“Convivir”- My Global Citizenship Experience with the UFW

When I first came to Bakersfield at the beginning of the summer I had no expectations about what my experience with the UFW would be like. From other previous internship experiences I had learned that there are many organizations that may look good on paper, but in practice they do not live up to expectations. Taking this into account, and drawing from my own personal experiences, by the end of the summer I could confidently say that the UFW exceeded its paper-based expectations (which says a lot given the legacy of Cesar Chavez it had been endowed with and the many accomplishments the Union has achieved since its inception in 1962). The UFW is the living embodiment of social change for marginalized immigrants, laborers, and families throughout California and the rest of the United States.

I can also confidently say that I’ve changed as a person from this experience. The organizers were my friends, my family, but more then anything else my heroes. They had undergone struggles and were making sacrifices because they knew in their hearts that they were fighting for a just cause that would change the lives of thousands of farm workers. It was truly a privilege to be in the presence of such high quality individuals on a daily basis. The same holds true with the workers as well. They labor so many hours each day, withstanding the heat, pesticides, and treatment just so that they can make ends meet and support their families. They opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I am truly grateful for this.

This summer I learned what it truly meant to be a global citizen, because I was in the presence of global citizens each and everyday. The selfless commitment of organizers who are devoted to improving the lives of others, and the gentle strength and humility of the workers who are organizing for their rights captured the essence of what global citizenship entails: social actors fighting for social change. I carry a piece of each of these humble revolutionaries within my heart, and they will be my motivation to continue to live out my global citizenship at Macalester this fall.

In Spanish we have a unique word that pretty much embodies global citizenship: “convivir.” It literally means “to live to together” or “to coexist.” But this summer I learned about another definition: “to share life.” Over the past seven weeks, I’ve had the privilege to partake in the lives of many of my farm worker friends and organizers. I’ve gotten to know their families, personal achievements, and joys just as much as their work challenges, personal struggles, and sorrows. Farm workers are human beings and citizens of this globe just like the rest of us. Let’s be proactive global citizens by recognizing that the fruit and vegetables that we share with our families each night are the product of another family’s hard day’s work, and offer support and solidarity to our campesino brothers and sisters. !Viva la causa!

Organizer Stories: DoleBerry

As part of my live it project I’ve not only had to interview farm workers but also UFW organizers as well. Nearly all of the organizers are farm workers and many of them come from companies that already signed union contracts. Needless to say, this makes for some fascinating personal stories on the organizers’ part. Here’s an insight into two of these stories from Juan Ruiz and Viviana Dominguez, both of whom worked picking strawberries for DoleBerry:

Juan Ruiz*

Juan  started working for Costal Berry right when the union was in the midst of its organizing campaign with this major strawberry growing company. He remembers that organizing “was not easy, there were many who were in favor but also others that conformed [to the company]. Many people were afraid to go against their foremen or supervisors.”

Before the union entered at Costal Berry, Juan says that there had been a lot of carrilla and favoritism. The workers had to reach high quotas for the boxes of strawberries picked, and if they didn’t they were chastised by the foremen. The company also daily made a list of all the workers, with the most productive workers being at the top of the list and the least productive workers being at the bottom. If a worker was at the bottom of the list, they had a couple of days to improve their position or they would get fired the next week. These lists were posted in visible places such as the bathrooms so that the workers would see them everyday and be reminded that they needed to work faster.  Juan noted that it made things especially difficult for older workers. As aforementioned, favoritism was prevalent at the workplace. The foreman got to decide which workers would be allowed to continue working, and consequently continue earning, after the harvest finished. Only family members and close friends of the foreman got to keep working into the off-peak season. Furthermore, coveted positions such as truck driver, carrier, counter or tractor driver were reserved for younger attractive women, or “los barbies” as Juan described them. The foreman gave these positions to these types of women in exchange for dates. Juan said that before the union entered his company, the carrilla and favoritism were natural elements of the workplace. But after a union election was won in 2001 and the contract was signed, things changed for the better. Now there is senority at the company and a system is set up where those who have been working the longest at the company have first access to higher up positions and off-season work. Wages also increased and benefits were improved. Before, Juan was indecisive about supporting the union. But his father as well as a union organizer (who he still remembers to this day) convinced him to support the organizing efforts of his fellow workers. In 2009, Juan participated in the renegotiation of the union contract with Dole Berry (Costal Berry was purchased later purchased by Dole, but the workers, as well as the previously negotiated contract, were kept in place). He is now an organizer for the union’s campaign with Guimarra. “Now as an organizer I come back and see in some of the workers exactly how I was before and it gives me more motivation. Before I thought I couldn’t, but now I know that Si Se Puede!”  he says.

