Too Young to Join a Union
"Cuantos anos tienes? Como doce", was the reply. This child of twelve was sweating with the rest of her family in a Kentucky tobacco field. Yes, we still grow tobacco in Kentucky, barley tobacco, I am told. The harvest size has been reduced, farmers pressured to grow other crops, still there is a market both nationally and internationally for tobacco products. And there is a need for laborers, mostly Latino to harvest the crop. We all know about Cesar Chavez, but has anyone heard about FLOC, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee AFL-CIO? Most likely not. FLOC is just now starting to organize here in Kentucky. In any case, Maria is too young to join.
That doesn't mean that she is too young to work twelve hours in the fields. Child labor is cheaper than even the miserable pay her parents receive. Labor laws seem to have overlooked the hard manual labor performed by her and her parents. The Labor Relations Act of 1935, specifically excluded agricultural and domestic workers, and it still does. The fact that most of the adults working with Maria, some 90 %, do not have proper immigration papers, only puts her family one phone call away from the Migra, Immigration. Tobacco helped make Kentucky what it is. It also helped poison many of the workers who harvested the then valuable leaves.
It was in 1916, that Lewis Hine photographed two young boys dwarfed by the tobacco that they were harvesting "day after day from sun-up to sun down". Nothing much has really changed nearly a century later. Maria has no rights, her parents have no rights, other than work to pay off the debt to the "coyote" who smuggled them across the border. And so, she and her sisters and brothers struggle in the relentless sun, on land poisoned by pesticides, with tobacco whose nicotine, once absorbed through the skin, is the source of a debilitating illness known as "the green monster", or "green tobacco sickness". A laborer in the field all day can be exposed to the nicotine equivalent of thirty-six cigarettes. Cigarettes are too harmful to sell to minors, but we permit minors to harvest tobacco in our fields. The United States has spent millions to eliminate child tobacco labor in Malawi, but it closes its eyes to such practices here at home.
Maria has no recognized human rights, nor do her parents, nor the thousands of other agricultural workers harvesting our land. Large corporations and their lobbyists have spent millions to protect the "traditional family farm". The Dept. of Labor has stymied legislative attempts to protect workers. The E. P. A. has not eliminated harmful pesticides from poisoning field workers. Maria she should not be made to work in the fields, her family and all farm workers need a union. Si se puede! The time for FLOC has come, and it needs our support