She's been denounced by Tyson Foods as a "radical union organizer," but Magaly Licolli doesn't organize unions — she organizes workers.
Licolli is a leader in the workers' center movement that since the 1970s has been organizing labor difficult to formally unionize. An immigrant who developed a passion for popular education through her theater education in Mexico, Licolli served as the executive director of the now-defunct Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center, a nonprofit founded in 2007 to serve the region's poultry workers, where she worked with local community organizer Fernando Garcia. In 2019 Licolli co-founded Venceremos (Spanish for "we will win"), a nonprofit community center with a similar mission. Venceremos, like the NWAWJC, belongs to the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of over 30 similar worker-based organizations representing some 375,000 food workers in the U.S. and Canada.
Workers' centers have sprung up in recent decades in the anti-union, right-to-work states of the U.S. South. The earliest included organizations in Black communities in the Carolinas and among immigrants in El Paso, Texas in the 1970s and 1980s; the most recent waves have been in immigrant and refugee communities, serving farmworkers, food processors, and others in the agriculture industry. Workers' centers often focus on direct service and the specific needs of the communities they serve. Because they are not unions, they fall outside of the National Labor Relations Act's purview, which allows them to engage in tactics that are prohibited for traditional unions, like boycotts against businesses connected to the primary target of a campaign.
In this oral history interview, Licolli tells Facing South about the experiences that led her to start Venceremos, which she co-founded with a group of 16 women poultry workers in 2019. After meeting with groups like Florida's Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which successfully organized tomato pickers to push companies at the top of the fast-food and grocery store supply chains to implement a code of conduct to protect the farmworkers at the bottom, they formed Venceremos to pursue a similar worker-driven social responsibility model at poultry processing companies like Tyson and George's.
Licolli also discusses her upbringing in Mexico, how she uses her theater training in her organizing strategy, sexism in the labor movement, and how the pandemic affected workers and organizing in northwest Arkansas.
This interview is published alongside a new essay on the poultry industry and three archival stories — an interview with organizer Donna Bazemore, an investigation into slaughterhouse conditions, and a detailed report on the chicken industry's concentration — from the summer 1989 issue of Southern Exposure, Facing South's print forerunner, which won a 1990 National Magazine Award for its investigation of the industry. The conversation took place over the course of two phone calls in May 2021 and has been edited for length and clarity.
I am from Mexico. I grew up in a very humble but a very hardworking family. My dad is a printer. I am the middle one of five children, and I have always been very different than the rest of my siblings. I grew up in a Catholic school, and I was very rebellious and very curious. I lived also in a very violent environment in my house. León, it's a very conservative town, very conservative city, and Guanajuato is very conservative. My family didn't really believe that women had to get higher education, but had to do women's roles.
When I was 9 years old I wanted to escape my house. I felt asphyxiated. When I was 13 I began joining theater at school. In Mexico all the art back then was very political, very aligned with social justice. All my friends who were on the art side were socially not acceptable. I felt at home because I felt like we were all struggling to express ourselves through art. Theater was giving me the healing I needed, because theater is a very complex art. I believe that that really helped me right now with my work.
I'm so glad that I studied theater in Mexico. The approach, the techniques were learning who you are, your feelings, and asking why are you feeling this way. And reflecting about your humanity. I was a victim of sexual abuse when I was 15 years old, so for me theater was a way of letting that pain go. Eventually I told my parents, "I'm going to move to Guanajuato," which is 40 minutes away. It was a relief being far from my family and that environment. I was not able to express to my family that I was a victim of rape, that all this anger I had was because I was angry with society, I was angry with the roles of women, I felt very oppressed. After a year I told my parents that I was leaving to Mexico City.
It was a very beautiful education, because there they believed that in order to transform yourself into a different character, you need to learn who you are, where you come from, where you are, and where you're going to go. The first stage was about learning from our past, our pains, our traumas. I had to confront myself, and confronting myself means that I am responsible of who I am, I am responsible of who I want to be. I am not responsible for what happened to me but I am responsible of how I see that and how I take that to transform that into something good. That has helped me. I also try to push that to others — that way of healing, that way of saying this happened to me and I'm not going to carry this for the rest of my life and be miserable.
