Farm Worker Assembly Builds Community Power In Whatcom County

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Lynden, WA – On March 22, 2014 Community to Community Development (C2C) hosted a People’s Movement Assembly (PMA) for farm worker members and farm workers organized as Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

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A PMA is a community gathering where participants develop collective political agreements and positions and make action plans in order to work together.

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The farm worker PMA took place in the basement of a church in the rural northern border community of Lynden in Whatcom County, Washington. In attendance were over 30 farm workers, packinghouse workers, and their children; industrial workers; former farm workers; and university volunteers.

The PMA was the second in a series in the region that was anchored by C2C building up to the Pacific Northwest Social Forum to be held in September 2014 in Portland, Oregon. The first PMA was a Pacific Northwest Regional PMA that brought together over 80 people from greater Cascadia (Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia) where the participants agreed to host more PMA’s in their own communities.

Staying true to C2C’s vision that young people are important in grassroots social movements, a team of Western Washington University volunteers provided an intentionally engaging on-site children’s space under the leadership of C2C Raíces Culturales program coordinator Christina Woeck. This freed farm workers to more fully engage in the process.

The Farm Worker PMA was facilitated by a team of farm worker, C2C and Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) leaders. Coordinated by Edgar Franks, C2C’s Civic Engagement director, the facilitation team created an assembly space where there was a report back of the work that C2C and FUJ had accomplished up to that gathering.

REPORT BACK

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Familias Unidas por la Justicia presented an update of their struggle for respect in the workplace. They outlined that they were addressing the denial of breaks, stolen wages, and intimidation by using work stoppages and by authorizing a boycott of the berry products sold by their employer.

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Community to Community Development leaders presented an update on the ongoing Campaign to End Racial Profiling by law enforcement agencies along the northern border which at the time included work to end a prevailing practice of prisoners subject to ICE detainers being forced to forfeit the bond money they put up if they were moved to an Immigration Detention Center.

ANALYSIS OF POLITICAL MOMENT

The report back was followed by a dialogue where participants collectively constructed a lay of the land in regards to farm worker struggles in Whatcom and Skagit Counties.

Workers from Whatcom County expressed a desire to unite with workers in Skagit County, as they were also indigenous farm workers who had come from the same regions in Mexico.

The farm workers reported that what they were most concerned about along the northern border was their daily confrontation with White Supremacy and Racism by state agencies.

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One farm worker from Lynden reported that the police stopped him twice on two days and twice again on Hannegen Road. Stop 1 – Lynden to Bellingham (he was asked for License only). Stop 2 – Bellingham to Lynden (Asked for License only). Stop 3 – Lynden to Everson (Traffic ticket for insurance, $500). Stop 4 – Everson to Lynden. He claimed that if he had only been stopped once he would not have thought the stops were racially motivated, but the overkill made him pretty sure that something was wrong.

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Other farm workers shared their experiences of being harassed in this way by local law enforcement agencies.

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This discussion led to the examination of local schools as another government agency where the families experienced discrimination based on race, ethnicity and language barriers.

Farm workers also identified company provided housing as another institution where they experienced differential treatment. They described the prevailing practice being a deposit for rudimentary cabins where many families lived year round that would become over crowded during the harvest season.

Farm workers in Lynden had mentioned that they had spoken collectively to the supervisor about their housing issues. They were encouraged by FUJ to speak directly with their employers.

Workplace Intimidation was another problem that farm workers dealt with on a daily basis. One group of workers at a Raspberry farm in Lynden identified a particular supervisor that treated workers wrongly. FUJ leaders shared that they believed that supervisors are paid better in order to place a barrier between workers and their employer.

Following a prolonged farm worker analysis and discussion of the struggles at hand, which took place primarily in the Mixteco language, but also in Spanish, the participants asked to meet again as a farm worker constituency in Lynden and again in Mount Vernon in Skagit County. The participants also agreed to engage in a direct action at the Sumas Border Patrol field station on April 5, 2014 in solidarity with a planned action at the Tacoma Detention Center and beyond.

RESOLUTIONS

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Lay of the Land:

Key Immigrant Issues: Detention Center/Field Station – Jailing Practices, bonds, Racial Profiling and Anti-Indigenous Racism; Discrimination in Schools.

Key Farmworker Issues: Farm Worker Housing, wage theft, intimidation, mistreatment, differential treatment, management, low wages, workplace injury.

Building Campesino Power:

Several leaders were identified and charged with following through on the action items. Because of the need for facilitation in Mixteco, Felimon Pineda, Vice President of Familias Unidas por la Justicia was able to step up and conduct the analysis portion of the assembly in Mixteco.

Three farm workers from Lynden and Everson were selected to follow through with action plans to address worker concerns, to demonstrate at the Sumas Field Station and to participate in C2C’s Dignity March.

DIRECT ACTIONS

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April 5 – Lynden farm worker leader Silvano led a demonstration calling for the closure of the Sumas Border Patrol Field Station.

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May 4 – Everson farm worker leader Modesto Hernandez led C2C’s Second Annual Farm Worker Dignity March from Lynden to Bellingham. Several hundred participants joined the march in heavy rain at various rally points.

May 17 – After having the prosecutor review the ruling by a federal judge in an Oregon lawsuit against detainers, the Whatcom County Sheriff Department “changed its policy on delaying the release of inmates who are suspected of having entered the country illegally” (Whatcom County Sheriff). This policy change made it more likely that bonds would be refunded upon timely release.

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May 19 – Valentin led a three-day independent farm worker strike by 20 farm workers at one of the largest Raspberry farms and processors in Lynden, Washington. The workers stopped work to address wage theft and mistreatment at the workplace. The farm workers were able to negotiate directly with their employer for back wages and reported that a supervisor who was accused of sexually harassing farm workers had been fired.

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