Sunday, October 30, 2016


Devolver los Desaparecidos!
Bring Back the Disappeared!

Photographs by David Bacon, Antonio Nava, Emily Pederson and Leopoldo Peña

Eastside Cultural Center
2277 International Blvd., Oakland, CA

October thru December, 2016
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, 1-5PM
Reception:  Thursday, November 10, 6PM

These photographs document the disappearance of political activists, migrants and ordinary people in Mexico, in the context of political repression, economic exploitation, migration and drug violence.  They show the heroic resistance of Mexico's social movements and their fight for social justice, and the solidarity of people in the U.S.


THE REALITY CHECK - David Bacon blog
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EN LOS CAMPOS DEL NORTE:  Farm worker photographs on the U.S./Mexico border wall
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Youtube interview about the show with Alfonso Caraveo (Spanish)
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Interviews with David Bacon about his book, The Right to Stay Home:

Book TV: A presentation of the ideas in The Right to Stay Home at the CUNY Graduate Center
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KPFA - Upfront with Brian Edwards Tiekert
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Books by David Bacon

The Right to Stay Home:  How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration  (Beacon Press, 2013)
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Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants  (Beacon Press, 2008)
Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008
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Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)
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The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004)
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En Español:

EL DERECHO A QUEDARSE EN CASA  (Critica - Planeta de Libros)
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For more articles and images, see  ** (
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Thursday, October 27, 2016


'WE'RE HOMELESS AND WE VOTE!" - Homeless People Want a Voice in This Election
By David Bacon
Truthout Photoessay, 10/28/16

 MuZiK, a resident of the occupation, in her tent in the middle of Adeline Street.

Berkeley, California -- By the time you read this, Berkeley's intentional mobile homeless community will probably have been forced to migrate again, in yet one more forcible relocation.

A week ago, at five in morning, six city trucks and a U-Haul van pulled up at the tent encampment on a peaceful, leaf-covered median in the middle of south Berkeley's Adeline Street. Each truck had two municipal workers on board. Half a dozen police patrol cars accompanied them, red and blue lights flashing in the dark.

Brad, one of the camp residents, sounded the warning. Sleepy tent dwellers quickly began to text supporters, warning that the city was threatening once again to throw tents and belongings into trucks and force people to leave.

James Cartmill, a veteran and resident of the occupation, in his tent on the grass median in the middle of Adeline Street.

"We went into delaying tactics while we got community support mobilized," recalls Mike Zint, one of the leaders of this homeless community. "That doesn't stop them, but every time this happens we get more support. So they sat there in their trucks for the next six hours -- a dozen city workers and a code compliance officer, all on overtime. They took seven cops off patrol. And in the end, after all the arguments, we only moved about 200 feet, across the street. And how much did that cost?"

This homeless community is not just a group of people trying to find a place to live.  They call themselves an "intentional community" with a political purpose - forcing homelessness into public debate and defending the rights of homeless people.  Homeless activists are fighting for the same things in many cities.  Together, they are beginning to have an impact on local policies toward unhoused people [people who have no formal housing].  Political participation by homeless communities is giving them a voice in the national debate over homelessness as well.

The occupation on the grass median in the middle of Adeline Street.

Several weeks ago the group of people in this community "popped tents" as they say, in front of the Impact HUB, an office where the city has decided to centralize most services for homeless people. They protested an intake process they say screens out applicants for housing.  Writing in the local Street Spirit newspaper, Dan McMullan, who runs the Disabled People Outside Project, recalls, "I spent a week trying to get help for a disabled woman in a wheelchair and had to watch as she slept in front of the women's shelter one night, and the Harrison House the next. But she could not get in. I couldn't believe it."  He goes on to say that a HUB employee said the woman didn't fit the intake criteria, and that she was denied reconsideration of her case.

But the community's objections go beyond the immediate denial of services. They condemn the way the city treats homeless people as victims -- as passive recipients of services -- rather than people capable of governing themselves.

For weeks their camp has moved from place to place, in a peregrination Zint calls the Poor Tour. "It's a mobile occupation that can pop up anywhere," he explains. "We're exposing the fact that there is no solution -- nothing but exposure for the homeless. And exposure [the physical cost of sleeping outside] is killing a lot of people."

Ronald Vargas sticks his hands out of the tent in the morning, looking for his shoes.

