Monday, November 22, 2010

Immokalee: A Grassroots Journey to a Penny a Pound and a Victory of the Meek

“The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has just proven that when you get up every day to fight for what is right, when you don’t give up even when all the odds are against you, when you don’t compromise on basic principles of fairness, and when you build a strong grassroots movement, economic justice will prevail over greed, and the least fortunate can successfully stand up to the powerful."   Sen. Bernie Sanders, 11/17/10 

In March, 2009, I came across an incredible story of modern-day slavery and worker abuse in the tomato fields of Florida, one I couldn't believe I hadn't known about until then.  I wrote a piece called, "Harsh Realities in a Country gone Mad with Greed":
This is one of those stories that will seem so unbelievable, so beyond the pale, so, well, un-American, you might be tempted to either disregard it completely or cast it in a fictional light in order to escape the obvious conclusion: There are horrors perpetrated on human beings in this country that rival those in the worst of the worst of any third-world country.

Everything that happens in this story happens because the ones with the power could not, would not, control their greed. Everything that happened to these people happened because there was nobody looking out for them. The perpetrators knew they were living in an era where laborers were a dime a dozen. If one died off, there were plenty more where they came from.
This is the story of the cruel exploitation of produce pickers, but it didn't happen in the 1930s of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath", or in the 1950s-60s of the "Harvest of Shame" , or before Cesar Chavez began to organize migrant farm workers. It happened--and is happening--right here, right now, under our watch, in the 21st Century. (Read the rest here.)
I promised at the time that I would keep the story going, that I would report on the progress, that I wouldn't forget it or ignore it--but, aside from a few links and retweets, I did just that.

I don't pretend that anything I might have passed along would have made a difference, given the paltry number of readers I welcome regularly to my blog, but thankfully there were advocates with real power who backed the workers, who strong-armed the packing companies, who threatened and carried out boycotts of the chains buying tomatoes from those companies.  And finally, last week, after  a struggle lasting more than 15 years, their efforts have begun to pay off. 
From The NationAt a news conference on a farm outside of Immokalee in southwest Florida, Jon Esformes, operating partner of the fourth-generation, family-owned Pacific Tomato Growers—one of the five largest growers in the nation with more than 14,000 acres in the US and Mexico—declared, “In a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
And with that he announced an agreement with the 4000-member Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to implement a penny per pound pay raise—which stands to increase workers’ annual earnings from about $10,000 to as much as $17,000—and establish a code of conduct that includes an external complaint resolution system, shade and protective equipment in the fields, and a worker-to-worker education process on their rights under the new agreement.
A penny a pound.  It may not sound like much, and--let's face it--it isn't, but this was a company who joined the discussion kicking and screaming and came out at least pretending to recognize the folly of their former ways.  The penny-a-pound concession is what they were after, but it takes a back seat to the fact that tomato pickers deserved to be treated like human beings and they didn't stop fighting for that very simple right until they had won it.

 It didn't hurt that four Democratic senators from the north, Ted Kennedy, Bernie Sanders, Dick Durbin, and Sherrod Brown, became advocates for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, holding a Senate hearing about the abuses in April, 2008, and, at least in Sanders' case, following up and keeping sunshine on the story until the first baby steps were taken last week, when Pacific Tomato Growers, shunned by every fast-food chain in the land and many major supermarkets, finally hollered Uncle.

