Written by: Marcella Pansini, NC FIELD intern + UNC student
15 June 2020
Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has finally resonated with – almost – the entire country. In past protests, noted individuals quickly emerged from the masses to galvanize the people. However today, no single leader has been identified.
Instead, we see a revolution spanning in major cities, led by multiple generations, with primarily young black women on the frontlines.
Single-person protests are being held in conservative towns and groups of 18-year-olds are organizing marches for 40,000+ people.
Gen Z is the generation leading the Black Lives Matter movement, on and off social media.
The revolution is finally being televised.
2020’s civil rights movements do not require centralized leadership structures. The fight to end racism and police brutality is structured around a community-centered leadership model. Organizers are encrypting messages and using Instagram, Twitter, and Tik Tok to coordinate protests and dispel misinformation. People from all walks of life are uniting to dismantle and defund structural forms of oppression, without a singular leader.
Is this structure completely unprecedented? In a sense, no.
History is made up of many anonymous individuals whose life mission was to make the “American Dream” accessible to disenfranchised populations (Thank you education system). As history likes to repeat itself, today’s anonymous figures are the masked protestors we see broadcasted on CNN. These people have risked their lives to quickly demand change and advance social causes.
Protesters gather at Foley Square as part of a demonstration.
In the 1960s The National Farmworker Movement was no exception. During the National Farmworker Movement, Cesar Chavez became the leader, face, and founder of the United Farm Workers Union– and that’s okay. However, there were many other brave individuals who made significant contributions to the success of la causa who has been rarely acknowledged or recognized because this is a collective effort. If we learn anything from the patterns of history, it is that there is power in numbers, regardless if there is a leader or not. Social justice is no small feat and cannot be achieved alone.
Want to learn more about named and unnamed historic protest leaders? NC FIELD has curated Social Justice 101 to help those seek to organize and protest by providing information on historic protests and what made them successful.
Farms and labor companies are working to protect farmworkers as they head into a busy harvest season. But some experts say it’s not enough.
At the end of April, 71 fruit-tree workers at a large orchard in central Washington state were tested for COVID-19. None showed any symptoms of the novel coronavirus, except for four with a mild cough. But more than half tested positive, and the farm turned out to be one of the first confirmed clusters of the virus among agricultural workers.
The laborers were mostly guest workers from Mexico who were brought to the state under the H-2A visa program. They are believed to have caught the virus in the U.S., despite the fact that their employer, Stemilt Ag Services, one of the state’s largest ag labor employers, had from the start implemented extensive safety measures to minimize their risks.
While farmworkers are at risk for COVID-19 due to their living and working conditions, until recently relatively few have tested positive for the virus. To health officials and labor advocates, the Stemilt case signaled that the virus may be more widespread in the agricultural industry than is being reported. It also showed that the guidelines for preventing coronavirus spread in agriculture—most of them voluntary measures—are likely insufficient.
“Stemilt has actively implemented social distancing, symptom monitoring, and other recommended COVID control measures at its work and housing sites,” Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator Barry Kling said in a statement. “What these test results tell us is that asymptomatic cases are so common that these measures are not sufficient in these settings even when implemented well.”
The company told Civil Eats that after the outbreak it has continued to adopt all recommendations from federal and state agencies and has intensified its sanitation and social distancing measures.
But Edgar Franks, political director with Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, a farmworker union in Washington state, says most agricultural employers are not nearly as scrupulous and many aren’t taking the necessary precautions.
“I haven’t seen much enforcement of existing guidelines in the fields,” said Franks. “No social distancing, no giving out masks, too little spacing between rows and trees, and everyone huddling close together during crew meetings.”
Labor advocates warn that the virus could severely impact agriculture as tens of thousands of workers across the country take to the fields when harvest season begins this summer. And while no one is counting exactly how many farmworkers have contracted the virus, in recent weeks, several COVID-19 hotspots have come to light, revealing how the agricultural system could expose workers’ lives to the disease.
Despite Hundreds of Positive Tests, Real Impact is Unknown
Farmworkers have been designated “essential workers” by the Department of Homeland Security and they continue to report to work. And while working outside puts them at less risk than if they were in a meat packing facility, labor advocates say these workers are very vulnerable to the virus because they often work in close proximity, live in cramped, communal housing conditions, and commute to the fields in crowded vans and buses. Many also have pre-existing conditions and some have no sick leave or health insurance.
