Keep Me in the Loop!

United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Address by Teresa Romero, President, United Farm Workers of America, Commonwealth Club of California, March 20, 2023—San Francisco, California

Thank you, Darlene Tenes, for the kind introduction and for all your good work with farm workers through Farmworker Caravan.

All of us where shocked and then saddened by the mass shooting deaths of farm workers in San Mateo County on January 23. Maybe it was especially horrific because it happened in your own back yard.

That brutality also exposed horrific living and working conditions—as well as credible claims of serious labor violations—at those farms near Half Moon Bay.

But it was hardly an aberration in the long and sordid history of farm worker exploitation and oppression in this state and nation.

—On the 28th of January 2023, it was 75years since the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon—in 1948. A DC-3 airliner with 32 people caught fire and crashed into Los Gatos Canyon in western Fresno County. The dead included 28 bracero farm workers being deported from Oakland to Mexico.

The Anglo pilots, flight attendant, and immigration officer were identified. But most of the farm workers were just listed as…“deportees.” The deportees’ remains were buried in unnamed graves by the Latino community and Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

Songwriter Woody Guthrie heard of the tragedy on the radio. The announcer reportedly said they were “just deportees.” He was incensed and wrote a beautiful tribute—“Deportee” or “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”—later sung by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among many others. The refrain goes:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,

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.”

A professor, Tim Hernandez, recently researched the deportees, found their names, and funded a memorial gravestone at the cemetery. The deportees finally got their names back.

—Almost 60 years ago, on September 17, 1963, a freight train collided with a farm labor bus outside the small farming town of Chular in the Salinas Valley. Thirty-two bracero farm workers died.

Before a similar audience at the Commonwealth Club in 1984, Cesar Chavez opened his remarks by recounting that crash…

[The farm workers] died when their bus, which was converted from a flatbed truck, drove in front of a freight train. Conversion of the bus had not been approved by any government agency. The driver had tunnel vision. Most of the bodies laid unidentified for days. No one, including the grower who employed the workers, even knew their names.

—Forty-nine years ago, on January 14, 1974, nineteen lettuce workers died when their farm labor bus careened off the road into a drainage ditch near Blythe, California.

The previous day, the driver, Pablo Arellanos, 54, left Calexico on the Mexican border around 3 a.m. Then, after a full day toiling in the fields himself at High and Mighty Farms, Pablo drove the workers back to Mexico at night and cleaned the bus before trying to sleep.

Early the next day, Pablo picked up a crew of farm workers and headed north again. Approaching Blythe before sunrise, the bus missed a turn and careened into the ditch. Seats and farm workers were thrown to the front of the bus. Most workers died from drowning in the shallow ditch while trapped by the wreckage.

—Twenty-four years ago, on February 11, 1999, thirteen tomato workers died when a farm labor van crashed into a tractor-tailer rig in the pre-dawn darkness of west Fresno County.

Instead of seats bolted to the floor, the workers sat on wooden benches with no seatbelts. Upon impact, unsecured sharp tools flew at the workers, some of whom were speared.

To identify the victims, CHP officers showed instant photos to dozens of farm workers gathered at the scene. Family and friends broke down identifying the pictures.

—Five years ago, early in the morning of March 13, 2018, farm workers Santos Hilario Garcia and Marcelina Garcia Profecto—husband and wife—just dropped off their daughter at school in Delano and were heading to find work. They were undocumented.

Santos, who was driving, saw lights flashing in his rearview mirror. He thought it was the police, so he stopped. When he realized they were ICE agents, the couple—fearing separation from loved ones—panicked and took off, fleeing at high speed with two ICE vehicles in hot pursuit.

Santos lost control of the car, hit a utility pole, and flipped over. Both husband and wife died—leaving six orphaned kids, ages eight to 18.

The ICE agents lied to the Delano police, claiming they were not pursuing the couple with flashing lights. Surveillance videos contradicted the claim. The police referred the ICE agents to the Kern County District Attorney for prosecution. The D.A.’s office declined to file charges.

The orphans’ closest relative, their uncle Celestino Hilario Garcia, lived in the same Delano apartment building. He tried being a father to his grieving nieces and nephews. A few months later, ICE agents deliberately picked him up and deported him the same day.


Tragedies such as these regularly befall farm workers. They usually go unnoticed. Yet, since the deaths at Half Moon Bay, some people are asking why we keep seeing these injustices? What is the cause?

In his eulogy before the families of the dead lettuce workers in 1974 in Calexico, Cesar Chavez asked if these tragedies “are deliberate?

“They are deliberate,” he answered,

…in the sense that they are the direct result of a farm labor system that treats workers like agricultural implements and not as human beings. These accidents happen because employers and labor contractors treat us as if we were not important human beings.

