by Laura Steiger, Outreach Team
(from left) Ramon Torres receives a $400 check on behalf of the recently formed farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and Modesto Hernandez and Edgar Franks receive a $400 check on behalf of the local nonprofit Community to Community Development. The funds were granted by the Co-op’s Member Affairs Committee and presented by committee members Jade Flores and Seth Mangold, Board director.
Photo by Bob Ridgley, www.binaryrecordingstudio.com.
In January, the Co-op Board of Directors hosted an event for the community to hear from local farmworker union members about their historic decision to be represented by Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), ushering in a new era for farmworker justice in Washington state.
Through an interpreter, Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, told us about the farmworker-lead fight to form the second indepent farmworker union in Washington state and to negotiate a contract after 3 1/2 years of determination and hard work.
“All of this started because of wage theft, no breaks, no lunches, bad housing conditions, and bad pay. We are immigrants, but we also have rights. If we look around, I’m the same as you. I’m also human. We have rights, and we have to fight for them. And that is what happened with us,” said Ramon. He added that he is proud to have fought for a better future for his children, family, friends, and co-workers.
Ramon said he is proud to have fought for a better future for his children, family, friends, and co-workers.
Modesto Hernandez, a member of Bellingham nonprofit Community to Community Development (C2C) and a farmworker, shared his story of devastating personal injury that resulted from working in unsafe, freezing conditions and of the discrimination he has faced in public. Attendees also sadly learned that farmworkers have continued to experience injuries during severe weather conditions in our county again this winter.
When farmworkers decided to organize over three years ago, they reached out first to our co-op because of our mission, vision, and values. After speaking at two Board meetings, our Board directors agreed to honor their request for a boycott of Driscoll’s, a berry company that distributes berries harvested at the Skagit Valley farm where farmworkers first started organizing against poor working conditions. After our co-op joined the boycott, the Olympia Food Co-op and Terra, in Bellingham, also signed on. Eventually, 15 regional stores were supporting the boycott and farmworkers hit the road to build support in Oregon and California.
On September 1, 2016, local farmworkers voted to unionize. Five hundred indigenous farmworkers formed an independent union, drafted a union contract, won an $850,000 lawsuit, and established a new Washington state labor law that guarantees both hourly and piece-rate farmworkers have the right to paid 10-minute rest breaks. “We don’t want to be rich, but want to have the ability to live in our communities. If I pick watermelons, I also want to be able to afford to buy a watermelon,” said Ramon.
Edgar Franks, of C2C, shared the significance of this movement being lead by farmworkers—the people who have been most marginalized in the food system. Edgar believes that Whatcom County can be a model for the nation in establishing a new economy based on local principles that value workers, and where everybody has a space and a voice in shaping a just food system that’s not based on exploitation.
Edgar Franks, of C2C, shared the significance of this movement being lead by farmworkers—the people who have been most marginalized in the food system.
Ramon, Modesto, and Edgar’s presentation was enthusiastically received by Co-op member-owners with boisterous cheers and more than one standing ovation. They came specifically to thank us for our support and to reiterate that when we stand in solidarity with farmworkers great things can happen. They also reminded us that the fight’s not over yet, and neither are the aspirations of local farmworkers.
Working with C2C, and also forming partnerships with local tribes, farmworkers are pursuing the purchase of 100 acres of farmland to form a worker-owned farm cooperative, and are also working toward opening an organic tortillaria in Bellingham lead by farmworkers. Organic farming is a priority for farmworkers because it minimizes the daily exposure to toxic chemicals otherwise experienced on conventional farms.
It was our pleasure to honor the hard work and victory of Familias Unidas por la Justicia and to learn firsthand from the farmworkers who fought this historic battle. The Co-op’s Member Affairs Committee closed the event by presenting FUJ and C2C each with a $400 grant to further their important work. If you want to support the work of FUJ and C2C, consider making a donation.