When I have the spaces with the poultry workers, I always give them this example. We believe that women have a specific role and that women also perpetuate the machismo in our culture. My mom played a huge role about perpetuating machismo in my family, but also she's a victim of violence herself. I learned that whenever you don't see that, you are going to keep repeating that story and repeating that with your family, your kids, with your partners. I found myself finding this type of men that were oppressing me, that were machistas. I was fighting against that but at the same time I was attracting that. I was feeling like in order to feel love I needed someone to be jealous with me.
I had been in a relationship like that for years. I got married to this white person and that's why I moved to the U.S., to Arkansas. But I was in a very violent situation. I thought that white people were not machistas, that they were beyond that because they always blamed Mexicans to be the machistas. But no. The worst relationship that I had in my life was with this white person.
My first years in Arkansas were hell. I was alone, I didn't know English, I was in another culture, in another country. It was very bad. My plan was to continue studying to free myself from that situation. I began learning English as my second language and then I began studying at the University of Arkansas. But that was a way of getting out of this relationship, of empowering myself to say I don't need you, I no longer need you to translate for me, I no longer need you to hit me, I can do this myself.
When I began at the university I left him. I had to say I need to be happy, and I am not happy in this situation. That's why I studied theater in the U.S., because theater had always given me that freedom.
But in the U.S., theater was not that. It was about oppression. I am a Mexican, I have this strong accent, I have a brown skin color, and they didn't know what to do with me in Arkansas, in the theater department. A lot of my partner students did not have the experience that I have. They were very inexperienced in theater. I had more experience because I was learning these techniques since I was 13. But somehow that didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was my accent, my skin color, and that's it.
When I was in Mexico, the approach was that the theater we do needs to transform the lives of our audience. Here in the U.S. it was about entertainment. It was not really about analyzing where we are. In Arkansas there is a lot of poverty, a lot of inequality, a lot of racism. Why don't we use those things to do theater? But it was not the approach.
They're pretty much controlling the community by giving charity. Charity is not the same as justice.
I really suffered a lot. I was miserable. I was depressed. I hated the U.S., I hated white people, I hated the white culture because they didn't let me exist, they didn't let me be. I couldn't even say that they were racist because how are you going to say that? You couldn't even say that back 10, 15 years ago. It was very difficult to call out people about their racism. I decided that if I wanted to continue to do theater I had to leave Arkansas, or just stop doing theater. When I graduated, I didn't have money and I ended up staying in Arkansas but I didn't want to do theater anymore. I didn't want to be involved in that. I was not interested in the type of theater that was done in Arkansas.
I began working in this nonprofit, the Community Clinic in Springdale, where I learned the struggles of poultry workers. My job at the Community Clinic was helping patients get enrolled in health care or other programs, because most of the people that go to this clinic are low-income families that don't have enough resources to get health care. Most of them were poultry workers. When they came, they used the space sometimes to just let things go.
I needed to ask them about their jobs, about their income. Whenever we talked, I was surprised that, for example, George's poultry workers didn't know how much they were making. I was like, what do you mean you don't know? Can you ask your employer? No, because they can fire us. No, they will retaliate against us. I was like, what?
On the pay stubs it didn't say anything about how much they were making per hour or how many hours. It just said the names and the total. To me that was shocking.
A lot of the workers who didn't have jobs were former poultry workers that have some type of disability from working in the poultry processing for many years. I remember this woman, a single mom around 40 years old, and she was unable to find a job because she was exposed to this chemical accident at a Tyson plant in 2011. She got holes in her lungs, and she was having difficulty to get a specialist because she didn't have any health care. And what did Tyson give you? "Well, nothing, I had to quit because I could no longer be there because of the high temperatures or the chemicals." I was like, but Tyson didn't do anything, didn't give you compensation?
