Friday, November 11, 2005

Organizing Immigrant Workers: Two Steps Forward, One Back

Despite their mistreatment, organizing immigrant workers is not easy. They often have had bad experiences with government-run unions in their native countries, and they often just want to make money -- even under terrible conditions -- without risking getting fired or turned over to the Migra. But progress is being made, even in the anti-union South.

Last year, after a five-year fight with the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the Farm Labor Organizing committee reached an agreement with Mt. Olive and the North Carolina Growers Association (NDGA):
Mario Elias Gervacio doesn’t work on an assembly line or hold a government job. He’s not even a U.S. citizen.

Each spring for the past five years, Gervacio has left his town of Senguio, Michoacán, Mexico, and come north to plant and pull tobacco on a Guilford County farm for almost six months. He rose from simple farmhand to crew leader.

This year, he had an added duty: union treasurer.

For the first time, the welfare of Gervacio and 4,100 fellow “guest” migrant workers is under the auspices of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Gervacio and his brethren are card-carrying union men working in the depths of anti-union America.

While they are here, FLOC’s mission is to ensure that the temporary migrant workers are treated fairly, receive adequate quarters and get appropriate medical care.

For Gervacio, the union is an advocate, a watch dog. At a union meeting this past June, he told a story of being grabbed a few years ago by a man who questioned his immigration status when he was out doing errands.
The union has arranged to recruit "guest" workers in Mexico who can then join the union and work legally in the US.

And with only four inspectors to inspect North Carolina's 1,002 farms, the union plays an important role mediating health & safety and other workplace issues that the state inspectors can't get to.

Of course, the old problems don't disappear:
Even the legal temporary jobs are drying up. Fewer guest workers are getting called up to North Carolina because farmers are growing fewer acres of tobacco.

And some farmers are falling back on illegal immigrants, who they can pay less than the guest workers’ wage of $8.24 an hour.

That means Gervacio, who has worked for Gibsonville farmer Robert Lewis for five years, has little chance of securing his long-term dream. But he says giving up a portion of his wage makes sense for other reasons.

While his living conditions exceed most workers — he and the 10 other men in his crew have washing machines, satellite television and access to a van for errands — he supports the union’s pledge to lobby for social security in Mexico and life insurance from farmers, among other issues.