MERCED, Calif. — An eclectic group of researchers, advocates and labor leaders assembled in Merced recently to identify and discuss key problems affecting rural populations throughout the state.
Hosted by the nonprofit California Institute for Rural Studies and held at the University of California, Merced, the second annual Rural Justice Summit addressed both historic and modern-day threats to food, land and social justice within the agricultural industry.
“For many people, they don’t have a place at the table. They don’t feel like they have a voice,” said Gail Myers, executive director of Farms to Grow, an Oakland-based nonprofit working to build a network of support for black and underserved sustainable farmers around the country.
“We do need a shift of power and values,” she said.
Myers’ comments came during a morning panel focusing on lessons gleaned from the historical practices of small, independent farmers across the Americas. During the discussion, she suggested land-granted research universities such as the UC take a more holistic approach towards local communities.
Her idea was echoed by Antonio Ramon-Alcala, researcher and organizer with the Urban Permaculture Institute in the Bay Area, who pointed out that while UC agricultural land is often used for groundbreaking research much of the work ends in patents for biotechnology companies.
Rather than profiting the private sector, Ramon-Alcala suggested UC campuses partner more with local communities and independent farmers.
“We need to make greater and greater demands of public institutions rather than just be appeased by them,” he said. “We need a frame of power that looks at the issue from the bottom up.”
Empowering agricultural communities is a vital step in addressing rural justice, and additional speakers at the March 22 event highlighted the ways in which labor practices can improve to protect the industry’s most vulnerable populations.
“Although California, on the books, has some relatively generous labor laws, they’re not always enforced,” said Sarah Horton, associate professor at the University of Colorado and author of several books on farm labor.
“If we have an administration that can basically allow businesses and supervisors to wield the threat of deportation over labor workers heads, we’re going to see a change in organizing,” she continued.
Lupe Martinez, associate director for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, agreed and said the current movement feels very similar to the civil rights work of the 1960s when Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union organized Filipino and Latino farm laborers across the state in protest of humane working conditions.
“I know what my family went through and when there is a need, you move [to organize],” he said. “Right now there is a need.”
Multiple speakers also identified the current presidential administration as a serious threat to undocumented laborers in California, saying communities need to organize once again and rally around legislation to help protect rural communities.
“We are once again at a pivotal moment. Things are becoming painted as clear cut moral issue and that’s something that the [UFW] movement, at its height, was able to do,” said Miriam Pawel, author of “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez.”
“You were in favor of the conditions [in the fields] or you were against them. It was a moral choice,” she continued.
Pawel said several key issues from the past are likely to remain hurdles for today’s efforts, despite the momentum building behind advocacy work for undocumented workers within the industry.
“Fundamentally, there’s not enough on-the-ground organizing going on,” she said. “We’re not that far ahead of where we were years and years ago.”
Martinez agreed and said the only way to create real change is to once again dedicate resources for on-the-ground work. To do that though, organizers need to make sure the policies they advocate for are tangible for workers.
To do that, advocates say the power structure of the industry needs to shift in favor of employees. Declining funding for labor enforcement has resulted in a lack of regulation, and advocates estimate that California has about 1 inspector for every 90,000 workers in the agricultural industry, Horton said.
“There’s a sense of entitlement among employers who think that cheap immigrant labor is a subsidy that they are entitled to,” she said.
Union organizer Veronica Diaz agreed and said she is skeptical of food industry employers who have suggested there is a labor shortage in the state.
“I wonder if they mean there is a shortage of workers willing to do things cheaply,” she said.
Many migrant workers would rather stay in Mexico than risk traveling up North, a trend that companies are taking notice of as it hits their bottom line, she said. While organizing laborers around policy work is important, Diaz said the industry approach will ultimately be more telling.
“We need to be skeptical of a program that does not include a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency [for laborers],” she said.
Overall, Diaz said “sweeping policy change” is the only real catalyst for change within the industry, a feat that advocates, unions and laborers will all need to work together on in the days ahead.
“Up and down the Valley there are lots of groups that help with basic necessities and protections for vulnerable populations, so as unions, it’s incumbent upon us to seek out these partners in the community and include them in our organizing,” she said.