In his article in the April issue of Peaceworks, “On Beyond Coffee: Fair Trade and Workers’ Rights in a Changing Economy,” Stephen Coats discusses some of the concerns raised by the labor movement over the expansion of the Fair Trade model to include large-scale producers. He raises the question of whether Fair Trade certification is the most effective strategy for improving worker conditions on plantations. “While Fair Trade certification is an important instrument for making positive change, the most fundamental issue for workers in the Global South is the rules of global trade. The terms of international trade agreements have an enormous impact on the lives and working conditions of the world’s producers. We need strong trade rules protecting workers’ right to organize in order for workers in every sector to achieve the kind of conditions that Fair Trade certifies.”
We can debate whether market-based approaches, such as Fair Trade, will achieve the desired effect of protecting farm workers and improving their conditions. But we do know for sure that strong labor laws (which are then respected and enforced) are by far the most important strategy toward ending discrimination and abuse of workers. Last week, the New York Times published an editorial about the on-going struggles for worker rights in this country and recent efforts to finally end the injustices to farmer and domestic workers.
In response to a recent organizing effort, described in the New York Times editorial, Rob Everts, Co-director of Equal Exchange, has written the following reflection of his days working with the United Farm Workers and some of the lessons learned in fighting against a few of the giants of the agro-industrial food system. He concludes by asking us to endorse a fledging new campaign which plans to, finally 70 years later, right worker injustices in the system.
I was introduced to the abuses of corporate agribusiness in the mid-1970’s, when at age 17, striking members of the United Farm Workers (UFW) brought the Gallo wine boycott to my home town in Northern California. For the next seven years, I threw myself into this campaign, working full-time with the UFW. It was just a first experience learning about the treatment of migrant farm workers and it left a deeply planted seed in my consciousness. This work greatly influenced the way I would spend my working hours ever since, including the last thirteen here at Equal Exchange.
Gallo was the largest wine grape grower in California. After signing an initial union contract following the historic grape boycott, the company set out to break the union. Strikebreakers were brought in from around the world, as far away as India. Crews were pitted against each other by nationality. Workers were beaten. It was decades before justice returned to Gallo workers.
I quickly learned who the dominant players in agriculture were: Tenneco Oil, United Brands (formerly the notorious United Fruit Company), Coca Cola, just to name a few. Conditions for migrant farm workers in the United States hadn’t changed in over 100 years. The only thing that changed was the backgrounds and skin colors of the workers: Chinese at the turn of the century, and then later, Filipinos, African Americans, Mexicans, Haitians, Central Americans. All were manipulated, all were exploited. Edward R. Murrow brought this injustice to the country’s attention with his devastating documentary “Harvest of Shame” which aired on CBS on Thanksgiving Day in 1960. Still, little changed.
Why has so little happened over so many decades to protect the rights of farm workers?
A recent editorial in the New York Times on April 6th, “Farm Workers’ Rights, 70 Years Overdue” asks the question and endorses an effort to right a longstanding wrong.“It is more than bank failures and rising unemployment that give these troubled times echoes of the 1930s. An unfinished labor battle from the New Deal is being waged again.
The goal is to win basic rights that farm and domestic workers were denied more than 70 years ago, when the Roosevelt administration won major reforms protecting other workers in areas like overtime and disability pay, days of rest and union organizing.
That inequality is a perverse holdover from the Jim Crow era. Segregationist Southern Democrats in Congress could not abide giving African-Americans, who then made up most of the farm and domestic labor force, an equal footing in the workplace with whites. President Roosevelt’s compromise simply wrote workers in those industries out of the New Deal.
They were thus sidelined from the labor movement, with predictable results. Though the Dixiecrats have all long since died or repented, the injustice they spawned has never been corrected. Poverty, brutal working conditions and legally sanctioned discrimination persist for new generations of laborers, who are now mostly Latino immigrants.”
Despite the absence of a legal framework for unionization, the first and virtually only successful effort to unionize migrant workers was that waged by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the many leaders they developed from the fields. Against all odds and with the support of millions of consumers around the world, who after strikes were violently broken, refused to eat non-union grapes for years on end, the United Farm Workers won union contracts for tens of thousands of grape pickers in 1970. Soon after the grape victory, thousands of workers in the lettuce industry joined the ranks, and over time UFW contracts covered many workers in the citrus, tree fruit, tomato and other industries.
Historical footnote of interest: President Nixon came to the aid of agribusiness in its efforts to defeat the boycott: his Defense Department purchased and shipped thousands upon thousands of pounds of grapes – that would have otherwise rotted in cold storage – to U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam. But to no avail.)
One point of this brief reflection is to recall the role consumers have played over the years in bringing change to an opaque and inequitable food system. Still, as consumers we are dangerously disconnected from where our food comes from. Recently, a drumbeat of health scares has added an element of enlightened self interest on the part of consumers to press for dramatic changes to the prevailing system.
All of these battles will require unprecedented collaboration between people and organizations seeking to democratize the process by which food is grown and brought from farm to table. Corporate agribusiness, like any self-respecting group of entrenched economic interests, will not easily give up its control. Corporations have a permanent interest in maintaining the status quo. The agribusiness giants who exploit migrant workers here are the same players who win trade agreements that force these workers—many formerly small farmers in the “global south”—off their land in the first place. All of us in this broad effort to transform the food system need to seek every opportunity to build off what unites us. For us at Equal Exchange, we are anchored by our commitment to build a stronger role for co-operatives throughout the food supply chain, but we too must reach out to other like-minded people and organizations if we are to have a chance at fulfilling our 20 year vision of “a vibrant, mutually cooperative community of two million committed participants, trading fairly $1 billion a year in a way that transforms the world.”
One step you can take right now is to become one of the first 1000 people to endorse the campaign mentioned above to extend labor law protections to agricultural and domestic workers.
Go to email@example.com and:
- Email your full name (or the name of your organization) as you wish to see it published. (Your email address will not be published.)
- For “purposes of identification only” provide your title or occupation.
- Provide the name of your CITY and STATE (abbreviation). (Published with name)
Sí se puede!