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Presentation by Arturo S. Rodriguez, President, United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, Raices y Alas 20033, South Bend, Indiana
05/24/2003

Presentation by Arturo S. Rodriguez, President United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO Raices y Alas 2003 South Bend, Indiana--May 24, 2003

Just recently, the United States of America granted American citizenship to a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic named Riayan Tejeda.

The U.S. also conferred citizenship on a young Guatemalan immigrant, Jose Gutierrez.

What was remarkable about these two men--and a number of others who were recently given American citizenship--was that they were Marines or soldiers who died fighting in Iraq to defend a country that, as one news story noted, they "could not quite call" their own.

You see, Riayan Tejeda and Jose Gutierrez were among the 37,000 men and women in the American military who are so-called "green card" troops--non-citizens in uniform.

Half of the first 10 members of the Armed Services who were killed during the conflict in Iraq were not U.S. citizens.

In some heavily immigrant neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area, half of all those who enlist in the military are non-citizens.

Congress is now debating a bill to let immigrant soldiers become American citizens after only one year instead of three.

Another of those who died for their country in Iraq was the son of Mexican immigrants who lived in Earlimart, California, a small impoverished farm worker town just north of Delano in the great Central Valley.

First Lieutenant Osbaldo Orozco, with the Army's 4th Infantry Division, was crushed to death last month when his Bradley fighting vehicle rolled over. Only 26 years old, he was coming to the aid of fellow soldiers who were under fire.

Osbaldo's father, Jorge Orozco, had served as an elected union leader at his ranch when he worked under a United Farm Workers contract at the Tex-Cal table grape company.

Contrast how America has rightly honored the ultimate sacrifices made by these brave young immigrants--and the sons of immigrants--with the treatment of immigrants who give up everything, sometimes their lives, to work in America.

Earlier this month, roughly 100 men, women and children were crammed inside a tractor-trailer rig that was left abandoned by their smuggler in stifling heat at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas. Nineteen of them died, including a five-year-old boy who perished in the arms of his father.

Altogether, last year 371 people died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the Border Patrol. The Mexican government thinks the number is somewhat higher.

Compounding the carnage along the border is the rhetorical bigotry that still dominates the national political debate on immigration matters.

* * *

Years of immigrant-bashing in the 1990s--and even to this day in some quarters--has left Latino immigrants who make it to this country feeling abandoned by government and distrustful of most social and political institutions.

Two exceptions for many have traditionally been the Catholic Church and organized labor.

The labor movement across America has increasingly focused its union organizing efforts on low-wage immigrant workers. They are the men, women and children who harvest the fresh fruits and vegetables, produce the manufactured goods and provide the human services without which the U.S. economy cannot survive.

Now they seek the dignity and protections that only unions can provide.

Of course, immigrant workers are plagued by many of the same dilemmas that confront all working people in this country.

The growing wage gap. The drop in real wages. The worsening plight of the working poor. The growing number of employers that do not provide comprehensive family health care benefits to their workers.

The diminishing prospects for working families--regardless of whether the economy is booming or in the dumps.

* * *

But immigrant workers endure special hardships because of their national origins, their languages and their ethnicity or race.

When I speak about the plight of immigrant workers it is not an academic or theoretical exercise. It translates into genuine suffering by millions of flesh-and-blood human beings--in every sector of the economy, in every part of this country.

The last three decades of my life have been spent trying to do something about what Cesar Chavez described as the tragic irony of farm labor: the tragic irony that the human beings who produce the greatest bounty of food the world has ever known too often go hungry themselves. I know from personal experience the miserable plight farm workers face.

Yet the Latino immigrant experience in America--and the abuse and exploitation confronting immigrant workers today--is certainly not limited to farm workers.

The janitors--men and women who clean and maintain the towering office buildings that grace our skylines--are sometimes called the farm workers of the cities. They too labor for meager pay, no benefits, no protections and under conditions that most other American workers would not tolerate.

