Thursday, July 2, 2020


by David Bacon
The American Prospect, July 2, 2020

Bert Corona, father of the modern immigrant rights movement

On June 24, new COVID-19 cases passed 200 in one day in rural Yakima County in central Washington state for the third time this June. That brought the total number of people infected to 6,940, and the number of the dead to 132. The infection toll for Seattle's King County, with a population ten times larger than Yakima's, was 9,453.

COVID numbers are spiking in farmworker communities all over the United States. On June 26, the Imperial Valley, on the California-Mexican border, the source of winter vegetables worth over $1.8 billion per year, registered 5,549 cases and 70 deaths. In California's huge San Joaquin Valley, Fresno County had 3,892 infections and 71 deaths, and Kern County had 4,108 cases and 63 deaths. Collier County in Florida, center of the U.S. tomato crop and headquarters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, had 3,778 cases and 70 deaths. Cumberland County, New Jersey's agricultural heartland, had 2,876 cases and 124 deaths, and nearby Chester County, Pennsylvania, where workers labor in Kennett Square's mushroom sheds, had 3,437 cases and 313 deaths. In Arizona's Yuma County, an irrigated desert along the Colorado River, there were 5,323 cases and 76 deaths.

This raging rural infection rate, which tracks those of urban counties many times their size, is not due to a refusal by farmworkers to wear facemasks. It is a function of structural racism-the way immigrants in general, and farmworkers in particular, are treated as disposable labor. People in the fields are viewed as machines, whose ability to work is the only aspect of their human value worth considering.

There is no clearer demonstration of this fact than the immigration order issued by the Trump administration on June 23. President Trump boasted that he would "preserve jobs for American citizens" by stopping the recruitment of guest workers in four visa categories. He failed to mention, however, that he was leaving untouched the country's main guest worker program, under which growers bring farm laborers to the U.S.-the H-2A visa program.

Faced with the need to please agribusiness, Trump made clear that no rhetoric about family values applies to farmworkers. H-2A migrants cannot bring a wife or a child with them (the program notoriously discriminates against hiring women), so they live the lives of lonely men in barracks. And in its most significant impact on families, Trump's order would close down the country's historic path for keeping families together-the family preference system for granting residence visas, or "green cards."

Smoke and Mirrors

There's nothing new about streamlining the labor supply for growers, making it cheaper and more vulnerable, under the cover of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Trump's order ostensibly stops the issuance of visas for four much smaller guest worker programs, including H-1B for workers in health care and high tech; H-2B for non-agricultural workers, mostly in landscaping, forestry, and food processing; L-1 for corporate executives; and J-1, the visa for students in cultural exchange programs, au pairs, and university researchers.

Nativist anti-immigrant organizations duly praised the order, which a senior administration official claimed to Vox "would open up 525,000 jobs." The anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies declared, "Now there is a new sheriff in town. For the first time, a president has stood up for the American people." According to Tom Homan, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Trump, "With record unemployment crushing millions of Americans ... importing more foreign labor ... is simply unacceptable."

Almost all media coverage took Trump's claim at face value. Yet the announcement was clearly a case of smoke and mirrors. According to Mary Bauer, counsel for the Centro de los Derechos de Migrantes (the Center for Migrant Rights), "We can't figure out where these numbers are coming from. This administration just makes things up."

In March, Trump shut down the international division of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the office that processes all visa applications abroad, and effectively closed visa operations at U.S. consulates. Most H-1B and H-2B work visa applications for this year had already been made and approved, however, and will be unaffected by the new order. The impact on employers, therefore, will be small, despite their loud, pro-forma protests. 

In any case, those two visa categories have caps of 65,000 each, making them much smaller than the untouched guest worker program for agribusiness, which has no cap. Last year the administration certified grower applications to fill over a quarter of a million jobs with H-2A workers. And when Trump in March shut down the processing of all other visa applications, growers got the administration to keep their flow of guest workers going.

Adding one more wrinkle, the order allows employers to apply for exceptions to the work visa bans. A blanket exemption has already been made for the food supply and health care industries. Meatpacking companies that use H-2B visas to send workers into COVID-saturated plants will undoubtedly win exemptions, as will hospital corporations that want H-1B nurses to risk their lives in the pandemic's emergency rooms. "But where's the protection from OSHA, or for wages and sick pay, or any reform of the abuses of these guest worker programs?" Bauer asks. "There's nothing here to protect workers, regardless of whether they're guest worker visa holders or citizens."

Resisting the Impact of the Virus

That lack of protection is especially serious for the huge wave of workers recruited by agribusiness. Bringing H-2A workers into the country in the middle of a pandemic is dangerous. Mexico, the country from which over 250,000 were recruited last year, is struggling to contain its own outbreak. There is no testing for these contract workers as they cross the border. Meanwhile, in the U.S. towns where they're put to work, COVID cases are spiking.

COVID infections go back and forth between workers themselves and their surrounding communities. In March and April, the biggest apple grower in Washington, Stemilt Fruit, admitted that over 50 workers it had recruited in Mexico had the virus. Because these workers showed symptoms more than one month after their arrival, it was likely they hadn't brought the illness with them-they were infected here.

In many places, non-H-2A farmworkers and their families have gone on strike to enforce working conditions that would keep the virus from spreading.

On the same day that virus cases reached 3,533 in California's Tulare County, with 118 deaths, sorters went on strike in the sheds of Primex Corporation's 5,000 acres of pistachio groves. Although workers say 61 have tested positive, one worker, Veronica Perez, says the company was selling them facemasks for $8 apiece. Another worker, Ernestina Mejia, charged, "The company told us nothing. We found out workers were getting sick by talking with each other in the bathroom. Now my whole family is infected."

Workers in Yakima Valley apple packinghouses went on strike earlier this month for the same demand-safety from the virus. Knowing the disease was peaking in their county, they wanted hazard pay to compensate for the terrible risk involved in just going to work.

Raising wages, however, is not part of the administration's plan. Instead, Trump has promised to help growers lower the required pay for H-2A workers, who now make up 10 percent of the U.S. farm workforce. Currently, each state has to calculate an Adverse Effect Wage Rate that won't undermine the wages of farmworkers already living here, who are mostly immigrants themselves. The new rule that the administration is proposing would cost workers up to $6 an hour, while saving growers millions.

Lowering wages for H-2A workers would pull the floor from under farmworker wages in general. In Georgia, growers already fill a quarter of all farm labor jobs with H-2A visa holders. Local farmworkers are not in a strong position to insist on higher wages in the face of this forced competition. The income of farmworkers nationally is already below the poverty line, with an average annual family income between $17,500 and $20,000.

Grower pressure to lower costs, even at the risk of the spread of the virus, descends on states as well. In Washington, a state with a Democratic governor and legislature, the department of health was pressured to issue a toothless "guideline" for grower housing that puts workers' lives at risk. In the barracks for H-2A migrants, workers sleep in bunk beds closer to each other than the six-foot distance recommended by the state's own epidemiologists. Prohibiting bunk beds, however, would have required growers to build additional housing or hire local workers instead. Either alternative would increase costs. The "guidelines" therefore gave bunk beds the stamp of approval, and farmworker unions and advocates are now suing the state's Democratic administration.

Undoing What the Civil Rights Era Won

Unsurprisingly, Trump has repeatedly declared his support for the agricultural guest worker program.  In a 2018 Michigan speech he told a grower audience, "We're going to let your guest workers come in, because we have to have strong borders, but we have to let your workers in ... We have to have them."

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has explained that the administration wants "to separate immigration, which is people wanting to become citizens, [from] a temporary, legal guest-worker program. That's what agriculture needs, and that's what we want."

