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Wellspring Scorns, Fudges Facts on Strawberry Workers

by Sheila Payne

Remorseless morsels

Some Wellspring shoppers told activist Sheila Payne that they were only concerned about the high-quality healthy things they could put in their bodies from Wellspring. They didn't care if the people who picked their food were exposed to pesticides, didn't have latrines or were underpaid. Sheila said she felt like going home and eating something really greasy.

Twenty thousand strawberry workers in California are fighting for better wages, clean toilets and drinking water; and, with the help of the United Farm Workers (UFW), they are seeking an alternative to the deadly pesticide methyl bromide and the 148 other active pesticide ingredients that are sprayed on strawberry fields. Here in the Triangle, there are dozens of committed folks who are trying to bring the strawberry workers' "5 cents for fairness" message to consumers in our communities. We believe that we should all care about the working conditions of the people who harvest our foods. This article seeks to bring some awareness of farm worker issues as well as to answer questions from consumers who ask us why we are leafletting at Wellspring (of all places).

Historically, farm workers have been excluded from the most important national labor laws, such as the right to bargain collectively for better working conditions. Only California has an agricultural labor relations board, and that has been weakened by a succession of conservative appointments. In California, strawberry workers have voted for the UFW in union elections in 1989,'94, and '95. Companies responded by firing workers, plowing under fields, and shutting down operations rather than recognizing the vote. This is why agricultural workers have to turn directly to consumers to have their grievances heard.

The strawberry worker's pay is about $8,500/year, and the average real wage for a farm worker in California has fallen 25% in the last 15 years. Strawberry workers make about 10 cents/pint now. Five cents a pint more would increase their wages by 50%. They are making 2 cents/pint more than I did when I was working in the fields over 25 years ago. Poverty forces workers and their families to live in cars, shacks, or in culverts near the fields, causing them to be exposed to pesticide residue. Strawberries are an $650 million per year industry. Why shouldn't the people doing the work share in the bounty?

Strawberry pickers work as many as 12 hours a day, and because of the continual stooping, many suffer chronic back pain. Strawberry workers labor in fields treated with methyl bromide, one of the most potent ozone depleters known. It can cause headaches, muscle pain, pulmonary edema, nerve damage, and death. Workers are not warned about their exposure and too often are not provided with protective equipment. The UFW has been calling for a joint effort to fund research into safe alternatives to its use. More than 7 million pounds of pesticides are applied to California strawberry fields each year. The UFW was instrumental in getting DDT use phased out, and has funded many environmental studies on pesticides that cause cancer, birth defects and other health effects.

Child labor is the norm, though farm worker parents realize that education is their children's best avenue out of poverty. When I lived in Washington State, farm workers allied with church, labor and human rights groups in efforts to get tougher child labor laws passed. In the end however, agricultural counties lobbied to receive exemptions, and farm worker children were allowed back into the fields 40 hours/week during the school year.

In the winter of 1996, farm workers urgently requested a meeting with Whole Foods/Wellspring CEO John Mackey to discuss Whole Foods joining 5000 other grocery stores in supporting the strawberry workers by signing the pledge of support. The pledge reads: "We endorse the rights of strawberry workers to a living wage, clean drinking water and bathrooms, proper hand washing facilities, job security, health insurance and a voice to end sexual harassment and other abuses."

Whole Foods did not bother to respond to the workers' request nor did they respond to pleas from environmental groups like the Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council, who support workers' efforts to find alternatives to pesticides. As they stated in their letter to CEO Mackey, "Whole Foods has publicly questioned the UFW's commitment to organic farming practices (in a pamphlet that Whole Foods is distributing to its customers). A true commitment to organic farming practices recognizes the role farm workers play in creating a safer food supply. Farm workers serve as a first line defense against excessive and irresponsible application of toxic pesticides. Any method, including union contracts that empowers farm workers to challenge irresponsible pesticide use and not fear employer retribution is a positive step taken towards reducing pesticide use."

Whole Foods/Wellspring has said in their brochure, that "it would fully support the union if that is what the workers decide." Yet, CEO Mackey is notoriously anti-union. He has stated that "The union is like having herpes. It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover."

The Whole Foods pamphlet was written by the "Strawberry Workers and Farmers Alliance," a front group associated with the notorious antiunion "Dolphin Group" which has fought farm worker unionizing for decades. These public relation firms have had to admit under oath, that contrary to what their names imply, they do not actually have any farm worker members. Dolphin also produced the racist Willie Horton ads used by the Bush presidential campaign. Whole Foods also claims it will visit real farm workers in the field. That has not happened. Contrast Whole Foods' myth that strawberry workers work in "a discrimination-free environment" and receive "fair wages" with the reality of an industry where the average life span is 49 years—well below that of other US workers.

Safeway and Kroger groceries have signed the Strawberry Workers' pledge, which also "recognizes that farm workers are an essential part of the nations food production system." Why can't Wellspring, a store that says it's committed to healthy lifestyles and "enriching the lives of all who come in contact with us," expand that belief to include the people who harvest the food for its business? How can they turn their backs on 20,000 workers and their families?

Support farm workers rights by writing to John Mackey, CEO, Whole Foods, Inc., 601 North Lamar, Suite 300, Austin, TX 78703. When you shop at Wellspring, tell them that, as a customer you want them to support the strawberry workers. Join us in the campaign, call 688-7034.

  Sheila Payne, a long-time volunteer activist with the United Farm Workers, works as a letter-carrier.  

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