By Peter Maiden
The Labor Rights Caravan reached the small town of Huron on June 26. Volunteers set up pavilions in the parking lot of a Mexican bakery, the Panadería de Dios. In the 100-degree heat, they met a steady stream of residents. Farmworkers came after getting off of work, wearing long sleeves and bandanas to protect themselves from exposure to the sun and from the fruits and vegetables that can be damaging to handle.
The volunteers gave out information about Covid-19, along with hand sanitizer and masks. People got more supplies if they had larger families. A truck with a display on its side showed messages about preventing heat-related illness and played a recording over a loudspeaker about health in the heat in several languages.
This was just one stop in a four-day program on wheels that went through five counties in the San Joaquín Valley: Fresno, Tulare, Merced, Stanislaus and Kings.
On June 25, the Department of Industrial Relations of the State of California held a press conference in the parking lot in front of the office of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in Visalia to announce the caravan.
The press conference was attended by about 40 people. It was sponsored by a number of organizations, several of which work within an umbrella organization called the COVID Workplace Outreach Project.
Among the speakers was Dolores Huerta, labor movement icon and founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. She said, “As we know, the farmworkers are essential workers, and all of us here know that in this terrible heat we’ve been having that the farmworkers are out there every single day picking our food to put on our tables.
“We know that they have a lot of health needs. There’s a lot of resources that they need to be able to protect themselves during this pandemic.
“At the Dolores Huerta Foundation, we have been working very hard—right now we have 83 people canvassing, going door to door, making people sign up for their vaccines. We still do not have enough of our community that have been vaccinated.”
Oralia Maceda, program director of the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, spoke next. She said the center is active in arranging vaccinations for farmworkers, in particular those who speak indigenous languages.
She said organizers from the center go out to the fields in the early morning and give farmworkers information, such as how they can do the paperwork to get vaccinated. They also provide vaccination clinics at their offices, where community members are comfortable going. They have been vaccinating 150 at a time.
Maceda introduced Guadalupe Ramirez, a Mixtec farmworker, who spoke in Spanish about her experiences in the pandemic.
Ramirez said, “What affected me, in particular, was that in the job where I was working, there were rules that everyone must wash their hands, and that there should be social distancing, but we couldn’t follow those rules because there were a lot of us, and we had to work close together. Also, there was not enough water, and there was no hand sanitizer to clean our hands.
“How the pandemic affected me was that I had to stop working for a while because I have two children, and the technology [distance learning] was new for us. It was a choice of working or taking care of my kids. I needed to orient them to the computer and what they needed to do to take their classes.”
Ramirez stayed home for her children, and she lost wages. She quarantined for a while, and that was unpaid as well.
Huerta said, “I’m happy to see that the agencies are coming together, our state agencies, the labor commissioner, the ALRB, [the] Department of Industrial Resources, and this is what it’s going to take.
“We have to do an all-out effort, an all-out campaign, to make sure that our workers are protected, that they are safe, and that they get what they need to protect themselves and their families, and also to protect them on the job to make sure that they are paid what they should be paid.”
She concluded: “We’ll continue to work and do the biggest campaign that we can to reach deep into these communities and help our farmworkers. ¡Sí se puede!”
Peter Maiden is the photo editor of the Community Alliance newspaper.
All photos by Peter Maiden