Always With Us: Solidarity with Farm Workers | NFWM

Clearwater Unitarian Universalist Church 31 August 2014
Samuel B. Trickey

Thank you, first, for the opportunity to be here this morning and to share something of the witness for justice of National Farm Worker Ministry. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here, for your warm welcome, for a chance to see this remarkable building, and particularly for the magnificent commitment of your Vision printed on the bulletin – “to be a beacon for reason … and bold social action”

A few remarks on how a physicist happens to be committed to the farm worker cause … [ad libbed]

Our Executive Director, Rev. Lindsay Comstock, had a prior commitment that prevented her from accepting your invitation – she also sends her thanks and greetings.

If you don’t already know her, after this service, please introduce yourself to Patricia Plantamura, in the red shirt here near the front. She is the National Farm Worker Ministry organizer working with the Pinellas Support Committee. She will have Farm Worker Ministry literature and literature on YAYA, our Youth and Young Adult program during the social hour after this service.

An oft-told folk tale tells of the children who were asked to identify the source of chocolate milk. They all said black or brown cows. As farfetched as it may seem, this is about the same level of knowledge that most Americans have about their food chain. Even today, with all the emphasis on “foodies” and “locavores”, the first steps of the food chain are invisible to most Americans

“Food chain” sounds like a machine. But the first steps are dominated by human labor. The lettuce, tomatoes, oranges, cucumbers, mushrooms, grapes, cabbage, lemons, blueberries, and on and on – all are harvested by farm workers. That’s people, not machines. And they are your first line of defense in matters of food safety and food quality. They are the ones who know whether there was animal or human waste next to a plant. They are the ones who know if field-washed vegetables really are being cleaned. They are the ones who know whether herbicide and pesticide applications are done correctly or carelessly. They know if the raspberries at the bottom of the box are over-ripe or not. That’s a somewhat selfish way to begin, but it makes the connection plain.

Yet there is a widespread indifference about farm workers. Observation suggests several kinds of indifference. One kind simply doesn’t care as long as the food is enjoyable and cheap. Just put food on the table. Another is more elegant, refined. Much attention is paid to organic quality, heirloom varieties, places of origin. But little thought goes to the people whose labor brought that varied harvest to that sophisticated palate. And then there is the calculated callousness that goes beyond indifference called social Darwinism. This is Reformation Protestantism – my heritage – run absolutely amok. It purveys the bizarre notion that economic success is clear experimental evidence of righteousness. So if farm workers are poor – and they are; if farm workers are abused – and they are, social Darwinism says that’s somehow because they deserve it. That’s simply wrong.

What’s true of all these forms of indifference? They deny human worth.

Indifference of all kinds treats farm workers as invisible. And thus their wages, working conditions, and living conditions are invisible. In the Christian tradition in which I am rooted, indifference to the plight of the worker repeatedly is condemned. One example is a story which haunts me, found in Luke, chapter 16, verses 19-31. It is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus is the beggar who sat at the rich man’s gates, “longing” the Scripture says, “to eat what fell from the rich man’s table”. In the afterlife, the rich man’s indifference condemns him to agony. In our society, we, the food consumers all too often are the Kings – and the farm workers are the Lazaruses rendered invisible at our gates.

Invisibility is the cloak of exploitation. Think about why so much petty crime occurs at night. Another passage from Christian scripture, (Mark 14:17, Matthew 26:11) quotes Jesus as remarking that “the poor will always be with you”. The remark is widely abused to justify indifference. But it emphatically is not that. From early in the Hebrew tradition, Deuteronomy 15:11 admonishes us to be “generous to the poor and needy”. Bearing that in mind, we must ask ourselves in candor, why are the poor always with us? My answer is this: because human greed and selfishness, the brokenness of our human condition, mean that it always is to somebody’s short-term advantage to exploit others.

So an essential step to ending exploitation is exposure, the end of invisibility. That is the first step of prophetic justice.

