The truth about farmworkers is lost when activists pretend they are journalists

  • May 26, 2020

David Bacon is a farmworker union activist posing as a journalist. Bacon’s latest piece of “journalism” in Capital & Main, a California hard-left online channel, was published May 21, 2020 and is titled “Are Washington’s Farmworkers Covid-19 Guinea Pigs?”

This article demonstrates clearly that as an activist Mr. Bacon adheres to Alinsky’s view that facts and the truth can be sacrificed in pursuit of the activists’ agenda. We’ll review this article and show how far Mr. Bacon drifts from the truth.Headline: Guinea Pigs
The title, designed to attract attention and generate outrage, has no basis in fact. Farmers and farm workers were declared essential workers at the early stages of the pandemic. They joined healthcare workers, first responders, food distribution workers, military and most government workers in being asked to stay on the job to protect those of us who could take the greatest safety precautions. Providing food for our communities, nation and the world, remains a high priority and the dedication of these workers and the farmers that employ them has benefited all of us as the food supply has been maintained. No one is using farmworkers for testing purposes and no one is treating them as disposable test subjects. There is no basis in fact for applying this title to farmworkers.

1 Headline: Guinea Pigs
The title, designed to attract attention and generate outrage, has no basis in fact. Farmers and farm workers were declared essential workers at the early stages of the pandemic. They joined healthcare workers, first responders, food distribution workers, military and most government workers in being asked to stay on the job to protect those of us who could take the greatest safety precautions. Providing food for our communities, nation and the world, remains a high priority and the dedication of these workers and the farmers that employ them has benefited all of us as the food supply has been maintained. No one is using farmworkers for testing purposes and no one is treating them as disposable test subjects. There is no basis in fact for applying this title to farmworkers.

2. Stemilt Growers response
The article begins telling the story of how workers at one Washington apple farm became ill. A journalist would have provided the relevant details. Bacon suggests that the farm was less than helpful or concerned about workers who became ill. The public record shows the opposite. A detailed account of the response of farm management to the initial illnesses makes it clear that the farm operated not only in accordance with all safety directives, but proactively tested workers and took strong measures to prevent further infections. 

3. Yakima County data
The basis of Bacon’s claims about using farmworkers as guinea pigs is the data about illnesses in Yakima County where some of the farmworkers are employed. Looking at the data from other perspectives provides a more complete and nuanced understanding. Testing in Yakima County has been considerably higher as a percentage of population than statewide and in King County. While Yakima’s percentage of deaths from coronavirus as of May 21 are 3.3%, King County (Seattle metro area) has a far higher percentage of deaths at 7%.

Cultural factors strongly influence illnesses. Farm employers have frequently commented that while they work hard to ensure compliance with the safety and health rules at work, they do not control what their workers do when not working and have observed them showing little regard for the social distancing, handwashing, use of masks, etc., that are designed to protect them. In fact, farmworkers on strike or protestiing at the instigation of Rosalinda Guillen complain about unsafe working conditions, but have been protesting without masks, without any protections and without practicing social distancing. It appears farmers have done better at managing the protections of workers than those leading the workers in their protests.

What’s the point of this? Mr. Bacon’s conclusions about farmworkers and their work causing an exceptional level of illness is highly suspect. Any illness is one too many and any death is a great tragedy, but it is important and responsible to be cautious about assigning blame.

4. Photo of worker “barracks”
Mr. Bacon has access to recent and accurate photos of farmworker housing in Washington state. We know that because we have consistently published photos and videos of this housing on our website. Labor union activist Rosalinda Guillen made numerous false accusations about this housing and only stopped when we published photos showing her claims were false. We strongly encourage those concerned about these conditions to watch the video of temporary farm workers at work in 2019: https://savefamilyfarming.org/guestworkers/. Then, decide for yourself if using disgusting images of “barracks” from Blythe, California is honest journalism.

Temporary worker housing from Western Washington farm

Temporary worker housing from Eastern Washington farm

5. U of WA epidemiologists
Mr. Bacon refers to two University of Washington epidemiologists to provide credibility to the claims of labor union activists. These professors in a statement for the court hearings initiated by the activists clearly demonstrated they were taking their facts and cues from the activists. For example, they claimed in a court document that workers’ housing provided only 50 square feet per worker. The Stemilit court document showed that their worker housing provided 137 square feet per worker and the law requires at least 100 square feet per worker.

