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Bernstein writes: "The dual pandemics of Covid-19 and economic racism have taken a costly toll on America's farmworkers, who do the hardest work - and have now been recognized as essential workers - but still cannot get the safety protections and the medical care demanded by the worst pandemic in over a hundred years."

Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm near Oxnard, California, Ventura County. (photo: Joe Klamar/Getty)
Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm near Oxnard, California, Ventura County. (photo: Joe Klamar/Getty)

A Triple Tragedy for the Farmworkers: Covid 19, Racism, and the Fires This Time

By Dennis J Bernstein, Reader Supported News

10 September 20

An interview with United Farm Worker president Teresa Romero

he dual pandemics of Covid-19 and economic racism have taken a costly toll on America’s farmworkers, who do the hardest work – and have now been recognized as essential workers – but still cannot get the safety protections and the medical care demanded by the worst pandemic in over a hundred years. Add to this the outbreak of massive fires across the state of California and, yes, we have nothing short of a perfect storm of human disaster.

I sat down this week with the president of the United Farm Workers (UFW), Teresa Romero, the first Latina and first immigrant woman to become president of a national labor union in the U.S. Romero has been burning the candle at both ends, in her quest to bring some semblance of economic justice to the farmworkers in the age oftCovid-19. The UFW is without question the most effective union representing field workers and fruit and vegetable pickers in the U.S., but they are in a life and death battle for those whom they represent.

Romero, for her part, has taken on the multiple struggles facing farmworkers, including the battle for better, less crowded living conditions, the basics in health care, easy access to testing during the pandemic – particularly for those many workers who do not have insurance protections, and a structure for emergency pay when farmworkers are being forced to face off with the fire to save the grape harvest.

I spoke with Romero on September 4th in Southern California.

Dennis J Bernstein: Welcome. Thank you for joining us, President Romero. 

Teresa Romero: It is nice to be with you.

DB: The United Farm Workers are now facing multiple pandemics – triple pandemics of Covid-19, burning flames across the hills and fields where they work, and the endless pandemic of racism. So do you want to just give us a general take? What does it look like at ground zero level? 

TR: You know, Dennis, the workers are suffering from a perfect storm. Because in addition to what you just mentioned, we’re talking about Covid-19. Covid-19 has affected all of us. But it affects agricultural workers because they are more vulnerable. They often live, commute and labor in crammed, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. So that makes them more vulnerable. They do not have the equipment to protect themselves that they need. The federal government considers them essential, but they are not treated as such. They are dealing with the horrible temperatures that we’ve been having, in California several days over 100°. And as you know, in addition to the immigration issues that the workers are facing, in some areas the workers are having to work under dangerous conditions because of the fires and the air quality. And unfortunately, the employers are not providing the equipment that is needed to protect them. So it is very difficult.

DB: It is interesting and quite troubling to see the owners heading for the hills, if you will – or away from the hills, I should say – while the farmworkers are facing off in some instances with the flames. These are essential workers, and I know you strongly believe and are advocating not only for special hazard pay but also for the sorely needed expanded protections that are consistent with the dangers that they’re facing now. Is there anything happening on that front?

TR: For example, if we talk about Covid, the employers are supposed to provide equipment. The employers are supposed to keep the workers informed. We negotiated with the State of California to include farmworkers on paid sick leave if they contract Covid. But unfortunately, employers are not informing the workers of these rights. So it is even more difficult for them to demand what they don’t know they are entitled to. And when you have the fires, for example — I think there are 51 grape growers/vineyards who requested a special permit to continue harvesting. And they got it. But they weren’t there harvesting – it was the farmworkers. The owners are not in the field suffering the risks the farmworkers are suffering.  

DB: So this is in the face of Covid and fires.

TR: Yes, it is. Yes Dennis, from the beginning we have been distributing face masks to farmworkers. You know the farmworkers are under contract. We are able to communicate with the owners; we put in place safety precautions, and they go above and beyond; we work with them. But many workers are not under contract; they are – like you said earlier – undocumented. And they work from sun-up to sundown, and nobody is willing to go in the fields and let them know about their rights. And in many cases, even when you do that, when you tell them what their rights are, they get fired. We have a case right now in Kern County of a pistachio company, Primex, whose workers came to us. There were a lot of workers who were testing positive, a couple of workers died, and the workers who started demanding their rights were fired.  