In January, 2008, Sen. Sanders went to Immokalee to see the conditions there for himself: 
In talking with workers who go out into the fields I learned that they make approximately 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. This wage has not increased since 1998; and in fact, farm worker wages have dropped 65 percent in the last 30 years, after adjusting for inflation. I also learned that while it is possible under optimum conditions to make as much as $10-$12 an hour, the average hourly wage is far lower than that. In fact, most workers in the tomato fields earn about $250 a week in income. Why are wages so low?
I also learned that there is no overtime when workers work more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. There are no benefits. Health care is a serious problem especially for people who do hard, physical work as they do in the tomato fields, yet employers offer no health insurance. The housing that I saw was deplorable and extremely expensive. It was not uncommon for eight or 10 workers to be paying $500 a month to live in a trailer which, in the city where I was mayor, would never have passed a safety inspection.
"Is it really going to take an act of Congress to get Florida's tomato pickers a raise?" an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times asked. "The men and women who work the fields in Immokalee earn 45 cents on average for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes harvested. It is a meager wage that has not been raised in more than 20 years. Yet when a couple of fast food giants generously agreed to pay workers an added penny per pound, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange sabotaged the deal and has refused to negotiate even after congressional leaders offered to be intermediaries."
 So last week, more than two and a half years after the senate hearing, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, 4000 strong, won for their people a meager pay hike and a promise of better working conditions.   Still, they see this small victory not so much by what they gained but by how they gained it.  They showed the people willing to work on their behalf that they were worth the effort by being smart about their protests.  They came out of the shadows to shine a light on what a human being working under those conditions was forced to endure.  Many of them couldn't speak or understand a word of English, but a necessary dialogue took place and the people with the power to help understood the need and went to work.

It won't go without notice, by me, anyway, that Sen. Bernie Sanders stopped what he was doing, went down to Florida to take a look, and didn't give up until the thing was done. (I'm not surprised that Ted Kennedy worked hard to get this thing done either, even as his final illness was taking its toll.) 

To his credit, Florida governor Charlie Crist, after initially refusing, finally met with the CIW in March, 2009 and publicly condemned the actions of the growers.

 Still, it took until now, after a dozen years of food chain and supermarket boycotts, after a senate hearing on field worker abuses, after scores of TV, newspaper and magazines exposes, and more than a year and a half after Gov. Crist signed his letter of farm labor support, before the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange finally knuckled under and agreed to a penny a pound increase and a promise of a stab at fair play.

One final note:  It's apparently not over till it's over.  Publix Supermarkets still refuses to agree to the Fair Food Principals, so the CIW and certain Florida churches are collecting pennies in penny folders to hand out to Publix managers as a reminder.  It's their Thanksgiving message:  "Farm Workers in the fields are Family, too". (More reading here.)

Have a loving and bountiful Thanksgiving.  Enjoy your long weekend.  But there is no end to the turkeys out there, so I'll see you on the front lines again next week.

(Remember the CIW and farm laborers everywhere by buying Fair Trade.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

It's Our Fault There are no Jobs. Or at least it's not Their Fault.

 Former congressman Ernest Istook, The Heritage Foundation's latest hit man, played Hardball with Michael Smerconish tonight,  taking his turn at spinning the usual GOP yarns on the state of the economy and weaving from them some damned fine solutions for stimulation and job creation.

Ernie says that cutting off unemployment benefits is the right thing to do, before people become dependent on getting gov'mint handouts, and besides that, we just can't keep doing this forever.  And if there aren't jobs out there right now, there could be.  Dammit.

Ernie says giving tax breaks to everyone--including that one or two percent who own it all already--is the right thing to do because that's the way you get the economy rolling.  (This economy, the Obama economy, that is, and not that economy, the Bush economy.  You fool.)

Ernie says there are two trillion dollars just sitting there waiting to be paid to willing and able workers if only the gov'mint would stop scaring those potential employers by threatening higher taxes and re-regulating the deregulations.

Ernie says nobody's gonna hire under those circumstances.  And Ernie ought to know because Ernie used to be in congress and now he's a "Distinguished Fellow" at the Heritage Foundation.  Add to that the fact that Ernie is a Republican and you can take those words to the bank. (But don't expect to get anything back for them.  The banks aren't giving out money.  They're scared, too, poor 'lil guys.)

Trillions of dollars for millions of jobs are out there, available, Ernie says, but small business employers are afraid to hire for fear it might cost them too much and they might run afoul of a couple of dozen obscure regulations and then really bad things might happen.  So they're sitting on their businesses, not wanting to expand, not willing to spend a dime to make a dollar because. . .

because. . .

they're afraid this current government might possibly come up with some pro-socialist, anti-business funny business.

Well, hogwash, poppycock, and besides that, bullshit.  Those people don't even make good liars. (Poor Rep. Gregory Meeks tried so hard to refute.  I salute the refute, honestly I do, but he might as well have saved his breath.  Lalalalalalala.  They can't HEAR you!)

