Attend Tuesday’s Farmworker Tribunal to promote unemployment insurance for undocumented workers, strikers
By EDGAR FRANKS
(Jan. 22, 2024) — Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent farmworker union, supports SB 5109 and HB 1095, which would create a wage replacement program for undocumented workers currently excluded from unemployment insurance. We seek solidarity from our labor family to get it passed by the Washington State Legislature.
I remember the height of the COVID pandemic and many workers in our industry were laid off or lost work, but had no way of supporting their families to get basic needs met. Rent, food, gas, child care and other basic necessities were hard to come by. Workers would come to the union seeking help, but there was only so much we could offer. People would ask, why can’t we also get a stimulus check or unemployment insurance for the time being?
It was hard to answer.
Undocumented workers pay millions of dollars into the state unemployment insurance system and are a vital part not just of the economy, but also of the fabric of the community. They felt that they had been left behind, or better said, sacrificed for the well being of others. This was at a time when immigrant farmworkers were being called essential.
To the extent that COVID’s economic downturn hurt Washington’s working people, farmworkers and the communities they live in were hit double — and lacked any social safety net.
We as farmworkers have experienced being left out of important decisions that impact our livelihoods. Unemployment insurance is a resource that can help in tough times. The fact that it excludes certain workers should be an issue that all of our labor family supports addressing.
There are hundreds of thousands of workers in Washington state who are working and paying into the system, but will never see any benefits when times get hard.
We are aware that state legislation has also been proposed to provide unemployment insurance for striking workers — and we also support that.
In 2020, we at Familias Unidas por la Justicia were called to support a series of strikes that were led by immigrant workers at the apple-packing sheds in the Yakima Valley. It was at the height of COVID when the packing house workers, who also for the most part are immigrants, were also deemed essential and had to continue to produce with little or no protections at the work site or in the community. COVID cases skyrocketed and workers had no other choice but to go on strike.
Many stayed on the picket lines for over a month and had to withstand harassment and threats of violence. If there had been unemployment insurance for those workers, it could have helped to sustain the strike and possibly win a collective bargaining agreement at six different packing houses.
We know that unemployment for striking workers is also crucial if we are trying to win dignity at work. However, if we are divided on who gets certain benefits and who doesn’t, only the boss benefits.
We as unions should support both the unemployment insurance for excluded workers and also unemployment for striking workers. Supporting both bills recognizes that we are a united working class, no matter our status or where we come from.
It was just announced that since 2020 the five richest people on Earth have doubled their wealth. This is coming out of a pandemic, too. We need to realize that the wealth that was extracted from workers is the wealth that continues to flow to the rich. We must reverse that and help workers — both citizens and immigrants — share in the prosperity they create.
We will highlight these unemployment insurance issues at our Farmworker Tribunal on Tuesday, Jan. 23 at the State Capitol. See this report and this flyer for details. All are invited and encouraged to attend.
Edgar Franks is Political Director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia.