Excerpts from interview with Bert Perry on August 18, 2011
In these excerpts, Bert Perry discusses the effects of changing agricultural workforces on labor organizing and her perspective on why people should get involved with the work of NFWM.
Bert Perry: The shift in the population, well according to a friend of mine, a labor economist whom I met not too long after that meeting with Cesar, every 20 years or so (it’s shortened up it’s time a bit) but every 20 years or so people began to realize they should have better working conditions, and people begin to group together or organize. The agribusiness tends to replace those people with people who are less trouble. And in Florida we were sort of late in the civil rights movement. We didn’t quite get it for a several years after the rest of the country. So in the mid-70s when the African American workers began to say, “We don’t have to be treated like this,” and also in the civil rights movement, many of them left the fields and went into the urban areas where things were happening. The reaction from the agribusiness was, rather than to raise the wages or improve the working conditions, to just find someone to work cheaper.
So it was then that people mostly from Mexico and parts of Central America and in some cases we had a lot of Haitian and Jamaican workers here because they would come and work cheaper and as immigrants they didn’t have the rights, supposedly, that Americans had. And so that happened and when the UFW started organizing here in Florida. It was about the same time that other immigrants were brought in to replace the African Americans and because Cesar was very good at integrating the work force here in Florida, much more so than in California because we already had people shifting populations and so the population here was made up of Africans Americans, Haitians, Jamaicans, some Caucasians, and people beginning to come from Mexico and Central America, and when that started happening a lot of the argibusiness, especially in South Florida, stopped hiring Mexicans and started bringing in Guatemalans and people from Costa Rica and Belize and people just kept replacing populations as soon as a group realized that they need to be less exploited.
Interviewer Ryan Nilsen: So what would you like to say to people that might be interested in getting involved in the National Farm Workers Ministry today?
Bert Perry: Gee, I would like to say a lot of things. What would I like to say simplest, I think simplest is that all of us, and since we are a National Farm Worker Ministry, we have a lot of members who believe in the justice part of it whether or not they are church members, but I would say that in the context of faith and belonging and working in support of a Ministry that “the least of these,” if you look at our systems today, our people in agriculture and the people in the service industry, and I think that if you want to change a system of exploitation then you have to start from the bottom, from the people least of these, and in agriculture of course these people are the workers. And if you look at it from other kinds of biblical perspectives, there’s the immigrant, and the women, and the value of life and in an industry where people, and it’s not only agriculture, there are situations more now than there was 20 years ago, in an industry where people are not valued as employees but rather more as equipment.
… So if you look at that need to be a person of responsibility to people as humans, I don’t see how you could avoid supporting agricultural workers whether, well I would hope you would do it through the NFWM, but I don’t see how you could live in this country and not support the people who pick our food. I just don’t see it. … When the NFWM changed from just a charity organization to also a justice organization the purpose of that was to be the bridge to carry the message to the churches, to the workers who didn’t have the resources, money, time, energy, to speak for themselves, we are the messengers and that is still true, that we have the message to give from the farmworkers on what’s going on in the local places and on a broader perspective, you know the global perspective. So I think it is an opportunity to make a large impact with a small number of people. … And it is an easy way for one person to make a big difference. And you get to meet wonderful people. And you get to appreciate what you eat. And I would, well I couldn’t guarantee it but I would pretty much think that anybody that interacts with farmworkers never looks at the way they eat the same again, even if you are not interested in justice.
Most people are but even if you are not interested in the complexity of agribusiness and all that once you interact with the person who actually harvests your food and you really talk to that person about their lives, their jobs and all that stuff, you never look at your food the same way again and I think that is the kind of message that the NFWM carries to people. And that you can make a little difference, I mean it is pretty easy when you can talk about boycotting things, I mean boycotts have worked in agriculture, it takes a long time but they have worked and it’s not that big of a deal to eat a grape for a couple of years, but if enough people don’t eat a grape, the workers get better jobs. To me a good way to affect that system is out of a strong basis in faith and justice, whichever one is more important to you.