– Kevin Gomez-Gonzalez, 2021 SAF intern
NC Justice Center
I’ve spoken about the buses before. The ones that stood guard near the edges of tobacco fields that bordered the roads in my hometown, resting after ushering back groups of workers. This summer, however, I finally saw them up close.
I saw how large they were. How they stood out against the wide-open skies. They filled up the cracked asphalt in front of the labor camp, silently keeping guard. I’d come out to this labor camp in Sampson County, not far from where I had grown up but still seemingly worlds away.
We’d spent hours zigzagging across the landscape, trying to find a camp to visit and distribute the pamphlets stuffed in cardboard boxes in the trunk of our car. We’d been turned away previously, locked gates with NO TRESPASSING signs that I’d learned wouldn’t hold up in court but certainly did their job of dissuading visitors. There was a similar warning here, too, but the workers that sat next to them and greeted us helped cure me of the notice’s unnerving effect.
We didn’t have the most successful visit. A vendor who had brought an assortment of cellphones for purchase proved to be the more popular attraction that day. The crowd that gathered outside the saleswoman’s car window stood paying close attention. We were resigned to getting across what we could to the two young men playing a mobile game on their phones. Others were at the edges of the property taking calls, maybe trying to squeeze a bit of signal out of distant cell towers to call family even further away.
It made sense though. After all, we always ended our pitches by asking workers to contact us over the phone with any questions that they may have or reach out to us on WhatsApp or Facebook. What good would that do for you if you had no way to follow up?
There is no substitute for reaching out in person. We can answer questions as they come to mind. We can make notes of details that wouldn’t be apparent without witnessing them ourselves. We have the chance to demonstrate that there are ways to get support. Physically being there almost served to testify that help is out there and within reach.
Even in the best of circumstances, however, conducting outreach is a challenge. Completing training, preparing documents, creating action plans, designating roles, and making the trip out to a camp where we may very well not be able to get in front of workers. Whether we would arrive on time was always a question as we only had a few fleeting moments to get our message across between the arrival of workers at the end of the workday and nightfall, especially at the height of the season. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, added a new layer of complexity to the process.
On June 23, 2021, the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision that found a Californian “right to access” regulation to be unconstitutional. The regulation granted labor organizers the authority to access agricultural employers’ private property to solicit union support. The decision was worrying, though the situation in California is quite different than in North Carolina. The ability of outreach workers to access camps in North Carolina relies in part on the strength of a recent letter by the attorney general written to address the importance of access during the pandemic. In addition, a patchwork of legal decisions and letters from sheriffs offer a layer of protection.
The need to improve access to farmworkers has grown increasingly apparent to me. Undoubtedly, the feelings of isolation experienced during the pandemic have contributed to my sensitivity to the importance of more substantial infrastructure and regulations that strengthen the rights of outreach workers. A lack of sufficient cell service and internet in rural areas is an especially large barrier to access at a time when a pandemic has forced us to rely on virtual communication. In-person outreach efforts can bridge that gap somewhat, but only insofar as it is feasible with the available resources and legal protections for outreach workers. We must do more to ensure that support is truly within reach. I wouldn’t have realized this without my experience through SAF.