Friday, October 21, 2016


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, October 21, 2016

Isidro Rojas Garcia, an immigrant construction worker from Mexico, registers to vote for the first time after having been a U.S. citizen for 16 years. Helping him is Abby Kretz, senior organizer from the Heartland Workers Center.

If the winds of political change are starting to blow in Nebraska, the center of the storm is a third-floor office on 24th Street in South Omaha. There, huge maps of eight targeted precincts in Ward 4 line the walls of the Heartland Workers Center (HWC), covered in red dots for all the people organizers have spoken with over the past six months. Little stickers highlight the key issues in each neighborhood.

Every afternoon on weekdays, and all day on weekends, a row of reconditioned iPhones sits on a table next to clipboards holding signup lists and Spanish-language voter-education brochures. Rain or shine, young Latino organizers climb the stairs to pick up their packets and then fan out into the streets.

This is not an old-fashioned paper-based effort, though. Derek Ramirez, HWC's data cruncher, has loaded voter information derived from the Voter Activation Network database onto the iPhones. This allows precinct walkers to know house by house whom they're talking to, and to immediately input the information they receive-updating the office's database in real time.

"We do 20 houses a night, and I go to every house," says Lucero Aguilar, who was born in Campeche, Mexico. She's been an organizer here for two years. "Sometimes people don't open the door, but the last house I visit always opens to me. We have a good conversation and I get that person registered to vote. That's where the magic happens. I know the next day I'm going to try again."

Another organizer, Stephanie Zambrano, came to Omaha with her parents as a child from Guadalajara. "Community members get happy when they see youth knock on their doors, and want to talk with them," she says. "They're surprised we want to ask about housing or voting or issues in our community."

Zambrano came into the workers center after helping win a battle against Nebraska's former governor, Dave Heineman. Three years ago, Heineman ordered the state's Motor Vehicles Department to deny drivers' licenses to young people who gained temporary legal immigration status under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Last year, the HWC, Young Nebraskans in Action, and other groups convinced state legislators to enact legislation overruling his order. "We have gained so much momentum," she enthuses. "It's getting out there so that we can make a difference."

As Zambrano senses, Latinos in Nebraska-many of them drawn to the area by the jobs in meatpacking plants-have the potential to shift the balance of political power. That shift is already starting in Omaha, but is also spreading through small towns throughout the state where immigration has changed population demographics.

Nebraska has three congressional districts, each of which has one electoral vote, given to the candidate winning the district plurality. Two other electoral votes are given to whichever party wins statewide. Obama won Omaha's Second Congressional District in 2008, and lost it in 2012. South Omaha, where fear of Donald Trump is palpable, may play a big role denying District 2's vote to Republicans this November. And beyond November, Nebraska's demographic shifts, combined with grassroots organization, may make longer-term political changes possible elsewhere as well.

Omaha's immigrants confront rising poverty and a history of exclusion, as well as an entrenched elite that has made the city one of the country's most corporate-dominated municipalities. Nevertheless, changing demographics are a fact of life here. Change is sweeping not just through Omaha, but also through small rural communities where meatpacking plants process the beef and pork for dinner tables across the country. The Heartland Workers Center's mission is to organize the potential created by this increasingly diverse population.

IN THE DECADES LEADING up to World War II, railroads and meatpacking plants made Omaha one of the most important industrial centers of the Midwest. Waves of European immigrants got jobs in the factories, and a Democratic political machine rose to power on their votes. In the 1930s, the city's meatpacking workers joined one of the most radical unions of the decade's labor upsurge, the United Packinghouse Workers. Black workers moving out of the South broke through color lines, and then used their power at work and in the union to fight discrimination in housing, bars, and employment.

Yet Omaha remains one of the country's most segregated cities. One census tract has a white concentration of 98.1 percent. In another in North Omaha, the city's black neighborhood, white residents make up only 5.9 percent. According to the 2010 Census, black residents are 13.7 percent of the population, while the Latino population, mostly in South Omaha, makes up 13.1 percent. "There's a clear delineation. There's North and South Omaha, then there's Omaha," commented one observer quoted by Patrick McNamara in his study "Collaborative Success and Community Culture."

At the top of the city's power structure sit representatives of large corporations.

At the top of the city's power structure sit representatives of large corporations. To counter the old Democratic machine, they organized the Knights of Aksarben (Nebraska spelled backwards) as early as 1895. Over the years, another corporate group, Heritage Services, has largely supplanted Aksarben, but the power of the Omaha elite has remained constant.

Omaha's most famous corporate figure is Warren Buffett, who founded the Berkshire Hathaway investment fund and made millionaires of those Omaha investors who got in early. Other corporate leaders have included Pieter Kiewit, founder of the construction giant that bears his name, and John Gottschalk, publisher of the Omaha World Herald. The inner core of power includes executives from Union Pacific Railroad, Mutual of Omaha, TD Ameritrade, Valmont Industries, Northern Natural Gas, and the America First Companies.

"We are a large small town," one observer told McNamara. "The power structure here knows each other and basically supports each other. We can call the mayor or governor and we'll actually get a call back." Said another, "Generally, over the years, the major community decisions have been made by people in the corporate sector, the Captains of Industry. It's the gang of six or ten or whatever."

The corporate elite has transformed the downtown, now brimming with office towers, condominiums and a redeveloped Old Market tourist mecca.  A suspension bridge for pedestrians spans the Missouri River from a sculpture-studded expanse on one side to a new stadium on the other.

Corporate domination has failed to transform the lives of Omaha's working-class families for the better, however. Hometown meat conglomerate ConAgra Foods was given acres of prime Missouri riverfront property for its corporate headquarters in the 1980s, along with large tax breaks. In 2015, it abandoned the city for Chicago's Merchandise Mart, eliminating 1,500 jobs.

Black poverty in Omaha averages 32 percent. Latino poverty isn't far behind, climbing from 20.4 percent to 27.6 percent in the last decade. Poverty among white families is less-8.6 percent-but even this is 66 percent higher than it was in 2000. Forty-two percent of the city's residents are renters, 11 percentage points higher than the national average.

BEFORE BEGINNING VOTER mobilization efforts, HWC organizers first assessed the impact of this economic structure in South Omaha neighborhoods. They began by analyzing census data, and then went out into the community to survey residents and look for leaders. They visited 2,306 homes, collected more than 600 surveys, and found almost 250 leaders.

Schuyler, Nebraska

At a community congress last November, they reported their results. Nearly half of the residents they spoke with reported that their households had to sacrifice on essentials, including utilities and food, in order to cover housing costs. A third said that at least one household member who could work was unemployed, and that they had no health insurance. Potholes and crime were concerns as well.

The main source of the poverty was "wages not adequate to cover housing expenses," the report stated, adding that "unemployment and underemployment likely contribute to this poverty." Latinos in South Omaha are concentrated in meatpacking, manufacturing, and construction. When the recession began in 2008, all three industries lost jobs. The Nebraska Department of Labor reports that meatpacking wages for those who were still in the plants in 2013 had fallen by 8 percent from wages three years earlier.

Meatpacking has been the magnet drawing Latinos to Omaha, and to Nebraska generally. Beginning in the 1970s, this industry was restructured with the development of boxed beef. Prior to that, animals were slaughtered in urban packinghouses by the then-giants Armour, Swift, Wilson, Cudahy, and others. Quarters of meat were shipped to markets, where skilled butchers cut them into pieces for consumers.

Companies like ConAgra changed that system drastically. After slaughter, animals are now cut apart on fast-moving disassembly lines, where an individual worker might cut out just one bone, hundreds of times a day. Boxes of meat sliced into consumer-sized chunks are then shipped to markets.

Corporations in the restructured industry built new plants in small rural towns, closer to the farms where animals are raised. To keep wages low, they brought in workers. "In the small towns where they located," says Lourdes Gouveia, retired sociology professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, "they created a whole new labor force." Companies sent recruiting teams to Los Angeles and other established immigrant communities, and even placed advertisements on radio stations along the Mexican border.

South Omaha's Latino community expanded as a result of this flow of migrant labor into the state. Today, foreign-born Latino immigrants make up a third of the total population of 32,362 in HWC's eight targeted precincts. About 10,261 people in the precincts are foreign-born Latinos, while more than 15,000 people speak Spanish at home, meaning that many Latino families now include children born here. The voter engagement project has registered about 1,500 people in Ward 4, and voter turnout here increased by 26 percent between 2010 and 2014.

Home for them now is here. That gives them a big motivation to become citizens and participate.

"Twenty or thirty years ago, when people first began arriving, they thought of home as their hometown in Mexico or Central America," says Sergio Sosa, HWC's executive director. "As they've had children, and as those children have grown, many people now see they're not going to return. Home for them now is here. That gives them a big motivation to become citizens and participate. Children born here are also getting old enough to vote now, so the voting population is growing."

