Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the Texas Consumer Association, Texas Agriculture Commissioner, host of a radio show. Nowadays he broadcasts daily radio commentaries, publishes a monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown (jimhightower.com) and makes more than 100 speeches a year. With groups like ACORN and Public Citizen he's organizing the Rolling Thunder Chautauqua Tour, a series of political/cultural festivals around the country (rollingthundertour.org). He'll be traveling through America talking to people engaged in grassroots work and new political movements for working people.
This old American democratic tradition already has deep support at the grassroots.
People are wriggling free of the fetters of corporate culture.
How do we fix our dysfunctional relationship with food? Alice Waters
leads a forum with Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, Peter Singer and
others, who suggest, for starters, that we stop buying factory farm
products, get involved in farm policy and outlaw the marketing of junk
food to kids.
In the undeclared war against dissent, disagreement has become a crime.
Look at America's leadership today. Tell me you wouldn't trade the whole mess of them for one good kindergarten teacher.
During my days as Texas agriculture commissioner, a farmer pointed out to
me that you can count the seeds in an apple, but you can't count the
apples in a seed.
On election morning, I opened the front section of the New York
Times and immediately got a bad feeling. Positioned prominently on
page A3 was an eye-catching and ominous ad.
How quickly the joy fades.
Out in the countryside is where you'll find America's true leaders--the
gutsy, scrappy, sometimes scruffy and always ingenious grassroots
agitators and organizers who go right into the face of
he Powers That Be constantly try to keep the progressive majority
divided: workers against environmentalists, enviros against farmers,
farmers against consumers, consumers against workers, and around and
around it goes. As we squawk and squabble with each other, they scoot
off with ever more of our money and power, laughing all the way.
It's when we break this self-defeating circle that we put a little
progress back in "progressive," much to the consternation of those
Powers That Be, as we've seen recently with coalition efforts to pass
everything from living-wage ordinances to public financing of elections.
It's never easy to forge such coalitions--about like trying to load
frogs in a wheelbarrow--but it's essential to the development of a true
progressive movement that can be stronger than our separate parts.
If you were to map out a rational coalition strategy for a movement, you
probably wouldn't start by trying to link farmers and farmworkers, two
groups that have a long history of animosity and conflict. But
organizing a movement sometimes has less to do with rationality than it
does with creativity and opportunity, and, as Guadalupe Gamboa puts it,
"In times of trouble is when people are open to new ideas."
A Different Way
Lupe Gamboa is a regional director of the United Farm Workers of
America (UFW), and from his base in Washington State this grassroots
union leader knows plenty about times of trouble. The number-one crop
there is apples, mostly produced around the central Washington towns of
Wenatchee and Yakima. The apples are picked and packed by some 60,000
farmworkers, of whom 95 percent are Mexicans, averaging only $7,000 a
year in pay, with no benefits. They live in cramped and often squalid
housing, are constantly exposed to pesticides and suffer everything from
ruined backs to early death as they toil in one of America's most
So, time to strike against the apple growers, right?
No, says Gamboa and the UFW, we need a different way, because family
farmers are not really the power in this multibillion-dollar industry.
Indeed, farmers are suffering too, typically getting less money for
their apples than it costs to produce them, which means they're being
squeezed out of business. It's not that they're inefficient producers
but that, ironically, both the apple farmers and workers are literally
at the bottom of a food chain controlled by massive, monopolistic
middlemen dictating prices from far-away corporate headquarters.
In the big-business fresh-apple economy, those who do the most get the
least, which is perverse since, after all, an apple is an apple. From
tree to you, very little has to be done to it. Yet only a pittance of
what you pay in the supermarket trickles back to the actual producers.
Here's how today's apple dollar is sliced: Workers get 4 cents, the
farmer gets 7 cents, wholesalers and transporters take 21 cents and then
comes the hog. The retailers, dominated by Wal-Mart and Safeway, grab 68
cents of every dollar.
These powerhouses have consolidated and nationalized their purchasing
operations, eliminating regional buyers that dealt with individual
growers. This further concentrates the big chains' buying power.
Wal-Mart, now the largest grocery chain in the United States, proudly
proclaims that it offers "Low Prices, Always," but those low prices (and
high profits) are derived from its ability to bully the last dime from
suppliers and extract the last ounce of toil from labor. Someone down
the line always pays for Wal-Mart's cutthroat practices, and in apples
those someones are the hard-hit farmers and the oppressed farmworkers,
neither of whom Wal-Mart's ruling billionaires have to look in the eyes.
"Up to now we've been fighting with the employers," says Lupe Gamboa,
"but it's time to take on the retailers." Taking them on, however,
includes a positive and creative initiative that UFW is proposing: Fair
Trade Apples. Rather than surrender to the top-down restructuring of the
industry, the Fair Trade campaign creates an economic partnership among
the union, willing growers, retailers and consumers.
A Nickel's Worth of Fairness
At the heart of the plan is a Fair Trade price premium that would come
back to the growers and workers. Retailers would pay a bit extra per
pound, either eating this small increase or passing it along to us apple
buyers. Fair Trade Apples would bear stickers with the UFW's black eagle
symbol, certifying to consumers that these fruits allow the farmer to
earn a fairer return and workers to earn a fairer wage. As little as a
nickel-a-pound premium could make the difference, a negligible sum on a
high-volume, highly profitable grocery item.
The Fair Trade process begins in the orchards, where growers would agree
to a union contract assuring better wages, a small pension and safety
and health protections for apple workers. In turn, the farmers get an
able and stable work force, a certified UFW label on their apples that
carries special clout with consumers, and a premium price. Grocers get a
premium product that can generate extra sales and a ton of community
The key is you and me. As retailers have learned from organics, fair
trade coffee and no-sweat garments, there's a growing market of
consumers who care about how products are produced--care to the point
that they'll pay more if necessary. UFW is betting that we'll also be
there for apples, and it's planning a grassroots campaign through
churches, campuses, unions, consumer groups and other networks.
One grower of organic apples is on the verge of signing the first
contract, and some two dozen co-op grocers on the West Coast and in
Minnesota are prepared to be the first retailers to market them. If it
works with apples, it can work with other crops, solidifying the
farmer/farmworker coalition and bringing a measure of progress to fields
long barren of justice. To offer your support, contact the Fair Trade
Apple Campaign at (206) 789-1947 or firstname.lastname@example.org.