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This Day in Labor History: February 11, 1903

[ 10 ] February 11, 2017 |

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On February 11, 1903, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association formed to build racial solidarity among workers against sugar beet farmers near Oxnard, California. This was the first major cross-racial, non-white agricultural union in California. The following strike and victory was a sign of the possibilities of cross-racial organizing in the United States, but the aftermath and its eventual defeat a sad story about how white racism within the labor movement has undermined labor organizing in American history.

On the West Coast, and especially in California, a complicated labor situation developed soon after the United States stole it in the Mexican War. With the discovery of gold, white men rushed to what soon became a new state. But so did other people from around the world. This created immediate tension, as the white working class preferred to labor for themselves than do the hard service labor required, but also deeply resented any competition to them in what they saw as a white man’s state. So while the Chinese and Mexicans soon became banished to service labor and the most dangerous labor such as building railroads, the state’s burgeoning union movement wanted to eject Asian labor from the state entirely. They succeeded with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. But employers, especially in the state’s growing agricultural sector, quickly found other sources of cheap labor, both from Japan and Mexico.

Japanese workers soon gained a reputation for breaking contracts to force wage increases. One farmer complained to an investigator with the Department of Labor, “Every Japanese gang is a trade union; they come and quit together.” When one farmer hired a group of Japanese to pick his almonds in 1901, he thought he had a great deal because he hired them for $1.25 a day when he was paying whites $1.50. But after being on the job for two days, the Japanese demanded a raise to $2.50 and had to find a new labor force for that year, switching to hiring Japanese contractors in the future so he didn’t have to deal with it. As a whole, Japanese laborers found themselves earning steadily higher wages each year after 1900.

In response, the farm owners formed their own organization to collectively push down wages. The Western Agricultural Contracting Company sought to take control of the labor situation by undermining the Japanese contractors, forcing them and all other non-white contractors to subcontract through the WACC. They had a Mexican Department and a “Jap Department” to do this with the individual racial groups. This was effectively a racist labor monopoly. The prices paid for the thinning of the sugar beets were reduced from $5-6 an acre to $3.75. The promised $1.50 wage a day the reality became a brutal piecework system. It was this that spurred the organization of workers, not only the Japanese, but the smaller number of Mexican workers caught up in this system.

On February 11, 500 Japanese workers and 200 Mexican workers formed the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. They named Kosabura Babo, a Japanese labor contractor, as president and then had a Japanese and a Mexican secretary for each ethnic group. The union soon grew to 1200 members. Their primary goal was eliminating the WACC. Believing the employer labor monopoly artificially suppressed wages, they wanted the end of the subcontracting system as it required workers to pay both the contractor and the subcontractor to work and they wanted to be paid in cash instead of company scrip, always a classic way employers sought to steal from their workers in rural areas. The one thing the workers had going for them, as farmworkers always do, is that crops must be planted and/or harvested within a short and very specific amount of time, before they go bad. In this case, the critical thinning of the sugar beet seedlings was just around the corner.

On March 23, white farmers struck back, as they would against organized labor so many times in their sordid history. A group of them shot into a crowd of strikers, killing a Mexican worker named Luis Vazquez and wounding four other workers, two Mexican and two Japanese. The media blamed the JMLA for this, even though the workers were innocent. The Los Angeles Times, ever an anti-union outfit in these decades, wrote that “agitation-crazed Mexicans and Japanese” had attacked “independent workmen.” Charles Arnold was soon arrested for Vazquez’s murder but even though he was obviously guilty, the all-white male jury was not going to convict him. So the JMLA upped the ante, engaging in more aggressive actions to win the strike. In one action, 50 Mexican strikers wearing masks went to a scab camp, cut down their tents, and forced them to leave the farm. They also managed to win a lot of the scabs being brought from elsewhere over to the strike by just talking to them.

In the aftermath of the violence, with the JMLA showing continued success and the beets needing their trimming, the farm owners finally agreed to a deal, which the union made more likely by threatening to take all their workers out of the county if they did not agree. On March 30, they signed the agreement. The wages for thinning were reset to $5 and then up to $6 an acre. The JMLA won union recognition and the right to represent workers on 5000 acres of farms through Ventura County, excluding only one large farm. Japanese and Mexican contractors retook control over the hiring process.

So this is a happy story, right? They even won union recognition at a time when that was pretty rare, especially for low wage, low skill workers. Nope. That’s because Samuel Gompers denied their AFL charter since the organization would not allow Japanese members. After the JMLA’s victory, J.M. Lizarras, secretary of the Mexican branch of the new union, petitioned the AFL for a charter. This would have made the JMLA the first agricultural union in the AFL. The California AFL was extremely anti-Asian. This was only a couple of years before the San Francisco population, including many unions, went ballistic over the idea of Asians going to school with white children and tried to institute a Jim Crow system of segregation that forced President Theodore Roosevelt intervene to avoid an international crisis with a growing power, leading to the Gentlemen’s Agreement that ended Japanese immigration. So the willingness of California white workers to accept even the idea of unionized workers of color was pretty fleeting. Some labor councils were better than others and the Los Angeles County Council of Labor adopted a resolution to favor the unionization of all unskilled workers regardless of race or nationality, even at the same time also opposing further Asian immigration. But most would not go this far. Neither would Gompers. He turned them down after heavy lobbying against them by the San Francisco Council of Labor. Without that official support, the JMLA declined quickly and there is little evidence of it existing even by the end of 1903. There was more agitation over labor exploitation in 1906, but no documents mention the JMLA. Once again, racism got in the way of an effective American labor movement.

