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Fight for $15 and the Farmworker Movement

By Catherine Crowe, SAF Intern

On October 23, 2014, Raise up for $15 hosted an allies meeting and invited individual and organizational supporters of the movement in solidarity with the fast food workers’ campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. As farmworker advocates, we realize that exploitation in the food supply chain continues all the way from the farmworkers who grow the produce to the fast food workers who sell the food. The farmworker and fast-food worker struggles are one and the same.

The Fight for $15 began two years ago as a national movement of fast food workers demanding a living wage. Currently the national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. According to the Fight for $15 website, 52% of fast food workers rely on public assistance because they cannot survive on their current wages. Essentially, companies like McDonald’s and Burger King externalize their costs by placing the burden on taxpayers, who collectively pay $7 billion each year to support fast-food workers through public benefits.

The local chapter of Fight for 15, called Raise Up for 15, works out of Durham. They organized their first fast-food worker strike in August 2013 and since then have held three more strikes with sizeable worker support and turnout despite organizing in a Right-to-Work state. 

At the allies meeting, a few workers shared their stories about why they participated in the strike and why they need a union and $15/ hour. Nakiel, a Burger King worker, said that even though he had been working for a long time, he was still making a little over minimum wage. He said that $15 an hour was necessary to provide for his kids. He also said he needed $15 to live with a sense of dignity and to fund small things like haircuts that allow him to feel good about himself. Ebony, another Burger King worker, talked about how the movement inspired and empowered her. Participating in the strikes gave her a sense of hope when she saw everyone united, demanding respect for workers. “Hope is my gas,” she said. 

Workers and organizers then talked about the successes and challenges of the campaign. Workers in North Carolina have seen miniscule raises since the campaign began, but the Fight for $15 campaign has had significant victories in other states. Also, in a less direct way, the campaign has raised national consciousness on workers’ rights and changed the discourse of what is a fair and living wage. When Obama first took office, he proposed a new minimum wage of $9.50, but today talks on raising the wage focus on a minimum of more than $10 an hour. In the recent 2014 election, four states passed measures to raise the minimum wage, the highest being Alaska with an increase to $9.75 by 2016. The bar has been raised and continues to rise.

After the workers spoke about their campaign, they opened the floor and asked for the allies to share why they supported the Fight for 15. Justin Flores from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) said that FLOC supported the movement because of the intersectionality of farmworker and fast-food worker issues. Flores explained that low wages are also a problem for farmworkers, who are exempt from the $7.25 minimum wage. However, he said that farmworkers who are involved in FLOC’s campaigns are struggling to ensure that they are even paid that low minimum wage.

Students also had a large presence at the meeting. One ally commented that current students are part of the most underpaid and most in debt generation. Students will soon enter the workforce, and many will be forced to survive on low wages, compounded by hefty student loans. Student activist groups such as United Students Against Sweatshops from Duke and UNC also talked about their work with campus workers to increase wages and win union rights.

The fast food worker’s ability to live, and live with dignity, is imperative for all of us, whether we are professionals, students, workers, homemakers, organizers, or farmworkers. As Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Fast food workers will host rallies across the South on December 4th for $15 an hour and union rights. Everyone is encouraged to join. Raise Up!

To learn more about Raise Up for 15:





Celebrating the Lives, Deaths and Contributions of North Carolina Farmworkers on November 1st

Last week farmworker advocates joined with farmworkers from across the state to remember fallen farmworkers who have died in the fields of North Carolina. The event took place on November 1st, which is Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico and All Saints’ Day for Christians around the world. While these two celebrations differ, they also have a lot in common. It is important to note that they fall at the end of the harvest season, when the sun begins to set later and the trees shed their leaves—the natural world dies until its rebirth in the spring. At the event this past weekend, this timing was especially crucial because it made it possible for workers to attend the event and tell their stories.

Photo courtesy of Chris JohnsonBoth Día de los Muertos and All Saints' Day remember death. Their ways of remembering, however, are different. On All Saints' Day, pastors often will read aloud the names of those who have passed away in the congregation. It is a time of remembering and praying for those who have departed. Día de los Muertos likewise remembers the dead, but it also celebrates their living memory as well. It is a time to welcome the dead back to the world of the living with a celebration; there is music, food, drink and flowers, and the families will often create an altar in memory of the deceased in their homes or go to the grave site to share a meal alongside the departed loved ones.

