The Truth About NATLFED

Tactics – Membership


How many times as an organizer did you participate on the door-to-door canvasses?  It is a difficult tactic to generate volunteer participation because of the stigma of going door-to-door.  Most people do not wish to “intrude” on other people in such a manner.

Bellport was literally divided by the railroad tracks.  South Bellport was home to the upper crust of society.  The further up Station Road that you went, the more you saw houses decreasing in value and appearance.  North of Montauk Highway (do they still call it that?) was the membership base.

Other towns are similarly divided between the affluent sections and the poor sections.  A fair number will have the affluent sections and pockets of poor but the rest are gray areas — mixtures of middle income and poor.  Such transitional areas can vary between more membership or more supporter.  One never knows until one gets out there.

The primary purpose of the canvass is membership.  You are signing up members into an organization that promises real and permanent change.  Members are encouraged to attend the next Workers Benefit Council  so they can address issues specific within the arena.  House meetings are also arranged so members can address issues specific within their neighborhoods.  Benefits requests can be taken.  All members are always encouraged to visit Office Central.

For a college student who has never known poverty, it is an eye-opening tactic.  Or just about anyone who has never known poverty, for that matter.  How can people live like that?  The lead organizer will explain the root causes of poverty and give you a history lecture in NLRA, Taft Hartley, etc.  Not once on a canvass will you overtly say revolution.

I remember on one canvass when we hit a pocket of former PATCO members, all fired by Reagan.  These were people who used to have good jobs but were concerned because they were required to put in sixty hour work weeks.  Their concern was safety but it was somehow juxtaposed into a greediness for more money.

You cannot organize if you do not know what is really going on in your arena.  We all know the newspapers are selective about what they will publish.  They rarely discuss topics such as fast food workers being denied full-time employment because the company strives to keep costs down.  Health care plans cost money.  The eighty-nine day wonders too, where you get laid off before you are eligible to join the union.

Police brutality was a genuine problem.  You never know who has a video camera these days but tracking statistics is difficult.  People turn a blind eye if someone talks about prisoners being beaten during incarceration, they did something wrong to get jailed in the first place.

But seeing a family of five huddled around a kerosene heater in winter to stay warm is something else.

This is just one part of building the plebiscite of workers.

How have conditions changed in the communities where a local entity exists?  For close to forty years EFWA has organized in Suffolk County.  The poor are still poor, maybe not all of the rich are still rich, migrant farm workers still come and go, benefits continue to be distributed as limited resources are made available to the membership base.

Where is the fight?

That is the problem of working with an organization that purports one thing and does something else.  I do not remember exactly when National directed that membership rolls should be assumptive, i.e. estimating an average of one thousand members signed up each year.  In some communities, you cannot do that.  The membership base would greatly outnumber the local population.

Canvassing is more than going door-to-door but that is what it has been reduced to.  The victories in the old days are now just stories fading in the pages of history.  Did the Long Island Grape Workers Organizing Committee ever develop into a full-fledged union?  No.  Did the Tree Toppers Organizing Committee ever?  No.  The Fuel Committees continue sporadic assistance at best but what about the big plan of lowering heating costs overall?  I think not.

Maybe that is why the mushroom workers formed their own union and broke away from the Workers Benefit Council and NATLFED affiliation.

Canvassing has become one rung on the hamster’s spinning wheel.  There are genuine problems requiring redress and the entities talk the talk but the fight is long since gone.  They will incorporate some elements into their pitches and that is as far as it goes.  They will offer hope to some people who eventually realize it is just another handout operation, just different in the fact that it promises real change that it is unable to possibly deliver.

Operation Camp Crew

It has been a very long time since I went out to the migrant labor camps in Suffolk.  I was considered too young to captain the tactic, plus the inherent dangers of being female.  You had to have at least one big tough brute with a baseball bat just to make sure things did not get out of hand.  Sometimes when we arrived at a camp, the men were drunk.  We usually tried timing it before payday.

Some of the camps were bunkhouses, a large room with twenty or so beds and a small kitchen area.  Even though these buildings were close to main roads, they were usually behind trees or something.  People would drive right by and not realize that there were migrant labor camps just out of view.  Other times the camps were in the middle of neighborhoods, a house that ten or twenty guys lived in who did not speak English.

Some of the migrants were Mexican but not as many as you might think.  At the time, the migrant stream was comprised of a lot of Puerto Ricans.  It really depended on a number of factors.  As Puerto Ricans are citizens, you did not have the concern of someone yelling, “Immigration!”  Many settled in the communities and did farm work when it was in season.  There were some camps that preferred illegals, just to call in Immigration right before the final payday (they would say Immigration just happened to show up).

You had to have a translator.  It was absolute.  Maybe you would luck out and find a crew that spoke pretty good English but you could not count on it.  Besides, sometimes the guys would fake understanding you if they thought you were pretty and would stay longer.

I only remember one incident when we arrived at a camp at a really bad time.  The guys were liquored and there were girls around.  Our guy with the baseball bat stood nose to nose with the other guy with the baseball bat.  Needless to say, you can not organize in that situation.

I am not saying that all migrants get drunk and blow their money.  Some work very hard to send what money they can back home.  There are some better camps where a farmer is interested in paying fair wages.  Other camps are sheer hellholes.   Everything they earn goes back to the company for rent, food, gas, etc.  This was how the wages were calculated to sixty-two cents an hour, you deduct all those expenses, look at what was left and divide it by the hours worked.

I have often wondered how many migrants passing through Suffolk ended up passing through the Sodus office.  In 1984 after the raid, membership cards were modified to include National Labor Federation and the cards would be accepted at any affiliated entity.

The idea behind organizing migrant laborers was toward development of an east coast farm workers union.  Yhis never really got off the ground as many arenas focused more on seasonal workers, settling in larger cities with less emphasis on farm work.  Gino always publicly said it was never his intent to organize against Cesar out of respect but he often privately shared with the inner circles that when UFW failed we would be there to pick up the pieces.

Migrant farm workers did not even have that big of a role in Proscenium.  They were more like the chimes on a clock, without them the clock still ticks and strikes midnight.  One could not ignore the migrant force but one could not rely on it as the only means toward the end goal.  That is in part why other strata of workers are organized, the unrecognized worker strata, the ones not protected by the labor laws of the country.

You can rally people around the deplorable camp conditions and use it as a way to recruit them into the Organization.  Or, generate additional resources such as money, clothes, etc.   In the early 1970s, people were more aware of Harvest of Shame and What Harvest for the Reaper? These days, those movies are footnotes in history.

We signed up members and delivered benefits.  Dues were never a priority.  Sometimes when we went back there was a different crew in residence.  The process would start over again.  The following year, we could usually find the same people returning (not always at the same camp) and we would listen to the various stories.  Sometimes they would talk about their plans to pick apples upstate after the row crops were done in Suffolk.

I remember hearing the stories about the typhoid epidemic within the migrant population.  To me, they were just that: stories.  Tuberculosis, on the other hand, was very real and problematic.  CCMP was able to rally support to address this situation including screenings and treatment.  TB Link.

The canvass was the primary membership tactic to develop the base of workers including seasonal farm workers.  Still, to ignore the migrant workers would force a schism when the Organization was looking to unify the strata.

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