A recent death was one of the reasons for launching the Poor Tour. On September 19, Roberto Benitas, a day laborer, died sleeping in a doorway. Benitas worked minimum wage jobs, standing in the bitter cold each morning in front of nearby lumberyards, trying to flag down contractors in their pickup trucks. Getting an occasional day's work was never enough to pay Berkeley's skyrocketing rents.

McMullan angrily charged, "Not a cent went into Social Security for the aging worker. When he died in a doorway of the defunct U-Haul rental shop at Allston Way and San Pablo Avenue, it took a day or so for anyone to even notice." McMullen and a progressive city council candidate organized a memorial for Benitas, and the Poor Tour started days later.

Another reason for the tour is the November election, and an effort by this group of activists to use it to assert themselves politically. For over two years, homeless activists have been increasingly involved in Berkeley city politics.

Banners at the Adeline Street occupation, including the banner for First They Came for the Homeless.

The roots of this mobile occupation actually go back to Occupy San Francisco, and the decision by some of its residents to cross San Francisco Bay to Berkeley in the wake of Occupy's dispersal. At first they lived for months in tents in front of a local Staples store. Then, two years ago, Zint and others set up an encampment in front of Berkeley's main post office.

The Post Office occupation became a political weapon, the most visible part of a broader coalition that successfully fought the sale of the New Deal-era building to private developers. That coalition eventually included even the mayor and the city administration, which filed suit to block the sell-off.

The community of tents, tarps and literature tables on the steps lasted for over a year and a half, before the Post Office Police finally drove the tent dwellers away. Postal authorities then built an imposing fence of iron bars around the empty space where the tents had been, to keep anyone from ever setting foot again on that section of sidewalk.

The occupation on the grass median in the middle of Adeline Street.

That certainly felt like revenge to activists. While allied against the Post Office, the encampment's residents had increasingly criticized the current city administration. They charge that Berkeley has given developers a green light to build a wave of market rate housing that is gentrifying the city, and at the same time creating more homelessness.

They pointed to a recent study by the San Francisco Planning Commission, which found that every set of 100 market-rate condominiums required the labor of about 43 working-class families to maintain them and support their residents. Not only don't the condos create housing for poorer residents, but they increase housing demand at the bottom of the market, without coming up with any places for people to live. The net result is the increasing displacement of low-income people.

The post office coalition broke down entirely when conservative members of the city council, backed by the Downtown Business Association, pushed through an ordinance that restricts the space for the belongings of homeless people on public sidewalks. During the debate, the Post Office camp activists set up a new occupation in front of the old City Hall to make their opposition visible, called Liberty City.

Ronald Vargas begins to cry as he talks about the hard times in his life.

In an interview for Truthout, MuZiK, one of those displaced in the uprooting of the camp on Adeline Street, envisioned a growing use of occupations. MuZiK noted that, while it might make people uncomfortable, "if our protest is anything other than a short 'here today, gone tomorrow' sort of deal ... we got a lot of time on our hands, so don't hate it if we choose to spend it fighting for what's right!"

In the wake of the sit-lie battle, another resident of the occupation, Mike Lee, declared himself a candidate for mayor. His campaign dramatizes the idea that homeless people should be given space to set up tents and create a self-governing community. At the Post Office and Liberty City, "what's being created is an intentional community," Lee explains, "where people come together and intentionally create an entity for mutual aid and voluntary cooperation, so that they can survive together and solve their own problems. Homeless people have always formed communities, whether we were considered 'hobos' or homeless people or just 'bums.' Homo sapiens are very social animals. We come together naturally."

At the Post Office encampment, voter registration forms appeared on the tables in front of the tents. "We're homeless and we vote!" Lee says. "There is a political purpose here, to change the way public policy is crafted and implemented. As homeless people we are the true experts. Organizing is the solution to homelessness, and the people responsible for solving homelessness are the homeless themselves." Lee has put forward detailed plans and budgets, showing how the city could use a vacant community center to house working homeless people, and establish areas where others could set up tents or built "tiny houses."

Ronald Vargas is the occupation's artist and makes many of the protest banners. He calls himself Ronald Reagan as a sarcastic comment.

