As this interview demonstrates, farmworkers are on the frontline of the coronavirus epidemic, but that doesn’t mean the American government will treat them with the respect they deserve. According to a recent NPR report, “thousands of farmworkers are now carrying a new document with them on the road, in case they get stopped. Barbara Resendiz got hers last Friday, together with her paycheck. The small card explains that the Department of Homeland Security considers her job to be part of the nation’s critical infrastructure and that she needs to get to work, despite California’s order to shelter in place.”
Here, Puntorojo interviews Edgar Franks, Political Director of Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Familias Unidas por la Justicia is an independent farmworker union in Washington State. The majority of the members are Mixteco and Triqui people from Guerrero and Oaxaca, Mexico. Familias Unidas also has members who are H2A workers from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Puntorojo publishes voices and viewpoints of the current generation of Mexicanx, Chicanx, Latinx, transborder and transnational radical thinkers, workers, scholars, activists, artivists, historians, and other commentators whose historical experiences and vantage points are shaped by the effects of U.S. imperialism across the Americas, and resistance to empire in daily life. This interview is republished with permission by No Borders News as part of our ongoing coronavirus international coverage.
Punto Rojo: During this crisis of “corona capitalism” attention is now being paid to under-appreciated sectors of the working class that are providing “essential services.” Perhaps no other group of workers fits this category more than farmworkers, the front-line workers whose labor feeds the entire population. How are farmworkers experiencing the crisis in Washington state, one of the “ground-zero” centers of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States?
Edgar Franks: Here in Washington State farmworkers are being asked to continue working. On the east side of Washington where the majority of farms grow apples, cherries, and pears, there are currently about 5000 workers that have come through the H2A visa program. That number is supposed to go up to over 20,000 when they reach peak harvest. We have seen just how exploitative this program is to workers.
Housing is cramped and sometimes company provided housing has over 10 workers in a small cabin. Should one of the workers fall ill then there is potential for the entire workforce to become sick. The transportation to and from work is done through buses. Workers also have to take the company buses to go to town to buy their food and send money back home. Just last year we had an H2A Farm where a mumps outbreak occurred. The response was lackluster and exposed the lack of medical attention to farmworkers.
Now we are being asked to continue working and that we are essential. We say then we better be treated as such and compensated for putting our lives on the line. So far Farmworkers have not been given any hazard pay, safety equipment, or even basic plan for healthcare should one get sick. The growing frustration can be felt because of the disrespect and lack of decency being shown to the community.
So far Farmworkers have not been given any hazard pay, safety equipment, or even basic plan for healthcare should one get sick.
Here in Skagit County were our Union is based, we just got word that the tulip harvest will fall because of the pandemic, so many workers are being laid off. Many will not qualify for unemployment or any government programs. So workers have no safety net during this crisis. Schools have been suspended until May and with no income coming in there will be desperation as workers try to figure out how to provide for themselves and their families. There has been no order from the state government to freeze rent or utility bills. So as a union, we are organizing with our members about what remedies are needed to survive over the next couple of months.
PR: Already before the current crisis, the living and working conditions for many farmworkers and their families have been harshly affected by state repression resulting from immigration enforcement. How has the function of ICE affected workers in Washington before the crisis, and how do you see this playing out now amid the crisis?
EF: When it comes to ICE in our community, we see it as an organization that is set up to terrorize workers. In many instances in the past, when workers wanted to take a workplace action, the first thing that concerned them was “what if la migra shows up?”
In my experience ICE serves as a suppressive force to worker organizing, knowingly or not. Workers who are undocumented are hyper-vigilant in that sense and because we live near the northern border there are many agents present and operating. That makes taking a public action difficult for many farmworkers.
When it comes to ICE in our community, we see it as an organization that is set up to terrorize workers. In many instances in the past, when workers wanted to take a workplace action, the first thing that concerned them was “what if la migra shows up?”
Historically we have relied on strikes and work stoppages to make our case to the public. However, by doing that you take the risk of bringing attention from the state. It’s a fine line that workers are walking when they decide to go public in their actions. ICE has been detaining and deporting in our community. I think now the concern is that if we stay in our homes isolated during the pandemic, we can easily be detained and no one will know about it until it’s too late.
PR:The US government is currently discussing the issuance of $1,200 checks to the US population to support families and sustain consumer spending. Due to the anti-immigrant practices and policies of the Trump administration (and his predecessors), it is doubtful that many farmworkers will be included or see any of these types of relief. What are the needs of the farmworkers in the crisis and what should the federal and state government be doing to support and sustain the hundreds of thousands of farmworkers and their families in this country?
