Category Archives: Farm Workers

Make a Resilient, Localized Food System Part of the Next Stimulus

CounterPunch – May 25, 2020 – Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

From wasted food, to the exploitation of farmworkers, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear that this country’s food system must be changed. Politicians must pass further stimulus legislation that includes policy to reform our inflexible, consolidated food system to prepare for future crises.

Consider the many problems in the meat industry. Workers ill with COVID caused temporary  processing facility closures, putting our nation’s meat supply in jeopardy.  President Trump forced meatpacking plants to re-open by executive order, yet, further disruptions are likely. Roughly half of those plant workers are immigrants, living at or below the poverty line, forced to return to work, they are still at risk of getting sick.

Because these plants could not shift production to the retail market when restaurants, schools, and hotels closed, product could not move. These supply chain bottlenecks caused farmer prices to fall, even as processor profits rose.

And cattle ranchers were not the only farmers affected, dairy farmers were told to dump milk, and hog and poultry producers, to euthanize their animals and vegetable growers were forced to plow their crops under. Desperately needed food is wasted while grocery costs rise allowing retailers to cash in on supply chain breakdowns.

Before the pandemic hit, close to three million farmworkers who labor on some of the larger operations in this country already struggled.  Most lived in poverty, earning between $15,000 to $18,000 a year and around 75% of farmworkers lacked legal status and lived in fear of deportation.

Now, farmworkers face the risk contracting COVID-19. In California’s Monterey county, around 40% of the people who have contracted the virus are those people who labor in the fields. USDA’s response? Instead of improving working conditions for farmworkers, the USDA  wants to pay them less.

USDA has allocated $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, as well as creating the ‘farm to families box’ program – where suppliers, with larger operations having a seeming advantage, sell their produce to the government for distribution at food banks.  Both initiatives are band-aids, with direct payments mirroring past trade deal mitigation payments, wherein larger operations and multinational agribusiness firms such as JBS  are at the front of the line. This, as farm bankruptcies hit an eight-year high.

To really address the failures of the food system – and to position ourselves to adequately face the next crisis, we must reform our food system, ensure fair farm prices, empower agricultural workers and invest in rural infrastructure.

Farmworkers, in addition to citizenship, must be allowed to organize without fear of reprisal from their employer.  Currently, only California guarantees this right because the National Labor Relations Act excludes rural workers from the right to unionize. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act includes citizenship for farmworkers, still, efforts should go further by allowing workers the right to organize.

Farmworkers should also have the chance to become farmers. Since 2008, through the Farm Service Agency’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) over $162 billion has been provided to former farmworkers, including women, veterans and Native Americans, to promote small-scale agriculture. Doubling, or tripling the resources dedicated to this program, could help create a more localized food system and put more farmers on the land.

All farmers, need fair markets and fair prices. The government must, as it has in the past, establish reserves for grains, as well as other products.  Counter-cyclical government loans – a part of previous Farm Bills – would allow farmers to sell their produce either on the market, or into the reserves, with their decision based on a floor price that farmers, processors, and retailers would negotiate. Reserves would improve prices for farmers, prevent food shortages and stabilize consumer prices.

Smaller local processing facilities – for beef, dairy, as well as fruits and vegetables – would strengthen markets and make the supply chain more flexible. This should include more brick and mortar facilities, as well as mobile facilities that can travel from farm to farm, giving farmers multiple options for sales and consumers more options on how they buy.

Rural areas are in desperate need of improved communications and transportation infrastructure. The Post Office provides rural residents affordable access to the rest of the world and its viability must be ensured. Similarly, broadband internet access must be made available to everyone. And if farmers are to move their product, significant resources need to be spent on improving roads, dams, bridges and railroads.

The effects of the COV-19 pandemic have shown that large processors cannot meet the challenges of a crisis. A less consolidated food system that is more flexible, and supportive of farmers and workers will be better able to meet future challenges. Upcoming stimulus plans must address these problems in our food system now and for the long term. If they do, we might be ready for the next challenge.

Jim Goodman is an emeritus organic dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin .

Anthony Pahnke is the Vice President of the Family Farm Defenders and Assistant Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University.

SOURCE

A Farmworkers Bill of Rights

Counterpunch – Jul 22, 2019 – KARL GROSSMAN

Cuomo signs bill granting labor rights to farm workers

Passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices, also being called the Farmworkers Bill of Rights, by the New York State Legislature at its recent session was among its most notable achievements this year.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law on July 16th declaring: “This new law is not just a great achievement in terms of the effect on the human condition, it’s also a milestone in the crusade for social justice. By signing this bill into law, 100,000 farmers and their families will have better lives and will finally have the same protections that other workers have enjoyed for over 80 years.”

The law will take effect on the start of the new year.

The treatment of farmworkers has been a huge scandal in the United States.

Involved has been the area in which I live, in Suffolk County which covers the eastern portion of Long Island. Suffolk has been and continues to be a leading agricultural county in New York State.

Farmworkers—many of them migrant farmworkers lured by phony promises—have been excluded from basic laws in the U.S. among them those on housing and work. The New York legislation will give them rights including overtime pay, voting to unionize, having at least one day off a week and receiving workers’ compensation benefits.

