Mushroom workers in spotlight on May Day

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. — The Philadelphia County Central Labor Council and the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (Philaposh) celebrated Workers Memorial Day and May Day this year by marching and rallying with the Kaolin Farms mushroom workers in the small town of Kennett Square, Pa., population 5,300, on the first of May.

The decision to march in support of the Kaolin workers was reached at an April 27 breakfast program that highlighted the struggle of immigrant workers in the Kennett Square area.

Ninety-eight percent of the workers who pick the mushrooms in the area are immigrants from Mexico. Thirty percent of the nation’s mushrooms are produced in area farms, earning Kennett Square the moniker of “Mushroom Capital of the World.” Mushrooms are Pennsylvania’s leading cash crop.

Picking mushrooms is dirty and hard work. Mushroom pickers typically face notoriously squalid living conditions. In many camps, the workers have been crowded into shacks infested with rats, mice and flies. Gaps in the walls and roofs are common, as are exposed electrical wiring, boarded-up windows, broken toilets and erratic hot water.

A union organizing drive brought improvements, and the mushroom workers won union recognition and their first union contract in 1999 after prolonged struggle, including a nationwide mushroom boycott.

On May Day, a caravan of cars traveled the 30 miles from the Sheet Metal Workers’ headquarters in Philadelphia headquarters to Anson B. Nixon Park in Kennett Square.

The mushroom workers led the 300 marchers from the park through town and back again. The marchers chanted in Spanish and English, “The people united can never be defeated.” Signs declared, “No human being is illegal,” and “Uphold the right to struggle — pass the Employee Free Choice Act.”

Among the speakers at the rally was Ana Maria Vasquez, a board member of the Farm Workers’ Support Committee.

Vasquez spoke of the plight of the immigrant workers. “We come to this country in order to survive and provide for the well-being of our families,” she said. She called for recognition that “we are workers and that we contribute to the economy, to our communities and to society in general.”

Vasquez continued: “We need laws that protect us and recognize our right to organize without retaliation.” She concluded with a call for amnesty for the 12 million undocumented persons already living in this country and a border policy that complies with the fundamental principles of human rights as affirmed by the United Nations.

Jim Moran, executive director of Philaposh, spoke about the need to end the secrecy about May Day, a working-class holiday that originated in the United States and which is today celebrated throughout the world, but not in the U.S. or Canada.