MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS
MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924
Camp Justice Sparks Hope Among Farm Workers
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
Forty years ago, Cesar Chavez and a dedicated troop of organizers changed the way Americans think about food. For the first time since the end of the Ag Age, we were forced to consider the human costs of bringing cheap grapes to our tables. The Grape Boycott may have made history, but it didn't change the economic harvest corporate growers reaped.
Forty years later, the struggle continues. In an homage to Chavez, the United Farm Workers have embarked on an ambitious campaign called "Otra Vez" ("Once Again") to organize farmworkers in California's Central Valley.
I am volunteering here at Campo de Justicia (Camp Justice), on the fringes of Delano where the air smells like an earthy mixture of pregnant grapes and cow dung. I join 40 compa–eros from throughout California - and the country - in sowing seeds for a new history, one that grows spirits as successfully as pistachios.
Every morning at 5:30, we race the dawn to meet workers in the dusty fields as they tie their scarves around their mouths, don their fruit-stained gloves and prepare for another searing day of picking. We traipse over dry, mud-caked lanes to speak to as many workers as possible before the mayordomo (crew foreman) arrives to officially start the day.
Farmworkers earn between $7.00 and $7.25 an hour, about the cost of a glass of wine in an upscale restaurant. Seventy-five percent of workers earn less than $10,000 a year, according to the federal Department of Labor.
Their backbreaking day begins in the field at 6:30 and ends at 3:30, with a legally mandated half-hour lunch and two 15-minute breaks, although some growers skirt the law and push the workers to produce more. Wages have not kept up with either inflation or the cost of gas, and farmworkers' standard of living remains stagnant. In 1965, an historic, bitter, 5-year strike earned farmworkers about $3.00 an hour, less than half of what they earn 36 years later.
Some growers deny workers shade. Others deny bathrooms. Others deny sick pay or health benefits. I spoke with a woman who had been bitten by a snake while picking grapes, went to the hospital, missed three days of work, and was denied three crucial days' salary. A man told me he and his coworkers just got a bathroom, after years of requesting one, now that the UFW is organizing at his vineyard.
Our day is simpler. By 7:00, we are back at Campo de Justicia, debriefing, eating breakfast and gearing up for our next kamikaze ride through the labyrinth fields to find crews that we haven't yet spoken with. We're like meteorologists seeding clouds for an overdue rain, speaking one-on-one, crawling through grape vines in search of the next worker fed up enough with feeding America, but not his or her own family.
The UFW has been at the forefront of organizing California's farmworkers since the mid-60s. It's a challenge. Growers lease their land to sub-contractors, who become the workers' new employer, or change their corporate entity, evading responsibility for past transgressions. Workers are spread over several miles, moving from day to day and from crew to crew. The window to organize them is as short as the harvest season, a time when there is much pressure to bring in the crops. And the workers themselves are migratory, moving from crop to crop, city to city as the seasons shift.
Legal gains have been made, however. UFW organizers have access to the workers in the field just before and after the workday, and during the floating lunch period, for only 30 days after the union files a request to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Once the union has collected support cards from 50 percent of the workers, they can call for an election.
An election win doesn't always guarantee a contract. Some growers drag their negotiating feet. D'Arrigo Bros., one of California's biggest agribusinesses, has strung along his workers since 1977! Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court upheld a lower ruling to force growers to negotiate in good faith or face mandatory mediation.
But our world at Campo de Justicia is focused on reaching new workers. In the afternoons, we literally take our campaign to the streets, creating "Block Parties" along commuter routes to waylay farmworkers heading home. We hand out bottles of water at stop signs, urging workers to pull over and sign cards showing union support. And they do! My first day, more than 300 workers signed up at the side of the road.
And the numbers grow - as long as there are volunteers to ask them. Each day, each week, each volunteer here at Campo de Justicia adds to the momentum to change the course of history's future. Volunteers are welcome for a week, a day or an hour at the camp in Delano through the end of September, and possibly beyond. For up-to-date information, visit www.UFW.org/CampJustice.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a political communication organizer from Los Angeles, volunteered at Campo de Justicia and blogged daily to UFW's web site. To read more of her political travels, including her trips to Iraq, visit www.CommunityCampaigns.com.
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