Tuesday, September 25, 2018


By David Bacon
Truthout, September 25, 2018

 Workers celebrate the 98.6 percent vote to strike

There are times when a vote is more than an expression of opinion about a political candidate. There are even times when it's more important than deciding whether joining a union is a good idea. For hotel workers, last week was one of those times - a vote to go on strike or not.

Striking may cost a housekeeper her rent money for several weeks at least, and maybe longer. It may have a bellman walking sidewalks instead of the carpeted hotel lobby. Voting to strike is a choice with certain risk and sacrifice on one side. On the other, however, workers have to envision and weigh the future of their jobs. Would a bartender eventually lose her job to a new cocktail-mixing machine? Would the rising premium for a cook's health care cut into his paychecks further and further every year?

Deciding to strike or not is a question with real and immediate consequences. It is a very democratic process. Everyone affected gets to choose. And everyone has to live by the result, regardless of how each individual votes. Once workers strike, those with families at risk will have no patience or tolerance for anyone who breaks ranks to go to work.

These photographs show what happened last week when the hotel workers in San Francisco and Oakland cast their votes. They reflect the great diversity of the hotel workforce - multiracial, young and old, men and women, immigrants and native born. And they show people's determination. It's no accident that more than nine out of 10 in every ballot chose to strike. In the photos you can see the anger they harbor against Marriott Corporation. You can see the relief when the votes were counted - relief that pretty much everyone agreed on what to do about it.

In San Francisco and Oakland the vote in favor was 98.6 percent. Hotel workers in these two cities are joining other Marriott workers in Hawaii, Boston, San Jose, Seattle, San Diego and Detroit, who all voted to strike by over 90 percent. Chicago hotel workers are already on strike at Marriott and other hotels.

More than 2,300 San Francisco hotel workers have been working without a contract since August 15 at the Marriott Union Square, the Palace Hotel, the W, Westin St. Francis Union Square, Marriott Marquis, Courtyard San Francisco Downtown and the luxurious St. Regis. They voted in a ballroom at the Parc 55, the scene of a Local 2 organizing drive that took four years to win. Oakland hotel workers voted at the Local 2850 office on Broadway, just across the street from the Downtown Marriott, where walking the picket line will be a first-time experience.

A Hawaii strike will hit some of the most famous tourist resorts on Oahu and Maui, where 3,500 people work at the Waikiki Beach Marriott, Sheraton Waikiki, the Royal Hawaiian, Westin Moana Surfrider, Sheraton Princess Kaiulani and Sheraton Maui. A Boston strike will include 1,800 workers at the W, Westin Copley, Westin Boston Waterfront, Renaissance, Ritz Carlton, Sheraton Boston, Aloft and Element.

Marriott has become a behemoth in the hotel industry, with 1.2 million rooms, far bigger than its closest competitor. It has more employees than Facebook, American Airlines, Microsoft or Boeing. Gobbling up other chains has made it the biggest hotel employer in San Francisco and the world's richest hotel corporation. Company profits have increased 279 percent since the recession. The 1 percent per year increase workers have received in the same period has long been eaten up by inflation. No wonder they're angry.

In San Francisco, the union collected some comments by workers as they cast their ballots. Larrilou Carumba, a housekeeper, said, "I voted 'yes' because my job at Marriott Hotels isn't enough for me to take care of my kids. Many days, after working full-time at the Marquis, I have to work the night shift at a laundromat."

The union's demand in negotiations, which will be its rallying cry in the strike, is "One job should be enough!"

Kirk Paganelli, a server and bartender, told the union, "I voted to strike because I live in fear of losing my job. Marriott Hotels laid me off after 18 years at my last hotel, so I know I'm never safe. Now I see Marriott installing bartending machines that threaten my job." Nix Guirre, a butler, said simply, "We're fed up. One job should be enough."

Anand Singh, Local 2 president, warned, "There will be disruptions if a strike happens." He says the industry is booming for investors, but not for workers. "Our members have been left behind, so we're fighting for a decent standard of living for ourselves and our families."

