As Labor Day weekend quickly approaches, many people are thinking about beaches and barbeques. Amy Laura Hall, however, wants people to be thinking about something different: labor unions. Hall, a professor at Duke Divinity School, is calling for congregations to observe a Labor Sabbath this Friday, Saturday or Sunday prior to Labor Day, during which time the words “labor union” are to be mentioned in a sermon, song or prayer. The effort stems from a similar endeavor by Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago, which invited clergy to speak about unions from the pulpit. Calling it a Labor Sabbath broadens the effort to include congregations that may worship on a day other than Sunday or without a pulpit.
The word “union,” Hall says, has a stigma attached to it, so much so that even progressive churches feel uncomfortable talking about it. North Carolina has one of the lowest percentages of union members in the country and among these least unionized workers are thousands of farmworkers who continue to face injustice. The Farmworker Labor Organizing Committee is trying to change this, as evidenced by their summer “Respect, Recognition, Raise” campaign to sign up 5,000 new members and build the union’s strength.
Hall grew up going to school in West Texas with children whose parents worked in the fields. She also watched her mother, a public school teacher, try to strengthen the bargaining power of teachers in the state because she knew that working together was the best way to get improved conditions for teachers. While Hall grew up periodically boycotting different kinds of produce, today she recognizes that although boycotts can be useful, the most tried and true means for achieving justice in the workplace is through unions.
“As human beings, people who pick produce would much prefer to have the right to bargain collectively and have control over their working conditions themselves,” she said. “So while it is consistent with a charity model for middle class and upper middle class people to want to shift the system away from the very worst treatment of workers, farmworkers as human beings would prefer to have their own voices and to have the right to bargain together for the best working conditions in the industry.”
Labor unions, according to Hall, are not only important for farmworkers who do dangerous, back-breaking work, but for everyone. “My way of thinking about unions is that 75% of us in America are workers, maybe 99%, are all workers. What I found is that some people think of labor unions as a helpful way for workers who are obviously vulnerable, like farmworkers and immigrants, to gain justice. I think that’s absolutely true, but its really important for workers in all fields to recognize that in this Second Great Depression, we need labor unions for our own sake.”
As we enter into Labor Day weekend, let us be in prayer for all of those whose work is a blessing, and I especially pray that clergy and lay people will have the courage to speak up in support of labor unions in their churches this weekend.
If you are interested in supporting the Labor Sabbath effort, please go to Amy Laura Hall’s website, where you can find worship resources and take the challenge to speak up on Labor Sabbath.
On June 15, 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it will not deport young people from the U.S. who meet certain requirements. Those who qualify will be given “deferred action”for two years and will be eligible for work authorization.
The Farmworker Advocacy Network has worked with several community partners to ensure that farmworker youth know about the opportunity and have support in applying.
Who is eligible?
Individuals must prove they meet the following criteria:
• came to the United States under the age of 16;
• have continuously resided in the United States for a least 5 years before June 15, 2012 and were present in the United States on June 15, 2012;
• are currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a GED certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States;
• have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety; and
• were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012.
How do I apply? The North Carolina Justice Center strongly believes that everyone who applies for Deferred Action needs and deserves assistance from an immigration attorney or BIA accredited representative before submitting their application. Go to the NC Justice Center website for application materials, legal support and to get involved as an ally.
By Kenzie Mann, 2014 SAF intern
Today we want to highlight one of the Farmworker Advocacy Network’s members the NC Farmworker’s Project. Not only do they do extensive health outreach, they also work with Wake Forest University to do community based research on farmworker issues.
Check out an excerpt from Student Action with Farmworkers’ health fellow Mackenzie Mann’s reflection of her work there:
“The NC Farmworkers Project works to connect farmworkers with health and dental services, and to provide health education on pesticides, heat illness, green tobacco sickness, HIV and STIs, drinking and driving, substance abuse, and tobacco use. In the past three weeks, we have been visiting farmworker camps to conduct health assessments, measuring BMIs, taking blood pressures, and talking to farmworkers about their health concerns. The Project also organizes a mobile medical van that visits farmworker camps and a weekly clinic night so that farmworkers can see doctors when needed. I’ve had the opportunity to interpret during doctor’s visits, conduct health assessments, deliver prescription medicines, and learn a lot from my coworkers... and I am loving every minute of it!
