Against the Grain

In Alberta, it’s illegal for farmworkers to form a union. Eric Musekamp is fighting to change that.

By Eric Musekamp

On August 20, 1999, farm worker Terry Rash tipped an old water truck into a ditch south of Taber. Damage to the truck was minimal, and Terry and his passenger were unhurt. They sent word back to the farm for help.

Their boss, farm owner Charles Henry Beauchamp, arrived at the scene 45 minutes later. In the confrontation that followed, he stabbed Rash to death.

The news spread across the hired-man community in southern Alberta, bringing shock, anger, revulsion and fear. It was a difficult time—gallows humour on the two-way radio, tension between workers and their bosses.

It was apparent to me that the root cause of this slaying and many other transgressions against farm workers is in fact systemic. The exclusion of the ag industry from many rules, regulations and laws causes a significant power imbalance between employer and employee. This de facto caste system emboldens some in the rural community to act toward their employees in a way that is not in keeping with Canadian social norms. Alberta’s farm workers are excluded from so many rules, it’s like living in Canada’s last lawless frontier. No Labour Relations Code, no Occupational Health & Safety, no mandatory Workers’ Compensation Board coverage. no logbooks or air brake tickets or inspection reports are required for our trucks. Even the right to join a union has been taken from us.

In 2001, I found myself at the receiving end of an angry employer’s wrath for making a mistake similar to Terry’s. I was completely at his mercy. When he showed none, I had very little recourse. I did push back as best I could—took him to small claims court, complained to the Labour Relations Board, EI, CPP, Canada Customs & Revenue Agency, and took all other legal avenues of recourse available to me. It was difficult, time consuming, complicated and largely unsuccessful. As word got around, I was met with disdain. The sentiment seemed to be, How dare you sue your boss or file complaints against him?

So I decided that rather than go after individuals mistreating their workers, I would go after the system. I wrote letters to our government. They were ignored. But the local paper printed my first letter to the editor and then joined with me in calling for a review of Charles Henry Beauchamp’s sentence in the death of Terry Rash. The Crown did review the sentence and doubled it, for an effective sentence of 34 months.

I had already spent some time talking to the guys, and even stood on a few tailgates like Jimmy Hoffa. The workers I spoke to were not satisfied with the status quo. Clearly, we wanted change, but no one really knew what to do. There was talk of striking or protesting. But it all seemed kind of feeble. Any action would no doubt result in trouble. It’s pretty hard to take a stand when you don’t have a leg to stand on.

When you make waves in a small pond, it doesn‘t take long before everyone gets wet. The reaction from some locals intensified a bit—garbage thrown over my fence, brake fluid removed from the pickup. nothing too serious. Just enough to keep me going. But it was hard to find work locally. So I found work 75 miles away, hauling milk from Hutterite colonies to a dairy. Then my partner, Darlene, and I took a job driving a produce truck from California to Alberta once a week. It turned out to be an excellent chance to get to know farm workers and owners in the US. I met illegals, united farm Workers members, union bosses, farm owners and many others. We spent many hours discussing the labour issue and how it was before the union and César Chávez. Things are better now than they were before.

After two years, Darlene and I returned to Alberta. We worked with a local trucking firm hauling potatoes from farms to processing plants. We were immediately struck by the complete lack of safety standards on the various farms we went to. It was unbelievable—young children working in very dangerous conditions with bad electrical wiring and unguarded machinery. We were moved to take action. We procured safety goggles, ear plugs and the like for the workers, and insisted that unguarded chains and very bad high voltage wiring be fixed. One of the farms was very unhappy with our actions and demanded we be fired. We were promptly discharged, with Taber’s finest brought in for effect.

On September 24, 2004, the farmworkers union of Alberta (FUA) stepped into the light of public display: we struck a picket line at Chinook Carriers Ltd. in Taber and issued a demand that the company make their workplace safe. no one could recall ever having seen a picket line in Taber, so we attracted quite a bit of attention. The local press gave us very sympathetic front-page coverage. The company, on the other hand, was unhappy with our presence on their doorstep and brought in the police, the bylaw officer, their lawyer and others to try to dislodge us, without success.

