October 24, 2018
By Heather Gies
Originally posted at  In These Times

For Rosalinda Guillén, everything begins with food—and that means paying close attention to the treatment of workers at the foundation of the food system.

Members and supporters of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance march with Rosalinda Guillén (L) toward city hall in Bellingham, Washington, October 12, 2018. (Photo: Heather Gies)

Members and supporters of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance march with Rosalinda Guillén (L) toward city hall in Bellingham, Washington, October 12, 2018. (Photo: Heather Gies)

Standing recently on the steps of city hall in Bellingham, Washington, Guillén urged local lawmakers to defend the rights of undocumented farmworkers living and working in Whatcom County, home to 1,702 farms sprawled over more than 115,000 acres.

“In this city, that claims to be a liberal city, there is rampant racial profiling,” Guillen, executive director of the food and migrant justice organization Community to Community Development (C2C) based in Bellingham, said into a megaphone. She slammed a pattern of “arbitrary” detention and deportation and “clear cooperation” between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

Since early 2017, Guillen and other local activists have held weekly protests to urge city council to pass a sanctuary city ordinance to help protect undocumented residents from deportation. In August, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained at least 16 people in Bellingham—local rights groups claim the number was nearly 30—fueling calls for a sanctuary policy.

In the 88th week of C2C’s “Dignity Vigils” calling for councilors to make Bellingham a sanctuary city, more than 100 representatives of food and climate justice groups from across the United States and a handful of international activists—all gathered for the national assembly of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance—joined the protest. Local organizers in Bellingham, taking the lead from farmworkers, draw a clear connection between migrant justice and food sovereignty. For them, as long as the people working closest to food’s roots as farmworkers are mistreated, including earning wages that don’t even allow them to put meals on their own tables, there’s no way to have dignified or just food choices up the food supply chain.

“Everybody has to eat,” Antonio Tovar, interim general secretary of the Farmworker Association of Florida, said to In These Times, underlining the “paradox” that farmworkers often cannot access healthy food. “When the decision about what to eat isn’t yours, you have no way to be free.”

“Tired of exploitation”

Undocumented farmworkers in the Bellingham area have won historic labor victories in recent years. In 2013, farmworkers formed a union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, to fight for better working conditions at Sakuma Brothers Farm in Burlington, Washington. After nearly four years of walkouts and boycotts, the union secured a landmark contract guaranteeing berry harvesters a minimum hourly rate of $15. In the process, the union also won paid 10 minute breaks for piecework farmworkers through a lawsuit against Sakuma in Washington’s Supreme Court.

Benito, a founding member of Familias Unidas and part of its leadership committee, said he now earns about double the pay for the same work—10 to 12 hour days, seven days a week—as a result of union organizing. “Many work rules are changing,” he told In These Times.

The union also successfully blocked Sakuma’s application to bring farmworkers through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers visa program by collecting farmworkers’ signatures to disprove the company’s claims of labor shortages in and around Washington state, Ramón Torres, president of Familias Unidas, told In These Times. He argued that the fact that migrants with H-2A visas aren’t well informed of their rights enables employers to “enslave” workers. “The other thing is that they use [H-2A] to break our union, strikes, or movements,” Torres added.

Building on the union’s success, Torres and three other members of Familias Unidas launched a farmworker-owned cooperative last year with a vision of creating better working conditions, autonomy, and adequate access to healthy food for farmworkers.

“We have to go ask for [food] stamps. We have to go to food banks. And it’s not just,” Torres said. “A farmworker who picks watermelons in the end can’t buy the watermelon because he doesn’t earn a fair salary to afford it.”

At the Bellingham Food Bank, project coordinator Max Morange told In These Timesthat farmworkers are among the Food Bank’s clients, though the organization does not collect any demographic data. And although identification is not required and individuals can access the food bank regardless of immigration status, Morange said he has observed a correlation between “fear and uncertainty” fueled by immigration enforcement in the community and who he sees walk through the food bank doors.

The Food Bank and other local partners are looking to better support the undocumented community through outreach initiatives, while the Food Bank strives to become a “known safe place” for historically marginalized communities, Morange said.

For Torres, Familias Unidas’ worker-owned cooperative, called Tierra y Libertad, is a first step toward tackling farmworker food insecurity at the root. Protecting farmworkers from exposure to toxic pesticides by planting organic crops and keeping children studying instead of toiling in the fields at young ages are also big motivating factors, he said.

Tierra y Libertad already grows four acres of organic strawberries and 20 acres of blueberries on rented fields, and the cooperative is looking to purchase farmland to increase workers’ control over production. According to Torres, the long-term goal is to create a network of cooperatives that foster mutual support among farmworkers and show that worker-owned alternatives are possible.

“Everything we are doing is to help farmworkers,” Torres said. “We’re tired of so much exploitation.”

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