They are important because of the love they gave to their husbands, their children, their wives, their parents—all those who were close to them and who needed them…

They are important because of the work they do. They are not implements to be used and discarded. They are human beings who sweat and sacrifice to bring food to the tables of millions of people throughout the world.

As we weigh the historical and contemporary plight of farm workers, we can see that the San Mateo County shootings two months ago were not an exception. Rather, they were the direct result of fundamental injustice and indignity built into the system of farm labor in this state and nation—dating back more than a century and a half.


Agriculture is still one of the richest industries in California. Cash receipts for all crops surpassed 51 billion dollars in 2021.

—For more than a century and a half the profits of California agriculture have been built on the backs of generation after generation of exploited and oppressed farm workers—often dark-skinned immigrants imported to work in our fields.

Read the literature—both fiction and non-fiction—from Steinbeck’s three novels on farm labor—including The Grapes of Wrath—to Factories in the Fields, the classic 1935 history of California farm labor by the great social commentator Carey McWilliams.

Since the mid-19th Century, California agriculture has been worked by…





—African Americans—imported to California by transplanted southern cotton growers

—the Oakies and Arkies

—Mexicans again

—Later Yemeni and Punjabi workers

—When farm workers rose up in protest, growers broke their strikes by pitting one race against another—using Mexicans to break strikes by Filipinos and vice versa.

Until the UFW, every kind of union tried to organize—and was ruthlessly crushed…

…From the radical Wobblies—the Industrial Workers of the World—in the nineteen-teens…to the staid National Farm Labor Union in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Growers marshaled all the social, economic, political, legal institutions in rural California to crush organizing.

Every strike was brutally broken.

Every union was defeated.

Strikers and organizers were beaten, blacklisted, deported, shot…killed.

Growers were so powerful that when nearly all other American workers won the right to organize into unions…to be paid a minimum wage and overtime under the New Deal in the ‘30s, farm and domestic workers were—and remain—excluded.

Segregationist lawmakers demanded FDR exclude farm workers because in the South—they were largely African Americans and largely Mexicans and Asians in the West. It was pure racism. As one Southern Dixiecrat lawmaker put it, “You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis.”

That racist exclusion from the right to organize and be paid overtime continues to this day in most of the United States—except California where the UFW ended the exclusion through legislation.

Farm workers’ exclusion from collective bargaining ended in California in 1975, when Cesar Chavez and the UFW—with help from millions of boycotting consumers—pushed through the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

The UFW didn’t end farm workers’ exclusion from overtime pay in California after eight hours a day until 2016.

We recently also won overtime in Oregon and Washington state.


In the UFW we have an expression: The laws on the books are not always the laws in the fields.

When horror stories emerge about farm worker abuse—such as after the San Mateo County shootings—the industry rightly observes that California has the toughest laws and rules in the nation protecting farm workers.

But too often enforcement of those laws falls far short of what is promised in statute or regulation.

—Take the tragedy of Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez.

May 14, 2008 was a hot day. Inside the vineyard where she and her finance, Florentino Bautista, toiled near Stockton it was about 100 degrees.

Maria Isavel, only 17, had just arrived from Oaxaca, Mexico to earn money to send home.

She had been working nine hours. No water was provided until 10:30 a.m.

There was no shade and since the vines were young—only a few feet high—no protection from the hot sun.

There was no training for foremen or workers on what to do if someone got ill from the heat.

All these protections—and more—were demanded by the state of California since 2005. Back then, the United Farm Workers convinced Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the first state regulations in the country to prevent death and illness from extreme heat. This was after a spate of farm worker heat deaths.

At 3:40 p.m. Maria Isavel felt dizzy—and unsteady. She didn’t recognize Florentino, her 19-year-old fiancé. She passed out in his arms.

The foreman stood over them, glaring.

Maria Isavel was placed unconscious in a nearby van—with no air conditioning. It was hotter inside the van. Maria Isavel waited for the workers to finish as they relied on the same van.

The van headed for Lodi. The driver decided she needed medical care. On the way to a clinic, the foreman called the fiancé. “If you take her to a clinic,” the foreman said, “don’t say she was working for us. Say she became sick because she was jogging to get exercise. Since she’s underage, it will create big problems for us.”

They got to the clinic at 5:15 p.m.—more than an hour and a half after Maria Isavel was stricken. An ambulance took her to the hospital. Her temperature was 108.4 degrees—far beyond what the human body can take.

Maria Isavel’s heart stopped six times in two days. Doctors revived her. On the third day her good heart stopped for the last time and efforts to revive her failed. The doctors learned she was pregnant. She probably never knew she would have been a mother.