Eric Gill, secretary treasurer of Hawaii's Local 5, told his members that Marriott has grown so big that this is the last chance to force it to take their needs into account: "Our proposal is to make one job enough to live in Hawaii. Marriott's proposal is to get another job."

Unite Here Local 2 members line up to register to vote 

Hotel workers wait to get their strike vote ballots

Local 2 members showing identification to get ballots 

A Local 2 member votes to strike 

A hotel worker puts his ballot in the box 

The crush to put strike votes in the ballot box 

Counting the ballots 

Anand Singh, Local 2 president, announces the strike vote result 

Workers celebrate the 98.6 percent vote to strike 

A member of Unite Here Local 2850 registers to get her strike vote ballot 

Local 2850 President Wei-Ling Huber and organizer Yulisa Elenes talk with hotel workers about the strike vote 

A Local 2850 member votes to strike 

Putting the strike vote ballot in the ballot box

Two hotel workers show their support for striking

Wednesday, September 19, 2018


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, September 19, 2018

A crew of farm workers harvests head lettuce for D'Arrigo Brothers Company in a Salinas field.  Crew 125A has some of the longest-term workers at the company, and many of the workers cutting lettuce are women.

Women make up almost one-third of all agricultural laborers, but the presidents and most top leaders of the United Farm Workers have invariably been men. Dolores Huerta, the union's fiery co-founder, faced down growers and negotiated many of the union's contracts. She became secretary-treasurer, but not president.

Does it make a difference? The UFW has chosen a new president, Teresa Romero, who says it does. Although she's never worked in the fields, she believes her gender gives her a close connection to the lives of the women who do. 

After her election by the union's executive board on August 28 (the next convention in 2020 will make a permanent choice), Romero's first field visit was to lettuce and broccoli harvesters working in Salinas for the D'Arrigo Brothers Company. "In some crews a majority of the workers are women," she says. "There was a time when they didn't hire women for some jobs. I don't know what the reason was, but whatever it was, it was wrong. 

"Women can do everything, and we want the opportunity to do it. I've seen some older women in their 50s doing work that some younger people can't. If growers are worried about a labor shortage, there are women out there who can do the work.  But they want to be paid equally, and treated respectfully."

After 25 years as president of the United Farm Workers, Arturo Rodriguez is retiring in December, and the union has selected an immigrant woman to replace him. The UFW has had only two presidents in 50 years: Before Rodriguez, it was Cesar Chavez.

Teresa Romero, the new president of the United Farm Workers

This is more than a changing of the guard. Internally the union is trying to reflect more accurately its members. And while acknowledging the epic battles of its early years, it is coming to terms with a new group of California growers, some of whom see an advantage in cooperation, even though others still want a fight to the death.

The UFW is also looking for ways to address more directly the problems of its women members. Women in the fields are especially vulnerable in today's anti-immigrant political climate, Romero charges. "Harassment is very difficult for women to talk about, especially when they feel they might be deported and separated from their children. And for women, being fired is not their problem alone. Most are working with their husband or brother or sister, and abusers hold those jobs over their heads. It's important to have women in charge of crews as supervisors, to make it easier for a woman to come and say, 'This is what happened to me.'"

More than 90 percent of California farm workers were born in Mexico, yet UFW presidents until now have come from families with roots on the U.S. side. Chavez was born north of the border, in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927. Rodriguez, who followed Chavez in 1993, hails from San Antonio, Texas. Larry Itliong, the Filipino labor leader who shared leadership with Chavez during the union's initial five-year grape strike, was an immigrant, born in Pangasinan, in the Philippines. But he was never president.

Born in Mexico City, Romero grew up in Guadalajara, and came to the U.S. in her 20s.  She worked, successively, in a shoe store, in a lawyer's office, as assistant to Rodriguez, and finally as UFW secretary-treasurer. While she doesn't speak Zapoteco, the language of her grandmother, her roots as an immigrant with indigenous ancestry match the changing demographics of California's field laborers. People from southern Mexico, speaking Mixteco, Purepecha, and Triqui as well as Zapoteco, are the fastest-growing group among farm workers.  They've often been the backbone of UFW organizing campaigns and strikes during the last several years.