Meanwhile, city politics have become very sharply divided, which is reflected in the current mayoral election. The city's progressive bloc, a minority on the city council, has two candidates for mayor. Council member Jesse Arreguin is more heavily favored and is the city's first Latino elected official, endorsed by local unions and Bernie Sanders. Fellow councilmember Kriss Worthington earned the loyalty of progressives by showing up on picket lines and at demonstrations for years.

Leading the conservative opposition is Laurie Capitelli, a real estate agent whose campaign is well funded by property owners and developers. By mid-October the "independent" National Association of Realtors PAC, having found a way around the city's $250 limit on direct campaign contributions, had channeled $60,382 into Capitelli campaign mailers.

Berkeley is one of many cities that have adopted ranked-choice voting in recent years. This helps the homeless political effort to reach out for allies. Arreguin and Worthington both ask supporters to vote for the other as their second choice in the ranked voting system. Now Lee has asked his constituency to vote for Arreguin as second choice, and Worthington as third choice. In this way, ranked choice voting allows people to support the political demands voiced by a candidate of homeless people, and then to support those progressive candidates who actually have the greatest chance of winning office.

After being forced by police to disband one camp on the grass median in the middle of Adeline Street, homeless community activists set up another across the street.

At the height of a recent rainstorm, Arreguin came out to check on the welfare of the people in the tents, which earned him Lee's support. Worthington has come by the occupations several times in the past. Ultimately, Arreguin says, the city needs to hear from homeless people themselves and treat them as normal members of the body politic. "We do have a crisis, and all options should be on the table," he said in an interview last year. "Berkeley should consider a temporary encampment until we have more permanent housing. People need a place to go."

There is no question but that homelessness is an issue in Berkeley's city election.  And while the presidential debates avoided it, homelessness has become a national issue as well. The explosion in the number of homeless people nationwide has led both to the passage of anti-homeless legislation in some cities and to the recognition of homeless encampments in others.  That explosion has not led yet to a broad movement for building public housing on a massive scale to eliminate homelessness.  But organized homeless people with a strong voice could help to create one.  Such a movement would depend as well on alliances with the broader communities in which homeless people live.

Mike Zint a leader of the homeless occupation, at an informal meeting outside his tent.

Media depictions often portray neighbors incensed over the presence of homeless people. The experience of the Poor Tour, however, is different. Residents of the mobile occupation have been careful to reach out to the neighborhoods that surround the camps. "We're very fortunate that we have the support of the community -- we wouldn't be able to pull off this tour without them," Zint says. "The city is so corrupt -- sniffing around the developers' money. It's time that the community figures out what's going on, stands up and fights back with us."

To keep their support, the camp has set basic rules. "This is a community, not a drug camp," Zint emphasizes. "We don't have a porta potty, but we still manage to be sanitary. No drugs or alcohol. Treat each other with fairness and respect. Be mindful of the neighbors because they're the ones we draw our support from."

The activists and their umbrella organization, First They Came for the Homeless, have a website and a Facebook page. James Cartmill, who lives in the tents, and Sarah Menefee, a long-time homeless rights activist who is a near-constant presence at the camp, have taken and posted hundreds of photographs showing camp life from the inside, and the confrontations with the police and city.

A homeless man sleeps across the street from the Post Office, where the homeless camp used to be. It is now an empty space surrounded by iron bars - the people who used to live there sleep on the grass or elsewhere.

The occupations are decorated with posters and banners created by Nicaraguan refugee Ronald Vargas Gonzalez, whose sarcastic camp nickname is Ronald Reagan, who was responsible for the "contra war" against Nicaragua's Sandinista government. "I use what I have inside me," he explains. "I analyze the society. I analyze being homeless. In each drawing I work to make society recognize that the homeless are human. Society says homeless means garbage, but homeless is human. Society has to give us respect."

Vargas credits the community he's found with fellow tent dwellers with keeping him alive. "The people here are like my roots, a connection to life. You can tell them everything - the good and the bad. What you've lost in this life, and what you've found."

After being expelled from the Post Office camp and Liberty City, many homeless people began living in Provo Park, across the street from City Hall. The police later dispersed the people here also.

Mike Lee and Mike Zint (in the tent) in the camp outside the Berkeley Post Office, originally established to protest the sale of the Main Post Office building. The Post Office Police demolished the camp and evicted the residents a few weeks after the photo was taken.

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.