August 8, 2019 Dena Jensen
It’s been held for years. I have been to four. This year was the second time I’ve marched the full route. The annual Farmworker March for Dignity starts at dawn, with many people leaving their home destinations around 4:00 a.m., in carpools or individually, to arrive at shuttle locations and park their vehicles.
“The state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect,” that’s the definition of dignity from Oxford’s Lexico Dictionary. Honor and respect saturate the Farmworker March for Dignity.
There’s a lot of planning. Many of the ongoing efforts of Community to Community Development (C2C) and Familias Unidas por las Justicia (FUJ), who jointly sponsored the march, culminate in this annual odyssey. Meanwhile the two organizations start weeks ahead of the event, requesting and identifying volunteers for the many tasks involved in treating each and every march participant with honor and respect.
C2C, an eco-feminist women-led organization working toward food sovereignty and a solidarity economy in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, held training for the volunteers who would help with those early morning shuttle rides and so many other activities that were focused on tending to the safety and well-being of all the marchers and fellow-volunteers.
My generous carpool pilot and I were shuttled along with others in a full mini-van from the Ferndale Park and Ride lot — where sprinklers were misting the shadowy landscaping — over to the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) immigrant holding station that is located at 1431 Sunset Avenue in Ferndale.
By maybe 4:45 a.m. or so, the business parking lot next-door to the CBP station was already bustling with volunteers offering hand-painted flags to arriving marchers who mingled somewhat sleepily. One of the flags, the one on white fabric (there were green, red, and white flags) carried the name of march co-sponsor, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the only independent labor union led by over 400 indigenous Mixteco and Triqui farm workers.
There were special Campesino Power t-shirts that had been printed in time for the event which people could buy (helping to defray the associated costs of the march) and many did. Some wore shirts or buttons from past years’ farmworker marches.
It wasn’t long till everyone walked over near the fenced and barbed-wired entrance area of the very same Customs and Border Patrol station that would, a couple of days later, be reported to have processed a local farm worker and 13-year area resident, who had been picked up at his home by federal agents who presented no judicial warrant.
In that location, banners and signs were made available for those who were not already carrying their own. I held a corner of the long white weatherproof banner with black lettering that read, “Justice for Farm Workers.”
Then there was a bull horn, with C2C’s ecofeminist leader Rosalinda Guillen behind it, speaking with force, compassion, and eloquence, as she does. Her words defined the aspects of respect and honor due the farm workers and other immigrants currently suffering increasing persecution in our nation and our own county. Her words carried through the chain link fence to confront the federal workers behind it with their transgressions against humanity.
Then someone else stepped up to the bullhorn, a spirited organizer named Monika Atkins, who does her work, on the Climate Justice Alliance, for a just transition. Her focus is on the southeastern region of the United States where, among other things, she fights for dignity for workers. She spoke, led songs and chants, coaxing growing volume and commitment from the crowd as the sun was breaking past the horizon.
Local abuses of farm workers’ rights
Here in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, organizing for farm worker justice has taken the form of providing workers with tools to advocate for themselves and of garnering community support and oversight to help daylight the dark operations present at some farms.
There are definitely farms all over Whatcom and Skagit Counties which look out for their workers. However, it was Sakuma Brothers Farms’ past insufficient farm worker wages, worker rights violations, and an unethical and illegal attempted usage of the H-2A visa program that brought about worker protests that stimulated the formation of FUJ and the eventual signed contract in the summer of 2017 between Sakuma and the then-nascent local farm worker union.
Since that time, use of the H-2A visa program has been a significant factor in known farm worker abuses in Whatcom County. H-2A visas allow agricultural employers to import workers from outside of the United States, who often cannot communicate in the prevalent language of this new location to which they have travelled. They are allowed to work only on the one farm they are contracted with during their entire U.S. stay.
Under the provisions of this guest worker visa program, farm workers can be subject to an inordinate amount of control by their employers, a power that some farm operations have been proven to abuse. Further, the male workers brought to the U.S. are separated from their families who must remain in their home countries. There is no path for citizenship provided to these workers.
We march for dignity
After the rally at the CBP station, there was some shuffling of signs and belongings, and lining up single-file. Then, we set out. That was it: the marching. For miles.