"I did what my grandmother did when she left Oaxaca to come to Mexico City," Romero says. "Like her, I moved to a different place where I didn't know the language or the culture. I never thought it would be forever, yet now I've been here over 30 years. That's what happens in the fields too. The workers and I share that same immigrant experience."

The UFW was slow to adjust to the rise in indigenous migration. In the early 1990s it signed an experimental agreement with an organization of Oaxacan migrants, the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations. Rodriguez credits its former coordinator and Mixteco leader, UCLA professor Gaspar Rivera, with helping the union understand their culture. Indigenous organizers were slowly hired. In the early 2000s the UFW became a vocal defender of Triqui-speaking workers in the Salinas Valley community of Greenfield, organizing marches when immigration raids targeted them. 

Union meetings are still mostly in Spanish, as are contracts (which are also in English), but translation into indigenous languages is becoming more common. "It has been a challenge," Romero says. "But if we don't understand people's culture, they will see us as outsiders. When we learn and understand what's important to them, it opens doors."

Cesar Chavez, the first president of the United Farm Workers.

The United Farm Workers is not the same union Cesar Chavez left in 1993 when he died in San Luis, Arizona. He'd gone to Yuma, just a few miles from his birthplace, to testify in an all-consuming legal case against one of the union's most bitter enemies, the Bruce Church lettuce company. Bruce Church, like many other growers whose workers had voted for the union in the late 1970s, refused to negotiate with the union. 
By the time Chavez died, the UFW had shrunk to a few thousand members from a peak of about 40,000 in the late 1970s. Over 160,000 workers had voted for the union under California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the law the union had fought for in 1975. Like Bruce Church, however, most growers wouldn't sign contracts. Many others who did either went out of business, changed their names and dumped their workers, or simply refused to renew their agreements. 

Wages fell. "Things got so bad that the year before Cesar died we wanted to do something to give people hope," Rodriguez remembers, "and thousands of workers went on strike in Coachella to raise wages." Two years later the union repeated its seminal march of 1968, from Delano to Sacramento. "Cesar was gone. But that didn't mean we wouldn't continue to fight." 

In 1996 Bruce Church finally did sign a contract to settle its decades-long legal war with the union, and over the next 25 years, the UFW stabilized and began to grow. According to Rodriguez, 10,000 people now work under union agreements, mostly in California.

A successful boycott at the Chateau Saint Michelle winery in Washington state gave organizers the idea for an arrangement to force growers to negotiate. "The workers there won a contract using the idea of mandatory mediation," he says. The threat to return to the boycott was so powerful that the company agreed that a contract would be imposed if negotiations hadn't concluded by a set date.

Odilia Aldana works in a crew of farm workers harvesting head lettuce for D'Arrigo Brothers Company in Salinas. Aldana was a member of the UFW committee that negotiated the recent union contract.

In California the union convinced the legislature to pass a law with the same mechanism, to deal with the many companies where workers had voted for the union, but which never signed contracts. Now, if a grower won't negotiate after its workers organize and vote for the union, a state mediator can write up an agreement and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board can impose it. 

Growers predictably challenged the law, but the California Supreme Court upheld it in 2008. Several large growers, employing thousands of workers, then signed contracts, either because the state imposed them, or knowing that the state would if they didn't agree. That inspired further challenges. The world's largest peach grower, the Gerawan family in Fresno, tried again to have the law declared unconstitutional, but again the state courts upheld it. That case is now on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

"Mandatory mediation is important to us," Romero says. "If workers vote for a union, we have something we can use to get an agreement. But a law on the books doesn't by itself create change in the fields." 

The union also persuaded the legislature to act on issues affecting workers far beyond its own members. Until recently, at least one worker died in the fields every year, in the fierce summer heat in the San Joaquin Valley where temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees. When a pregnant young woman, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, collapsed in 2008, the uproar over her death inspired protective legislation. "I went to so many funerals of people who died of the heat," Rodriguez recalls. "Her death stuck with me, though, in part because her father Doroteo lost his job when he spoke out. We won today's heat protections because of what they and others lost."