This would be far from the last time the different races in the California fields and other agricultural sectors of the U.S. organized to help each other, although as the marginalization of the Filipinos within the United Farm Workers demonstrates, such cross-racial solidarity was never easy to maintain. It would not be the last time by any means that California farmers would resort to violence to bust a strike. It would also be far from the last time that white unionists hurt their own economic interests by opposing the unionization or employment of people of color.

I borrowed from Mark Wyman, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West and Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California for the writing of this post.

This is the 208th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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The Small Farm

[ 126 ] February 9, 2017 |

jimmy-carter-in-his-open-neck-blue-work-shirt-blue-jeans-walking-in-the-green-fields-and-red-clay-of-his-rural-georgia-peanut-farm

The mythology of the family farm goes deep in American history. It’s only recently that presidential elections stopped using this mythology for endless ads (if there’s one thing neither candidate cared about in 2016, it was farmers in Kansas or Ohio). Remember how tied up into being a small farmer the Carter campaign was. But the family farms have been stressed and declining for nearly a century, as automation and global commodity markets made efficiency the only thing that mattered. Despite the U.S. propping up these farmers through Nixon-era crop subsidies, they continue to decline. Given the relatively small number of people involved, I can’t get too worked up over the routine stories like this about their continued decline.

That said, this is part of the larger American problem that we have not come up with any sort of long-term industrial or employment planning to figure out what these people do when they lose their farms. Where do they go? What kind of dignified life can they lead? That’s even more true if they want to stay in small-town Kansas or Iowa, but not really that much better for most if they move to the cities. The lack of such a policy is really at the core of a number of our problems right now, including the sharp reaction to right-wing white nationalist politics with its very strong economic message of “screw brown people.” With millions of people about to lose their jobs due to automation in trucking and restaurants, this is not getting better as we on the left aren’t even articulating any good ideas on this point. We are at the starting point, ceding the rhetorical field to fascists. At least we can have some great songs about it.

Of course, no one epitomizes the Trump voter more than the white farmer, so it’s not like they would support any big programs to help themselves out anyway, unless it was more cash payments that went directly to them. As Donald Worster pointed out years ago in his excellent book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, farmers of the western Plains were big fans of the New Deal precisely up to the point where a) they saw an outsized amount of the benefits and b) the economy was so bad that they had no other choice. As soon as the New Deal was seen helping those people and the weather turned so they could be productive again, they turned back to the environmentally disastrous farming methods and hatred of the government that got them into trouble in the first place.

So there is no little irony that the California farmers who so strongly supported Trump and now worried about acquiring their cheap, exploitable labor force that has driven their agenda for more than a century.

Jeff Marchini and others in the Central Valley here bet their farms on the election of Donald J. Trump. His message of reducing regulations and taxes appealed to this Republican stronghold, one of Mr. Trump’s strongest bases of support in the state.

As for his promises about cracking down on illegal immigrants, many assumed Mr. Trump’s pledges were mostly just talk. But two weeks into his administration, Mr. Trump has signed executive orders that have upended the country’s immigration laws. Now farmers here are deeply alarmed about what the new policies could mean for their workers, most of whom are unauthorized, and the businesses that depend on them.

“Everything’s coming so quickly,” Mr. Marchini said. “We’re not loading people into buses or deporting them, that’s not happening yet.” As he looked out over a crew of workers bent over as they rifled through muddy leaves to find purple heads of radicchio, he said that as a businessman, Mr. Trump would know that farmers had invested millions of dollars into produce that is growing right now, and that not being able to pick and sell those crops would represent huge losses for the state economy. “I’m confident that he can grasp the magnitude and the anxiety of what’s happening now.”

Mr. Trump’s immigration policies could transform California’s Central Valley, a stretch of lowlands that extends from Sacramento to Bakersfield. Approximately 70 percent of all farmworkers here are living in the United States illegally, according to researchers at University of California, Davis. The impact could reverberate throughout the valley’s precarious economy, where agriculture is by far the largest industry. With 6.5 million people living in the valley, the fields in this state bring in $35 billion a year and provide more of the nation’s food than any other state.

Yeah, like he cares about you Mr. White Farmer.

Between this and $3 tomatoes in January thanks to whatever restrictions they are going to put on products coming in from Mexico, the reemergence of nutrition-based diseases among the American poor is sure going to work out for all of us!

The Child Labor Party

[ 20 ] January 25, 2017 |

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Above: The Dream of the Republican Party

Virginia Republicans double down on their commitment to child labor at the same time that it moves the official policy of the national GOP:

In an unrecorded party-line vote, House Republicans killed a bill Tuesday evening that would have cracked down on child labor at tobacco farms in Virginia. Two Democrats on the panel voted against killing the bill, although they were unable to persuade the Republican majority on a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee that children should not work with toxic chemicals on farms that grow a substance packaged with a warming from the surgeon general.

“If this was your kid, would you be OK with having them work in this job?” asked Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49). “Would you? I don’t think you would. So why is it OK for kids you don’t know to do this job?”

Republicans answered that question with silence. None of them responded when Lopez made the issue personal, although the Arlington delegate explained that the issue is very personal for the 141 kids interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2014. Those interviews led to a report titled “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming.” That report led to some startling conclusions, none of which have been able to move Republicans in the General Assembly so far.

