Thursday, May 05, 2005

100 Miles for Justice

I was fortunate enough to be able to show solidarity with New York State farm workers this past Monday (May 2nd). NYS farm workers labor without the right to organize unions or bargain collectively, have no access to disability insurance, do not have the right to take an unpaid day off and do not get paid for overtime -- not to speak of a lack of health insurance! On top of this, these workers get paid an average of $7,500 per year and are forced to migrate with the crops throughout the season. Often people think that "migrant farm worker" means "illegal alien." In fact, the designation simply means that the worker must migrate throughout the year to remain employed, regardless of their home or nationality.

The New York State Assembly has passed legislation to increase the rights of farm workers, but so far the Senate has shot down all of the bills. Over the past few years, an organization called Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agricolas (CITA), led by Rosa Rivera, has been staging actions across New York State to raise awareness and fight for workers rights. CITA's demands include "A day of rest, the right to bargain collectively, overtime pay," to which I can only ask, 'What year is this - 1890!?'

The farmers and growers (those who employ the workers) cry that they will go out of business if they have to treat the workers fairly. Strangely enough, this did not happen in California when Ceasar Chavez organized the farm workers there. The farmers complain that "the workers are asking for the same old rights, year after year" when they should be "learning English." For a moment, let's ignore the blatantly racist position these "benevolent" employers speak from and take their argument seriously. How can these farm workers take any classes (let alone English classes) if they are working 12 hour days, 7 days a week? I spoke with one Oaxacan man whose 17 year old son who works the fields with him. Neither have much energy at the end of the day for anything other than sleep. The truth of the matter is that this has been going on for decades, long before Latin American workers arrived. (Prior to the 70s, most farm workers were poor rural black Americans and guess what? They already spoke English.)

Why is it that the farmers feel they should have a special privelege when it comes to employment practices? And why is it that they seem always to choose the most vulnerable workers to employ? They claim that Americans do not want to do the work, because it is too hard (and imply that Americans are too lazy, especially those welfare bums). If they really feel this way, why then do they fail to give dignity to the people who are actually willing to do this hard work?

On May Day, CITA staged the 100 Miles for Justice March, with the workers starting their march in Albion, NY, and ending in Geneva, NY. I was lucky enough to serve dinner to the marchers at the Geneva's Methodist Church. There, I heard Rosa Rivera speak and met several of the CITA workers and their supporters. Their stories are those of hard-working people who wish only to be treated with dignity. Since this has been denied to them, they are organizing and taking matters into their own very able hands.

Read more here, here, here and here.

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