Viviana Dominguez*

Viviana began working for Coastal Berry, the strawberry company that would later become Dole-Berry, in 1994. “When I started I didn’t want anything with the union” she said. But Viviana saw that the union was continuing to organize. Viviana decided to ask her forewoman if it was better to work under union contract or with the company. The forewoman told her “You should go with the union because the company is only going to give you a kick in the butt and with the union you can have better wages and benefits.” After this Viviana was convinced and started getting involved with the union. Unionizing the strawberry workers of Coastal Berry was a very heated and contentious campaign. Some of the workers wanted to organize and some of them didn’t, so Viviana remembers the foremen and supervisors actively encouraging the workers to fist-fight in the fields, as a way to disunite the workers. She also remembers how she and her fellow workers went field by field gathering people and then forming a human blockade in front of the cooling building where the strawberries were kept. As a result of this act of protest, Viviana and all the workers that participated in the blockade were fired the next day. However the workers, with the help of the union, went to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and were able to get their jobs back. After a long and arduous struggle, Coastal Berry workers finally won a contract with the UFW in 2001. Viviana recalls that it was not easy. “We were sad, badly treated, the company fired us from work, and they didn’t help us with anything. But we won.” Viviana has experienced first-hand the changes in work conditions that a union contract can bring. Before when it rained she had to work picking strawberries in wet fields in which the water was mid-calve high. The strawberry inspector was disrespectful to Viviana and would persistently damage the strawberries in the boxes she picked so that the entire box would be no good. She also remembers herself and her coworkers being pushed and herded like animals into the truck that drove them to and from work. Now under union contract things have changed. There is respect at the workplace, and she enjoys increased wages and benefits.

*name has been changed

Harnessing the Information Age

While issues surrounding the environment, conflict, and the economy may seem insurmountable, the information age has countered with something far greater. New forms of media present unprecedented capacity for change and the ability to spread a greater variety of messages. It is now up to us to attempt to understand and take advantage of them. I am discovering through my project, in a very small way, that technology and media have the potential to combine in a way that does no harm and provides a beneficial service to the people of the world. We now have a responsibility to understand and harness this potential in order to create positive change and desirable solutions.

Ten years ago a college student would have much difficulty contacting the people and gathering the resources and ability necessary to make a video guide on the college application process. Without media devices such as YouTube and Facebook, not to mention the Internet, the potential for free, wide-spread distribution (I’m keeping my fingers crossed) would not exist.

The new media environment’s potential for impacting world events goes much further than my project. Over the last two years, new media has had numerous forceful impacts on world events, most recently, the leak of 92,000 secret U.S. military documents by the fledgling, volunteer-driven news organization WikiLeaks. In a similar development, the footage taken from an Iranian’s cell phone of the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan during anti-government protests in June of 2009 also opened the world up to a situation that primary media outlets had been locked out of and could prove a transformative event in Iranian history.

These examples display the power of rising media devices. The Neda video could have toppled a regime and the WikiLeaks documents could imperil U.S. national security. For any destructive power certain forms of new media contain, they also contain the potential to open up solutions to the problems we face. As people – or global citizens, or whatever you want to call it – we must latch on to this potential.

A lot needs to happen before doing so. I would not say the shift to new forms of productive social media includes cable television and the rancorous 24 hours news cycle. Rather, new forms of media can move us past this calamity, allowing people to have more access to information than ever before. This is important to having a more vibrant and healthy way of life.

In whatever we strive to accomplish in the future, one of the most important things we must consider is the power of media in this age of information. This goes hand in hand with globalization. Ideas spread more quickly than ever now, and media devices, including the Internet, Facebook, and cell phones will play an increasingly large role in society and the spread of information. Indeed, with great power comes great responsibility and a part of becoming a global citizen must involve the responsible, yet productive harnessing of new media’s potential.