“Child tobacco workers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia often experienced nausea and vomiting while cutting stalks of burley tobacco during the harvest,” the report noted. “Jacob S., a 14-year-old tobacco worker in Virginia, described similar symptoms. ‘I get a little bit queasy, and I get lightheaded and dizzy. Sometimes I feel like I might pass out. It just feels like I want to fall over.’”

Kids getting dizzy from tobacco poisoning? If you are a Republican, this is a feature, not a bug. If you need more information on child labor in American tobacco, Human Rights Watch issued a report on this issue a couple of years ago, which is what gave it greater attention, not that Republicans care.

This Day in Labor History: January 20, 1920

[ 10 ] January 20, 2017 |

Chinese_contract_laborers_on_a_sugar_plantation_in_19th_century_Hawaii

On January 20, 1920, Filipino sugar workers on Oahu, Hawaii, went on strike to demand higher pay. Japanese workers soon joined them and this multiracial strike led to minimal victory for workers and, even rarer, a cross-racial strike with significant solidarity that helped create that victory.

Hawaii became a target of U.S. imperialism from almost the moment that American missionaries arrived there in the early 19th century. Often from middle class families from the Northeast with close ties to early industrialism, the missionaries wrote home to their families, suggesting they invest in Hawaii. Soon, capitalists like Sanford Dole were dominating the Hawaiian economy, leading to declining power for the Hawaiian monarchy, the displacement of the islands’ indigenous people, and the growth of American imperialism. After the Civil War, the move to get the U.S. government to annex Hawaii grew. In 1893, the planters overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and assumed they would become part of the U.S. But Grover Cleveland opposed annexation and so they had to wait until William McKinley became president. Finally, Hawaii became an American colony in 1898.

All of this required a much larger labor force than the indigenous Hawaiians could provide. So labor contractors began to look abroad to import labor. At the same time, thousands of Japanese were migrating to the United States. Many of them ended up in Hawaii working in the sugar plantations. The Filipinos, which had no tradition of migration to the U.S. while it was a Spanish colony, became a major target for agricultural contractors, especially after the combination of whites in California freaking out about Japanese immigration combined with Japanese imperial ambitions to shut off Japanese migration with the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907. With the Chinese Exclusion Act ensuring that no Chinese came into the U.S., west coast and Hawaiian farmers looked to the Philippines for their new source of cheap Asian labor. Smaller numbers of Portuguese also arrived to work in the sugar fields, and native-born Hawaiians also worked there, as well as small numbers of Chinese, Spaniards, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Koreans.

Conditions on the plantations were hard. Until 1900, many of the workers were prisoners. There were also disparate wage rates due to race, with Portuguese and Puerto Ricans receiving higher wages than the Japanese. There was a 1909 strike by the Japanese workers for equal wages. It was after this that the planters started actively recruiting the Filipinos. Workers were often not paid their wages until after the harvest, a common tactic used to reduce labor mobility.

The polyglot plantations worked well for the planters. With the workers divided by ethnicity, cross-racial solidarity, not to mention basic communication, was hard. When one group went on strike, the others were there to use as strikebreakers. But during World War I, conditions got worse. Rising prices because of the war without rising wages led to widespread destitution among the workers. The Filipinos and Japanese began to organize together, although in separate organizations. But by late 1919, the Filipino Labor Union and the Federation of Japanese Labor were working closely together. Led by Pablo Manlapit, a plantation worker who had arrived in Hawaii in 1910, the Filipinos realized they would not succeed without uniting with the Japanese. The Filipinos led the strike, walking out on January 20. The Japanese followed on February 1, although many Japanese workers struck earlier. They demanded wage hikes, an 8-hour day, and regular bonus payments for higher production that would pay 75 percent of it each month, with only 25 percent withheld until the end of the harvest. The planters did grant them the bonus plan but refused to address the other conditions. The workers had already decided that if the planters did not meet all their demands, they would strike. Soon, there were 8300 workers on strike. About 5000 were Japanese and 3000 Filipinos, with 300 from the other nationalities.

The planters responded by evicting everyone from their company houses, over 12,000 Filipinos, of which over 4000 were children. By this time, the Japanese generally lived in independent housing.The Japanese were better prepared for the strike as the union had built up a fairly sizable savings to buy food. The Filipinos assumed their community would feed the strikers but that did not work out well. The Japanese then used their money to help the Filipinos, another example of the cross-racial solidarity that marked this strike. To make things worse, the Spanish Flu whipped through the strike, affecting a lot more people than it usually would have because they were in crowded conditions in tents. About 140 strikers died during the strike.

It was a hard strike. Whites worked with Japanese elites to attempt to undermine the strike. Happening during the Red Scare, the U.S. government worried about radical communist agendas and red-baited the strikers, as well as fearing it as an extension of growing Japanese imperialism that threatened their own imperialist possessions. They tried to split the workers. Rev. Albert Palmer, leader of the anti-strike movement, called it, “a nationalistic Japanese movement, using the Filipinos as tools, but aiming at Japanese control of the sugar industry and the islands.” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin called for racial revenge, writing “Americans do not take kindly to the spectacle of several thousand alien Asiatics parading through the streets with banners flaunting their hatred of Americanism and American institutions and insulting the memory of the greatest American president since Washington.” Said banners had pictures of Abraham Lincoln, as the strikers were claiming Americanism for themselves and comparing themselves with black slaves. Manlapit did call for an end to the Filipino strike on February 9. Perhaps he was bribed. But the rank and file stayed out on strike. About 1000 of the strikers eventually went back to work. And the planters were able to hire 2000 strikebreakers. Still, they lost $12 million during the strike.

