Unionists from around the South march with Quincy mushroom workers
Quincy--About 1,500 unionists and civil rights workers converged on this town just northwest of Tallahassee on June 28 to march and express solidarity with mushroom workers at Quincy Farms. The workers are seeking a contract from a company that fired 85 and arrested 24 for having a lunch break demonstration in the parking lot of the plant on March 14, 1996. The company employs around 500 people. Since the firings, farmworkers have led a boycott of Prime mushrooms, which are grown at Quincy Farms.
In 1995, workers requested that the United Farm Workers Union help them organize against unsafe working conditions, mistreatment and low wages. After some months of talking about the union, 75% percent of the workers voted in a card check election to have the United Farm Workers represent them, but because farm workers are excluded from the labor laws that govern most other workers, the management has refused to bargain.
"Brothers and sisters, you have a right to belong to a union. You have a right to respect and dignity and decent pay, because you're somebody," said James Butler, president of the public hospital workers union in New York City, who drove their Martin Luther King Freedom Bus to Florida for the march. "You might not be a lawyer or a doctor, but you're a mushroom worker. You get up early, you work hard at the job ... the mushrooms move out ... and management makes money. But you get left out."
The workers at Quincy Farms first invited the union to help them organize because of the bad working conditions they endure. Mushrooms are harvested on elevated beds which are slippery because they are wet. Workers frequently fall and twist their ankles, or get injured because of the working conditions. The company doctor generally gives them aspirin and tells them to go back to work, according to many workers. They are also required to sign a paper that the accident was their fault. Since the pickers are Latino and many don't speak much English, they report that their names were signed for them, or that they were told to sign without knowing what they're signing.
Quincy Farms effectively segregates the workforce, with Latino workers picking the mushrooms and African-American workers packing them. A woman recently lost a finger packing mushrooms there, and another woman, Emma Mathis, was forced to work even though she said she was sick. She finally fainted and now has to pay a $600 ambulance bill because the company wouldn't let her stop working and go home.
Wages are extremely low (starting at $5/hr.), and there is a lot of forced overtime. While the company boasts about providing health insurance, it is almost useless, according to workers. There is no sick leave, no paid vacation. "Absences are only allowed with a written excuse... Supervisors monitor workers on how much time they spend in the restroom. They record each worker's mistakes. After three mistakes, a worker is dismissed," (Florida Flambeau, June 26.)
Joining the workers were Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, unionists and labor unions from around Florida and across the South, the Florida NAACP and the Gadsden County NAACP, four National Organization for Women chapters and Florida state NOW, the president of the United Farm Workers, the national executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO, state representatives, and the Mayor of Quincy.
Management leaned on the workers who remain to not attend the march, "If I go, they're going to write me up" one worker said. But Quincy Farms brought a bevy of 'satisfied workers' at a nearby fast food restaurant talk to the press.
Rev. Lowery, speaking at Arnett Chapel AME Church before the march, noted that the Quincy Farms president Rick Lazzarini called Lowery an "agent of the union" whereas his boss Dennis Zensen, CEO of the parent company Sylvan, wrote Lowery a pleasant letter saying how much he appreciates his civil rights work, but can't meet with him because he's in Europe. "One of them's lying," Lowery said. "Which one is it?"
Hospital worker president Butler said, "After today they're going to have to go back to the conference room and draw up a new plan."
"There's nothing like having a union on your side... You have labor around you. That's why we sing 'Solidarity Forever, for the union makes us strong,' to let you know that we are here."
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