Ryan Chittum looked at the coverage of the unemployment benefits extension over at Columbia Journalism Review today, using real facts and real figures.  It's just one of a dozen dozen responsible refutations of the Istook and Friends idiocy above, but they might as well be ant hills on a mountain for all the attention they get.

It's a crazy world out there.  I guess you heard the Republicans won the House. . .


Monday, November 15, 2010

Get out there and BUY your job. What is WRONG with you people?

Yes, the mid-term elections are over and the crying jags have pretty much stopped, so, while I'm  shocked at the damage comfort chocolate has done to some people's butts. . .

. . . I have just one thing to say about the overall impact of the glorious orgy of wastage known as the 21st Century American Campaign for Public Office So's I can Live off the Public Dole Whilst Killing it for Everyone Else:   Humph!!! (and also "We'll just see about that, lads and lassies!")

In a country where the U.S. total debt is nearing 55 gazillion dollars, where the interest alone is over 3 bajillion, where the official number of unemployed citizens is almost 15 million but the actual number is 26 million, where we owe so much money to China they could conquer us simply by calling in their debt. . .in that country, our country ('tis of thee), the politicians--those bloody buggering bastards--spent 4.2 billion dollars on campaign advertising in order to secure for themselves not just any jobs but--get this--government jobs.

So when we kept calling for jobs, jobs, jobs we apparently didn't make it clear that we were talking about ours, not theirs.  For months now, we've been concentrating on getting the votes out for people who needed a job so badly they spent more than most of us will earn in five lifetimes in order to get it.

Is it asking too much, then, to expect that they'll come up with some meaningful ways of building a job market in the Greatest Country in the World so that the people who voted for them can get in on the American Dream?

Money doesn't buy votes, it provides a glittery gift box for perceptions.  Real people still have to get out there and cast their ballots and it's those same real people who suffer and bleed when their own government turns against them at a time when they need them most.  What those 30 megakillion pieces of silver bought this time is the perception that real people aren't suffering and bleeding.  Not worthy people, anyway.

This election was baffling in that one faction, the anti-government Republican Tea Party, ran on a platform of aggressively disinterested blind-eye and won.  They convinced millions of the most vulnerable among us that even though they'll be taking paychecks from the government and accepting all the perks that government will allow, and sitting in the halls of government deciding and voting on how best to stop the government from doing anything--it's what the American people want, by God, because they said so.  (And how did they say so?  By voting the anti-governments in, of course.)

So it's all about the job but not all about the jobs and once again we're on our own, getting ready to shout from a mountaintop into the wind, hoping a few tiny word-wisps will escape the updrafts and waft down to earth, finding purchase on a mighty magic rock capable of transforming those syllables into actions that might actually mean something.

But in case that doesn't happen, there's always this: 

(I was hoping you weren't going to read this far.  I got nothing.)


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Michael Moore and Lawrence O'Donnell: Man, those Republicans! They get it!

Oooh, that hurts. The two Democrats who still admit they're Democrats sittin' and jawin' about how Obama got it wrong and the Republicans got it right. 

Okay, we know the message the Republicans have honed to perfection is this:  Cut the budget and the taxes and keep Big Money happy and the government will fall and life will be good.  It's a downright nutty message, considering the state of our economy and the pain that's been inflicted on the working class by the people who keep spreading it, but they get away with it because while we, the lousy, lonely hoi polloi, keep complaining about their cheating and their lying and their back-stabbing, Obama and the Dems in congress keep stroking them and feeding them in hopes that they'll lie down and sleep awhile. 

They're animals, for chrissake.  They're not going to do it!

Moore:  "This is what I love about Republicans.  I honestly secretly  really admire them because, man, they have guts.  They come in with both guns blazing; they take no prisoners. . . There's 420 bills that the house has already passed that the senate could pass right now because we have enough votes to do that.  Yet they won't do it, I know they won't do it.  Even the simple child nutrition bill. They won't do it.  but I'll tell you what--if this was--the shoe was on the other foot--if this was the Republicans in a lame duck session, dammit, they'd be passing as much as they could because that's how they are.  Because they believe in something.  And that's why Americans love the Republicans.  Because they just believe in something."