Invisibility of farm workers has been their burden for decades. 54 years ago this November, the famous “Harvest of Shame” documentary aired the day after Thanksgiving. Much of it was shot in Belle Glade, about 200 miles from here. The conditions it reported came as a shock to many Americans. That was a result of perhaps forgivable ignorance – we were a much less well-connected society then. But ignorance now is no excuse. If farm workers are invisible it is because of indifference, uncaring.

At the end of “Harvest of Shame”, Edward R. Murrow says “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do.”

They had more strength than he knew.

Shortly thereafter, in the middle 1960s the modern farm worker movement burst onto the American scene in the form of the United Farm Workers Union led by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and animated by many less-well-known workers and organizers. Farm workers are excluded from most of the basic federal labor organizing laws, the Wagner Act, Taft-Hartley, etc. That forced United Farm Workers to realize several things. Legislation was not the answer. But self-determination and worker empowerment were – and are – essential. Faced with this challenge, they set out to obtain union contracts anyway. Soon they realized that they had been left free to engage in secondary boycotts, which led to the legendary grape boycott. And they realized they needed connection with people in the cities and suburbs. They could not remain invisible and win.

The first grape boycott was won because of the organized participation of urban and suburban consumers. Farm workers may be invisible to a store manager and supermarket executives but consumers – especially our purses and billfolds! – are very visible. The organizing was done, in many cases, within urban and suburban communities of faith. Understand that the farm workers are people of faith – but they are not where the buying is done. And that brought about another profound change.

Since the 1920s, there had been a National Migrant Ministry which had become, by the 1960s, an agency of the National Council of Churches. Its programs were compassionate ministries – food aid, migrant children’s schools, medical and legal-aid clinics, advocacy with state Labor Departments and so forth. By 1970 it was clear that prophetic witness, standing with the farm worker movement, calling on religious organizations and their members to support the boycotts, was essential. We had to move beyond binding up the wounded to stopping the injuries in the first place.

Thus in 1971 today’s National Farm Worker Ministry began. It consists of more than 30 Member Organizations – denominations, Catholic religious orders, state councils of churches, state Church Women United and others – and a growing number of Supporting Organizations. Those are individual local churches and other groups – for example both my home congregation in Gainesville and the Interfaith Alliance for Immigration Justice in Gainesville are Supporting Organizations.

Farm Worker Ministry’s mission statement grounds our work in being “committed to justice for and empowerment of farm workers” and defines our primary tasks as educating, equipping, and mobilizing “member organizations and other faith communities, groups and individuals to support farm worker led efforts to improve their living and working conditions.The effort is national because the struggle is national – there are substantial populations of farm workers in Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, and California, to name only 10 states. If you followed the geography, those 10 make a loop around the contiguous 48. It is a national struggle.

So what is the status of that struggle today? One aspect is comprehensive immigration reform. I am pleased to see your engagement with CIR listed on your new website. And pleased to see that Edwin Enciso will be speaking here about CIR on Sept. 19 under the auspices of our Pinellas Support Committee. Here let’s focus on three major farm worker organizations and their current campaigns.

In California and the Pacific Northwest, United Farm Workers is engaged in two major struggles. One is with Gerawan Farming, one of the largest stone fruit and grape growers in the California. It sells under the Prima brand. At peak employment, Gerawan has about 5,000 workers. California is special in having its own Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Twenty-four years ago, Gerawan workers won a representation election via organizing with UFW. Yet by intimidation and retaliation (including firing union-member crews and closing 6 labor camps), plus extensive legal maneuvering, the workers have yet to be covered. California has a Mandatory Mediation statute that is supposed to resolve that sort of intransigence. Under it, a UFW-Gerawan contract was mandated by the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board in November, 2013. Yet to this date, Gerawan refuses to implement that contract. Obviously I’m not an attorney, but this passes the duck test: if it looks, sounds, smells like a duck, it’s a duck. This looks, smells, and sounds illegal. In support of UFW and the Gerawan Workers, National Farm Worker Ministry has organized so-called “sign-on” letters to Gerawan executives from faith community leaders across the country. Letters – that’s all, you ask? Well, it was enough to so disconcert Dan Gerawan that he called our Executive Director at 3:22 am on May 22 this year and yelled at her. In an odd way that is progress – he knows the workers at Gerawan Farms no longer are invisible. He cannot cloak exploitation forever. Those workers are counting on us.