Our celebration, organized by the Farmworker Advocacy Network, incorporated dimensions of both Día de los Muertos and All Saints' Day. The event took place at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh. It was held in the Moravian God’s Acre section of the cemetery, which I found particularly meaningful, as all tombstones in Moravian cemeteries are flat and the same size so that everyone is represented as equal in death, regardless of race, gender, age at death, or status in life. An altar was created as a backdrop for the event, and Ramon Zepeda of Student Action with Farmworkers asked participants to place words on the altar that could have improved the farmworkers’ lives, words such as agua (water), descanso (rest) and respeto (respect).Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

The event served both to give current farmworkers a voice and to remember with dignity those who had already passed. Both field and poultry workers from across the state shared their experiences of enduring poor working conditions and working hard to improve their lives. Likewise, advocates read obituaries of farmworkers who had died in order to remember the names of those who had passed or those who were nameless in death, but whose lives still mattered. Overall, it was a time for the larger family of humanity to gather around an altar to affirm life and humanity in the midst of death and injustice. As workers called on officials to help prevent future on-the-job deaths by enforcing state and federal laws, the most important part of the event was recalling that a memory celebrated becomes a living hope for eternal life.


Letter to the Editor: Protect Child Farmworkers

We need Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry to act. While national Labor Secretary Perez is tweeting about ending child labor around the world, reports from researchers and journalists are calling out North Carolina for something we have known for years: Our state is home to thousands of child farmworkers laboring in tobacco fields under hazardous conditions. It is becoming more difficult to turn a blind eye to the photos and the facts. Yet in 2012 when public health and farmworker advocates met with Commissioner Berry and urged her to do the job her agency is charged with—protecting workers--, she refused to support efforts that would bring nineteenth-century labor laws up to speed with twenty-first century realities.

Despite an increasingly glaring spotlight on these realities, especially for child farmworkers, there continues to be no reaction from our state labor department.  Earlier this year Human Rights Watch released a report 
based on disturbing interviews with children tobacco workers as young as seven years old working in North Carolina and other southern states. Nearly three-fourths reported getting sick at work with symptoms like nausea, headaches, skin conditions, and respiratory illness; over half had seen pesticides being sprayed in the fields where they worked or in neighboring fields.

In September, The New York Times published a 
front-page story on child labor on North Carolina tobacco farms. Children described wearing plastic garbage bags to protect themselves from nicotine poisoning while working 12-hour shifts, working in hot and dry conditions with no water to drink, and feeling dizzy, nauseous, and vomiting while working.

Tobacco growers are starting to take notice. An AP article published in the N&O on 10/21/14, “New efforts to ban tobacco farm child labor” cites a 
policy statement issued by the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina that says growers should not employ children under age 16 to work in tobacco fields, and should “be cautious” about using workers ages 16 and 17.  Current law allows children to begin working on farms at age 12, while the legal age in almost every other industry is 14. They can do “hazardous” agricultural work at age 16, while all other industries limit such work to adults 18 and older. The children who labor in our tobacco fields are far too young to legally buy cigarettes, yet our laws allow them to be poisoned by this harmful substance on the job daily.

Anyone concerned about these realities for tobacco and other workers can join in efforts to change them. A 
campaign organized by FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee) is pressuring tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds to guarantee labor rights in their supply chain. FLOC is a member of theFarmworker Advocacy Network, an active coalition organizing to pressure state officials to ensure safer and more dignified working and living conditions for farmworkers and their families, including child workers. Our messages include raising the minimum age to perform hazardous agricultural work from 16 to 18 years old, as it is for every other type of work.  We owe these basic protections to the children in North Carolina whose hard work feeds us all.

All are invited to 
join farmworkers and advocates this Saturday, Nov. 1 at 11:30am at Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery (in the Moravian God's Acre Section) on Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday when communities gather to celebrate the lives of those who have died. Expert speakers will share experiences and lead a service to honor the lives of North Carolina farmworkers, including children, who have been injured or died at work or due to the conditions of their work environment while laboring to bring food to our tables. 


Join us to celebrate Día de los Muertos!



Student Farmworker Solidarity

 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.


Heat Stress & Farmworkers

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.


Moral Week of Action Kicks Off with a Focus on NC Workers

The NAACP kicked of the Moral Week of Action on Friday August 22, 2014 with a march and rally in support of North Carolina Workers. Please watch the video of the first day’s speakers! Selena Ibarra interned with Student Action with Farmworkers this summer where she got to lobby on behalf of the Farmworker Advocacy Network and the Adelante Education Coalition spoke about her lobbying at the North Carolina Legislature this summer. Selena and her co-intern Araceli Bollo fought against a provision in House Bill 369 which would bar that would have denied workers’ compensation to “illegal aliens”. She talks about how detrimental this would be and how they lobbied against it and got it removed from the bill! You can see her speech from minute 16-17:30. The end of the event was calling for all North Carolina community members to register to vote and encourage others to vote! For more information, check out the NAACP’s website!
The week continues today focusing on Women's Rights, Wednesday is Medicaid Expansion, Health Care and Environmental Justice. On the final day, Thursday, August 28, the 51st Anniversary of the March on Washington, there will be a mass rally on Bicentennial Mall for voting rights and voter mobilization – the Vote Your Dreams, Not Your Fears Rally – at 5:30 pm.For more information see the Facebook event.

Observing the Labor Sabbath This Weekend

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.”

Rev. Amy Laura HallAs 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.