Celebrating Farmworkers

As we gather around tables of thanksgiving, United Methodist Women celebrates National Farm Worker Ministry’s 50th anniversary and honors the struggles and victories of farmworkers.

Celebrating Farmworkers
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers held a Parade and Concert For Fair Food in St Petersburg, FL, March 2015.

Carla is a mother of three and a farmworker who picks Driscoll berries in Yakima Valley, Washington. She is a member of Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), a farmworker organization allied with National Farm Worker Ministry. Both she and her husband work every day in the berry fields while their children are in school. When COVID-19 hit Washington state in 2020, farmworkers were hit hard. They were considered “essential workers” who continued to travel in crowded transport to work fields without adequate personal protection equipment. The workers are not paid for sick days, and most do not have health insurance. They were forced to choose between their health and their jobs.

Schools closed and Carla did not have child care. She had to quit her job to stay home with the children so that her husband could continue to work. That cut their income in half. Carla shared with National Farm Worker board members that she is among the lucky ones because she speaks English and can help her children with schoolwork. She noted that many of her friends and colleagues do not speak English and do not have the capacity, time or internet to help their children with remote schooling. Some workers in the community contracted COVID-19, putting all of them at risk.

Familias Unidas, a farmworker-led group that led a successful organizing effort for a union contract with Driscoll’s, has supported Carla and her co-workers in insisting on adequate protective gear and safe conditions for their work during the crisis. This is part of their ongoing efforts to organize for better wages and workplace conditions.

National Farm Worker Ministry collaborates with Familias Unidas and other farmworker organizations across the country to mobilize people of faith to support the leadership of farmworkers themselves, those directly affected by some of the harshest labor conditions in the United States. In 2021, NFWM celebrates its 50th anniversary! United Methodist Women has been an active member for most of that history.

If You Ate Today, Thank a Farmworker

“It is the great paradox of our food system that the very people who work to feed the U.S. struggle to feed their own families,” states NFWM on its website. Most of the nation’s farmworkers lack basic labor protections such as workers’ compensation, health insurance and disability insurance. They earn between $17,500 and $19,999 annually on average, with one-third of farmworkers reporting family incomes below the poverty line.

In the 1930s when the majority of farmworkers in the South were Black, a deal was cut to get key New Deal legislation passed by excluding labor sectors that were majority Black—farmworkers, domestic workers and tipped wage workers. Farmworkers were and continue to be excluded from the National Labor Relations Act NLRA of 1935, which forbids employers from firing a worker for joining, organizing or supporting a labor union. Today they lack protection for joining unions and engaging in collective bargaining. They were also excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 until 1966. That law guarantees workers certain labor protections to ensure decent working conditions—rights like guaranteed minimum wage and overtime pay. Today the right to overtime pay does not apply for farmworkers on farms that employ fewer than (roughly) seven workers in a calendar quarter.

Current Engagement

United Methodist Women concerns about Living Wages for All, Climate Justice, Racial Justice, and immigrant rights are all concerns addressed by the National Farm Worker Ministry.

Racial Justice and Policing

In September 2020, Nicholas Morales, a single father, Immokalee farmworker and a longtime part of the Coalition of Immokalee Worker family, was shot to death by a Collier County Florida Sheriff’s deputy. The officer claimed fear for his life because Morales was carrying a shovel considered an unidentified “sharp object,” and was “advancing” toward the police officers. The case echoes others where lethal force has been used by police against Black and Brown people.

In July 2020 NFWM reaffirmed its commitment to racial justice in a statement supporting Black Lives Matter, which United Methodist Women affirmed, stating, “We join in the call to justice with and for the communities who are subject to government-sanctioned violence, intimidation and economic exploitation … NFWM remains committed to ending violent and exploitative economic systems that especially target communities of color. Farmworkers long have suffered racially based economic exploitation along with physical, emotional and spiritual harm. Today, the multibillion-dollar agribusiness system depends on 2 to 2 ½ million farm workers—mostly Latinx, Black and Indigenous people—who produce our food.”

Immigrant Rights

Many farmworkers in the United States are undocumented, facing not only harsh working conditions but the fear of immigration enforcement including family separation, ICE raids, detentions and deportation.

NFWM champions the legislative concerns of farmworker organizations, including advocating for legislation that would create a “blue card” providing a path to citizenship for some farmworkers as well as other immigrant rights legislation.

