Undocumented workers, union members deserve rights, protection
Sunday, March 31 was Cesar Chavez Day, established in 2014 to commemorate the work of one of the country’s first and best-known Latino civil rights and labor movement leaders.
Known for his use of nonviolent yet thoroughly disruptive tactics including marches, consumer boycotts and hunger strikes, Chavez uplifted the voice of one of the nation’s most neglected workforces: farmworkers. Along with Dolores Huerta, Chavez founded what later became known as the United Farm Workers — the first union for farm laborers in U.S. history.
The immediate results of Chavez’s efforts were tremendous. The Salad Bowl strike led to the passage of The Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which established the right for California’s farmworkers to collectively bargain. During this movement, workers also became eligible for benefits like medical insurance and employer-paid pensions. Growers were prohibited from using toxic pesticides on their crops, while short-handled hoes — which threatened the long-term health of workers — were banned, drastically improving the safety conditions of the fields. And wages increased to match the federal minimum wage — all thanks to the organizing efforts of a poor, Mexican-American farmer from Arizona who dreamt of a more equitable, safe environment for the nation’s overlooked.
Yet many of the hard-won victories of Chavez and the UFW have not persisted into present day. Unionization rates among farmworkers have plummeted since the late ‘70s, with less than 10 percent unionized nationwide in 2018.
This decline in unionization — especially in California, the birthplace of one of America’s most pivotal labor movements — is disheartening, although not exactly surprising. Undocumented workers constitute about half of the state’s agricultural workforce, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration undoubtedly dissuades these laborers from organizing to gain more fair wages and treatment. This keeps field employees some of the least politically powerful and most easily exploitable workers in the nation, even though California’s agricultural industry churns out approximately a third of the nation’s produce and employs roughly a third of U.S. farmworkers.
Working conditions for field laborers today are a stark improvement from those in Chavez’s early days. But without a steadfast bargaining agent, farmworkers still face the dangers of being exploited, without the political pressure behind them to change unfair practices. Many farm workers felt pressured to keep working amid the wildfires in California last year, and others are fearful that heat laws won’t change quickly enough in the face of increasing temperatures in the Central Valley due to climate change.
Chavez showed that the poorest in America could take on the most powerful. But to continue this legacy, UFW must divert more attention to the undocumented workers who tend to California’s fields and make them feel, amid the threat of deportation, that the union is even worth it. The Editorial Board also demands that lawmakers support organized labor and protect the workforce that feeds the nation.
Written by: The Editorial Board