Migrant Workers and America’s Harvest of Shame August 2, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Labor, Race.
Tags: agri-business, agribusiness, agriculture, farm workers, farmworker justice, farmworkers, labor, labor standards, labour, migrant workers, Ralph Nader, roger hollander, ufw, worker protection
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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.
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Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which is aimed at protecting farmworkers and their families from pesticides but is outdated, weak and poorly enforced.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.)
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.”
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.”
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.
The Tomatoes of Wrath September 26, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Human Rights, Immigration, Labor.
Tags: agricultural industry, agricultural workers, agriculture, chris hedges, ciw, collective bargaining, fair food, farmworkers, fieldworkers, florida labor, florida tomatoes, immigrant workers, immokalee, labor, labor standards, publix, roger hollander, slave labor, trader joe's, whole foods
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It is 6 a.m. in the parking lot outside the La Fiesta supermarket in Immokalee, Fla. Rodrigo Ortiz, a 26-year-old farmworker, waits forlornly in the half light for work in the tomato fields. White-painted school buses with logos such as “P. Cardenas Harvesting” are slowly filling with fieldworkers. Knots of men and a few women, speaking softly in Spanish and Creole, are clustered on the asphalt or seated at a few picnic tables waiting for crew leaders to herd them onto the buses, some of which will travel two hours to fields. Roosters are crowing as the first light of dawn rises over the cacophony. Men shovel ice into 10-gallon plastic containers from an ice maker next to the supermarket, which opens at 3:30 a.m. to sell tacos and other food to the workers. The containers—which they lug to pickup trucks—provide water for the pickers in the sweltering, humid fields where temperatures soar to 90 degrees and above.
(Illustration by Mr. Fish)
Ortiz, a short man in a tattered baseball cap and soiled black pants that are too long and spill over the tops of his worn canvas sneakers, is not fortunate this day. By 7 a.m. the last buses leave without him. He heads back to the overcrowded trailer he shares with several other men. There are always workers left behind at these predawn pickup sites where hundreds congregate in the hopes of getting work. Nearly 90 percent of the workers are young, single immigrant men, and at least half lack proper documents or authorization to work in the United States.
Harvesting tomatoes is an endeavor that comes with erratic and unpredictable hours, weeks with overtime and weeks with little to do and no guarantees about wages. Once it starts to rain, workers are packed back onto the buses and sent home, their workday abruptly at an end. Ortiz and the other laborers congregate at the pickup points every morning never sure if there will be work. And when they do find daywork they are paid only for what they pick.
“I only had three days of work this week,” Ortiz says mournfully. “I don’t know how I will pay my rent.”
Ortiz, who along with many others among these migrant workers sends about $100 home to Mexico every month to support elderly parents, works under conditions in these fields that replicates medieval serfdom and at times descends into outright slavery. He lives far below the poverty line. He has no job security, no workers’ compensation, no disability insurance, no paid time off, no access to medical care, Social Security, Medicaid or food stamps and no protection from the abusive conditions in the fields. The agricultural industry has a death rate nearly six times higher than most other industries, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the 2 million farmworkers in the United States 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning every year.
“We are standing on the threshold of achieving significant change in the agricultural industry,” Marc Rodrigues, with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, tells me later in the day at the CIW office in Immokalee. “But if the supermarkets do not participate and support it then it will not go any further. Their lack of participation threatens to undermine what the workers and their allies have accomplished. They represent a tremendous amount of tomato purchasing. They wield a lot of influence over conditions in the field. For those growers not enamored of the concept of workers attaining rights and being treated with dignity, they will know that there is always a market for their tomatoes with no questions asked, where nothing is governed by a code of conduct or transparency. If we succeed, this will help lift farmworkers, who do one of the most important, dangerous and undervalued jobs in our society, out of grinding poverty into one where they can have a slightly more decent and normal life and provide for their families.”
The next major mobilization in the campaign will take place at noon Oct. 21 outside Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters in Monrovia, Calif. This will follow a week of local actions to target supermarkets across the country. To thwart the campaign, the public relations departments of Trader Joe’s, Publix and other supermarkets are churning out lies and half truths, as well as engaging in unsettling acts of intimidation and surveillance. Publix sent out an employee posing as a documentary filmmaker to record the activities of the organizers.
