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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Remembering Cesar Chavez amid declining farmworker union membership

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


  1. You’re right, the decline in membership should not be surprising. The UFW has all but given up on organizing workers. In this LA Times article, the ALRB Chairman William B. Gould IV is quoted as saying that: Less than 1% of farmworkers are unionized. The UFW “has absolutely no interest in organizing the unorganized” The board spent more of its time on petitions from workers trying to kick out the UFW than on petitions to join the union. The 1975 law creating the labor board was “irrelevant to farmworkers.”
 —> https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-alrb-resignation-20170112-story.html

  2. Editorial Board: Supporting organized labor AND protecting the workforce is not always the same thing. As a matter of fact, nowhere is that more evident than in the case of the Gerawan Farming workers. Lawmakers created the law that allowed state-written union contracts to be forced on farm workers without giving workers the right to vote or ratify those contracts. The UFW abandoned us for 20 years and then suddenly returned to force us into a non-negotiated contract that would actually lower our take home pay without even letting us vote on it. When we stood up to them, they spent five years trying to block our votes from being counted. It took the Fifth District Court of Appeal and the CA Supreme Court to force the UFW and ALRB to count the votes, and not surprisingly, when the votes were finally counted the UFW lost by 6 to 1.


It’s not a surprise that farm workers don’t want to be in UFW after what happened to the thousands of Fresno peach and grape workers abandoned by the UFW for 20 years. Even though NONE of the employees even knew the UFW “represented” them, the union suddenly reappeared and tried to force them to pay dues that would LOWER their take-home pay. Then, when the government held an election after the workers petitioned to oust the union, the UFW tried to have the ballots DESTROYED so the workers would not have a choice. 

Just two years ago the courts ordered UFW to use worker dues to pay a $2 million fine for failing to pay its own employees properly. And you say it’s “disheartening” that more workers haven’t chosen to be in this union?

 Today’s rights-trampling UFW would be unrecognizable to César Chavez. Next time do some more research visiting http://pickjustice.com


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