In Washington’s Yakima Valley, a major agricultural region and one of the rare localities where the public health district publicly tracks farmworker COVID-19 cases, at least 240 people who work in the food and agriculture industries have tested positive for coronavirus. With more than 1,600 confirmed cases and nearly 60 deaths, the county has the highest COVID-19 rate of all West Coast counties. While people in long-term care facilities account for about a third of the county’s cases, health experts say the large agricultural workforce is the main driver.
To stem the tide of infections, the Yakima Health District and industry groups have created a technical assistance team to work with ag employers. The team will visit worksites, observe prevention measures, and provide recommendations for improvement. The district is also working with local care providers to increase testing capacity in case there’s an outbreak at a guestworker housing camp.
Oregon’s Marion County, which is in the heart of the agriculturally rich Willamette Valley, also has the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the state. And while the county doesn’t release data about the employment of people testing positive, the two towns with the highest infection rates—Woodburn and Gervais—are also at the center of the state’s farmworker population.
In the San Joaquin Valley, one of the nation’s largest agricultural production areas, a rise in positive coronavirus cases in rural towns has led Congressional leaders to urge the National Institute of Health and Governor Gavin Newsom to prioritize COVID-19 testing for farmworkers and others in the food industry.
And in Monterey County, known as America’s Salad Bowl, health officials have reported that dozens of farmworkers have been infected. Ag workers compromise 35 percent of the county’s cases, Karen Smith, a spokesperson for the county health department, told Civil Eats. Last week, it received 750,000 masks from the state specifically for these workers. It also has added two new community testing sites.
But the outbreaks haven’t been contained to the West Coast. In upstate New York, 169 of 340 workers at Green Empire Farms, a giant greenhouse that grows strawberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers, tested positive for the virus earlier this week. Although two were hospitalized, the vast majority of the workers, most of whom are guest workers from Mexico, Haiti, and other countries were asymptomatic, health officials told Civil Eats.
The outbreak occurred despite the fact that Mastronardi Produce, the Canadian company that owns the greenhouse, had instituted a string of protective measures, including mandatory face coverings, social distancing, and sanitizing. Most of the workers, who live in hotels multiple workers to a room, are being quarantined there, said Samantha Field, Madison County Health Department spokesperson.
In New Jersey, 59 migrant workers at an unidentified farm in Salem County tested positive for the virus. Thousands of foreign guest workers arrive to the area every year for spring and summer harvest. In response, a local health center has launched testing of farmworkers in tents at various farms and in mobile testing vans; local health officials said they are planning more tests.
And in North Carolina, farmworkers at several strawberry farms also tested positive, including eight at Rudd Farm, which had mandated the use of gloves and masks for farmworkers and implemented a drive-thru service for customers. The farm, which had temporarily closed at the end of April, is back in business.
Labor advocates say it’s likely that this list of known cases is only the tip of the iceberg. Many workers don’t report feeling ill because they can’t afford to miss two or more weeks of work, said Marley Monacello, a spokeswoman for the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The organization knows of one Immokalee farmworker with COVID-19 who is in the hospital on a ventilator, but “we don’t have a long list of workers who have tested positive,” Monacello said. “Up until last week, the threshold for getting a test was very high.”
The group has been pushing for more testing and the state finally opened a new testing site in Immokalee last week, Monacello said. She said the hope is that farmworkers who test positive will receive the care and economic support they need.
“They’re feeding all of us and they deserve so much better,” Monacello said.
States Respond, But Guidelines Not Enough
Since the start of the pandemic, advocates have been putting pressure on local, state, and federal officials to find ways to protect farmworkers.
In Oregon, the response has involved a temporary rule that requires ag employers to identify a social distancing and sanitation officer to ensure at least six feet of separation during work activities, breaks, and meal periods, as well as in employer housing. Companies have also been required to increase the availability of toilet and washing stations, and bunk beds—long a common feature of farmworkers housing—have been prohibited. The rule, which will be implemented on June 1, also requires that workers and drivers wear facial coverings and sit at least 3 feet apart in employer-provided vehicles.
And in California, Governor Newsom issued an executive order that requires those who employ more than 500 food sector workers to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to workers affected by COVID-19.