There's nothing new about streamlining the labor supply for growers, making it cheaper and more vulnerable, under the cover of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Growers' desire for low-wage labor was the justification for the bracero program, which brought up to half a million people per year from Mexico, to harvest U.S. crops between 1942 and 1964. The program was notorious. Braceros were held in labor camps, often behind barbed wire. If they went on strike, they were deported. If local workers went on strike, growers brought in braceros to replace them.

Deportations and anti-immigrant racism were part of the scheme. In one year, 1954, the U.S. deported 1.1 million migrants in "Operation Wetback." Two years later 445,197 braceros were brought to work on U.S. farms, 153,000 in California alone.

People who came as braceros did try to stay in the U.S., even if it meant walking away from those labor camps and living without documents for years.  But bringing family members and setting down roots was out of the question - for both braceros and the undocumented.  During those Cold War years it was very difficult for immigrants to come to the U.S. legally from Latin America, the Philippines and other non-European countries. 

The growing Chicano civil rights movement of the early 1960s, led by Ernesto Galarza, Bert Corona, Cesar Chavez and others, sought to overturn turn this racist system, which prioritized growers' labor needs over the needs of workers and families.  In 1964 their organizing efforts grew strong enough to force Congress to repeal Public Law 78 and end the bracero program.

The following year, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 set up a system in which people from all nations-not just Western Europe-could come to the U.S., and in which those already in the U.S. could petition for visas for mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, and sisters. Community demographics changed in the wave of immigration that followed. Migrant workers still followed jobs and crops, and slept in labor camps. But at the same time immigrant families-mostly people of color-sought to reunite themselves and set down roots. Their communities grew, and together with the civil rights and labor movements, began to challenge local rightwing regimes. In time, Los Angeles was no longer governed by the racist Sam Yorty, and slowly, California-once the political home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan-became a "sanctuary" state.

Today Latinxs and Asian Americans join Black youth, supported by young white people, in the huge street protests over the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Andy Lopez.  The growth and radicalization of immigrant communities helped make this alliance possible.

Failing to See the Danger

At the federal level, however, many "immigration reform" proposals, including laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, have sought to reverse this course by establishing new bracero-type programs, criminalizing immigration and militarizing the border. The family preference system has been sabotaged by limits on the available visas. The waiting time for a visa to bring a married son or daughter from Manila or Mexico City is now over 22 years.

Trump's new order makes this course reversal official, at least until it expires in December, by placing no limits on guest workers for growers, and completely ending the issuance of visas for family reunification. That is basically the return of the U.S. immigration policy of the 1950s.

That prospect should make the order an election issue. To be sure, ending the family preference system permanently, in the view of the CDM's Mary Bauer, cannot be accomplished without an act of Congress, rewriting the 1965 law. "Trump has been able to use the pandemic to impose temporary measures, but permanent changes can't be done by executive order," she says.

Nevertheless, should Trump win reelection, it is clear that he would try to extend his order and make it permanent. A Supreme Court majority that upheld the DACA program only a week after giving its blessing to the administration's restrictions on asylum applicants cannot be depended on to save family preferences.

Why, then, is this not a big issue for Democrats? Some Democratic office holders buy the neoliberal idea that immigration policy should be "market based" and serve labor needs. There was significant support in the party for those parts of past comprehensive immigration bills that sought to end some family preferences, using the argument that they weren't serving the needs of the economy.

At the same time mainstream Democrats supported other proposals to tie the qualifications for receiving visas to employable skills and higher education - requirements favored by employers (and Trump) but that would erode, and eventually end, the family preference system.  Some, like California's Sen. Diane Feinstein, support H-2A and guest worker programs and see no problem making alliances with growers to preserve them.

But what about the Democratic left? A class perspective no longer gets a candidate redbaited when it's applied to issues like health care, gentrification, or fighting the banks. But that perspective is strangely absent when it comes to much of U.S. immigration policy.

Part of the problem is historical amnesia. We don't remember the fights it took to get what we have now. We may remember names like Cesar Chavez, Ernesto Galarza, and Bert Corona, but we don't quite remember what it was they fought for, or why.

Amnesia can be costly, though. At a minimum it will keep the Democratic Party from campaigning on an issue the Trump administration has handed to it. And should the election go awry, it would mean a fast track backwards to one of the most abusive periods for immigrants in U.S. history. If the Democrats win, defending family preferences and ending the H-2A program isn't a given either, but fighting for those goals now will build a more powerful movement for them if a new administration takes office.

As COVID-19 sweeps through rural counties and farmworker towns, Trump's immigration order may seem a distant issue. But the administration is using the pandemic to accomplish a goal it might not be able to otherwise, moving while attention is focused on immediate illness and death. To fight the virus's spread, workers and immigrants have to challenge not just the dangerous working and wretched housing conditions but also the entire system of immigration and guest worker policies from which they arise. They have to fight for the same goals that Galarza and Corona fought for more than half a century ago.

"Trump is dismantling all protections for immigrant communities, especially for families and workers," says Alma Maquitico, co-director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Our families are the ones risking COVID to harvest crops and care for others. We need real legalization for those without papers, and a working preference system for keeping our families together. Guest worker programs don't do either of these things. They just exploit us."

Monday, June 29, 2020


By David Bacon
Stansbury Forum, 6/29/20

Jessica Etheridge, a cocktail waitress and member of Unitehere Local 2, on May Day at the Amazon warehouse in Richmond.

This presentation was made to a webinar organized by the Economics Faculty of the National Autonomous University of Mexico on June 24

There have been over 800 strikes since the COVID-19 crisis began, according to Payday Report, with many especially since the murder of George Floyd.  Regardless of the exact number, it is clear that something new is developing among workers.

There's a lot of variation in these actions.  Some have been protests, like those at Amazon, over the death of workers and lack of PPE.  Some, like the strikes in the apple sheds in Washington, have been demands for safe work and compensation.  Some have been protests over racism and in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

These strikes don't compare in size or number with the outpouring of rage over the murders by police, which have been enormous and ongoing.  But they are very significant for a number of reasons.

They are class-based protests by workers, over the underlying conditions that have brought people into the streets in general.  Overwhelmingly they have been organized by workers themselves, indicating both a deep level of anger over the conditions, and an understanding that striking is an effective form of protest and a means to change them.

In most cases unions have been slow to respond and overly cautious about action at the workplace.  There are important exceptions to this, however.  Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the new farmworkers' union in Washington, immediately sent organizers to support apple shed workers who struck against the virus.  The achievements of those strikes was the result, not just of spontaneous action, but of FUJ's ability to organize support for them.

The longshore union organized a one-day strike and mass demonstration on Juneteenth, using the day celebrating the official end of slavery to mobilize support for dismantling police departments.  Other unions locally and elsewhere have organized labor marches supporting Black Lives Matter as well.  Bus drivers in Minneapolis refused to drive busses to transport police to demonstrations, or people arrested in the protests.

These strikes and actions show an intersection between the impact of the coronavirus and the protests over the murder of George Floyd.  The actions against the virus and its impact, and against police murders, are clearly responses to a deeper social and economic crisis.

All these protests focus on a growing race-based economic inequality, especially impacting Black people.  In the first twelve weeks of the coronavirus crisis, the combined wealth of all U.S. billionaires increased by more than $637 billion.  The top 12 U.S. billionaires have a combined wealth of $921 billion.  The entire value off all the homes owned by Black families, over 17 million households, is less than that.

This inequality isn't a result of bad policies.  It is historically and structrually part of American capitalism itself.  The system has been built on the exploitation of all workers, but the superexploitation of Black workers produced extra surplus value.  Slavery and the exploitation that followed produced U.S. capitalism's extraordinary growth.

That extra exploitation imposed permanent conditions of inequality on Black people - in jobs and wages, services, social benefits, and education.  Today it is the basis for the racist impact of the coronavirus.  The inequality imposed during slavery became the model for social inequality imposed on other racially and nationally oppressed people.

