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An account of the Walk for Farmworker Justice

This article will be appearing in edited form in the upcoming issue of El Hispanic News, an anglais/espanol newspaper in Portland.
On Saturday, July 13th, over 200 people participated in the Walk for Farmworker Justice in Woodburn, Oregon. The event was intended to call attention to the plight of migrant farmworkers in the state, the majority of whom are Latino, mostly Mexican. The day was put together by the Farmworker Justice Coalition, which includes many churches, some labor organizations. The most prominent group was Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), the Treeplanters and Farmworkers Union of the Northwest, which represents over 4,500 farmworkers in Oregon.

According to the League of Women Voters, at least 80,000 farmworkers are employed in Oregon during peak harvest months. Add their dependents and the number of migrant people living in the state relying on agricultural work for their survival rises to 150,000. Working conditions are often dangerous, living arrangements substandard, and pay low. Child labor is not unknown, and the average age of a farmworker is only 48 years.

This was the second year the Walk was held. Organizers are planning for it to be an annual event. Participants in Saturday's Walk met at Legion Park in Woodburn and the day started with food, speeches and songs. Eric Nicholson, a long-time PCUN organizer, explained that the day would focus on two issues: amnesty for migrant workers, and the right of those workers to bargain collectively. Hundreds of Mexicans die on the border every year trying to evade checkpoints on their way to the U.S. to find jobs, and once here, are often abused by scurillous employers. Amnesty and collective bargaining, in PCUN's opinion, would alleviate both.

The morning was spent visiting fields where farmerworkers were picking fruit and vegetables under the hot sun. At each location, a hundred people lined the side of the road with a proliferation of signs and chanted supportive slogans in Spanish: "No estoy contento si no tengo un aumento" ("I won't be happy until I get a raise"), "Union, union, es la unica solucion" ("Union, union, it's the only solution"), and "Si se puede" ("Yes, we can do it"). Walk organizers also had two giant puppets, one representing workers and the other "El Jefe" ("the Boss"), with which they performed a pro-unionizing skit using the flatbed of a pick-up truck as a stage.

Response from the farmworkers, many of whom were members of PCUN, was subdued. According to PCUN, farmworkers have been harassed or fired for union organizing. PCUN organizers and some witnesses claimed that some of the farmworkers gave subtle forms of support anyway, however. These visits also served as a "truth-tour" for Walk participants who knew little about agricultural work, and who heard facts about wages and working conditions from PCUN organizers.

The early afternoon brought an unscheduled stop at the Smucker's Plant in Woodburn. On Tuesday, July 9th, the workers at the plant--who are members of Teamsters Local #670--went on strike to protest forced 12-hour days and steep hikes in their monthly health care insurance costs. Picketing outside the plant gates, they were joined by Walk participants, who took up the Teamsters' signs among their own and stood with them in a gesture of solidarity for a few minutes. Smucker's buys some of the berries that the farmworkers pick, but that was not the only connection for those who gathered there together. People from both unions found common cause in their struggles and adversaries.

Support from the Teamsters was so strong, in fact, that many of them joined the Walk that afternoon when about 200 people marched through downtown Woodburn and the residential neighborhoods around it. The crowd also grew more diverse for this event, and was roughly 40/60 Latino/Caucasian. Reactions from Woodburn residents ranged from surprise to support, with a small number of negative responses. The chants here were the loudest of the day, and the spirit was lively.

The day ended with dinner in Legion Park, for which more people arrived, including some farmworkers. The sounds of speakers and songs wafted under towering Douglas Firs as people ate enchiladas, beans and rice.

The success of an event like this can not always be measured at the time. The theme of the previous Walk for Farmworker Justice, in June 2001, was "Bring NORPAC to the table". At that time, the Lake Oswego-based farmer cooperative was refusing to recognize PCUN as a legitimate organization and would not meet with Walk organizers to talk about farmworker issues. In February 2002, though, after eight more months of pressure from citizens and activists--some of whom were inspired and educated by the Walk--NORPAC agreed to recognize PCUN and begin negotiating with its members. PCUN responded by lifting its ten year boycott of the company's products.

Will the next year bring the farmworkers recognition for collective bargaining and amnesty? It's too early to tell. But to quote anthropologist Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."