Another legislative victory gained overtime pay for farm workers on the same basis as other workers. "We convinced legislators when we reminded them that farm workers had been excluded from overtime by racism long ago," Romero says. 

Overtime pay and heat protection have now been extended to all farm workers in California. Yet, taking inflation into account, farm workers are paid much less today than they were in the period of the union's greatest strength in the late 1970s. The master vegetable contract of that era pegged starting hourly pay at about 2.5 times the minimum wage. If the same ratio held today, California farm workers would be earning over $27 an hour. Instead wages are close to the minimum of $11 an hour for large employers this year, and $12 next year. It's not uncommon to find groups of migrant workers living under trees, or sleeping in their cars at harvest time.

Retiring United Farm Workers of America President Arturo Rodriguez and farm workers from the Gallo wine ranch in Sonoma County protest the unwillingness of the company to sign a union contract. 

"While union contract wages are generally much higher than the minimum wage, the UFW faces a daunting challenge in trying to raise the income of farm workers across the board. Meanwhile, the contested terrain between growers and the union is changing rapidly. For several decades corporate growers have been globalizing their operations, growing fruit and vegetables in many countries. At the same time, as trade agreements like NAFTA have displaced poor rural communities in Oaxaca and elsewhere, farmers have come to the U.S. looking for work and survival. "We have a mostly undocumented workforce, and no immigration reform in sight," Rodriguez says. "Growers are running away to Mexico and elsewhere. It's a huge problem."

Even as immigration enforcement is creating a climate of fear in California farm-worker towns, the government is encouraging growers to hire that flow of displaced people, but only as temporary contract labor through the H-2A visa program. President Donald Trump, despite his otherwise sour anti-immigrant rhetoric, told a rural Michigan rally in February, "We have to have strong borders, but we have to let your workers in. We have to have them."

In the last few years, the number of workers brought to California on temporary H-2A work visas has climbed steeply.  The state's growers imported 3,089 H-2A workers in 2012. In 2017 the number had mushroomed to 15,232-a 500 percent increase in just five years.Some growers see the possibility of replacing at least part of their workforce of resident farm workers with this contracted labor. Some major agricultural corporations, among them Tanimura and Antle, are building barracks for hundreds of H2-A workers in Salinas.

Some immigrant rights activists have called for abolishing guest worker programs, citing the abuse of the workers, and the potential for undermining the existing farm labor workforce. Romero and Rodriguez believe growers face a labor shortage, however, and need at least some H-2A workers at peak harvest times. 

Romero argues that if there are going to be H-2A workers, the union has to protect them like other workers. "In Mexico they are charged thousands of dollars by recruiters, which is illegal. The [recruiters] bring them here and take away their documents. Some families in Mexico haven't heard from their loved ones for months, or don't even know if they're alive. And the contractors say 'no women.'" The union helped set up an organization, CIERTO, which advertises "clean recruitment." It also partners with organizations in Mexico that monitor the recruiters.

Migrant farm workers and their supporters march in Salinas to protest immigration raids. The march was organized by the United Farm Workers union, and celebrated the birthday of union founder Cesar Chavez. Retiring UFW President Arturo Rodriguez heads the march.

But the H-2A program, with its threat to replace the established work force, scares the workers living here, Romero admits. As well, defending the rights of H-2A workers is extremely difficult, as growers can fire them for protesting abuse or not working fast enough, which then triggers the workers' deportation. But Romero remains optimistic that growers will never be able to use the program to replace their workforce.

As she sees it, the future of the UFW lies in its ability to work with growers like D'Arrigo Brothers. The union just renegotiated a contract with the company covering 1500 resident farm workers, along with about 200 H-2A visa holders. Some D'Arrigo employees have worked at the company for several decades. John D'Arrigo says that the key to dealing with the current shortage of farm labor is to encourage workers to stay by making them direct employees, rather than hiring them through contractors.