SERGIO SOSA'S OBSERVATIONS APPLY to himself as well. Sosa was a church activist in Huehuetenango in Guatemala, a believer in liberation theology, at a time when radical priests organized movements for social change during that country's counterinsurgency war. He fell in love with a woman from Nebraska who worked in church programs in Guatemala, and together they eventually decided to come to the United States.

In South Omaha, Sosa was hired as an organizer for Omaha Together One Community by Father Damian Zuerlein, a priest at Guadalupe Church, just a stone's throw from the HWC office today. Together the pair spent a decade organizing the neighborhood's Mexican and Central American immigrants, and worked with the United Food and Commercial Workers to form unions in the city's meatpacking plants. In 2006, Sosa helped organize perhaps the largest march in Omaha's history, when more than 20,000 Latinos filled the streets to protest immigration raids and call for pro-immigrant reform.

Sergio Sosa, the executive director of the Heartland Workers Center, and Lucia Pedroza, HWC senior organizer

"After the march, the leaders I'd been working with asked me to help them become a more permanent organization," he remembers. "They promised they'd raise the money to pay my salary, and together we set up the Heartland Workers Center." The center today has a health and safety training institute, educates workers about their labor rights, and advocates for better labor and immigration laws.

When Sosa and senior organizer Abbie Kretz began developing a strategy for turning demographic change into political power, the center's funders were skeptical. The duo went to the organization's leadership base. Workers committed themselves to raising the first $3,000 to develop a civic engagement program based in the immigrant community of South Omaha.

Over time, they've convinced funders and local political leaders that greater political power for Latinos will have an impact. "The population of eligible Latino voters is growing year by year," says Heath Mello, senator for South Omaha in Nebraska's unicameral legislature and now candidate for mayor in 2017. "In the last election cycle we really saw that they're engaging people using the model, 'I vote for my family.'"

"Nebraska is the only red state that stopped a voter-ID bill twice, in the post-Arizona, show-your-papers period," Mello says.

That influence has been growing for several years. "Nebraska is the only red state that stopped a voter-ID bill twice, in the post-Arizona, show-your-papers period," Mello says. "Once we defeated the dog-whistle politics, we set the stage for the DACA drivers' license bill." In Nebraska's Republican-majority legislature, "we have people who want a more welcoming state, who believe in social justice. But this changing dynamic creates a political force so strong that other officeholders have to engage as well."

The Sherwood Foundation, headed by Warren Buffett's daughter Susan Buffett, has funded the Heartland Workers Center for seven years. "We've seen what happened when they came together on the DACA bill," says Kristin Williams, the foundation's director for community initiatives. "We didn't have to take the baby steps-the young people were a force to be reckoned with.  If this continues, Latinos will have a place at the table."

Sherwood also funds the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies (OLLAS) at the Omaha campus of the University of Nebraska, founded by Gouveia. Today, its director is Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, son of California farm workers. Under Benjamin-Alvarado's leadership, OLLAS has become a primary source of the young Latino organizers who walk the South Omaha precincts, as well as a think tank for the research base of HWC's strategy. "The two [HWC and OLLAS] together are a powerhouse," Williams asserts.


FOUR YEARS AGO, HWC ORGANIZER Abbie Kretz went back to her hometown, Schuyler, a small meatpacking town an hour west of Omaha. There, she and Sosa began pulling together Latino community activists. From their meetings emerged the Comite Latino.

When the Cargill beef plant opened in Schuyler several decades ago, it processed fewer than 2,500 animals per day. Over the years, production has more than doubled to 5,500, and the town's population has increased accordingly. Today, 70 percent of Schuyler's roughly 7,000 residents are Latino. The same demographic change has transformed rural meatpacking towns throughout Nebraska-Lexington, Grand Island, Madison, and many others. The Comite Latino and the changes it has brought to Schuyler, therefore, portend transformations far beyond Schuyler's borders.

The town's changes began long before Kretz's return home. Twenty-one years ago, Victor Lopez came from Mexico and got a job in the local plant. In 2006, he helped organize one of the immigrant marches that swept across the country. In Schuyler, it drew 3,000 people-a remarkable turnout for so small a town. Today, Lopez heads the Comite Latino, and owns a small auto repair shop.

"People here aren't really immigrants anymore," he says, "and their children certainly aren't. Our purpose, therefore, is to try to open their eyes about their rights, and urge them to look out for their own needs. If you think you're going back home, you have no interest in the things that affect you here. But we're in Schuyler now, and not going back. So what we're looking for is equality, to integrate our people into the community, and make people respect us. We want to feel like we belong."

Part of that equation is voting. When the Comite began in 2013, the town had 900 Latinos eligible to vote, but only 14 actually voted. Within one election cycle, they got the number up to 136. Now, there are two Latino candidates running this November, one for city council and one, Mynor Hernandez, for the Colfax County School Board.

Hernandez came to Schuyler to go to high school in 1996, and now is the Comite's fulltime staff. One of the group's first efforts was to convince the school district to set up a dual-language program. "Kids that go to it are better off in the long term and more of them go to college," he asserts. "In our country as a whole, if you speak two languages, you open a lot of doors."

In the coming election, the Comite is also informing Latino voters about the local state Senate race. The incumbent, a Republican, nevertheless voted for the DACA drivers' license bill. A more conservative Tea Party Republican opposes him (the Nebraska legislature is formally nonpartisan, which creates many Republican-versus-Republican contests), with the support of Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, former chief operating officer of TD Ameritrade. Ricketts vetoed the DACA bill, intended to overturn previous Governor Heineman's ban on drivers' licenses for young immigrants. The legislature then voted to override Ricketts's veto. The Comite collected petition signatures to support drivers' licenses for DACA recipients. "It's important for our people to know who's running and what they stand for," Hernandez says.

Schuyler, Nebraska

Donald Trump's presidential candidacy has scared Schuyler's (and Nebraska's) Latinos, particularly because of his threat to deport all undocumented immigrants. Many meatpacking workers still have no legal immigration status. Although the undocumented population fell nationally in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, in Nebraska it increased. Hernandez tells the story of his son's white friend: "He went home and told his mom, 'Don't vote for Trump-he wants to deport all my friends!'"

"But people are still afraid here," Lopez cautions. "They feel uncertain about what will happen to them. They don't buy a house or a car, and sometimes don't even go to school, because they have to give information and feel vulnerable. They drive because they have to get to work, but can't get a license and are terrified they'll be stopped. Our plan is to try to help get people legal status where we can, and support reform legislation."

Kretz is now starting a new effort, this time in Nebraska City, another meatpacking town near Omaha. On one recent night, she helped a local resident register to vote. Sixteen years after becoming a citizen, he registered just to be able to vote against Trump.

But when people register and get involved, their motivation is often fear of the political climate in the current campaign.

Kretz and HWC organizers are careful not to campaign for or against candidates, which would jeopardize the organization's tax status. But when people register and get involved, their motivation is often fear of the political climate in the current campaign. "Many young people, and even whole families, register because of the hate they've seen," Sosa says. "People fear they'll wake up the day after the election and their families will be separated by mass deportations."

Nebraska City's nascent committee is mostly Guatemalan, so convincing people to get active faces another barrier as well. "In Guatemala, the war is supposedly over, but there's still a lot of violence," one committee member says. "There are often threats by people involved in politics, that something bad will happen to you if you don't vote the right way. Here, there is fear, too, although not at the same level. There's a lot of disinformation. People don't understand the process or even know they have to register in order to be able to vote."

Carolina Padilla, executive director of Omaha's Intercultural Senior Center, is another Guatemalan immigrant who finds the same reaction. "We come from countries where political participation doesn't exist because of the corruption, so people wonder what the point of participation is here as well," she explains. "The person with the money will always win. It's hard for the older generation to change, but now we have a new generation. They're saying, we want to participate and our vote counts."


LUCIA PEDROZA, HWC'S other senior organizer, belongs to this new generation. She was born in Guatemala, and remembers when her mother, who'd gone to work in the United States, was deported back home. Later, her mother returned to the United States and sent for Lucia and her sister Gaby, who were then 12 and 10 years old. Her story of crossing the border as a child recalls those of the unaccompanied Central American children who've made headlines arriving in the United States in the last three years.

Pedroza's uncle took her through Mexico and sent her off with a group crossing the border at Nuevo Laredo. "I had my Bible with me, and I thought, I have faith," she remembers. "They took us to a part of the desert, and at night we all began to walk. I thought it would only be a couple of hours, but we walked all night. We were going to see my mom, so we packed our favorite clothes. You're supposed to have dark clothes that aren't visible, but Gaby wore her best bright white pants in the middle of the desert. The group had to huddle around to hide her, but there was a sense of unity, that they had to protect the kids. After walking, we had to cross the river, and took off our clothes to wade through the water.  One of my shoes was swept away, and a lady gave me hers.  Then we had to run, and at the end her feet were all cut up. But we were so glad we made it!"

