In rural Florida, unions seek solidarity with immigrant workers
Farmworkers in Florida. | AP

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won some working class voters by appealing to the indignity and insecurity that these people face under capitalism. Though Trump’s rhetoric made a show of concern for working class issues, it was ridden with noxious themes that divide the working class – racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Instead of rallying behind demagogues like Trump, we should seek an alternative.

The AFL-CIO has sought this alternative in its support for immigrant workers. In March, the labor federation gave its support to AB450, a bill in the California legislature that would prevent law enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement from carrying out warrantless searches and demanding workers’ confidential documents without a subpoena. The AFL-CIO has also denounced Trump’s plans to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and supports a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented workers.

In my home state of Florida, the AFL-CIO has been reaching out to immigrant farmworkers in Pierson, Florida. In an exclusive interview with People’s World, Joshua Leclair, president of Volusia-Flagler AFL-CIO and Yennifer Mateo, field representative for the Volusia-Flagler AFL-CIO discuss the federation’s initiatives in that part of the state. Mateo and Leclair, who are married to each other, met while engaging in social activism.

Leclair and Mateo described a Cinco de Mayo celebration hosted earlier this year by the Farmworker Association of Pierson, Florida, the Volusia-Flagler AFL-CIO and the Mexican Consulate. The celebration featured food, music, discussions and a “Power of Attorney” workshop for immigrant families. After the celebration was over, I sat down with them for an interview and here is what they had to say:

People’s World: What prompted the AFL-CIO to become involved with the farmworkers in Volusia County and why do you think it is important for organized labor to do so?

Leclair: The farmworkers have been here for generations and the fern industry that they work for here in Volusia County used to be the biggest supplier in the world. For a long time, we have had a relationship with these workers, but because of the current political atmosphere, we decided it was important for us to strengthen that relationship and build solidarity with them around workers’ rights.

This all began after the New Year, as a sit down with the newly elected County Sheriff Mike Chitwood. The immigrant community in West Volusia County was very concerned about President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and thus a meeting was organized.

Yennifer and myself, representing the AFL-CIO, the Farmworker Association of Pierson Florida, representatives from the Hispanic Democratic Caucus and our local Volusia-Flagler American Civil Liberties Union, attended the first meeting with the Sheriff’s Office. Immigration lawyers were also in attendance. The conversation that took place between these parties was one that needed to take place.

We believe that it is important for organized labor to become involved with these groups because the farmworkers are part of the working class. If we talk about history, every non-Native citizen in this country is descended of an immigrant, including myself. There has been a national push from the AFL-CIO to get involved in the immigrant rights battle. Right after the New Year and around the time of Trump’s inauguration, the Florida AFL-CIO said it would stand with immigrants.

Mateo: We, the AFL-CIO are labor and we need to help workers who are being exploited. To me, this really hits home. My dad was an undocumented worker and so it is natural for me to want to connect with them and see how we can use our resources and connections to help. It never hurts to have solidarity and build relationships with immigrants and the community in general.

People’s World: Recently, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office has taken a more progressive stance on immigration. After attending this event and speaking with the community and its leaders, does it seem as though the Sheriff’s Office is living up to its promises to protect the county’s immigrant population?

Mateo: When we had this meeting, we wanted to make sure that if someone is an undocumented worker – especially a woman – and is also a victim of a crime, that they could call the police to report it. The history of the police department within immigrant communities has been one of distrust. Immigrants would be rounded up at gas stations, schools and churches. Immigrants would also be pulled over in their vehicles, harassed and ask for their papers.

With this new sheriff, there is hope. He was previously the chief of police for Daytona and he has been known for hiring more Latinos and for being on the right side of history; this is why we wanted to meet him. He wants to build trust with the immigrant community and have them feel safe to call the police if they are victims of crime, without fear of deportation.

