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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Save Family Farming launches Farmworker Justice Now, faces criticism from advocacy groups

By Sarah Porter

Regional farms have started a campaign in response to farmworker advocacy groups that critics say is deceptive.

Farmworker Justice Now, a campaign launched by the group Save Family Farming, is in response to the organizing done by local advocacy group Community to Community Development and farmworkers union Familias Unidas por la Justicia around farmworker rights.

Save Family Farming communication director and campaign coordinator, Dillon Honcoop, and  farm labor advisor, Juan Baldovinos, sent a letter to Western President Sabah Randhawa on Feb. 15. In the letter, they warned that students supporting union organizing activities is “very harmful to farmers,” and they claimed that state-owned buses were used to transport student activists to union protests, which they said is “likely not legal.” 

(The full letter can be found at the end of this story.)

Community to Community Development organizer, Edgar Franks, said the campaign is a result of farms’ fear of unions.

Franks said the letter is just a scare tactic intended to prevent students from learning about social justice, that it’s part of a larger movement against free speech and that farms are scared of their workers forming unions.  

“Hopefully Western doesn’t listen to any of that nonsense,” Franks said.

The Farmworker Justice Now project is affiliated with farm groups in Whatcom, Skagit and Yakima counties, organizers said. It seeks to fight accusations that migrant workers are being abused in the wake of the potential Sarbanand Farms class-action lawsuit, according to the website.

One of the farmworkers fired by Sarbanand Farm protests outside the farm in August. // Photo by Asia Fields

The goal is to protect migrant workers’ access to jobs and farmers’ access to labor, said Gerald Baron, the communications director of affiliate group Whatcom Family Farmers.

The project was launched late last year in response to farm labor union Familias Unidas por la Justicia and activist group Community to Community Development, organizers said. Familias Unidas por la Justicia is one of the few farm labor unions in Washington state, Franks said.

Baron said Community to Community Development helps workers circumvent laws related to union organizing, and argues that the group should be classified as a union and have to face corresponding regulations.

Honcoop and Baron say Community to Community Development and Familias Unidas por la Justicia are working together to take away guest worker opportunities provided by the H-2A visa program. Franks said they aren’t against H-2A workers, but the program needs to be improved.

“It creates a neoslavery workforce, legalized,” Franks said.

Franks said H-2A workers should be unionized and farms should be required to provide benefits they promise to foreign workers. He said the success of Familias Unidas por la Justicia winning a union contract in June 2017 scares farms.

Honcoop said it’s becoming increasingly difficult for farms to find domestic labor, and migrant workers need access to these jobs. They are high-paying compared to farm labor jobs in Mexico, where most migrant workers come from, he said.

“Farmworkers are, in large part, being treated well,” Honcoop said. “Farmers and farmworkers need each other.”

Baron and Honcoop said they grew up working on farms alongside foreign workers, and they are concerned about the future of farm jobs and family farming. Baldovinos, who is originally from Mexico and has worked on local farms, acts as a liaison and translator for the Farmworker Justice Now campaign.

Franks said they don’t know the realities of farmworkers, and that he was a farmworker in the past as well. He said they are unable to recruit labor because they don’t treat their workers well.

Even though the H-2A program requires that farms prove they can’t find domestic workers, Community to Community Development said domestic farm labor is often available to farms using the program.

Community to Community Development doesn’t consider the Save Family Farming project a serious effort, and Franks said the farm groups don’t really care about farmworker justice. He said that it is a public relations campaign backed by big farms with lots of money and political power.

“As soon as their funding runs out, they won’t talk about farmworker justice,” Franks said.

Baron has a background in crisis communications and is known for his public relations response to the Olympic Pipeline explosion in 1999, according to his bio. He said he tried to retire four years ago, but farms needed his help.

“I don’t like to see what’s happening with all the groups attacking farms,” Baron said.

Honcoop said he was KGMI radio’s brand manager for 12 years, so both have a background in communication.

Some citizens are concerned about the Farmworker Justice Now campaign being deceptive. Bellingham resident Dena Louise sent an email to the Bellingham City and Whatcom County Councils which informed them of the campaign, calling it a public relations effort initiated by Baron, according to Louise’s Facebook post.

Louise’s partner, Sandy Robson, said the campaign is advocating for the farmers rather than the farmworkers. Robson is a citizen journalist who has been a Whatcom resident since 2009, and has blogged about Baron’s involvement in agricultural issues.

“If they called it Farmers’ Justice it would be more accurate,” Robson said.

Franks agrees that the campaign name is deceptive, and he said there’s already a nonprofit organization called Farmworker Justice, which Community to Community Development works with.

Louise wrote to the councils that the project seems to say farmers must be undisputed by community members regarding their treatment of immigrant workers, and she asked City Council to engage with Community to Community Development and other groups to develop solutions to end white supremacy.

The debate about the H-2A program comes amidst a recent lawsuit against Sarbanand Farms, as reported by The Western Front. The farm came under scrutiny after the death of Honesto Silva Ibarra, a migrant farmworker, and a subsequent protest involving 70 workers alleging unsafe working conditions.

A Labor and Industries investigation fined Sarbanand Farms nearly $150,000 for missed breaks and late meal times, which are serious violations, said Elizabeth Smith, assistant director of L&I Fraud Prevention and Labor Standards, in a Feb. 1 press release. The medical examiner concluded that Ibarra’s death was due to natural causes, and not a result of the work environment.

Save Family Farming called on Community to Community Development to retract accusations about unsafe working conditions on Sarbanand Farms, and to apologize to Ibarra’s family for the “many unfounded claims they have made about unsafe working conditions,” according to their press release.

“The issue is, who’s telling the truth here?” Baron said.

The Sarbanand Farms lawsuit has been assigned to a judge and the first scheduling date is May 1, 2018, Joe Morrison, a lawyer representing the farmworkers, said in an email.

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