Latino immigrants are also the backbone of the labor force without which our biggest and most prestigious hotel and restaurants could not function. But at non-union properties, many of which cater to the most privileged Americans, these workers also receive minimum wages, few if any benefits, no job security and arbitrary and abusive treatment by management.

Let us never forget that of the 79 people from 37 countries employed at the Windows of the World restaurant on top of the World Trade Center who were killed on September 11, 2001, nearly all of them were immigrants. And some of them were undocumented.

Along with the dramatic upsurge of huge industrial-style food and meat processing plants in the Midwest and South, big corporations have also imported a largely Latino immigrant work force that toils for little pay, few benefits and no protections.

Finally, there are the farm workers.

The long history of agriculture in this great land is one sad story after another of poverty and humiliation--combined with racism--that have been visited upon succeeding generations of dark-skinned immigrants.

The latest U.S. Department of Labor statistics show seventy-five percent of California farm workers earn less than $10,000 a year.

A recent study sponsored by the California Endowment reveals the great majority have no health coverage from their employers--or any coverage; only seven percent of farm workers receive any kind of government-funded health services.

Decrepit Third World-style housing.

People living in crude shacks, in the outdoors, under bridges and in caves.

The child labor.

The pesticide poisoning.

The needless deaths and injuries on the job.

The sexual harassment.

The lack of decent field sanitation, despite state and federal laws: toilets in the fields, clean, cool drinking water.

The commonplace violations of minimum wage and hour laws.

These injustices from the fields have been a national disgrace for decades--since long before John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Edward R. Murrow's "The Harvest of Shame" report. They are still a disgrace.

Despite the ranting of anti-immigrant activists, the issue is not whether immigrant workers will stay in the United States. The U.S. economy cannot long survive without their labor. The American people have come to rely too much upon the fresh fruits and vegetables, the manufactured products and the human services that immigrants supply our nation.

* * *

These conditions are changing attitudes toward unions by immigrants--and other workers.

A recent survey by the nationally-respected pollster Peter Hart shows more Americans would vote for a union than a decade and a half ago. A majority think it would be good for the U.S. if more employees had union representation.

Unions more attractive than ever to working Americans, especially those who are poor, minority and immigrant.

But supporting a union does not come without risk. Over time, unscrupulous employers and their union-busting attorneys and labor consultants have effectively chipped away at the nation's laws guaranteeing the right to organize and bargain collectively.

Workers seeking union protections today frequently must walk down a tortuous path of threats, intimidation and even violence.

Several years ago strawberry pickers at Coastal Berry Company near Watsonville who supported the United Farm Workers were savagely attacked in the fields by a mob of anti-UFW thugs organized by foremen and supervisors.

Half a dozen pro-union workers and two responding peace officers were injured. (The UFW has just recently reached agreement on a union contract with that company.)

Firings. Threats. Violence. Lay-offs. Surveillance and interrogations. These cynical tactics have become all-too-common responses to union organizing.

Both state and federal laws have largely failed to protect workers from abuse.

* * *

What is the answer?

Cesar Chavez often said if the union--and movement--he founded did not survive his death, then his work would have been in vain. Ten years after his passing, which we marked on April 23, the United Farm Workers is still battling nonviolently for the men, women and children Cesar championed.

A new field organizing and contract negotiating drive was kicked off in 1994, one year after his death. Since then, workers at dozens of companies have voted for the UFW in union elections. And the UFW has signed dozens of new union contracts with employers.

Last year alone the UFW won more than a dozen elections at companies across California, including Coastal Berry Company, the nation's largest strawberry employer where pro-union workers had faced violence--with 900 workers on California's Central Coast. The union already has a contract covering Coastal Berry's 700 workers in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles.

Also last year, the UFW won historic legislation that for the first time grants farm workers binding mediation so they can win union contracts even when growers drag out negotiations for years, and sometimes decades.

California boasts the nation's first, and only, law granting farm workers the right to organize, vote in secret-ballot union elections and bargain with their employers. It was pushed through in 1975 by Cesar.

Between 1975 and 2001, farm workers at 428 California companies voted for the UFW. Yet only 185 of those growers signed UFW contracts.

