Farmers Need Strong Unions, Too

By Jim Van Der Pol

I have for some years now been answering the question about a good and fair farm policy by saying that we need a decent universal health care system. This statement generally causes a hole in the conversation as folks try to connect health care with farming. The connection is of course that if a farmer and/or his spouse must work in town to get health insurance, they are going to have a hard time paying proper attention to their farm, much less expand it into markets and direct contacts with the customers, which is where more of our farms are going to need to go if rural America is to prosper.

Similarly now, a question about what is needed to try to build local markets and local marketing efforts gets answered by saying that we need to pass the union supported card check legislation being proposed this year in Congress. Card check is the short name for the process of allowing a union in a given business if a majority of the employees request one by signing and sending in a card. Card check may not be as important for farmers marketing produce and grains, or other non highly processed items. It is important to me because our business is meats, and because we proudly use a small processor who pays a decent salary to his help and provides good working conditions. What this means, of course, is that our products face a steep price differential indeed when compared to the meats processed in environments where workers are paid not much above minimum, the working conditions are unsafe and the line speeds are fast enough to make humane slaughter questionable to say the least.

Organizing a union isn’t any fun. I worked at a job before I farmed and our crew had decided that we needed a better wage, and that we weren’t able to provide for our families as we should, so we went through the National Labor Relations Act process as we were required to do. We filed a petition for union representation, then waited for about two months for the government to set an election. This period of time the company filled by calling us in one at a time to threaten us with closing the plant and/or individual firings.

The National Labor Relations Board has been considerably weakened since and the abuses are worse now. And now the worsening economy overshadows the issue. Also there is the matter of immigration, legal or not, and what that means for the American working class. It is impossible for labor, organized or not, to make its way in a situation where there is a seemingly endless supply of people willing to work for less and to be treated like cattle. We have a crying need for an honest discussion about immigration, conditions in Mexico, the wall, enforcement and all other matters related to the worsening situation for labor. I have seen Mexicans shuffle out of a meat plant in leg irons in the custody of the INS. But I have never seen a plant owner frog marched to the penitentiary in the custody of federal marshals. Until that does happen a few times, the conditions regarding corporate employment of people who have not the right to be working here are going to be too comfortable for us to see much change.

These are difficult issues in grazier circles. Most grass farmers are libertarian as nearly as I can detect, when they are political at all. So am I, in considerable part. We graziers tend feel that government has never done us a great deal of good; that indeed, it has stood on the side of those big companies that benefit from conventional crop agriculture with the taxpayer check book wide open. We bid against government-supported crop farmers for land. The livestock that we need to make our lower input farms run right are more and more discriminated against as they enter the commodity markets. We see rightly that this concentration of livestock production has been just as much a government project as the concentrated crop agriculture. It is the lack of enforcement of anti-trust and monopoly laws that brings it about. We built a meats business on our farm simply because we had to in order to stay with independent hog production.

It is easy to understand a cocked eyebrow among the readers. Universal health care doesn’t sound right among folks accustomed to getting what they need by driving a hard bargain or otherwise doing without. And support of a union doesn’t come natural to anyone used to relying upon himself, often against considerable odds.

But the odds we have been up against for many years are getting steeper all the time, with the nation’s assets (and thus the government) now almost exclusively in the hands of the very wealthy. It is simply not likely that we can bring about a situation where everyone, regardless how powerful, maintains a hands-off the government approach so that we all may look out for ourselves. As attractive as that idea is, the fact is that if we are not willing to grab the government and use it, then it will be used against us by those more powerful than we are.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. This appeared in Graze magazine.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2009

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