The workers finally won the strike on July 1, when the planters agreed to a 50 percent pay raise and greater benefits, although the full pay and benefits would not start for another six months, leading to disappointment to many workers. And in fact, it was only a moderate victory for the workers, as they were suffering serious losses in morale and in keeping labor out of the fields after April 1. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable strike among people who had not worked together in the past.

I borrowed from Moon-Ho Jung, “Revolutionary Currents: Interracial Solidarities, Imperial Japan, and the U.S. Empire,” in Daniel E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor & United States Imperialism, in the writing of this post.

This is the 207th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: October 10, 1933

[ 8 ] October 10, 2016 |

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On October 10, 1933, thirty ranchers surrounded a group of agricultural strikers in Pixley, California. They opened fire and killed two. The massacre at Pixley culminated the farm strike that had gone on through the harvesting season and demonstrated the level of violence ranchers would resort to in order to keep labor as exploitable as possible.

With the Great Depression, the decline in commodity prices and the growth of a desperate labor force led California cotton growers to drastically reduce their wages, from $1.50 per 100 pounds of cotton picked in 1928 to 40 cents in 1932. Workers were increasingly angry and desperate. They were also increasingly white, as they began to replace the largely Mexican workforce the farmers usually relied upon. The Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, founded in 1930, stepped in to organize these workers. This was a communist-led organization seeking to organize the most desperate of workforces in the fields. It was in many ways a successor of Industrial Workers of the World attempts to do the same in the 1910s that had led to the killings at Wheatland, near Pixley, in 1913. The CAWIU engaged in a number of small strikes through 1931 and 1932. Like in Wheatland, the farmers routinely turned to violence to crush these strikes.

By 1933 though, the CAWIU had a strong cadre of experienced organizers who knew the fields and how to organize them. They developed sophisticated financial plans to help them plan for the upcoming strikes in 1933, gaining information about wage rates, crop prices, and when different crops would be ready to pick, all of which helped them coordinate these actions. The demands for these strikes were fairly straightforward–union recognition, higher wages, a shorter workday, no hiring discrimination based on union membership or ethnicity. In other words, these farmworkers were seeking dignity. They also avoided talking about their revolutionary aims, figuring it was easier to organize the workers if they didn’t scare them with rhetoric about communism.

The 1933 strikes began on April 14, when 2000 Mexican, Filipino, and white workers walked off the pea farms. It was once again violently suppressed. Then Mexican fruit workers sought to reject the communist leadership of the CAWIU, working with the Mexican consul to cultivate non-communist leadership. So things started very poorly for the union that year.

But they did win in the cherry orchards, as the pickers managed to withstand violent assaults and force an agreement so the farmers could get their fruit picked before it rotted on the tree. This emboldened the CAWIU, which then held a convention to coordinate the critical late season harvests. They attempted to expand the strategy to include embedding organizers within established unions to build alliances and to make connections with unemployed workers to provide a larger challenge to the farmers and hopefully to undermine scab labor. Even before this strategy was really put into motion though, the CAWIU started winning a bunch of strikes. In the beets and tomatoes, in the peaches and pears, hundreds and then thousands of workers walked off the job and won wage gains. Between the beginning and end of August, the standard wage in California fields rose from 16 cents to 25 cents an hour.

The CAWIU then went to organize the grape farms. This would prove incredibly difficult, as it would for the United Farm Workers three decades later. Growers and police used every force at their disposal, including the American Legion, which effectively operated as a neo-fascist organization committing anti-labor violence from its founding, to brutally beat back the organizers. The grapes would not be organized in 1933.

So they moved onto cotton. This was a largely Mexican labor force, with some African-Americans and whites. As mentioned above, wages had plummeted in recent years. Between 1932 and 1933, the price of cotton had rebounded from its early Depression woes, up 150 percent. The cotton growers did not pass a penny of that onto the workers. The CAWIU realized this was the most crucial crop and its success would be decided here. The union used roving pickets, only when they found workers in the field, which made it very hard for the anti-labor forces, as organized as they were in the grapes, to find the strikers and crush them. A violent attack on strikers in the town of Watsonville only led to greater worker solidarity and determination. Growers attempted to boycott stores that did business with strikers, especially those that gave them credit. This strategy was widely denounced and led to calls for mediation. The union immediately agreed to that. The growers did not.

By October 10, 12,000 cotton workers were on strike. But in Pixley, armed growers opened fire on an unarmed group of strikers. State policemen watched it all happen and did nothing. Two workers died. Eight more were wounded. Another shooting followed shortly thereafter, killing another striker. Local authorities then arrested strikers, accusing them of murdering one of their own. All of this led to widespread negative press for the farmers. Tulare County police were pressured into arresting eight farmers for their role in the Pixley murders, but then also arrested strike leader Pat Chambers as well. Both sides do it.

The Roosevelt administration had hoped to avoid this kind of labor violence. In the fall of 1933, it was just waking up to the extent it would have to do for workers if it wanted labor peace. In this case, it responded by offering relief to the strikers, the first time this had happened in U.S. history. George Creel, most famous for heading the United States Committee on Public Information in World War I, was working for Roosevelt at this time and attempted to intervene, noting that even if agricultural workers were excluded from the National Industrial Recovery Act, they fell under the jurisdiction of his own agency, the National Labor Board. Creel held hearings, hoping to bring the workers off the picket lines, undermine the communists, and create labor peace. He got the growers to go along by agreeing to a wage increase in exchange for cutting off the relief effort. But the CAWIU rejected the agreement. Yet it had few options. On October 27, it finally agreed to call off the strike, even though union recognition had not been achieved.