6. Blacklisting
The claim of “blacklisting” is a common one of the farmworker union activists. As proof that farmers retaliate against workers, “journalist” Bacon uses a document that one guest worker recruiter asks workers to sign:

It has them sign a pledge that authorizes their own blacklisting:  “I understand that if I don’t follow the rules at work, in housing or conduct, or my productivity on the job isn’t adequate, the boss has the right to fire me and I will lose all the benefit of my work visa, I will have to go back to Mexico, and the boss will report me to the authorities. This will obviously affect my ability to return legally to the United States in the future.”

The activists believe that unlike any other category of worker in the US, a temporary farmworker should be able to be hired and paid even if they violate all the employment policies of their employer and refuse to perform the work that they hired to perform. Employers in our nation have the right to hire and fire employees providing they follow existing rules. Guest workers and  coming with legal visas are protected by likely the most stringent and protective rules of any category of worker. Same for domestic farm workers. We have challenged activists on several occasions to show any worker category that is more protected. Mr. Bacon’s credibility on these issues would increase if he could show a category of worker with greater protections. Farmers who violate the strict worker rest break laws even by mere minutes face massive fines as one Western Washington berry grower found. Is it right that unlike every other employer farmers should not have the right to hire and fire their workers?

7. H-2A or guest worker program “attractive” to farmers
Mr. Bacon’s suggestions, the federal guest worker program is far from the first preference of farmers in hiring workers. Not only because of paying the highest minimum wage in the nation, but also because of other requirements and the very significant bureaucratic requirements. The immigration of workers from Mexico slowed beginning in 2008 and since then farmers have been struggling to find enough workers to grow and harvest crops. Rosalinda Guillen, Bacon’s primary source for his “reporting”, stated in testimony to Washington legislators that there are plenty of domestic workers in Washington. It was another of her many false statements. Farmers would like to know where these workers are. 

One requirement farmers have under the guest worker program is to prove to the federal Department of Labor that they have exhausted all possibilities of recruiting and hiring domestic workers before they are approved for a single guest worker. Guest workers in 2020 are paid a minimum wage of $15.83 per hour in Washington state––the highest in the nation and considerably higher than the state’s minimum wage. In reality, most make $20 to $25 an hour and the highest producing workers earn considerably more due to incentive pay. But the pay is only one consideration. Guest workers are provided free transportation to and from their homes (usually in Mexico) and are provided free government inspected and approved housing. (See the video mentioned for what these actually look like inside and out). For workers coming from Mexico, this is a life changing opportunity. They make in 4 to 6 months what would take them over ten years working full time on a Mexican farm to earn. They become among the top one percent of wage earners in Mexico! But, domestic workers also benefit when guest workers are hired because the law requires they be paid and receive the same benefits as the guest workers. Domestic farmworkers, including those on one berry farm where Rosalinda’s union has a contract, would most likely enjoy increased pay and benefits if the farmer hired even a handful of guest workers. Consumers are not sufficiently aware that imports of fruits and vegetables have been increasing rapidly and in many cases are over 50% of what we now eat in this country. A big reason is the huge gap in cost of production. Washington farmers pay 30 times more than foreign competitors, plus pay for safety, worker and environmental protections usually not required of foreign producers. These laws are good, but as the pandemic has shown, we must also be aware of the benefits of local and national food supplies.

8. Washington rules protecting workers
The Washington rules that emerged are presented as careless, unscientific and allow workers to be used as “guinea pigs.” The truth is that the requirements demanded by the activists would have caused far greater harm to workers and the state agencies recognized that. There are 31,500 temporary worker housing beds in Washington state. About 22,000 of them would be used by guest workers coming with legal work visas mostly from Mexico. The remaining 20,000 are domestic farm workers who travel from one part of the country to the other following the harvest. They come from California, Texas and other states expecting to find the government approved and inspected housing the farmer provides. But the activists fought hard to take half those beds away. Where would these workers go? To their cars, under trees or bridges or perhaps to stay with an acquaintance or friendly local farmworker, causing an overcrowded and unsanitary condition in more homes. Forcing the workers to return to their states or stopping them from coming because of the lack of beds would have devastated these workers and their families and caused a massive loss of crops. The pandemic has caused many government leaders to make difficult decisions. The state acted to provide maximum protection to workers which included providing the best housing available to them.

