in the middle of the Willamette Valley, a broad, fertile
plain between the Cascade and Coast Range mountains, is
a 4,000-square-mile section of Northwest Oregon. Agriculture
is a $3 billion business in Oregon; the state ranks among
the top three in the production of at least 23 commodities,
and harvesting is labor intensive. Librado's family is in
the minority: Mexican
farmworkers who stay north year 'round, even if barely able
to find enough off-season work to support themselves. His
parents belong to Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste
(PCUN--Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United), Oregon's
farmworkers union. The majority of PCUN's more than 4,500
members are seasonal, some commuting up year after year
to work the fields, others only once or twice. It's part
of what makes organizing this labor force difficult.
took five years, from 1980 to 1985, to establish the union.
Four people were there at the beginning: Larry Kleinman
'75, Cipriano Ferrel, Juan Mendoza, and Ramon Ramirez.
Ferrel had the vision. Having grown up with the daughters
of Cesar Chavez, who, in 1965, founded the United Farm
Workers union in California, Ferrel knew first-hand the
potential of organized labor. The four met through the
Willamette Valley Immigration Project, an initiative that
Kleinman helped start in 1977 to offer legal assistance
to immigrants, particularly Latinos targeted by raids
and deportation by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
Service. "We knew we weren't going to get to the root
of the problem just doing immigration work," says Kleinman.
"The problem is economic. People were being exploited.
And in our economy, the most effective means of addressing
that is forming a union."
farmworkers, he says, face myriad issues, including no basic
labor rights. They lack seniority, job security, protection
from retaliation and production speed ups, and the ability
to file grievances, organize, and elect representation.
most farmworkers are paid on a piece-work basis, compensation
routinely falls below minimum wage. And like most other
low-wage laborers, they face a severe shortage of decent,
affordable housing. The decades-old
practice of housing workers in labor camps on company
land adds the dimension
of racial segregation and employer-control.
says that workers must also deal with pesticides and agricultural
chemicals that are widely employed throughout the Valley.
"PCUN has been working to insure workers the right to know
which chemicals are being applied, the right to complain
about exposure to them, and to limit their use," he says.
Too, the cost of and access to adequate health care is limited,
a pressing problem given the physical demands of the industry
and routine exposure to pesticides.
says, Kleinman, the cost and backlog of immigrant applications
has increased in recent years, keeping families to remain
apart, separated by political borders for extended periods
Jewish, and raised in the affluence of the Chicago suburb
of Highland Park, Kleinman is an unlikely leader within
a predominantly Latino organization, where "white privilege"
can be criticized. "We strive to deal with it deliberately
and honestly," he says. "Ultimately, it is up to the community
whether or not they want me around and playing my role.
I have to be a member serving the community; not a person
using the community to support an agenda."
joined the Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) program
after graduating from Oberlin, and worked on housing issues
as a paralegal in a Spokane Legal Aid office. The son
of a lawyer, Kleinman was home-schooled in the law, explaining
that "a lot of the orientation of my family was debating
stuff." A year later, in 1976, he moved to the Public
Defenders Office in Vancouver and observed the daily workings
of the civil and criminal justice system. "I didn't have
a career goal out of college. I wanted to do something
that furthered my values, but what that was going to be,
I really didn't know."
interest in helping the disadvantaged with their legal
concerns led him to the National Lawyers Guild, dedicated
to making human rights more sacred than property rights.
He met Chicano activists in the Valley and helped create
the Willamette Valley Immigration Project. For 11 years,
Kleinman worked, investing "as little time as possible"
in other jobs to earn a living. In 1988 he was elected
secretary/treasurer of PCUN for the first of eight terms,
and began a career of fundraising, managing finances,
coordinating activist campaigns, and addressing state
legislative issues that impact union members.
PCUN building is located a block from what was once the
center of Woodburn, a town of 16,000 in the middle of
the Willamette Valley, largely abandoned in favor of nearby
strip malls. The area still serves as a center for the
service and cultural activity of the largest concentration
of farmworkers in the state, predominantly Mexicans, as
it has since the 1950s. It was a natural home for the
Willamette Valley Immigration Project and, subsequently,
prosperity of the surrounding farms, some encompassing
thousands of acres, is as dependent on the laborers as
they are upon the seasonal work. Yet with a steady supply
of eager and inexpensive labor, the relationship between
worker and employee is often one of domination and submission.
Furthermore, farmworkers fall outside of federal work
protections, such as the National Labor Relations Act.
disadvantaged in their own country, Mexicans have been
working in the Oregon fields since the early 1940s. To
address an acute farmworker shortage during World War
II, the U.S. government brought thousands of Mexicans
north through the Bracero Program to provide American
farmers with cheap and typically hard-working laborers.
After the war, little changed. As Kleinman explains, "That
basic paradigm is the essential ingredient of the farm
labor system 50 years later." It is in the farm owners'
best interest to maintain a flooded job market so that
if hit by demands or a workers' strike, the laborers are
fired and replacements easily found, a scenario that is
often repeated in the Valley.
1988, no one thought a farmworkers union in Oregon was
viable," says Kleinman. "The idea of collective bargaining
was considered an improbable dream." PCUN has persevered
and today has four contracts achieved through collective
bargaining with smaller growers. Programs extend beyond
labor organizing and include English citizenship classes,
an initiative to stop pesticide poisoning, a media and
"popular library/living archives," a women's project,
the development of farmworker-controlled housing, and
a service center which offers, among other resources,
the immigration legal assistance previously provided by
the Willamette Valley Immigration Project.
PCUN's more visible achievements are the 102 units of
low-income housing run by an independent, non-profit sister
organization, the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation
(FHDC). Non-descript, run-down, tucked as far from sight
as possible, and overcrowded with migrant workers, most
farmworker housing in the area provides the barest of
accommodations. The exorbitant rent is usually deducted
from wages paid by the growers or contractors who own
and manage the labor camps. The arrangement is easily
exploited. Last summer, at the instigation
of PCUN, Occupational Safety and Health Administration
stepped up its inspections of the camps, citing one owner
for more than 46 violations, an incident that attracted
reporters from several Portland television stations.
was instrumental in the formation of the FHDC and in securing
the funding and sites for the apartments. The two developments
comprise clean, well-kept communities and are the recipients
of several state and national design awards. Farmworkers
who occupy them have a say in the housing management.
would be a fallacy to view Kleinman's work in terms of an
adopted foreign struggle. Although marginalized by language,
culture, and particularly class, Librado's parents and thousands
more are part of an American system of exploitation that
has impacted immigrant communities throughout our history.
is dedicated to change, the kind of evolution that requires
a long, sustained effort to achieve. Two benefits have
kept him engaged. "The work has given me the opportunity
to be effective and successful
in an area that reflects my values. And it has taught
me a tremendous amount. I look back 23 years and see that
I've gained more than I've given."
greatest accomplishment isn't the funding he's raised
or the farmworker housing project, or any of the tangible
accomplishments of PCUN, but simply that 15 years after
its founding, PCUN has put the issue of justice for farmworkers
on the map in Oregon, and everyone from the governor on
down is taking notice. Representatives of the union are
visiting colleges, including Oberlin, this spring to raise
awareness of the workers' struggles and to mobilize support
groups on campuses.
foresees a time when collectively bargained contracts are
the norm for Oregon farmworkers, and PCUN extends its reach
to the entire state. Yet, he is cautious as well. It isn't
enough for PCUN to achieve progress. As history has shown,
labor advances can evaporate if not sustained.
S. Nicholson is a writer and designer.