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Entries in news (5)


40 years ago, workers won

Alvaro Huerta's recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reminds us that the struggle for worker rights is difficult and long-term work.  At key moments, though, workers have won critical victories that have led to improved living and working conditions in fields and factories across this country.  

The question facing North Carolina today is whether we will have the courage to honor the legacy of Chavez and countless others by making vital improvements to the way we do business.  Will our children look back 40 years from now and be able to say that we won a great victory in our time?  Or will we keep doing business as usual, exploiting some of the most vulnerable workers in our society?

Forty years ago, workers in the United States won a great victory.

On July 29, 1970, the United Farm Workers of America ended its successful grape boycott when the growers agreed to sign the first contract with the union.

It seemed like an improbable outcome, as the battle pitted a mostly Mexican as well as Filipino immigrant workforce against powerful agricultural growers in California.

Led by the late Cesar Chavez and tireless Dolores Huerta, the UFW was founded in the early 1960s in response to the inhumane working conditions for farmworkers in California and other states, such as Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Washington.

While many American workers during this period enjoyed the right to organize, 40-hour weeks, a minimum wage, and relatively safe working conditions, farmworkers lacked these basic rights and protections.

In an effort to seek justice, dignity, and respect in the rural fields of America, UFW leaders, members, and sympathizers organized and joined picket lines and marches, signed petitions, supported labor laws, lobbied elected officials, distributed educational fliers, produced documentaries, penned songs, performed plays, held teach-ins, and generally supported the nationwide boycott.

The charismatic Chavez - who graced the cover of Time magazine on July 4, 1969 - engaged in numerous and lengthy hunger strikes to draw attention to the cause.

As was the case with the civil rights movement, many UFW activists were beaten up and a few were killed for the simple act of supporting the right of farmworkers to organize a union and negotiate for fair labor contracts.

But the rightness of their cause prevailed.

Click here to read more.


Heat Can Be Brutal To Farm Workers

On the drive into work this morning, the radio announcer warned of dangerously hot temperatures across much of NC today with heat indexes as high as 110.  For those of us who have the privilege of working in air conditioned spaces, this kind of heat poses little threat.  But for those who do some of the hardest work in the state, providing food for our tables and profits for our farms, this kind of heat can be deadly.  This story from NBC-17 explains:
Long stretches of heat can be deadly to farm workers. 

Three agricultural workers in North Carolina died from heat stress in 2006. 

None have died since then, according to the North Carolina Department of Labor. The department attributes it to extensive educational efforts, said Regina Cullen, Chief of the Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau at the Department of Labor.

"We do a heck of a lot of educating. And say, ‘this is the best way.' Nobody wants to have an accident. Nobody wants to have a fatality on their farm," Cullen said.

The department doesn't track heat illnesses. But the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs has received reports of symptoms of heat illnesses among farm workers this summer; and of workers without enough water, shade, or breaks.

"We have seen families that are sleeping under trailers to escape heat. We have seen slurred speech and slurred vision in a lot of the youth that are out there working in the fields long days," said Emily Drakage, the North Carolina Regional Coordinator for the Association's Children in the Fields Campaign.

Stephen Colbert Volunteers to Work in the Fields

Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, invites Americans who think immigrant farm workers are taking away jobs to work in the fields.  Here's the clip from the Colbert Report:  

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Arturo Rodriguez
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

Can't wait to hear more from Stephen Colbert about his day working in the fields.


Deal with Ag-Mart falls short

Media outlets are continuing to follow the Ag-Mart settlement story.  This is from the Wilmington Star-News online:

Advocacy groups say deal with Ag-Mart falls short in protecting farm workers

by Gareth McGrath

After more than five years a deal might have finally been reached between the N.C. Pesticide Board and Ag-Mart over alleged pesticide violations at the produce giant’s  farms in Brunswick and Pender counties.

But more than a dozen groups that advocate for farm workers think the state could have done more a lot more – to make sure another situation like this doesn’t happen again.

After getting tipped off by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, state investigators in 2005 charged the company with 369 violations – which carried a possible maximum and record-setting $184,500 fine – at its Leland and Currie tomato farms.

Investigators with the state Department of Agriculture said workers entered sprayed fields in clear violation of pesticide application guidelines on numerous occasions. The state also claimed Ag-Mart violated rules governing safety training for workers and the proper disposal of pesticide containers, and had insufficient worker safety and health measures at the farm sites.

What followed was a protracted legal battle that eventually ended up with the Ag-Mart state regional manager agreeing to pay $25,000 to settle violations dating from 2004, 2005 and 2006.  He also was allowed to keep his pesticide applicator’s license.

Per state policy, violations are cited against the license holder, not his employer.

Ag-Mart also agreed to fund a training program for farm workers during this and next year’s growing seasons.

Here’s the letter from the Farmworker Advocacy Network, also signed by other groups, highlighting the alleged deficiencies in the settlement agreement.


U.S. Cracks Down on Farmers Who Hire Children

Here's a recent story from the NY Times on child labor - with a focus on North Carolina.  Click here to learn more about children in the fields.

WHITE LAKE, N.C. — The Obama administration has opened a broad campaign of enforcement against farmers who employ children and underpay workers, hiring hundreds of investigators and raising fines for labor and wage violators.

A flurry of fines and mounting public pressure on blueberry farmers is only the opening salvo, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said in an interview. Ms. Solis, the daughter of an immigrant farm worker, said she was making enforcement of farm-labor rules a priority. At the same time, Congress is considering whether to rewrite the law that still allows 12-year-olds to work on farms during the summer with almost no limits.

The blueberry crop has been drawing workers to eastern North Carolina for decades, but as the harvest got under way in late May, growers stung by bad publicity and federal fines were scrambling to clean up their act, even going beyond the current law to keep all children off the fields. The growers were also ensuring that the workers, mainly Hispanic immigrants, would make at least the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

“I picked blueberries last year, and my 4-year-old brother tried to, but he got stuck in the mud,” said Miguel, a 12-year-old child of migrants. “The inspectors fined the farmers, and this year no kids are allowed.”

Child and rights advocates said they were encouraged by these signs of federal resolve, but they were also waiting to see how wide and lasting the changes would be. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of children under 18 toil each year, harvesting crops from apples to onions, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch detailing hazards to their health and schooling and criticizing the Labor Department for past inaction.

Click here to read more.