O'Donnell: "And their guts come from a very simple minded position:  cut taxes.  Which is their answer to everything, including job creation.  I've asked Republicans, 'tell me how you would create jobs'.  The answer is the same every time:  'I would extend the low tax brackets we currently have for everyone, especially and including the top tax brackets, because low tax brackets miraculously create jobs'.  Though there is no evidence for that."

Moore:  "There is absolutely no impirical evidence to support that position. . ."

O'Donnell:  "But who cares?  The Republicans hang in there."

In that video clip Michael Moore talked about a new website that lists Obama's achievements in a really clever way.  I forgot to go to the website that night, but this morning I had an email from that very bunch.  I've been getting a lot of emails with achievement lists lately, but this one is fun.  (There are two versions, one using WTF and one using WTH.  So you just know, don't you, that I'm going to use the "heck" version.  But when you get there you can switch to the WTF version. It's exactly the same, but one is for me and one is for you.):

But we still haven't answered the question of how we light a fire under Obama and the Dems in congress.  They're feeling dismal after the mid-terms when they should be feeling stupid.  It's not like we haven't been trying to tell them.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Give 'em Hell Harry's Mad Miracle

For most of the 1948 campaign season, the only person who believed Harry Truman could win an elected term was Harry himself.  The politicians, the punditry, if not the entire country, thought poor Harry--who was not now and never would be FDR--was laughably unelectable. Not a chance in hell.

William Manchester recounts in his superb book, "The Glory and the Dream, a Narrative History of America, 1932-1972", in a chapter called "A little touch of Harry in the night", how little faith anyone had in the failed haberdasher saddled with no evident charisma, a high nasal voice, and a deadly, read-it-right-off-the-page speaking style:

It was going to be so easy.  "Truman is a gone goose", said Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, the lovely blond lawmaker from Connecticut, and although Democrats flinched, no one contradicted her.  Since the Republican sweep of the off-year elections in November, 1946, every public opinion poll, every survey of political experts had spoken with one voice:  If Harry Truman ran for the presidency, he would be doomed.  Gallup reported that between October 1947 and March 1948 the percentage of Americans who thought the President was dong a good job had dropped sharply--to 36 percent--and that if he ran then we would lose to Dewey, Stassen, MacArthur or Vandenberg.

"If Truman is nominated," Joseph and Stewart Alsop told their readers, "he will be forced to wage the loneliest campaign in recent history."  Even he had misgivings. . .he asked Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall to tell the general that if Ike would run for President on the Democratic ticket, Truman would be proud to be his running mate.  Eisenhower asked Royall to convey his heartfelt gratitude to the President, but with it his regrets.  Possibly he thought that with Truman as his vice-presidential nominee he would lose."

Almost immediately after Truman announced he was going to run, on March 9, 1948, most of the party's leaders demanded that he withdraw.

The Bronx boss, Ed Flynn, refused to appear on the same platform with him and he literally had to be strong-armed into his seat. People who should have been by his side snubbed him.

The Southern delegation made plans to break away from the party and support their own candidate, Strom Thurmond.  It threatened to be a four-party race, with two of them Democrats. (The Progressive Party was the fourth.)

A planned meeting of wealthy Democrats--potential supporters--had to be cancelled when only three of them agreed to show up.

When Truman's name was mentioned at a Los Angeles rally the speaker was booed.

Some of the big names, including Elliott Roosevelt, Claude Pepper, Walter Reuther and Hubert Humphrey came up with an "extraordinary idea".  Why not draft General Eisenhower instead?  (That idea went up the chain without anybody apparently knowing that Ike was a conservative Republican.)  They went so far as to insult Truman further by sending him a telegram asking him to be chairman of the Draft Eisenhower Committee.  (The Dem leaders had high hopes for Ike right up until the day before the convention, when he finally announced that he "would refuse to accept the nomination under any conditions, terms, or premises.")

