America’s agricultural industry is facing an unprecedented labor shortage. Workers age out, new workers no longer immigrate, and the children of farmworkers are escaping to cities. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants live in constant fear, lacking labor protections, access to affordable housing, and services that would make day-to-day life manageable. “For generations, people have been toiling in our fields in some of the worst working conditions in our country,” said Carmen Rojas, CEO of The Workers Lab, which launched The California Harvesters. “And we’ve done not much more than tinker around the edges in figuring out how to fix that.” The result of a cross-sector collaboration—including an owner, cooperative finance organization, lawyers, and nonprofit organizations—The California Harvesters has embarked on an ambitious effort to provide worker-ownership to undocumented immigrants through a labor trust, which also negotiates with growers on wages and benefits. The project secured its first trust members an hourly rate of $1.50 over minimum wage, plus access to health benefits for the first time. The effort solved a market problem for growers, while improving the lives of Central Valley farmworkers—and paving the way for economic security and wealth-building for those who literally hold up the nation’s food economy.
The California Harvesters is a response to the lack of opportunity that the majority of farm workers across the U.S. face. We have established a new employment model that provides farm workers with the power to set workplace standards, negotiate wages and benefits, and access revenue generated by farms. We are doing this by solving the critical problem of instability in the agricultural industry and creating a fixed labor supply for growers through a new workplace model called a cooperative trust.
I was inspired to take on this project while in a meeting with our partners that represent the leading thinkers in cooperative development, cooperative finance, cooperative law, and the agricultural industry. We were reviewing a report The Workers Lab commissioned on the state of agricultural work. The fact that conditions for farmworkers in California remained unchanged despite years of philanthropic investment, services, and organizing was staggering. We knew something needed to be done, and that we had as good a chance as anyone to recreate labor standards in the industry.
We are confronting a philanthropic landscape in California that pours millions of dollars into the agricultural regions of the state to provide services or training, but have made marginal commitments to addressing the wages and assets of farmworkers.
The leaders that are critical to the success of The California Harvesters are Rupal Patel and Sejal Patel, from the asset management company that owns our demonstration farm; Brendan Martin, from the cooperative development and finance organization The Working World; Melissa Hoover, from the cooperative technical assistance and conversion organization Democracy at Work Institute; and Sushil Jacob, who created the legal framework for The California Harvesters.
When I started The Workers Lab, I spent a couple of days in Immokalee, Florida with the leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Florida produces one-third of the tomatoes in the U.S., and has a notorious record of exploiting agricultural workers. Ten years ago, the Coalition decided that enough was enough, and organized workers to fight for dignity in the fields. They established a standard for the industry and gave workers a true voice in their workplace. I continue to be inspired by their ability to imagine and realize a new way for agricultural workers to live and work with dignity.
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