Where does butternut squash come from? A farm, of course. The supermarket is also a correct answer. But if you pick up a plastic package of pre-cut butternut squash at Stop ‘n’ Shop, who cleaned and peeled it, cut it up and wrapped it? Not a union worker in the store, but someone working in a food processing plant like Eastland Food Products in Cranston, Rhode Island, which prepares and packages vegetables for sale throughout the east coast, with customers including Stop ‘n’ Shop, Cumberland Farms, school lunch providers and the Greencorp Group -- an Irish company with a new sandwich factory in Quonset.

Without the protection of a union, food processing workers may work under the poor work conditions we associate more with immigrant farm laborers rather than grocery store clerks or even factory workers, facing a sometimes dangerous workplace with low wages, wage theft, non-existent benefits and a climate of harassment and disrespect.

At Eastland, the workers have recently taken a major step toward improving their circumstance by joining United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 328, voting in the union 74-37 during a May 19th National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.

On June 17, Common Ground spoke to Victor Graves Castro, a member of the organizing committee and an election observer at Eastland, at Local 328’s hall in Providence about working and organizing at Eastland. As is common among his co-workers, Castro has a long tenure at the plant, having worked there for 12 years, currently in the shipping department.

Like many employees at the Cranston facility, Castro is a member of the K'iche' ethnic group, one of the Mayan peoples from the highlands of Guatemala who make up about 11% of the population of that country. Many K'iche' have emigrated to the Rhode Island and the south coast of Massachusetts fleeing civil war and a campaign of genocide waged against them by the Guatemalan government. Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT) is a New Bedford based community organization led by Executive Director Adrian Ventura, a K’iche’ refugee himself. CCT has already been instrumental in a Local 328 organizing drive at the Bob’s Tires recycling facility in New Bedford, another local business with a largely K’iche’ workforce. See the article from our November 2015 issue online at http://cgri.news/el-organizar-de-bobs-tires/.

Castro described the events which led to the organizing drive at Eastland:

"We got together and were speaking out for one woman who was pregnant, who was harassed very strongly. But the problem with the supervisors was preexisting. We were mistreated, ignored, psychologically abused for being Hispanic, not understanding English. We were constantly being yelled at.

"Then Cesario Ixcuna, a truck driver at Eastland, spoke about CCT. It was then that we banded together to organize to ask for help from Adrian Ventura at CCT. Before we met with CCT, we did not know about unions, or (UFCW) Local 328. Then we found out about the laws covering unions and about our indigenous rights. We would like to our gratitude and our appreciation to CCT for the help that was provided to us."

Much of the hand work done in the plant involves cutting vegetables, which as any home cook knows, involves a constant risk of injury. For workers at Eastland, Castro said “In the case of somebody being injured at work, it is more like you are responsible for taking care of your own injury. Basically, take yourself to the hospital. For the management it is like 'OK, one less person to worry about; they're easy to replace. Tomorrow we can get five new ones.'”

Wage theft has also been a problem for the workers, who have not been paid time and a half for working Sundays, and Castro alleges that “Even when the minimum wage went up, the company did not raise the minimum wage until 3 months later. They pocketed the difference.”

In the three weeks between when workers and Local 328 requested an NLRB election and the actual vote, the company tried a variety of tactics to discourage the workers from voting in the union, from “the boss giving us pizza, trying to bribe us with coffee, sweet talk” and according to Castro, “Trying to pay me off... to convince me to keep quiet about the situation,” to “threatening after the election to fire those of us who were involved, to get rid of us and replace us with new workers.”

In support of the workers, Local 328 organized a May 13 rally outside Eastland Food Products in Cranston supported by a broad cross-section of the labor movement in Rhode Island, including representatives of Jobs with Justice, IBEW 2323, IBEW 99, the Providence Newspaper Guild, Teamsters 251, IATSE 481, RI Painters Union DC 11, the Providence Central Labor Council, the Rhode Island ALC-CIO, and the American Friends Service Committee.

On the day of the vote, Castro said, “There was a lot of emotions, a lot of anger, but I had so many friends backing me up, it gave me the strength to step up and cast that vote. It was an empowering day.”

After the union’s convincing victory, the Castro and the committee are looking forward to negotiating their first contract with the company. Castro summarized his priorities as “Vacation time, sick time, and a justified salary. Respect.”

Rhode Island based Fuerza Laboral and other groups have successfully empowered and organized immigrant workers for years, but CCT has shaken things up by organizing K'iche' workers across industries. Adrian Ventura has proven himself to be a powerful and charismatic organizer. The K'iche' have brought little with them to this country other than their unity, courage and dignity, and the whole labor movement should be inspired by their achievements.

For parts of the labor movement for whom just having Spanish-speaking staff on hand may feel like a progressive move, organizing by specific ethnic group may seem like a reach, but it has a long history in American labor. If you were trying to organize irish workers at the turn of the 20th century, there would be a big difference between sending an organizer from County Cork and one from London, or the Scottish highlands. You’d prefer not to try to organize Sicilian workers by sending someone from Florence or Venice, or nearby Tunis. On a world map, these places may seem quite close, but on the ground, there can be vast and deep rooted cultural differences.

Labor and its supporters in Rhode Island must make it a priority to support the workers at Eastland and Bob’s Tires in their quest to complete their journey with a successfully negotiated first contract. It is no secret that success at Eastland and Bob’s Tires will feed directly into ongoing efforts by CCT and the UFCW to re-organize the K'iche' workers fish packing industry in New Bedford, which would represent both a great improvement to the lives of many workers and a historic win for the labor movement in New England.

Eastland Food Products has been a family-owned business in Rhode Island since 1963. It is a successful, profitable business with deep roots in the state that treats its employees poorly. There is no reason it cannot be a successful, profitable business in Rhode Island that treats its employees decently. They have one plant and are not likely to move, and they certainly cannot move overseas. They are not accountable to public stockholders to hit unattainable earnings targets. It is time for Eastland to Do What’s Right.