Alternative Structures of Government: a conversation with Eastern Farm Workers Association

By Sophia May

Art by Abby Hailu

It may be time to admit that our system is failing us. Economically, our representatives continue to support policies that increase the broad income gap between the wealthy few and the impoverished many. This is perpetuated by a political system under which representation is skewed so that companies can make contributions to political candidates’ campaigns on such a scale that candidates are beholden to the wishes of those companies before the wishes of their own constituents. Under this system, many high-density, urban communities have only a tiny fraction of the political voice that they are due, and no legislation can be passed that will fully protect the huge number of people that have been pushed into poverty to fulfill the need of our economic system for cheap labor and a highly uneven distribution of wealth.

Given this broken system, how could we trust change to come from the top? Instead, I would argue that new systems must be built in major part by those who are most affected by our current form of economy and government. People who are experiencing hardship due to systemic economic and social issues—such as the long tradition of racism in our country, the ongoing destruction of small-scale agriculture, and the displacement of industrial jobs overseas—know best what their own needs are, and thus have knowledge that is essential to systems that truly serve those who have traditionally been left out of economic growth and opportunity in our society. They also represent a huge labor force that could have a huge impact through sufficient organization. However, as Ben Lee of Eastern Farm Workers Association says, “People can’t fight for change on an empty stomach.” Organizations must therefore be built to take some weight that comes with being an impoverished person in this society off the shoulders of individuals, so that it may be borne together and alleviated by the group as a whole. The goal would be to create an organization so effective that its members would no longer have to spend all their time and energy on issues of survival. Thus, its members would have more time and energy available to organize for change and to support themselves and their fellow group members.

These systems would ideally both provide a way for people who are not currently being given representation to gain a voice, and would, given enough build-up of support, put pressure on our government to change, or else risk being replaced. Building a new kind of representational government from the ground up may not be easy, but if done successfully, would show the current power structure that its constituents are prepared to empower themselves if the system will not empower them, and would demonstrate the sorts of provisions that a government should be providing for its citizens.

Many organizations throughout history, such as the Black Panther Party and the Knights of Labor, have attempted to build representative bodies with the goal of providing their members the representation and benefits that they were not receiving from the government. Still today, organizations are stepping up to the plate to do the work of building these alternative structures to represent the underrepresented, for example the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, and the New Black Panther Party (NBPP).

Another organization that has had significant success is Eastern Farm Workers Association (EFWA). As their official description states, “Since 1974, Eastern Farm Workers Association has united migrant and seasonal farm workers and other low-paid seasonal and service workers together to fight for better living and working conditions. These workers form the backbone of our economy, yet they are not covered by the dubious benefits of national labor laws. The EFWA benefit program enables EFWA members to stay on their feet, while participating in our organization’s fight against the detrimental government policies that cause our poverty conditions.” In this way, EFWA enables its members to organize and have political voice by first helping alleviate some of their most pressing survival needs. All members of the organization are encouraged to volunteer with EFWA’s many campaigns and to participate in the democratic decision-making of the organization. I talked to the members of the EFWA cadre—the full-time volunteers who keep the organization running day to day—about their organizational model, the goals of their organization, and the difficulties they face in trying to reach those goals.

Cadre members (all members participated in writing the following responses): Ben Lee, Matt DeLeon, and Barb Munger.

Q: Why do you think organizations such as EFWA, which organize their members to gain political voice but also provide them support in the form of community and benefits, are important to the current and future growth and development of American society?

A: Eastern Farm Workers Association is a membership association of the lowest-paid workers, and because of our close connection with the low-income community, we are very aware of how divided our society is becoming. The divide between the wealthiest one hundredth of one percent and the vast majority of the rest of us has never been greater.

So, millions of people are looking for what the alternative is, where they can unite and have an effect, if the usual avenues of public participation are increasingly closed off to them, and that is why independent organizations that do not rely on government money are so critical, and why EFWA needs more volunteers participating every day to build it.

Our organization was founded on the principle that when a wrong is committed, there is a group of people wronged. And they ultimately know best what the solution to their problem is because they are the ones suffering from the lack of that solution. People join organizations like this because they recognize that they are not the only ones suffering from the problem and that none of them can cure their suffering alone.

Q: If everything goes as planned, what is the end goal of EFWA?

A: EFWA’s goal is to unite Central New York’s unrecognized workers (those who have been excluded by federal labor law: farm workers, domestic workers, independent contractors, temporary workers, part-time, seasonal, etc.) into a strong, permanent, independent organization that can gain a say over the decisions that affect their lives.

For working people, the only way to truly have the power to change our condition for good, is through organization. This truth has fueled the labor movement for 200 years in this country. However, as the government gained jurisdiction over the activities of labor unions, the majority of workers were excluded from the dubious benefits of federal labor law.

None of us can say we have a blueprint for a perfect society or what form it’s going to take, but any “solution” that doesn’t include the demands of the most exploited workers in the workforce is not ultimately a solution because as long as any grouping of workers is left behind and allowed to be exploited without a living wage and a say in their working and living conditions, no worker is safe.

Q: In the way you’ve impacted the development of the Syracuse chapter of EFWA during your time there, have you taken inspiration from any other Non-Governmental Organizations, current or historic?

(Answered directly by Ben Lee, EFWA’s head organizer)

A: Personally, I garnered all of my organizer training on the job through EFWA and similar organizations with memberships of service workers, temp workers and other low-income workers, at which I have had the privilege of volunteering over the past 14 years. Our organizer training programs draw on successful techniques used by various labor organizations throughout the 200 year history of the labor movement as well as some community organizing and mass political organizing techniques. It is a synthesis we call “Systemic Organizing”—our copyrighted organizing method we teach to all of our volunteers and organizers.

Q: What are some of the barriers faced by organizations such as EFWA?

A: Being that we are an all-volunteer, membership organization, the constant process of volunteer recruitment and training is hindered by the growing poverty and economic hardship faced by more and more people in our community. Often time the EFWA members who are the most willing to give their time and play a leadership role in the struggle and learn to organize are so bogged down in money problems, health problems, family problems, etc. that they are not the most able. To the extent that they are able to play a leadership role, it is usually thanks to the stability they’ve gained from the association’s 11-point benefit program which includes food and clothing distributions, medical, dental and legal sessions, and a lot more.

That is why young people who are concerned and want to make a difference can play such a critical role as an organizer and carry responsibility on a part-time or full-time schedule. You can learn to take responsibility for the future of our community and our economy. The way things are going, the life you save may be your own.

Q: How can Cornell students who are interested in EFWA’s work get in touch and involved?

A: Our Office Central is open 7 days a week 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. and can be reached by phone at (315)-478-1992. All levels of commitment are needed, up to and including full time organizers for over summer break. EFWA is now organizing in a 7-county area including Tompkins and Cortland counties, so there is a lot of work to be done and plenty of opportunities for students to be involved. We will be organizing a meet-up at Cornell University on Friday, April 28th. To find out more details about this, give us a call or look out for flyers around campus. Students who are interested can come or call. We can talk and work out the details to make sure that someone can be a part of this regardless of their schedule or skills.

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