All of them were saying no, nobody will win at Tyson because Tyson has all of this power here.
I found that the leaders in the community didn't really want to talk about those issues. Then I began understanding the complexity of the nonprofits that were receiving funding from Tyson and therefore they couldn't talk against Tyson. They were praising Tyson for all the charity that they were giving to the community, but in my head I was like, this is just — this is outrageous. They are creating these crises with our communities and then instead of helping these people, these workers, they are giving money to these organizations to help these workers. By doing that, these organizations cannot stand against the roots of the problem.
They're pretty much controlling the community by giving charity. Charity is not the same as justice. To me that was very clear. The charity is not fixing the problems, it's just creating the problems, and creating this cycle of poverty, this cycle of injustice. This is not solving anything whatsoever.
The Community Clinic does an amazing job with these workers, and I'm not saying that we don't need that. But we need more than that. At the end of the day the Community Clinic, or these immigrant organizations — they cannot solve the whole thing. They are just putting a Band-aid to this huge injury. That's why in 2014 I began to learn how to organize workers. I began with the Industrial Workers of the World, which is a union that's very different than the rest.
Fernando [Garcia] was working with me and organizing workers. He told me about the IWW, and why the IWW was a different type of union. When I began learning about this strategy, I was like, it makes sense that we organize committees within the jobs to organize workers. The only ones that had the power to change things were the workers, and we needed to empower the workers.
But it was a struggle, because IWW is very white-led. I understood that even if I was a Marxist, or a leftist, or an anarchist, it was not going to land in the immigrant community. I used the ideas, but it was very hard to connect workers to join or to create IWW committees within the poultry plants.
IWW, they have their preamble that's very specific. A lot of the workers didn't feel like this was their language. It was hard to even get workers to our meetings. It was just not landing. And IWW was very white. Eventually they created a Spanish group to translate materials and organize with the Latinx community, but it was not what I expected.
A lot of sexism is in our movement. Nobody questions a man's idea. But when we say it, it's questionable.
The techniques of organizing workers, I still use them. I don't have to tell them this comes from the IWW. The power of bringing workers collectively to fight for their demands, that still stays there. But we don't have to say you need to join the IWW to fight.
I learned that I didn't really want to say that we are forming an IWW committee. No, we are forming a committee with poultry workers from the Berry Street Tyson plant. It's a way of strategizing and using the laws that allow workers to collectively organize. Also, there is a lot of obstacles in Arkansas that will fight against an independent union. The UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers], in the South they're not as strong, because in the South the companies fight against the unions.
Eventually, I took the job of being the director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center. When I took the organization, I took it to change it, to make it more functional for poultry workers. I changed everything in that organization. I changed the way of training, I changed the theory of change.
The focus of the workers' justice center was on single cases, compensation, wage theft, OSHA complaints, things like that. That is important, but really in Arkansas it's very difficult. If the wage theft cases go more than $2,000 the cases don't proceed. The worker's comp cases are very difficult because very few lawyers will go against Tyson or other poultry plants. OSHA will just come to inspect the place if there's a huge accident because OSHA doesn't have enough resources.
I would talk with them and say, look, these are the options — but also the other option is to fight collectively with others, because this case is not only your case. These cases happen every day, and it's happening a lot. So what about if we fight together to form campaigns to fight against these things?
They were using only PowerPoints to educate workers, but not to engage with the workers or to empower them or to make them part of the organizing efforts. I didn't want to be the one to uphold the power — it was not about me, it was about building power within the community. It was like, I need to use everything I learned in theater about myself, about how we can believe that another reality can be different. We have groups of 30 people coming to our meetings. I think we need to do more than just give them a presentation or give them updates. What about if we engage them to analyze this deeply?
Ultimately it's about people believing themselves to be powerless. I said to myself, well, if theater did this to me, I think I can use this also to change the realities of others. So I changed the way of training to popular education. I was using some theater exercises to bring out the realities of power.