One of my favorite moments so far was during one of our mobile van nights, when Leonardo arrived at the camp with a guitar to sing with the farmworkers while they waited to see the doctor. While Leonardo played, one of the farmworkers sang “La Mancha”—to the delight of Janeth, who had been practically begging him to do so all evening. Hearing everyone sing and sway to the tune of the song made me so happy! I couldn’t stop smiling and neither could anyone else there. To be able to witness this bonding experience between the farmworkers and the Project staff, and to be part of it, made me feel even more included in the Farmworker Project’s community. I am so glad to be here!”
By Dave Austin
This summer FLOC is launching an organizing drive to sign up 5,000 new members in the 2014 harvest season. Right now, only a small percentage of farmworkers in North Carolina (around 7,000) are covered by a FLOC union contract. In order to build pressure on the tobacco companies, that have the power to eliminate human rights abuses in their supply chains, FLOC seeks to build its union’s strength and presence throughout the state. This will be achieved by adding thousands of new members who are ready to fight for fair and safe living and working conditions. Beginning in June 2014, organizers have been out in the camps across North Carolina each night, talking with workers about the importance of having a union, the current campaign for farmworkers’ rights, and how to sign up and join the fight. In this piece, FLOC coordinator Dave Austin gives a glimpse inside of the sign-up campaign.
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon; 24 mostly 20-something-aged kids are role-playing in Spanish – an animated exchange between their comrades role-playing “farm workers at the labor camp” and the 4 young FLOC organizers who comprise a team both for this role-play, and for the real-life interactions they’ll have in 4 hours out in real farmworker labor camps. Six teams of four practice for a total of 5 hours today. The “farmworkers” throw obstacles in the path of the union-recruiting organizer team trying to persuade the “farmworkers” that solidarity through FLOC is their best option for improving their own welfare in their own camp, and that of farmworkers across NC.
All 24 know many of these obstacles well, for they’ve faced them every night – in real life -- for the last week …. and will for the next 7 weeks. I listen in as they’re reminded, in debriefing sessions, of best responses. For example:
“We already get paid here much better than in Mexico – why should we complain?” Response: “But what control do you have? If your paycheck is shorted, what can you do? If you’re charged a ridiculous amount for cooking or for transportation to Wal-Mart, what can you do? If the boss tells you to go into a field right after pesticide application, what can you do? If you get hurt, and your boss says ‘tough luck – better get a ride back to Mexico’ what do you do? Life may be OK now, but what about tomorrow? When you have no control, things can go bad very fast. With a union, we get some control for ourselves, but also for our brothers and sisters across North Carolina.”
There are many other dilemmas; some hard to prepare for: What about the worker who claims he was a FLOC member, and the union didn’t help him get workers’ comp? What would FLOC membership do for a member who just wasn’t getting enough work – what does the contract say? What if I encountered a “good” grower who complained about RJ Reynolds’ expensive contract requirements imposed on growers – can we engage this person in some way? There’s a crew leader who so intimidated workers in this camp that they just lied – said they were all already union members (untrue) just to get us to leave – what can we do? Two workers had been drinking too much, and their behavior was close to inappropriate with the women organizers – what do we do?
And there are the “good” dilemmas: “All 6 guys at the camp signed FLOC membership cards, and 3 were earnestly asking ‘so what can we do? How can we help?’ So how can we get these guys involved, when our job is to go out to more camps and get more signatures?”
The group deliberates hard and creatively over each of these questions and more. They want to be prepared for tonight and beyond. And what’s inspiring is how much they value preparation as a team – after only a week, they’ve all got each others’ backs. It’s an incredibly hard job – going out to sell the union to workers whose main focus has been simple survival and sending a little money back to Mexico for survival of their families (and who may have been told by their grower and/or crew leader to avoid the union at all costs). But the young organizers are doing it with resolve and good cheer. And after just a few days, we have 296 cards signed, and the numbers continue to rise. We look forward to a great summer of organizing for respect on the job, recognition of our union, and a fair and equal wage!
If you would like to volunteer with FLOC there are several opportunities to do so:
- Saturday, July 12th: TFF will hold its next Pantry-Kangaroo rally – at 201 S. Estes Drive in Chapel Hill. 6:00 pm – 6:45 pm. Just bring yourself – we’ll have banners, flags, and posters.
