Fertile Common Ground

Farmworkers and growers are uniting against a common foe: price pressure.

Like anybody immersed in the farmworker movement, Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest director of United Farm Workers of America, knows the bitter history of strikes and boycotts that long characterized the relationship between farmers and employees. The UFW, the union once led by Cesar Chavez, has always exerted pressure on farmers to improve the dismal wages and working conditions of their workers. A few years back, though, Nicholson saw some research done by Washington State University that changed his thinking. It was a chart that traced the distribution of revenue in the apple industry. After retailers, packers, and transporters got their cut from each dollar spent by consumers, the amount the chart showed left for the farm was 11 cents.

"Quite frankly, it set us back," Nicholson says. "It struck us that we're fighting over the wrong question." Instead of asking why farmers won't shell out more money, "we should be looking at why we are only getting 11 cents."

So began new cooperation between worker advocates and their historic adversaries who share the harsh reality of the modern American farm economy: consolidation, international competition, and constant pressure from retailers to lower prices. While rancorous labor battles still go on and distrust has far from disappeared, farmworkers and their employers have begun to communicate in ways that would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago. "It's an elaborate dance we're doing," Nicholson says. "It's a huge culture change." Adds Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League: "I think it's relatively unprecedented."

This fledging collaboration, evident at both the local and national levels, recently showed itself in public amid the red-hot immigration debate. While conservative members of Congress have been trying to push through laws that would crack down on undocumented immigrants, farmers and worker advocates have sounded consistent messages about the need for immigrant labor in agriculture. Last fall, Gempler and Nicholson joined Gov. Christine Gregoire for a press conference to support the "AgJOBS" bill, which would legalize thousands of immigrant farmworkers. "We really have tried to stay together on this," Gempler says, despite months of heated politicking and backtracking in Congress. "That's a real strength."

Nicholson says his ultimate goal is to figure out a way to get more money back to the farm so that both workers and farmers can benefit. He has in mind "fair trade," successfully practiced in the coffee industry, whereby certain products carry a special label indicating that workers have been treated fairly. Those products would sell at a higher price, funneling more money back to farmers, who could then pay workers more. "Traditionally, we have had an organized consumer base around boycotts," Nicholson says. "One of the things we are exploring is how we can mobilize that consumer base in support of those employers" who would participate in the fair-trade model. The union also has to convince farmers and retailers to come on board.

Gempler evinces skepticism. Getting more money into the system is a very difficult thing to accomplish, he says. Tom Schotzko, a retired Washington State University economist who specializes in farming and has worked with the union on fair trade, says that complications exist in the distribution system. Brokers and warehouses would have to change their operations to track fair-trade products.

Still, a few years ago, under the leadership of then–regional director Lupe Gamboa, the UFW and several partners brought enough people on board to formulate a pilot project in the state's apple industry. The project relied on a grower named Pedro Garza, a Mexican American who came to Washington as a migrant farmworker with his parents in the late 1940s. Leaving farmwork for a time to work in construction, he eventually earned enough money to buy an apple orchard and packing plant in the town of Moxee, near Yakima. Garza is the kind of small- to medium-sized grower who is most vulnerable to economic pressure and, in the union's eyes, a prime candidate to be interested in the benefits of fair trade. He also expresses a desire to put more money in "workers' pockets."

Days away from rolling out the project, however, problems turned up with his crop of apples, which he says were stressed from a season of drought. Organizers pulled the plug on the project. "It was really a crushing blow," recalls Chuck Barrett, a grant writer at the time for LUPE, a nonprofit arm of the UFW.

While the union is working on a way to resurrect the project, it has become involved in another cooperative venture. Along with a number of agricultural employers and the Farmworker Institute for Education & Leadership Development (FIELD), a California-based nonprofit affiliated with the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, the UFW has formed a group called the Northwest Agricultural Consortium. Launched first in Oregon and now moving into Washington, the consortium held a May symposium in Salem, Ore., to introduce research on a new model of farm labor that could benefit both workers and farmers. The idea is to establish what Kevin Boyle, Northwest director for FIELD, calls a "career ladder" on the farm. Most people think of farm labor as unskilled, but in fact it is not, according to Boyle and others. In a vineyard, for instance, each variety of grape can require different ways of pruning and trellising. One or two steps up the career ladder, workers are needed who can operate tractors and other equipment.

The consortium is proposing training programs that would increase worker skills and, hopefully, boost productivity and minimize the need for supervision. In return for this added value, workers would command higher wages and year-round, rather than seasonal, employment.

"There's a new view about how to unionize farmwork," says Boyle. He envisions a hiring hall, similar to those run by plumbers and electricians unions, which would be a source of trained, certified, and reasonably paid farmworkers.

One influential subscriber to this dream is Jim McMullen, president and CEO of Tillamook County Creamery Association, the Oregon dairy cooperative and cheese maker. McMullen says he joined the consortium after watching protracted labor battles at Threemile Canyon Farms, an Oregon dairy that is one of Tillamook's suppliers. Searching for another way, he flew to California to meet with FIELD staff who train workers for the rose producer Jackson & Perkins. "What we saw is the overall efficiency," McMullen said. He likes the idea of a ready-made supply of skilled workers—perhaps ones who have taken English classes and had their immigration status verified by a central agency such as FIELD. At the same time, McMullen says, "we're hoping we can improve the workers' benefits, hourly wage, and length of employment."

The consortium's next step is to put together a pilot project.

McMullen admits that other employers are less eager about the notion. "They think I'm crazy," he says, laughing. He thinks in time they will see the advantages.

"This is not a comprehensive lovefest," says the UFW's Nicholson. "Ultimately, we don't have a choice." If farmers and workers don't figure out how to work together, he says, "we'll all go down together."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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