Pedroza went on to high school and college, and during one summer her father got her a job in a meatpacking plant. "I'd never worked in a job like that, but I learned," she laughs. "I worked on the kill side, packing intestines, starting at six in the morning and working till six at night." Later she worked for two years in another plant. "I was pregnant and it was hard, but I had to keep on working. I had to make a living. It was a union plant, though, so we were treated a little better. After that I worked in other plants too."

When Pedroza looks at the young organizers coming into the HWC office from university campuses, she knows that almost all of their families share the same work and migration experience. "It's important for them to understand it and know what people are going through," she says, "even if they haven't lived it themselves."

It took Pedroza some time before she was able to get her legal residence status, and now she plans to become a citizen. "But whether we're undocumented, resident, or citizen, the main thing is that we're all human. We all have the power to do something great if we stick together and work collectively."

Since becoming a fulltime organizer two years ago, "our work has changed our whole state," she declares. "Our purpose is to build a community that works for all, even though now it only works for some. In five years we could have better schools, better homes, better jobs, and better streets. It depends on who we elect, and on people staying engaged beyond election time. We don't really understand how the system functions yet, how money is distributed. We have to have a better education on how things work. But we cannot disconnect ourselves. Everything is related, and we're all affected by everything we do."

Monday, October 3, 2016


By David Bacon
The Nation, 10/3/16

The children of migrant farm workers and their supporters march to the processing plant at Sakuma Brothers Farms

Burlington, WA-There is not much love lost between the owners of Sakuma Brothers Farms and Ramon Torres, the president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Sakuma Brothers is one of the largest berry growers in Washington state, and Familias Unidas is a grassroots union organized by the company's workers. Torres used to work in the Sakuma fields. He was fired after the strikes by pickers in 2013 in which the union was formed.

This month, on September 12, the workers finally voted in an election to demonstrate what really needed no proof - that they supported the union they formed three years ago. This election is a watershed: Familias Unidas por la Justicia is the first union organized by farm workers in the United States in many years.

The balloting took place over four hours at the company office, two hours north of Seattle, surrounded by Sakuma's blueberry fields. After all the votes had been cast, Torres and a small group of workers and supporters drove over to the polling place to watch the count. A company manager balked, however. The ever.  The count couldn't take place as long as Torres was on the property, he said.

After a lot of arguing, the workers retired to a local schoolyard, together with Richard Ahearn, former regional director of the National Labor Relations Board. There, on the tailgate of a pickup belonging to State Senator John McCoy, Ahearn counted the ballots. The result: 195 for the union, and 58 against.

Jeff Johnson, who heads the Washington State Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, was part of the workers' group.  "The irony of where the votes were tallied was hard to miss," he said later. "The majority of students at that elementary school are Latino, Senator McCoy has been a fierce advocate for these workers, and this is as much a public victory as a union victory."

The union is a grassroots organization formed by the pickers themselves, and is led by indigenous Mixtec and Triqui migrants from the southern Mexico states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas. A union contract at Sakuma Brothers could give this union the stability and resources needed to make substantial changes in the economic conditions of its own members, and of farm workers across western Washington.

Strikes and organizing among agricultural laborers, especially indigenous migrants, has been on the rise all along the Pacific coast over the last several years.  The election in Burlington and a new contract will further raise the expectations of thousands of people working in the fields, from northern Mexico to the Canadian border.  "This is a new dawn," Torres said. "When we were celebrating afterwards, people began saying, 'From now on we know what the future of our children is going to be.'"

Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia

The union in Burlington won the loyalty of the Sakuma workforce through three picking seasons of strikes and direct action. Almost all of the work stoppages challenged the company over low wages and its methods for calculating the piece rate, in which workers are paid according to the quantity of fruit they pick. Before he was fired in 2013, Torres was chosen by workers as their spokesperson while attempting to set what they considered fair rate: one that would guarantee $14 per hour.

"Last year they were paying $10 an hour, which they say is a lot," said Familias Unidas vice-president Felimon Pineda, a Mixtec picker and former Sakuma employee. "But they demanded fifty pounds per hour to get $10. For five pounds more there was a bonus of $1.50, or $11.50 an hour. Only the workers who work fast could get that, though." When workers walked out to protest, supervisors called the police to expel Pineda from the field.

When the season began this year in June, workers walked out over a piece rate of 24 cents per pound for picking strawberries. In August, FUJ members in Sakuma blueberry fields walked out again. A day earlier, workers explained, management was paying 60 cents per pound, and then lowered the price to 56 cents.

During all the walkouts, workers also demanded that Sakuma sign a union contract.

"People are tired of low pay," Torres said, "but that's not all of it. Many come up from California for the harvest, getting here broke with no guarantee they'll get a room in the labor camp, and the conditions are bad there anyway. People feel humiliated, and denied basic respect."

A 35-member union committee of workers in the field organized the walk-outs. In addition, the union has another 25-member committee shaping anger over conditions into proposals for a union contract.

In 2013, Sakuma's owners seemed willing to negotiate with the workers, but when those talks failed to raise piece rates, the new union launched a boycott of the company's berries. The boycott initially focused on local sales under Sakuma Brothers' own label. But soon the workers discovered that Sakuma was selling berries through one of the largest agricultural marketers in the country, Driscoll Strawberry Associates, or Driscoll's.

Driscoll's is the largest berry distributor in the world. It does not grow its own berries, but controls berry production by contracted farmers. It has contracted growers in several countries, and has received loans guaranteeing foreign investment from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government agency.

Farm workers and their supporters march to the office of Sakuma Farms

Marketing berries has become highly monopolized. Four shippers control one-third of all blueberry shipments in the United States. During the peak season, Driscoll's moves 3.8 million pounds of fruit daily, and up to 80 percent of the fruit is shipped on the same day it's received from growers. Sakuma Brothers has been supplying berries to Driscoll's for 25 years.

An extremely positive company profile on the front page of the business section of The New York Times the day before the Sakuma election (and which did not mention the boycott, the election, labor strife, or even the farm workers themselves who produce Driscoll's berries) announced Driscoll's new national marketing campaign. While the company wouldn't tell the Times how much it was spending, the article estimated that similar campaigns spend $10-20 million on advertising.

"The public will get an introduction to the people Driscoll's calls its Joy Makers-agronomists, breeders, sensory analysts, plant pathologists and entomologists who will explain how the company creates its berries," the article enthused.

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community, a farm worker cooperative and advocacy organization in Bellingham, says Driscoll's image burnishing actually made it more vulnerable to a boycott. "It made the company more exposed, because of the way it markets itself," she explained. Guillen started helping farm workers organize unions in Washington over two decades ago, and spent several years with the United Farm Workers in California. When the strikes first erupted at Sakuma Brothers in 2013, workers called her in to help plan strategy and organize support.

Starting in the area between Seattle and Burlington, the workers urged students and progressive community activists to set up boycott committees and begin picketing supermarkets, and asked shoppers not to buy Driscoll's berries. As that activity increased, Torres and several workers and supporters made a trip down the west coast this spring, setting up more committees as they went.

"I wouldn't say (the boycott) is threatening the survival of the farm. I would say it's an annoyance," Sakuma spokesman Roger van Oosten claimed earlier this year. Maybe so, but the company started to feel the effects of labor pressure. It had to give $87,160 in retroactive pay to pickers who worked in 2014, after a court ruled piece-rate workers must be paid separately for ten-minute rest breaks. And in a 2013 class-action lawsuit brought by two Sakuma workers alleging pay violations, Sakuma settled out of court by paying 408 workers $500,000 and their lawyers $350,000.

Driscoll's image also took a hit after a strike organized by pickers in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California in 2015, when as many as 60,000 farm workers stopped work and confronted heavy police repression. Last year these workers also decided to organize an independent union, and announced their support for a Driscoll's boycott. The area's largest grower, BerryMex, is owned by the Reiter family, which also owns Driscoll's.

Felimon Piñeda, vice-president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, speaks to farm workers and their supporters in front of the office of Sakuma Farms.

Sakuma Farms and BerryMex aren't just connected by a common distributor, Driscoll's, but by the workforce that picks the berries. Agricultural labor in virtually all the berry fields on the Pacific Coast comes from the stream of indigenous migrants from southern Mexico.

"We are all part of a movement of indigenous people," Pineda says. "In San Quentin the majority of people are indigenous, and speak Mixteco, Zapoteco, Triqui, and Nahuatl. Their strike movement is indigenous. Everyone involved in our union in Washington is indigenous also."

As a result, the movement of workers is as much a protest against anti-indigenous racism as it is about low wages. "No matter if you're from Guatemala or Honduras, Chiapas or Guerrero - the right to be human is for everyone," Pineda added. "But sometimes people see us as being very low. They think we have no rights. They're wrong. The right to be human is the same. There should be respect for all."