- Sunday, July 13th: Drivers needed to pick up workers at a specified farmworker labor camp on the way from the Triangle to FLOC’s office in Dudley for FLOC members’ eastern regional meeting. Meeting time likely ~ 1:00-4:00 PM; TBD. Spanish helpful, but not required.
- Sunday, July 27th: Meeting with FLOC and 2 members of British Parliament. Tentatively: 4:00 – 6:00 pm (may shift slightly depending on scheduling of additional labor camp visits that morning) Venue TBD.
- For more information about any of these events email Dave Austin at email@example.com.
With the recent media attention focused on the Human Rights Watch report about children in North Carolina tobacco fields, I talked with Sarah Gibson, Interim Executive Director of FAN and member of NC FIELD, about their organization and their collaboration with HRW.
NC FIELD stands for North Carolina Focus on Increasing Education, Leadership & Dignity and is located in Kinston, NC. NC FIELD was founded in 2009 by a group of community members and outreach professionals to address the needs of agricultural communities in Eastern North Carolina. NC FIELD has created a model for farmworkers and farmworker youth to have a voice in issues that affect them. NC FIELD’s core programs include capacity building as a partner to the farmworker community; developing popular education projects that empower farmworkers to resist dangerous heat, pay-gouging, and criminal behaviors of labor contractors; and providing opportunities for farmworkers to learn how to utilize their agricultural knowledge base to generate income.
NC FIELD has developed a relationship with HRW whereby NC FIELD connects HRW with interviewees during their research phase. NC FIELD also works to ensure that farmworkers have the opportunity to participate in the policy debates and media coverage that follow the release of HRW reports. The partnership began in 2009 before NC Field’s official establishment and led to the 2010 report "Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture". Later, HRW staff returned to eastern North Carolina to work with NC FIELD as part of an investigation into sexual harassment of children and women. Since then, NC FIELD and HRW have continued to develop a strong collaborative relationship among these three groups: farmworkers, whose stories are the pillar of advocacy efforts, NC FIELD as organizers and facilitators, and HRW as an internationally recognized advocate for human rights issues.
Sarah Gibson says of the relationship, “Working with Human Rights Watch has been a real privilege. Since the beginning of our partnership, there's been a dynamic of mutual respect for what all parties bring to the table. We appreciate their understanding of grassroots organizing, their reputation in the policy world, and their thorough research into the issues that farmworkers experience on a daily basis. They value our insight into the implications of policies and media attention on farmworkers' daily lives, and our history of building deep relationships within the farmworker community that help HRW stay in touch with the needs and realities of the communities experiencing human rights abuses.”
For the recent report, NC FIELD worked with HRW to ensure that farmworker youth were in DC to talk to policymakers and media during the weeks following the release of the report. Gibson notes that this is important because it gave a face to the news about child labor and harmful practices on tobacco farms. She says, “It’s infinitely more effective for policymakers to have a personal conversation with a child tobacco worker than to read that same child's quote in a report.”
If you want to help NC FIELD and its work with farmworkers and their families in NC, you can take action in the following ways:
NC FIELD is a largely volunteer-run organization that is working hard to balance the recent influx of media attention and requests for interviews. Their capacity is based on being able to hire more staff, including farmworkers. Your donation will help allow them to increase their capacity to continue their important work.
Photo credit and guest post by Michael Durbin
Last summer I accompanied Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) interns doing educational and health care outreach at migrant farmworker camps. The camps were generally dismal places, run down and ill-maintained and no place I’d ever want to spend the night. Except for one.
It was mid July. Hot. I had been in the car with Julie King and Danny Guzman-Ramos for the better part of a day, our shirt-backs sticking to the seats, following leads to camps where they hoped to register OSYs (Out of School Youth) for classes.
It had not been a fruitful day. After several hours of hop scotching the South Carolina blacktop, Danny and Julie had managed to register a grand total of one worker living in a trailer with failing siding, surrounded by a yard littered with garbage.
It was a common site. The front porch of another camp was strewn with beer cans, dirty laundry, and filth. At another place, a courteous but uninterested farmworking mom spoke to Danny through a screen door with holes big enough for birds to get through. On other days I had seen much worse.
Danny and Julie decided to ditch the rest of their leads. They would go instead to a peach grower’s camp they had already picked clean of OSYs, this time to interview a farmworker for their documentary project.