Race more than anything else determines who will live in crowded, segregated neighborhoods, who will be exposed to lead-poisoned water and toxic waste,  and who will live with polluted air and suffer illness from asthma to heart disease.  It is no surprise that when a new disease arrives, COVID-19, these same factors determine who will be the most affected in large numbers.

For every 100,000 African Americans, 62 die of the virus, 36 of every 100,000 native people, 28 of every 100,000 Latinos, and 26 of every 100,000 Asian Americans and every 100,000 white people. 

While 70% of the people who die from COVID-19 in Louisiana are Black, Black people are only 33 percent of the population. In Alabama, 44 percent of the COVID-19 deaths are of Black people, who are 26 percent of the population.

The coronavirus has created a crisis of unemployment for all workers in the U.S., but especially for Black workers, and workers of color generally.  As of late May, 38 million people had lost their jobs during the pandemic, and the overall unemployment rate was 13.3%.  A year earlier it was 3.6%.  But Black unemployment was 16.8% (a year earlier 6.2%) and Latino unemployment was 17.6% (a year earlier 4.2%).  Over 44 percent of Black households have suffered a job or wage loss due to the pandemic, and 61 percent of Latino households.

The government's response to economic crisis has been to create the catagory of essential  industry, and therefore, of the essential workers who labor in it.  It is true that some kinds of production and economic activity are essential for survival.  But the real-life result of calling people essential is that they are forced to work at a time when they are risking their lives. 

Farmworkers are just one example.  Their work is socially necessary.  but calling them essential means that employers can fire them if they don't come to work.  It does not require employers to pay them extra, provide health benefits, or pay them if they get sick and can't work.

Half of all farm workers are undocumented, and were therefore excluded from the Federal CARES Act benefit package, intended to help people survive the crisis.  By denying any alternative means of buying food and paying rent, the Federal legislation was an important pressure forcing them to go to work. 

Trump forced Black and immigrant workers to go to work in meatpacking plants when the virus was everywhere, by denying them unemployment benefits, and using the Defense Production Act to announce that nothing could get in the way of food production to ensure that meat would continue to be available in supermarkets. 

The hypocrisy of this announcement was revealed when meatpacking companies admitted that in April, as the coronavirus crisis was raging, they exported 129,000 tons of pork to China, the highest amount in history. 

About 37.7 percent of Black workers work in essential industries, compared to 26.9 percent of whites. They leave home to go to their jobs because they cannot stay home and work on computers.  In California, over half of essential workers are low wage workers, and are Latino or Black, including farmworkers, healthcare workers, custodians and building cleaners and truck drivers. Half of all immigrant workers are essential workers. 

And because workers of color are concentrated in the essential catagories, they are the ones exposed to the virus.  At least 333 meatpacking and food processing plants and 46 farms have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and at least 32,099 workers have contracted it.  At least 109 have died.

One company, JBS, has had a wave of infected workers and deaths.  A black Haitian immigrant, Enock Benjamin, died in a Philadelphia plant where he was the union steward.  Tin Aye, a Burmese immigrant and grandmother, died after working in a JBS plant in Colorado for ten years.

The impact of the virus is a terrain of social struggle.  Meatpacking alone has seen a wave of protests and strikes.  In mid-June JBS workers and supporters marched in the streets of Logan, Utah, demanding it close its Hyrum plant for cleaning and for pay during the coronavirus outbreak.  Some 287 workers from the plant tested positive for the virus.

In Stearns County, Minnesota, a protest outside a plant was organized by the Greater Minnesota Worker Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.  In Springdale, Arkansas, Venceremos, a poultry workers' rights organization, tried to deliver a workers' petition to Tyson managers.

Meatpacking workers protested outside Quality Sausage Co. in Dallas after some died.  The wife of one worker said, "The virus was the gun that killed him but Quality Sausage was the hand that pulled the trigger."

These worker strikes and protests are part of a broader movement led by African American organizations responding to police murder and racial inequality.  One of the most important organizations leading it is the Poor People's Campaign led by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis.  It has a program with five basic demands:

* Establish Justice and End Systemic Racism - Democracy and Equal Protection Under the Law
* The Right to Welfare and an Adequate Standard of Living
* The Right to Work with Dignity
* The Right to Health and A Healthy Environment
* Cut the military budget

The campaign's statement of principles says, "We know that poor and dispossessed people will not wait to be saved. Instead, people are taking lifesaving action borne out of necessity to demand justice now ... We are demanding voting rights, living wages, guaranteed incomes, health care, clean air and water and peace in this violent world."

These demands help to give a framework of radical reform, on a national level, to the individual demands put forward in the strikes and protests.  In particular, they reiterate the thinking of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in his speech condeming imperialism and war, when he charged that the bombs dropped on Vietnam were exploding in U.S. cities.

In the language of the Poor People's Campaign, "if we cut military spending, implement fair taxes, cancel the debts of those who cannot pay, and invest our abundant resources in demands of the poor - we could fundamentally revive our economy and transform our society."

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


Black education unionists call for an avalanche of protests for racial justice
By David Bacon
CFT United, June 10, 2020

Calling for justice in a huge demonstration in the Port of Oakland

For weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have filled the streets of 160 cities across the country, even during the coronavirus pandemic, expressing their outrage and grief at the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Two Black leaders of the CFT, with long histories of fighting for racial equity, say they could not help being profoundly moved by the murder itself, and the outpouring of rage in response.

"We have a basic expectation that we won't be murdered by the police, that we have due process," says Angelo Williams, who's taught sociology at Sacramento City College for 13 years. "But when it comes to Black and Brown people, that's not what we get. Every student knows this. We can't continue this way one more day."

Carl Williams (no relation to Angelo Williams), a Lawndale elementary school custodian and president of the CFT Council of Classified Employees, was so deeply moved that "I haven't watched the whole recording of George Floyd to the end. I can't do it. As a Black man, I'm shocked but not shocked. It's not something we should be used to, but we are. So when people say, 'Not one more time!' I say, 'Absolutely!'"

While deeply disturbed by Floyd's death in Minneapolis, in interviews both respond immediately that the deaths of Black men at the hands of the police are a fact of life much closer than Minnesota. "I lived in L.A. when we went into the streets after Rodney King was beaten," Carl Williams recalls. "I'm a lot wiser now than I was then, but some things don't change."

In the national avalanche of people into the streets, people hold signs remembering the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbery, Tony McDade and others in a plague of violence visited on Blacks, not just recently, but since slavery.

Angelo Williams remembers the community grief and rage that met the murder of Stephon Clark two years ago, by Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet, two officers of the Sacramento Police Department. He was shot eight times, six in the back, standing in the backyard of his grandmother's house with a phone in his hand.

"We don't have to look at far off places," he reminds us. "We should focus on cases here in California, starting with Stephon Clark. The police officers who murdered him must be fired and tried. We must make them face the music. This was a police murder here, in our state capital."

He also emphasizes that while Black men suffer this violence more than any others, people of color and women in general are targeted. "Latinos are murdered too, like Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa." Lopez, a 13-year old boy, was shot as he was walking with a BB gun, by a deputy sheriff who was never charged.

Both men, however, believe that the massive protests, going on for 14 days;at the time of this writing, show clearly that something has changed, and that stopping police murder is possible. And they also believe that the union has a role to play in making that happen.

Four years ago the two participated with over a dozen other CFT members in the Racial Equity Task Force, set up in response to a resolution passed at the CFT Convention in 2016. The task force hammered out, over the course of a year, "Reclaiming the Promise of Racial Equity for Black Males in California," a pioneering report setting goals for moving towards racial justice in the state educational system, and in the union.

