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.
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.