Kentucky farmers who hire migrant workers aren’t always happy to see Stephen Bartlett.
So the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s Bluegrass State organizer enjoys telling a story about a Green County tobacco grower.
"After organizing a successful mediation with this farmer and his H-2A guest workers, he told me he needed a union, too," said the Louisville-based Bartlett, who spoke at the recent Kentucky State AFL-CIO convention in Lexington.
Organizing immigrant labor on Kentucky farms might seem like mission impossible. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump won almost 63% of the Bluegrass State's vote and carried every rural county. But Bartlett, with FLOC leaders and lawyers behind him, made it mission accomplished.
Last month, he helped seven Mexican H-2A guest workers win apparently the first-ever tobacco workers’ strike in Kentucky, a state-long synonymous with "brown gold."
Wayne Day, the Garrard County farm owner, gave in after about three weeks and paid the workers $20,000 in back wages and attorney’s fees, Bartlett said.
The strikers, who have returned to their homes, stopped working for Day because over a three-year span, he refused to pay thousands of dollars he owed them, Bartlett said.
The H-2A farm worker federal minimum wage in Kentucky is $10.92 an hour. Day paid his workers only $7 an hour in 2015 and $8 an hour in 2016 and this year. Sometimes he paid them at an even lower piece rate, according to Bartlett.
Bartlett said that after the workers discovered that Day was cheating them, they contacted him and joined the union. They don't speak English, but he speaks Spanish.
Bartlett said that on Sept. 19, he handed Day a letter demanding that he pay the workers back wages to reach the H-2A minimum wage. Day told the workers that if they didn't like what he was paying them, they could go home, according to the state FLOC organizer.
The farm workers stayed put and went on strike Oct. 11. Bartlett said they hope to return to work on other farms next spring. They also said they would help him organize other immigrant workers.
Bartlett said most farmers treat their H-2A workers fairly and obey the law. "I tell them that FLOC has no gripe with farmers who do right by their workers. Our dispute is with the large corporations that squeeze the farmers and their laborers."
Bartlett said the Green County farmer told him about his problems with the big tobacco companies that buy his leaf. "He said the price he gets has been stagnant for two decades. We mean it when we say to farmers that FLOC could be their union, too. Family farmers in Kentucky and elsewhere absolutely need a union to collectively fight for better prices."
Bartlett said FLOC’s aim is to raise tobacco worker wages to $15 an hour. He said that’s possible only if growers get a fair price for their tobacco.
"I look forward to helping FLOC make more inroads into the farm worker sector here and to the day we achieve a broad agreement that would signify greater justice and dignity for those who are most marginalized—immigrant and migrant farm workers," Bartlett said.
"FLOC is proud to be part of the AFL-CIO and to join the righteous struggle for a true economic democracy that will insure the respect and dignity the workers deserve. After all, it is the workers who create all the wealth, not the capitalists, using their bodies and creative minds to transform raw materials into useful products."