The GV “Employee Handbook”

About two weeks ago, Giumarra Vineyards gave their employees a pleasant little surprise- the Giumarra Vineyards Employee Handbook. However, workers were told to sign the middle page in the employment manual, or they would not receive their checks. Some were told to sign it and then read what it said when they got home. The following is the infamous “middle page” that the workers were coerced into signing, as well as an additional extract from the “Employment at Will” section of the handbook:

Employee Acknowledgement (aka “The Middle Page”)

“I have received my copy of the Company’s Employee Handbook, a summary of the points and areas covered by heat illness training, and, a copy of the Sexual Harassment, and, Discrimination and Harassment publications. I understand and agree that is my responsibility to read and familiarize myself with the policies and procedures contained in the Handbook. I understand that any and all policies or practices can be changed at any time by the Company. The Company reserves the right to change my hours, wages and working conditions at any time. I understand and agree that other than the President of the Company, no person has authority to enter into any agreement, express or implied, for employment for any specific period of time, or to make any agreement for employment other than at-will; only the President of the Company has the authority to make any such agreement and then only in writing. I understand and agree that nothing in the Employee Handbook creates or is intended to create a promise or representation of continued employment and that employment at the Company is employment at-will.; employment may be terminated at the will of either the Company or me.” (GV Employee Handbook, pg.33)

Employment At-Will

“You are free to terminate your employment with the company at any time, with or without cause or reason, just as the Company has the right to terminate your employment at any time, with or without cause or a reason. Although the Company may terminate your employment for cause, it is not required. This policy is called ‘at-will’ employment.” (GV Employee Handbook, pg.2)

Now, there are three key issues involved with this Giumarra Vineyards Employee Handbook. One is the way the Company went about getting workers to sign the handbook, which was essentially through threats and intimidation. Withholding the checks of farm workers who make very little money to begin with, and who depend on their check to support their families, was a nasty tactic employed by the Company. In addition the Company made no attempt to explain to the workers, a good portion of whom are illiterate, what information the Employee Handbook contained nor was an intent made to explain to the workers what exactly the middle page that the workers were coerced into signing was about. This was the first injustice. The second injustice relates to the text within the handbook itself, especially the sections regarding Employment At-Will. These pieces within the Handbook essentially state, in writing, that the Company has the right to fire its employees with or without just cause. Now, given the fact that Giumarra is a company with employees, the power to hire and discharge workers is fully within its jurisdiction. However, given the fact that favoritism and intimidation is highly prevalent in the work environment at Giumarra, workers could be fired for something like sticking up for themselves when their foreman talks down to them.  Family members of the foreman could be violating “company policies” left and right but have a harder time being fired than non-family members who comply to the same policies. La carrilla also has a role to play in this as well. Maybe a worker has been taking “too many” rests or water breaks, isn’t “keeping up with production,” and therefore warrants termination. The bottom line is this- under current company policies Giumarra workers are not protected. And if a worker can be fired with or without just cause, then this policy is not just.  Finally, the third injustice within the Employee Handbook relates to how the workers “understand that any and all policies or practices can be changed at any time by the Company,” and “The Company reserves the right to change my hours, wages and working conditions at any time.” Rhetorically, what does this statement intend to say? It is basically telling the workers that the Company has all the power. The company controls the policies, working conditions, wages, and hours, and they can change them whenever they want. Once again, this policy is fully within Giumarra’s jurisdiction, given that it is a company. But more than anything, this is an attempt by te Guimarra to mask who has the real power in the company-employee relationship.  The Company cannot survive without its workers. Who sprays the grapes with pesticides to protect them from diseases? Who clears away the dried leaves from the vines so the grapes can ripen and mature in the sun? Who supervises the irrigation of the crops? Who packs the grapes so that they can be bought by consumers in the supermarket? Heck for that matter who loads up the trucks so that the grape boxes can even be brought to the supermarkets? Farm workers. If 1, 500 farm workers did not enter the fields for 8, 9, 10 hours six days a week, the grapes would rot on the vines in Guimarra’s weed-ravaged fields and this multi-million dollar Company would lose all its profits. And this is why organizing and the Union is so important. It’s time to shift the power balance to those who really have the power.