The report warned that while "we can celebrate the progress made toward racial equity by the various historical and new movements for civil rights and racial equity... each key moment of progress was followed by backlash aimed at maintaining the status quo of structural racism."

Key to the report, Angelo Williams explains, is that "we used an equity framework, instead of one seeing Black men as a problem. We have value and knowledge. Black teachers can change the trajectory of students because of their perspective on American culture. We should welcome African American men as teachers. I became a teacher because my father and grandfather were teachers. Black men are valuable to the union."

For Carl Williams, working as a custodian at an elementary school gave him an important presence. "The role of any classified worker is unique," he explains. "We interact with students when they're not in the classroom and governed by classroom rules. We have a connection to African American boys, because they feel comfortable with people who look like them. When they see us, they recognize us as family. Maybe their dad works in a uniform, or they have a mother in food service, who looks like us. Plus, they see us out in the community, because most classified workers live in the district where they work."

How then does the work of Black classified workers and teachers translate into political power that can stop police violence? Both men caution that there are no easy answers. "I don't know if the work we do at school can change police brutality," Carl Williams warns. "We wind up preparing kids for interactions with police, because it's their survival. We shouldn't have to do that, but it's where we are."

Still, he believes in the power of the union to create change. "First, we need to recognize who's being murdered," he says. "I look at what happened to George Floyd and think, how would I feel if he was one of my students? George Floyd was somebody's student. Then we have to let our voices be heard. Let us create opposition. And let us lift up those in our organization who should be heard, and not be afraid to stand up for what's right. We must stand up and be vocal."

Angelo Williams thinks that the power of the union comes from solidarity. "It's built into our DNA. It's the core architecture of the union. From the locals to the national, we need to speak with one voice, and say that this cannot be tolerated. We must hold people accountable, from police officers to the president of the United States."

Getting into the streets is part of it, he says, participating in peaceful protests wherever they are. "We can be the example," he emphasizes. " We need to be there, so these protests are not seen just as fights between protesters and the police. Unions are organized to bring people together. Our union has power, a history of solidarity. We understand how to change laws, how to organize."

Both credit CFT President Jeff Freitas for reaching out in the process of writing the union's first statement about the Minneapolis events. "The murder of George Floyd by a police officer was an unspeakable act of violence, and our communities across the country are responding to his murder with understandable grief and rage," the statement says.

"But we know this is not an isolated incident. Black communities, and especially Black men, are exhausted and terrified because of the omnipresent structural and institutional racism they experience every day that often leads to violence against them. As a union of educators and classified professionals, our work includes taking action to dismantle the systems and structures that uphold anti-Black racism in our schools and our communities."

Carl and Angelo Williams are both thinking about how the union should continue to speak, and beyond speaking, to organize. Carl Williams has been drafted onto an AFT committee, where he'll meet with AFT President Randi Weingarten and several others to consider next steps.

"I'm bringing to it my experience as a Black man living in L.A.," he says, "which has a history of these acts, and Black men and Black students know this. Today social media is bringing tools and knowledge to the fingertips of young people. We should encourage them, while we speak to their fears and tell them how it is for us. Social and racial justice are at the core of what our union is all about. We would be remiss if we stood aside. We can't stand aside or be silent."

Both men look toward November, as well as at the immediate protests. Angelo Williams says that during the period before the election, the country still needs a president who can "demonstrate some heart and soul and human empathy, who can understand that the right to protest is an American right, and allow the voice of the people to be heard. And then the youth in the streets - putting their lives on the line - should bring their ballots with them and put them in the mail. A referendum on this president is coming no matter what."

The most important thing, they believe, is that the union and its members must act, and do so in accord with its history and principles. "Labor unions are social justice organizations," Carl Williams emphasizes. "It's what unions are all about. And that makes it very appropriate for us to take part in protesting. So let our voice be heard."

"Let's get up and get active," Angelo Williams urges. "It's not too late for us to have our voices count."

Monday, June 15, 2020


Text and photographs by David Bacon
Gastronomica, Summer 2020

 Children of the stall owners often work in the market with their families.

Walking through the public markets of the Philippines, I can see a way that people have been able to institutionalize public markets, keeping their people-serving purpose intact.

Vigan's current public market was rebuilt in the years after the fall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Under Marcos, farm income plummeted as he opened the economy to transna- tional loans and investment. According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, by 1982 two-thirds of families consumed less than the recommended minimum daily calorie intake.

In the wake of the 1986 Peoples' Power movement that ended Marcos's rule, rural people expected that the government would act to redistribute land and boost rural income. Rebuilding the market was a visible act by local government to demonstrate changed priorities.

Despite all the changes in how food and clothing are distributed and sold in a modern city, today the Vigan market is still a destination for thousands of people. Its prices are lower than most other places, and the experience of buying something is much more personal. In the interactions between stall owners and their customers, it is clear that in many cases people have known each other for years.

Emil de Guzman, a Filipino American activist from San Francisco, describes the role of the public market in Philippine towns:

"In the Philippines at the heart of any city or town is a plaza. At the center of all activity is the palengke, a huge one-story structure housing the local vendors, shopkeepers, small businesses under one roof, in compartmentalized units buying and selling goods and services.

"The palengke is purposely sectioned to accommodate vendors standing side by side selling the same products: butchers selling meat, sellers of fresh fish and seafoods, rows of newly harvested vegetables. The coconuts vendors are sectioned off nearby other stalls selling the garlic and onions, then tofu, then eggs, then mangos, papayas and dried fish. Then nearby sections on clothes, cosmetics, umbrellas and the list goes on. Thousands come to the palengke to shop and buy/bargain at the lowest prices."

Vigan's public market is just the latest iteration of the city's history as a trading and market center, going back centuries. Vigan is one of the oldest cities in the Philippines and was founded by Chinese traders long before the arrival of the Spaniards. In the language of these migrants from Fujian Province, the name Bi-gan meant Beautiful Shore.

In Vigan they traded gold and beeswax from the Cordilleras, the mountain range that forms the spine of Luzon, for Chinese porcelain and other goods. The status of the Chinese ethnic mi- nority in the Philippines is still controversial. The Chinese com- munity even established a museum in Manila, arguing that their presence was a crucial part of Philippine history and that Chinese workers helped build the country over centuries.

The Spaniards colonized the islands, capturing Vigan in 1572 and making it the administrative capital of northern Luzon, called Nueva Segovia. By then a central market here was long established. It provided a critical function for farm- ers, who brought food into the city, and for the city dwellers who depended on them.

All over the world similar markets exist. While the nature of the economies of individual countries change, these markets exist to fulfill the same function of providing food and goods at low prices to poor people, and to provide a way for farmers to bring agricultural products directly to consumers.

During the last two or three decades, the food sovereignty movement in affluent countries has been reinventing this institution-the farmers' market-that has been an institution in much of the rest of the world for centuries. In part, this is motivated by the search for a more sustainable, less corporate-dominated food system. While public markets are threatened by the growth of supermarkets and corporate systems for food processing and distribution, their continued popularity is due not only to the fact that their food is generally cheaper for consumers but by the very fact that they are an alternative.

Public markets, where local farmers and other small vendors sell to people without much money, are institutions that not only serve an important social purpose but are structures set up by governments in response to popular need and pressure. That makes them part of the public space that people often have to struggle to protect.

An old man and a boy in the window of a colonial building in the old mestizo, or Chinese, section of Vigan. 

 Selling coconuts and other vegetables at a stall in the market. 

 A girl in a world of her own.

 Buying groceries.

Many stalls in the market serve cheap meals. 

 A woman sells rambutans from a table in the hallway of the market. 

Farmers and stall owners have to get up early to arrive when the market opens, and then fall asleep during the day.

 Catching sleep during a lull in the market.

Relaxing behind bags of beans and tamarinds. 