So they were left with Truman.  The Republicans and the press were having a field day, but what nobody knew was that Truman's aides had finally convinced him that he had to play the underdog and go on the attack.  Truman hated PR and gimmicks and anything else that smacked of phony posturing, but he knew how to get mad.  According to Manchester, the brilliance of his campaign from then on was that Truman was throwing out his canned speeches--he never could read them without sounding wooden and insincere--and replacing them with plain Missouri talk.

After a couple of successful off-the-cuff speeches to small groups, his aides started thinking big.  Someone came up with idea of taking the Presidential train across country to go stumping.  Truman dipped into his $30,000 travel allowance--clearly unethical in any sense of the word but ignored by the Republicans, who saw it as a quaint trip to nowhere--and used it to campaign in as many whistle-stops as he could manage in two weeks. By the time he got back to Washington he had covered 9,500 miles and had delivered 73 speeches in 16 states.  He followed Clark Clifford's advice:  "Be controversial as hell."  He got the crowds riled and he liked what he saw.  They were with him.  "Give 'em hell, Harry!" got its start on that trip when someone in the crowd shouted it out, and he was wily enough to keep it going.

The Washington press corp, following him, had to admit "the President had almost made [us] forget that he didn't have a chance."

But it was back to humiliation again in Washington when he found his own party still working feverishly to find someone to take his place.  Almost to the last  minute he couldn't find anyone to run with him as vice president, until finally Alben Barkley said he would do it.

So on July 14, the night of the Convention, Truman found himself in a small, dank room under the platform with a balcony overlooking an alley, trains shaking the walls as they thundered by.  He waited there for more than four hours, as the nominating speeches and voting went on above him.  It was nearly 2 AM before he was finally allowed to give his acceptance speech.

I can only guess that spending four hours nearly alone in that empty, smelly, noisy room made him mad.  When Alben Barkley was nominated by acclamation but he, Truman, had to share the votes with others, that must have made him mad.  That nobody in that hall thought he had a chance in hell to win must have made him mad.  Whatever the reasons, Harry Truman gave the speech of his political life and got those people up on their feet.  In the middle of the night, when it was over, Convention Hall rocked with the sounds of a standing ovation.
This, in part, is what he said:
I accept the nomination. And I want to thank this convention for its unanimous nomination of my good friend and colleague, Senator Barkley of Kentucky. He's a great man, and a great public servant. Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it -- don't you forget that. We'll do that because they are wrong and we are right, and I'll prove it to you in just a few minutes.
This convention met to express the will and reaffirm the beliefs of the Democratic Party. There have been differences of opinion, and that's the democratic way. Those differences have been settled by a majority vote, as they should be. Now it's time for us to get together and beat the common enemy -- and that's up to you.
Confidence and security have been brought to the American people by the Democratic Party. Farm income has increased from less than 2 1/2 billion dollars in 1933 to more than 18 billion dollars in 1947. Never in the world were the farmers of any republic or any kingdom or any other country as prosperous as the farmers of the United States; and if they don't do their duty by the Democratic Party, they're the most ungrateful people in the world. Wages and salaries in this country have increased from 29 billion dollars in 1933 to more than 128 billion dollars in 1947. That's labor, and labor never had but one friend in politics, and that was the Democratic Party and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And I'll say to labor just what I have said to the farmers; they are the most ungrateful people in the world if they pass the Democratic Party by this year. The total national income has increased from less than 40 billion dollars in 1933 to 203 billion dollars in 1947, the greatest in all the history of the world. These benefits have been spread to all the people, because it's the business of the Democratic Party to see that the people get a fair share of these things.

We have been working together for victory in a great cause. Victory has become a habit of our Party. It's been elected four times in succession, and I'm convinced it will be elected a fifth time next November. The reason is that the people know that the Democratic Party is the people's party, and the Republican Party is the Party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be.

The record of the Democratic Party is written in the accomplishments of the last 16 years. I don't need to repeat them. They have been very ably placed before this convention by the keynote speaker, the candidate for Vice President, and by the permanent Chairman.
This last, worst
80th Congress proved just the opposite for the Republicans.
(Read the entire speech here.)