Taking Access

During this summer I’ve had the opportunity to take access in some of the fields around the area. “Taking access” means that during the farm workers’ breaks the union can enter the fields and talk with the workers, and/or get them to sign union authorization cards. For me this is one of the major highlights of my day, because taking access is such an adrenaline rush! There is a very minimal amount of time for a few organizers to try and reach out to crews with large numbers of people, and it can be quite the mad-dash. But it’s the best feeling in the world. That’s one of the aspects I really love about working for the union. Everyday I have to interact with new people I’ve never met before, and quite frankly I have to have the confidence to talk with them like I already know them or like they’re already my friend. This happens during house visits and juntas too. It’s a strategy a lot of the organizers tell me that they use when they’re trying to get union support from their crews, and I think it’s rubbed off on me. I’m usually pretty antisocial when it comes to introductions and small talk with new people. But it’s important to gain the trust of the worker, especially considering the fact that when they sign the authorization card to some extent they’re putting their job (and consequently their family) at risk. There is a necessary bond that needs to be formed between us. The fact that we are both human beings is sufficient enough for us to get to know each other.  But the understanding that we’re both talking to each other because we believe in the same just cause makes the interaction all the more powerful.

Take our Jobz

Recently, the UFW has gained quite a lot of national attention for their “Take our Jobs” campaign. This is a campaign in which the UFW has invited unemployed Americans to come and work in the fields and do the same kind of work that many undocumented immigrants are supposedly “taking away” from other American citizens. Out of 5,000 applicants, only three have managed to actually begin working in the fields, and they are making $10 an hour in Texas (compare that to the $8 an hour migrant farm workers are making here in California!). A reporter from a local news station decided to take up the UFW’s offer, but she could only manage to work in the fields for a mere two hours. Steve Colbert is up next (UFW president Arturo Rodriguez was featured on the Colbert Report, here’s the link: http://www.colbertnation.com/full-episodes/thu-july-8-2010-arturo-rodriguez), we’ll see how he does.

Basically, the point that I’m trying to make is putting aside the abuse, intimidation, and pressure, the very nature of agricultural working conditions are difficult. For starters, it’s very hot. Here in the central valley of California summer temperatures hover around the mid to upper nineties on average, and during July (when the harvest starts) the heat gets especially intense with temperatures rising as high as 115 degrees. Many of the workers tell me that they are already bathed in sweat by the time of their late morning lunch break. In addition to the heat, workers must also deal with the effects of pesticides being sprayed on the crops they pick. As Don Ivan explained to me on the way back from his leaders’ meeting, “we have to work underneath the vines and the sulfur dust from the chemicals they put on the grapes gets in our eyes. We can’t wear glasses to protect our eyes because they would slip off when we sweat.”  Besides the heat and the chemicals, there are also just certain facts about the industry. Picking grapes is oriented around production. So either way there is going to be a certain amount of pressure to work as quickly and efficiently of possible. Of course the UFW is fighting to have workers work at a manageable and not mechanic pace, but even this would still require a significantly fast rate of production among the workers. Combine this with the long hours (8-10) that they put in each day, and it becomes pretty obvious that farm work is definitely not easy. This is why I have so much respect for the farm workers and the work they accomplish on a daily basis. I honestly don’t think I’d be able to last for two hours doing what they do for the whole day. Many of the farm workers I talked to have been working for Guimarra for 3, 5, 10, or even 25 years, and the fact that they still have the courage to continue doing what they do day in and day out, while fighting for their rights, is honorable and admirable.

Unfortunately, I’d like to now talk about some of the ways in which the company takes advantage of its workers. Even though Guimarra is a multi-million dollar company, with branches in set up in Chile, Mexico, and Peru, they still seem to find it necessary to financially cut corners to the detriment of its workers. For example, if it’s raining the company demands that the workers show up to work. The company then makes the workers spend up to three to four hours waiting for the rain to stop. If the rain stops then the workers enter the fields and begin working but if it doesn’t stop then the company sends all the workers home. However, the workers are not paid for the three or four hours that they spent waiting for the rain to stop, even though the company required them to be there. Add this to the fact that workers are required to spend their own time and resources washing their picking bins as well as show up to work 15 minutes early without pay, and this is adds up to a serious amount of money that the company is unjustly taking away from its workers. Migrant farm worker families can’t afford this. Just like any other typical American family, they have bills to pay, daily living expenses, and mouths to feed. How ironic is it that the very people who work so hard picking the produce that lies on our dining room table have to struggle just to do the same for their own families?

