Smita Rane asked us to imagine traveling to a foreign land as a student, tourist, or worker. We broke into small groups imagining how we each might cope with challenges in countries we were assigned to. One example – a group imagining they were students going to Morocco decided they needed some familiarity with language and hand gestures; customs (cultural do’s and don’ts); appropriate dress; how to act and not inadvertently offend; find a mentor; how to move around the city during the day and night; seek out students studying the same thing – preferably someone who had traveled to the U.S. and understands the culture you come from; connect with local people; learn about local cuisine; establish yourself as a person willing to learn; have someone teach you about local currency.
After we had a chance to share our experiences in the small groups, Smita introduced our speakers: Lynn Harter, Carol Rogers, and Brenda Tippins, all from the Eastern Farm Workers Association (EFWA).
Lynn Harter is the Operations Manager of Eastern Farm Workers Association and has been a full-time volunteer since 1993, first working with Women’s Press Collective (WPC) in Brooklyn, NY. Women’s Press is an all-volunteer run organization providing printing and publishing resources to all volunteer run, non-government funded organizations. Lynn started working with EFWA in Upstate New York in 1995, helping oversee the move of EFWA’s office central from rural Wayne County to the city of Syracuse. Lynn Harter began with a brief synopsis of the history of the EFWA, which started in 1974 in Upstate New York.
The first effort like this was started on Long Island in Suffolk County in 1972. It is one of 22 organizations in the U.S. EFWA is organizing the largest growing section of the labor force in U.S. today which is a group called “unrecognized workers.” This group includes home health aides, food service workers, janitorial workers, and people working for temporary and day labor agencies. We estimate unrecognized workers make up 100 million workers in the U.S. today. In a nation where the richest 1% own 35% of all the wealth, and the bottom 90% are left to compete for less than 30% of the resources, the weight of this falls on the shoulders of impoverished working women. Any time you step into our office, or any of our sister offices, you will find that the local leadership of these organizations happens to be women.
Eastern Farm Workers Association is 100% volunteer run; we have absolutely no paid staff. In over 33 years of organizing we have never taken a single dime of government funding. We have done that on purpose because the only way working people have ever been able to fight for better living and working conditions is by building an organization of their own. So we have created an effort that is completely and wholly run by low-income workers. At this point in our country we are dealing with the worst working and living conditions, some would say we have actually turned back the clock, because most workers in the U.S. today have no ability to collectively bargain for wages and conditions.
We’ve started organizing farm workers because farm workers were excluded from the National Labor Act (the Wagner Act), passed in 1935. It was a law that established collective bargaining rights for certain groupings of workers in the United States. Farm workers, domestic workers, and independent contractors were excluded from those provisions which always had dubious benefits. We found that the unrecognized labor force (those who haven’t traditionally been part of labor unions) have been used to tear down the wage scale.
Permanent workers are replacing temporary workers, non-union workers replacing union workers. It is a pattern being seen across the country in almost every industry today. We are also seeing a great deal of affect from things like free-trade agreements. Wayne County, the largest apple growing area in New York State, has the most farm workers in any county in New York State. The farmers there, some of whom have been farming for over 200 years, are finding that they are getting less and less for their produce due to consolidation (an example is Mott which is now owned by Cadbury). Workers are typically paid $.03 – .06 per pound for juice apples, and that is 95% of the apple crop grown in Wayne County.
When we started the EFWA, most farm workers were African-Americans from the southern states. Most people, when they think of a farm worker, think of Latino workers. We’ve seen the farm labor work force change three times over in our 30 years of organizing. The original group of farm workers dates back to children of sharecroppers from the South. They found the same conditions as migrant farm workers that their parents experienced in the South. Many were trying to escape the racism of the South in the hopes of a better life. It’s why many of those folks became the most active and vocal members of EFWA.
Because farmers are receiving less profit selling their produce, they are seeking cheaper and cheaper sources of labor. The majority of farm workers changed to Jamaican and Haitian. In the last 15 years it has almost completely become Latino workers (people from Guatemala and Mexico) because food is being produced in these countries extremely cheaply and imported into the U.S. as the result of free trade agreements. Large international corporations can take advantage of this, and at the same time the desperate poverty in those countries have driven workers to seek work here. In the city of Chiapas one can earn only $1 a day cleaning homes.
Lack of benefits and low wages are experienced by people doing service jobs as well. Another result of free-trade policy is that this an area that used to be mostly manufacturing, and even those jobs have just about disappeared. In rural areas like Wayne County (where some of the better jobs used to be working in the canneries), African-Americans have moved into year round, better paying jobs, but even some of those jobs have been eliminated. Many people then moved into service jobs cleaning homes, cleaning offices, taking care of the elderly, washing dishes, often for not much better pay these days and have no benefits (sick time, vacation, health insurance, etc.). These people, who have never had benefits available to them, are very easy to exploit, especially when issues of race and language are involved.