In Guillen's view, "indigenous culture plays a huge role, especially people's collective decision-making process. The strong bonds of culture and language create an ability for the union to grow stronger." Workers were also hardened, she believes, by the strikes. "The strikes were the only way to present the company with their grievances," she explained, "and gave farm workers the sense that by acting together with community support they could actually win something. New workers joined in every time. A few people got fired, but they didn't fall away, and kept supporting the organization."

In May this upsurge among indigenous farm workers erupted in California as well. Over 400 farm workers in McFarland, in the San Joaquin Valley, walked out of the fields at another grower protesting low wages and company abuse. The farm's owner, the Klein Management Company, produces clamshell boxes of blueberries sold under the Gourmet Trading Company label.

"The majority of the people here are from Oaxaca-Mixtecos and Zapotecos," explained Paulino Morelos, who comes from Putla, a town in Oaxaca. At the beginning of the blueberry-picking season in April, the company was paying pickers 95 cents per pound. By mid-May, the price had dropped to 70 cents, and then 65 cents. Finally, the company announced it was dropping it again, to 60 cents. Workers refused to go in to pick. After leaving the fields, workers approached the United Farm Workers, which filed a petition for a union election. The union won by a vote of 347 to 68.

Winning an election is one thing, but negotiating a contract is another. Familias Unidas por la Justicia called off their boycott when Sakuma Brothers agreed to an election followed by negotiations. But the boycott threat is still a powerful motive for reaching agreement.

After a march by migrant farm workers and their supporters march to the processing plant at Sakuma Brothers Farms, Washington State Labor Federation leader Jeff Johnson and a delegation including Brown Berets attempted to meet with the company, leaving them a written message when managers refused to talk with them.

The union and Sakuma also settled on a mechanism for making a contract even more likely. According to the AFL-CIO's Jeff Johnson, "the memorandum of agreement negotiated by labor attorney Kathy Barnard has a date certain for the conclusion of bargaining, after which if an agreement isn't reached, the offers will be submitted to arbitration, with the arbiter choosing one proposal to prevail."

California has a law, called mandatory mediation, with virtually the same arrangement. Signed into law in 2002, it has been used by the UFW to get contracts at several large companies. This law, however, is now on appeal before the state's Supreme Court, challenged by Gerawan Farms in Fresno, one of the world's largest peach growers.

"But the first place we had any arrangement like that was here in Washington, even before California," Guillen says.  She and other organizers came up with it to help workers win a contract at Washington's largest wine company, Chateau St. Michelle.  That contract was signed in 1995, and is still in force today.

The AFL-CIO's Jeff Johnson welcomed Familias Unidas into the Washington State Labor Federation last year, which helped gain the cooperation of Richard Ahearn in administering the election.  As a retired director of the National Labor Relations Board, his participation highlighted another irony.  Farm workers (along with domestic workers) were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act in 1937, which set up the union election process for other workers.  California is still the only state with a law establishing such a process for farm worker unions (and recently passed a law ending the exclusion of farm workers from the overtime rights other workers have as well). 

Torres, Pineda, Guillen and the FUJ workers all expect that their movement will move beyond Sakuma Brothers. "We already have members in other ranches," Torres said, "who want the same things we do."

At the same time, however, growers are increasingly searching for a low wage workforce impervious to unionization, through the expansion of guest worker programs.  Sakuma Brothers itself tried this tactic in 2013 and 2014.  In 2013 the company brought about 70 migrants to the U.S. under H2-A work visas.  This Federal program allows growers to recruit workers outside the country for periods of less than a year, after which the workers must return to their country of origin. 

Guest workers who lose their jobs by offending their employer or not working fast enough have to leave the country.  That makes joining a union or protesting conditions extremely risky for them.  Growers can only use the program, however, if they can claim they can't find local workers. 

Migrant farm workers and their supporters, members of the union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, march to the processing plant at Sakuma Brothers Farms

After the 2013 strikes, Sakuma sent strikers form letters saying they'd been fired for not working, and then told the U.S. Department of Labor it couldn't find any local workers.  It applied for H2A work visas for 468 guest workers, enough to replace its entire workforce.  Strikers all signed letters to DoL saying they were willing to work, and the company eventually had to withdraw its application. 

While Sakuma Farms gave up its guest worker plan, at least for the moment, other agricultural employers in Washington have increased the number of H2A workers drastically.  The Washington Farm Labor Association, according to Alex Galarza of the Northwest Justice Project, brought in about 2000 workers in 2006.  In 2013, the year FUJ was formed, the number rose to 4000.  Last year it exploded to 11,000, and may reach 16,000 for 2016.

Almost all the migrant workers who make up Familias Unidas have been living in the U.S. for many years, however. They cannot go back to Mexico, or cross the border to return to the U.S. They are at the northern end of a migrant journey that took many, like Pineda, through San Quintin or the other agricultural valleys of northern Mexico years ago. About half live in California, and come to Washington for the harvest every year. But Pineda and an increasing number are settling in Washington for good.

Organizing the union at Sakuma Brothers is part of putting down roots in northern Washington. "This is the end of the road for them," Guillen explains. "There's no place else to go. Workers won this election because they know what they want. They have families here, and are looking for a better future for their kids. It's not a temporary job for them. They're part of this community."

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community, speaks at a press conference at the office of Sakuma Farms.  With her are Benito Lopez, a member of the union committee of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, with his wife Juana Sanchez, and Tomas Ramon, another committee member.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


The Farmworker-Led Boycott of Driscoll's Berries
By Felimon Piñeda interviewed by David Bacon,
Truthout | Interview, Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Sigue en Español

Felimon Piñeda sits with his children. (Photo: David Bacon)

Felimon Piñeda is vice president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the independent farm workers union in Washington State. He was one of the original strikers when the union was organized in 2013. The union, together with the union of striking farm workers in Baja California, Mexico, has organized a boycott of Driscoll's Berries, the world's largest berry company. They demand that Driscoll's take responsibility for the conditions and violations of labor rights by the growers whose berries they sell. Piñeda describes the life of a farm worker producing Driscoll's berries, and his own history that brought him into the fields of Washington State. He told his story to David Bacon during an interview in Linden, Washington.

Our town in Oaxaca is Jicaral Coicoyan de las Flores. We speak Mixteco Bajo. I am 33 years old, but I left at a very young age. In 1996 I got to San Quintin [in Baja California] with my older brother. After four nights in Punta Colonet, we found a place to stay in a camp. There were a lot of cabins for people and we stayed there for six months. We planned to go back to Oaxaca afterwards, but when we'd been there for six months we had no money. We were all working -- me, my sister, my older brother and his wife and two kids -- but we'd all pick tomatoes and cucumbers just to have something to eat. There was no bathroom then. People would go to the bathroom out in the tomatoes and chiles. The children too.

Another man living there, who spoke another dialect of Mixteco, rented us a little house. It was one room, very small. We were there a year. We were getting home at five in the evening and the children were all eating their food cold because we couldn't make the stove work. Then my brother said we should buy a plot between all of us, to give us a place to live. So we paid one payment, and then another. My brother is still living there, and his children are grown up now. His oldest son is 22 or 23. My niece now has kids.

In Punta Colonet life was very hard. Work was always badly paid. You had to work a lot for very little. In 1996 the wage was 45 pesos. In 2002 I worked three months there again, and in 2005 I worked almost a year. The bosses paid about 100 pesos. But the food was cheaper then. Maseca [corn flour] cost 55 [pesos]. We were not living well, but earning enough to afford it. A soda then cost five pesos. Now it costs 12 pesos.

Felimon Piñeda and his wife in their room in the labor camp at Sakuma Farms, during the strike in 2013. (Photo: David Bacon)

I lived in Punta Colonet two years, and then, because of our great need, I had to begin coming to the US. I worked in the tomatoes in Florida, where it was very hot. It was very hard work, because they have a trailer for the tomatoes, and I'm short. You have to lift the bucket full of tomatoes to about nine feet. The person on the trailer grabs it and empties it, and then hands it back. I couldn't do it, and I had to stand on something, and the bucket weighs more than 30 pounds. It was very hard, and I did that work for a year-and-a-half. In San Quintin I picked tomatoes too, but it wasn't as hard.

Recently, we've seen the movement grow in San Quintin -- the Alianza de Organizaciones Nacional Estatal y Municipal por la Justicia Social. They're defending the people. To me, it's very important that there's someone willing to defend people. The political parties aren't interested in what's happening to us at work. I don't know how the Alianza got started, but I hear they're suffering a lot from threats by the companies, threats from the government. The rich and the bosses have bought the government. They pay the police, who then shoot at the people. It doesn't matter if they're women or children. That's the worst thing I've seen in the San Quintin Valley.