“Today is the culmination of a decades-long fight centered upon one simple premise: that farmworkers deserve fairness, equality and justice,” said New York AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento upon legislative passage of the measure.

State Senator Jessica Ramos of Elmurst, Queens, who sponsored the bill and chairs the Senate’s Labor Committee, said upon Cuomo signing it that “today we are recognizing farmworkers as the backbone of New York’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry and acknowledging the dignity in their work.”

The legislation has, she said, “lingered” in the New York State Senate “for 20 years, with seven sponsors on both sides of the aisle. I am proud…to be the eighth and last sponsor of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. I have traveled to seven counties in New York, visited 14 farms, talked to countless farmworkers, and held three hearings on this bill….Farmworkers must be granted rights just as any other worker in New York.”

The governor signed the bill at the offices of the New York Daily Newswhich crusaded for its enaction.

Every semester in my four decades of teaching an Environmental Journalism class at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury I show the students Edward R. Murrow’s TV documentary, “Harvest of Shame” about the plight of farmworkers broadcast on CBS in 1960.

“We present this report on Thanksgiving because were it not for the labor of the people you are going to meet, you might not starve, but your table would not be laden with the luxuries that we have all come to regard as essential,” declared Murrow, the preeminent U.S. broadcast journalist of his era, standing in a farm field. “They are the migrants, workers in the sweatshops of the soil—the harvest of shame,” says Murrow. They are “the forgotten people.”

The documentary—which can be viewed on YouTube—leaves students shocked. Their jaws drop as they hear farmworkers who believed the promises of crew leaders who recruited them to harvest crops, are charged for all sorts of things and become indebted, trapped in migrant farm work. The housing and work conditions shown are outrageous.

Shown, too, are the terrible journeys. “Produce en route to the tables of America by trailer is refrigerated to prevent bruising,” says Murrow. “Cattle carried to market, by federal regulation, must be watered, fed and rested for five hours every 24 hours. People—men, women and children—are carried to the fields…in journeys as long as four days and three nights. They often ride ten hours without stopping for food or facilities.”

A minister, Rev. Michael Cassidy, who travels with migrant farmworkers trying to help them, says: “Only in name they are not a slave. But in the way they are treated, they are worse than slaves.”

My students are appalled to hear a farmer declare: “I guess they got a little gypsy in their blood. They just like it. Lot of ‘em wouldn’t do anything else. Lot of ‘em don’t know anything different. They don’t have a worry in the world. They’re happier than we are. Today they eat. Tomorrow they don’t worry about. They’re the happiest race of people on Earth.”

Suffolk County figures in “Harvest of Shame.” As a journalist based on Long Island since 1962, I’ve gotten my lumps on the farmworker story. Then New York State Assemblyman Andrew Stein of Manhattan inspected migrant farmworker camps in Suffolk in 1971. He was pressing for protections for them under state law.

“The conditions here are feudal,” said Mr. Stein as noted in an article in The New York Times by David Andelman, now a CNN commentator and author. “People live like indentured servants. This is not the kind of thing we want to have in New York State.”

The article continued: “At the first camp Mr. Stein visited here, the assemblyman, his party and accompanying newsmen were driven from the camp by a man the police said was the owner, William Chudiak. Mr. Stein was speaking with a migrant worker when Mr. Chudiak drove up in a pick-up truck. He grabbed a camera belonging to Karl H. Grossman, a reporter for the Long Island Press, and pushed and struck him.” (The Cutchogue camp was featured in “Harvest of Shame.”)

My students find it hard to believe that the outrageous conditions in “Harvest of Shame” continue. I present more recent journalism. On the 50th anniversary of “Harvest of Shame,” CBS correspondent Byron Pitts did a follow-up and, as The Atlantic noted, what he saw “was the same ugly dynamic that had existed during Murrow’s visits, the same cycle of brutal work, deplorable conditions…”

Murrow’s broadcast ended with his saying: “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 fruits and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do.”

I moderated a program on Long Island television with Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers union, when he visited Suffolk in 1992. He emphasized the need for broad action to end the nightmare for farmworkers.

Decades later, the New York State action is great and important but national action, by the U.S. government and other state governments, is called for—and critically needed.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, commented on the signing of the state bill that it “sets right 80 years of wrongs done by a racist, Jim Crow-era laws that denied farmworkers basic rights. Farmworkers have toiled for too long in dangerous conditions, vulnerable to exploitation. The NYCLU is proud to stand today with the governor and legislative leaders to ensure farmworkers have the right to organize, a day of rest, overtime pay, and more. These protections come at an important moment for immigrant farmworkers. As President Trump does all he can to advance his agenda of cruelty, our state is showing that all New Yorkers are worthy of respect, dignity, and rights.”

Cuomo also hit on the latter point at the signing. He commented: “This powerful and practical achievement is even more significant in the era of President Trump who continually diminishes workers’ rights, attacks labor unions, disrespects the disenfranchised and has made divide and conquer, rather than unify and grow, the credo of America.”

Farmworkers—all over the United States—must be granted rights just as any other worker in the U.S. That’s long, long overdue.

SOURCE