Occupational Health News Roundup

A recent agreement between striking farmworkers and big agribusiness in Baja California could be the “most significant achievement by a farm labor movement in recent Mexican history,” reports Richard Marosi in the Los Angeles Times.

Among the settlement details, daily wages for workers will go up by as much as 50 percent and workers will receive the required government benefits often denied by their employers. Marosi reports:

“This is a watershed moment,” said Sara Lara, a farm labor researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In decades of studying farm issues, Lara said she has never seen agribusinesses buckle to labor demands for increased wages.

“It’s incredible,” Lara said. “It changes the paradigm and creates a new precedent in the labor movement.“

The agreement, reached late Thursday (June 4) after a six-hour negotiating session, calls for a three-tiered compensation system. Large farms will pay workers 180 pesos per day (about $11.50); medium farms, 165 pesos (roughly $10.50); small farms; 150 pesos (approximately $9.50). Since most work at large agribusinesses, the raises are about $4 per day more for many of the estimated 30,000 workers in the San Quintin region.

The deal also guarantees workers’ rights to social security benefits and overtime pay, requires the government to improve infrastructure and allows for worker oversight of farm inspections by labor officials.

Marosi talked to experts who said the worker victory stems from a combination of events, including advocates’ ability to organize large protests on a regular basis and consistently attract international media attention. Organizers also credited the Los Angeles Times’ investigation into working conditions in Baja California, titled “Product of Mexico.” Still, Marosi reports that the agreement is receiving some mixed reviews:

Despite the landmark achievement, many laborers reacted somberly to the agreement. Weary after three months of protests, they considered the gains meager given how much they sacrificed.

“After all these days without eating, without bathing, leaving kids at home and forgoing work, and this is all we get?” said Matilde Hernandez, a 47-year-old mother of three, referring to the $4 raise. “We’re fighting for crumbs.”

Some took a pragmatic attitude, saying that over the long term things would continue to improve. “We’re advancing little by little,” said Margarita Gabriel, who said her wages would go up $3.

To read the full article, visit the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper’s editorial board wrote about the worker victory as well, noting that the agreement is not legally binding and plenty could still go wrong for workers.

In other news:

Buzzfeed: Cora Lewis reports that labor advocates plan to use a possible wage hike for fast food workers in New York as a springboard for similar changes in cities across the country. On Monday, fast food workers testified before a newly created New York state wage board, telling their personal stories of living on fast food wages and calling on policymakers to raise their pay to $15 an hour. Lewis reports that like New York, governors in a number of states, including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wisconsin, have the power to raise minimum wages without approval from the legislature. She writes: “At a Fight for 15 convention in Detroit last weekend, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said the union will push for wage boards around the country, noting that there is an 'increased consciousness around wages' since the Fight for 15 movement gained momentum.”

The Nation: On the 25th anniversary of the Justice for Janitors campaign, Jono Shaffer and Stephen Lerner write about some of the lessons learned that still apply to organizing today. In the summer of 1990, Los Angeles police officers attacked a group of janitors on strike for better pay. After footage of police attacking nonviolent strikers went public, public outrage at the police galvanized support for the workers, Shaffer and Lerner write. The Century City janitors eventually won their union and negotiated for better pay and benefits — a win that lead to similar organizing attempts around the country. One of the biggest lessons learned? Go after the parent company, not the subcontractors. Shaffer and Lerner write: “The Justice for Janitors campaign succeeded because it relentlessly went after the building owners and financiers at the top of the real estate industry — the people who truly had power over the janitors’ livelihood — not the cleaning companies who were powerless subcontractors.”

Los Angeles Times: Geoffrey Mohan reports that Cal-OSHA, California’s worker safety agency, has settled suits brought on behalf of farmworkers and the United Farm Workers union that claimed the agency neglected its duty to protect workers from heat exposure. As part of the settlement, Cal-OSHA will maintain a task force to review employers’ heat illness prevention plans, audit its enforcement activities and implement an electronic tracking system for complaints. Mohan writes: “Since the Heat Illness Prevention regulation first was passed in 2005, 28 farmworkers have died ‘of what likely were heat illnesses,’ the union alleged. ‘It was a pattern of Cal-OSHA failing to investigate, failing to issue citations, failing to follow up on citations. It was a broad spectrum of conduct under the more simple allegation that the state wasn't doing its job to enforce the laws that were on the books,’ (union attorney Mario) Martinez said.”

Time: Elizabeth Dias reports that “heavy hitters” from the Catholic Church and the labor movement gathered on Monday for “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Solidarity and Faith,” which was sponsored by the AFL-CIO and Catholic University of America. She writes that leaders in both organizations predict that an upcoming visit from Pope Francis could be a key opportunity to build momentum and support for workers and immigrants. Dias quoted AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka: “That phrase — raising wages — expresses a moral vision, because when we fight for a living wage, for earned sick days and paid family leave, we are not just seeking economic gains. We are seeking the material foundations of a good life that makes it possible for us to care for each other, for families to raise children and care for the elderly and for us to be part of the faith life of our community.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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