Around 47,500 people participated in at least one of these strikes in 1933. If anyting, it was a victory for the federal government. The CAWIU would not remain a major player in agricultural organizing but the farmers had been forced to give in as well. This was all predicated on federal intervention in labor struggles, so to be a hallmark of the New Deal.

This is the 195th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Trump, Clinton, and Rural America

[ 64 ] September 23, 2016 |

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I liked this piece on support for Trump in eastern Colorado, an area which relies on an extremely globalized world in farm products to have any economy at all. Trump of course claims (FWIW) that he opposes free trade. Of course, I have massive problems with the current trade system as well, including that it allows farmers like these people in eastern Colorado to flood the market in nations like Mexico, forcing millions of people off their farms and into dirty and dangerous jobs in the maquiladoras or to cross into the U.S. But leave that aside for a bit because the point that these are voters who should absolutely support aggressive free trade policies for their own self-interests is valid. Yet of course they hate Hillary and love Trump because nothing is about policy and everything is about racial and cultural identity. And you have to give it to Trump–he has completely stripped away any pretense that Americans care about policy and issues. They will absolutely act against their own concrete economic interests. not only in the relative abstract of tax policy and the safety net but in the sense of I will vote for someone who will cost me my livelihood because I believe in white pride.

This Day in Labor History: September 16, 2004

[ 11 ] September 16, 2016 |

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On September 16, 2004, Mt. Olive Pickles finally came to an agreement with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, ending a lengthy boycott of the company. This groundbreaking farm workers union launched one of the most successful organizing campaigns of the last 25 years in the South and demonstrate the continued vitality of farmworker unions in the present.

When we think about farm labor organizing in the United States, our thoughts almost immediately go to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California. There is of course a good reason for that. But both before and after the UFW, there has been significant organizing of some of the nation’s most exploited labor forces. In the Midwest and South, one of the leading movements involved in this is the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. FLOC was founded in 1967 by Baldemar Velasquez, the 20 year old son of Mexican migrant farmworkers in the Midwest. FLOC initially sought to organize farmworkers on individual farms, but soon realized the limitations of that strategy because the farmers themselves didn’t hold the ultimate power over wages. The farmers sold their crops to the big food conglomerates. That’s where the power lies in the agricultural world. FLOC soon turned its attention to leveraging what power it could against food corporations. That strategy became full-fledged in 1979, when after a failed strike, it called for a consumer boycott against Campbell Soup. The boycott was of course the preferred tactic of Cesar Chavez (he preferred it to actually organizing farmworkers) and because of the grape boycott’s fame, it made a lot of sense for other farmworker organizing movements to borrow this. In 1987, this boycott was successful. Campbell signed a contract with both the farmers and FLOC to double wages, improve migrant housing, and provide a grievance procedure, which doesn’t sound sexy but is tremendously important for any worker who is too scared to complain about their lives otherwise.

In organizing tomato workers, FLOC also became involved with pickle workers because the integration of the agricultural industry meant many of the companies it became involved with in fighting for tomato workers were also in cucumbers and pickles. Pickle growers relied heavily on sharecropping schemes in order to get around labor law, including child labor and the minimum wage. Given the harvest seasons, many FLOC workers were working tomatoes one week and pickles the next. The expansion made sense. Beginning in 1987, FLOC began engaging in pickle organizing and boycotts. A three-year campaign gave it a victory in the H.J. Heinz fields. In 1991, another campaign won the fields for Dean Foods. The large majority of Midwestern pickles were now picked by FLOC members.

FLOC called the boycott against Mt. Olive on March 17, 1999. The North Carolina pickle company had a different labor force than the farms in FLOC home base of Ohio and Michigan. Those farms tended to be picked by Mexican-American laborers who had been long residents of the U.S. and who lived in Texas and Florida when they weren’t picking. But Mt. Olive hired guestworkers who had very few rights and no permanent status in the U.S. This was part of a longer history of North Carolina farmers searching the world for the most exploitable labor. While some found the paperwork in the guestworker program unwieldy, with African-Americans and then Caribbean guestworkers leaving their fields for better work, Mexican guestworkers became the next exploitable labor force. About 10,000 H-2A guestworkers labored in the North Carolina fields. Mt. Olive of course attempted to avoid any responsibility for the workers, saying that they did not employ these farmworkers so they had no control over the conditions of labor, even though they set the price at which they would buy the pickles.

FLOC was successful with these workers because they became a way for workers to express their own power. For example, a man named Mamerto Chaj Garcia was working for a Mt. Olive contractor. He came down with appendicitis and his boss told him he was drunk. Finally, he took a cab to the hospital where it was removed. Then a few weeks later, Garcia and his eight trailermates were all kicked out of their housing without receiving their pay. They complained to FLOC organizers. 30 FLOC members marched up to the farm and confronted the farmer, who handed over the withheld pay. This was the sort of routine oppression farmworkers faced, and often still do face, and how farmworker unions can help alleviate the worst of their problems, even if they lack a contract.