Mr. Bacon did not include the fact that many farms go beyond the government rules in protecting workers. The food supply chain includes companies that require more of farmers than government regulations in order to ensure food safety and the health and protection of workers. Farmers who sell to and through these companies must follow these guidelines to protect their business. The accusations of lack of care of workers, or even mistreatment, suggests that farmers in general are hard-hearted and care only about profits or staying in business. While there are no doubt exceptions, farmers respect their workers and do all they can to make their jobs as safe, healthy and enjoyable for the workers as they can. These employees are the key to their futures. Activists, led by Rosalinda Guillen and supported by Mr. Bacon, have opposed guest workers in Washington state since at least 2013 believing that creating an even greater worker shortage will force farms to sign agreements with her union so that pay can be taken from the workers’ paychecks. Workers in Washington, as in California, have overwhelmingly rejected representation by farmworker unions. They neither need nor want them. With the highest pay in the nation and the highest level of worker protections, what can the union offer? The United Farm Workers union now represents fewer than one percent of all farm workers in California and faces more decertification votes than certification. This is in part because UFW has been found to be guilty of wage theft from their workers and former union organizers employed by them say the union treats their own employees worse than the employers they are targeting.

9. “Disposable, cheap labor”
Perhaps a few of these farmworkers feel this way. But, as just mentioned, the vast majority appreciate these jobs and return year after year. For guest workers, coming with a legal visa that allows them to return home safely to their families, the job not only puts them in the top of wage earners in Mexico, it provides dignity and peace of mind. The alternative of trying to cross the border illegally is far less attractive and far more dangerous. The fact is that, even now on Eastern Washington fruit farms, the labor activists are stirring up workers to take action, using false promises to workers to protest against their employers.

They stage protests using non-workers to make it appear that more workers are protesting. This has been the mode of operation in the past and sadly, it is the workers who fall for the false promises, that have been hurt the worst. For example, a Western Washington fruit farm was subject to the activism of Rosalinda Guillen who secured major media attention for her claim that a worker died due to abuse or lack of care by the farmer. He died of natural causes as proven by the Medical Examiner and an in-depth state investigation.

The farm did everything they could for the man and his family in Mexico. But despite the established facts, Rosalinda–– in true Alinksy style––continues to this day to claim the farm was responsible. Over 400 workers, domestic and guest, lost their jobs. That means about $8 million of income was lost to those families in one year alone, at least from this farm. The farm opted to invest in machine harvesting equipment, meaning that these once highly valued jobs are lost forever. But, this is the activist that “journalist” Bacon insists is always telling the truth and is working on behalf of workers.

10. Federal enforcement of guest worker program
The straightforward claim that the federal government does no enforcement of the guest worker program is easily shown to be an outright false statement. It is not just the federal government that strictly enforces this program and protects workers, but also very stringent state regulations and enforcement. For example, one farm subjected to extensive media coverage based on false accusations by Rosalinda Guillen received an initial fine of $149,000 for late rest and meal breaks. Even breaks a few minutes late can result in massive fines (the court reduced this one by half). The report Mr. Bacon refers to was conducted by an advocacy group and likely involved interviews with the very small percentage of disaffected workers and not a representative sample of guest workers.

11. No comment from growers or wafla
Mr. Bacon says he reached out to Dan Fazio of wafla and Washington growers. Mr. Fazio does not recall any effort to contact him for this article. Mr. Bacon did reach out to wafla in 2017 but his reputation as an activist and not a journalist was known and they chose not to respond to his request. Is it legitimate for a journalist to claim that he attempted to contact those with opposing views when he didn’t? Given his record of activism, it is unlikely that anyone not in the activist camp he supports will take the time to talk to him. That will make it even harder to try to legitimize his journalistic claim.

Journalism matters

We ask the editors of Capital & Main to set the record straight. Publish this fact check response. And the next time Mr. Bacon submits an article, please do a bit of fact checking. As an activist, he is an effective and dutiful spokesperson for an agenda that is working hard to take money from workers’ paychecks and an exemplar of the Alinsky school of end justifying the means activism. But, he is no journalist.

To read Bacon’s full article, click here: https://capitalandmain.com/are-washingtons-farmworkers-covid-19-guinea-pigs-0521