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Leaders of U.S. Catholic Bishops urge justice for strawberry workers

April 3, 1998

Leaders of U.S. Catholic Bishops urge justice for California strawberry workers

On the week that Americans are celebrating the birthday of farm labor leader Cesar Chavez, leaders of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement urging justice for strawberry workers.

As the harvest gets underway on California’s Central Coast, the United Farm Workers-under the leadership of Chavez’s successor and son-in-law, Arturo Rodriguez-is in the second year of a major organizing drive to help the state’s 20,000 strawberry workers improve their lives. The berry workers seek union contracts that would bring better pay, benefits and working conditions.

The Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference joined Bishop Sylvester Ryan of the Diocese of Monterey in issuing a statement on March 30 observing that "farm laborers who toil in these strawberry fields are being organized to secure better working conditions, better wages and a better life for themselves and their families.

"As the local bishop, Bishop Ryan, points out: ‘Many of these workers experience working conditions that violate both our state laws and all fundamental human rights, oftentimes to the extreme. It is clear that there are employers and growers who consistently violate the rights of workers in the worst possible way. The strawberry industry is extremely labor intensive and therefore workers have been especially vulnerable and subject to an entire array of abuses.’"

The statement notes that "Bishop Ryan acknowledges, as we do, that there are growers who provide an adequate wage, safe and humane working conditions and fundamental health and safety benefits to their employees." Yet, the statement continues, "the contrast between the way the few are treated with respect and dignity and the mistreatment of the vast number of seasonal workers in the strawberry industry calls for redress.

"We are reminded of the Pope’s admonition: "…the right to work can be infringed when farm workers are denied the possibility of sharing in decisions concerning their services, or when they are denied the right to free association with the view to their just advancement socially, culturally and economically.[from the Papal Encyclical On Human Work]"

"As Bishop Ryan insists: ‘Profits of the industry must not be gained at the sacrifice of paying just wages to the primary workers in the industry.’ Bishop Ryan points out that ‘every worker, including all those now or in the future who are engaged in the strawberry industry, have a right to join a union if they so choose.’"

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