FLOC used the guestworkers’ status though to their advantage. As those workers moved from farm to farm, they spread the FLOC message. FLOC appealed to guestworkers because it sought to organize around their specific issues. FLOC wanted to set up a grievance procedure for the guestworkers. It wanted to create seniority lists so that workers could be sure they would return when they returned to Mexico. It won these concessions on September 16, 2004, when FLOC, Mount Olive, and the North Carolina Growers’ Association whose members owned the pickle farms. The agreement also covered all farms under the Growers Association, even if they did not grow pickles. This thus covered many tobacco workers as well.

To win this campaign, FLOC built upon the UFW boycotts of the past and made connections with unions, churches, and community groups around the country. It distributed “Pickle Picket Packets” to these groups, helping for instance concerned citizens mobilize their churches to promote the boycott. They especially worked on the Methodist Church because Mt. Olive CEO Bill Bryan was an active Methodist. When the United Methodist Church not only held its worldwide convention in the U.S. but also endorsed the boycott, it was a major moment for this community organizing strategy. The campaigns against the stores that sold Mt. Olive products was somewhat successful as well. Walmart of course didn’t care, but Kroger pulled the products from at least 130 stores in the South.

The contract also created a code of conduct for Mt. Olive contractors, with mandated inspections. Of course, worker abuses are still common on these farms. Grassroots farmworker unions have almost no money or staff, even though FLOC is affiliate with the AFL-CIO. But they chronicle workplace abuses, win stolen wages, and provide a voice for the guestworkers.

Much of this post is borrowed from Ronald L. Mize and Alicia C.S. Swords, Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA and David Dalton, Building National Campaigns: Activists, Alliances, and How Change Happens.

This is the 192nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Local Food? What About Local Farm Working Conditions?

[ 36 ] August 25, 2016 |

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Liberals love local food. But for the most part, they really don’t want to know what’s going on at the farm. They are fine with pictures of community members going out to the co-op farm and picking tomatoes or whatnot. But working conditions simply do not matter to most consumers. That’s almost as true for the liberals going to the farmers market as the everyday person shopping at Walmart. What is happening on those farms? Don’t we have to know this to know if we are creating a sustainable food system? Can sustainability exist in the face of exploitative working conditions? These are the questions Margaret Gray explores in this excellent Jacobin piece.

But my research, dating back to 2000, reveals that working conditions on local farms in New York’s Hudson Valley are not very different from those on the factory farms that dominate the headlines.

Of the farm hands I met, 99 percent were foreign born. The vast majority, 71 percent, were non-citizen Latinos; 20 percent were on H-2A guest-worker visas and hailed from Jamaica or Latin America. Most of the Latinos spoke little English, had low literacy in their native languages, and, on average, received a sixth-grade formal education.

The lack of English skills actually benefits their employers, who see learning the language as a stepping-stone to becoming American. The problem with American workers, farmers told me, is that they don’t have a work ethic.

Hudson Valley farmworkers were not primarily migrant workers: they lived in New York year-round, even if their farm jobs were seasonal. About one-third of those I met also lived with their families. This family reunification counters the workers’ loneliness, but it also undermines their financial goals.

Manuel expounded on this point:

I currently have nothing. You make dollars, but here you spend dollars, not like at home where the money goes further. The situation would be different if I made money here and sent it back to my country, but my family is here. You honestly cannot save money here.

The workers reported even worse economic exploitation in their home countries: age discrimination in factory work, bosses who paid in food, and subsistence living.

One comment raised both environmental issues and the retraction of irrigation programs and farm subsidies in Mexico post-NAFTA: “I used to have my own potato farm, but there is no water. Nothing happens with land that is dead.”

Those I spoke to also described their fear of losing their jobs or being deported. They also did not know their rights.

These factors, coupled with their desire to return home, created a vulnerable workforce willing to make tremendous sacrifices. To protect vital income for their families, they kept their heads down, set aside concerns about their own well-being, and complied with employer demands.

Many acutely analyzed their positions — they were utterly dependent on farm wages, lonely, and alienated.

A twenty-two-year-old Guatemalan woman broke into tears when she described how much she missed her home. She spoke to her mother often over the phone, but said she never related her sadness or complained about the work. Like others I interviewed who downplayed their hardships, her goal was to optimize her income even as she was painfully aware of her meager earning potential.

The work they perform is difficult, dirty, and strenuous; it requires repeated bending or crouching, sometimes with sharp implements, and sometimes in extreme weather for long hours. “You are dead by the end of the day; your arms and your feet ache because of standing all day,” one worker said.

A field hand told me he thought dogs were treated better than he was. But then he got worried that he was telling me too much. Many workers were reluctant to share stories about their working conditions, using phrases like “I better not say” and expressing fear of reprisals.

There are stories of wage theft, human trafficking, sexual harassment, illegal firings, and intimidation. But even if employers were prosecuted for such violations of existing law, the job would still exploit workers.

In New York — as in most other states — farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay, and they do not have a right to collective bargaining.

This means that some work eighty to ninety hours a week, for minimum wage, sometimes over seven days. Farmworkers argue that the law sets them up for exploitation since it fails to recognize them as equal to other workers. Heriberto, a farmworker who has given public talks, tells New Yorkers that they should be embarrassed by these laws.

