|ONLINE VERSION||VOLUME 106 - NUMBER 12 - DECEMBER 1997|
|A Letter From Arturo Rodriguez, President , United Farm Workers|
|These days, I spend lot of time away from home, working on
our massive organizing campaign in California's strawberry fields. When I come home on the
weekends and see the faces of my loved ones around the dinner table, I feel a special
sense of gratitude and contentment. But in my mind, I see other faces too.
During the quiet evening hours when our youngest child, Arthur, Jr., has finally been tucked snugly into bed, I give thanks for all that my family has been given--wholesome food, a roof over our heads, the security of knowing things will be much the same next week, next month, probably even next year. Then I sit at my desk and think about the people by the river.
I think about Mario Camacho, 35 years old, who in June left Mexico with a group of male relatives of various ages to pick cherries and apples in America's Pacific Northwest. "When we arrived in Mattawa, Washington, we looked for housing, but all the available houses were occupied," he says. "We had to camp by the side of the Columbia River.
What seemed to strike Mario most about this new "home" was the cold--bathing in the freezing river water, struggling to cook on a campfire as strong winds blew, shivering on the ground while trying to fall asleep in a makeshift plastic tent.
Mario felt lucky when an apartment became available in the nearby town of Beverly. The place had one bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. It was furnished only with an old sofa and four dirty mattresses on the floor. The rent was $800 per month. To afford it, Mario had to share it with seven other men.
I also think about Marco Antonio Roque Magallon. At 24 he picks fruit so he can send money home for his son, who he hopes will grow up to have a better life than he does. "I have lived by the river three years," Marco says. "It's a sad life. I know people who live in apartments, and it is very hard to admit that I have to live outdoors.
"We are forced to take a sponge bath inside the chemical toilets which are frequently dirty and smelly and we do not come out feeling very clean. We have to buy food every day because there is no place to keep food from day to day (no refrigeration). This week I had to dry some leftover meat so that I could preserve it. We are constantly bothered by hordes of insects--ants, mosquitoes and flies--which are very abundant by the riverside."
When my thoughts turn to the people by the river, I think especially about Efigenia Clemente Severiano. "I am the only woman living here," she said in July. "Right now there are close to 100 of us." The only member of her family to come to Washington to work, 26-year-old Elfigenia misses the daughter, mother, six brothers and four sisters left behind.
But she has little time to dwell on how lonely and homesick she feels. After long and exhausting workdays, life on the river is a constant struggle for survival. "We have to cook in very primitive conditions," she says. "We throw car oil or alcohol on the damp tree branches to start the campfire. We have to bring water from town to drink and cook with. We had to construct a shelf on top of tree branches to keep food from the rodents." Efigenia says, "I have never lived in conditions as bad as I am living under here in Mattawa, Washington." Her mother in Mexico is distressed by the squalor her girl must endure.
The wealthy Washington state companies which profit from the labors of Efigenia, Mario, Marco and thousands of other seasonal workers aren't nearly so concerned.
In response to the inhumane living conditions which they freely admit their employees are subjected to, the growers recently tried to pass a disgraceful piece of legislation. Senate Substitute Bill 5668 would have permitted migrant agricultural laborers to be housed in dwellings exempt from the building codes that protect other Washington residents. The law would have resulted in shanty towns and tent cities reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath--accommodations that would make living on the river seem luxurious in comparison.
SSB 5668 authorized widespread use of tents and allowed for housing with seven-foot ceilings, constructed of straw bales or bare wood. Structures which could be used year-round would not be required to have insulation, snow roofs, heat, electricity, kitchens, running water, plumbing, or adequate bathroom facilities. Employers would have been permitted to pack up to 60 workers into 3,000 square-foot barracks.
As one newspaper editorialized, "The legislation would codify a lower housing standard, and second-class status, for those who help put the food on our tables."
With all their clout and money, the growers almost succeeded in making this abominable bill the law. It passed in the state legislature. Fortunately, after energetic efforts by our organization, the United Farm Workers of America, and other labor supporters, Governor Gary Locke vetoed it. Afterwards, the executive director of the Washington State Growers' League, which represents 900 agricultural employers statewide, accused the UFW of not wanting the workers' housing crisis to be solved! He actually said, "Now, because of a group of activists who need a rallying point and who benefit from this problem, thousands of workers' health and safety is sacrificed."
In fact, we won a victory. We won the right to demand decent housing, rather than settle for a cheap fix that would make things worse. But the bottom line is, the desperate housing situation in Washington remains unresolved. We still must find a solution that not only protects the workers' safety and health, but considers their basic human dignity as well. It's also crucial to get them higher pay.
As Mario Camacho told one of our organizers last summer in his crowded apartment in Beverly, "In order to solve this problem, the first thing that should be done is to increase wages. We are willing to pay for our housing expenses, because we want to live like decent human beings."
Between Efigenia Severiano's January arrival in Washington and mid-July, she earned only about $1,000. The last we heard from her, she was being paid $5 an hour. Marco Magallon was earning the same.
For the past 20 years, the price that workers have been paid per bin of apples has remained essentially the same, while the growers' take has more than doubled. Washington farm workers earn an average of less than $6,000 per year in an industry that generates more than $1 billion.
The low wages, deplorable living conditions and other injustices rampant in the apple industry are not surprising. Not one of Central Washington's fruit companies is unionized. The UFW is working hard to change this sorry state of affairs.
With help from the UFW, apple workers on the King Fuji Ranch recently staged a successful five-day strike to win a $1 per hour raise, up from $5. We are now building on this momentum.
As I write to you today (Sept. 1997), our people in Washington are planning a march in Mattawa to call for a raise for apple pickers. In the evenings, our organizers are holding "house" meetings to listen to the workers' concerns and inform them about the union. Larger Town Committee Meetings are attracting bigger crowds. Our immediate hope is to attract 1,500 associate members to the union. Our ultimate goal is to organize 45,000 apple pickers.
We urgently need your support to carry on these vital efforts. Our staff in the field must have funds for transportation, housing, food, medicine, legal fees and other essentials.
Won't you help?
Contributions or gifts to the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, are not tax deductible. Please mail your check to UFW, P.O. Box 62, Keene, California 93531.