I was in meetings with workers and they were saying things like, the company is good but the supervisor is not, or the CEO is good, but the supervisor is not. No. We need to understand the complexity of why the CEO is the most responsible. I used theater to do that, to put workers in roles, to create their own social drama, to create their own stories improvising the dialogues of what they heard, of what the supervisor said. And it was beautiful to see how workers were more engaged.
But I had a lot of problems with that organization because it was also very led by men, very led by machismo. It was a lot about stopping me and telling me that my approach was not working whenever I saw that, yes, it was working. They didn't appreciate, I guess, that it was me who brought that change. It was a woman who brought that change.
A lot of sexism is in our movement. Sometimes I need to navigate that. Nobody questions a man's idea. But when we say it, it's questionable. My whole life has been about fighting for my own ideas and the ideas I believe are going to benefit workers. At the end of my years at the Workers' Justice Center, I decided that we needed to create another organization so that nobody could stop us. It's already hard to organize workers. And when an organization is not supporting your vision, it's even harder. That's why I created Venceremos with poultry workers, women who saw and believed in my approach, in the way that I organize.
Since I began organizing poultry workers, the more active workers were women. Women have been at the frontline of the poultry movement since the beginning. When I began building Venceremos, it was the women who saw that we needed to implement the worker-driven social responsibility model to poultry. Most of the workers on the processing lines are women. It was not like we were not allowing men — but women have been more actively involved, more actively pursuing solutions.
Venceremos has a very specific goal of adopting the worker-driven social responsibility model. When I was at the Workers' Justice Center, Oxfam was using us to create their report, to create their campaigns, to create their winnings — was just tokenizing us and using us for their own purposes. I had to get rid of our relationship with Oxfam because they went and met with Tyson. They had this agreement of Tyson was going to change these different things. But it was just a symbolic agreement. That agreement didn't have any mechanisms of enforcement, any accountability, nothing. It was just a paper saying they were going to change these things.
I fought with Oxfam and asked them, why are the workers not part of those conversations? Again it was this idea of the workers are ignorant and they don't know how to talk with the company, and we are handling this. I was very angry and I was like, no, this is not what we believe in. I had to protect my trust with workers because workers are not dumb.
When that happened, we were in a point of what's next? It was for me a moment of growing. This approach of organizing workers in the workplace — we're not building a union. I am not organizing workers to belong to a union because workers don't trust the union. Luckily, other organizations have created models that are very effective.
I didn't know much about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. In 2018 I traveled with Fernando to Immokalee first to learn about what was happening. When I learned about the program they had created, I said I need to bring workers to see it themselves. I brought workers the same year, and these workers are co-founders of Venceremos now. When they saw how the program works, they said, Magaly, why don't we do this? They told the coalition, we believe that this model in the poultry industry can work.
From that model, you push the buyers to adopt this code of conduct. But it's not just the code of conduct — it's the implementation of the code of conduct that makes you powerful. They created these monitor organizations that monitor the rights of workers under this code of conduct. The complaints can be resolved within two weeks, whereas an EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] complaint can take years. This is more effective, more rapid, and more impactful in the long-term because it also prevents the issues from keeping going.
Venceremos was built with this idea. These workers who traveled with me to Immokalee believed that the only ways to change, systemically, the poultry industry is by adopting a model that has its own mechanisms of enforcement and compliance. That's why we are using this model in Venceremos.
It's basically knowing who is on top in the power chain. We know that poultry companies have gained so much political power within the communities where we are. Who is on top of these big companies that have a lot of power? Other companies that have the power of purchase. At the end of the chain is the public, who has the power of purchase. We've seen the power of consumers with animal welfare. Lately, customers are more concerned by how the product is made than who is making the product. This model brings in the labor part of it — not only concerns about the animal, and how the product is grown, but who is making the product. The beauty of this model is it brings consumers into having direct responsibility. It brings market consequences, because at the end the buyers can say, I'm not going to buy this product because you are violating the code of conduct. The companies don't want to lose those contracts, those profits. It's a way to force them to do what's right.