"With direct hires, there's less product left in the field," Romero says, outlining a potential increase in productivity. "D'Arrigo wants the workers to come back year after year-a workforce that is part of the community. If he gives them benefits, they'll want to keep coming back. We can have a training program, with older workers spending time with newer ones. The company can listen more to the workers, to see what works and what doesn't, making workers part of the solution-not just pushing them to work faster." Items like the training program remain options for future contracts, but the new agreement does provide family health care, with the company paying the premiums, along with increased job security.

Cooperation, Romero believes, helps both management and labor. "When we work together workers bring solutions to the table. Production is better. Quality is better."

Part of her argument is that farm labor is undervalued, not just economically, but socially. "Growers need a competent and stable workforce," she emphasizes. "Nobody knows what's happening at the farm level better than the workers. The people are skilled and experienced. They have endurance. Farm work is a profession that deserves the same respect and consideration as a reporter or an engineer." 

Cooperation, however, hasn't often been the norm in agricultural labor relations. According to Rodriguez, "We have to change what attracts workers to agriculture. There have to be better wages, but that's not everything. The work can't require that someone be disabled by their job by the time they're 50 years old." 

The UFW, however, was born in massive strikes and national boycotts, which forced giant grape growers like John Giumarra and Richard Bagdasarian to sign contracts in 1970. Those companies are still a big presence in California agriculture, and not at all friendly to the union. 

If the union has to fight, the boycott is still an effective weapon, Rodriguez says. "You don't need to cut 50 percent of their business. A small group of committed people can influence consumers and have an impact. If there's no other way, then that's necessary."

Romero agrees, although she'd clearly prefer talking to fighting. "People like Giumarra-I don't know if we'll ever change them," she says. "Those who want to do things the old way have to be forced to change conditions. If workers say a company isn't doing right, and they want to strike and boycott, then we're going to do it."

Josefina Puga harvests head lettuce for D'Arrigo Brothers Company in a Salinas field.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


Photoessay By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 9/12/18

Family members of detainees, including Maria Lopez, Adrianna, and Hulissa Aguilar, called on ICE to release their loved ones after it was announced the center would close.

More photos below.

Bay Area immigrant communities and immigrant rights activists felt they'd won an important victory July 10. At a news conference, Sheriff David Livingston, flanked by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, announced that his department was ending its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigration detainees in Richmond at the West County Detention Facility, one of the county's four jails.

Immediately, the organizations that had put pressure for years on the county over its cooperation with ICE demanded the release of the detainees, urging authorities not to transfer them to another location. For the next two months, until the immigrant facility inside the jail was closed, detainees' families and their supporters mobilized to get legal help, and raise the bond money needed to bail people out of detention. In the end, they raised tens of thousands of dollars, and freed 21 of about 175 detainees held inside the center. The rest were transferred.

A final vigil held September 1, after the ICE facility closed, was a bittersweet moment. For seven years, monthly vigils had been held under the portico next to the center's doors. After the sheriff was forced to abandon the ICE contract, however, activists and families were forced to gather next to a new chain-link fence, in the traffic lane of the highway outside the detention center's parking lot.

Several former detainees, some freed just days before, came with their families to celebrate. Other families, however, faced the reality that their detained loved ones were now far away, in centers ranging from Adelanto in San Bernardino County to Arizona. Alexa Lopez's father, Raul, was taken to a facility in Colorado.

"We can't see him anymore," said his wife Dianeth.

At the end of an hour of songs, prayers and speeches, the participants wrote messages on white ribbons to those still detained, and tied them onto the chain-link fence.

ICE spokesman Richard Rocha accused those who had pressured the county of being responsible for separating families. In a statement when the contract was canceled he said, "Instead of being housed close to family members or local attorneys, ICE may have to depend on its national system of detention bed space to place those detainees in locations farther away, reducing the opportunities for in-person family visitation and attorney coordination." Immigrant rights activists called that a threat and tried to free as many detainees as they could.