Doctors said if emergency medical help had been summoned or she had gone to the hospital sooner, Maria Isavel might have survived. She was buried in her wedding dress.

Even after the state heat rules were issued, a third of agricultural employers were not properly honoring them, according to Cal-OSHA. So, the UFW helped farm workers get attorneys. They sued the state of California over poor enforcement. Those lawsuits were settled by the Jerry Brown administration in 2015—when Cal-OSHA also strengthened the rules.

Countless worker lives have been saved—and illnesses prevented—because of those heat standards the UFW helped win.


Today, decades after California became the first state to grant farm workers unionization rights, farm workers still face daunting challenges in unionizing from growers who sternly resist the right to organize and have a union. Growers flaunt with impunity the law’s protections. One of the most recent cases before the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board is insightful:

At Premiere Raspberry Farms, with about 500 workers in Watsonville, the farm workers did everything right.

They organized.

They went on strike.

They voted for the UFW in an election held during the strike.

They asked to bargain for a union contract.

The company refused to bargain at all. It refused to participate in the state’s Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation process. Under it, workers can bring in neutral state mediators to hammer out contracts when growers won’t negotiate them.

Premiere challenged the constitutionality of the Mandatory Mediation law, even as it was being upheld by the California Supreme Court.

Three years after workers began organizing, Premiere exhausted all its legal remedies.

Within 10 days, according to the state farm labor board, Premiere “suspiciously” shut down operations. The company never intended to abide by the election results or the state-ordered union contract. The workers received only a modest financial settlement—a small fraction of what Premiere would have paid in wages and benefits had the company complied with the law.


The horrific conditions revealed by the mass shootings in Half Moon Bay are yet another reminder of why unionization remains so necessary.

“Squalid” and “deplorable” living conditions were reported in the press after the murders at California Terra Garden and Concord Farms in Half Moon Bay.

We understand Cal-OSHA, the state labor commissioner’s office, and San Mateo County officials are investigating allegations of wage theft, other labor violations, and housing violations at the two farms.

Now, contrast the two Half Moon Bay mushroom farms with the unionized Monterey Mushroom farm just down Highway 1 in Watsonville and also in Morgan Hill. Monterey Mushroom—one of the largest fresh mushroom producers in America—employs about 1,000 workers who have been working under UFW contracts for years.

The average unionized mushroom picker earns 45 thousand dollars a year with full family medical, dental, and vision coverage, paid holidays and vacations, a defined-benefit pension plan, job security, dignity and fairness on the job, and much more.

These benefits and rights are still largely unheard of in the agricultural industry. But at Monterey Mushrooms, under UFW contract, a thousand workers benefit rom them every day.

Farm labor does not have to be this dead-end, low wage, no benefit occupation. We have shown the difference the union can make.


The question now is how to expand unionization to farm workers across California—and eventually the country. California took a historic step forward last year with the signing of AB 2183.

The right to vote in America was enshrined in law with passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Yet, in recent years Republicans in red states have passed dozens of new voter suppression laws making it harder for people to vote—especially young people and people of color.

In contrast to these far-right red states, over the decades California made great strides in making it easier for people to vote.

So too, in California the right of farm workers to vote in union elections has been enshrined in law since passage of the historic 1975 farm labor act.

Yet, when field workers try voting in a union, they are still stuck back in 1975—when just about the only way political voters could vote was at set polling places.

Under the 1975 farm labor law, agricultural workers can only vote at polling places—nearly always set on grower property. There, they must run a gauntlet of threats and intimidation and deportation—by employer foremen, supervisors, and labor contractors.

Remember, most farm workers are immigrants. Most of them are undocumented. Nearly all of them work at the poverty line.

To preserve the status quo, growers argued they only want to help farm workers by preserving the right to vote in secret ballot elections—held nearly exclusively on grower property. That’s like making progressive voters of color only vote at MAGA headquarters.

A report last year from U.C. Merced showed 64 percent of farm workers feared retaliation or job loss by their employers.

The opinion editor of the McClatchy newspaper chain in California, skewered these industry claims by noting that is “how absolute power over the powerless works. You deny them their rights while pretending you are doing them a favor.”

So over a two-year period, the United Farm Workers took up in California the same fight underway across the nation to protect voting rights. During their marathon campaign, farm workers gave up days of pay to lobby and protest. They spent time away from families.

Last year, workers undertook a grueling 24-day, 335-mile pilgrimage—or march—up the Central Valley to the state Capitol in the triple-digit heat of summer. They endured genuine physical hardships. I know because I walked every step of the way with them. And I’m no spring chicken anymore.