At some point in the future, I'll be going back to Mexico. With the threats they received, that could affect me too. For that reason I'm very grateful for the movement they've organized. For my part, I want to send my greetings to all the leaders in San Quintin. In 2013 Sakuma Brothers here in Washington state threatened us also, because of the movement we organized. They threatened us with the police and hired consultants and guards. Their purpose was to get rid of our union. Thanks to the union we've organized here, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, we stayed firm, and the company wasn't able to get rid of us. We continue to struggle.

That's why I'm so interested in the struggle going on in the San Quintin Valley. When I heard they'd gone out on strike I spoke with my brother and asked him for the phone number of the radio station there. Then I spoke with them and got the number of Bonifacio Martinez from the Alianza, so that we could communicate with the leaders.

Felimon Piñeda talks to workers and supporters, at the end of the march to Sakuma Farms offices in 2015. (Photo: David Bacon)

It seems they arrived at an agreement on the wages. But after they got an answer from the government last year, I understand that the governor went back on his word, and so did the bosses. So then they started a boycott of Driscoll's, the company that distributes a lot of berries from San Quintin. It's been hard to keep in communication, but we haven't lost touch.

They know something of our struggle here in Washington state. Our movement started on July 11 in 2013, the first day of our strike at Sakuma Farms. Sometimes the struggle has been very hard. Sometimes we feel tired. But then we recover our strength and we continue. And we continue with the help of a lot of unions, reporters, supporters of the boycott. And we're making progress.

In 2013, at one point, we were negotiating with the company to improve the working conditions for all the workers at Sakuma Brothers. Sakuma signed an agreement and said he'd respect it, but after two weeks he broke it. That was when we started our boycott, and it is growing every day. Sakuma sends his fruit to Driscoll's in Watsonville. In 2013 I said to the compañeros that we had to go to Watsonville to bring our boycott there. I thought that if Driscoll's saw the people there it would put more pressure on the company.

The boycott kept growing and Driscoll's felt the pressure. Finally the company called one of our supporters and said they wanted to talk about how to get the boycott stopped. She said they had to talk with us. So last year on May 8 we went to Driscoll's office in Watsonville. I thought their warehouse would be small, but there were two very big buildings. Everything there was Driscoll's.

The children of farm workers at Sakuma Farms hold signs during a march to the company offices in 2016. (Photo: David Bacon)

We started to talk about why the boycott started. At the beginning they put a big bowl on the table with strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. They offered them to us and asked us to try some. We said, how can we try some if we're boycotting them?

We were there almost a day. They said they couldn't force Sakuma to sign a contract. We said, OK, the boycott will continue until we get a union contract. This year Sakuma has said he wants to negotiate with us, but we'll see what happens. Sakuma now has a gringo who works with them who's supposed to be good at working in places where there are collective demands and problems.

Last year they were paying $10 an hour, which they say is a lot. But although they pay by the hour, they demand 50 pounds per hour to get $10. For 5 pounds more there's a bonus of 1.50, or 11.50 an hour. But only the workers who work fast can get that.... Since 2013 the weekly pay has actually gone down, in both strawberries and blueberries. Both last year and this year the people have walked out on strike because they didn't agree with the wages.

When the workers struck last year, even though I was working at another company I went out there. I didn't want to leave the Mixtec people by themselves -- they're my people and they chose me as vice president of the union. I had to travel from far away to get there, but there were still about 250 people waiting for me. People said we had to do something, so we went to a field where people were still working. Those workers said the pay was no good, and they left the field too.

Farm workers and supporters demand a contract.  (Photo: David Bacon)

When we demanded a collective bargaining agreement the supervisors said they wouldn't discuss it. Then they sent in the police. The police asked to talk with me, and said I wasn't working there. Alfredo Juarez from our comité [committee] said I had a right to be there because I was the union vice president. The police said they were going to arrest me. So the people asked, are you going to arrest us all? The police didn't know what to say.

Finally the police said that if we didn't move out of the field, into a public place, they'd have to do what they came there for. So the people said, OK, and we all left the field and went to the Costco supermarket in Burlington to demonstrate for the boycott. The next day the company bought burritos for everyone at work.

This year there have been more strikes like this, and more boycott demonstrations. That's why the company says now it wants to negotiate with us.

Talking to Bonifacio, I asked them to do a boycott also -- us in the north and them in the south. That way we'd put more pressure on Driscoll's. We talk about the tactics we use and I told him about our history. He said Driscoll's and the Alianza had to go to the government to ask that the wages get raised. I think that's no good. The government has its role, but Driscoll's has to talk with its growers, like BerryMex, and ensure that they're paying the workers well. That's what we told Driscoll's. We're not going to stop the boycott until the day we sign a contract at Sakuma. Same with Driscoll's and BerryMex.

Adela Estrada Ortiz picks blueberries in a field near Burlington, Washington. (Photo: David Bacon)

I think the idea of an independent union in San Quintin is the best way to do it, with a direct contract. The farm workers of San Quintin have been suffering for over 20 years. Hunger wages are the reason why the people went on strike. They're doing a very good thing. But I think it's better to sign a collective agreement with the companies. The government is not the owner of the farms. Better to force the bosses to pay. They're millionaires. The companies have the main responsibility to pay the workers well. We are demanding the same things both here and there, and the company is the same, Driscoll's.

Last year they invited me to speak on the radio in San Quintin by telephone, so everyone in San Quintin could hear about us. I wanted to tell people to get involved in the movement. It's good for everyone. The strike is the best way to get a fair wage. I wanted to tell people not to get discouraged, that in Washington state we're struggling too. But then the people at the radio station said they weren't authorized, and they wouldn't let me speak.

People in Santa Maria and Madera in California are supporting us too. Many of them come up to Washington in the berry season, and are working at Sakuma right now. They are members of Familias Unidas. I don't know if people are also thinking about striking in California. In Greenfield, in the Salinas Valley in California, there are a lot of people from the Triqui region, and they organize a lot of movements. They're very militant. Maybe they will organize a movement there. It would be wonderful if they would.

We are all part of a movement of Indigenous people. In San Quintin the majority of people are Indigenous. On the radio there they speak Mixteco, Zapoteco, Triqui and Nahuatl. Their strike movement is Indigenous. Everyone involved in our union in Washington is Indigenous also.

Ricardo, an immigrant from Putla, Oaxaca, prunes blackberry vines to allow more light to get to the fruit, and to allow pickers to move down the rows more easily. (Photo: David Bacon)

Here Indigenous people are really worried about getting fired. The supervisors and foremen shout at them and push them hard. They abuse Indigenous workers more than any others. It's the same here and in Baja California. What we want is respect for everyone. No matter if you're from Guatemala or Honduras, Chiapas or Guerrero. The right to be human is for everyone. But sometimes people see us as being very low. They think we have no rights. But they're wrong. The right to be human is the same. There should be respect for all.

When we were on strike in 2013, many of us didn't speak Spanish well. Some of the young people at work would say, "These people don't know how to talk. They don't know what they're doing." The supervisors would say that too. Then, a year later, we won a legal suit to force Sakuma to pay us for our break time. We won over $800,000. After that the people who didn't want to have anything to do with us began wanting to talk with us. The boys who were making fun of us started coming around because they wanted money.

There is more anger now. People believe that they shouldn't be living in bad conditions, people shouldn't be mistreated. More people are defending their rights. A lot of new people coming from California are already with us. They have a good way of thinking. If we don't fight for ourselves, who's going to fight for us? If the bosses want to trample on us, if the government and the police don't like us, there's no other way than to struggle.

Entrevista con Filemón Pineda, vicepresidente de Familias Unidas por la Justicia, Por David Bacon

Nuestro pueblo en Oaxaca es Jicaral Cocoyán de las Flores. Hablamos mixteco bajo. Tengo 33 años de edad, pero salí del pueblo muy joven. En 1996 llegué a San Quintín con mi hermano mayor. Después de cuatro noches en Punta Colonet, encontramos un lugar para alojarnos en un campamento. Había un montón de cuartos para los jornaleros y permanecimos allí seis meses. Teníamos planeado regresar a Oaxaca, pero transcurridos esos seis meses no teníamos dinero. Todos trabajábamos -yo, mi hermana, mi hermano mayor y su esposa y dos hijos-. Pero la cosecha de tomates y pepinos apenas alcanzaba para tener algo para comer. No había baño allí. La gente hacía sus necesidades afuera, en los campos de tomates y chiles. Los niños también.

Otro hombre que vivía allí, que hablaba en otra lengua mixteca, nos alquiló una pequeña casa. Era una habitación, muy pequeña. Estuvimos allí un año. Regresábamos de trabajar a las cinco de la tarde y los niños comían entonces sus alimentos fríos, pues no había forma de calendar en la estufa. Entonces mi hermano dijo que debíamos comprar una parcela entre todos nosotros, para darnos un lugar para vivir. Así que hicimos un pago y luego otro. Mi hermano sigue viviendo allí, y sus hijos crecieron. El mayor tiene 22 o 23 años. Mi sobrina ahora es mamá.