The sheriff comes to all the events that we have and he was there that night. He ate with us, laughed with us and brought his deputies so that they could get acquainted with the community. He hires deputies that speak the immigrants’ language and ones who share a similar background to the immigrant population.

People’s World: Is the AFL-CIO helping the farmworkers to organize unions of their own?

Leclair: The national AFL-CIO does have an association for farmworkers called the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), you may know of them from their RJ Reynolds tobacco campaign in the Carolinas. FLOC is not currently affiliated with the Farmworker Association of Florida, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be and we should work to make it happen.

Even though the Farmworker Association of Florida is not technically a union, that is not to say that it isn’t effective, but if the workers can obtain union worker’s rights, that is a big deal. The AFL-CIO constituency organization LCLAA (Labor Council for Latin American Advancement), is a national organization that works with farmworker organizations helping with immigrant rights workshops and helps to meet the needs of immigrant communities with events like clothing, bicycle and toy drives. There are multiple other organizations that help with the cause, but they aren’t unions either. We are still trying to figure out how to make a broader collection of groups, unions and other organizations, which will fight for workers’ rights.

People’s World: In addition to organized labor, have there been any other progressive organizations within Volusia County that are helping the farmworkers in their struggle? 

 Leclair: The ACLU and the Hispanic Democratic Caucus were instrumental in bringing in the Sheriff’s Office. There are the teachers’ unions (Volusia United Educators), the Volusia-Flagler AFL-CIO, the Mexican Consulate and the Farmworker Association of Pierson, Florida. The teachers’ unions helped us with food for the event.

People’s World: One of the workshops offered during this event, was one that gave instruction to farm workers on how to fill out a Power of Attorney form. Please tell our readers why it is necessary for these workers to know how to fill out the Power of Attorney form?

Mateo: The AFL-CIO and the Farmworker Association of Pierson Florida has a monthly legal clinic for instructions on how to fill out a POA, though workers can visit the Farmworker Association of Florida for instructions on a daily basis if needed. When filling out the POA, the parent is asked to pick three people that they can count on to keep their children if the parents are deported. The idea for a POA came up in one of the monthly meetings. Immigrant women were worried after Trump’s election and wanted to come up with a plan B solution in case they were deported and their children were placed in state custody.

People’s World: If immigrant families in and around the Volusia County area need legal assistance, where can they go to obtain help?

Mateo: If they are here in Volusia County, they can contact the ACLU, AFL-CIO or the Farmworker Association of Florida. The Farmworker Association of Florida can connect them to a local chapter. They can also contact the consulate of whichever country they are originally from.

 Leclair: Pierson, Florida is not a metro area, it is a rural area, but the Mexican Consulate sent representatives here. That is a big deal.

People’s World: Why are immigrants choosing to come to this country? It seems rather obvious, but given the rhetoric of the right wing in the past election, I feel that it is a question worth revisiting. 

 Leclair: Undocumented people are afraid. In the conversations that I have had, it is the same immigrant story. These people are looking for a better life for their kids and want to be able to take care of their families. We all want our families to be taken care of, for our children to go to school and to have a better life than we did. It’s the same story as my ancestors. It doesn’t matter what immigrant story it is, it’s about trying to find a better economic situation. I also think there are a lot of Americans who don’t understand how U.S. economic and military policies force people to come here. Things get so bad, that you don’t have another choice.

Mateo: When you come here undocumented, you have to be desperate to take that journey; you don’t have a full idea of what is waiting for you. You have a need and you have a goal and those are to make sure that your family is taken care of. My dad was undocumented, and on Fridays when everybody was expecting to get paid, the boss would say: “We are not paying you today, what are you going to do?  You can’t do anything because you are illegal.” Yes, it hurts, but you have to move on.

Though organized labor has seen setbacks in recent years, the AFL-CIO’s outreach to immigrant workers is a testament to the fact that working class solidarity is not dead, but as strong as ever.


Daniel Winters
Daniel Winters

Daniel Winters is an operations analyst in the finance industry in Northeast Florida.