Farmworkers fired in Washington; seek justice

Farmworkers in Sumas, Washington attended a mass on Sunday to honor and say farewell to Honesto Silva Ibarra, who died a little more than a week ago after complaining to his employer that he was too sick to work.

Silva and his comrades are from Mexico. For most of the summer, they were picking blueberries at Sarbanand Farms near Sumas, which is close to the Canadian border.

They were working in the US on H-2A temporary work visas for agriculture.

When word got out on August 4 that Silva had been hospitalized, about 70 of the farm’s workers walked off the job to inquire about Silva’s health status and to complain about their unbearable working conditions.

The day after their inquiry, Sarbanand Farms fired the workers. A day after that, the workers learned that Silva had died.

The workers who inquired about Silva remain in limbo, stuck in a makeshift camp on land owned by a sympathetic couple who have given the farmworkers refuge.

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community Development, a group supporting the farmworkers, laid some of the blame for the farmworkers plight on the flawed H-2A Visa program, which gives employers nearly total control over their workers.

“The problem has always been that farmworkers are afraid to complain,” said Guillen to KUOW, a public radio station. “They can’t strike, they can’t form a union, they have nobody to complain to, they have no family, no community connections. No way to exert what little rights they have in the H-2A program.”

Sarbanand Farms brought 600 farmworkers from Mexico to Washington for the berry picking season.

For all practical purposes, these workers have few if any remedies addressing problems on the job.

They can’t quit and look for another job. Their circumstances make it difficult for them to form unions. And if they speak up collectively and get fired for doing so, they have few if any legal rights.

The circumstances involving Silva’s death are in dispute. According to the company that operates Sarbanand Farms, when Silva, complained about not feeling well, the company arranged for an ambulance to take him to a nearby medical clinic.

Farmworkers tell a different story. Silva, according to several accounts, complained of severe headaches to a supervisor, who ignored his complaints and ordered him back to work.

What is indisputable is that Silva, who is diabetic, died of cardiac arrest on August 6 in a Seattle hospital after being transferred from the clinic where he first sought treatment.

The Washington Labor and Industries Department and US Labor Department are currently conducting an investigation to determine if conditions on the job contributed to Silva’s death.

Conditions in the field where Silva worked were unquestionably difficult. The weather was unusually hot and smoke from a wildfire in Canada had drifted down to Washington causing an air quality alert.

After Silva became ill, the workers who walked off the job to inquire about their friend complained to company management that there wasn’t enough drinking water in the field.

They also complained about their food. They paid $12 a day for food, but their portions were skimpy and the quality was bad.

A report by the Stranger has a picture of  what a typical meal at the Sarbanand farm looks like.

Finally, the workers complained that some of their visas had expired, which made it impossible for them to return home if they didn’t like their working conditions.

Under the H-2A program, employers are responsible for keeping their workers visas up to date, and many of the workers at the farm were working under expired visas.

Instead of considering the merits of these grievances, Sarbanand summarily fired the workers and wouldn’t pay them for the work they had already done.

A few days after being fired, the workers and their supporters marched to the Sarbanand offices to demand that the company pay them.

The company, which originally said that it had mailed the workers final paycheck to Mexico, finally agreed to pay the workers the money owed them.

During this time, the workers have been living under difficult circumstances. People have donated food, tents, and other necessities to sustain them.

Some of the workers would like to get their jobs back or to go to work on other farms. Some want to return to Mexico.

Earlier this week, 25 workers did return to Mexico at the expense of the company, which is required to provide transportation to and from the workers’ country of origin.

Cristo Rodriguez is one of those who is staying in hopes that he and the other farmworkers can get justice.

Rodriguez told the Bellingham Herald through an interpreter that he had thought about returning home after learning of death of his father-in-law but has decided to stay.

“My first reaction was that I have to leave and be with (my family). It was sad to hear (my wife) talk, because I could feel what she was going through,” said Rodriguez. “But then, if I take off, I don’t know if we would be able to resolve anything (at the Sarbanand Farm).”

Kansas City voters overwhelmingly approve minimum wage increase

Voters in Kansas City, Missouri recently voted to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.

In a referendum on new city-wide minimum wage, 68 percent of the voters supported increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour immediately and then beginning in 2019 raising the minimum wage each year by $1.25 an hour until it reaches $15 an hour in 2022.

Voters voted overwhelmingly to support the new minimum wage despite a new state law passed in May that prohibits cities and other local governments from enacting local minimum wages that exceed the state minimum wage, currently set at $7.70 an hour.

The state law, which Missouri Gov. Eric Greiten allowed to go into effect, becomes effective on August 28.

In the meantime, Missouri unions announced that they will begin a campaign to raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour.

After the result of the Kansas City minimum wage vote was announced, Rev. Vernon Percy Howard, president of the Greater Kansas City Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( SCLC), praised voters for the landslide victory.

“We are so pleased that Kansas City has demonstrated a progressive political perspective on tone and attitude on this issue,” said Howard to CNN Money. “Our brothers and sisters deserve human dignity.”

Howard also said that the vote reflects a growing concern among a broad section of the population about income inequality.

