It's Time to Make Demands
by Edgar Franks
August 10, 2021
Edgar | I come from a family of migrant farmworkers. I was originally born in Texas. My family is from Mexico. Eventually, when I was young, my mom settled here in Washington state, working in the fields. I grew up and went to school here. I started getting involved in farmworker organizing at a relatively young age. I was maybe 14 when I started organizing marches and things like that with other high school students and community members.
I got more serious about organizing in 2012 when I joined an organization called Community to Community Development here in Bellingham, Washington. Their executive director, Rosalinda Guillen, was mentoring me around broader issues on farmworker organizing, the food system, and a more in-depth understanding of the political nature of farmworkers and why we are where we are right now. In 2013, there was a strike here in Burlington. We were called to support the strike of the 500 workers, mostly indigenous Mexicans, Triqui, and Mixteco people. Little by little, I got more and more involved as the organizing developed.
Eventually, there was a boycott called, and my job was to help and support the boycott and amplify it. We finally won recognition and got a vote and we won the vote and then negotiated a union contract. Then, in 2019 I was formally asked to join the union as the political director.
frank | How's it going?
Good, I think. There's never a day off, we are always learning, and communicating with our lawyers and counsel trying to figure out and solve problems, not only for the union but also for the farmworker community as a whole. I think we offer a unique perspective. We are a relatively young union.
Everybody in leadership positions is a farmworker — the executive committee, the president, are all farmworkers.
That is helpful so that there's not a disconnect between the leadership and the base of members. Everything we do is informed by what's going on with the base, because, I mean, if someone in leadership makes a bad decision, it affects them also.
It’s difficult to talk about migration in the US without addressing labor. Where do you see yourself now in the context of the other moments of labor and immigration policy in the U.S.?
Yeah, I mean, we always try to tie those two things together. Farm work is very tied to migration and immigration. We have had a big expansion of the H2A program here in Washington state — many of our workers are H2A workers.
Can you detail what the H2A visa program is?
Yes. It's a federal visa program. Basically, farmers, or growers, can apply for this visa and say there are not enough U.S. workers to fulfill some area of work. With those visas, they can bring in some amount of workers over.
However, in our experience here, we have seen the H2A as very exploitative of farmworkers.
For one, families migrate back and forth for many, many years, working at some of the same farms over and over. They go for one year, there's work, then they head back home and then migrate back the next season. If suddenly a grower tells them that there is no more work, that H2A worker and their family is displaced and it's harder for them to find work.
H2A workers also get paid more, so there are workers that have been here for like 20 years and are still making minimum wage while H2A workers make close to $17.
What is the minimum wage in Washington?
Here the minimum wage is $13.69. That causes a rift in the farmworker community.
Additionally. H2A workers are tied to one employer. If they don't like their work, they can't just go out to another farm.
There is a big disbalance in power; their visa and their employment and their stay in the US are totally dependent on their employer.
If the employer decides that the worker is not fast enough or something like that, they can be fired for any reason and deported within a day. We see over and over how farmers use visa status as a disciplinary measure.
And here in Washington, over the last 10 years, the visa program has expanded like 300%. We are almost at 30,000 visas this year. We see it as very hurtful and problematic, especially if we're trying to build power in farmworker communities and organizing and unionizing. It's a good thing that our union was formed, but we are one of the only unions that has been recognized and formed in the last 30 years.
Injustices have existed in agriculture for generations. I think people have this mindset that everything is good because the UFW and Cesar Chavez fixed everything, but a lot of their gains have actually been rolled back and are continuing to be rolled back right now. So, what do we do now?
Union participation now is much lower than it was then too. Do you see that changing at all?
I think workers want to be in unions more. I think getting started is one of the big issues. We hear about the unions, but people don't know how to start the whole process. In my experience, people want to be part of what we do, but it is difficult to sustain a big campaign to unionize, especially if you're working under the current labor laws for farmworkers.
Boycotting and striking and things like that is difficult because a lot of people get paid under the table. If they're not working, then they will not make a day's wage and they can get arbitrarily fired. There's no mechanism to protect you.
Can you talk about how legal status affects the labor movement?
Migration status should be one of the priorities of the labor movement because of the changing face of labor overall in the United States. Many of the industries that are not unionized are places where there's a heavy immigrant presence — hotels, the service industry, and agriculture. These are industries with a lot of power, but some of the workers are some of the poorest.
Sometimes labor does not want to organize these groups because they don't understand the community. A lot of unions are predominantly white and they don't know how to even begin to organize those other industries that are heavily represented by immigrants. We think that if there's a strong labor movement they need to really focus and put resources and staffing into immigrant industries as well. It needs to be a sustained fight. We have seen that employers will do anything to stop this organizing. A few years ago, 200 workers in Mississippi were rounded up and detained.