En Punta Colonet la vida era muy dura. El trabajo fue siempre mal pagado. Había que trabajar mucho por muy poco. En 1996 el salario era de 45 pesos. En 2002 trabajé tres meses allí de nuevo, y en 2005 trabajé casi un año. Los patrones pagaban entonces alrededor de 100 pesos. Pero también entonces la comida era más barata. Las tortillas costaban 5.50 pesos el kilo. No estábamos viviendo bien, pero ganábamos lo suficiente para pagar los alimentos. En el trabajo un refresco nos costaba cinco pesos. Ahora cuesta 12.

Viví en Punta Colonet dos años, y luego, debido a nuestra gran necesidad, tuve que empezar a venir a Estados Unidos. Trabajé en los tomates en Florida, donde hace mucho calor. Era un trabajo muy duro, porque tienen un trailer para los tomates, y yo soy chaparrito. Uno tiene que levantar la cubeta llena de tomates a más de dos metros y medio. Una persona en el trailer la agarra y la vacía, y luego la devuelve. No podía yo elevar la cubeta y tenía que subirme en algún banco, y la cubeta pesa más de 30 libras (más de 13.6 kilos). Fue muy difícil; hice este trabajo durante un año y medio. En San Quintín coseché tomates también, pero no era tan duro.

Recientemente hemos visto que crece el movimiento de jornaleros en San Quintin -la Alianza de Organizaciones Nacionales, Estatales y Municipales por la Justicia Social-. Están defendiendo a la gente. Para mí es muy importante que haya alguien dispuesto a defender a la gente. Los partidos políticos no están interesados en lo que nos está pasando en el trabajo. No sé cómo inició la Alianza, pero he oído que está enfrentando una gran cantidad de amenazas por parte de las empresas y del gobierno. Los ricos y los patrones han comprado al gobierno. Ellos pagan a la policía, que luego dispara contra la gente. No importa si son mujeres o niños. Eso es lo peor que he visto en el Valle de San Quintín.

En algún momento yo regresaré a México. Las amenazas que recibieron podrían afectarme a mi también. Estoy muy agradecido por el movimiento que organizaron. Quiero enviar un saludo a todos los líderes en San Quintín. En 2013 Sakuma Brothers, aquí en el estado de Washington, nos amenazó también, debido al movimiento que organizamos. Nos amenazaron con la policía y contrataron consultores y guardias. Su propósito era dividirnos. Gracias al sindicato que organizamos aquí, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, nos hemos mantenido firmes, y la empresa no logró deshacerse de nosotros. Seguimos luchando.

Por eso estoy tan interesado en la lucha que hay en el Valle de San Quintín. Cuando oí que habían estallado en huelga, hablé con mi hermano y le pedí el número de teléfono de la estación de radio allá. Luego hablé a la estación y me dieron el número de Bonifacio Martínez, de la Alianza. Así nos pudimos comunicar con los líderes.

Al parecer, habían llegado a un acuerdo sobre los salarios. Pero después recibieron una respuesta del gobierno el año pasado, y entiendo que el gobernador se retractó y no cumplió su palabra, y lo mismo hicieron los patrones. Así que luego comenzó el boicot contra Driscoll, la compañía que distribuye una gran cantidad de berries de San Quintín. Ha sido difícil mantener la comunicación, pero no hemos perdido el contacto.

Ellos saben algo de nuestra lucha aquí en el estado de Washington. Nuestro movimiento se inició el 11 de julio de 2013, el primer día de nuestra huelga en Sakuma Farms. A veces la lucha ha sido muy dura. A veces nos sentimos cansados. Pero luego recuperamos la fuerza y continuamos. Y tenemos la ayuda de una gran cantidad de sindicatos, periodistas y partidarios del boicot. Y estamos logrando cosas.

En 2013, en cierto momento estábamos negociando con la empresa para mejorar las condiciones de todos los trabajadores de Sakuma Brothers. Sakuma firmó un acuerdo y dijo que lo respetaría, pero después de dos semanas faltó a su palabra. Fue entonces cuando comenzamos nuestro boicoteo, y éste crece día con día. Sakuma envía su fruta a Driscoll en Watsonville. En 2013 le dije a los compañeros que debíamos ir a Watsonville para llevar nuestro boicot allá. Pensaba yo que si Driscoll veía allí a la gente no presionaría más a la empresa.

El boicot siguió creciendo y Driscoll sintió la presión. Por último, la empresa buscó a uno de nuestros seguidores y le dijo que querían hablar con nosotros y buscar la forma de frenar el boicot. Así que el año pasado, el 8 de mayo, fuimos a la oficina de Driscoll en Watsonville. Pensé que su almacén era pequeño, pero en realidad tiene dos construcciones muy grandes.  Tienen de todo en Driscoll.

Empezamos a hablar de por qué comenzó el boicot. Al principio pusieron un gran plato sobre la mesa con fresas, arándanos, frambuesas y moras. Nos ofrecieron que las probáramos. Dijimos: "¿cómo vamos a probar esto si los estamos boicoteando?"

Estuvimos allí casi un día. Ellos dijeron que no podían obligar a Sakuma a firmar un contrato. Dijimos, ok, el boicot continuará hasta que tengamos un contrato sindical. Este año Sakuma ha dicho que quiere negociar con nosotros, pero vamos a ver qué pasa. Sakuma ahora contrató a un gringo que, se supone, es bueno para trabajar en lugares donde hay demandas colectivas y problemas.

El año pasado estaban pagando diez dólares por hora, y dicen que es mucho. Sin embargo, a pesar de que pagan por hora, exigen la cosecha de 50 libras por hora para el pago de los diez dólares. Por cinco libras más, se da un bono de 1.50, o sea 11.50 por hora. Pero sólo los trabajadores que trabajan rápido pueden conseguir eso. Desde 2013, el pago semanal ha venido disminuyendo, tanto en las fresas como en los arándanos. El año pasado y éste las personas han estallado en huelga porque no están de acuerdo con los salarios.

Cuando los trabajadores estallaron la huelga el año pasado, aunque yo estaba trabajando en otra empresa fui con ellos. No quería dejar a los otros mixtecos solos; son mi pueblo y me eligieron como vicepresidente del sindicato. Tuve que viajar desde muy lejos para llegar con ellos, pero había cerca de 250 personas esperándome. Me dijeron que había que hacer algo, así que fuimos a un campo donde la gente todavía estaba trabajando. Nos dijeron que el pago no era bueno, y dejaron de trabajar también.

Cuando demandamos un contrato colectivo, los supervisores dijeron que no discutirían eso. Después enviaron a la policía. La policía pidió hablar conmigo, y dijo que yo no trabajaba allí. Alfredo Juárez, de nuestro comité, dijo que yo tenía derecho a estar allí porque soy el vicepresidente del sindicato. Los policías dijeron que iban a arrestarme. Así que la gente preguntó: "¿Van a detenernos a todos nosotros?". La policía no supo qué decir.

Finalmente la policía dijo que si no nos salíamos del campo e íbamos hacia un lugar público, tendrían que sacarnos. Así que la gente dijo que estaba bien, y todos abandonamos el campo y nos fuimos al supermercado Costco, en Burlington, para manifestar el boicoteo. Al día siguiente, la compañía compró burritos para todo el mundo en el trabajo.

Este año ha habido más huelgas como ésta, y más manifestaciones de boicot. Es por eso que la compañía dice ahora que quiere negociar con nosotros.

Al hablar con Bonifacio, le pedí que la Alianza hiciera un boicot  también. Nosotros en el Norte y ellos en el Sur. De esta manera pondríamos más presión sobre Driscoll. Hablamos de las tácticas que usamos y le relaté nuestra historia. Él dijo que Driscoll y la Alianza habían ido con gobierno para pedir que los salarios se elevaran. Creo que eso no es bueno. El gobierno tiene su papel, pero Driscoll tiene que hablar con sus trabajadores, como Berrymex, y asegurar que van a pagarles bien. Eso es lo que nosotros le decimos a Driscoll. No vamos a detener el boicot hasta el día en que firmemos un contrato en Sakuma. Lo mismo con Driscoll y Berrymex.

Creo que la idea de un sindicato independiente en San Quintín es lo mejor que pudieron hacer, con un contrato directo. Los trabajadores agrícolas de San Quintín han estado sufriendo durante más de 20 años. Los salarios de hambre son la razón por la cual las personas se declararon en huelga. Están haciendo una cosa muy buena. Pero pienso que es mejor firmar un contrato colectivo con las empresas. El gobierno no es el propietario de las fincas. Es mejor forzar a los patrones a pagar. Ellos son millonarios. Las empresas tienen la responsabilidad principal de pagar bien a los trabajadores. Estamos exigiendo las mismas cosas aquí y alla, y la empresa es la misma, Driscoll.