“Income inequality was and is a major issue in Kansas City and across this country,” said Rev. Howard. “We want to thank all those individuals who voted but are not low-wage workers for being people of good will.”

SCLC was one of the groups that came together to form KC for $15, the coalition that led the effort to pass initiative #3, the minimum wage increase initiative on the ballot.

Some in the media called the vote on initiative #3 a symbolic gesture because the state law nullifying local minimum wage ordinances will go into effect soon.

Howard, however, said that the vote was more than empty symbolism and that he had serious doubts about the constitutionality of the state law. Howard said that he foresees a legal challenge to the law.

Other groups that have been working to raise the minimum wage said that the Kansas City vote was an important victory but that much more work needs to be done in order to raise the minimum wage.

The Kansas City vote to raise the minimum wage give us “cause to celebrate,” reads a posting on the Stand Up KC Facebook page. “But we won’t see a penny of it because the legislature passed a bill taking away the right of voters and cities to raise wages above $7.70. Tonight is a time to be proud of our city and angry at our legislator. We will continue to fight.”

On the day before the Kansas City vote on initiative #3 took place, Stand Up KC joined Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 Missouri, the Missouri AFL-CIO, and Missouri Jobs with Justice in announcing the start of a campaign to raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour.

After making their announcement, members of the coalition began gathering signatures on a petition to put the new minimum wage proposal on the state ballot for the 2018 elections.

To do so, they will need to collect more than 100,000 valid signatures on their petition.

“This campaign takes the power out of Jefferson City (Missouri’s capital city) and gives it back to the people where it belongs,’ said Richard Franklin, a janitor and SEIU member. It’s up to us, the people, to take matters into our own hands.”

In a related development, Mike  Louis, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO announced on August 11 that unions had gathered more than 300,000 signatures on a petition to put an initiative that would veto the state’s new right to work law before the voters.

The petition will be delivered on August 14 to the Missouri Secretary of State for validation.

If there are 100,126 or more valid signatures on the petition, the initiative will be added to the November 2018 ballot, and implementation of the right to work law will be delayed until after the vote.

Texas public employee unions under attack, launch fight back

Texas is the latest state where Republicans are trying to stifle the voices of public employees.

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he was calling a special session of the state legislature, he presented a 19-item agenda that included a ban on voluntary payroll deduction of public employee union dues.

Those affected would be teachers, public school employees, and state and local government employees. Police officers and firefighters are exempt.

The purpose of the bill is to weaken public employee unions by reducing their funding. If Abbott’s ban passes, unions will have fewer resources resulting in a weaker collective voice for public employees.

“Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, want to make it harder for public workers to have a strong, effective union,” said the Texas State Employee Union CWA Local 6186 in a statement about the proposed bans. “They know that without a strong union of state workers and retirees standing up to them, state services will be left unprotected against privatization efforts and our pensions will be vulnerable to attacks.”

When the special session began on July 18, two lawmakers filed companion bills,  SB 7 and HB 156, that seek to ban voluntary payroll deduction.

Those bills are similar to two bills that became law in two Republican dominated states.

Republicans in Oklahoma passed a ban that targeted public school teachers in 2015, and Republicans in Michigan in 2012 passed  a ban that targeted public employees and public school teachers.

The discourse about the ban has been dominated by right wing talking points, much of which is inaccurate.

For example, when Gov. Abbott announced that he was adding the ban on voluntary payroll deductions to the special session’s agenda, he said that the ban would save taxpayers from paying for payroll deduction.

In fact, voluntary payroll deduction costs taxpayers nothing.

The Texas Government code clearly states that employees and their organization are the ones who bear the cost of voluntary payroll deduction.

Also a fiscal note for SB 7 stated that the ban would have no financial impact on the state or local governments.

In other words, the ban won’t save the state, local governments, or school districts any money because voluntary payroll deduction isn’t costing them any money.

In another instance, the executive vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right wing advocacy group, wrote in the Dallas Morning News that the ban would stop “the state from automatically collecting membership dues for government-employee labor unions.”

The fact is that in Texas there is no such thing as automatic dues collection for state employees. To enroll in payroll deduction, a state employee must complete and sign a payroll deduction authorization form before payroll deduction begins.

An employee is free to discontinue payroll deduction at any time.

The author also incorrectly describes payroll deduction as an opt out choice for an employee. In other words according to the author, union dues are automatically deducted unless an employee opts out of payroll deduction.

Once again, the author is incorrect. Payroll deduction doesn’t begin automatically. It is an opt in, not an opt out choice.

 

The author also blames voluntary payroll deductions for high  local property taxes.

It’s true that local property taxes in Texas are too high, but it’s not because of voluntary payroll deduction or teachers’ unions. It’s because the state has been shirking its responsibility to provide an equal public education to all students.

“It’s indisputable that we’re funding education at the lowest level the state’s ever funded it before and we’re doing it on the back of the taxpayers,” said Republican lawmaker Dan Huberty to the Austin American Statesman during the special session.

Despite the weak evidence about the need for a ban on voluntary payroll deduction, SB 7 passed out of the Senate within 10 days after the session began.