Farm workers at one huge Salinas Valley vegetable firm have been bargaining off and on for more than 25 years. Too many farm workers never got what they voted for in free elections: the life-changing benefits of UFW contracts.

So last year the union pushed through the California Legislature--and Gov. Gray Davis signed--a pioneering new law guaranteeing farm workers union contracts when growers delay and delay and delay.

The biggest legislative victory for farm workers in 27 years took affect on January 1st of this year. There is hope this law will bring progress to many more farm workers as well as spur new field organizing in the nation's largest agricultural state.

Still, much needs to be done to complete the work Cesar began.

* * *

Before Cesar Chavez, all the experts said farm workers could not be organized. He spent 31 years proving them wrong.

But Cesar also insisted that his own people take responsibility for making change happen. He once said that "farm workers had allowed ourselves to become victims in a democratic society--a society where majority rule and collective bargaining are supposed to be more than academic theories or political rhetoric."

He challenged injustice‹not by complaining, not by seeking hand-outs, not by becoming soldiers in the War on Poverty.

He organized.
He struck.
He marched.
He fasted.
He boycotted.
He negotiated.
He led the UFW to victory in union elections.

He gave confidence and pride and hope to hundreds of thousands of farm workers--and to millions of others who will never work on a farm.

He also called upon the church--and perhaps upon many of you in this room over the years--to be an active participant in the farm workers' struggle. He believed that if Catholics truly wanted to make this the church of the poor, then it had to be seen by farm worker and others who suffer as relevant in today's society.

For Cesar, the teachings of the Catholic Church--especially those concerning social justice--were not just the stuff of Sunday services. He lived out his faith every day of his life.

In his homily at Cesar's funeral mass in Delano in 1993, Cardinal Roger Mahony described Cesar as "a special prophet for the farm workers."

For Cesar, the responsibility to live out his faith as a Catholic and the political responsibility to work for social and economic change were indivisible.

Those of us who try to walk in Cesar's shoes strive every day for recommitment and penance. Recommitment to realizing his dream of a national union for farm workers. Penance because while he was alive, all of us looked to him and said to ourselves and to each other, "Cesar will take care of organizing the union."

An old saying that he was fond of repeating goes, "There is more time than life."

Cesar's life ended before he could finish his work. Now the burden of fulfilling his dreams, and our own, rests squarely on each of us.

In a 1995 pastoral statement, the National Council of Catholic Bishops declared that "the Hispanic presence calls the Catholic Church to retrieve its experience of being the Church of the poor."

As Cesar Chavez's successor, let me repeat his call for all of us, as Catholics, to heed that passage from the Book of the Prophet Micah in the Old Testament that he often quoted: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God."

* * *

Last month 19 Latino immigrants seeking work in America died in the stifling heat of a truck trailer in Texas.

Let me conclude with another story about 28 Mexican farm workers who died when they were being deported by U.S. immigration authorities.

It was January 28, 1948, when a twin-engine DC3C aircraft crashed in Los Gatos Canyon, west of Fresno, California, killing all 32 people on board, including the 28 farm workers.

Eyewitnesses saw at least nine people leap to their deaths as the plane came apart in mid-air. Twelve of the farm workers were never identified.

Famed singer and songwriter Woodie Guthrie learned of the disaster on the radio. The announcer commented, "It's not such a tragedy since they were just deportees." Guthrie was so angry that he wrote a beautiful song called "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" or "Deportees." The refrain from the song goes:

Farewell to my Juan, farewell Angelina
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria.
You won't have your names
when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be deportees.

Also hearing about the tragedy--and inspired by Guthrie's response--was a 20-year old farm worker who was then picking cotton around Delano, California.

As a teenager during the late 1930s and early '40s, he had met Guthrie when he visited dusty Central Valley farm labor camps.

By 1948, this young farm worker was also learning about labor history and Papal Encyclicals on the rights of working people.

Four years later he would begin his organizing career with a Latino civil rights group.

Fourteen years later he would found what would become the first successful farm workers union in American history.

His name was Cesar Chavez.

Thank you very much.


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