In this ever fracturing world, opportunities for meaningful engagement seem to have become fewer and more far between. With this in mind, our Environmental Engagement (ENVS295) class embarked on a two day field trip around the Columbia Gorge and Willamette Valley in order to meet and discuss with organizations participating in environmental engagement, often in unique and powerful ways. One such organization was Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or PCUN. Talking with Laura Galindo, the Communications and Membership Director, we got to hear about the interesting history of PCUN, as well as a number of different programs PCUN operates to develop community engagement within the larger Woodburn area, as well as their work towards building engagement with farmers.
Following in the footsteps of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, PCUN was founded in 1977 as the Willamette Valley Imigration Project (WVIP) in response to large-scale INS raids that were devastating farmworker communities. Starting out, WVIP focused on providing undocumented workers with legal representation, eventually campaigning at the federal level against legislation like the “Bracero” program. In 1985, PCUN was founded as Oregon’s union for farmworkers and tree planters, and WVIP was incorporated under the PCUN umbrella of related nonprofits. PCUN’s first major initiative was the Project to Stop Pesticide Poisoning, an effort to spread awareness to farmworkers about the dangers of pesticides, as well as identifying which pesticides are used and documenting exposure. Afterwards, PCUN started advocating for pay increases, collecting documentation of wage theft. These efforts led to the first unionized labor strike in Oregon history, the strike of cucumber pickers at Kraemer Farms in 1991. The ’90s additionally saw the formation of the first farmworker collective bargaining agreement, made between PCUN and Nature’s Fountain Farms in 1998. This agreement implemented protections for farmworkers such as overtime pay, grievance procedures, paid breaks, and union recognition.
The 2000s were a major time of expansion for PCUN, as in 2004 Oregon became just the fifth state to guarantee paid breaks for farmworkers. 2009 saw the formation of the PCUNcitos Club by Voz Hispana Causa Chavista (along with help from PCUN) and the CAPACES Leadership Institute, developed to foster leadership skills and engage youth in the farmworkers rights movement. In 2013, PCUN led the successful initiative to give undocumented immigrants the right to drive. With the help of PCUNcitos and CAPACES, 2015 saw the landmark election of Teresa Alonso Leon to the Oregon House of Representatives, making her the first Latinx immigrant elected to the state legislature. Today, PCUN continues its original mission of working towards greater representation of undocumented farmworkers and focuses heavily on the Project to Stop Pesticide Poisoning, as PCUN fights for the health and rights of their community.
For more information about the history of PCUN, see here.
PCUN is a unique organization because it is composed of a large number of sub-groups—a community outreach organization, a lobbying/policy advocacy organization, a community radio station, and a healthy workplaces/collective bargaining group. PCUN pursues a variety of goals through this structure. During our visit to PCUN, a key facet of the organization we learned about is the Healthy Workplaces program, which aims to educate farmworkers about their rights, specifically how to resist workplace harassment, dangerous working conditions, wage theft, and ICE raids. They also provide healing groups for workers affected by toxic workplace environments, including a safe space for women affected by sexual discrimination and harrassment.
One healthy workplace initiative is the documentation and controlling of workplace pesticide exposure. Moreover, the initiative promotes the health of farmworkers by lobbying for dangerous pesticides to be banned on farms, such as Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate that has neurotoxic effects. This pesticide is significant because the legal use is currently being contested by the Oregon Farm Bureau (OFB), which aims to continue the ability to use Chlorpyrifos to combat the invasive spotted lanternfly in the event it starts to damage crops throughout Oregon.
PCUN’s main focus is engaging with the Latinx migrant community through partnerships. For example, their collaboration with the CAPACES Leadership Institute helps bring awareness to the widespread maltreatment of farmworkers to all members of the community and elevates diverse voices to positions of power within the community. PCUN engages with the general public, as they recruit volunteers to educate farmworkers on their rights, which provides these workers a greater hope and security. Additionally, PCUN engages with farmers and farmworkers through hosting marches and holding meetings to negotiate union contracts. They further their engagement with organizing “training and healing circles based on cultural connections to support workers in our vision to build empowered and thriving communities” (PCUN). With their own community at home, PCUN is involved through their sister organization Accion Politica PCUNista, in fighting for policies that reflect their values surrounding “social, racial, economic, environmental, gender, criminal, worker, and immigrant justice”(PCUN). They believe that beneficial change happens when policies address root causes of oppression.
PCUN has engaged with a number of farms directly to promote safer work environments for farmworkers. A prime example of this is their work with Nature’s Fountain Farm to build a farmworker collective bargaining agreement. During our talk with PCUN, Laura Galindo mentioned a few other instances of similar agreements with other farms. However, no more information was given and we are unable to find more details about the extent of such agreements. Similarly, an area that we felt PCUN could further their engagement practices was with the Oregon Farm Bureau surrounding the use of pesticides like Chlorpyrifos. In our discussion with Barb Iverson, owner of Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm and president of the OFB, we heard about the worry that farmers have about not having the proper weapons to combat the potential spread of the devastating lanternfly, and how most farms are not using Chlorpyrifos and simply want an exemption to be allowed in case the pest spreads. It seems like there is room for engagement between PCUN and the OFB in trying to find a common ground between maintaining farmworker health and stopping crop devastation in the event that the spotted lanternfly becomes a significant problem. With that being said, we understand PCUN hesitancy to reach such an agreement, as any use of these pesticides may result in the infringement of farmworkers fundamental right to health, regardless of the severity of damage caused by the pests.
In general, the way that PCUN is organized and how they have gained political influence provides an interesting template for approaching engagement. They not only reach out to farm workers to make sure that they know their rights, but they fight for their rights to be reflected in policy as well. Additionally, PCUN considers a number of environmental issues in their work, notably the health concerns of farm workers who are in frequent contact with pesticides.
Hearing PCUN talk about all the incredible work they do to empower the voices of those who are disenfranchised and seeing the specifics about how they implement both large and small scale community change was incredibly moving. Their history of engagement with both farmers and farmworkers and their success as such shows the value that practices of engagement have within a community. While there is certainly room to grow the depth of their engagement, specifically within working with the OFB, their role as organizers can not be understated and the impact they have had on the lives of farmworkers has been transformational, though more work always needs to be done.