Reality Check

I’ve been here with the UFW for almost a month now, and along with learning about all the organizing techniques, farm worker stories, campaign strategies, etc. I have also begun to learn about… (cue corny music) myself. For just as the grapes on the vine are coming to their maturity and ripeness, I too am undergoing personal growth as these summer months pass by…WOW, just kidding I’m not that big of a sap. But Anywho, working here has made me come to some realizations about myself that I never knew about before. For example, I never thought of myself as privileged. But now I understand that I am. Just having an education is a privilege. When I get introduced by the organizers to the workers, I am always known as “la estudiante,” like it’s a job title or something. But now I realize that for the overwhelming majority of the farm workers, and indeed some of the organizers themselves, education is a privilege that many of them never got the opportunity to have. To be completely honest, I never had considered myself to be that privileged. By no stretch of the imagination am I saying that I came from a low income background, because I didn’t. But my parents’ combined income is under $50,000, and a huge chunk of my Mac education is paid by government financial aid.  And just because I wasn’t super rich I didn’t assume I was privileged or recognize the privileges I had. But my privilege is evident everywhere: it’s in the ipod I listen to as I work, it’s in my personal laptop that I bring to the office, my ability to fluently speak English,  it’s in the fact that I am able to go to college. Even being born a citizen of the United States marks my more privileged background. Plus, the fact that whenever privilege is talked about in academia, or at least at Macalester, it’s almost always in terms of “white privilege,” which really threw me off. So here I was thinking, “all right, I’m not privileged, I’m tan, my dad’s from Panama, I should be able to fit right in with these people.”  But this, my friends, was my ignorant assumption based off of 21 years of growing up in middle-class white-majority Minnesota. Neither the color of my skin, nor the ethnic background of my father have or could make it any easier for me to assimilate to this different environment. Here, the vast majority of the workers and organizers are Mexicans. They are immigrants. Many of them are undocumented. And they are making less money than my family does in order to support their own families, or have to split their incomes between expenses here in the United States and remittances being sent back to their relatives in Mexico. How in the freaking world did I think I would just be able to come here and “fit in?” Granted, everybody on the organizing team is really nice, real cool, and hella fun, and me ‘n these guys get along like peanut butter and jelly (…or chile and limon, take your pick)- but still there are certain instances when my privilege comes out, and it challenges me to rethink about how I saw and currently see myself.

                But anywho, another thing I have come to terms with is that I know absolutely completely nothing. Before coming here, I never realized how little I knew. For example, when I was doing house visits with one of the organizers, we started talking about politics a bit and the topic of welfare was brought up. Being the flaming liberal that I am, I was like of course we need welfare because the purpose of the state/government is to provide a social safety net for its population, our tax dollars contribute to the greater good, welfare improves people’s lives, blah blah blah. But much to my surprise, the organizer I was with held more conservative views and was totally against welfare. He gave the whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, waste of tax dollars, government handouts, people take advantage of the system” speal. Naturally I got pissed as hell, so we started going at it. But as we were debating, he provided personal anecdotes of what he had experienced growing up in a low-income community to support his arguments. As much as I disagreed with him, I couldn’t do that. This is what I mean by knowing absolutely nothing. I was born in a middle class neighborhood, I went to good public schools, I speak English, and I am a citizen of the United States. What do I know about escaping poverty as a Spanish-speaking non-US citizen Mexican immigrant? What do I know about growing up in a low-income community where me and all my neighbors receive food stamps and government assistance programs? I thought I knew. I thought I had it all figured out. But hearing it from someone who had actually lived it really made me question on what basis I was making my assumptions. That said, however, I still uphold my same principals and liberal viewpoints with respect to social issues such as welfare. And at the end of the day, the root cause of our disagreement came down to whether we tackled welfare and issues of poverty from an individual (him) or societal (me) level. But this lil debate, combined with all the other discussions/experiences I’ve had so far have really made me start to wonder…how much do I really know?

P.S. I don’t mean this in a bad way like I’m calling myself stupid or anything, but have you ever just sat in your room and seriously contemplated about all the things you don’t know? REALITY CHECK.