Rev. Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and the central organizer of the vigils, said the faith groups involved had to examine their conscience. "The transfer of many detainees instead of their release was hard to swallow at first, and many families felt helpless," she said. "We asked ourselves if we were responsible for their transfer, as ICE accused us. But the families reminded us that ICE moves detainees all the time, and often they don't know where their own family members are."

The ICE argument, that forcing the county to divest from cooperation in detention would harm the detainees, is similar to arguments heard during the fight for divestment from apartheid in South Africa. Corporations investing in South Africa at the time said divestment would harm those people who divestment proponents were trying to support.

Opposing divestment, however, was then and is now also a matter of economic self-interest. ICE was paying Contra Costa County $3 million per year to house immigrant detainees. Yet the sheriff didn't hire any new employees with the money, according to Lee. Instead his department relied on overtime by the existing workforce. In a petition a year ago detainees complained they were being held in cells 23 hours a day, that there were no toilets in the cells, and that free time for calling relatives or taking showers was often canceled. One detainee asked to be deported in preference to continued detention.

"County jails are the worst place to be an immigrant detainee, even worse than many of the huge privately operated detention centers," Lee charges. "They have far fewer services for people, and aren't built for long-term detention. Of course, what does that say about the conditions for the non-immigrant people imprisoned there?"

ICE has facilities located in hundreds of county jails around the country, building a dependency among counties on the money paid for housing detainees. The city councils of Hoboken and Jersey City protested when Hudson County, New Jersey, supervisors (all Democrats) voted last July to renew its ICE detention contract. "The county and cities shouldn't be in the business of profiting off human misery," Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop told the New York Times. Sacramento was receiving $6.6 million annually from ICE before it canceled its contract in June. Other contracts have also been canceled in Santa Ana, Virginia and Texas.

The vigils at the West County Detention Facility went on longer than protests at any other county jail. "They created a monthly platform," Lee explains, "where detainee families could come and ask for support. A consistent, regular event provided a place where people who weren't necessarily activists could participate. People brought their children, made their own signs, and came to play music. Often one person from a congregation would come at first, and then go back and recruit others. From the beginning, we were committed to the long haul."

Lee relied on faith congregations as a base, and each month appealed to one of them to take responsibility for the vigil. As the vigils gained momentum and before they were successful, Lee explained why congregations were morally obligated to be involved: "Since the detention center is in our community, we can't look away. We have to own it, to scrutinize and examine what goes on inside, and be involved with the detainees and their families. Ultimately, we have to force our local authorities to divest and get out of the business of detention, and stop collaborating and making money from it. It's not impossible. It's something that people can do to end the detention system."

Supporters of Lourdes Barraza and her husband Fernando were able to raise the bond to get him released. He came to the next vigil to show support for other families, holding his youngest daughter.

Alexa Lopez hoped her father, Raul, would be released in time to celebrate her quinceƱera (15th birthday).  After the Contra Costa County Sherriff announced he was closing the center some detainees were released on bond, but to the dismay of Alexa and her mother, Raul was not one of them, and he was transferred to Colorado.

Liliana comforted her niece after she saw her mother for the first time in 8 months.  Her mom was not released, however.

Family members of detainees called on ICE to release their loved ones after it was announced the center would close. 

Rev. Deborah Lee, the vigil organizer and director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity.

Other faith activists outside the detention center the day it closed.

Kara Hernandez and her son Victor Jr. came to the last vigil with her husband, Victor, who had just been released before the immigration detention center was closed.  

Victor Hernandez embraced Hugo Aguilar during the last vigil, showing the friendship that had developed between them during months inside.

Hulissa Aguilar came to a vigil to ask for help to get her father Hugo released.  After raising the bond and getting him out, the family was reunited at the last vigil, together with Hugo's sister Isela and brother Gonzalo.

The Sherriff put up a fence to keep vigil participants out of the parking lot and away from the detention center, after he was forced by county supervisors to end the contract with ICE to run it.

Hulissa Aguilar and Victor Hernandez, along with many vigil participants, tied ribbons to the fence after writing messages on them expressing support for the families of other detainees.