Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Farmer v. farm workers

Until my mid-teens, I thought “farmer” and “farm worker” were one and the same: I believed these two parties represented the same interests. Then, one year, when my hometown grew brown with drought, I started hearing rumblings in the community about farmers and fish. Sifting through the adult conversations around our local café I learned that the farms north of us, near Tule Lake and Yreka, and south of us in the Central Valley, called for more water from the dams, creeks, and rivers. On the other side of the equation; my home town called for preservation of the streams that kept tourists and fishermen coming back year after year. Through the snatches of derisive conversation I began to piece together impressions of farmers as large landholders who frequently exploited cheep immigrant labor at the expense of their right to a living wage. Like the reality of farmer/farm worker relations, the town opinions were by no means monolithic; however it became obvious that freeway signs reading “Farmers Feed America” were political tools that I should consider before carelessly agreeing with their seemingly innocuous stance.
Perhaps unsurprising to most of us, farmer interests frequently clash with a number of other group interests including agricultural employees. It seems America has sided with the farmers at the expense of the farm workers. Today only 1% of America calls themselves farmers, yet protections for these livelihoods are some of the strongest in the nation. The US Farm Bill, passed every 5 to 7 years, provides for subsidy payments to these landowners that between 1995 and 2009 amounted to $246.7 billion. Farm workers, on the other hand, receive little protection from the law. They have experienced historical animosity in the political arena and are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which protects certain employee rights, including the right to unionize. National legislation also neglects to provide farm employees with a minimum wage, leaving this area to the sole discretion of the state. Today, five states have yet to enact minimum wage standards for these workers. Other states, like Kansas, with a minimum wage of $2.65/hour, abysmally fail to protect worker rights.
Despite the structural disadvantages faced by agricultural employees, they continue to mount efforts to further their rights. Californians are familiar with Cezar Chavez’ work to establish the first agricultural employee union, The United Farm Workers of America, which has successfully brokered union contracts with industry leaders across the United States. Recently, a Florida based group, the Coalition for Imokalee Workers (CIW) won a long battle covered by the New York Times. Primarily composed of Hispanic, Mayan, and Haitian workers, CIW organizes employees in a unique strategy to raise tomato farm worker wages. The group first targeted large tomato purchasers like Burger King and McDonalds. They requested these companies agree to pay one cent more per pound to the producers so that farmers could pass those earnings on to their workers. When these companies caved to the grass root campaigns, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange prohibited farmers from distributing the extra money to their workers. This April, CIW reached an agreement with the trade association that allowed distributions of the increased earnings to workers as well as minimum labor standards. Even with the successes of United Farm Workers of America and CIW it is abundantly clear that farm employees continue to stand in extreme disadvantage in juxtaposition to their employers whose interests are served in national legislation.


Chez Marta said...

Thanks, D'Arcy, for the enlightening post. One part of the equation I do not see emerging yet: When will we collectively agree, as a nation, that (a) we should pay a higher part of our income for foodstuffs than we do now; and (b) that not all of the cost of improving the livelihoods of workers are to be born by the consumers? As to my first point, as Time Magazine recently pointed out, Americans pay on an average about 7% of their income on food, compared with 15-20% in other developed nations, and even higher proportion elsewhere. I will explore the consequences of this in a later, fuller post, but for now, let's move on to the other point: farms and factories alike are likely passing on the price of a living wage to the consumers, instead of decreasing their profit margin, essentially continuing the oppression of the working classes (who are not only the makers of the goods produced but are also the primary consumers of them).

Dusty said...

This post is really great and informative. It brought up for me a question that comes up alot as i think about power distributions in farm labor. Especially as more people return to "homesteading" and having small family worked/family run farms, I have wondered if the Farm Bill subsidies apply only to farms of a certain size or acreage. For instance, does a self run farm of 10 acres get the same access to subsidy as a labor run farmer owned larger farm of say 200 acres? I fear that the smaller farms can not access the national benefits the same way.

Caitlin said...

My mom moved us to Salinas in 2000, to a house literally 100 feet away from a field that frequently grows green leafy vegetables that are eventually shipped all over the US-- as an aside, Salinas Valley has been dubbed the "Salad Bowl of the World," and I have yet to find spinach anywhere in the US that was not grown at my doorstep. That being said that effects of little legal protections on the workers can be seen on a day to day basis. Fellow students in my classes growing up were undocumented, or the children of farm laborers. Many would disappear, or come to school hungry, or fail to do their homework. They had no additional support in schools, and I wish I had some first hand knowledge of the kinds of interactions they and their parents had with police, but I fear that I was too young at the time to understand fully what was happening. I think that it is only getting worse. The food lobby is one of the most powerful in the nation, and non-citizens and non-immigrants continue to have their rights stripped away by the courts. Unfortunately, I fear that no one really cares.