 A farmer unpacking bags of calamansi fruit. 

 Kids in the market hallway playing a game where they guess at the cards and then slam them down on the floor. 

 Rice is the staple of the Philippines and is grown and sold in a number of varieties. 

 A girl with her mom at the rice stall.

Thursday, June 11, 2020


How food sovereignty activists see the crisis as a pivotal moment for change
By David Bacon
Food First Backgrounder, 6/11/20

At the Graton Day Labor Center in Sonoma County, in California's wine country, immigrant day laborers look for work. At the center workers have a garden, and grow and distribute food to those who are hungry.

The COVID crisis and urban communities

Malik Yakini speaks for many people in the movements for food sovereignty and sustainability as they face the crisis of the novel coronavirus.  He sees it from the perspective of the urban farms of Detroit, as the executive director of the Black Community Food Security Network.  "The problems people see now, from the difficulty they're experiencing getting to markets to the absence of food on the shelves when they get there, really highlight the need for a new food system," he says. 

The city's urban farmers have had to make immediate changes, just to keep functioning.  In Michigan the planting season is just starting, and farmers have yet to figure out how they'll sell what they intend to grow.  "We've got collards that we're just transitioning into the ground now, with green onions, leeks, onions, kale, and soon romaine," he explains.  "To keep everyone safe, we've limited the number of people in our farm who can be at work to four at a time, with no volunteers.  That's a big change from the past, when we'd have 15-20 people on a weekend."

To Yakini, the coronavirus has thrown into high relief the questions that have historically faced the growth of the urban farm system.  "Detroit has 139 square miles of land, and a third of it is vacant - more land potentially available than any other city.  So one question is how the city will dispose of that part of it that they own, which is managed by the Detroit Land Bank Authority.  But it's really more than just allowing residents to gain ownership.  Successful farms have to develop the soil, which is a multi-year project.  We need skilled people, and an infrastructure that includes cooling facilities, so that farmers don't have to sell immediately after harvesting.  And the city has to loosen its policies on water use.  The need for long-term planning has become much sharper as a result of the crisis we're experiencing."

Like Yakini, Karen Washington in New York City sees the crisis as a moment to question the way the food system has failed, especially low-income families and people of color.  "We have to acknowledge that we can't go back, not to business as usual," she says.  "The emphasis has to be on people and planning, not profit.  Now we know how valuable food is.  What is all your jewelry worth when you have to wait in line to feed your family?  But if you can grow food, you can survive.  Food and water are more precious than gold."

Already community activism has changed the way food is being distributed in the Bronx, where Washington lives.  In her neighborhood, volunteers from Mothers on the Move and the Mary Mitchell Center deliver bags to older people, who would be vulnerable to infection if they tried to shop for themselves.  "Every week I get a delivery of three bags, and then I distribute that food to the seniors I know on my block," she says.  Washington goes across the street to the Garden of Happiness, her community garden, to clean out the chicken coop.  She gets a dozen eggs a day that she also gives to elderly people she know are going hungry.  "I've been on my block for 32 years and I know who's hungry.  That's what having a community garden means - that we know each other and take care of each other."

The Bronx has about 150 community gardens in its food chain, and many have been talking in virtual meetings since the crisis started.  "We're asking, what can we grow for our community?  In the past we've grown for ourselves, and for the farmers markets.  Now we're asking, how we can set aside a growing box specifically for people in the community, and then aggregate the food grown in those boxes together?"

Will the community markets, however, like the one she organized 19 years ago, be able to open when the gardens begin to harvest?  "Normally it starts in July, which I hope it will this year.  We have a mix of urban and rural farmers who come, but the banks now are putting up barriers to quickly reimbursing them for coupons from SNAP and SMNP nutrition programs.  The farmers need money right away and can't wait for reimbursements.  I don't know if they'll come to our market this year.  We need our elected officials to take action to protect, not just our market, but all the community markets, because together with our gardens, we are a system serving low income people of color."

In California, Black Earth Farm has developed a system for directly connecting community residents with food.  "We used to go to events to distribute our produce, but they all got cancelled when the crisis started," says jabril kyser, and earth worker at the farm.  "But because we met people at those events, they became part of our cultural network and we know who they are."  Black Earth Farm now has a system for online ordering and delivery for some community members.  For others, who don't live in traditional housing, the farm's members deliver food to them.

"Our community was affected by food apartheid long before the virus arrived," kyser explains.  "So we've developed systems in which it can have access to healthy produce outside of the market-based one, which has never met their needs.  What's holding us back now is capacity."  The farm just acquired new acreage in a small city not far from its base in Oakland and Berkeley, and now is planting watermelon and other melons, tomatoes, strawberries, and collards and other leafy vegetables.

"Our work is way more important now," kyser says, "because we are providing political and agricultural education to our community at a time when the crisis has shown the shortcomings and failures of the industrial food system.  Once the crisis has abated, people will still want to grow their own food if we get organized and teach our community how to do it.  We can transcend the consumer slavery relations that caused our problems to begin with."

Dozens of dairies in California's Central Valley, in Tulare and Kern Counties, produce milk in industrial conditions.   Wages are low and workers complain of injuries caused by pressure to work fast, and mistreatment. Young dairy cows live in cramped stalls in rundown sheds that are so narrow they can hardly turn around.

Dumping Milk, Then and Now

Up the Hudson from the Bronx, the coronavirus is having an enormous impact on rural farmers, especially dairies.  One of the enduring images of the Great Depression was that of farmers pouring milk into ditches.  Today milk dumping, like the facemask, is likely to become a visual icon for the pandemic, particularly in states like New York and Wisconsin where small farmers still depend heavily on milk production.

The dumping of the Depression was often an act of protest, especially during Wisconsin's milk strike of 1933.  Then farmers sought to withhold it from the market to force big distributors to pay a price that might keep banks from foreclosing on farms.

The milk dumping of this past March and April is more an act of desperation.  "Some farmers tell me they see the streams running white," says John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders in Madison.  "The price of milk was already down to $12 [per hundredweight], when it takes $20, and $30 for organic, to actually pay what farmers need to survive.  We don't have a fair price in agriculture.  Monopolies dictate the price, and farmers have to take it or leave it.  Now with the virus, many farmers can't sell their milk at all."

 Milk dumping is one heart-rending symbol of the pandemic's impact.  Another is the empty refrigerator case in the supermarket, with no milk or eggs on the shelves.  "One of the biggest effects of this crisis is that it has torn away the veil on the dysfunction of our food system, and shown how fragile it really is," explains Jim Goodman, president of the National Family Farm Coalition.

Small farmers were all too familiar with this dysfunction long before the virus began its spread.  According to retired New York farmer Liz Henderson, board member of the Agricultural Justice Project, "We've had five years of prices that don't cover costs.  Wisconsin alone lost 800 farms last year.  This crisis could result in more concentration, with smaller producers bought out by big bigger ones who can stand a few months with reduced or no income.  That's happened to family-run dairies already." 

However, the virus has made vulnerable those farmers who concentrated on direct sales as a way to beat corporate domination of the market.  Henderson explains: "We've had a big effort over 50 years to campaign for buying locally.  If farmers can sell directly, they cut out the middleman.  In some New England markets direct sales make up 10% of farm sales, enough for corporations to worry about us.  Now, though, if you're selling to a co-op that bottles and sells to stores, you might be ok.  If you sell directly to restaurants or schools, you probably have to dump your milk."