We were protected from every car passing and intersection reached by safety volunteers in orange vests. We were saved from blister agony, heat exhaustion, and sun damage by medics with red crosses on their backpacks. They called out and made sure we applied sunblock. They watched our faces and postures for signs we needed assistance. Shuttles drove back and forth in case anyone needed a respite.
When we stopped for rest, we were fed and given access to facilities of key importance by people who belonged to our local Democratic and progressive organizations. Their volunteers came up and checked if we needed water bottles refilled, and if we knew where the FUJ truck pulling the porta-potty was parked.
Some elected officials and candidates for office showed up. One marched the whole way. Another candidate fanned people and a small dog with a cardboard sign while everyone recuperated at a rest stop as the 80 degree afternoon got underway. I knew the faces of many on the march though, most of them just as well-known as many political representatives, but specifically for the ways they impart dignity to the members of their community.
Causes for a people’s tribunal
There were legal observers at the march too. We walked most of our miles through rural community and we would see people out in their driveways, some waving, some seeming to be taking photos or video on their phones. A fellow marcher asked for guesstimates on whether those recording us were supporters or detractors.
It was hard to say, but there was one recognizably ominous presence in one of the driveways: Charlie Crabtree, an early participant in the Whatcom Tea Party and a long-time official and member of the Trump-supporting Whatcom County Republican Party. There he was in a vintage green GPT t-shirt (from the belligerent and failed Gateway Pacific coal terminal campaign) next to a car with back-up lights on. One legal observer deftly snapped a photo of the license plate as they marched by.
Crabtree had shown up at a picket by farm workers, community members, C2C, and FUJ, out at Crystal View Farm the year before, in August 2018, where the farm owner George Sandhu, according to his H-2A workers, had been withholding their wages and had been otherwise mistreating them by providing them with poor water and food.
With the help of supporters and union representatives, the Crystal View farm workers successfully negotiated payment of their back wages and avoided retaliatory actions.
Meanwhile, the day of the Farmworker March when agricultural laborers and their supporters crossed Crabtree’s path this year, they had just advanced from a stop in front of Crystal View Farm where a people’s tribunal was held. Judges, including farm workers, and representatives of labor and other supportive organizations, found Crystal View Farm guilty of actions that had denied dignity to their workers and that bring shame to the local farming community.
The final miles
Once past the last stop, we headed into the most sweltering hour of the march, now in-city on the Guide Meridian. The buildings and trees blocked the diminishing breeze and the pavement radiated soaked-up sun.
After reflecting on cases of mistreatment of farm workers it was now time for me to reflect on the work and conditions that their normal job entails. Just walking slowly on a mid-80 degree afternoon, after the miles already covered, was physically taxing and dispiriting.
But to work under such conditions at a driven pace to meet picking quotas and qualify for a semblance of a supporting wage is bewildering. Performing well when adding factors like wildfire smoke, wafting pesticides, illnesses, or injuries to work place conditions, borders the unfathomable.
Thus, it is not remotely hard to comprehend how the 2017 illness and death of Honesto Silva Ibarra, the H-2A worker at Sarbanand Farms, would have been exacerbated by a failure of that farm and its management to tend to their workers as we were being tended to by march organizers that day.
It was both hotter, and very smoky in August 2017 and the blueberry season was at its peak. Sarbanand already had a history of committing safety and health violations a little earlier that summer.
It was ruled that Sarbanand’s H-2A workers were not getting adequate or timely rest breaks when the early hot and smoky, August 2017 days arrived. If any of us had been ill or injured on our 2019 march without cool or clean water, without ample healthy foods, and people always on the look-out for many aspects of our well-being, how long might we have made it just that day?
As it was, for us, the weather cooled a little as a breeze kicked up. And the last 3 miles were not so bad. All the safety and medic folks were still with us, as were those leading chants who always knew the right moments to focus us on the reason we were marching so that our spirits and energies were renewed.
We made it to the end where we were celebrated with drums and cheers and flowers.
We made it to a place were we could better see our numbers and hear our noise.
We made it to the concluding speech and the taco truck, to the potluck salads, the fellowship, and resting up. There were order-takers, servers, and waiting in the wings there were clean-up volunteers.
We made it to the end, and to the lovingly adorned altar filled with all the symbols of why we march for farm workers and for dignity.