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Summer Table 2024


Summer Table 2024

Farmworker Justice By Monica Peabody, Staff member

I attended Farmworker Justice Day at the Evergreen State College as a representative of the
. We were one of the event sponsors. And, as someone who has spent much of my adult life working to support and empower those experiencing poverty to fight for the eradication of poverty. I care deeply about these issues. It was exciting to hear about the amazing work of two community organizations, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Farmworker’s Union) https://familiasunidasjusticia.com/ and Community to Community https://www.foodjustice.org/ . 

Kristina Ackley, Associate Dean for Experiential Learning and Native Programs at Evergreen,
opened with a land acknowledgement and noted that this annual event honors José Gómez, a
former Evergreen faculty member who was a life-long activist for farmworker justice, LGBTQ+
justice and labor organizing. She said that José was very inspired by different native nations
and their justice systems as well as their place-based knowledge. He took seriously the
responsibilities that emerge when forming relationships and alliances. This is part of the
necessary work that we all must do if we hope to create sustainable, transformative and just
food systems.

The panel of speakers we will hear today, she said, do the important work of organizing,
promoting and educating about the importance of sustainable food systems that ensure safety
and justice for workers and consumers. Agricultural work is highly skilled work that has been
devalued because of who works in it. This realization was part of the political awakening of José
Gómez, who sought to teach students about what was possible through skillful coalition

Liz Darrow is a program director for Participatory Democracy at Community to Community
(C2C) Development, an organization that focuses on farmworker and climate justice,
ecofeminism and food sovereignty, working in Whatcom and Skagit counties. Participatory
Democracy means that everyone participates in decision making to create policy and practice in
the things that impact their lives. Trusting that farmworkers, women, young people and poor
people know best what they need, Liz’s job is to make connections between communities and
policy spaces. Even if you’re not a farmworker or a legislator you can work to enact the vision
that another world is possible. We must all work toward the goals of clean water and good food
for everyone, a living wage, and safe and affordable housing.

C2C supports the annual farmworker tribunal in Olympia; this year marked the 11th. In 2019, due to the work of farmworkers and the Farmworker Tribunal, farmworkers began to be paid for overtime work in WA state; we’re the only state that has that. Every year since then, the agricultural lobby strongly advocates for its removal. And every year, farmworkers come back and give testimony on the conditions in the fields. Of course, they’re experts in their own lives and the work that they do. For those of us who aren’t farmworkers, our job is to trust that they
know what they need and to amplify their voices and work together.

C2C holds the March of the Campesina every year in Skagit county. It just happened in April
and you are invited next year. C2C hosts people’s movement assemblies and dignity dialogues.
Anywhere they can get together, they share food and talk about what decisions are being made,
who’s making them and how to get more of the community involved. The work at C2C is not
charity, it’s solidarity. We all need food to eat, rest breaks and fair pay.

Lelo Juarez is an organizer with C2C and with Familias Unidos por la Justicia. He started
working in the field when he was 12 years old to help his family earn enough money to get them through the winters when there isn’t much work. This is true for a lot of farmworker families; instead of having summer vacation, children go to work in the fields. Lelo’s now 24 with 12years of experience.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  There was a walk out during his first year of work. With la Justicia they’ve been able to change a
lot of things in our state that have had a positive effect on their lives. At the Farmworker Tribunal they’ve created a safe space for workers to talk about issues in their workplace and their daily lives. The Tribunal brings workers, community members and legislators into one space.

Farmworkers know what it’s like to work under the sun, in extreme heat and extreme cold, often 10 plus hours, 7 days a week. This year they spoke about how their rents are going up, but their wages are not. Climate change is affecting them. They created a list of demands at the tribunal:
1. Ensure health and wellbeing of farmworkers.
2. Protect and nurture secure capitol, land and training to support farmworkers’ economic
3. Give farmworkers the ability to affect and shape government decisions. Nothing about us
without us!

Always, the tribunal ends with food and conversation.