The order is a significant win for farmworkers, said Armando Elenes, the secretary-treasurer with the United Farm Workers (UFW), because California’s agricultural operations tend to employ thousands of workers.
“Now we need to make sure the law is real, that it’s enforced,” Elenes said. “And that workers know about it. If the workers don’t ask for the leave, the employers won’t volunteer it.”
Despite these wins, most ag states and localities have only issued recommendations on preventing the virus from spreading among farmworkers—and some haven’t even gone that far. Voluntary guidelines have come from Cal-OSHA, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Monterey County on California’s Central Coast, and Washington state, among others.
Labor advocates say such guidelines are not enough to protect workers. Some workers have gone on strike asking for more safety measures, including most recently at Allan Brothers Fruit, a Washington state packing house.
Lawsuit Seeks Emergency Rules on Transportation, Work Conditions
“Lack of enforceable rules regarding social distancing, protective face masks, access to soap and water, and to environmental cleaning allows conditions to continue in which the virus can spread easily and quickly” and “imperil the lives” of workers, reads the complaint.
As a state with a number of large agri-businesses producing labor-intensive crops such as apples and cherries, Washington brings in the most foreign guest workers. Through the end of March, more than 11,000 guest workers were sent to the state and another 15,000 or more will likely make their way to the state for harvest in the next few months, according to last year’s data.
Enforceable regulations are crucial during the pandemic, said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who represents the unions, because many farmworkers don’t know the legal system. “The only way they know their rights is if the rules are crystal clear and specific,” she told the judge at a hearing last Friday.
Farmers have a vested interest in protecting workers, said Sarah Wixson, an attorney who represents several grower organizations who intervened in the lawsuit.
“There’s a farm labor shortage,” said Wixson. “No farmer wants their farmworkers to get sick and not be able to perform their jobs.”
A week after the lawsuit was filed, Washington’s Department of Health and the Department of Labor & Industries released a draft of emergency rules on farmworker housing that will be finalized in the coming days. They included cleaning and distancing plans and procedures for educating workers as well as identifying and isolating those who get sick.
But labor advocates said it makes no sense to improve housing while workers are still traveling and working in close proximity. So, the lawsuit asks the state to adopt emergency rules in those two additional areas.
Washington officials had indicated they were not planning such rule making. And Tim Church, a spokesman with the Department of Labor & Industries, declined to say whether the state would adopt additional emergency rules. But on May 1, a judge said he wanted to see the state make progress on transportation and work site rules by May 14. If not, he said he will consider issuing an injunction to force such rules.
Stemilt Case Provides Insight Into COVID Impacts
Worker advocates say time is of the essence when it comes to saving farmworkers lives and they point to the Stemilt case as a sign that more needs to be done to track the disease.
Stemilt Ag Services is an orchard management subsidiary of Stemilt Growers, one of the nation’s largest fruit producers. Every year, the company hires approximately 2,000 workers to work in its approximately 9,000 acres of apple, pear, cherry, and stone fruit orchards, and the majority are brought in as H-2A workers.
In early March, court documents show, the company adopted the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and separated the workers into several distinct crews that work, commute to work, and live in isolation together.
At that time, one of Stemilt’s domestic farmworkers tested positive for COVID-19; he and his five fellow crew members were asked to self-isolate at home for two weeks. A month later, six guest workers at one of the housing camps exhibited symptoms and all tested positive. In total, court records show, 53 guest workers tested positive while one domestic worker did.
The isolated workers didn’t exhibit major symptoms, none required hospitalization, and only one lost his sense of smell and taste. All of the workers are now out of isolation and back to work, the company’s spokesman Roger Pepperl told Civil Eats, and Stemilt currently has zero positive cases. In response to the outbreak, the company says it’s cleaning its housing more rigorously, has increased communication with workers about preventive measures, and continues to work on all aspects of social distancing. “We do have to remember that it is a 24-hours-a-day issue … not just at work and not just after work,” said Pepperl.
But health officials said those measures, no matter how well executed, may not be enough. Instead, testing farmworkers on a larger scale is what’s needed.
“We need to think differently,” said Kling, the Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator. “We also need to greatly increase testing of workers so that isolation and quarantine can be used when needed, and uninfected workers can continue to work.”
