Seeking Justice

Carmen Gonzalez, Ramon Ramirez, Dagoberto Morales

In September, five community groups came together at the Medford Library to discuss how workers rights are not being met in our fields and forests. Organizers from PCUN, Beyond Toxics, NW Forest Worker Center, Unete, and Oregon Action gathered for the 2015 Oregon Environmental Justice Task Force Meeting, “Fairness for the land and worker”.    

Camp water compared to drinking water.

A significant symbol of what these groups are working on was demonstrated by two plastic water bottles. One was drinking water, just like you would find in the fountain at the library, but the other one had been filled in a labor camp over in Woodburn the day before the event. Unete’s (Center for Farmworker Advocacy) Dagoberto Morales, a long time human rights activist told the crowd how he had filled the bottle from a source where workers drink from. Both bottles were passed around the room. The first bottle was clear and clean. The second had a brownish tint and visible particles floating through it.

Dagoberto Morales speaks for sick farmworkers.

Morales spoke of sick farmworkers who were unable to work and went on to describe the practice of medical care within that community. “If a worker gets hurt, they must go to a specific doctor (who works for the camp) who will not label it as a worker’s comp issue.” Drinking water inside the camps are often ponds of irrigation water and are laden with chemicals.

“It is an environmental justice issue because farmworkers on a daily basis are working with deadly chemicals,” said Ramon Ramirez, President of PCUN. “The working conditions are really bad. That’s why we formed PCUN back in 1985, when about 100 workers came together in Salem, Oregon and we formed a union. It was really difficult…Farmworkers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Never have. We don’t have any collective bargaining rights”.  Ramirez went on to describe the history of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and how it was brokered. At the time, most farmworkers were black. “Labor was represented by Northerners and farm workers were represented by plantation owners in the south. Labor accepted the deal on the condition they were going to come back and bring farmworkers back into the labor fold, but that never happened.” Ramirez says this is an example of institutional racism.

“The farmworkers are America’s most important workers as they put food on our tables. They are paying a price. We buy food at a low cost, but someone is paying the cost and that’s the farm workers.” Ramirez says that the life expectancy of a farm worker is 49. The life expectancy of the general public is 78 years old.

Other discussions at the Task Force meeting included the challenges that workers face when they make minimum wage and are cheated out of their wages. Also thousands of workers are poisoned by pesticides and workers face many health challenges.

Carmen Gozalez describes her work in the fields.

Carmen Gonzalez, a mother of seven, and a labor organizer, described her work in the fields. For years, Gonzalez worked for one of the largest nurseries in Oregon where she was given the job of mixing pesticides. Although she questioned the safety of handling chemicals, she feared retribution from her employer. She did not understand the potential consequences she would pay for that silence.  In 1992 Gonzalez became pregnant. Three months into her pregnancy, she miscarried. She described how she was not given gloves or protective gear to use while she handled the pesticides. “I did not realize my baby was already dead for three weeks, inside of me,” she said. She asked her forman if she could leave work to see a doctor and he refused. She had to wait until the weekend to see a doctor. Her voice lowered as she described her experience in the ER and the aftermath. “After I lost my baby, the farm laid me off for one year. They told me they had hired someone else in my place. So I couldn’t do anything but put my head down and say ok, thank you for the opportunity.” Gonzalez was later hired by the Oregon Law Center and PCUN as an educator and has teaches farm workers the dangers of pesticides.  

Ronald Sanderfer of Medford fields a response.

Reaching workers and educating them on their rights remains a challenge. “There’s people in my community that don’t know how to read or write,” she said. The project of the Oregon Law Center has been a tremendous help to the community.”

She went on to explain, “I’m really grateful to be alive today because my doctor said that if I had waited another day, I might have actually  died.” She worries about the workers in the fields and forests. “You all have to understand that farm workers are getting the raw end of the deal… and we need to do something about it.”

About Vanessa Houk

Passionate about social and economic justice, Vanessa Houk is dedicated to chronicling the struggles of labor and civil rights. Based in Ashland, she is the editor-in-chief of the Rogue Valley Community Press.

More by Vanessa Houk