Could those farmers throwing away their milk instead bring it into the cities to feed hungry people?  Karen Washington says yes.  "I got a phone call from a farmer last week, asking me how food could be brought into the Bronx.  I started asking the city for permission, and got delays and no answers.  If we go through the government and the red tape, the food will be wasted.  So I said, bring it down, we're not waiting on red tape.  They can put me in jail if they want, but I won't see people hungry.  If the farmers are willing, what are they going to say?  Why can't we use community gardens as drop off centers, to get it out?  We'd have to package it, in a way that protects people from COVID, and then the community could distribute it to the people who need it the most."  "

Yakini sees barriers, however, some inherent in the distribution system.  "The first challenge would be getting the food into the city, which costs money for farmers who don't have it.  Then, would they be willing to give food away and take a loss?  In the past there have been differences in our worldviews here in Michigan, with Detroit versus the rest of the state.  In terms of agriculture, large rural farms have not taken urban farms seriously.  But we've attempted to develop relations with rural farms in the past, and this is a moment when things could change."

"It hurts people see the milk getting dumped, especially when they can't feed their children," Washington responds.  "Yet no one said, come to our farm and get it.  Why do the farms have to throw it away?  Why can't they open fields to gleaning.  If they did, an army of people would get in their vans and go up there.  And there are poor people in rural communities who need the food too.  Families in rural America are starving.  How can they even get to the food if they don't even have money to put gas in their car?  This is all shining a light on the fact our food system has to be changed.  What exists is good for a market-based economy, but it's not good for people."

Sandra and Samantha Tello, Mexican farm workers, receive bags of food in the Migrant Labor Camp, a housing project for migrant farm workers in Hollister, California.  The food is brought to the camp in a truck from the San Benito County Community Food Bank.  Although the families work in the fields picking crops, their income is so low they sometimes don't have enough food themselves. 

Small Farmers Get Shafted in the Bailout

Through the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act (HR 6074) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (HR 748) farmers in trouble were supposed to be able to qualify for small business loans to keep above water.  The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (HR 6210) was supposed to help with tax credits. 

For small farmers, however, the bills were a bust.  "The bailouts aren't dealing with them," says Jim Goodman.  "Some tried to qualify for the small business loans, but the fund was exhausted by businesses that should never have had access to it, long before farmers could even get their applications processed.  Milk prices were already low, and now they're even lower."

One example hit the national news when the NY Times revealed that the Ruth's Chris Steak House chain of high-end restaurants got a $20 million loan and the Potbelly chain $10 million.  Shake Shack was so embarrassed by the publicity that it gave back its $10 million, acknowledging that it had access to other capital through an "equity transaction." 

Family farmers with no similar access were pushed out of the line.  To Peck "we're always the last boat on the gravy train.  You can talk about the 'politics of resentment' but people are angry when they see the fat cats getting all the money."

Hidden in one bill was a rule (supported by both Republicans and Democrats) that giant chains could qualify for small business loans so long as they had no more than 500 employees per location.  The carve-out was the result of a push by the National Restaurant Association, and the chains had their lobbyists at the ready to ensure their applications were first in line as soon as the doors were open.  Meanwhile, banks were still trying to figure out how to file applications for farmers, and in some cases, even declined to do so.  As a result, 45 percent of the $349 billion in small-business relief went to loans over $1 million, and nearly 70 percent to loans over $350,000.

Beyond the bailout, small farmers, including milk producers, have advocated long-term measures to support higher prices.  "Corporations are proposing limited supply management similar to Canada's," Peck says.  "But we need a better one.  For farmers the most important things are guaranteeing a fair price, restricting imports, prohibiting dumping, and labeling products with their place of origin.  The distributors don't want any of that."

Large producers organizations, like the National Milk Producers Federation and the National Farm Bureau, also want a $16 cap on prices to farmers.  "That won't cut it for most family dairies," Goodman says.  "To help farmers we have to make them whole, long term.  Instead I'm afraid the next plan will have nothing for us.  The Progressive Caucus and people like Tammy Baldwin and Ro Khanna are willing to promote bailouts to help farmers, and at the same time get good food to urban people. But the number of people who listen to us is small."

In the meantime, small farmers and rural communities are faced with surviving the virus itself.  Wisconsin already has it in every county.  According to Peck, "the average age of farmers is pretty old, which makes us a vulnerable population.  Some farmers now just send their kids to the farmers' markets.  We're already sheltering in place a lot during normal times, but now our cultural fabric is being disrupted.  We have no church, and people in isolated communities depend on personal connection. That isn't easy when the opportunities are gone."

Farmers are scared, he says.  "In lots of rural areas we have no healthcare.  Some places have even put up signs saying,  'Snowbirds - don't come back this year.  You will overwhelm our little clinic.'"  That fear, however, also makes many farmers advocates of universal healthcare.  The biggest cause of farm bankruptcies are health crises. 

Another reason for fear is the lack of easy communication that urban areas take for granted.  Governments close schools to avoid spreading infection, but then tell families to have students continue their studies online.  "But we live in a broadband desert," Peck explains.  "20-30% of rural Wisconsin has no internet at all.  Parents have to drive 20 miles, and sit in their car with their kids in the parking lot of the public library so they can connect to their teacher.  This crisis is really revealing the impact of the digital divide.  You can see that broadband should be a public utility, since everyone needs it."

Hungry families gather in Orange Grove, California, to hear state officials explain how food would be distributed.  Mexican farmworker families had no work because a freeze caused the loss of the orange crop.  Workers had no unemployment benefits or relief because most have no legal immigration status.

A Moment of Opportunity

Disaster brings change, however.  Many grassroots organizations and movements are trying to seize the moment to propose alternatives, and in some cases, to begin implementing them.  Some are breathing new life into proposals made before the COVID-19 crisis began.

In her writing prior to the pandemic, Dr. Katia Aviles Vasquez pointed to the impact of earlier economic and physical disasters in opening doors to change in Puerto Rico.  "After the earthquakes of 2020," she noted, "while small scale farms have continued to produce and even served as shelter to affected families, large agri-businesses are losing crops due to lack of local labor as a result of migration and displacement.  In the midst of all this devastation and suffering, a new PR is rising. The hurricanes laid bare the vulnerability of the islands to climate change and the inability of the government to respond. The hurricanes also laid bare the communal culture that US colonialism could not eliminate. People organized mutual support centers in their communities to generate endogenous alternatives for self-sufficiency."

Aviles Vasquez pointed to the importance of reconnecting communities to elements of culture that help people survive.  "Our culture and traditions have been our means of resistance to colonialism," she wrote.  "Root crops and legumes, Puerto Rican diet staples before industrialization, were critical in post-Maria [hurricane] survival and are regaining popularity as new recipes combine traditional cuisine with innovative flavors. A new cadre of young agroecological farmers, educators, chefs and entrepreneurs are working toward a more just and regenerative food system."

Aviles vision is becoming a reality, as the community-based food system of Puerto Rico responds successfully to the COVID-19 crisis, while the corporate system flounders and fails.  According to Magha Garcia, a farmer and president of the Organizacion Boricua, "the small agroecological farms on the island, and the corner and cooperative markets, already had a close relationship with the consumers of what they grow.  They knew each other.  That was the key."

The first two weeks after Puerto Rico's governor issued an executive order, closing non-essential businesses and ordering people to shelter in place, was nevertheless very difficult for the farmers.  The order didn't have an explicit exception that allowed farmers to travel with their products, and the police intervened to stop them on the roads.  "Many organizations, including the Cooperativa Madre Tierra and the Organizacion Boricua, wrote a letter, declaring that small farmers had a right to function," Garcia recalls.  "And there was some acknowledgement of the fact that farmers needed to distribute and sell the food, and the people needed it.  But we had to find a new system that didn't expose anyone to the virus."

Travel has continued to be difficult.  Police stopped the vehicles of timoneros, who bring oxen from farm to farm to plough the land for planting.  "We had to defend the right of rural people to be on the road," Garcia says.  Other problems had to be overcome as well.  Because of Puerto Rico's colonial economy, all the protective equipment on the island - gloves, masks, gel - comes from the U.S., and the U.S. government halted shipments.  "Sometimes we're part of the U.S., when it's convenient for them, and sometimes we're not," Garcia laughs bitterly.  "But we got on the internet and found venders, and people made their own masks."