With Voluntary Guidelines, Workers Have No Recourse
Labor advocates hope more testing will eventually protect workers. In the meantime, a ruling in Washington could spur other states to adopt similar mandatory rules to protect farmworkers.
Mandatory regulations could be a game changer for workers, said Nayamin Martinez, director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. The group organizes workers in the San Joaquin Valley and has been educating them about COVID-19.
Last month, said Martinez, a group of workers in the rural town of Madera was temporarily laid off after they insisted on working 6-feet apart from others in the mandarin orchards. “[The lay-offs] were in retaliation for asking that they be allowed to practice social distancing,” said Martinez. “Their field crew boss told them, ‘If you don’t like it, you can go home. I have others who are ready to work.’”
Martinez said she filed a complaint with the Fresno office of Cal-OSHA because the workers were too scared to do it, fearing they would lose their jobs. Although Martinez provided the agency with the address of the field where the crew was working, the agency declined to investigate. Cal-OSHA’s Fresno office did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Civil Eats.
“People are scared. Next time, they won’t report anything, since no one is enforcing the rules,” said Martinez. “And we’re talking about a disease that puts people’s lives at risk.”
Such a powerful and compelling interview that we just HAD to share! American traditions are more infused with exploitation and violence than it is with baseball and cherry pie. Listen to the interview or read the transcript below! Click here for the original article.
Janine Jackson interviewed the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Ricardo Salvador about the coronavirus food crisis for the May 8, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Listeners have likely seen the images: farmers dumping milk, smashing eggs, plowing produce under. At the same time, in the same country, people line up at food banks, unable to access or afford nutritious food.
At the nexus of the health crisis and the economic crisis of Covid-19 is a food crisis. And it’s along every dimension, from farm laborers to restaurant workers to hungry people. As with so many things, the pandemic didn’t create the problems, but it’s making them harder to deny.
Ricardo Salvador is senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He joins us now by phone. welcome to CounterSpin, Ricardo Salvador.
Ricardo Salvador: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
JJ: If we could just talk, first, about the supply chain itself. What is it about the food system we have, that makes it a reasonable or necessary response to the crisis for some farmers to plow vegetables under that people could be eating?
RS: It has to do with the structure of agriculture, and I think your question is very well-framed. It actually is a logical thing for most farmers to plow under their food, rather than try to deal with a food system that is very specialized, that operates at very large scale. It’s very concentrated. And it operates along a few well-established channels. So it’s important to understand what those channels are, to then understand why it’s logical for farmers to do what is being reported, as well as to understand that this issue of food waste is a serious problem. And it is not exclusively on farmers. It’s an issue of the structure of the system.
So those channels I’m referring to have to do with the primary ways in which we all eat. Generalizing broadly: Prior to the pandemic, we all ate one of two ways. Either we went out someplace where somebody else took care of all the details; we don’t have to worry about what’s in season, how it’s grown, how it’s prepared; we just ask on a whim for whatever we’re in the mood for, somebody prepares it, it’s delivered to us, somebody cleans up after us.
And that system is supplied by a channel, a sector, in the food system, which is called food service. And it operates almost invisibly to the majority of us. But if you do see it, you see it in service entries and back alleys, with semi trailers delivering frozen food or packaged food in particular quantities that are suitable for the restaurant, cafeteria, the other institutions that deliver the food in the way that I described.
And, by the way, we spend most of our money for food that comes to us in that particular channel—I mean, most of the money that we spend for food, we spend for food at restaurants, or food that we eat out.
Then the other channel is the one that is overwhelmed right now, because it’s actually having to do both its own job, as well as to backstop for all the foods that we normally would be eating when we go out. And this is the grocery channel. And it’s important to understand that each of these channels have their own distribution networks, their own packaging methods, their own volume, transportation. And that if you prepare for one, you’re not prepared for the other.
RS: You’ve packaged, you’ve labeled, you’ve processed for one of them and not the other. And so the system is not very fungible. What makes the most logic to someone that just reads about all of this waste is to say, well, as you said in your question, there are all these people lined up at food pantries, because suddenly they’re unemployed. And that channel, which is referred to in the food system as the emergency food channel, actually is a redistribution channel.
So usually food that is not used, or that, for some other reason—it’s been mislabeled or it doesn’t meet a quality standard or is leftover—that’s the stuff that typically would go over to the emergency food channel. So nobody is equipped, there is no switch anyplace, where you can suddenly say, “Oh, that channel needs this much more food.” And the way in which folks at food pantries, and the people using those food pantries, can use the food is in very small quantities; nothing like what these major food channels can deliver.