So it is one of the problems that we have, like you said earlier. That’s why I’m calling it a perfect storm, because all these are happening at once. Workers know that they’re going to get fired, know that they’re undocumented, and many members of the family work at the same company, so they have a lot to lose. And they don’t want to risk not having the money to pay the rent, not having the money to feed their families, because all these programs and help that the federal government is approving are not including the farmworkers.

DB: We’re talking about a very difficult situation for the farmworkers, President Romero. It’s of course always tough for the people you represent, but now it’s a pandemic, it’s fire, and it’s racism and neglect. And I want to ask you, I want to really ask you to put a human face on this – a couple of very specific examples of what has been happening to the people you represent.

TR: The people, the farmworkers, they are the people that are harvesting and doing work that probably most of us would not be able to do, Dennis. And like I said earlier, we have always known that they are essential workers, but now the federal government is recognizing them as essential. And when you talk to them and they hear that they’re essential, to them it’s laughable because they are saying we still have no protections, we still have no extra benefits. We received a donation of N95-type masks from the Port of LA because they knew the farmworkers were working in fire areas. And when you go there and see them and give them the masks, the gratitude on their faces is just unbelievable. It is something that they deserve, but when you give it to them they are so thankful. We have been working trying to – not only the masks, like I said, but we have kind donations. Our sister organization, the U.S. Dahlia Foundation, got a donation of 800,000 masks that we’re distributing right now, but these are not to protect them from the air quality in the fire area. But we also have done food distribution, meal distribution in different areas, agricultural areas, to help farmworkers. As you know, they are workers that are in many cases seasonal. They work 7-8 months a year, but they still have to survive 12 months of the year. What is saving lives is the protections that we helped get California to implement, and since 2015 when they were implemented, thank God we haven’t had any death of a farmworker in the fields because of the high temperatures.

DB: We know that in the White House and State Department, particularly in the White House, people are tested at least one or two times a day. How many times a day could a farmworker expect to get tested? Or a week or a month or a year?

TR: Oh my God! You know there are companies – and like I said, I’m going to give you the example again of this company that is a pistachio company – they have never tested the workers. And that’s why the infection got so high and workers died. We are dealing right now with one contra company, Foster Farms in Livingston, where we’ve been demanding that the workers are tested because, to date, up to 9 workers have died in that plant.

DB: Foster Farms, right? Is that what you’re talking about?

TR: Foster Farms in Livingston, California, yes. The Livingston plant is where we work with them and we have been pushing for them to do testing. And they have been pushing back and doing partial testing, but unfortunately with this virus you cannot do partial testing. We have to ensure that everybody gets tested; we have to ensure that those who are testing positive are not coming to the plant until they test negative. Actually the county — we’ve been working with the county, with the authorities and with the Attorney General, but the county finally is shutting it down, and they agreed to shut down the plant tonight so they can test all the workers. When you have one place where 8 workers have died, it’s not acceptable. We need to do more to protect the lives of workers.

DB: 8 people.

TR: And that is the plant that is being closed by the health department. What we are doing is demanding that workers are paid during the closing of the plant, ensuring that the workers are tested, and that they will not come back to work until they get the results and they are negative, and then continuing to work with the company so they can continue testing the workers every two weeks. But it is a dangerous situation when you have 8 workers that have died. We often ask how many more? How many more did you need to see to do something?

DB: What kind of medical care do the people you represent generally have? And in terms of living situations, is that problematic as well?

TR: It is problematic in the sense that many times you have in one household multi-generational families. You have the mom, the grandpa, the grandma and the children, so that can be difficult. And in many cases, they live in the camps that the growers have for the workers. In many cases you have 2 or 3 families living in one household. And the majority of the farmworkers do not have health insurance. So they have to find a way for the company to test them, or where they are not going to have to pay $100 for tests themselves, because they cannot afford it.

DB: And is there a fear of showing up positive, and maybe a tendency to hide it, because it could be used against you in a variety of ways?