With the help of students, the Organizacion Boricua put together an infogram and educational materials for farmers that explained the importance of washing hands, and how to clean shoes and maintain physical distance.  While the majority of farmers have internet access, there are remote parts of the island where the damage from Hurricane Maria and the following earthquake have keep communities isolated, without power.  Those areas, however, have developed mutual support centers whose members then knocked on doors to explain things to residents in person.

A system developed quickly, based on direct communication between small agroecological farmers, cooperatives like Madre Tierra, and consumers themselves.  The system established in Puerto Rico resembles in some ways the one being developed in Oakland by Black Earth Farms.  "On the internet, consumers now can order a box of food, which the farmers will put together," Garcia explains.  "Then the consumers will go to a pre-arranged spot to pick up the box.  They can pay on the internet, or if they only have cash, they have to put it into a sealed envelope, which is the wiped with sanitizing gel.  After we presented evidence of the need, and that this would protect people, the police had to accept it."

People called the boxes "surprise boxes" because they didn't know exactly what they would get.  And there was another surprise as well.  "Small agroecological farmers didn't suffer a reduction in their market.  Once they were allowed to function and the government order was clarified, their market grew," she says.  "People who hadn't come to the corner markets or to the Cooperativa Madre Tierra and other coops before began using this system too.  Going to supermarkets is really a problem for most people.  You spend a whole day because the lines are so long.  Using this alternative system is easier. 

"When we get past this crisis, our next problem will be how to keep these new people.  But there are a lot of folks in Puerto Rico with health problems - diabetes, cancer and a compromised immune system.  Getting the box is a safe alternative for them that minimizes risk, and it's healthier food."

It has been a chance for this alternative system to prove its value.  "Conventional farmers lost their crop because they lost their market when restaurants closed and the distribution chains broke down," Garcia explains.  "Puerto Rico still gets most of its food from outside, so the supply problems meant the supermarkets didn't have food on the shelves.  Prices went up for what they did have.  Plus, who knows who's been touching that product or where it comes from.  People are wary of it. 

"The small agroecological farmers had new costs, but they could function when the other system couldn't.  Now even conventional farmers are starting to copy this new system.  In the middle of this crisis we've seen an answer we didn't expect.  We thought we would be losing a crop, and instead we grew."

Farm workers and their supporters march to protest the death of Honesto Silva, on the anniversary of his death a year earlier.  Honesto Silva was a guestworker recruited to work at Sarbanand Farms, who died because of excessive heat and pressure by the company to keep working.  The march was organized by Community2Community and the new union for Washington farm workers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

Farmworkers in the COVID crisis

Other community-based alternatives revolve around fighting for the welfare of workers in the food supply chain.  For many years Community2Community and Washington state's new union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, have warned that growers are increasing the recruitment of guest workers in the H-2A visa program, endangering both guest workers themselves and local farmworkers. 

As the COVID-19 crisis began, earlier in Washington than other states, C2C called on the state's governor to enact emergency orders with funding to ensure that all protective measures were taken.  For H-2A workers the dangers start with a total lack of testing for the virus as they enter the country, as well as during the period of their contract employment.  Many are not aware of the health crisis that has engulfed their destination communities.  And since they must return to Mexico or other countries at the end of their work contract, COVID-19 contracted in the U.S. can then spread there.

"In addition to informing workers about the terms and conditions of employment when they are being hired," C2C said, "people recruiting for agricultural employment in Washington must provide detailed information about the risks of COVID-19, including how employers will protect their safety while transporting and housing them, and in the workplace ... There must be designated sanitized quarantine living facilities with access to medical personnel."

Farmworkers are forced to work in close proximity and share close living and eating quarters, as well as when they're taken to and from work in vans and buses, in large groups.  "The current protocols are not enforceable and have huge gaps, giving individual corporate farms loopholes," C2C charged.  "This has potentially deadly consequences for farmworkers and rural communities that are already underserved."

When the state did not take the measures advocates were seeking, C2C then joined Washington's two farm labor unions, Familias Unidas por la Justicia and the United Farm Workers, along with Columbian Legal Services, and filed suit.  They seek to force Washington's Department of Health and Labor & Industries to come up with mandatory measures growers must take to protect workers, in place of voluntary "guidelines." 

The need for stricter oversight of the H-2A program became even clearer when the Trump administration announced that, although it was closing off all channels for legal immigration to the U.S., it was making an exception for H-2A guest workers.  Trump told growers  "I know you have to have them."  The program has expanded from 50,000 grower applications to 250,000 since 2014, and Congressional and administration proposals would undermine its weak labor protections even further.  Battles over the expansion of the program, regulations to cut workers wages, and bills in Congress to make it even more grower-friendly, will outlast the virus crisis.

"The increase in growers' use of the H-2A guest worker program," says C2C director Rosalinda Guillen, "has had a huge impact on working conditions in the fields. We've had to feed guest workers who come to us hungry, fight to get them paid their wages, and help them deal with extreme work requirements. At the same time, our local workers find they're not being hired for jobs they've done for many seasons.

"In the capitalist system we are disposable and easily replaceable, and the guest worker program is a good example.  You bring people in and ship em out and make money off of them. It's time to end that. We're human beings and we're part of the community.  We have to be the first ones to speak out because we're the first ones to die. The average lifespan of a farmworker was 49 years even before the virus, just two years up from what it was in year 2000." 

Hungry people wait for food at a food pantry run by volunteers from Project Help in the parking lot of a laundromat in East Oakland, California.

The Political Opening

Henderson points out, however, that the rules of political conflict are being changed by political openings the pandemic has created.  "The discombobulation of the supply chain is being revealed, which makes direct sales so important, whether to consumers or to farmers themselves.  We need to take the things we're learning, and instead of trying to put things back the way they were, we should move forward, strengthening family-scale farms, farmworkers and food coops." 

Peck agrees:  "The COVID-19 crisis has clearly shown the inherent weaknesses and fundamental injustices of our corporatized, globalized, industrialized food/farm system.  But it has also revealed the path we need to take towards a more equitable and sustainable one.  We need to rediscover and reinvigorate the mutual aid ties and solidarity relationships that are already found within our diverse communities.

" Second Harvest in Wisconsin, for instance, allocated a million dollars to buy milk to help farmers, and because they've had a 60% increase in food bank visits.  That's something the government should be doing.  Why don't they earmark $300 million to buy products being thrown away, give them to hungry people and give the bill to the corporations?"

Can the system afford it?  "There's lots of money in the food system," Henderson believes.  "If we could take the billions of the Waltons and Jeff Bezos and redistribute them more fairly, we could pay workers a decent wage."

All these activists agree:  lack of access has never been about a lack of food.  "It's a problem of distribution," says the National Family Farm Coalition, "with people of color and tribal nations across all sectors impacted disproportionately. As the pandemic threatens to strip even more families of their income, more will be unable to afford healthy, safe and nutritious food in the near future."

To meet this threat, the Coalition and other food sovereignty advocates have given a set of demands to Congress for any future stimulus package.  It includes making people of color in the food system central to demands, ensuring a fair livelihood for everyone in it, strengthening local systems, protecting small and medium size farmers and fishing operations from predatory banks and corporations, and ensuring a dignified way to obtain nutritious food for every person in the country.

Patti Naylor, a board member of Family Farm Defenders in Iowa, writes, "Farmers support agroecology because it recognizes the interdependencies between rural communities, local ecosystems, and healthy competitive economies. Agroecology offers an inspiring alternative to the industrial agriculture model that is failing rural communities. However it cannot thrive without the political support that agribusiness currently receives. U.S. agriculture policy needs to prioritize agroecology and ensure farmers' rights to seeds, safe water, and pricing structures that ensure farm viability."

