Op-Ed by Arturo S. Rodriguez, President, October 1997
Agribusiness has a 30-year history of opposing the United Farm Workers through messengers who pretend to speak for farm workers. such is the case with major strawberry growers who present the industry’s views in local newspapers through their Latino foremen and supervisors.
The strawberry workers tell a very different story.
Americans are buying more strawberries than ever, but few know about the miserable conditions workers must endure.
They labor stooped over, picking berries for eight to 10 hours a day. The work is so hard that many workers must quit by age 30. The average strawberry worker on California’s Central Coast earns $8,500 for a season that lasts from about April to October.
Workers are exposed to a host of dangerous pesticides, including methyl bromide, one of the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture today.
Housing conditions are often miserable. I have visited cramped apartments and small units in farm labor camps where 11 people from two families live.
We have helped workers bring their own lawsuits against strawberry growers over widespread violations of state and federal laws, including minimum wage and hour, sexual discrimination and failing to notify farm workers when cancer- or birth defect-causing pesticides are used in the fields.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Since a new UFW organizing campaign began in 1994, our union has won 14 straight secret ballot elections, signed new contracts with 15 growers and renegotiated many other agreements.
Where farm workers have won UFW contracts at mushroom, rose, wine grape and vegetable companies, they earn decent pay and enjoy complete family medical care, job security, paid holidays and vacations, pensions and a host of other protections.
Strawberry workers have been asking the public’s support as they seek the same basic rights through a national campaign led by the UFW and the AFL-CIO.
The industry claims workers don’t need such support because they can vote in union elections under California law.
Thousands of farm workers have voted for the UFW in state-supervised elections. And while that balloting has produced many union contracts that improve working and living conditions, elections in the strawberries haven’t mattered.
After workers voted for the UFW, at three large strawberry companies in recent years, the strawberry industry fired pickers, plowed under crops and temporarily shut down operations rather than bargain for union contracts.
The public can help by urging strawberry corporations such as Driscoll to obey the law and allow workers to organize without fear of retaliation.
Momentum is building for change in the strawberry fields. Last April 13, 30,000 farm workers and supporters marched through Watsonville in what observers describe as the largest demonstration for a union organizing drive in recent history.
A major breakthrough came when the largest direct employer of strawberry workers pledged to remain neutral as workers organize for an election. (Agents for other growers are trying to sabotage this progress by entering the neutral grower’s fields and threatening workers and UFW organizers.)
Last month, the United Farm Workers and Safeway Inc.-the nation’s second largest food retailer announced a joint pledge supporting basic organizing rights for berry pickers. It marks the first time in more than 30 years that Safeway and the UFW are working together for farm workers.
With this announcement, 27 retail food companies-including four of the nation’s top seven supermarket firms-covering 4,630 stores in 41 states and four Canadian provinces have signed pledges backing strawberry workers’ rights. Among them are Lucky’s, Ralphs, Vons, A & P, Waldbaums, Sloans, Gristedes, Key Foods, Jewles, Dominick’s, and many more.
In the four years since Cesar Chavez’s death, he has been honored in dozens of communities across America. Streets, parks, schools and libraries have been named for him.
Yet the greatest monument to Cesar Chavez is not to be found on a street sign or a building. It is seen in the continuing work of the union he founded and the courage to work for change he instilled in his own people.
(Arturo S. Rodriguez succeeded Cesar Chavez as president of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO.)