TR: Oh I’m sure there is, especially in those areas where the workers are not aware, or not told, that they have by law the protection where they can take two weeks off and the employer has to pay them. What the employers are doing is firing them, so workers don’t have the information that they need, don’t have the support that they need, don’t have the representation that they need. I’m sure many of them would prefer not to say anything so they are not fired. But that is why it’s important that the employer tell all the farmworkers that work for them, if you test positive you can stay home and we will pay you for the two weeks. Which would be the 14 days that we need for the virus to leave our bodies.

DB: I want to come back to the vineyards getting special dispensation or permission to force the field workers to keep working. Why would expensive grapes, luxury grapes – we know wine is generally a luxury item – why would farmworkers be forced to work? It’s not like this is crucial medicine in terms of life and death situations. These are grapes. Why would that take precedent over the lives of farmworkers?

TR: Dennis, if I knew the answer to that! It is a special interest. They don’t want to lose money; they don’t want to — they prefer to risk the lives of the workers than to risk their profits. And there is an index that says above a certain number of the air quality, the workers should not be working without a special mask. And if it gets above a certain number, even at that point even with a mask they can’t work. But these are things that happen. Fire lasts a week, two weeks, and by the time workers realize what their rights are, the fire is already in the past. But to me it is nothing but special interests, because farmworkers are still – and I go back to what you said earlier – they are still undocumented and they prefer to accept this rather than lose their jobs. Remember, they have a family to support. If they tell them if you don’t work you are fired, they’re going to work. They are going to do everything they can to support their family.

DB: You know people sometimes like to say we’ve come a long way, but not very far when it comes to the folks who do some of the most difficult work and important work, the farmworkers. Many cannot afford to buy the food that they break their back to pick for others. And yet it seems like it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.  

There’s a presidential election coming up. Has the UFW taken a stand? I’m remembering back when – I’ll date myself – I remember very well as a young activist, when Robert Kennedy went into the fields, went in to see Cesar Chavez, went in to sort of sit with him during his fast and feel the sweat of the suffering and get some kind of understanding. What’s the word from Biden? 

TR: Joe Biden has always been in our corner. When we needed bills when he was in the Senate, he was always in support of farmworkers. He understands the important work that they do. And right now, unfortunately, we have an administration that has demonized immigrants and has made it okay to talk about people of color as if we were inferior and as if we did not belong here. And that is even a more difficult thing nowadays, because everybody says farmworkers in surveys, well, they shouldn’t be here. If they don’t like it, they can go home. That is the wrong position, but that’s what he is motivating his followers to say. Vice President Biden and Senator Harris, both of them, have been tremendous supporters of farmworkers’ rights, tremendous supporters of immigrants’ rights. And I think it is important that we know that if we want change in this country, we are going to have to make sure that we vote, our family members vote, not only in California but every State of the Union. We need to go out there and vote and have somebody there that is going to be representing us – we the people, not special interests.

DB: And of course we know that the brown vote, the Spanish-speaking vote in this country can and will make the difference.

TR: Voting is going to be crucial. But you know Dennis, it’s not just the presidential voting. We need to vote and get engaged in our local elections: county elections, city elections, state elections. It is vital – the presidential election and voting in the presidential election, especially when there is so much at stake, it is vital. But we can’t forget, we need to ensure that we get the senators there that we trust, that we know are going to represent us all, the Congress people, the Assembly members, the mayor. At every level, we need to make sure we’re engaged and we vote.

DB: Right. And so are you sure your mailbox is still out front there? Because they seem to be disappearing these days. You might want to go out there and chain it down right now.

TR: I hear you. I shouldn’t laugh because this is a very serious matter. But we know that we have a challenge on our hands. We know that the decision to remove mail boxes, the decision to remove the machines that sort the mail in the post office is a decision geared to keep people from voting. But we need to understand how important it is, and if we wear masks and we have to wear double masks or a shield or something, we need to make sure that we vote. We need to make sure that we bring our ballot to the post office early enough so we don’t wait until the last minute and people can use that as an excuse to invalidate our votes.

Dennis J Bernstein is the host of Flashpoints, on Pacifica Radio, and the author most recently of Five Oceans in a Teaspoon, recipient of the 2020 IPPY Gold Medal in Poetry.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
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