El año pasado me invitaron a hablar por teléfono en la radio en San Quintín, para que todos allá pudieran oír sobre nosotros. Quería decirle a la gente que se involucrara en el movimiento. Es bueno para todos. La huelga es la mejor manera de conseguir un salario justo. Quería decirle a la gente que no se desanime, que en el estado de Washington estamos luchando también. Pero entonces las personas de la estación de radio dijeron que no estaban autorizados, y finalmente no me dejaron hablar.

Gente de Santa María y Madera, en California, nos está apoyando. Muchos de ellos vienen a Washington en la temporada de berries, y están trabajando en Sakuma hoy día. Son miembros de Familias Unidas. No sé si la gente también esté pensando en hacer huelga en California. En Greenfield, en el Valle de Salinas en California, hay una gran cantidad de personas de la región triqui, y organizan muchos movimientos. Son muy combativos. Tal vez van a organizar un movimiento allí. Sería maravilloso.

Todos somos parte de un movimiento indígena. En San Quintín la mayoría de las personas son indígenas. En la radio no hablan mixteco, zapoteco, triqui ni náhuatl. Su movimiento de huelga es indígena. Todos los involucrados en nuestro sindicato en Washington también son indígenas.

Aquí los indígenas están muy preocupados por el riesgo de ser despedidos. Los supervisores y capataces les gritan y empujan con fuerza. Ellos abusan de los trabajadores indígenas más que de cualquier otro. Es lo mismo aquí y en Baja California. Lo que queremos es el respeto de todos. No importa si eres de Guatemala u Honduras, Chiapas o Guerrero. Los derechos humanos son para todo el mundo. Pero a veces la gente nos ve como si fuéramos inferiores. Creen que no tenemos derechos. Pero se equivocan. El derecho de ser humano es el mismo. Debería haber respeto para todos.

Cuando nos fuimos a la huelga en 2013, muchos de nosotros no hablaban bien el español. Algunos de los jóvenes en el trabajo pudieron haber dicho: "Estas personas no saben cómo hablar. No saben lo que están haciendo". Seguramente los supervisores decían eso también. Un año más tarde, ganamos una demanda legal para obligar a Sakuma a pagarnos el tiempo de descanso. Ganamos más de 800 mil dólares. Después de eso, la gente que nos rechazaba comenzó a buscarnos. Los jóvenes que se burlaban de nosotros se nos acercaron, pues querían dinero.

Hay más rabia ahora. La gente cree que no deberían estar viviendo en malas condiciones, las personas no deben ser maltratadas. Más personas están defendiendo sus derechos. Una gran cantidad de gente nueva que viene de California ya está con nosotros. Tienen una buena manera de pensar. Si no luchamos por nosotros mismos, ¿quién lo va a hacer? Si los patrones quieren pisotearnos, si el gobierno y la policía no nos quieren, no hay otro camino más que luchar.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Mexico's Striking Teachers Stand Firm Against State Repression
By David Bacon
The Nation, 8/25/16

 Teachers marching against education reform in Mexico City. (David Bacon)

OAXACA- Since the killing of eleven demonstrators at a street blockade in the Oaxacan town of Nochixtlán on June 19, Mexico has been in an uproar over the use of force against teachers resisting corporate education reform. As the Mexican school year is starting, teachers and supporters in four states have refused to return to classes until there is a negotiated agreement to change the government's program, and until the perpetrators of the Nochixtlán massacre are held responsible.

The government says it will not negotiate, and Mexico's corporate leaders are demanding that the government use force to suppress the teachers and reopen the schools. The danger of further bloody confrontation is greater than ever.

The resisting teachers are concentrated in a highly organized network, the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), within the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), the largest union in Latin America. The CNTE now controls the union in four states: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Michoacán. In other states, especially Mexico City, it has a large base of support.

Teachers in assemblies in those four states voted on August 18 not to start classes on the 22. As of August 23, the government was claiming that over 90 percent of schools had opened. The CNTE says that over half of the schools in Oaxaca and Chiapas remain closed. Adelfo Gómez Alvarez, of the Chiapas teachers' union, told the Mexico City daily La Jornada that "there were strikes and demonstrations in 28 states, including in Mexico City itself."

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto declared: "There will be no more dialogue if we don't guarantee beforehand that children can receive an education in their classrooms, which today are closed. First education, then dialogue." Enrique Enriquez Ibarra, general secretary of Sección 9, Mexico City's teachers union, responded that for a year teachers had tried negotiating with the government while continuing to stay in their classrooms, but the government didn't budge. "Today we no longer believe in classes first and then dialogue. The teachers strike will continue," he warned.

Mexican business interests began proposing changes to the country's education system over a decade ago, as part of a series of economic reforms that have privatized much of the country's economy and rolled back rights and protections that workers and farmers won decades ago. Supported by education reform groups in the United States and by the US Agency for International Development, these corporate reforms concentrate on standardized testing for students, and especially teachers. Testing is then used to eliminate educators' job security and punish militant resistance.

Memorial to the disappeared students of Ayotzinapa in the teachers' plantón in Oaxaca. (David Bacon)

"The real goal is privatizing education," said Tranquilino Lavariega, a classroom teacher and general secretary of his union chapter in Santa Cruz Ocotlán, in Oaxaca. "These corporations see education as a business. And because our union has been part of the opposition to their growing power in Mexico, they see us as a political threat."

Heading the push for corporate education reform is Claudio X. González, scion of one of Mexico's wealthiest and most powerful families. He heads Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First), the voice of the country's right-wing ed-reform lobby, whose program for reform was pushed through the Chamber of Deputies three years ago.

Last year, as the government began implementing the tests, thousands of teachers refused to take them. In limited job actions, many refused to report to classes. When resistance mounted, the government began arresting CNTE leaders. (For more on how the conflict developed this past spring, see Bacon, "Why Are Mexican Teachers Being Jailed for Protesting Education Reform?") Adding fuel to the indignation were demands by González that the teacher-training schools, or "normals," be abolished and replaced with private institutions (fresh in the memory of Mexicans is the disappearance, and probable murder, of 43 students at a normal in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, two years ago). On March 22, Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño Mayer proposed a measure that would eventually fulfill González's goal of eliminating them.

"The students in these schools come from poor families," Lavariega explains, "so of course they are very critical toward the government and want to fight for their rights. That's why the government wants them to disappear-those students are a threat too. Nuño Mayer went to private schools. He thinks any professional can teach-that there's no need for a school to teach anyone to do it."

After the two top leaders of the union in Oaxaca were arrested, police fired on demonstrators at the blockade in Nochixtlán, killing eleven and wounding dozens. People in Oaxaca and throughout Mexico reacted with outrage. A protest march in Mexico City, organized by the left-wing MORENA party (National Regeneration Movement), headed by former mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, drew over 100,000 participants. More streets were blockaded, especially (but not only) in the four states, and plantóns (occupy-style encampments) sprang up in commercial centers targeting big enterprises like Wal-Mart, Bimbo, and Coca-Cola.

A plantón by Mexico City Section 10 outside the Federal Secretariat of Public Education. (David Bacon)

On the US side of the border, teachers and unions joined in demanding that the government release the imprisoned teachers. Protests were organized in front of Mexican consulates, and in San Francisco teachers called for suspending military aid to Mexico. Chicago Teachers Union activists made a video, chanting, "We are Oaxaca!"

The California Federation of Teachers, the California Teachers Association, and the American Federation of Teachers all sent letters demanding the teachers' release. "We are all facing the same attacks," CFT president Josh Pechthalt told local chapters of his union. "The same corporate interests in both of our countries seek to privatize public education, undermine our ability to function as professional and socially responsible educators, and end our right to unions and collective bargaining and action."

In July, the Secretariat of Public Education announced it would not proceed further with the firing of thousands of teachers. And on August 13, two teachers finally walked out of prison on bail, the last of seven prisoners held in federal custody (other teachers remain in jail in different states, however).

While the Peña Nieto administration was forced into negotiations with the CNTE, it continued to say that changes in its education reform program weren't up for discussion. Ibarra, of the Mexico City CNTE, responded that teachers would not back down and would keep developing an alternative democratic education plan.

Teachers have not simply gone on strike or organized demonstrations and street actions. They have recognized that Mexico's schools do need change, and have proposed a series of reforms of their own, called "democratic education." The most advanced of these proposals, the Plan for the Transformation of Education in Oaxaca (PTEO), was actually implemented in Oaxaca in the first years of the administration of its current governor, though he eventually gave way to federal government pressure to scrap it (see Bacon, "US-Style School Reform Goes South").