Darlene and I hired on with a large sugar farm to haul sugar beets to market. We had worked for that farm during sugar harvest for more than 20 years. We had a good relationship with this employer and we were well received. But the trouble started almost right away, with neighbour farmers approach- ing our employer advising that he get rid of us. When that failed, the RCMP were brought in and conducted a very disruptive investigation against us at the work site. That really got the tongues wagging on coffee row, which was pretty upsetting to our employer. It also was upsetting and frightening to a lot of farm workers. The farm where we had worked over decades no longer wants us. That sugar harvest is the last farm work we’ve done. Can’t blame them, I guess—too much trouble. It sends a pretty strong message to the workers: speak out at your peril.

In May 2005, the Alberta Federation of Labour invited me to address its biennial convention. “I’m going to beg for the lives of Alberta’s farm workers,” I told the Prairie Post Weekly before I left for Edmonton. And that’s what I did. I managed to cobble together a speech and deliver it to 450 audience members. I stood at the podium and told them of the plight of Alberta’s farm workers. They were appalled. I asked them to stand up for farm workers and they leapt to their feet with thundering applause.

When farm worker Kevan Chandler was killed in a farming accident, his children and his wife were left without any compensation.

Darlene and I spent the remaining three days of the convention manning our booth and meeting with labour leaders, politicians, media and all sorts of other interesting folks. The labour people treated us like gold. It truly was a once-in-a- lifetime experience. We collected a couple hundred signatures on our petition to the Alberta government demanding equal treatment for Alberta’s farm workers, which new Democrat MLA David Eggen would later table in the Legislature.

Returning home from Edmonton, we saw the agriculture minister was having a $50-a-plate fundraiser in our very small village, so we quickly put together a 50-cents-a-dog event, which we set up in the parking lot of the good minister’s venue. We called it our first Occasional under-Dog Day. It was a great success, garnering more press for farm workers than the minister got for his fundraiser.

Our request to the Workers’ Compensation Board for an outreach effort by the board to encourage ag employers to sign up for WCB was rejected. We decided to obtain board literature and application forms and set up an information booth at the Burdett farm Safety Day Camp. The event was put on by the united farmers and the Co-operators insurance company. Our promoting WCB coverage didn’t sit well with them and they promptly brought in the RCMP to get rid of us.

On August 20, 2005, the AFL joined with the FUA and the united food & Commercial Workers Canada to declare that day farmworker Day. The AFL announced its “End the Drought” campaign for farm workers’ rights, stating, “The AFL is committed to recognizing farmworker Day until the government agrees to include farm workers in employment legislation.” The Bow Island 40-Mile County Commentator ran the headline, “Illegal Farmwork Union Gets Support.”

The local press continued to give the issue coverage, including a front page in the Medicine Hat News. good for the cause, but hard on our popularity among local employers. We did manage to get 20 days’ work harvesting corn with a transport firm. We had to promise not to talk about the issue. fair enough, got to eat. We made it through harvest, but we couldn’t get any other local farm work. So we closed up the house and went to Lotus Land to mooch off relatives and save some money.

Next spring, we headed for Edmonton to attend the spring session of the Legislature. ultimately, you have to talk to the guys who wiggle the levers if you want to get anything done. So we set our travel trailer at a local truck stop and started going to the Legislature every day. We’d go to the public gallery, hang around at the library, eat at the cafeteria, lurk in the rotunda and pee in the executive washrooms. Whatever we could do to bump into the lever-wigglers. I was able to buttonhole all kinds of MLAs, ministers, reporters, and even cornered king Ralph in the elevator once.

This tactic brought the issue of farm workers to the complete attention of the whole caucus. I was granted meetings with the health minister and the agriculture minister. I got to meet with the opposition parties and several government members. I have accomplished one thing so far: when they see my big square head darkening their doorstep, they know who I am and what I want.

