March 9, 2005

Students Protest on Behalf of Migrant Farm Workers

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“Farmworkers should eat first,” declared one posterboard yesterday outside Trillium in the second protest in two days orchestrated by the Farmworkers Advocacy Coalition (FAC). FAC also coordinated a 30-hour fast to protest the decision made by Susan Henry, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), to move the Cornell Migrant Program (CMP) from the College of Human Ecology to CALS. The fast began at 8 a.m. on Monday.

“[CMP] was moved … after a lengthy review process by an internal task force … then-Hum Ec Dean Patsy Brannon, Cornell Cooperative Extension Director Helene Dillard and I agreed that [CMP] would be better housed in CALS where it would have closer links to faculty research on farmworker issues and outreach,” Henry said in a statement in response to the protests.

Protesters feared that the move from Hum Ec to CALS was driven by agri-business interests and would limit the powers of advocates for farm workers’ rights. Since May 2004, FAC has believed that CMP’s move from Hum Ec to CALS would be detrimental to the program’s purpose, and that its placement into CALS would create an inherent conflict of interest during its implementation.

Yesterday’s protest took place in the midst of a search for the program’s new director. Prof. William Camp, education, the head of the CMP director search committee, did not return calls.

“This [move] is a major scandal,” said Jordan Wells ’07, who is a member of the committee that is conducting a search for the new director of CMP.

“Cornell is giving into agri-business interests,” said Marc Asch ’05, who actually picked apples at Cornell Orchards as a farmworker. “No one who has worked with farmworkers, who cares about their rights, supports this move.”

Tony Marks-Block ’07, another protester and member of FAC, pointed out that there is a conflict of interest which arises with CMP being placed within the agriculture school. He said that Henry is on the board of directors of a corporation called Agrium, Inc., which produces fertilizers as well as other agricultural products and services. The corporation’s website confirms this fact.

“This connection [to Agrium] definitely biases [Henry],” Marks-Block added. He also said that Agrium produces fertilizers that are “chemically horrible for the environment.”

Herb Engman, former 30-year director of CMP, said, “There certainly is the appearance of direct involvement … Is she getting paid for that job? … Anytime someone is paid to participate in a business, you do entail certain loyalties … legal oaths … to put the interests of that board or organization first.”

The protesters also handed out flyers that quoted the New York State Farm Bureau State Policies for 2003, an organization, according to Marks-Block, that was founded alongside the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), and has significant financial ties with CALS through grants and alumni endowments.

According to the flyer, the policy states, “We are strongly opposed to the involvement of Cornell Migrant Farm Worker Program [in labor rights issues]. Should representatives of this program continue to work on agendas in direct conflict with Farm Bureau policy, we recommend funding for this program be dissolved. Program representatives should restrict their activities to only those issues and programs which compliment [sic] the viability of the agricultural industry.”

“There may well be corporate interests reaching into Cornell … and having influence over what’s happening,” Engman said. “This gives the appearance of some negative interaction between Cornell and private enterprise.”

The new CMP, according to Marks-Block, is then unable to do advocacy work and “can’t take a stance on farmworker’s rights … [such as] advocating overtime pay.”

Furthermore, “most farmworkers in the state will not work with a program in CALS … [they believe] it is too beholden to agri-business interests,” Engman said.

“How can [CMP] function without community support?” Marks-Block added.

Henry’s statement said, “[CMP] will depend on stakeholder input as well as cross-college collaborations among faculty in the colleges of [Industrial and Labor Relations], Hum Ec, CALS, and [CCE]. It will be a stronger program because of those collaborations.”

Although FAC met with Henry to discuss this issue, according to Jason Lee ’05, “the meeting accomplished little … It was clear that she does not want [CMP] to go anywhere else [other than CALS].”

In terms of the search for a new director of the program, Wells said, “It doesn’t matter who we hire … It’s a hostile environment [because the program] doesn’t have the trust of the farmworkers … The new director is heading into a lion’s den.”

“It’s going to be exceedingly difficult for the director of the new program to accomplish much,” Engman added.

Wells also pointed out that the program has lost the long-time grant of $600,000 from the New York State Department of Education.

That money, according to Asch, was originally used to fund farmworkers’ children educational programs.

“I think that the move is the reason that [they withdrew the money],” Asch added. “They thought the money would be better used elsewhere.”

According to Engman, the University has pledged to put more money into the program. During Engman’s directorship, the program received $88,500 a year from the University, and will now receive $100,000 plus salary increases each year. However, Engman said that despite this additional money from Cornell, all outside funds has been lost, because those sources “don’t think the program can properly serve farmworkers.”

“[There] is concern about the influence of corporate interests at Cornell,” Engman said. “Quite a number of faculty have come to me about this [influence]. One would think academic programs should be truly independent.”

FAC passed out 3,000 flyers during its protest on Monday and yesterday, according to Asch. On whether they hope this protest will have any effect on policy, Asch said, “I’d like it to.” “The dean has made up her mind … The only person that could overrule … would be the president,” Engman said. “The president has to decide whether you can have academic freedom at Cornell, whether you can have faculty and staff do their jobs who can serve the people in programs that they are set up to serve.”

“We want to know why these processes weren’t democratic,” Marks-Block added. “These policies need to change [to involve] more students, more people.”

FAC handed out armbands for people who were participating in the 30-hour fast, but had given out all 70 halfway through their protest on Monday.

They estimated 100 Cornellians participated in their protest at Trillium and at Ho Plaza. FAC will be orchestrating a “funeral” for CMP next Monday.