And so now, let’s go back to your question about farmers. The way this whole thing looks to farmers is that they’ve contracted—typically in advance; they’re making huge investments, many of them, millions of dollars in advance—for putting their crop in the field. And if their contracts are canceled, someone still has to pay for the picking, the processing, the transportation.
And it can’t be on farmers; that’s something that somebody else needs to pay. Food pantries can’t pay for that; as I just told you, they usually receive what others can’t use, so they don’t have the resources to do this. So it may be that these places are just miles from each other, but there is no way that the costs that are involved are going to be covered by the structure of the food system as it is right now.
And for farmers, if they have produce, if that’s what we’re talking about, returning it to their soil is a way of recovering some of their costs, because that turns into fertility for their soil, for instance, just one example. So that way, it’s not a total loss for them, but it is a major loss for them. In other words, they’re not realizing profit.
So that’s the structure of our food system. That’s why we get some of these inanities.
JJ: And you can understand that if your business model as a farmer is based on selling or providing a particular thing to restaurants, or to hotels, they can’t just shift on a dime what they’re doing, is what I hear.
RS: Yeah, exactly. And I will just clarify: Very few of them actually do sell directly to restaurants or to hotels. They typically will sell to contractors, very large firms that actually handle the packaging and the transportation.
JJ: Like Cargill or something.
RS: Right, companies like that. And then those folks are the folks that turn around and provide the exact packaging, the exact form that’s required, by either food service or grocery.
JJ: Let’s talk about another aspect of the industry. Listeners may have heard that workers in meatpacking plants, for example, are falling sick in large numbers, and in some cases being threatened with job loss if they want to protect their health. You’ve written recently for Medium about the conditions for agricultural workers, and in strong terms. What should we know about the way the agricultural system treats people?
RS: Yeah, this is one of the biggest revelations of the pandemic. It is applying a stress test to our entire society, not just the food system. But when it comes to the food system, one of the things that it’s revealing is a seamy underside that is well-known to everybody within agriculture, but tends to be a revelation to people outside of agriculture.
Outside of agriculture, I think it’s pretty common for people to feel like it is a very vast global web of logistics that delivers anything you want, just in time, because that’s the way that most of us experience it. So you imagine computer systems and sophisticated software and blinking lights and high technology, and in fact all of that does exist.
But none of that would work if you didn’t have people that were in the soil, working to harvest, that were not actually hacking away at carcasses in meatpacking plants, that weren’t pushing enormous amounts of groceries onto shelves, and doing all of the back-of-the-house work that none of us ever see.
And that system—you know, I’ve referred to this term of “the structure of agriculture”—is a system that looks very much like a social hierarchy that many of us will remember from grade school, where we had slaves at the bottom of the pyramid and the pharaoh or king up at the top of the pyramid, fewer and fewer people benefiting as you go up the pyramid. In agriculture, we still have pretty much that system.
And in the United States in particular, because of our history, not very long ago, the people that performed all of the jobs that I just listed right now, or their equivalents, those were performed by enslaved people, people whom we forced to do this for no pay, for no compensation; we appropriated their labor. And that era is not that long ago. As everyone listening knows, emancipation didn’t occur, at least officially, until 1865. But the fact is that emancipation never really came to agriculture, in the sense that we still don’t pay the full value of the labor that’s required to make the entire system work.
Now, I could spend a lot of time talking to you about that. But we recently have been forced to recognize how essential these workers are, by actually giving them that official designation. “Essential” means, “Without you, the whole thing doesn’t work.”
But there’s asymmetries here. One major asymmetry is we say, on the one hand, that they’re essential; we would like to compel them to go to work so that the rest of us could have the comfort of still ordering in our T-bone steaks and what have you. But we don’t pay these people in a way that reflects how essential they are. That’s one asymmetry.
The other asymmetry is that they do work that no one in this country is willing to do. There’s lots of ways that I can support that statement. But one way is that under high periods of unemployment, like the one that we’re going into right now, you would think that unemployed people would seek whatever job is available to them. So there is a labor shortage in agriculture to do all of the field labor and packing, processing that I just described. And Americans are not doing that work.
