Rafael is sharing his story as part of our “Voces: Somos FLOC/ Voices: We Are FLOC” campaign to highlight stories from our members to raise funds and build awareness to support the important organizing work our members are doing in the fields. Please consider making a donation today to support this campaign.
Rafael is no stranger to hard labor. In his home state of Michocan, Mexico, he worked in the hot sun every day building houses. The work was difficult, but necessary to support his large family. If you ask Rafael about his family, he smiles with pride and says, “I have thirty grandchildren!”
Nine years ago he crossed the US border to join his son harvesting oranges in Florida. “The first day was so hot. Then I went back the next day, and it was the same. I thought ‘this work isn’t for me.’” But Rafael had already crossed the border, and despite the heat and horrendous working conditions, he’s spent the past nine years working the fields from Florida to North Carolina.
Rafael’s work in the fields came to an abrupt halt last season when his left hand was crushed by a machine that was laying plastic in the fields. “Nobody really knew how to use the machine,” he recalls. “I screamed when my hand got pulled in, and they had to figure out how to put the machine in reverse so I could get my hand out. But my hand was already broken.” He’s wasn’t the only worker to be injured by this machine. “Two weeks after I got hurt, I saw a guy get caught underneath the same machine. He was hurt really badly, I remember there was blood in his eyes. Nobody even took him to the doctor.”Your donation to the “Voces: Somos FLOC” project goes directly to support workers like Rafael, who are organizing to fight for safer working conditions in the fields. Click here to support this important work.
Rafael had to have surgery on his hand, and just one week after the stitches were taken out, a supervisor came to his house and told him if he didn’t go to work, he would be fired. “I went, but it was really hot. And right away my hand got really red and swollen.” After that first day back at work the pain was unbearable, but so was the pressure to continue working. Even though he hadn’t been cleared by his doctor to return to work, Rafael’s supervisor moved him to the “bodega,” or work shed, and told him to try a different type of work.
Two weeks later, he was told to leave his employer owned housing. He was forced to move in with his daughter, which was much farther from where he worked. Finally, a supervisor told Rafael that they didn’t have any work he could do with one arm.
Rafael’s injury might have ended his field work, but it opened a new door for him: getting involved with the union. Rafael understands the importance of organizing and coming together to demand fair treatment. “Once [while working] in the sweet potatoes, the grower didn’t want to pay us the right amount. A coworker said to me, ‘what are we going to do?’ I told him, ‘we’re all going to go together and tell [the grower] what he needs to pay us.’”
In the fields, he says, “It’s hard. In the sweet potato harvest, it’s normal to see people faint. Sometimes it’s because nobody brings them any water.”
But Rafael is determined to work to change the dangerous conditions that so many farmworkers face each day. After his injury, he met with a FLOC organizer who helped him fill out worker’s compensation paperwork to ensure that his medical bills would be paid, and that he had a small stipend to survive on while his hand is healing.
In May, Rafael went to his first union rally in Winston Salem, North Carolina, in support of FLOC’s campaign to organize thousands of farmworkers throughout the South and press tobacco manufacturers to recognize farmworkers’ right to freedom of association. Since then he has also attended membership meetings and trainings to continue organizing with others in his community. “This work is important,” says Rafael. “Having the information in Spanish is especially important, because some of us don’t think we have rights in the US and we never have the time to learn.”
Members like Rafael need your support to continue fighting for safe, human working conditions, fair pay, and union rights. Will you donate $25, $50, $75, or whatever you’re able to support member organizing? You can easily donate online here, or send a check to 1221 Broadway St. Toledo, OH 43609.