Brenda Tippins is an EFWA member and volunteer. She is a new member of the association but has quickly become an active member. Brenda’s mother was a migrant farm worker, and as a child Brenda traveled with her mother from farm to farm. Brenda has done cleaning work as well as other jobs while raising five children and also more recently caring for her grandchildren. Brenda reported: “When I was little I never knew why my mother would keep pulling me out of school. She used to work in the fields and take us with her. She used to tell me she was going to do one row, my brother the next row and I had to do the next one. And so I did, I was five years old. So we used to pick beans, apples, tomatoes, bell peppers. The living conditions were bad. The worst part was the dirty old mattresses. I remember my eye being swollen because a tick bit my eye when I was sleeping. When we used to go state to state, they would put the mattresses on back of truck and we used to make stops so we could pick up food along the road so we could eat. Another terrible part was the outhouses, we had nothing else. We used pick up and move every six months.”
Lynn Harter continued saying that even though the Eastern Farm Workers Association has changed somewhat, when they visit the farm worker camps they still see that a lot of the conditions haven’t changed. “We see everything from good to extremely bad. Many farms still have an outhouse, they don’t have an inside toilet. I’ve seen outhouses falling apart and wonder if the health department really comes to inspect these places. This is what many farm workers have to deal with today. The dilapidated state in which we see our communities today, the state of housing here in Syracuse that people are forced to live in because they don’t have much money is just an extrapolation of those conditions that were once isolated to farm workers, and are being experienced more and more by people of limited means. That’s why we started organizing farm workers and have since expanded our membership. People who sign up to be a member are eligible for benefits, emergency food and clothing, medical and dental care, and legal advice.”
Carol Rogers is the Administrative Assistant at EFWA. She is originally from Western Massachusetts, and was met on a door-to-door membership canvass in 1998 by volunteers with Western Massachusetts Labor Action, a sister effort of EFWA. In 1999 Carol became a full-time volunteer with Western Massachusetts Labor Action. In 2004 she came to Syracuse to work with EFWA. She told her story recounting, “People explained the condition farm workers are living in. I learned that I could donate my time and really help people. They seemed different from other organizations. The cost for joining the organization was $.62 per month. I became a part-time volunteer even though I did not have transportation. A young man came every morning. I got trained. I learned how to type. I learned how to work on a computer. Then they asked me if I wanted to be a full-time volunteer, and I asked what is that? They said 24/7. I said okay because I was bored at home. I knew with this organization I would never be bored. We are always doing something, going places, have speaking engagements, we are always busy.”
Lynn Harter continued the conversation explaining that another activity EFWA does is Operation Camp Crew, which actually visits the migrant camps. Most farmers are out on the farms where they work, closer to the fields than the towns and are pretty spread out in the four-county area EFWA covers. On Saturdays they canvas people in Syracuse that work low-wage service jobs. They go to the migrant camps on Sunday afternoons. The spirit of it is self-help in terms of what EFA does. Members are asked to help out as much as they are able to. Members see members helping members. It helps build the benefits program, and also builds strength in the organization because members oversee the benefits program through the Benefits Council. Members actually have input into where the benefits program is going and also bring problems to the organization, where they take on fights against government policies. They have dealt with everything from how immigration laws continue to manipulate the labor force and prevent workers from being able to command a living wage from the market place. She also described the use of HUD funding, and how it has been used to tear down low-income housing and contribute to the homelessness problem in the country. On their canvasses they found people who have had, or were threatened with utility shut-off, and they do utility advocacy for people who did not receive help from the low-income energy assistance program.
The Eastern Farm Workers Association also run budget savings programs, a savings program called Benefits Program Plan II, which helps people with limited income bridge the gap between income and expenses. They know their benefits program is not a solution and don’t pretend they are going to elevate anyone up or out of poverty through the benefits program, but it helps low-income workers change in the long term. EFWA’s priorities right now are building medical benefits. They have monthly general medical sessions with volunteer doctors who see members free of charge. EFWA is still in need of many more canvassers, advocates, and drivers to get workers to appointments, organize their medications, and follow through so farm workers can actually get their medical care.
Between spring and the Fourth of July, more and more migrant workers are coming to the area to living conditions that have not changed in decades. Others have living conditions that are okay, but their working conditions are not good, which is why the camp visits are so important.
EFWA has a method of systemic organizing which is the hallmark of what they do. It is reproducible. It’s a “see one – do one – teach one” method, so anybody can learn it.
Lynn invited WTB women to pick up information about EFWA and encouraged women to volunteer to help out in any way they could.
A lively question and answer session concluded the program.