After five weeks of going to the Leg, meeting people, giving speeches and going to events, it seemed we were getting somewhere. We were also getting pretty broke. But we needed to stay a while longer, as we had a meeting upcoming with the agriculture minister. I did some speaking where they passed the hat, and we went with some young supporters and panhandled for spare change on Whyte Ave. I had never begged on the street for money before and felt pretty uneasy about it. After four hours we had collected over $250 and 250 signatures for our petition.

The long periods of no income started to catch up to us. I had decided right at the beginning that we wouldn’t take money from farm workers, no dues or donations. Others have donated money from time to time which kept us going, and when we didn’t get anything we just paid for stuff ourselves. Couldn’t seem to find a way to quit the cause. Every time we thought we should stop, something would come along to keep it going. It seems it’s bigger than us. But because we had run up a pretty wicked Visa bill, we had to sell our house to pay down the debt. That was pretty sobering. We owned our house free and clear and kinda thought we’d live out our days there. It was home.

The day we had to leave was pretty bleak. I watched my girl go through her lovely yard, bidding farewell to her cherished clematis, rose bush, Hoppy the hops vine. Then to see her hug our beloved neighbours. It seemed pretty tough at the time. We were really hanging a lip as we packed our kit and caboodle and headed off to who knew where.

The reaction intensified—garbage thrown over my fence, brake fluid removed from the pickup.

Then we learned of Lorna Chandler. She was the wife of Kevan Chandler, a farm worker who was killed at work for want of a simple safety harness. Although it must have been her darkest hour, Lorna stepped forward to beg her government to end the policy so that “perhaps no other family will have to walk this path of despair we now tread.” When Lorna learned that Kevan’s death was the result of a policy to exclude agriculture from occupational health and safety regulations, she realized that it will only be a matter of time before another worker dies needlessly. Lorna has two small children to raise, so she did not have the option of disregarding immediate material needs. Her effort to speak out to the government has been very beneficial to the cause but it has done nothing for her. Kevan’s employer did not have WCB coverage—when Kevan was killed at work, Lorna and her family were not entitled to any benefits. By the time we went to see Lorna some six weeks after Kevan’s death, she was in a pretty bad way financially.

There wasn’t really any avenue of hope for this family, so we quickly staged an emergency fundraiser to help them out a bit. We were able to attract three MLAs. All spoke condemning the government’s treatment of farm workers. The event generated a lot of media attention.

Nine days later Lorna and her family accompanied us to Edmonton, where we staged a press conference in the media gallery of the Legislature. We were hosted by Dr. David Swann, who spoke forcefully and eloquently on the need for immediate reform of labour legislation in the agriculture industry.

Lorna faced the bank of cameras and reporters and calmly made her request that the government put an end to their discriminating policy. I again reminded the government of our constitutionally guaranteed right to equality at law and asked them to respect the Charter of Rights and Alberta’s own Bill of Rights. After the press conference we attended the public gallery. Dr. Swann introduced Lorna and her children to the Assembly. He asked Human Resources & Employment Minister Mike Cardinal, “In front of the widow, can you tell us what this government is prepared to do to change this situation?”

The minister’s answer was so obscure that it prompted the NDP to issue a press release chastising the minister for misleading the Assembly. Premier Klein was content to ignore the widow, her children, the Constitution, recommendations from two of the government’s own committees and mounting public pressure.

Now we have a new premier and agriculture minister and new rural cabinet ministers. We start somewhat anew. The media continue to give us good coverage. The spring session of the Legislature has started, and we are there, big square head darkening doorsteps.

On March 22, the Liberal party spoke out in Legislature, asking our premier to respect the constitutional rights of agricultural workers by including them in labour regulations. Premier Stelmach refused. “Just because we have regulations,” he said, “does not mean that somebody is going to follow them. We have many regulations. We have many laws. We have laws that say that people should stop at a stop sign, and they don’t.”

Despite our premier’s cynicism, I have faith in the good hearts and minds of my fellow Albertans, and so we continue. We are not in the Promised Land yet, but I can see the beckoning glow of its lights.

Eric Musekamp is the founder of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta. His career as a farm worker spanned 27 years.

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