Why should students care about farmworker issues?
By: Catherine Crowe, SAF Intern
Most students will agree that farmworker oppression is appalling and that farmworkers should be treated better, but they generally see farmworker justice as an issue as distant from their own lives as, say, sweatshop labor in Bangladesh. In many ways, this distance is real. Farmworkers and students live physically in different spaces and are even subject to different laws. Farmworkers and students live such entirely different lives that one has to ask: is food the only connection that students have to farmworkers? While students should be conscious consumers, there is a connection between farmworkers and students that goes beyond a simple producer-consumer relationship.
During my second year of college at UNC-Chapel Hill, I joined a campus organization called Alianza that focused on farmworker justice. We worked with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) on a campaign targeting Reynolds Tobacco, one of the biggest tobacco corporations in the world. When planning our campaign, we asked ourselves the same question- why should students care about tobacco farmworkers? In our research of Reynolds, we found a very literal connection- David Powers. Powers was a lobbyist for R.J Reynolds Tobacco from 2001-2003 and now resides as the Vice President of State Government Relations at Reynolds American. Additionally, he is the Treasurer of the corporate board of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a large and powerful corporate lobby group that influences and writes legislation. Powers is also a member of the UNC Board of Governors (BOG), which pretty much has power and jurisdiction over everything on UNC’s 17 campuses. Powers, like many other BOG members, has never been an educator nor has any real qualifications to be on the BOG. So how is it that a man like Powers is able to assume an influential position that affects how much financial aid I receive, what majors I can choose, whether or not I can live in gender-neutral housing, etc..? Powers makes not only profit (and a lot of it) from the exploitation of farmworkers, but he also uses farmworkers to amass huge amounts of power that he is able to use against student interests.
While Powers is one man, his story is part of a greater societal structure that dictates who has power and who doesn’t. Students should care about farmworkers because both student and farmworker rights are being attacked and our voices are being silenced. Students and farmworkers both have a role to play in demanding and instituting economic and social justice; we cannot expect systemic change unless we are cognizant of each other’s struggles and organize collectively for our liberation.
By: Dan Derman, SAF Fellow
Every other Wednesday, the Outreach Department of Carolina Family Health Centers brings Dr.Jeff along on their farmworker outreach trips to provide free medical screenings on-site at farmworker labor camps. Dr.Jeff (with myself serving as interpreter) listens to the health complaints of these H2A contract workers and offers advice, gives out some over-the-counter medicine he brings with him in an orange and black medicine box, or refers these workers to come to one of our 3 community health clinics for a more complete consultation.
Many of the complaints we hear should be very familiar to anyone who has worked in farmworker outreach or healthcare: skin rashes and dry, burning eyes caused by exposure to harmful pesticides; weakness, dizziness, and vomiting from handling the wet leaves of the green tobacco plant; and of course the stomach pains, leg and arm cramps, and unbearable headaches that are all symptomatic of one of the most common health problems facing migrant and seasonal farmworkers: heat stress.
When thinking about the examples of heat stress I have encountered during my work with CFHC, a farmworker camp we refer to as “Pink Camp” immediately springs to mind. Our visit to Pink Camp with Dr.Jeff saw far more participation in the free medical screenings than I had ever seen before; by the end of the night, we had given 35 farmworkers consultations on a variety of issues ranging from the flu to inner ear infections.
As it grew darker outside and we began to pack up our things, two men approached us with a question. They said that many of the workers at the camp complained of headaches, muscle cramps, and stomach pains while working out in the fields. Dr.Jeff asked them if they were drinking enough water, and they both immediately answered that yes, there was always enough water to go around in the field. However, when asked how often they got to take a break during the day, the two men exchanged furtive glances, each one seeming to wait for the other to speak up first. Eventually, we learned that the only break these workers got during their 10-12 hour workdays was 30-45 minutes for lunch around midday. Aside from that, the only reprieve from the blazing sun and oppressive North Carolina humidity they received was the few seconds they took to stop, catch their breath, and take a few swigs of water.
It’s likely that these workers already knew that the symptoms they were suffering from were caused by heat stress, and simply wanted reassurance from a doctor that it was not something more serious. However, despite heat stress being a fairly easy condition to avoid with the proper preparation and vigilance in the field, the lack of real regulation of the working conditions for migrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina means that these workers are essentially powerless to take the proper amount of rest and recuperation during the long hours they spend cutting tobacco leaves. When we asked if this was an issue they could take up with their “patrón” (the farm-owner), the men exchanged another nervous glance and cautiously explained that these topics were awkward to bring up with the man who controlled their only source of income.
Without the proper enforcement of agricultural labor laws, thousands of migrant and seasonal farmworkers will continue to suffer from completely preventable health conditions. In addition to heat stress, a lack of pesticide safety and hygienic living conditions also plague the farmworker population of North Carolina, despite legislation meant to regulate and control these issues. Urgent action is needed to raise awareness and inspire activism in the fight for farmworker justice.
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.