appeared to be a direct rebuke to Donnelly, Monning denounced “those colleagues who say they oppose this bill because they care about farm worker rights.”

He continued:  “When I look to an authority on farm worker rights, I look to farm workers.  And farm workers are here today, here at their own expense, many missing a day of work asking us to give them the tools to end the exploitation of unscrupulous labor contractors who intimidate, bend the rules and violate the rights.

“Members, the legacy of Cesar Chavez is embedded in this legislation.  I ask for your ‘Aye’ vote.”

The farm workers applauded enthusiastically.

Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, accused opponents of distorting the facts.

SB 104, he said, “does not eliminate the secret ballot.  It simply adds card check … as another option for farm workers to choose collective bargaining.”

Sandré  R. Swanson, D-Oakland, said SB 104 would make it easier for farm workers to organize and demand basic rights that other workers in California already have.

“We’re talking about the right for farm workers not to have to die of heat stroke, to have adequate water, available restrooms and decent pay,” he said.  “That is fundamental to the opportunity to work in this state.”

After arriving in California’s capital from across the state, the farm workers had assembled at mid-morning in the basement of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, where they were welcomed by, among others, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, several assembly members and Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento.

“You are pilgrims seeking a better way of life,” Soto told the gathering.  “You deserve human benefits.  And you are not alone in your struggle.  Many people support you.”

Rodriguez said simply:  “Today, we’ll be witnesses to history.”

With that, the farm laborers began a silent pilgrimage to the Capitol, a couple of blocks away.

After the vote, Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), Assemblymember Alejo and other members of the Legislature addressed a cheering UFW crowd in the Capitol basement.  The speakers vowed to do what needs to be done to ensure that Governor Brown signs SB 104.

Edgar Sanchez is a former writer for The Sacramento Bee and The Palm Beach Post

 

SB789 Passes CA State Senate on Lobby Day. Take the next step. April 26, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

united-farm-workers

UNITED FARM WORKERS

Involuntary manslaughter charges were filed today against three top officials of the defunct labor contractor company, Merced Farm Labor, in the case of 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez–who died of a heat stroke last May 16.

The UFW applauds the District Attorney’s decision to prosecute this as the crime it was. It never should have happened. An innocent young girl never should have died due to grower indifference. (Click to read Maria’s story.)

However, violations occur every day and nothing is done. Last year five other farm workers died of heat-related causes after Maria’s death. Complaints regarding lack of drinking water, shade and work breaks to make use of these simple but lifesaving measures are an everyday occurrence for farm workers. (Click to read farm worker stories.) Farm workers can’t afford to wait until such an audacious violation such as Maria’s finally causes the state to react.

That’s why farm workers need this bill that will give then the means to protect themselves.  It’s why SB789 is so vital. SB789, CA Employee Free Choice Act for Farm Workers (Steinberg) will make it easier for farm workers to organize and help enforce the laws that California’s government cannot enforce.

SB789 just passed the California state senate yesterday. It will next be heard in the state assembly and  then go to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Please e-mail Calif. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and/or your Assemblymembers. Tell them to pass SB789, a bill that will give farm workers the power to protect themselves. 

Please take action today. Help protect the men and women who are in the fields working under the sweltering sun working to put food on our tables.

Happy Birthday, Cesar Chavez! March 31, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Human Rights, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

cesar-chavez

David Swanson

www.opednews.com, March 31, 2009

No, he’s NOT the president of Venezuela. 

Yes, he was the man who popularized the slogan “Yes, we can!”  Only he said “Si’ se puede!” 

Cesar Chavez, American young people should know, was an American who 40 years ago was inspiring young people to work long, hard hours for social justice.  And not only did they do so in great numbers, but they actually achieved social justice, they won victories that kept them going.  And many of them are going still, having made long, enjoyable, and effective careers of it.

Chavez organized the United Farm Workers, vastly improving the working conditions of farm workers in California and around the country.  The UFW pioneered numerous tactics that have been used with great success ever since, including most famously the boycott.  Half the country stopped eating grapes until the people who picked the grapes were allowed to form a union. 

Now much of what we eat and otherwise consume is made by slave labor, sweatshop labor, and workers without rights or their basic needs met.  Many of these products are shipped to us from distant lands.  Some are produced in the United States, including California, where farm workers’ power is not what it was. 

But the people the UFW trained have taken their skills “Beyond the Fields,” which is the title of a wonderful new book by Randy Shaw that chronicles the long-term effects of the UFW’s successes.  Techniques mastered by the UFW have been employed with great success beyond the fields, including the technique of targeting a corporation or politician from numerous angles at once.  In addition to boycotts, the UFW pioneered the use of fasting, the framing of workers’ issues in moral terms, actions aimed at gaining media attention, creating media with human billboards and other street theater, encouraging civic participation among union members, coalition building, and voter outreach and election day activities that have proved consistently powerful and effective. 

UFW veterans have used these techniques to elect better politicians, to reform numerous corporations, to win union contracts and better conditions for janitors, to build a movement for immigrants rights, and to advance an endless list of social causes.  When I worked for ACORN, what I saw ACORN’s organizers and members doing was straight out of the UFW.  In fact, reading Chavez’ writings was mandatory.  A campaign like the one I wrote about here that won a half a billion dollars from a predatory bank for its victims was pure UFW, even if those working on it were a degree of separation or two removed from Cesar Chavez.  “If there were a post-World War II Hall of Fame for activists in America, UFW veterans would dominate the inductees,” writes Shaw. 