Later, on September 5, came the cross-country trip aboard the "Truman Special" (not the presidential car)--32,000 miles and 250 speeches.  Manchester says this about the newly energized Truman:
"Much that Truman said was absurd or irresponsible and some of it mischievous.  Harried and forlorn, supported by only 15 percent of the nation's newspapers, told on every side that he was wasting his time and everyone else's, he was capable of delivering demagogic lines.  "The Republicans," he said, "have begun to nail the American consumer to the spikes of greed."  He called them "gluttons of privilege," called Dewey a "fascist" and compared him to Hitler, and to over 80,000 listeners at the National Plowing Contest in Dexter, Iowa, he charged that "This Republican Congress has already stuck a pitchfork in the farmer's back."
Even after his staff showed him an October Newsweek cover that read, "FIFTY POLITICAL EXPERTS UNANIMOUSLY PREDICT A DEWEY VICTORY", Truman believed he was going to win.  He spent hours working the electoral numbers and finally put his predictions in an envelope, sealed it and gave to someone to hold until after the election.  When they opened it later, they saw that he had predicted 340 electoral votes for himself, 108 for Dewey, 42 for Strom Thurmond and 37 marked "doubtful".  He was so sure he was going to win he never flinched, no matter how bad it looked to everyone else.  (The final electoral votes for Truman were 304, 189 for Dewey.)

You know the outcome.  You know that every prognosticator gave Dewey the win.  The Chicago Tribune wasn't the only news outlet to write their "Dewey Wins" leads ahead of time.  When Truman got back to Washington, he passed a huge sign across the front of the Washington Post building that read, "Mr. President, we are ready to eat crow whenever you are ready to serve it."

Manchester writes:  "In a letter to his own paper, Reston of the Times wrote that 'we were too isolated with other reporters and we, too, were far too impressed by the tidy statistics of the poll.'  Time said the press had 'delegated its journalist's job to the polls.'  Several angry publishers canceled their subscriptions to the polls.  The pollsters themselves were prostrate.  Gallup said simply, 'I don't know what happened.'"

What happened was that Truman didn't give up, he didn't compromise and he didn't conciliate.  He went on the attack against the Republican-held 80th congress and whipped them to death with their own deeds (or non-deeds, as the case may be.  The highlights of his stump speeches were his tirades against the "do-nothing Congress", and it worked.  Along with Truman's victory, the Democrats took the majority in both houses).

One final footnote:  After the election, the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan conducted a poll of the polls and found that two weeks before the election a full 14 percent of the Truman voters hadn't yet made up their minds.  Both Roper and Gallup did their own after-election  research and found much the same conclusion:  One voter in seven made up his or her mind within two weeks of the election.  So, as Manchester points out, "Using either the Michigan figures or Gallup-Roper's, one finds that some 3,300,000 fence-sitters determined the outcome of the race in its closing days--when Dewey's instincts were urging him to adopt Truman's hell-for-leather style and slug it out with him, and when he didn't because all the experts told him he shouldn't."

Is there something to be learned from this?  I don't know. It's a different president, a different time and a different Democratic Party.  What I do know as I'm writing this is that Mitch McConnell's speech before the Heritage Foundation is being played over and over again--the one where he says loud and clear, "we'll cooperate with you, Mr. President, when you give us everything we want".

In the background, in my head, I'm hearing our president's post-election speech--the one where he still thinks the answer is to make nice with those vicious megalomaniacs--and I want Give 'em Hell Harry to grab Obama the Oblivious by the scruff of his neck and whap him one upside the head.

If anyone could do it, Harry could.  Harry was no angel; he was a politician, for god's sake--but he knew how to spot incorrigible rogues, and he knew how to destroy them with the truth.  I doubt he stayed awake nights wondering if he was liked.

President Obama can't quite see the challenge in taking on his most relentless enemies.  He's supposed to be working against them.  They're supposed to hate him.  He's supposed to be a Democrat and he's supposed to remember what that means. There's an employee handbook out there somewhere for Democrats but this new bunch refuses to read it.  It says right on page 1, paragraph 2, they can be fired for that.

(Many thanks to my husband, who steered me to this chapter while we were talking about how Obama should handle a congress that just says no.  It won't do a damned thing to change anything, but man, it felt good to be immersed in a story about a Democrat who wouldn't give up his principles.)