EF: I think this current crisis has further exposed the failure of a broken food system that treats workers as expendable. The few benefits that will go to workers will not reach immigrants on the front lines of production and distribution. Workers that continue to work are doing so without any assurance of healthcare should they fall ill. Workers go to work with the threat of ICE deporting them. Workers who are laid off will not be receiving the $1200 for some relief.
What we support and need is a rent freeze and a bailout for all workers in every sector. We don’t differentiate between essential and non-essential. All workers deserve to be treated with dignity. One of the things that has recently developed is the reliance on non-profits to seek social change. Maybe some changes have happened that way.
However, historically speaking, it has been the organized working class and poor people who have created the systemic shift in times of crisis. As a union of poor workers we see this as a time to push for the things we have been seeking for generations.
However, historically speaking, it has been the organized working class and poor people who have created the systemic shift in times of crisis
Ending the use of pesticides, winning amnesty, healthcare for all, childcare, the right to organize and collectively bargain, etc., things that have been seen as impossible. For many years we have been calling for a transition from the capitalist industrial agricultural model to a sustainable local solidarity economy with an emphasis on worker-owned cooperatives. This is the time where our solutions can be made into a reality.
PR: Familias Unidas por La Justicia (FUJ) has been organizing with migrant farmworkers in Washington for several years now. How did FUJ begin, what are the organizing methods used, and what have been the most significant gains?
EF: We began as a group of workers who got together to call for the company where we worked at to reinstate a worker that had been fired and told to leave the company provided housing. From then on we tried to negotiate better wages and housing. We had reached an initial agreement with the company but within a couple of week the agreement was broken so we went on strike and decided that the only way to guarantee anything was through a contract.
We reached out to different unions, but none had capacity to represent us. So we came to the conclusion that we would have to form our own independent union. We voted and chose our representatives. One of the most important decisions for the membership and leadership to take on was how to get the company to sit down and negotiate.
As farmworkers we are not covered by the NLRB so we can’t just call for a vote and begin contract negotiations. Our only recourse was to take our case to the public and force the company to recognize the union and negotiate. We went on strike and organized a boycott for over 3 and a half years, but finally won.
Our contract was signed in 2017 and now we are renegotiating the new contract.
We have won things that at one time seemed impossible. Grievance and arbitration, health plan, childcare, and also a process to establish a fair wage through a test process that guarantees no one will make less than $15 an hour.
It wouldn’t have happened without the people who formed solidarity committees and organized picket lines with us, so we are forever great full to those folks. We also know that there are still workers in San Quintin, Baja California who are fighting for justice with their own independent union who need all of our support.
PR: With the experience of this crisis, and the recognition of the centrality of farm labor for our collective well-being, do you think there will be more support for the unionization of farmworkers?
EF: The hope is that there will be more unions. However, to form a strong union is a long process. I think the public thinks that we still live in the Cesar Chavez heyday of organizing, but the reality is that maybe 1% of all farmworkers are under a union contract. Some might see that and get discouraged.
It’s not easy to organize but when workers win it creates a paradigm shift that inspires others to fight.
We at FUJ see that as an opportunity. We see signs of people wanting to get something better. This crisis really makes people see that the grower will not take care of you. Only thorough a union can workers level the power dynamics in the fields. I think right now our role is to make sure the ideas and principles of unionizing are kept alive and then when the moment is right workers will organize and we will be there to support. Saul Alinsky thought that organizing farmworkers was an impossible task. Good thing he wasn’t a farmworker organizer. It’s not easy to organize but when workers win it creates a paradigm shift that inspires others to fight.
PR: What can people to do to support and show solidarity with the farmworker movement during and beyond this crisis?
EF: One of the things to learn through the process of unionizing is that we need to amplify class consciousness. One thing we understand is that we are poor people fighting against the rich. One of the things that we saw was the mutual aid networks that had been established in communities.
These self-organized folks are key on surviving the crisis. We are trying to think beyond just union contracts and really ask the question of what does farmworker liberation look like? For us we think that having our own land and set up communities where we can be protected from ICE or racists, that are also a place where we can work in a self-sustaining way. That will take a long time to set up but it all has to start with union-organizing. We know we will need people in other professions to make this possible. In Agro-ecological terms, we will need “organicity”, that is, to organize inside and outside our movement towards a common goal.
Familias Unidas por la Justicia is an independent farmworker union in Washington State. Majority of the members are Mixteco and Triqui people from Guerrero and Oaxaca, Mexico. Familias Unidas also has members who are H2A workers from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. http://familiasunidasjusticia.org/en/home/
Edgar Franks is the Political Director and helped form the union since its inception.