Lost in the immediate days prior to the Nov. 7 election cacophony of politicians' pronouncements concerning their myopic high ideals and their praise of an economic system that grows more corrupt each day, a story came out of Oregon that makes one angrier and angrier over how that system appears to have lost any respect for economic and social justice.
The story is part of the United Farm Workers' struggle to win for workers basic rights such as the hiring of women despite a previous discrimination lawsuit and settlement at the 93,000-acre Threemile Canyon Farms in eastern Oregon, primarily a dairy but also a farm that produces potatoes, compost and organic vegetables and grains.
According to the UFW, Threemile's latest intimidation of women is to avoid providing them with a separate changing area -- a necessity as workers must wear coveralls to protect them from feces and urine.
Laura Garay repeatedly has spoken out on this issue and won. Now the company is making her pay for protecting her rights and the rights of other women.
Several weeks ago, Laura found out she was pregnant. One of Laura's jobs was to bathe each cow's udder with chemicals, which brings her face directly into the chemicals' fumes. As no masks or protective gear are provided, it made her dizzy and worsened her morning sickness. Her job also required Laura to go up and down stairs. In order to protect her unborn child, Laura requested to be transferred to one of numerous other jobs at the dairy. Management said if she could not do her job she would be fired.
Then, Laura slipped on cow manure and fell hard on her tail bone. She was sent to a company doctor who told her to take a day off and cleared her for reassignment for five days to a different job.
On the sixth day, despite Laura telling management she was in a lot of pain because of the fall, they sent her back to her old job. When the pain became too much to bear and Laura felt she was going to faint, she demanded to be allowed to go to the hospital.
At the hospital, Laura discovered the company doctor had misdiagnosed her. She likely had a fracture in her back and was told to avoid any physical activity. The doctor also told Laura she couldn't understand how the company physician sent her back to work so quickly.
Laura has remained at home recovering, waiting to see when the doctor at the hospital will let her return to work. She told the UFW, "I'm really afraid that because of this fall and the hard work that they assign to me that I'll have some problem with my baby. I'm also worried that they're going to fire me because I'm pregnant or retaliate against me because I fell."
The union has appealed for help for Laura and all the Threemile employees by initiating a letter-writing campaign to McDonald's, asking the giant restaurant to use its influence to stop the problems at Threemile.
McDonald's presently gets products from at least three different companies that buy milk and potatoes from Threemile.
The McDonald's code of conduct says, "We hold our suppliers responsible for ensuring adherence to our standards in their facilities and in subcontractor facilities that produce products for us ... We will not do business with suppliers who fail to uphold our standards, in action as well as words."
To date, in the case of Threemile they have yet to honor that code.
The UFW and the dairy have been battling for more than three years over labor rights at the farm.
On Aug. 21, Threemile signed a historic agreement with the union pledging to allow workers to decide if they wanted a union, free of threats or intimidation. As a result, the UFW agreed to stop sending out action alerts detailing the problems and injustices workers have been forced to endure at Threemile.
However, according to UFW officials, Threemile began blatantly violating the agreement and started circulating an antiunion petition spreading misinformation about the UFW. In an effort to try to buy worker loyalties they began offering pay raises and buying the workers lunch.
Threemile also told workers that anyone who decided to support the union would be fired. In early September it reinforced the threat by firing UFW supporter Gerardo Sanguino, who stood up to management and refused to sign the antiunion petition.
In addition to housing the largest dairy farm in the world, Threemile grows thousands of acres of potatoes. One of its clients is the corporate agribusiness giant ConAgra, which buys potatoes, processes them into products such as French fries, and sells them to companies like McDonald's.
In September a delegation of Threemile workers and community supporters went to the local ConAgra plant to ask for that company's support. They were turned away. The UFW subsequently initiated a letter writing campaign, seeking public support, to ConAgra President Gary Rodkin.
As David Bacon, a photographer and reporter and author of Communities Without Borders, notes, big growers want to be able to recruit workers outside the country on temporary visas, not permanent ones -- "a steady supply of people who can work, but can't stay. This is a repeat of the old, failed bracero program of the 1940s and '50s.
"With a temporary labor program, farm wages will not rise. Instead, farm workers will subsidize agribusiness with low wages, in the name of keeping agriculture 'competitive.' Strikes and unions that raise family income will be regarded as a threat."
As Bacon concludes, "We've seen this before. During the bracero program, when resident workers struck, growers brought in braceros. If the braceros struck, they were deported. That's why Cesar Chavez, Ernesto Galarza and Bert Corona finally convinced Congress to end the program in 1964. The UFW's first grape strike in California began the year after the bracero law was repealed. ... Farm labor that can support families is better."
While Abraham Lincoln said "labor creates all wealth," it is clear over 150 years later that farm workers get precious little of it.
A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner. He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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