Editor, Daily Nexus:
In response to former College Republican president Lee Gientke’s actions:
It is the nature of politics to disagree. It is also in the nature of politics to have passion on both sides of the political spectrum. It is the nature of politics to exercise our First Amendment rights and voice our opinions. But when do we draw the line between freedom of expression and hate? We have learned through lifetime experiences that issues are best left resolved on an “agree to disagree” basis. But sometimes those lifetime experiences can take a wrong turn and leave a community wounded.
Last Wednesday, El Congreso hosted a workers’ rights rally, in which over 20 farm workers united after a hard day’s work and drove up from Oxnard to speak about the boycott of Pictsweet mushrooms. They spoke to the UCSB community about the struggles they endure every day in order to support their families. They spoke about the pain and suffering they experience while engaging in unappreciated, backbreaking jobs. Workers at Pictsweet currently make 33 cents per bushel of mushrooms, which they pick one-by-one while hanging from an apparatus anchored to the ceiling.
Pictsweet management has continually intimidated workers by threatening to fire them, using dirty tactics such as bribery and attempting to decertify their right to unionize. These farm workers are asking for a 4-cent raise and basic health benefits for hazardous employment. Most workers make less than minimum wage and face a dismal work environment. Recently, a documented case reported a worker suffering a heart attack. Rather than being sent to the hospital, the company sent him home. Other documented acts of negligence include an unsafe conveyor belt that nearly severed a worker’s finger and an order for workers to exceed safe exposure limits of bleaching chemicals. Both Ralph’s and Vons supermarkets have recently ceased to sell Pictsweet products.
Despite the appearance of these farm workers and the pain in their voices, one individual chose to publicly voice his opposition to the rally in Storke Plaza. One could easily assume no wrong in his choice to exercise his freedom of speech, but this was not respectful. This was not peaceful. In a voice of ignorance and blatant hatred, Lee Gientke decided he would publicly mock the lives, pains and sufferings of the farm workers’ experience. During a worker’s speech at Storke Plaza, this former leader of the College Republicans carried in 10 boxes of pizza with only mushroom topping. Gientke continually shouted demeaning remarks such as, “Buy more mushrooms, support capitalism!” while handing out Young Americans for Freedom Foundation and “Mumia: Cop Killer” paraphernalia. This egregious act of hatred was not only a direct slap in the face to the Pictsweet workers, it also showed a lack of respect for the Chicano and Latino community on campus.
The suffering of these workers is representative of local families and the struggle their parents have endured. Mr. Gientke mocked the faces of these workers, their boycott, El Congreso and all participants fighting for a better future. He was an embarrassment to himself and the community he represents. Despite his intentions, he was not able to alter the overwhelmingly positive spirit present at the rally. After being asked to leave numerous times and faced with passion and unity, he gathered his things and left. The humble side of our community shone through as a Chicano community organizer peacefully offered to help carry some of Gientke’s things.
Gientke and those who share his ideology may assume there is no difference between his act and the picketing and leafleting at an Oliver North or Ward Connerly lecture. However, Oliver North and Ward Connerly are public figures in the American political arena. Through their decisions, they have intentionally placed themselves in the media’s spotlight. But these farm workers hold no political office; they are merely hardworking people struggling to make a living. We know that most people on this campus believe a hard day’s work deserves fair pay. We hope that people will support the boycott of Pictsweet mushrooms until these dignified workers get the respect they deserve and the opportunity to negotiate a fair contract – si se puede!
ELIZABETH VAN DYKE