The NFFC's Goodman concludes:  "We are seeing how fragile our food system is, with the globalization and concentration of production, and a few huge processing plants.  We have to go back to regional and local food systems.  The pandemic can be a driver to change this.  In times of crisis people are more willing to look to the government for help.  What has to happen is that the government must step in.  What happens to farmers and farmworkers has to have the same level of importance as fair wages or climate change. With the pandemic, we have to think about changing the policies for when we come out on the other side."

Willie Mills drives a truck from community to community, setting up food distributions to impoverished families living near the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico, in the desert in Eastern San Diego County.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


By David Bacon
Labornotes, 6/2/20

 Strikers at Allan Brothers Fruit. (Photo by Xolotl Edgar Franx)

Thirty four workers at the apple packing shed that sparked a wave of strikes in central Washington went back to work on Monday with a written agreement recognizing their workers' committee, Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia (Workers United for Justice). Of the 115 workers at Allan Brothers who walked out May 7, the 34 stayed out for the full 22 days, during which hundreds of other workers struck at six additional sheds in the area.

According to Agustin Lopez, a leader of the movement who's worked in the valley since the mid-1980s, "The most important thing to us is that the company is recognizing our committee as the representative of all the workers. Under the agreement we will continue negotiating for salary increases, better working conditions, and health protections. The agreement means that our rights as workers are respected."

The shed strike wave was touched off by the impact of the coronavirus on the hundreds of people who labor sorting fruit in Yakima Valley's huge packinghouses.  While their numbers are smaller than the huge workforce of thousands who pick the fruit in the summer and fall, the shed workforce occupies a strategic place in this system of agricultural production. The virus has spread more widely here than in any other county on the Pacific Coast, with an infection rate of about 500 per 100,000. As of June 1 Yakima County had 3,891 COVID-19 cases and 90 deaths.  Twenty-four percent of people tested have been infected, and the local hospital system is at capacity with few beds available.

"The most important demand for us is that we have a healthy workplace and protection from the virus," Lopez explained at the start of the conflict. "Fourteen people have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19."

During harvest time, trucks from the orchards haul loads of apples and cherries picked by thousands of farmworkers, laboring for the big growers of the Yakima Valley.  After the fruit is cooled and stored, orders from the grocery chains are filled by workers, mostly women, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of fast-moving conveyor belts.  As apples and cherries sweep past, they sort it and send it on to other workers who wash and pack it, and eventually load it onto trucks.  By the time it appears on the shelves of supermarkets around the country, the fruit has passed through many working hands.

Packinghouse laborers are almost entirely immigrants from Mexico, and most of the sorting jobs on the lines are done by women.  Their families make up the working-class backbone of the small towns of Yakima Valley.  Most have lived here for years.  Jobs in the sheds pay minimum wage, but they're are a step up from the fields because they offer year-round work at 40 hours per week.

While their numbers are smaller than the huge workforce of thousands who pick the fruit in the summer and fall, the shed workforce occupies a strategic place in this system of agricultural production.


When the workers stopped work at Allan Brothers, demanding better safety precautions and $2/hour in hazard pay, they reached out to Dulce Gutierrez, who represents the Washington Labor Council in the Yakima Valley. Gutierrez in turn contacted Washington State's new union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), at its office in Burlington on the coast. Ramon Torres, FUJ president, and Edgar Franks, political director, went to Yakima, where they've spent the last month supporting the strikers.

The first company to settle was the Roche Fruit Company, after a lunchtime walkout, bolstered by the presence of FUJ organizers, got the owners to increase a hazard pay offer of $200 per month to $100 per week. Strikes then followed at Jack Frost Co., Matson Fruit Co., Monson Fruit Co., Hanson Fruit Co., and Columbia Reach Pack.

To protect workers' organizing rights, Columbia Legal Services and FUJ's lawyer, Kathy Barnard from the labor law firm of Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt, filed unfair labor practice charges against Allan Brothers. The workers' committee charged that managers interrogated workers about their strike activity, threatened them with discipline if they joined the strike, increased wages for non-strikers in an effort to buy their loyalty, and disciplined an employee who brought water to the picketers.  (The recognition agreement did not include an agreement by the workers to drop the charges.)

The company barred strikers' vehicles from its parking lot, but the COVID-distanced picket line at Allan Brothers held up even under threats. Sheriff deputies arrested one man who told strikers that he planned to return with a gun and shoot them. In response, two workers, Maribel Medina and Cesar Traverso, began a hunger strike on May 19, after reading Cesar Chavez's "Farmworkers' Prayer."


When growers proved recalcitrant despite the pressure, workers increased it by going to the state capitol in Olympia on May 26. There they delivered 200 complaints against Allan Brothers to the  Department of Labor and Industries, and held a noisy rally outside the home of Democratic Governor Jay Inslee. "The companies thought they could contain this," Franks explained, "but it put a lot of pressure on them and made the strike a statewide issue."

One worker, Julietta Pulido Montejano, from Columbia Reach Pack, told state officials, "We are on strike demanding protections from COVID 19. We want the company to respect social distancing, and to provide us with daily masks. We want to be able to take care of ourselves so we can go back to our families and not get them sick." Thirty-one workers at Columbia Reach Pack have tested positive for the virus.


On May 22 the companies began to seek agreement, when the owner of Monson Fruit signed a written recognition of the workers' committee, providing better health protections against the virus and $1/hour in hazard pay. Workers there then returned to work. Workers also went back at Jack Frost Co. with a promise of an increase they have yet to receive, but without a written agreement.

At Matson Fruit the workers' committee was presented with a written agreement. "But when they saw it set up a company union," Franks said, "they rejected it, and they're still on strike and talking." At Columbia Reach Pack the company seems unwilling to negotiate, workers charge, and over 50 remain on strike.

At Allan Brothers, while the agreement was signed and workers went back to work, committee members acknowledge that the conflict has not really ended. "Our fight continues," said one committee member, Romina Medina. "But this agreement shows that we can still make important achievements after 22 days without working, without money and enduring intimidation, because we did not give up."

At Allan Brothers the Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia committee accepted the $1/hour wage increase offered by the company, and that had been accepted at Monson Fruit.  That
$1/hour raise expires at the end of July, when the company has agreed to negotiate over wages.  Agustin Lopez said, "We are sure that we will achieve all our demands, because we will return with strength to the negotiating table then."

Torres believes that workers learned enough about collective action that they will be prepared to fight when the day comes. "It had a big impact on them," he says, "since it was the first time they'd done anything like this. They are building a base, and learning how to organize collective action to fight inside the workplace."

Gutierrez says that winning health protections inside the sheds is a critical victory, given the dangers of the coronavirus: "There's been progress made at all the warehouses with sanitation and safety. That is already a victory for every huelga [strike]."


The strikes are partly a product of political changes sweeping central Washington. Gutierrrez herself ran on a slate of progressive candidates who gained a majority on the Yakima City Council in 2015. She won 84 percent of the vote and became the first Latina elected to the body. That election, in turn, was the result of a voting rights suit that overturned Yakima's old citywide election system and ended decades of grower control of it.

Nevertheless, apple shed workers still confront an entrenched anti-union industry. Its biggest players, Stemilt Fruit Co. and Zirkle Fruit Co., bring thousands of H-2A guest workers into Washington every year for the apple harvest in late summer and the fall. They have a long history of fighting unions and dominate the agricultural labor policies of the state government, even in Democratic administrations.

Longtime farmworker organizer Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of the organization Community to Community, cautions, "This country gets its food supply on the backs of people who these companies treat as expendable. That hasn't changed at all.