This is not agribusiness. This is the local farm out in the countryside, growing such tasty veggies sold at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. There is massive exploitation on these farms. Yet none of this is really on the radar for most food consumers, even those who describe themselves as having a food consciousness, who buy organic and local. For food writers like Michael Pollan, these issues are even less important. And he should know better. But he’s never really paid much attention to work, preferring a romanticized past of mom laboring in the kitchen for hours each day without pay, ignoring the reality of modern life. Simply put, a food movement that allows for labor exploitation has no right to call itself sustainable. And yet the food movement has never cared about workers. As I discussed in the food chapter of Out of Sight, the fear of vegetables laden with pesticides led to a real consumer movement. But the companies completely defanged it by changing the pesticides to a new style that hits hard and fast and then dissipates. That protects the consumer but makes the lives of workers far more dangerous and poisonous. Consumers were fine with that. Once again, Margaret Gray:

If we are sincere in our solidarity with farmworkers, we must pay equal attention to labor conditions at smaller farms. Organic produce is thriving because consumers said they wanted it; animals are treated better because consumers said they cared.

While supporting farmworker efforts against corporate giants is commendable, we also need look in our own backyards and confront our local farmers — which should be one of the benefits of intimacy.

And that’s only the start. Those concerned with the politics of food need to think more clearly than Kingsolver, Pollan, and the other avatars of the “locavore” movement about the range of problems contemporary farms, industrial and “pastoral” alike, face — and to be more sanguine about the limits of consumer activism.

The plight of hyper-exploited workers on small farms will remain hidden if activists continue to portray factory farming as a unique evil facilitated by some kind of spiritual disconnect from the land, rather than one particularly telling example of capitalism’s inhumanity.

There is much to admire about small, local farms. But any serious effort to address the food supply chain must be big and international.

Until there is a food movement that takes place on those terms, produce cultivated under fair labor conditions will stand for little more than “organic” and “cage-free” do now: the costly mark of good conscience available only to the small few who can afford it.

Indeed.

Our Ancient Farmers

[ 84 ] August 2, 2016 |

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The average age of an American farmer is 58 years old. You might say, “who cares.” After all, nothing drives the LGM readership like rural America. But you do actually need farmers since people, you know, need to eat. Any profession with the average of 58 is in big trouble, perhaps with the exception of Supreme Court justice and that’s awfully arguable these days. Now, I find back to the land movements kind of odd because their promoters see them as political decisions when really they are deeply anti-political. My own view is that, like the late 60s and early 70s, young people have turned to food, DIY, and other hyper-local and largely rural issues because the big issues of the day seem so hard and impossible to deal with. If we can’t do anything meaningful about Vietnam climate change, at least I can control what I put into my body and get in touch with the land. There’s nothing really wrong with this and I suppose it’s an understandable response although not one I would take.

That said, we need farmers. Farming is not a real profitable profession. It takes a lot of capital. If you are going to do it, you need some financial stability up front. But what young people have that in an era of student debt and financial stagnation? So some people are trying to do something about it.

Starting a farm is hard for anyone, but Goodwin has an extra burden to bear: $9,000 in student loan debt. And although he works for both farms, Goodwin’s financial prospects are bleak. The average U.S. farm brought in only $43,750 in net income in 2012 (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture), an amount usually divided between operators.

When it comes to his own farm’s income, Goodwin is often torn between buying what he needs to expand his operation or spending that money to pay back his student loans.

Stories like Goodwin’s have become a rallying cry for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an advocacy group representing farmers in the first 10 years of their professional careers.

“Farmers are stewarding our environment, producing food we eat, and they are the anchor of rural communities,” says Eric Hansen, policy analyst at NYFC. “A really important public benefit is being provided by these farmers.”

With the help of the NYFC, Representatives Chris Gibson (R-New York) and Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) introduced the Young Farmer Success Act in Congress last June. The bill would add farming to a list of careers that receive student loan relief through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Under the program, participants would have the balance of their student loans forgiven after working full-time on a farm for 10 years while making income-driven payments towards their loans. There would be no age limit to take advantage of the program, but eligible farmers would need to work on a farm or ranch that brings in annual gross revenue of $35,000 (adjusted annually for inflation) or more.

Some have criticized the bill for not putting an age or income cap on the program, but Hansen says that the bill’s wording ensures that those with the most need will be given the most aid. Because loan payments are based on a farmer’s yearly income, they will rise when his or her salary does. “If the farmer makes enough money, they will pay off the loans before the loan forgiveness kicks in,” Hansen wrote in an email.

Good idea. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

Palm Oil and International Standards

[ 6 ] July 10, 2016 |

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The idea that companies can’t control their supply chains is ridiculous. They don’t control the labor and environmental conditions in them because they don’t want to and because they don’t care. They may not in fact be able to immediately enter a factory and transform it, but that’s because they have set up a decentralized system that favors their interests by shielding them from legal responsibility for what happens there. But when international pressure develops, it turns out that the corporations have tons of control. That is what’s happening with Cargill and their palm oil sourcing. Palm oil is a tremendously destructive product because it has led to the deforestation of vast swaths of southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. That has led to significant habitat reduction and ecological degradation without actually providing very many jobs for workers, with many of what jobs do exist being dedicated to child labor. Palm oil is however quite profitable for the elites who control this land. So it has continued without stop, turning huge areas of these nations into an endless monoculture.

In response to outrage from environmental organizations, western companies have agreed to palm oil supply standards. And with the Malaysian agricultural giant IOI ignoring them as they continue to deforest Indonesia, Cargill is now suspending new contracts with the company. Now, this is just Cargill protecting its own self-image and critics note that the company’s demands of IOI amount to almost nothing. Cargill certainly doesn’t care about the planet’s ecological health and it really doesn’t care about maintaining Indonesian rain forests. But the fact that Cargill felt compelled to do anything and that other companies have done more to cut their ties with IOI is an example of how outside pressure can make differences in supply chains and their labor and environmental impacts and an example of how one can pressure western corporations into taking some level of responsibility for what happens in sourcing their products.

