Few U.S. workers face more challenging circumstances than farmworkers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935 to guarantee workers the right to organize and bargain collectively without retaliation, excluded agricultural workers from its coverage – so these workers enjoy no protection from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) if disciplined or fired for their union activity. Add to this the fact that recent immigrants make up the bulk of the workforce, and that relatively few are U.S. citizens, and you have a recipe for exploitation. Despite the odds, organizations like the United Farmworkers (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) continue to organize in the fields and dairies – and need solidarity from allies in the Church and the labor movement to back them up.
The UFW is probably the most familiar to readers. In their 1970s heyday, the largely Mexican and Mexican-American workforce that harvested California’s grapes organized under the leadership of the legendary Cesar Chavez. Chavez, deeply motivated by his Catholic faith, led a grape boycott and hunger strikes to draw attention to working conditions in the fields. With extensive support by Catholic clergy and laity and by the unions of the AFL-CIO, the UFW persuaded the state of California to adopt an “Agricultural Labor Relations Act” that gave farmworkers in the Golden State the basic rights guaranteed in the NLRA. In a current campaign among dairy workers, Washington State Darigold Workers who belong to the UFW demanded their legally mandated lunch breaks — and were fired for doing so. Starbucks Coffee is a major buyer, so the union is asking supporters to contact Starbucks and demand they meet with the workers.
Under the H2A visa program, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service permits growers in the United States to sponsor guest workers from Mexico (and elsewhere) who come to do the heavy work of planting and harvesting – then are sent home when the work is done. Because these workers can be deported if they displease their sponsoring employer, they are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Nonetheless, some have been successful organizing through the FLOC, a union that has operations in both Monterey, Mexico where the workers are recruited and in the US tobacco fields where they work. FLOC is asking Reynolds tobacco to source their tobacco from farms adhering to a code of conduct. The workers are asking allies to boycott Vuse e-cigarettes – and asking convenience stores like Circle K, 7-11 and Wawa to drop the product – until Reynolds takes responsibility for labor rights and working conditions on their contract farms.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is not a union at all but has achieved remarkable progress in the tomato fields of Florida. The farmworkers of Immokalee came together in the 1990s to fight for improved wages and working conditions, but soon learned that only the large buyers had the power to enforce lasting changes in the fields. Building a network of allies in the Church, labor and community organizations, the workers persuaded McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell to buy only from growers who have signed the CIW code of conduct. Today they are leading a boycott of Wendy’s, the stubborn holdout of the fast food sector, demanding that the chain do the right thing and use its market power to secure justice for farmworkers.
The men and women who harvest the food we eat need our support. Please pray for them, and make your voice heard by signing on to these campaigns.