Climate Justice

For a Latina immigrant farmworker affected by heat stress, all of our concerns about climate, migrant rights, antiracism, economic justice and the needs of women, youth and children come together. When Asuncion Valdivia died in 2004 after working 10 straight hours in 105-degree heat, it garnered immediate attention, but nothing changed. Overall, farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat stress than workers in other occupations. In 2019, through the influence of the United Farm Workers Union and Farmworker Justice, a bill was introduced in Congress to create a national heat stress standard across the country. NFWM and United Methodist Women join Public Citizen in campaigning for this bill to set national standards.

Beyond this legislation to set heat standards for farmworkers, United Methodist Women members are working through the Just Energy for All campaign to address the urgency of reducing carbon emissions in our homes, communities and nations to stop the devastating trajectory of climate change.

NFWM’s Harvest of Justice 2020 focused on the rise in temperatures and how that pushes people to migrate, increases the intensity and occurrence of storms, requires more application of pesticides and means that people must labor in intense heat. It is farmworker bodies that, literally, bear the burden.

Especially as we gather to share meals this Thanksgiving season, United Methodist Women members are encouraged to use these program resources (seven video and print segments) in local unit programs to learn about these concerns. NFWM also offers an interactive high school curriculum that you might use to plan a virtual intergenerational dialogue with your unit and with youth from your church about how climate change impacts farmworkers and all of us. Visit nfwm.org for resources.

Celebrating 50 years of advocacy and victories

In the early days of farmworker organizing, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and farmworkers in the Central Valley of California sought support in their campaigns and boycotts. The United Methodist Church endorsed both grape and lettuce boycotts, which led to the formation and establishment of the United Farm Workers Union.

As part of the General Board of Global Ministries and Church Women United, the then Women’s Division was an active member in farmworker organizing. They encouraged the National Council of Churches to engage in farmworker advocacy through migrant ministries, leading to the creation of the NFWM as a separate organization in 1971. Over the years, NFWM has accompanied farmworkers by mobilizing the faith community to bring their moral authority and power of the purse.

Women’s Division staff Chiquita Smith, Kolya Braun-Greiner, Julie Taylor, Kathleen Stone and Carol Barton have served on the NFWM board, and Braun-Greiner served as president. Julie Taylor is currently its executive director.

Throughout this rich history, United Methodist Women members have educated and mobilized to support the call by farmworkers to put pressure on growers, buyers and elected officials. The tool of boycotting has been a very effective one for farmworker organizations. For United Methodist Women, the decision to boycott is authorized only by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, but because of our church’s relationship with NFWM, agencies have brought numerous resolutions to General Conference calling on United Methodists to boycott and mobilize on behalf of farmworker struggles.

Some of the ways that United Methodist Women members have engaged and helped create victories for farmworkers over the years include the lettuce and grape boycotts to support the United Farm Workers (Cesar Chavez even came to Women’s Division offices in New York to encourage support for the renewed lettuce boycott), a Campbell’s Soup boycott to support the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in its efforts to gain rights for tomato pickers, support for striking Immokalee farmworkers seeking fair wages, a Taco Bell boycott to support the Coalition of Immokalee workers in pressuring grocery stores and fast-food companies to sign Fair Food Agreements with Florida tomato pickers, and support for the FLOC-led five-year Mt. Olive Pickle boycott in North Carolina. The successful outcome in 2004 led to the first union representation and contract in U.S. history for some 8,000 Mexican guest workers.

As part of the Living Wage for All Campaign, United Methodist Women supported National Farm Worker Ministry’s endorsement of the Sakuma Bros./Driscoll’s Berries union organizing campaign from 2015-2018, which resulted in a union contract for Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Members’ Wendy’s postcard campaign in 2018 called on Wendy’s to sign a Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for dignity, wage increase and freedom from sexual harassment in the fields. Over 5,000 postcards were delivered to Wendy’s headquarters in Dublin, Ohio. And members engaged in the 2019 and 2020 NFWM Harvest of Justice study and advocacy campaigns, addressing violence against farmworker women (2019) and farmworkers and the environment (2020). Members generous Mission Giving has also supported grants for NFWM.

United Methodist Women celebrates this 50-year partnership with NFWM and with farmworker organizations across the country, knowing their great work will continue to advance worker rights for years to come.

Carol Barton is executive for community action for United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 11/23/2020 12:00:00 AM