It’s May 1st and to many that means a day of Spring flowers and Maypoles, but today stands for so much more. May 1st is also International Worker’s Day and while that may sound like a far cry from an American holiday, the history and meaning of May Day is just that: American.  The origins of this day date back to 1886 in Chicago, IL.  During this time, there were no laws regulating the work day, meaning employers could force their employees to work long hours and there was little employees could do. No 8-hour comforts existed as we have in this century.  But the labor movement was making motions.  They had set May 1st, 1886 as the day in which the 8-hour work day would be set by law.

Tensions ran high as a general strike was called in Chicago. Tens of thousands of workers took to the streets in a mostly peaceful protest. But like many protests, police were quickly on the scene and an unidentified person through a bomb into the chaos. The blast and resulting police gunfire ended the lives of eleven and wounded countless others. What followed was a Nineteenth Century witch hunt where eight labor organizers and labeled “anarchists” were convicted, seven sentenced to death.  In the years that followed, they were pardoned as there was not enough evidence to connect them and the investigation and trials were seen as questionable.

You may recall this historic event as the Haymarket Affair. Not only was it a historical moment in labor rights history but it directly affects your personal every day life, as you enjoy the perks of an eight-hour work day without the threat of loss of life. In 1890, demonstrations were called to commemorate the lives lost that fateful day in Chicago. It is a way to remember the struggles workers have endured over the years.  For over a hundred years, May Day has become the official holiday in many countries around the world.  In the US, it is an unofficial holiday but is still of top importance for workers around the country.

About six years ago, I participated in my first May Day protest in Sacramento, CA (capital of California).  There were hundreds of thousands, largely farm workers, marching for Immigrant Rights. For far too long, slavery has existed in our country under the guise of cheap food. I was there, in the thick of it. Seeing first-hand how organizing can make a difference and that May Day can still have an impact. Although we are still struggling to protect farm workers under the same laws that many of us take for granted: eight-hour work days, five-day work weeks, and basic needs, the demonstration shone light on the issue.

And now as I write this from Oakland, CA, I can hear the helicopters circling hundreds of Occupy and labor union strikers standing up for financial and social reform in our country.  It doesn’t take much to see that a growing disparity is happening in the US. As the economy continues to tank, the people who are baring the weight are the workers.  The struggle still continues for farm workers, for factory workers, for nurses, teachers, police officers, and others carrying the load.  So while purchasing union-made, Fair Trade, and supporting UFW and the likes is important in our day-to-day lives, don’t forget the struggles the existed before and still continue to this day. Use May Day as a platform for your voice to be heard. Thousands of workers and students are going on strike and marching through the streets to demand reform today. Will you join them?

About a year ago to the day, the AP blog posted an article concerning California farmworkers and the hellish conditions in which they are made to work.  The very fact that the body of the population is largely composed of migrant and/or immigrant labor, including many who do not speak English and are undocumented, means it is at a supreme disadvantage when attempting to establish the right to a safe working environment, as a whole or individually.  There is little these people can do, and the neglect they suffer can at times lead to a tragic death.

Such was the case in 2008 with Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year-old woman, two months pregnant, who was made to prune grapes in San Joaquin County for nine hours in triple-digit heat without adequate shade, water or rest breaks.

A few weeks ago, Maria De Los Angeles Colunga and Elias Armenta, the two farm supervisors most-directly responsible for this gross abuse of labor decency and originally charged with involuntary manslaughter, reached a softened plea bargain.  Colunga was sentenced to 40 hours of community service, three years of probation and a fine of $370, and Armenta to 480 hours of community service, five years of probation and a $1,000 fine.  Both were also banned from engaging in farm worker contracting.

Some might argue this outcome to be bittersweet, but easy on the sugar.  While this prosecution is a small but progressive step toward justice in an industry that, until recently, was left to set it’s own rules and labor standards with miniscule regulation or consequence, common sense suggests that the death of this young woman and her unborn child in such an environment would call for much harsher punishment, including serious jail time, something that might scare other labor companies into doing right by their workforce.  Hopefully such changes won’t require more innocent deaths.
You can read more about this issue here, and review last year’s AP farm labor article hereStay informed and stay active!
-Jeremy Pearson

Perhaps not so far from the truth.

On August 19th, the Community Farm Workers Alliance NYC, allied with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida, organized a protest in front of the new Trader Joe’s store in New York City’s Chelsea Neighborhood.  Their goal was to educate shoppers about the extreme and unconscionable abuses farm workers are enduring in their region; Florida tops the nation in the amount of fresh-market tomatoes produced.

Chelsea Now, a local neighborhood publication, was on hand to survey the seen and speak with some of the CIW staff members present.  One of them, Julia Perkins, related some horrifying incidents illustrating how brutal certain farm labor employers can be.  In 2008, two employers were sentenced to 12 years in jail for forcing laborers to sleep in locked trucks overnight, binding their wrists in chains. Perkins explained, “They would close the truck and lock them in overnight with no ventilation, no light and no bathroom facilities —workers were forced to use the corner of the truck. They deducted $5 from their paycheck to wash off with a garden hose out back, and food is deducted as well. It’s horrendous.