There’s another UFW campaign in the Pacific Northwest with a large dairy cooperative called Darigold. In the interests of time, let me simply pique your interest by remarking that the campaign didn’t really gain traction as a farm worker issue until farm workers managed to smuggle pictures of animal abuse out. Somehow animal abuse netted more public outrage than farm worker abuse. What does that say about invisibility? About exploitation? About indifference?

In North Carolina, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (or FLOC) is in the midst of a 7-year campaign for Reynolds American Tobacco to be a key part of a multi-party process by which a meaningful union contract can be obtained. FLOC was the first farm worker organization to recognize that growers often are constrained in what they can pay by the conditions imposed by the buyers. Some of you may remember the Campbells Soup boycott or the later Mt. Olive Pickle boycott. Those were FLOC campaigns to compel the major buyer to be a party, with the growers, to guarantee wage increases by passing funds dedicated to the workers to the growers. Working condition improvements were guaranteed also. The same needs to happen in tobacco. Farm Worker Ministry has been with FLOC from the start – we have played a major part in getting proxies for the Share Holders meetings, in getting religious leaders here and in England to sign onto support, to organize demonstrations at retail outlets. It was good to see that you’ll be taking a letter to a WaWa convenience store after this service. They sell a lot of Reynolds American products.

That 7 year struggle, like the 24 year one, like most farm worker struggles, goes through stages, like the famous 5 stages of grief. First the company denies it has anything to do with farm workers. Then there’s anger – remember Dan Gerawan – at being exposed by farm workers and their supporters. Then there’s bargaining – with any agency or organization that is in some way proper, part of the establishment – but NOT with the farm worker’s own organization. Then there’s corporate depression – sulking and stalling, trying to avoid real solutions. Eventually there is resolution. Why companies don’t learn and just get it done is a mystery to all of us.

Go back to invisibility. When you buy your groceries in Florida, nothing in a Publix newspaper insert says “keep in mind that Florida in the last decade or so typically has had a farm worker slavery case about every two years.” Slavery is not something we worry about. But Coalition of Immokalee Workers has – and it has uncovered those abuses. Again – invisibility cloaks exploitation. Think then on what members of CIW were earning before their Fair-food and Penny-a-Pound Campaigns. They were getting roughly 45 cents a bucket – that’s 32 pounds. The Penny-a-Pound yields about a 65% wage hike. Even that is roughly poverty-level. CIW also has found a clever way to get around Florida’s anti-labor legal climate. CIW is not a union and doesn’t do collective bargaining. Instead, the CIW Fair Food program has a mandatory Code of Conduct, worker-initiated complaint resolution, health and safety committees, and, most critically, an independent external compliance auditing system. Farm Worker Ministry has supported CIW in a sequence of corporate campaigns, McDonalds, Yum Brands (Taco Bell), Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway, etc. Currently the targets are Publix and Wendy’s. It is heartening to see pictures on your Social Justice web page of actions with CIW.

Tomorrow is US Labor Day. Remember those least among us, the invisible hands that bring the harvest we enjoy. Reflect seriously on becoming a Supporting Organization of NFWM. By doing that your witness would reach not only this area but prick the conscience and afflict those comfortable in their indifference across our nation. Most of all it would hearten farm workers. For more than 45 years I have listened to farm worker stories, worked alongside farm workers in campaigns, visited labor camps. Over and over again they say they feel alone, forgotten. They believe they are living invisibly. And when we tell them about NFWM, why we are there, what we are doing, how we are sharing our power as consumers, their response has one common theme – wonderment, a sense that “Somebody noticed!” and “We’re not alone!” So for them, keep the faith. Help them lift the cloak of indifference and exploitation. FLOC says “¡hasta la Victoria!” = on to victory! UFW says “¡Si se puede! = yes we can! With our faithful, unyielding help, they can. And they will!

Thank you.