Farm worker leader presses for worker rights

November 22, 2009

by Alyssa Mentzer

A small crowd gathers at the door asking for help. They want an answer or even a piece of hope to hold on to.

It doesn’t matter that it is late at night or early in the morning. They stand at the back door of his home waiting for the man that can help change their lives.

Luis Tlaseca has been the light of hope for the farm workers in Kennett Square, Pa. He has dedicated his time to CATA, a farm workers support committee or El Comité de Apoyo a Los Trabajadores Agricolas, that empowers farm workers to organize for better working and living conditions. He was also one of the founders of the only union for mushroom farm workers in the region.

Tlaseca is the coordinator of the Pennsylvania CATA, which also has an office in Southern N.J. He strives to unify mushroom-farm workers and give them a voice to fight for what they deserve.

“My job, it’s difficult, it’s challenging for me to try to organize,” Tlaseca said.

Tlaseca, like many of the farm workers, is a native of Mexico and came to the United States undocumented to pursue a better lifestyle.

Tlaseca said that he left Mexico in 1978 due to the poor conditions and lack of income. Upon arrival in the United States, he worked a low paying job picking apples and peaches. He eventually moved on to the mushroom industry where he experienced terrible working and living conditions, as well as low wages.

Tlaseca said that conditions were bad at Kaolin, the mushroom farm he worked at in Pennsylvania. He explained that he worked in these conditions for 10 years until May of 1993, when he realized that it was time for the workers to stand up and be recognized for the hard and necessary work they do.

He organized workers and led a strike to get a union recognized. Following the workers going on strike, it took nearly 10 years for the Kaolin company to finally recognize the workers’ union and to negotiate the first contract with the workers for better wages and working conditions. Over those 10 years, the company fought the union in court.

Today, approximately 300 mushroom workers at the Kaolin farm are members of the union. They receive better wages and live and work in better conditions thanks to Tlaseca and the union. However, the remainder of the 10,000 mushroom pickers are still trapped in poor working conditions because they are not members of the union.

Although Tlaseca has successfully helped hundreds of workers through the union and through CATA, his job is never done. There are always more mushroom farm workers looking for an answer.

“My position is very hard because I represent the union and workers and to organize and coordinate the office in CATA,” Tlaseca said. “It’s a difficult situation when I visit the workers and different companies. The companies, they know me. The offices, they talk to me and say go, get out! They don’t like you to visit the workers.”

Everyday Tlaseca meets with workers to help them find a way into the union. However, it is not an easy task to get in touch with the workers.

In one situation Tlaseca said he visited seven workers at their company to discuss the union. When the owner arrived he blocked Tlaseca’s car in and called the police. Eleven different police units including the state police arrived to arrest Tlsaeca. He tried to explain that he worked for CATA and was only here to help. The police did not care. They forbade him to remain on the property.

At present, the farm workers union is negotiating another contract with the company. Although in a union, the workers work most days of the year, including holidays. They only get holidays off if it is their one day off a week. They are asking for paid holidays, a pay raise higher than their annual raise of two percent and the right to take unpaid leave to visit their families in Mexico.

Tlaseca, married with two daughters in college, has dedicated his life to improving the working conditions of mushroom pickers, who make about $20,000 a year. Although he has been part of the struggle for more than 20 years to improve conditions for the immigrant men and women who put inexpensive food on the tables of Americans, he knows that much remains to be done. While much remains to be done, he says he’s supported by the people he works with and for.

“My job, I happy because I have a lot of friends. The workers, they know me, they like me because I try to support them,” Tlaseca said.

An Iraqi student living in the United States – How I Wrote the Story

August 19, 2008

Christine Graf writes:

Reporting on social justice issues makes the process of interviewing and writing a story even more important. Especially for college students who can use social justice issues to link their college, no matter how big or small, to the world. The value this holds is that we are the future generation of reporters and the world can not change unless the general public is aware of its struggles from Africa to the Middle East and back to the United States – there are many hardships that need addressing – here is how I did it.

The first step is educating yourself about the world and what exactly is happening in even the smallest of places. I did this by taking a course offered at my college entitled Working for Global Solidarity. In that class I listened to a speaker from Catholic Relief Services who had just visited Iraqis who have been displace in other countries due to the effects of war and violence.

Honestly, I never thought about how the innocent Iraqi civilians were affected by the war. Interested in learning more – a project my group was assigned was on refugees and peace-building. We decided we would investigate the refugee crisis in Iraq and highlight what war was doing to Iraqi people who in reality were not that much different then us and our families.

My professor told me about an Iraqi student at another college nearby who was speaking about her experience living in Baghdad during the war. I contacted her via e-mail and she was more than willing to speak with me one-on-one.

We met a few times and did a couple informal interviews of which I always recorded with my tape recorded because really the best quotes and stories come out when you are just having a casual conversation with someone person to person – stories and deadlines aside.

There was so much information I had gotten from the three interviews I did with this student that my biggest challenge was sorting through it all and choosing which experiences I wanted to share in my article. The Iraqi student had witnessed so much violence and felt so much fear in her 20 years of life. I wanted to do the story justice and really show people the effects this war had on students not difference than us.

Honestly – I wanted to use it all. My story could have been six pages but that was not an option so I thought very carefully about what I really wanted people to know most. I wanted readers to feel what it was like to live in Baghdad during this war and how it has ruined the lives of its civilians who have done nothing wrong.