“Publix has a cabal of labor relations, human relations and public relations employees who very frequently descend from corporate headquarters in Lakeland, Fla.—or one of their regional offices—and show up at our demonstrations,” says Rodrigues. “They watch us with or without cameras. They constantly attempt to deflect us: If we attempt to speak to consumers or store managers these people will intercept us and try to guide us away. These people in suits and ties come up to us and refer to us by our first names—as if they know us—in a sort of bizarre, naked attempt at intimidation.”
If you live in a community that has a Whole Foods, which is the only major supermarket chain to sign the agreement, shop there and send a letter to competing supermarkets telling them that you will not return as a customer until they too sign the CIW Fair Food Agreement. Details about planned protests around the country can be found on the CIW website.
Workers in the fields earn about 50 cents for picking a bucket containing 32 pounds of tomatoes. These workers make only $10,000 to $12,000 a year, much of which they send home. The $10,000-$12,000 range, because it includes the higher pay of supervisors, means the real wages of the pickers are usually less than $10,000 a year. Wages have remained stagnant since 1980. A worker must pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes to make minimum wage during one of the grueling 10-hour workdays. This is twice what they had to pick 30 years ago for the same amount of money. Most workers pick about 150 buckets a day. And these workers have been rendered powerless by law. In Florida, collective bargaining is illegal, one of the legacies of Jim Crow practices designed to keep blacks poor and disempowered. Today the ban on collective bargaining serves the same purpose in thwarting the organizing efforts of the some 30,000 Hispanic, Mayan and Haitian agricultural laborers who plant and harvest 30,000 acres of tomatoes.
The CIW, which organized a nationwide boycott in 2001 against Taco Bell, forced several major fast food chains including Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Compass Group, Bon Appétit Management Co., Aramark and Sodexo to sign the agreement, which demands more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers and an increase of a penny per bucket. But if the major supermarkets too do not sign this agreement, growers who verbally, sexually and physically abuse workers will be able to continue selling tomatoes to the supermarkets. This could leave at least half of all the fields without protection, making uniform enforcement of the agreement throughout the fields difficult if not impossible.
“Supply chains are very opaque and secretive,” says Gerardo Reyes, a farmworker and CIW staff member. “This is one of the reasons a lot of these abuses continue. The corporations can always feign that they did not know the abuses were happening or that they had any responsibility for them as long as there is no transparency or accountability.”
One of the most celebrated modern cases of fieldworker slavery was uncovered in November 2007 after three workers escaped from a box truck in which they had been locked. They and 12 others had been held as slaves for two and a half years. They had to relieve themselves in a corner of the truck at night and pay five dollars if they wanted to bathe with a garden hose. They were routinely beaten. Some were chained to poles at times. During the days they worked on some of the largest farms in Florida. It was the seventh such documented case of slavery in a decade.
“As long as the supermarket industry refuses to sign this agreement it gives the growers an escape,” says Reyes. “We need to bring the pressure of more buyers who will sign the agreement to protect the workers. We have gotten all of the major corporations within the fast food industry and food providers to sign this agreement. Two of the three most important buyers within the industry are on board. But if these supermarkets continue to hold out they can put all the mechanisms we have set in place for control at risk. If Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s and other supermarkets say the only criteria is buying from those growers who offer the lowest possible price then we will not be able to curb abuses. If the agreement is in place and there is another case of slavery then the growers will be put in a penalty box. If we do not have the ability to impose penalties then there will always be a way for abusive growers to sell. The agreement calls on these corporations to stop buying from growers, for example, that use slave labor. Without the agreement there is no check on these practices.”
“Supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s, insist they are responsible and fair,” Reyes goes on. “They use their public relations to present themselves as a good corporation. They sell this idea of fairness, this disguise. They use this more sophisticated public relations campaign, one that presents them as a friend of workers, while at the same time locking workers out of the discussion and kicking us out of the room. They want business as usual. They do not want people to question how their profits are created. We have to fight not only them but this sophisticated public relations tactic. We are on the verge of a systemic change, but corporations like Trader Joe’s are using all their power to push us back.”
Members and supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will march from a Trader Joe’s store at 604 W. Huntington Dr. in Monrovia, Calif., to the market chain’s headquarter a mile away, starting at noon Oct. 21. The farmworkers organization is demanding that Trader Joe’s support the human rights of the men and women who harvest tomatoes sold in its stores. For more information, click here, send an email to email@example.com or telephone (510) 725-8752 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (510) 725-8752 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
Tags: agriculture, burger king, cesar chavez, ciw, fair food, farm workers, floriida labor, food industry, immokalee, justice, labor, labour, michelle chan, roger hollander, taco bell, tomato industry, trader joe's, ufw
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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.