We launched Venceremos Oct. 1, 2019. We were going to work on renting a space, bringing more workers, and just building this frame and educating others about the worker-driven social responsibility model.
That didn't happen because of the pandemic in early 2020. When that happened, we changed drastically. We could no longer meet in person, we had to change the meetings to phone calls. I had to split the George's group and the Tyson group because the companies were acting differently.
It was an emergency. Companies were not providing adequate PPE [personal protective equipment]. I remember very clearly that one worker said, "Magaly, we don't have paid sick leave, what is going to happen to us? With the pandemic and COVID, how are we going to miss work? We are not going to be paid for that, we are going to be punished."
All of the pre-existing working conditions were not favoring the workers whatsoever with the pandemic. OSHA was not doing anything. Workers were pretty much left alone. The only thing that was left to me and to the workers was to organize themselves, to fight. I think that Tyson and the companies were reacting to that. For the first time they saw that these 300 workers signed this petition, and now it's on the news. And we are protesting outside Tyson, and how is Tyson responding to workers? Nothing. They were exposing themselves — that they didn't care for workers.
It was an emergency, and the workers were so worried about their lives, the lives of their families, that workers were joining. It was so impressive to see this many workers signing the petition, giving their names, willing to fight and to take any consequences. Since 2014 I've been organizing workers, and I never saw this courage of workers coming together to fight. But it was because of the extreme danger that they saw coming. Other organizations keep saying, oh they're so afraid. Well, yes, they are afraid because these are the only jobs. But they also understand that jobs are not about losing their lives. And they didn't want to lose their lives. That's why they were organizing.
We need to work around how to create power within these communities and stop being the people that believe because we went to school we know more than them. That is not creating power.
Workers at the George's plant were organically organizing themselves some weeks before I began to organize with them. They already took action, they went to HR to express their concerns with the company ending the staggered shifts [which allowed greater social distancing]. HR didn't want to listen. That's why some of the workers who were leading those efforts contacted me. They told me about their demands, and they said they were going to do a similar action the following week. I said, OK, let's all have a conversation. That was a Saturday, and we had 20 workers joining the call. We discussed the working conditions and their demands and their concerns. I encouraged them to walk out — I told them we needed to escalate the action, because obviously they were not listening to workers.
I was able to share with them some of the laws that would protect collective action. They were kind of hesitant, because they were afraid of losing their jobs. They had heard managers and supervisors telling them that they were going to fire them if they did something like that. I told them I will follow your leadership — if what you want is to not walk out, that's fine. But this is very limited, what we can do to help you all. If we want to expose the situation, we want to make sure that people know what's happening. The media, they're not going to be able to know what's happening if everything happens indoors.
I didn't really call the media before because we didn't know what was happening on that day. I called some in the early morning on the same day and said workers are going to be walking out. But we didn't really know how many of them. So at the end workers got encouraged by others and myself. They walked out that morning. It was 33 workers, but a lot of workers were detained by the supervisors and managers inside the plant, so it could have been more.
Eventually, they told the employees that they were not going to end staggered shifts, which was one of the major demands. The biggest victory of this walkout was that workers found themselves to have power. At the end of the day, the company didn't fire any worker. They were kind of retaliating against some of the workers who were leading the strike, but we were following the cases with lawyers. The retaliation ceased.
It's very difficult to encourage workers to keep going on the actions because some of the workers were not paid. We came together and fundraised money to cover the lost wages of workers from that day, but still some workers became not so much interested in continuing. One of the bigger barriers for us is we were not able to meet in person to have a space to continue organizing. However, we continue organizing with the George's workers — there are a lot of issues that we still want to address.