In Mexico City, Claudio González refuses to allow any possibility of changing the government's testing program. He warned Peña Nieto the week before the start of the school year that he would take any agreement made with the CNTE to court to have it overturned if it changed the reform program he has sponsored. He also called on the president to use force to open the schools. "If it is determined that this is what has to be done in defense of the right of children and other affected citizens, then it must be done," he told the media.

González was backed up by the Business Coordination Council, which called the CNTE teachers "a minority group impeding the daily life of millions of Mexicans." Enrique Solana Sentíes, president of the National Confederation of Chambers of Commerce, filed suit against the CNTE, accusing it of "acts that have violated human rights, principally in denying the right to education of children." He is seeking a court order to force the federal government to uproot the blockades, which he says have cost businesses 7.5 billion pesos. Corporations themselves organized a "business strike" against the teachers on August 8.

Renato Sales Heredia, head of the National Security Commission, announced that the government would use force, which Peña Nieto called "a last regain social harmony."

In Oaxaca, especially after the Nochixtlán shootings, "many parents have supported the strike," says Ezequiel Rosales Carreño, Oaxaca director of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations. In 2006, Rosales was head of Sección 22 during the strike and insurrection that paralyzed the state for weeks that year. "Despite what the Constitution requires, education is not free in Mexico any more. The government and media are trying to demonize teachers and promote hatred, but most parents know this will not resolve their problems. Unfortunately, though, they are creating a lot of polarization, and there will be confrontations in a lot of schools."

The week before the schools were set to open, that polarization erupted in one small Oaxacan town, La Luz Tenexcalco, in the municipality of San Miguel Ahuehuetitlán. Supporters of the PRI (Mexico's governing Institutional Revolutionary Party) came to a meeting on the schools and demanded that the town expel striking teachers and bring in strikebreakers willing to teach, Rosales recounts. When heated arguments escalated, gunfire broke out. Teodulo Pavia Guzmán was killed and Miguel Herrera Pérez was taken to the hospital in critical condition.

Using force to open Oaxaca's schools will replicate shootings like this and the ones in Nochixtlán. "The main responsibility in this conflict is the government's," declares López Obrador. "Just remember the policy that caused it."

Thursday, August 11, 2016


By David Bacon
Capital and Main, August 11, 2016

A farm worker harvests romaine lettuce near Mecca, in the Coachella Valley, where the temperature this summer reached 115 degrees.  Workers cutting lettuce in this crew are paid by the piecerate, and work so fast they are almost running through the field, bent over double all day.

The fight for farm worker overtime is going down to the wire in the current legislative session, which will adjourn at the end of August. And as Assembly Bill 1066, which would require it, moves through the legislature, Jewish and African American organizations have made a commitment to win the votes it needs for passage.

A bill that would have phased in overtime pay for farm workers, Assembly Bill 2757, passed the State Senate earlier this year, but then failed to pass the State Assembly in a vote on June 2. Since then a new bill, AB 1066, has progressed through the Senate's Appropriations Committee, and may be sent to the Assembly within days.

The bill would then need to pick up the four votes by which AB 2757 failed in June. They will have to come from either the eight Democrats who voted "no" or the six who failed to vote at all.

Both Jewish and African American organizations are planning to win those votes. They point to the racism behind the exclusion of farm workers from New Deal-era laws that guaranteed most other workers overtime pay after eight hours of work in a day.

As Rabbi Aryeh Cohen notes in the Jewish Journal, "When FDR began to amass the coalition which would pass the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, Southern Senators, Senators from the Jim Crow, slave-owning former Confederacy, refused to sign on unless worker protections for domestic workers, and agricultural workers were not included. It was no coincidence that these workers were almost all African-Americans. The country, and our state, has begun to address these injustices. There is now a domestic workers' bill of rights, and agricultural workers are now paid minimum wage (which will gradually increase to $15 an hour). The final hill is overtime wages. This is the last vestige of this racist holdover."

The exclusion of African Americans was highlighted in a letter from Alice A. Huffman, president of the California State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "The enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded farm workers from wage protections and maximum hour standards," she said. "During the time this law was put into place, there was a large population of minorities who were indeed farm workers, and for the last 78 years California has failed to bring equality in our workforce. This can no longer be justified or tolerated."

AB 1066 phases in overtime pay, so that farm workers will receive time-and-a-half after 9.5 hours in a day in 2019, 9 hours in 2020, 8.5 hours in 2021, and 8 hours in 2022 (when they will also receive double time after 12 hours).

Growers have argued in AgAlert, the weekly newspaper of the California Farm Bureau Federation, that "the higher cost of providing overtime pay-particularly when coupled with scheduled increases in the state minimum wage-would force farmers to reduce employee work hours to control labor costs."

The phase-in sections of the bill are intended to allow growers to make the transition gradually. And since they have complained that they also have to raise wages to comply with new minimum wage requirements, AB 1066 allows the Governor to suspend the overtime provision. But he can only do so by also suspending the popular minimum wage increases at the same time. That might prove politically very difficult for the current Democratic governor.

Faith groups have already begun meeting with some of the 14 Democratic holdouts. Rabbi Jonathan Klein of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice went with two other Southern California rabbis from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to meet with the staff of Assemblymember Richard Bloom. Bloom, whose district includes Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, did not cast a vote on AB 2757, which was the equivalent of voting no.

"What we got was uncertainty," Klein reports. "They said there were no studies about it and that it might lead to a drop in the economy. But Bloom voted for increasing the minimum wage, which is a much bigger economic challenge, so what sense does that make? The growers have a lot of money, and I think legislators are afraid of it."

A bill guaranteeing overtime for domestic workers, who were also excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, is proceeding through the legislature at the same time as AB 1066. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which enacted the overtime requirement, was passed three years ago. But it expires this year if the legislature does not act to renew it. Assembly Bill 1015 would restore the requirement and make it permanent.

In a recent march in Sacramento, domestic workers, their children and supporters drew a parallel between their situation and that of farm workers. They lobbied Democratic legislators, who almost universally spoke out strongly in favor of requiring overtime for domestic workers. Some Democrats, however, were silent about farm workers, and had voted against farm worker overtime in June.

"Just like domestic workers, farm workers also deserve overtime pay," declares Lillian Galedo, director of Filipino Advocates for Justice, a member of the California Domestic Workers Coalition.

Bloom did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Mark Levine and Bill Quirk, Democratic assembly members from the Bay Area who voted no on AB 2757 in June. Assemblymember Jim Cooper's staff said he would not comment on AB 1066 or the NAACP letter, which notes that the bill "is a commonsense solution that will make farm workers eligible for overtime pay like every other worker." Cooper, an African American legislator whose district stretches from Sacramento to Lodi, was a "no" vote in June.

The 14 Democratic holdouts "are going to have a chance to redeem themselves on AB 1066," says Giev Kashkooli, legislative director for the United Farm Workers. If  the bill passes it will then be up to Governor Jerry Brown to sign it.

Brown has made his support of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the bill that guaranteed union rights for farm workers, a cornerstone of his political career since he signed it in 1975 during his first term as governor. While pressure from California growers to draw the line at overtime pay is intense, the measure is as popular as the original ALRA, even among some Democrats supportive of agricultural interests.

Senator Diane Feinstein, who has sponsored federal legislation for growers throughout her career, signed a letter advocating overtime for farm workers. Prior to last June's vote, she announced, "I support Assemblywoman [Lorena] Gonzalez's legislation [AB 2757] because it will allow for the fair treatment of those who make up the backbone of our U.S. agricultural industry."

"I hope the Governor calls her," Kashkooli said.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Photoessay by David Bacon
Capital and Main, August 9, 2016

Over 300,000 California housekeepers, nannies and personal attendants provide support and care to seniors and people with disabilities, putting in long hours caring for an estimated two million households. With no overtime protections, they suffer exhaustion, damage to their health and that of their clients, and can't earn enough to pay their own bills. In a recent survey, 76 percent of domestic workers still reported working more than 45 hours a week, with 24-hour shifts being common.

The California Domestic Workers Coalition started fighting for a bill of rights for domestic workers seven years ago, to give the same overtime protection to the state's domestic workers that most other workers already have. California did pass these protections three years ago. But the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights had a flaw - Governor Jerry Brown insisted that it had to come up for reapproval after three years or it would disappear.

Last week domestic workers, their children and the clients with disabilities they care for marched on the California state Capitol to support a bill that would eliminate the sunset provision on their overtime protection. The State Senate passed Senate Bill 1015 several months ago, which would make the bill of rights permanent. The State Assembly has started to consider it and the coalition hopes it will pass before the legislature's session ends at the end of August. 

According to one domestic worker, Honorata Nono of Filipino Advocates for Justice, "Caregiving is overlooked and undervalued.  We take care of the most vulnerable people who need constant care. The people under our care also deserve love, respect and dignity. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights means economic justice and permanent dignity for us all!"