This brand of exploitation – the subjugation of workers and their rights to the point of mirroring traditional slavery practices – is executed by those who own and operate farms, but it is important to understand that such crimes are allowed to continue because those who purchase tomatoes in high volume – restaurant chains and grocery chains – either aren’t aware or turn a blind eye. When those buyers choose to begin selecting produce grown with higher labor standards, growers’ profits are threatened unless more humane changes are made.  In effect, the restaurant or supermarket wields the financial power and thus can control, or “own,” the industry standards and the people involved in production.

Here’s where Trader Joe’s comes in.

Through persistent action the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has come to agreements with some of the nation’s largest food companies; as Chelsea Now reports, they include “Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum Brands, the world’s largest restaurant multinational; Burger King; McDonald’s; Subway; Whole Foods; and the food service companies Bon Appétit Management Company, Aramark and Compass Group.”  This impressive corporate lineup has agreed to pay slightly higher prices for tomatoes, potentially doubling workers’ daily income.  Although not a revolution in farm labor standards, it’s certainly a start.  However, Trader Joe’s has so far been unwilling to sign an agreement to help stop the exploitation of workers that pick the tomatoes that appear on their shelves. According to a CIW flyer, “farm workers picking tomatoes for Trader Joe’s chain of supermarkets earn 40-50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they harvest.”  Such a sorrowful total can only amount to impoverished living standards, and Trader Joe’s seems unwilling to share any information on their produce sources.  Only after repeated questioning did the company’s publicist, Alison Mochizuki, respond to Chelsea Now in an email with this message: “At Trader Joe’s, we work with reputable suppliers that have a strong record of providing safe and healthy work environments and we will continue to make certain that our vendors are meeting if not exceeding government standards throughout all aspects of their businesses.

Perhaps it is a bit confusing to find such a canned, sterile and seemingly contradictory response from a company that projects an image of environmental and social responsibility, producing all-natural and organic foods and providing competitive wage and benefits packages for their own employees.  Even more confusing is their refusal to meet the CIW in their quest for justice, choosing instead to endure public criticism of their core values while placing their reputation in jeopardy.  Why would the apparently progressive Trader Joe’s assume a removed and guarded position on this crucial issue when the more conventional food companies listed above chose to yield to the voices of the people in need of human rights?  Right now only guesses can be made, and until Trader Joe’s heeds this call for change, thousands of poor people living inhuman lives will continue to rise each morning and pick their tomatoes.

-Jeremy Pearson

Today, it was unseasonably warm in our city of Boston.  70 degrees, on March 18th.  I am told that this time last year daffodils were struggling to push their buds up through heavy layers of snow.  But it feels great, and brings to mind all the awesome produce that will soon be grown around us, and heading our way from points beyond.  Yes, it is always preferable to grow your own food and purchase  from local farmers.  But here in Massachusetts, not all edibles are grown, even in spring and summer. Like most parts of the country, much of the produce we consume comes from the breadbasket of California, where wide fertile lands and appropriate climate conditions allow the wealth of farm activity we know it to have.

But as the days warm into Summer and the produce begins flowing in, keep California in mind, specifically the conditions on the ground, as it were.  For, year after year, farm workers have been suffering unbearable conditions under the hot sun, some of them dying, mostly due to a complete lack of competence and care for safety on the part of companies and the State.

The regulations which ensure the safe working conditions of farm-workers in California are enforced by its Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA), which has recently been taken to trial by the ACLU for failing to live up to its standards.  The workers in question provide 90 percent of the labor in California’s multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry, and are routinely deprived of water, shade and rest, having to work outdoors in temperatures that commonly top 100 degrees F! This lawsuit is considered a landmark in that it is focused and comprehensive; California passed a law in 2005 to protect farm-workers from heat illness and death, and yet, according to the LA Times, at least ten individuals have lost their lives since, harvesting the produce that conveniently appears on our cool, climate-controlled grocery shelves.

The situations in which these people die are sad and, due to the need of income for often impoverished families, desperate.  In 2008, one man, Audon Felix Garcia of Bakersfield was found slumped over in his truck with a core body temperature of 108 degrees.  It is elsewhere reported that Garcia had been working on a day with a high of 112 degrees F, and had 15 years of fieldwork experience.  Even more tragic was the death of Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, only 17 at the time, who according to Time magazine, died after picking grapes for nine hours straight in 95-degree heat.    Perhaps one of the most surprising numbers is the staggering fact that out of roughly 35,000 farms in California, only 750 inspections were conducted by Cal/OSHA in a year, as of two summers ago.  There is no real way of telling how may abuses, both lethal and non, have occurred on farms statewide in the grueling summer months; only the stories of the workers themselves would do justice, if they had more means to be heard.

There is more that you can do beyond paying attention to your consumer habits at the market.  A good place to start would be with the United Farm Workers.  One of the main campaign focuses of the UFW, America’s largest farm worker union, founded by Cesar Chavez (whose birthday and California State holiday in his name is celebrated in a few weeks on March 31st) in 1962, is promoting the awareness of heat-related injuries and deaths of employees on company-owned farms.  They stand behind the ACLU lawsuit and are a strong voice of testimony and non-violent action in establishing the right to a safe agricultural workplace. You can easily sign petitions for the movement on their site which get sent to relevant politicians and manufacturers, as well as keep abreast of the issue and see how your own voice of protest affects the lives of those who work extremely hard hand-selecting the fruits and veggies that end up on your plate.

-Jeremy Pearson

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