That is actually verifiable. One of the ways that you can verify it is that we have a program that’s called the Domestic Guest Worker program, that seeks to backfill for the labor shortage in agriculture when domestic workers will not do that work. And they are required to show that they’ve advertised, that they’ve recruited, that they’ve done everything possible to hire citizens to do this work, and only when they’ve certified that they can’t get enough people domestically to do that work are they then granted an allotment of visas to bring in people from outside of the country. And that’s actually how we run the food chain.
So they’re essential in the sense that there’s a supply-and-demand issue. There’s a mismatch of supply and demand. There’s a demand for agricultural labor. We’re not filling in it domestically, so we bring in people internationally, migrants, to do this work for us. And we exploit them, because we don’t pay them the fair value of their labor. So that’s the structure of our food system. It’s very much modeled on antebellum plantation economics.
JJ: It reminds me, also, of restaurants, the so-called “tipped wage,” so that you can pay someone $2.13 an hour, and that stemming, the history of that coming from restaurants, along with the Pullman Porter company, just not wanting to pay formerly enslaved people, and wanting them to have to rely on tips, and that continues with us today. And every time folks try to get rid of that tipped wage, or to raise it, the restaurant industry complains that they simply don’t—it’s another category of person that has been designated “essential, but expendable,” you might say.
RS: That’s it exactly.
JJ: And I learned from you that, cravenly, the farm industry, those domestic guest workers that you were just talking about, the industry is now trying to cut their wages?
RS: There’s a phenomenon that all of us are observing at the moment that…. We could make this a political conversation, and I will try to steer away from that. But the fact is that policy is involved, and the phenomenon that I’m referring to is the phenomenon that’s known typically as the fog of war. When you have a major crisis that is absorbing the public’s attention, this is a prime time to try to push through policy goals that normally would just be completely intolerable, unpalatable, to the public.
And so one of those goals is that, in spite of the obviously exploitative nature of the structure of the food system that I’ve just described to you, major players in the system still want to squeeze more out of that supply chain, and they don’t see the workers as people who have the same needs as they and everybody else in this country do, to have such things as, for instance, occupational safety standards applied to their workplace, to have health benefits, to have retirement benefits, to earn enough to have dignified livelihood, meaning you can afford decent housing, you can afford to feed yourself and your family.
We actually see them as “inputs”; that’s special agricultural language. “Inputs” is the machinery you need, the tractors and all of that, it’s the fertilizers, the seeds that you need, and so on. And labor is seen as an input. And the way that you try to fatten up your profits is to cut the cost of your inputs, so that you get greater margin.
So this is the policy agenda that is being driven right now under this fog of war underneath the pandemic. The language that the secretary of Agriculture, who very much backs this agenda, has used, he says that this is “wage relief for farmers.”
What farmers actually need is fair prices for what they produce, which, by and large, they don’t get right now. They don’t exist in a competitive environment, and they don’t have the leverage where they can actually negotiate fair prices for them. But that’s actually what they need. If they could negotiate fair prices, they could afford to have it in their economy to pay all of their costs. But that’s not the situation that we have right now.
So what you have is the top of this pyramid that I described earlier, which is essentially the highly concentrated agribusiness sector, attempting to exploit the moment to cut as many costs as possible, and one of those costs is the cost of farm labor. And they’re cravenly taking advantage of the fact that, for all the reasons that I just described, these are people that are politically invisible; they don’t have muscle. Many of them are domestic guest workers in the country; they signed paperwork that says they’re only here to work in fields, that’s all, and when they’re done, they return home. Or else they’re not documented, and so what are they going to do when they’re exploited? Sue? They have no standing, and so that’s being cravenly exploited.
There was a very nice piece by Alfredo Corchado in yesterday’s New York Times whose headline just captures the situation that we’re in right now. The headline is, “If a Worker Is Essential, They Can’t Be Illegal.” That’s the quandary that we’re dealing with right now; that’s the hypocrisy that we need to recognize in the nation’s labor and immigration policy. We’re not valuing these people for, at the very least, the value they bring to the economy, much less as human beings.
JJ: How do we take our understanding of that situation and turn it into action to make things different? What can folks do?
RS: I think we’ve actually reviewed some of these things, so I’ll give you a real quick list. So I mentioned that this is a stress test of the food system, and so the brittle points, the cracking points, they’ve become readily available.