This year’s Farmworker March, while in support of farmworkers everywhere, focused on the
tulip farmworkers. In March of 2022, there was a three-day strike because farmworkers were
tired of the conditions. The workers asked to have the union represent them, but the company
did not recognize or want to talk to the union. The workers chose 7 representatives, and an
agreement was reached. One demand was 2 clean restrooms for women and two for men for every 50 workers.
Restrooms in the fields have been just holes dug in the ground, so that when it rains they fill up and become very dirty. It’s been two years and farmworkers are still waiting for this simple request.

April is when the tulip farmers have a lot of tourists. People travel from all over the world to see
the flowers. The march was 7 ½ miles, a 4 hour walk, and stopped at one of the busiest farms.
Farmworkers chanted, “No workers, no tulips!” They passed out paper origami tulips with QR
codes so people could find more information. The tourists go to see all the beautiful colors and
designs, but what they don’t see is all the hard work that goes into making that happen. This
year’s demands include clean restrooms, a wage increase, and no pesticides. “We are workers,
not machines.” Of course, the march ended with food and music.

Tomas Ramon Vasquez said before Familias Unidas por la Justicia, farmworkers didn’t know
where to go for help or about going to Olympia to speak to legislators. Owners would fire
farmworkers who complained about the conditions.

In 2022 they held a labor stoppage because wage theft and other unfair practices were happening. There was a bonus program that resulted in about $4 extra an hour when the bonus was reached. The company didn’t want to pay fairly; they paid one group $4 and another group $3 and were not being transparent. Farmworkers decided to strike because the owners wouldn’t negotiate in good faith. He kicked them out of the fields, so they picketed on the street. Some of the long-time farmworkers helped build their business, held seniority, yet they hired a union buster to scare people from organizing.

Tomas asked for all to join them in their actions. “When you eat a salad, think of us.”

Senaida Perez Villegas started working in strawberries when she was 17. In the past when
there was a problem, no one knew where to go, now they go to organizations like Familias
Unidas and C2C. She lives in Whatcom County and works different seasons, strawberries,
raspberries, blueberries, but it’s been harder to find work. A farm called Endfield has begun
bringing in foreign workers through the H2A program instead of hiring workers who have been
there season after season. She’d like farmers to stop using the H2A program that hurts workers
who live here. On August 5th, there will be a big action where one of the H2A workers died in
the field. “It’s time for farmworker justice. It’s not the fault of the H2A workers, it’s the companies
pitting workers against each other. It’s time for solidarity for all workers. Join us!”

Edgar Franks started at C2C in 2012 and now works with Familias Unidas por la Justicia. He
says that through organizing he sees that none of this is a mistake, it’s designed to keep
farmworkers oppressed and allow farm owners to benefit from their oppression. It’s amazing
that farmworkers have to ask for clean bathrooms, clean water and decent gear. They are
working in all kinds of harsh conditions– tulip work starts in January and it’s cold! State
resources can only get you so far, farmworkers need political power. People only want to see
the beauty of the fruits of our labors while corporate agriculture makes billions.

Franks talked about a new apple variety being developed. All that money for study and lobbyists
is used to make corporate agriculture seem innovative and fun. These practices have been with
us since plantation agriculture and must change. In the U.S. farmworkers have been on the
ground organizing, but community plays a big role. All industries and fields of study have a part in farmworker justice.
It’s important to stay connected and not become alienated from those who work the land, because at some point in our history, our ancestors all did this work. It’s a
struggle, but it’s also very joyful. “We have not been beaten down to the point of despair. We’re
still organizing and envisioning something different. Join us.”