Workers from other towns in Arkansas, from Van Buren, from Siloam, workers from Dardanelle, the only unionized plant — these workers were calling me to thank me for our work and to tell me that the union had not appeared at the plant, that they didn't know what to do because the union was absent. They were very alone, and they were very grateful that we were doing these actions.
We've seen the power of consumers with animal welfare. This model brings in the labor part of it.
I was able to connect with other workers from other towns — with Pine Bluff, with Green Forest, Huntsville, and some others in Missouri. They were calling us all the time. Eventually I hope that when we have a place and this happens, we will try to engage other people.
Now, we are planning to rent this space to keep growing the worker base, and our focus will be again with popular education but more the solutions. The solutions that we have found are the worker-driven social responsibility models. We are going to keep building on that to educate other workers about the power of this program, to educate the allies, to build this model to create a code of conduct, and to start targeting the supply chain of these companies.
We are still working on building the resources of Venceremos to bring more staff. Eventually we want to bring poultry workers to become the organizers, because they need to be at the front.
I got into this fight with the socialists. I also come from that background, the intellectual background, I have read books, I have read Marx, I understand what they're saying. But I cannot come to workers and say, "We need to be Marxists because Marx says..." Sometimes the intellectuals don't understand that in order to organize people you need to put yourself into the realities and just learn with them. You are not coming with this idea, "I'm going to teach you because you are ignorant, you're dumb."
No. When you organize poultry workers, it's about getting rid of all of these ideas and coming with them, and just sit with them. A lot of them are very religious. I'm not going to come with them and say, no that is a way of oppression. No. I need to accept that this is their reality. I need to respect that, and I need to come talk with them about yes, let's build this work together. It's learning with them — it's not about me imposing my idea on them.
A lot of people in Arkansas ask me, "Why do you organize with older immigrants?" The majority focus on the younger immigrants because they're easier. They already know English, they already go to school, they probably know how to read these books or have read these books. You find this comfort — I am with my people, they understand what I'm saying. But you cannot be like that with the older immigrants. You need to go down with them and just embrace that. It's beautiful, really.
They have learned to respect me, and I respect them because I know that I am with them. I have never come to impose on them anything. It's not about that. It's about gaining their trust to believe that we all together can change things. That's why popular education is so beautiful, because we learn that we learn from each other. We share our experiences — this experience can relate to this other experience, and so on.
Venceremos is led by women, and for us it's so important to end sexism at the poultry plants, to educate workers about sexual harassment, gender issues, and equality, and to bring the women's voice. We acknowledge that workers come from trauma — historic trauma, collective trauma, personal trauma. We want to not judge them, but instead embrace that and say, we need to find solutions to end this type of thinking.
We recognize that we are working with very vulnerable communities that need more access to that type of education. So we build a safe place to talk about these issues, to end discrimination against the LGBTQ community, against women. But we also recognize that our communities are fighting to survive, and that the immediate concern for them is to have food on the table. As long as workers keep struggling with that basic need, it's going to be very difficult that they are able to transform the whole society. It's about building consciousness among workers, among allies. It’s a process of growing and learning, and not crucifying anyone for not knowing how to approach those conversations with other people.
When I was an activist, I believed that I knew more than others, and that I knew how to change the world and others didn't. No. I am not an activist — I am an organizer, and I organize with workers, understanding their faults, understanding that we are not perfect human beings, that we cannot make the workers fight for everything. Understand that we are also learning, that we are also healing collective traumas, personal traumas, historic trauma, and that is not an easy job. You're not going to heal that by reading a book, or two or three.
We need to work around how to create power within these communities and stop being the people that believe because we went to school we know more than them. That is not creating power, and we don't know more than them. They know more, because they are directly affected. They are the ones that have expertise in that job, and we need to learn how to connect with them. That is work for the organizers to do.
People really need to connect with the community to get rid of these ideas that the workers are afraid and we are the voice of workers. That needs to really change. I am not the voice of workers and fighting for the workers who cannot fight. No. These workers have a beautiful voice, a powerful voice. The only problem is that nobody wants to hear them.