We need a food system that is fungible, that has redundancy built in. The so-called efficiencies that have been built into the highly specialized industrial model that we have right now, we are now learning, do not serve us when you have a situation where a single thing that is unpredicted takes out one pillar of the food system, and then the whole thing comes crumbling down. That’s not the kind of food system that we need. We need one that is more distributed, meaning that there are more nodes within the food system that can respond in the volumes and quantities and the formats that are necessary for where people are going to be using this food.
Now, a very good example of that is that the farmers that are doing well right now are the so-called small-scale family farmers. These are folks that produce in volumes, and who redistribute in local and regional networks, where they can respond very quickly, to where the schools are now becoming redistribution points for SNAP, for instance, or for school food that needs to be picked up by students that otherwise might not have access to that food, because they’re not coming to school every day, and so on. Or through farmers markets, another very important redistribution method which is very fungible. So we’re learning that that’s actually what works; we need to invest more in these kinds of highly distributed systems, and less in the highly concentrated systems.
We need to reform immigration policy to recognize the economic value and the human rights that we need to accord to everyone that’s making us wealthy and keeping us well-fed in this country. We need to reform labor standards so that it’s safe for people that are working in the fields, and it looks like they’re living in the 21st century, and not back in the 19th century or the 18th century.
And there are very specific people who are responsible for making the decisions that I’ve just described. Everybody can talk to their congressional representatives and have them talk to their congressional leadership, the senior leadership of Congress, because these are the people who were pressured by the folks that are at the top of the food system pyramid. And the folks at the top of that food system pyramid, I’ll just give you some actual organizations and names.
Probably the single most influential agricultural lobby is the American Farm Bureau Federation. They say they represent farmers, but they actually represent agribusiness. And the president of that organization is Zippy Duvall. Let that man know what you think about everything that you’ve heard here.
Somebody else that plays a very big role in terms of fruits and vegetable production in the United States is the president of the Western Growers Association. That individual, the president that leads that organization, is a guy by the name of Dave Puglia. Let him know what you would like to see instead of the system that we have right now.
The person that’s carrying the water for all of this in the White House is President Trump’s chief of staff. He very much says his whole career has been about small government. That individual’s name is Mark Meadows. And by the way, I’ll remind everyone that we’re living in a time where, to quote Noam Chomsky a couple of weeks ago, every fiscal conservative is hiding their copy of Ayn Rand and is lining up for benefits from the nanny state. There’s a lot of hypocrisy that we need to throw in these people’s faces, because that’s the urgency that the degree of exploitation and dysfunction that we’re living through demands.
Probably one of the biggest cheerleaders for this dysfunctional food system that we have is the current secretary of Agriculture, Secretary Sonny Perdue. I would definitely advise that people let him know that we’re seeing everything that they’re doing, and the cynicism with which they’re treating farm laborers in particular, but the way in which they’re using the situation to essentially just throw more money at a system that clearly is failing.
And the last of the people that I’ll name, because they’re in the headlines every day, even though folks don’t know them by name, these are the folks that run the meatpacking industry in the country. And I particularly recommend people contact Larry Pope, who heads Smithfield Foods, and Noel White, who heads Tyson Foods, because these are the folks that are making the decisions to force people to show up to work. They’re interested in maintaining share value more than they’re interested in preserving the health of their workers. They put out press releases saying that they value nothing more than the health of their workers, but they’re forcing them to work under highly unsafe conditions, given the etiology of this particular pandemic, the coronavirus.
We know how to stave further spread, but they’re actually not willing to adopt the recommendations that come from CDC, specifically, because it would slow their production line; it would slow their volume. Well, this is happening to them anyway, which is why they’re reacting in a way that demonstrates plutocracy in action: They’ve told the president what to do, and the president responded by saying, through an executive order, that these plants must remain open, implicitly that workers are compelled to show up to work against their health interests. So these are the sorts of things that these leaders are condoning, that they need to hear about, that eaters are not going to support.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ricardo Salvador of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. They’re online at uscusa.org. You can read his piece, “Agribusiness Is Using the Covid-19 Crisis to Slash Food-Worker Wages,” on Medium.com. Thank you very much, Ricardo Salvador, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
RS: Thank you very much for the opportunity.