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Labor & Economy

A Season of Miracles




’Tis the season of miracles. There’s only enough oil to light the lamp for a couple of days, but it stays lit for eight. A peasant’s vision upsets a bishop, especially when the peasant returns with roses. Darkness grows until the earth shifts and the light returns. A child born in a stable turns out to be a presence of God. A festival celebrates the principles that make the miracle of human community. A star moves across the sky guiding astrologers on a quest.

These ancient tales and festivals, developed around the miracles of light and life, create the season’s themes of hope and love and peace. There are unsung miracles as well — happening in our own time that you will never read about in the papers or see on the nightly news. These stories tell about people without power claiming their strength and about the lowest-wage workers achieving victories. They are obscure, but huge.

One comes from the tobacco farms of North Carolina, where workers are imported from Mexico to harvest this crop of death. Not only is tobacco dangerous for smokers and those around them, it is life-threatening for the workers who pick it. A worker cutting tobacco all day might as well smoke 36 cigarettes every day. The pesticides used on tobacco plants poison workers right through their skin. The workers live in squalid labor camps. The drinking water is polluted. For five years the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has been fighting for these itinerant workers – and for the first time, the big manufacturers have met with worker committees and promised stockholders to remedy these conditions. A miracle.

Another one comes from the tomato fields of Florida. There the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been reminding some of the biggest brands in the country that paying just a penny more a pound for tomatoes would provide farm laborers with a decent wage. After workers took this message across the country to Trader Joe’s headquarters in Monrovia, California, this company signed an agreement to pay that extra cent penny. Then Chipotle Mexican Grill agreed. So now a bunch of big companies are on board, and farm workers who were nobodies are now somebodies.

Closer to home, tomato growers in Stockton and Firebaugh, in the San Joaquin Valley, just signed contracts with the United Farm Workers after the workers voted overwhelmingly for a union. These field workers will not only receive better wages, they will participate in a pension plan and have a grievance procedure, seniority rules and job security. These elections and a contract signed this fall by San Joaquin Tomato Growers Inc. offers 1,000 families a better life.

Another miracle coming from the fields involves a pilot project called the Equitable Food Initiative, which is a coalition of farm worker advocates, growers, consumer groups and environmentalists. Farm workers are now learning negotiating skills, conflict-resolution methods, communication tools and team-building abilities. These tools will enhance the abilities of the farm workers themselves to insure health standards, enforce contracts and solve problems in the workplace, on-site.

Fifty years ago Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta founded the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee without any money, no foundation support, no unions backing them, no newspaper headlines, no support network. Not even backing from churches. They worked among the most ignored of the working poor who lived in obscure towns far out of sight of most Americans.

Half a century later comes the tipping point. Even some low-cost fast food companies are beginning to realize that, by charging consumers just pennies more for their meals, farm workers can get a living wage. In fact, their own employees can get a living wage. So the struggle moves from the fields to the market shelves to the fast food chains and back to the fields. The circle completes itself. Who could have guessed? What we don’t expect to happen but struggle for, anyway — those are miracles.

When they started their efforts, organizers working in the fields just had hope. They followed some distant star. They had a mission and they kept focused on it. They held out for the principles that make us a human community. They saw a vision beyond what anyone else could see. They kept saying, “Si Se Puede – Yes, We Can.” And we can.


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