Sorting through pages of notes and quotes – it was almost like a puzzle putting it all together. It is important to write your article in a story telling way – so that people can not only learn about these issues but almost feel the hardship of the people affected by the issue. A personal angle is always best if it is available.

If you are interested in doing some sort of social justice story – but have trouble finding an angle see if you can highlight a student or organization within your school that have done social justice work. Even a class that focuses on international development or social justice could give you some sort of starting point.

Overall, reporting on social justice issues is very rewarding. You are the voice of the people who have none. You are not only learning about things that might not ever cross your mind otherwise – but you are sharing the information with others to support change. Not everything is fair in life – but everyone deserves a chance at it and not everyone gets that chance. It is up to us as journalist to inform people that these issues are going on and that together we can make a difference.

How we reported on HIV/AIDS in Kenya

July 10, 2008

Vickie Papageorge and Diana Vilares talk about the reporting they did about what Catholic Relief Services is doing in Kenya for orphans and vulnerable there.

Diana says:
Vickie and I wrote our story when Robert came to speak with our journalism class about Kenya’s state in relation to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and CRS’s efforts. We sat with pen, paper, tape recorder on and ears open.

We grabbed dinner with Robert after he spoke to our class and instead of going into the meal with a journalist’s attitude, we went in like “people.” He told us stories about his life in Kenya, his family and about children he’s met and lives CRS have changed with their services. The conversation was comfortable and realistic, which became the foundation for our story. That night, Vickie and I played back our audio and read over our notes about 50 times before we even came up with our opening paragraph.

We realized that what our story needed was a success story to bring some life into the matter. We wanted to show some proof while doing some humanitarian journalism. BUT, even though we had just finished a really great informative session with Robert, we were lacking one. What did we do? We called him. We called and we were upfront. We explained to him that in order for us to make this story worthwhile for readers, we were going to need a tale or two of people who’s lives were bettered by CRS’s efforts.

I can say that we got lucky when Robert walked through the door and was so personable and accommodating. He was like a reporter’s dream, because it’s not always so easy. Sometimes contacts don’t come through and you have to find other lifelines in order to finish in time and still promise quality work. It might sound a little crazy, but it’s doable.

My thoughts on Reporting:

** Researching is key. Before going into an interview with a source, Google their name (use, read up on their history so that you can not only impress them in conversation, but you might find yourself writing up a new set of questions that could be crucial for your story.**

Writing for a college audience is quite the task. On one hand you have a handful of people reading your work in hopes of catching a glimpse of a mistake or contradiction so they can quickly discredit your work. Then, there’s those that believe world issues belong on CNN and avoid the channel like the plague.

Students grab a newspaper on their way into class, sometimes just to have something to keep their mind occupied before (or during) class, and it is a student journalist’s job to give them something worth reading about.

So, how does a reporter do their job of finding out the “Who?, What?, Where?, When? and How?” and STILL manage to keep their readers’ attention span past the first paragraph?

Simple. Tell the story the way it’s meant to be told.

Sometimes the right quote that could totally piece together your story is staring you in the face and you don’t even know it until you’ve written a few drafts, but once you’ve found your angle and have at least 2-3 solid sources, you’re golden.

Children orphaned by AIDS create new lives

By: Vickie Papageorge and Diana Vilares

Posted: 11/29/07
At the tender age of 8, Morris Chapa’s parents lost the battle to HIV/AIDS, leaving three young boys behind in their native country of Kenya. Their uncle, who was given primary custody of the boys, betrayed his nephews by stripping them of the property their parents had left and chased the boys away.

Left with a feeling of abandonment, the boys fled to their aunt’s home in hopes of receiving care. Shortly after, Morris, along with one of the younger brothers, were tested positive for HIV/AIDS.

“Support a wish of some boy in Nairobi” to finish college and “become a responsible citizen. The plan of that child is kind of like a dream that is dead.” This was the plea of Robert Makunu, a native of Kenya and the deputy HIV unit manager of the faith-based organization, Catholic Relief Services. “His parents are not alive because of HIV.” Makunu visited Cabrini College in preparation for Cabrini’s observance of World Aids Day on Dec. 1.

Kenya has 37 million people and 1.5 million are children orphaned because of AIDS. They have lost both parents due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has been declared a national disaster in Kenya.

Read the whole article:

HIV/AIDS in Africa: you can report about one of the greatest challenges today

July 8, 2008

HIV/AIDS, along with malaria and TB, are three diseases that test the spirit of a continent. While few students are able to travel to Africa to report, by focusing on the work of Non-Governmental Organizations perhaps even one that has a connection to your community, you can tap into sources and do moving stories from your campus. [Read more]

How I interviewed Iraqi students

July 7, 2008

Christine Graf tells about how she did interviews with two Iraqi students, other Iraqi refugee stories she’s done, and what her feelings are about her reporting on this issue.

Here’s what Christine had to say:

In her shoes: from Iraq to America

Living as a college student in Baghdad during the war

Christine Graf

“I am an Iraqi citizen and I had to leave my country because of the war,” an Iraqi college student studying in America said.

The war in Iraq started in 2003 when she was a 15-year-old high school student in Baghdad. (Loquitur is withholding her name because she has family still in Iraq.)

“We were just kids. We went to school and hung out with our friends afterwards. Life was carefree before the war, just like kids here in America.”

When it became clear that this war with America was going to begin, she described how people started to leave Baghdad because it was a main target. That is when she realized what the war was already beginning to create.

Read more: