LOS ANGELES — How can we change worsening working conditions, combat cuts to our hours and deal with rising prices? These questions were at the center of discussions among meatpackers, retail workers and farmworkers when they met the Socialist Workers Party presidential ticket — Alyson Kennedy for president and Malcolm Jarrett for vice president — during the candidates’ tour of Southern California in early September.
“We have work, but many people don’t,” farmworker Fernando Muñoz told Kennedy in Oxnard, a town in an important agricultural area. Muñoz is paid $13 an hour but was working only 1 or 2 days a week when he was first called back from a three-week layoff. Now he gets up to 40 hours per week, as opposed to 50-plus before the pandemic.
“We think there should be a union in every workplace,” Kennedy told him. She described her visit to the Yakima Valley in Washington state, where she learned about the fight waged by fruit packinghouse workers. “The bosses provided nothing to protect workers from the spread of coronavirus, so they struck even though they didn’t have a union. Their fight won some of their demands and built their self-confidence. Now back at work, they are fighting to build a union, an example for all workers.”
Muñoz got a subscription to the Militant and a copy of Red Zone: Cuba and the Battle Against Ebola. The book explains how the Cuban Revolution sent more than 200 volunteer doctors and other medical personnel to West Africa to help fight the deadly virus. Their actions showed the kind of men and women only a deep-going socialist revolution can produce.
Paula Sixto, also in Oxnard, told Kennedy she injured her hand at a packinghouse job, where she said “conditions are very unjust and workers don’t have enough money for rent and bills.” Sixto has carpal tunnel. She listened closely as Kennedy described how the fight for safer working conditions was part of the strike by fruit packinghouse workers in Yakima Valley.
“Sometimes the line speed is slower and sometimes it is faster,” Carolina Cabrera told Jarrett when he and Kennedy spoke with workers during a shift change at the Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon. Cabrera has worked at the plant for eight years.
Speedup endangers workers
“Using union power is the only way to control line speed,” Jarrett replied. “We need for workers to get together to wage a fight for control of production, including all aspects of health and safety.”
Daniel White has worked at the plant for three years. He told Kennedy that at the beginning of the pandemic workers “had to double up on work time, because too many were getting sick.”
The plant was one of several in the Vernon area where workers faced outbreaks of coronavirus. The government had given meatpacking bosses the OK to increase line speeds, pushing workers ever-closer together. Delegations of workers at Farmer John pressed bosses for improved conditions, winning some gains but only in parts of the factory.
“Trump knew about the virus and did nothing,” White said.
“If Biden gets elected there will be no difference,” Kennedy replied. “Our campaign is for a labor party, because neither the Republican nor Democratic Party represents working people.” A labor party would organize workers in our millions to fight for our interests.
Jorge Cordon, who has worked at the plant for 18 years, told Kennedy he supported establishing unions in every workplace, but said a lot of workers won’t “because of the corruption.” Kennedy said that in the course of standing up to bosses’ attacks, workers can transform unions into the fighting tools we need. We are the union, she said, and we can use them to change our conditions.
Alexis Santiago Avila told Kennedy he has been in the U.S. for 18 years, but still only has a work visa. “Our party supports amnesty for undocumented workers,” she said. “This is needed especially in the fields, where workers are paid lower wages.”
They also discussed the fight against police brutality. Kennedy said she joined protests to press for charges against the cops who killed Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and many others. “People want their voices to be heard,” Santiago said, “but the violence in the protests is a problem.”
This question was taken on by Jarrett at a campaign forum a few days after two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies sitting in their patrol car were shot by an unidentified person. “My campaign condemns the shooting of the cops, and those who showed up at the hospital,” blocking entry to the emergency room where the cops were being treated, chanting “We hope they die!”
Jarrett said, “This hurts all those who want to build a working-class movement,” one urgently needed today to fight for protection from the deepening capitalist crisis, and to organize workers to defend our common interests.
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