The decision changed everything. For the first time they were genuinely excited and I wondered why.
I could tell this camp was different as we rolled to a stop at the end of a long gravel road, the last few pebbles crunching under our wheels. The expanse of grass surrounding the squat white building was the first I’d seen at a camp that qualified as an actual lawn. It wasn’t fancy but had clearly been mowed. And there wasn’t a spec of litter in sight.
Danny and Julie were met by a pair of men with smiles that wrapped their weather-worn faces. I couldn’t follow the rapid Spanish but the body language was clear: These people were happy to see one another.
While Danny went inside to recruit someone to interview, Julie headed to the volleyball net. Volleyball? Within moments she was punching the ball to a guy on the other side, who lost sight of it in the glare of a warm sun now falling toward the peach trees surrounding the camp. He laughed.
I saw things I hadn’t seen at other camps: A pair of washing machines on a covered porch—they looked new. Parallel rows of clothes lines, draped with shirts and pants, rocked in unison by a warm, lazy breeze coming off the orchard. Two workers sat on their tractor, watching the orange sun now kissing the tops of the trees, enjoying the simple passage of time in a gorgeous setting.
The interview went off without a hitch and was followed by nearly an hour of friendly banter inside a screened in porch. I followed what I could of the conversations and took in what I could see: Clean tables. A swept floor. A bright clean kitchen with a professional stove—a Viking, the kind you see in restaurants.
I wonder what moved this grower to provide such decent housing, to spend what was clearly more than necessary to give these men a decent place to return to after a day of hard labor.
One factor was their immigration status. They were on H2A guest worker visas and the government requires housing to meet minimal standards from growers—standards too often ignored and unenforced.
I expect this peach grower went above and beyond H2A housing standards. Not every camp requires a Viking stove or even a volleyball net. But every farmworker is a human being with no less dignity than you or me. They all deserve a clean and well-maintained place to eat, to bath, to sleep.
Spring and summer herald the annual return of migrant workers to farms around the country, especially in North Carolina. So often, workers’ return to our home state means their resuming hard work for little pay, the constant risk of pesticide exposure, and, for their children, going to work in a dangerous environment. While workers’ situation in our economy remains dire, this spring is beginning differently in at least one respect: gradually, the media has begun to turn its attention to child labor issues and the pesticide exposure migrant farmworkers face.
CNN recounts the story of Jessica Rodriguez, who began working in tobacco fields in North Carolina at age 11. While she should have been in school, Jessica worked in the fields, encountering dehydration and green tobacco sickness, a potentially lethal illness related to tobacco exposure. Even worse, according to an alarming new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, more than half of children in Jessica’s situation experience pesticides being applied to crops by growers as they continue to work in the fields.
Meanwhile, The Guardian picked up the story of Eddie Ramirez, who began work in the fields at age 12. Part of the tragedy of child labor in North Carolina is that children like Eddie and Jessica being forced to work is legal. Laws designed to allow children to work on family farms have become loopholes that allow underprotected migrant youth to be exposed to dangerous industrial agricultural environments. The U.S. now lags behind Brazil and India in the legal protections it offers children, according to the HRW report.
The groundswell of media attention in the days since the HRW report was released is a welcome development in the fight against child labor and injustice against migrant farmworkers. Dozens of media outlets from California to Connecticut have picked up the story of the fight for human dignity being waged in North Carolina and around the country, including an op-ed in the New York Times.
For the tide to turn, however, and for farmworkers’ dignity to be acknowledged, we cannot be satisfied with merely reading about issues in the news. The time to act is now.
FAN is dedicated to fighting for workers’ dignity and committed to seeing injustice eradicated, but we are counting on your support. Your help is needed at this pivotal time:
SIGN Human Rights Watch’s petition to end child labor in tobacco farming.
SUPPORT FAN-member organization Toxic Free NC’s petition pertaining to proposed changes in the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS). Toxic Free’s petition calls for tightening rules concerning children being exposed to pesticides in the fields.
WRITE a letter to the editor or Op-Ed for your local newspaper bringing the plight of farmworkers to your paper’s attention. For resources, sample letters, and more, contact FAN.
WATCH FAN’s Emmy-award winning documentary HARVEST OF DIGNITY, or contact FAN to host a screening.