Chicken Conditions

[ 24 ] July 3, 2016 |

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It’s a positive that Perdue is improving the welfare of the chickens on the farms it contracts with. It’s creating new standards that include exposure to sunlight and exercise to make chickens’ lives less terrible. Of course, the treatment of farm animals is a national shame but efficiency and profit has gotten in the way of humane treatment. Public pressure on these issues is forcing Perdue to make some changes. Now, these changes are completely dependent on corporate culture and corporate willingness to enforce, so they are far from a solution. For that, you need outside regulations. But still, it’s a start.

I will also state that it would be nice if people cared about the conditions of workers on the factory farms as much as they cared about the chickens and pigs and cows. But alas, they don’t really care at all.

The TPP and Big Ag

[ 33 ] June 14, 2016 |

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As I have stated many times, I don’t really care about GMOs in terms of thinking of them as any sort of health threat and I think concerns on that end are much closer to chemtrails than a legitimate issue. But the patent side of GMOs is highly concerned, as they make farmers dependent upon corporations to an unprecedented extent. That’s especially true as the ag companies push overseas. Even since the beginning of the Green Revolution, corporations have taken more and more control over developing world farming because of the expensive seed and fertilizer and heavy equipment required for this new farming. This has its benefits, but has also contributed to millions of people losing their land and becoming the easily exploited labor force for maquiladoras and sweatshops, not to mention contributes heavily to undocumented immigration into the United States. So while we can safely roll our eyes at any claims about GMOs being a particularly evil form of farming, we can be very worried over how the ag-tech companies used the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the next step in consolidating their profitable control over global farming and note that while the Obama administration has only paid lip service to labor and environmental standards in the TPP, it has also worked very closely with these corporate interests from the very beginning of the negotiations.

 And work closely they did. While the terms of the TPP were kept secret from the public and policymakers during negotiations, USTR negotiators relied heavily on input from the corporate insiders who populate the US government–appointed Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs). A representative from BIO sits on ITAC-15, the committee that focuses on intellectual property (IP) rights, and BIO spent roughly $8 million on lobbying each year while the TPP was under negotiation, paying firms like Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld $80,000 annually to lobby for “patent provision in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.”

The results of this lobbying blitz were unknown until the final text of the agreement was released in November of last year. Signed on February 4 and awaiting ratification by its 12 member countries—Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, United States, Vietnam, Chile, Brunei, Singapore, and New Zealand—the TPP is the largest regional free-trade deal in the world. While many have scrutinized its potential for offshoring jobs, lowering wages, and raising drug prices, few have paid attention to the TPP’s impact on the sector BIO prioritized above any other: agricultural biotechnology. Experts have called the TPP a “big win” for the biotech seed industry, and many warn that the trade deal will further enrich seed companies at the expense of farmers’ rights.

 While the United States and Japan did not succeed with their proposal of including patent protections for GMO plants—the provision, based on the US patent model, was removed in response to resistance from the majority of member countries—the TPP requires that member countries make patents available for “inventions that are derived from plants.” According to Burcu Kilic, a legal and policy director at the advocacy group Public Citizen who has written extensively on the TPP, the provision will likely translate to patents on genes that, once inserted into plants, render the plant patent-protected. So, for example, one could not patent an herbicide-resistant soybean, but one could patent the gene that makes a soybean herbicide resistant. The patent holder would then have the exclusive rights to the manufacture, sale, and use of any organism that contains that gene. In other words, the final language in the TPP became more palatable to skeptics whose approval of the agreement was needed, but patents on “inventions derived from plants” will likely be indistinguishable in practice.

“It’s ambiguous,” acknowledges Kilic with respect to how the language differs from the originally proposed patents on plants. “And when it is ambiguous, it’s scary, because the implementation will shape everything.” Currently, only three of the TPP member countries make patents available for plants, so if experts are right about the implications of this provision, nine other countries could see the introduction of US-style patents on plants.

The TPP also requires all member countries to join the Budapest Treaty on the International Recognition of the Deposit of Microorganisms for the Purposes of Patent Procedure, which Public Citizen says will “make it procedurally easier to apply for a patent.” Each member country must join the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991 as well, which effectively outlaws the saving of seeds from one season to the next, a practice the majority of the world’s farmers rely upon. “Farmers are prohibited from saving, replanting, and exchanging protected seed, and breeders are granted exclusive right to germplasm,” Maywa Montenegro, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley researching seed systems, says of the treaty. While farmers in some TPP member countries technically have this right enshrined in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the conflict between these agreements coexists without resolution.

As the linked article goes on to discuss, intellectual property rights for plant innovations serve the interests of first world corporations, not developing world peoples. The traits these plants are bred for are not to promote what consumers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America need, but rather, high yields and resistance to damage from the petroleum-intensive pesticides and herbicides used to kill off competition, rather than drought resistance or growing in salty soil. That’s not to mention the very real concerns about biodiversity that global agribusiness discourages.

And once again, we need to note that the TPP is not about free trade in a region with very few remaining trade barriers. It’s a global corporate rights agreement to benefit American companies and American foreign policy aims. It would be nice if its promoters argued honestly about the aims here.

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