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been failures and improvements, set backs and new innovations, and good techniques put to questionable ends.  But, on the whole, the approach of the UFW is one we would clearly benefit from following more closely.  We should focus on training and education.  We should build activist organizations that inspire young people to join and sacrifice.  That means taking principled moral positions and fighting for them.  And it means delegating responsibility to young people and training them above all to train others.  And it means taking risks.

The cry of “si’ se puede!” comes out of a 1972 campaign to recall the governor of Arizona who had just signed an anti-labor bill.  In four and a half months, the UFW registered almost 100,000 new voters, most of them poor Navajos and Mexican Americans.  While the attorney general blocked the recall, four Mexican Americans and two Navajos were elected to the state legislature, and Mexican Americans were elected to local councils, judgeships, and school boards, and two years later to the office of governor.  In the process, the UFW showed others how to alter politics by organizing volunteers to sign up new voters.

But the UFW didn’t just register voters who could be counted on to vote for the lesser of two lousy candidates.  The UFW backed candidates and got them elected while simultaneously forcing them to comply with farm workers’ demands.  This is the lesson that we’ve lost today, as we put massive efforts into electing candidates while making no demands of them.  In 1974 the UFW was critical to the success of Jerry Brown’s campaign for governor of California, and had high hopes that he would sign a bill friendly to farm labor once elected.  But the UFW did more than hope, it got a similar bill introduced and forced Brown to publicly express his support for it.  This required a sit-in in a campaign office staffed by friends and colleagues.  Once Brown was governor, Chavez had to threaten a massive march to the capitol.  The first Agricultural Labor Relations Act in the country was signed into law in June 1975, and UFW staff went on to coordinate Brown’s presidential campaigns.  They had earned his respect, something progressives today do not get from politicians by giving everything they have and never insisting on anything in return. 

If Cesar Chavez were alive, he would be sitting in the office of a senator who is refusing to back the Employee Free Choice Act, he would be fasting, he would be refusing to leave, and he would be telling you Si Se Puede!

 

 David Swanson is the author of the upcoming book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press and of the introduction to “The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W.

Governor Crist: It’s Time to End Slavery in Florida March 22, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Immigration, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

by Jim Goodman

“The extreme is slavery, the norm is disaster.”
–Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as he described the conditions in Immokalee Florida last year.

As a farmer and part of a Food Justice delegation to Immokalee earlier this month I would say that Senator Sanders was spot on. Poverty wages, abusive labor conditions, overpriced dilapidated housing; collectively humiliating the workers and stripping them of their basic human rights. Immokalee, little more than a labor reserve of immigrant farm workers from Mexico, Haiti and Guatemala supplying cheap labor to keep the winter vegetables flowing to northern markets.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was formed in 1992 to organize the workers, help them defend their rights and rise above the daily abuse. Their community organizing eventually led them to, as Senator Sanders put it, the extreme, slavery, over 1,000 men and women held under conditions of modern day slavery since CIW was formed.

Initially the fight for worker rights was more a struggle for human rights, a struggle for the worker to be recognized as something other than merely a cog in the machinery of Florida agribusiness. CIW started with a general work strike, then in 1997 a hunger strike asking for dialog with the growers, but as one grower put it “a tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm”. While the power of the growers seemed insurmountable there were other avenues to pursue.

Starting at the top of the food industry seemed like a David vs. Goliath task, yet the CIW saw promise, for indeed David had defeated Goliath. Their Campaign for Fair Food targeted the corporate buyers of Florida tomatoes, Taco Bell (part of YUM Brands) and later McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods.

Initially there was silence, no response from Taco Bell. A year later with still no response, a successful four year national boycott was launched with the cooperation of organized labor, religious, student and non-profit groups. The demands: worker rights, zero tolerance for slavery and a penny more per pound of tomatoes passed directly to the workers. It was a ground breaking victory.

While the ensuing campaigns were still met with resistance, the corporate targets reached agreement faster and with what appeared to be genuine support for worker justice. Yet the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange remains united in their rejection of worker justice.

The growers said (in 2007) they wanted to develop “more impactful, comprehensive” ways of improving the lives of the farm workers and their families. Still the workers wait. The growers claimed the penny per pound deals violated racketeering laws, laws I am sure they understand.

Clearly, the penny a pound campaign was a success with vast popular appeal nationwide. The agreements would nearly double the wages of the workers and cost the Florida Tomato Growers nothing, yet would allow the corporate buyers to develop a business model based on social consciousness and worker participation that could go a long way to ending slavery in South Florida.

The growers, by their refusal to participate in the program, deny the workers what would be their first wage increase in nearly thirty years. By denying the workers a fair wage they also deny them fair working and living conditions, thereby endorsing the ongoing human rights abuses that allow slavery to exist.

One final question needs yet to be answered, what role will Governor Crist play in all of this? Something finally got through to the Governor, whether it was the CIW’s action in Tallahassee on March 9, their two years of repeated requests for a meeting with the Governor, or as Abraham Lincoln might have put it, the guidance of the better angels of his nature. When Governor Crist meets with the CIW this week, will he listen to those better angels?

To his credit Governor Crist held out against any sort of dialog for only two years, his predecessor Jeb Bush remained resolute for eight years. Still, this sudden willingness of Crist to meet with the CIW will mean little without executive action. Agreeing to a meeting is a start, but the true measure of the Governor’s moral compass will be seen in what actions he takes after the meeting.

Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer and activist from Wonewoc, WI and a WK Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 184 other followers