Alice Nelson, Evergreen Latin American Studies faculty, spoke more about José Gómez.
José grew up in a farmworker family harvesting sugar beet, using the now illegal short-handled
hoe. He eventually went on to become a first generation college student, a Peace Corps
volunteer, a Fulbright scholar and a teacher in Latin America. The July 4, 1969 cover of Time
magazine bore Caesar Chavez’ portrait, and marked a turning point in Jose’s life. He saw it in
Costa Rica where he was teaching high school and decided to move back to the U.S. to join the

In his work with the United Farm Workers, (UFW) in the 1970s, José helped to organize
consumer boycotts of produce and was also active in the anti-war movement. José later earned
a law degree from Harvard Law School and also worked for LGBTQ rights for many years. In
1988 he came to Evergreen. He carried his accomplishments with incredible humility and a
practical sense that sharing wisdom from organizing on the ground along with fostering critical
thinking of students were his ongoing contributions to making a better world.

José was the faculty speaker at Evergreen’s 2006 graduation ceremony. I happened to be there
because the graduation speaker that year was the current Washington state Governor, Christine Gregoire. This was an odd choice for a college with a list of past graduation speakers that include Shirley Chisolm, Leonard Peltier, Winona LaDuke, Bell Hooks, Vandana Shiva, Angela Davis and Mumia Abu-Jamal. However, as Gregoire had just enacted a slew of vicious policies and regressive financial cuts to welfare programs serving low-income families, it was a golden opportunity to illuminate and protest her decisions. Governor Gregoire delivered her cookie cutter graduation speech while many students turned their backs to her, while looking out at banners and signs asking her to do better. However, when José Gómez spoke after her, you could have heard a pin drop. His speech was memorable and unfortunately still incredibly
relevant. At the end of each day’s work, I had to fetch the milk cows from a pasture two miles away. Walking that distance every evening gave me a lot of time to think. I thought about how hard our life was and how unfair that we had to work so much, for so little. My thoughts soon turned to words and my words turned to oral manifestos of rage and indignation. Day after day, I imagined myself an orator on a stage somewhere railing against injustices that seemed to seal the fate of the many Mexicans and Mexican Americans who worked alongside us. From time to time, the cows would stop and look at me. I didn’t know whether they were startled, confused or amused. And now, a half century later, I can still feel, smell and taste those days of oppression as if they were only yesterday. And here I am finally on a stage, with an attentive audience, at an institution of higher learning. I never dreamed back then that this moment would be within my reach. And I hope that my words of rage and indignation today do not startle, confuse or amuse you. Rather I hope that you see the connection between my experiences and the advice that I’ll share with you as you now venture forth, with diplomas in hand, hopefully to do good in the world.

As a young boy, I did not know of the broken and betrayed cycle of prosperity, especially in
agriculture. I did not know of the millions and now billions of taxpayer dollars that subsidize
agribusiness in this country. I did not know of the billions of taxpayer’s dollars of free research
the state land grant universities provide to agribusiness to produce their crops, more potent
pesticides and increase in the efficient mechanization. I also did not know the farmworkers, an
essential part of the agricultural economy had been forgotten. Forgotten perhaps, is too
generous a term. After all, in 1935, when the politicians in Congress decided to grant collective
bargaining rights to workers, they purposely excluded farmworkers from the legislation that
came to be known as the National Labor Relations Act, the Wagner Act. For the past three
quarters of a century, farmworkers have suffered from that exclusion. What should be the full
cycle of prosperity is incomplete because it stops short for the farmworker. No thought is given,
for example, to retrain farmworkers whose jobs are made obsolete by mechanization bought by taxpayer money. One disgraceful result is our own state’s response to the housing crisis facing migrant workers who pick our crops. Year after year, the best the state of WA has to offer are tents. In 1961, Edward R Murrow shocked the nation’s conscience with Harvest of Shame, a television documentary that exposed the disgraceful exploitation of farmworkers. Nearly five decades later, not much has changed. Farmworkers are still exploited, they’re still poisoned by toxic pesticides, they continue to live and work in shameful conditions. Childhood labor is
widespread. Is it not a scandalous betrayal of the cycle of prosperity, that the very people who
harvest food for our feast of bounty frequently do not have enough to feed their own children?