Manny's story is, of course, completely familiar here in Oregon, where migrant workers make up the bulk of farm workers. This harvesting season, 50,000 people will work in Oregon, cutting lettuce, spraying tomatoes, planting irrigation pipes. At Manny's farm, 367 of those workers--all Mexican, according to Manny--will be harvesting mushrooms in the dark.
But this summer, Manny's hoping for a small victory--a union, created by and for farm workers, which would guarantee he and his family a 401K, a wage schedule, and health benefits. Since mid-March, the Oregon Farmworker's Union, called PCUN, has been working to establish a workers' union at the Pictsweet farm. But unlike the 10-year campaign to unionize at Norpac--another local produce distributor--this campaign has happened quickly, gathering enough momentum to capture the attention of the media and government. Two weeks ago, PCUN helped influence Fred Meyer to support the boycott by dropping Pictsweet from their shelves. On Tuesday, Safeway followed suit. Even though Pictsweet retaliated by laying off 50 workers, Manny says he understands that losing money and hours is part of the risk. Nevertheless, it makes him even more nervous. "There are people, standing around listening to us, all the time," he says. "It doesn't matter if you've been working there two years or 20. Anyone who's caught [talking about the union] is immediately fired."
Despite all this, "We're still feeling very hopeful," says Marlana Gangi, Pictsweet Boycott Coordinator at PCUN. At best, Gangi hopes to have a union in place by the end of the summer.
But the progress which Pictsweet boycotters have already made is impressive. "We began back in mid-March, when the Pictsweet workers contacted us," says Eric Nicholson, who also works at PCUN, organizing the union effort. A handful of workers heard about the Norpac boycott and contacted PCUN. "We met with them, discussed different options. We realized that a union was going to be the only method of giving the workers ongoing support."
From there, the initial core group of workers began the organizing process: talking to their coworkers, convincing them to risk their job security and paycheck for something elusive and intangible. "We always know that if we're heard talking about the union, we could lose our job," says Manny. Still, workers find a way.
"I don't want to give away too many secrets," says Nicholson. "But you'd be surprised how creative workers can be when they're unionizing."
After meeting with individuals and workers for many weeks, PCUN and their undercover workers gathered 180 signatures requesting a union for Pictsweet. The company gave no response. PCUN, which is located in Woodburn and has 12 full-time staff members, then organized several demonstrations outside Salem. It's taken five solid months of full-time work by two hundred people to earn any recognition by Pictsweet. They're definitely not ready to go to the negotiating table, but at least they've acknowledged PCUN's presence. Next step? Handing out literature to consumers in Portland and Salem, explaining the urgency of boycotting Pictsweet.
"What we feared would happen is already happening," says Gangi about Pictsweet's lay-offs. "Pictsweet is trying to create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear." She explains. "But the fact that the workers still want to move forward, united, really speaks to their spirit. I have high hopes."