That could have been a perfect opportunity for work for a union to go in and put their foot down and say we'll fight to get these workers out of detention and fight for a collective bargaining agreement.
Sometimes there is anti-immigrant sentiment coming from some labor, you know, “they are taking our jobs and blah, blah, blah.” That's unfortunate, but I think that is where unions like ours can educate people.
It’s also a problem, not every politician wants to solve, because we're addicted to cheap labor. We're so reliant on cheap labor.
Right. I think we have to do a better job of building a strong enough base to really demand these things. Historically, nothing has changed without having a strong movement pushing for it. If politicians or legislators don't see a strong movement demanding things from them, then they'll just ignore the issues.
And we are still living history. Chavez and the UFW did not fix everything. Joe Biden has a bust of Chavez in his office, but what does that really mean? If farmworkers are still dying of COVID and getting exposed to COVID at a higher rate than anybody else, and inhaling wildfire smoke and working in pesticides, making like $10,000 a year still, does that symbolism do anything? I am skeptical.
There's a big disconnect, again, between who our leaders are at a national level and what the base wants. A lot of organizations are nonprofits and don't come from an organizing background, or don't have that firsthand experience of working in the fields but have access to legislators and money, and political parties. We have seen how the political environment has been really watered down.
Trying to be friendly and gain political access has been a priority over organizing and demanding more.
If we really want to change things, then we need to take a step back and reevaluate where the farmworker movement is right now. At least here in Washington, we're seeing some sort of movement developing, however, we need more support to get to the level where we want to see it.
How many farmworkers are in your area right now? And how many of them are part of a union?
Well, our union represents around 500 workers. Our county is a big agricultural county. There's gotta be at least over 10,000 workers here, easy. Our union is relatively small, but I think the message and what we're talking about resonates with a big majority of the farmworker community around the state. We see that when we go to work and people invite us into their homes for meetings.
Are your current members able to influence others to join?
I think this does play a big part. They are able to talk about the union contract. A lot of people will say that I've been fired for XYZ, and our members can say that we have a union so that rarely happens. Or if the company does act out of line, there's a grievance and arbitration process. We can address that issue on the spot.
We spend a lot of time just explaining people's basic rights about representation and what they can do at their workplace to protect themselves. I mean, it's a slow process, but it's also the most effective. We are willing to spend that time with workers so that they'll be sympathetic to the union and maybe organize when the conditions are right.
What is your union's stance on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act?
We are opposing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. We think everything that growers have wanted in the past is in this bill, which will make it feel like a permanent second-class status for farmworkers. This modernization act is not what workers want. You talked about E-Verify — E-Verify will be mandatory under this bill. If you ask any worker about E-Verify, they are going to say that they don’t want it, especially if it is mandatory.
What are the concerns with E-Verify? That the information is incorrect?
Well, that's one of them. But we have seen it used to send a chill down the spine of farmworkers who are trying to organize.
It is no secret how much agriculture depends on undocumented labor. So, if there are workers that are trying to organize or who the company thinks are troublesome, the farm will start threatening the use of E-Verify to check their documents and their legal status. So the idea is, they hire you without this verification process, and then as soon as you do anything that they might not like they wheel out the verification process.
Is there anything in place to help workers find a path to legal status?
Not in a way that makes sense. It is very cumbersome, you have to prove that you worked over a hundred days in agriculture. If you're injured, you are disqualified from the program.
Are most people working more than a hundred days?
Yeah. But to prove it is complicated. A lot of people get paid under the table.
So there's no documentation.
Right and, on top of that, being a farmer is a dangerous job, so if people get injured and can't work a hundred days, those people get disqualified.
Do you think there’s a program like that would make sense?
In 1986, there was an amnesty bill that passed under the Reagan administration — you know, a big conservative icon.
The narrative around immigration has really shifted since then. It used to be about how the U.S. needs these workers to help our economy, and all of a sudden the narrative has shifted to how immigrants are criminals and should deport them.
Especially with what we have dealt with during COVID, we deserve amnesty. That is what we want. Not a 10-year wait process, a permit, an expanded two-way, a wages freeze, or mandatory e-verify. Reading this Act, it is just like this is not ideal. And people will say that this is the best we can do right now based on who we have in leadership. Well, maybe that is because we are not fighting hard enough. It is really frustrating that we're willing to just cave in.
Especially when this bill, the Farmworkers Modernization Act, was first brought up under the Trump administration, and then it got re-introduced under the Biden administration with no changes.