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Thursday
Jun152017

A Personal History of Progressive Support for Farmworker Union Organizing

By Dave Austin, Triangle Friends of Farmworkers

In 1976, fresh out of public health graduate school and the Peace Corps, I got hired as a staff member with the Carolina Brown Lung Association (CBLA), a non-profit organization advocating for workers’ compensation for workers incapacitated by the severely disabling disease called byssinosis, and for workplace standards to limit the cotton dust in textile mills that caused the disease, also known as “brown lung.”  When I started I knew next-to-nothing about how the workers’ comp system worked, or didn’t work …. and only a little bit more about workplace safety & health standards, how they were created, implemented and enforced …. or not. 

I look back on my 10-year experience with the CBLA with some pride because the organization successfully fought for and won some important policy changes.  Whereas in 1972 brown lung wasn’t even recognized as an occupational disease in the U.S., by the early 1980s the workers’ compensation system had changed significantly to recognize that brown lung was indeed caused by concentrated cotton dust in the mills and to create a protocol of diagnosis and workplace attribution that allowed hundreds of disabled textile workers to finally receive workers’ compensation.  For thousands before then it was too late, but it was something.   The disabled textile workers we helped to organize had everything to do with those changes.    

I also look back with some chagrin on my own naivete and obliviousness with regard to the effort to clean up the mills.  Because beyond the CBLA’s efforts to change brown lung compensation, we also wanted to prevent the disease. To do this we had to force OSHA to develop a workplace standard that would minimize cotton dust exposure.  

We did organize retired, disabled textile workers to testify about how they had contracted disabling brown lung after as little as one or two years in dusty areas of the mills, and this did have some significant effect in the 1978 promulgation of OSHA’s cotton dust standard (CDS).  But we had little access to active mill workers for the simple reason that we couldn’t offer them protection from getting fired if they took a stand.  The textile union (ACTWU) was a leader in pressuring for CDS passage and then fighting off the many industry appeals of the standard, as well as the actual implementation of the standard inside the mills – which, after all, was where it really mattered. 

Of ACTUW’s critical role, I was pretty oblivious.  Building/maintaining/organizing the CBLA seemed the most important thing in the world, and – although the intensity and passion of that 10 years of work was something I’ll always remember – I now look back and wonder how I could have missed what was right in front of my face: the importance of union protections in any kind of workplace movement.  And I wonder what I could have/should have done to support that effort.  ACTWU won an incredible victory in 1974 in winning a union vote at JP Stevens plants in Roanoke Rapids, but for me it came out of the blue.  And it took ACTWU 6 more long years before it was finally able to force JP Stevens to sign a contract.  Might it have been less if I and other progressives had supported ACTWU more? 

For several years now I’ve volunteered with organizations that support farmworker union organizing, namely the Triangle Friends of Farmworkers (TFF) and the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM).  One frustration is that the importance of union organizing seems even less salient today to young progressives, and the public, than it was to me 40 years ago.  I believe progressives need to acknowledge better the absolute necessity of union protections in the workplace that can encourage workers themselves to create, fight for, and win control over their own lives.  Until workers themselves can take a collective stand, without fear of retaliation, significant changes in policies or laws or corporate or farm-level practices are impossible to imagine.  And, without significant public support, union organizing becomes an even more arduous and fragile exercise.  Unions depend on the dues of their members for organizing resources; farmworker union organizing needs considerable public support because seasonal work and the exploitive wage levels of farmworkers means dues contributions are incredibly low. 

Union organizing efforts operate within a legal framework that offers workers at least some protections in exercising legal rights.  Throughout the early decades of the 20th century workers fought to create that framework.  This is why TFF and NFWM focus efforts on support for labor organizations whose members are farmworkers, like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). FLOC has won benefits for members through collective bargaining. These benefits were previously seen as important but improbable legislative reform goals.  FLOC is now involved in spreading the right to collectively bargain (beyond the farmworkers currently covered through FLOC’s contract with the NC Growers’ Association) to thousands more farmworkers in the Southern supply chain of tobacco giants such as Reynolds American. To learn more or get involved, contact Triangle Friends of Farmworkers at:  daustin@mindspring.com;  or  the National Farm Worker Ministry at: salan@nfwm.org  for ideas on how to help, such as driving farmworker-leaders in FLOC to and from critical regional organizing meetings.   Forty years from now, I hope more people can look at farmworker organizing victories and say “we played a key role in that effort”.  

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