But it met a lot of resistance from employees affected by the ban.

At a hearing on the bill conducted by the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, more than 130 people either testified against SB 7 or came to the committee hearing and signed a form indicating their opposition.

Among those testifying against the bill, were representatives of public safety unions that will be exempt from the ban. They worried that the ban will be extended to them at some time in the future.

The fight to stop the ban now goes to the House of Representatives.

Teachers and public employees have been organizing to mobilize opposition to the bill in the House.

The House version of SB 7, HB 156, was filed by Rep. Jason Issac who represents a district just south and west of Austin.

Teachers and public employees unions are urging their members who live in Rep. Issac’s district to call him and voice their opposition to the bill.

“This bill would strip state workers of our right to determine where our hard earned money goes by no longer allowing us to have our union membership dues deducted from our paychecks,” states a letter to Texas State Employee Union (TSEU) members in Rep. Issac’s district.

“It is very urgent for every TSEU member who lives in Rep. Issac’s district. . . to voice their opposition to this bill,” continues the letter.

Nurses, teachers challenge GOP Rep. on health care

Nurses and teachers in Corpus Christi, Texas on July 30 challenged US Representative Blake Farenthold to step outside of his local office and defend his vote to deny health care coverage to millions of Americans.

They also chastised Rep. Farenthold for his implied threat of violence against women senators–Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Shelly Moore Capito–for voting against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

After the US Senate rejected two Republican bills to dismantle Obamacare, Rep. Farenthold singled out the three Republican women among seven Republican senators who voted against one of the two bills.

He said that he would like to settle the score with them “Aaron Burr style,” referencing the 1804 duel between then Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in which Burr killed Hamilton.

Rep. Farenthold voted to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a Republican health care plan that the Congressional Budget Office said would cause 23 million people to lose their health care coverage.

With temperatures reaching 97 degrees on a hot summer afternoon, members of National Nurses United/National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNU/NNOC) and the Corpus Christi American Federation of Teachers rallied outside of Rep. Farenthold’s Corpus Christi office to challenge him on his implied threat and his vote to reduce health care coverage.

Sylvia Higgins, a nurse and a member of NNU/NNOC, challenged him with facts about the impact that his vote for the Republican bill would have had on Texans and demanded that he support a common sense approach to providing health coverage for everyone.

“Currently, 4.3 million Texans are uninsured, and an additional 2.5 million Texans would have lost coverage under the dangerous GOP bill (to repeal Obamacare),” said Higgins. “Now that the GOP bill is effectively dead, any politician who truly represents the people would internalize the real facts about health care and begin advocating for a single-payer-for-all healthcare system—because that’s what our patients deserve.”

Others like a teacher who carried a sign that simply read, “Shame on you Farenthold,” challenged Rep. Farenthold’s character.

Apparently, Rep. Farenthold wasn’t up to the nurses’ and teachers’ challenge.

He said he couldn’t meet with them because he had to be in Moulton, a small town about 140 miles north of Corpus Christi.

Farenthold said that repealing Obamacare care remained one of his top priorities because “Obamacare is hurting the American people, especially those it was intended to help.”

Rep Farenthold is right. People are hurting, especially in Texas, but it’s not because of Obamacare; rather, it’s because of Republican antipathy toward Obamacare.

Texas, which is governed by Republicans, chose not to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and actively disrupted efforts by non-profit groups to help people get health insurance through the federal health insurance exchanges.

As a result, 20 percent of adult Texans still lack health insurance.

Republican health care policy has hurt Texans in other ways as well.

Republican state officials have cut off government funding to Planned Parenthood and enacted laws that resulted in the closure of 31 Planned Parenthood affiliated clinics, most of which were in medically under served areas.

In addition to providing birth control and abortion services, these clinics provided basic health screenings for low-income women.

According to a recent study, among women with a high school education or less who once received examinations for breast cancer at Planned Parenthood clinics, 31 percent fewer are still getting examined.

There’s another health care crisis going on in Texas that is just now starting to get some attention.

The rate of pregnancy related deaths of women in Texas is 35.8 per 100,000. The national average excluding California is 23.8 per 100,000.

Texas leaders have appointed a task force to learn the cause and recommend a remedy for the state’s alarmingly high rate of pregnancy related deaths.

To the chagrin of Texas’ leaders, California may have already answered these questions. California’s pregnancy related death rate is 7.3 per 100,000.

California’s success at reducing pregnancy related deaths is the result of a collective public health initiative funded by the state and federal government and the California Healthcare Foundation.

It should also be noted that only 8 percent of Californians lack health insurance, which makes health care much more accessible in California.

It is unquestionable that Obamacare is a much better approach to health care than the Republican approach, but Obamacare is not without its shortcomings.

The main problem is that 29 million Americans still don’t have health insurance, which is why when people demonstrated in front of Rep. Farenthold’s office, they advocated for a single-payer health care plan that would make health insurance available to everyone.

“We need single payer/Medicare for All, and we need Rep. Farenthold to advocate for it,” said Cynthia Martinez, a nurse and NNU/NNOC member.