Nearly seven thousand farm workers and supporters joined us marching the final distance to the Capitol in Sacramento last August 26.

After the three-week march, workers and supporters held a month of vigils at the Capitol and across the state—urging the governor to sign their bill.

More broad public support was mobilized by farm workers last year than at any time in decades.

All those sacrifices by field workers and supporters convinced lawmakers to pass—and Governor Newsom to sign—a UFW-sponsored bill with 50 legislative coauthors, a measure updating the 1975 farm labor law.

It gives farm workers the right to vote from the comfort and security of their own homes—free from threats and intimidation and deportation.

The UFW is now gearing up for new farm worker organizing and elections later this year.

This is not a silver bullet. The desperate poverty of many farm workers, their lack of immigration status, and most recently the loss of so much work and wages from California’s rains and floods—all mean many workers still would rather keep their heads down and work today, even in brutal conditions, than risk fighting back.

But for the first time in decades, farm workers who chose to stand up for their rights will at least be in a fair fight, without the union election process rigged against them.


The UFW has in recent years achieved much progress for farm workers—even as we know so much more work remains undone.

—The UFW is helping pull the wages of many agricultural workers in some of California’s largest farming regions up above the minimum wage.

Last year—for the first time—California farm workers fully benefited from the historic state law sponsored in 2016 by the UFW that grants farm workers overtime pay after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. That law ends—at least in California—the racist exclusion of field workers from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Some growers retaliate against workers for this law by cutting hours and hiring extra workers to avoid paying overtime. Union workers, in particular, are seeing the law produce bigger paychecks. And some workers for the first time are enjoying what many of us take for granted: the weekend.

Farm worker pay has also risen from many negotiated and re-negotiated UFW contracts. They cover vegetable, berry, wine grape, tomato, dairy, date, feedlot, and citrus workers in three states. Most of California’s mushroom industry is unionized.

Another re-negotiated UFW contract with one of the nation’s biggest vegetable producers provides pay and benefit increases for 1,500 workers. The employer pays 100 percent of the 700-dollar-per-month cost of complete family medical, dental, and vision coverage. The grower, D’Arrigo Brothers, believes the union contract helps the company better compete for highly skilled labor.

The average unionized fresh tomato picker in California earns about more than 38 dollars an hour—the highest paid tomato worker in America.

Unionized farm workers are still a small percentage of the overall work force. But when the union is active in an area, non-union growers are compelled to treat—and pay—people better. Our very existence improves conditions.

—Then, there are landmark recent UFW legislative and regulatory victories protecting both union—and especially non-union—farm workers…The 2016 overtime law in California…The first state regulations in the nation preventing heat deaths and illnesses of farm and other outdoor workers.

—In 2019, the UFW sponsored bills to ban chlorpyrifos in California agriculture. This is the toxic chemical damaging the brains and lowering the IQs of infants and young children. Moving our bills through the state Capitol convinced Governor Newsom to eliminate use of chlorpyrifos that year through executive action.


—With at least half of U.S. farm workers undocumented—according to the U.S. Labor Department—the biggest concern voiced by many of them today is their immigration status. It makes them so vulnerable to being abused and mistreated. Earning legal status is often more important for farm workers than better pay, benefits, and even unionization.

So, the UFW has become a leader in the national fight for immigration reform. With our allies, we negotiated with national grower groups—and lawmakers from both parties—to craft compromise bipartisan agricultural immigration reform legislation. It would let immigrant farm workers earn permanent legal status and a pathway to citizenship by continuing to work in agriculture.

That measure passed the U.S. House last year with thirty Republican votes—the most bipartisan support for any recent immigration bill. President Biden embraces it. But the proposal stalled in the Senate—like much other vital legislation—because of the filibuster.

House Republicans’ hold over the House makes progress in the near future extremely hard, but we remain ready to work with anyone to achieve this vital priority.


Cesar Chavez rarely talked about the movement’s achievements. But one of the places he chose to be reflective was during his address to the Commonwealth Club on November 9, 1984.

Shirley Temple Black—then president of the club—invited Cesar, but he was initially cautious. She was a Nixon Republican. So, Cesar asked his aide and speechwriter, Marc Grossman—who is with us today—to check it out.

Mrs. Black quickly returned his call to the club, explaining she was a big fan. She had kept up her membership in the Screen Actors Guild after her child acting days had ended to support other actors. Years later when she needed major surgery, Mrs. Black found it was paid for because of her union membership.

Cesar’s address to the Commonwealth Club is now in anthologies of speeches by great Americans. It was the first time he read from a text—thinking that’s what politicians do. Marc convinced him some speeches are so important that every word mattered. Today, excerpts from that address are etched in marble and metal gracing monuments honoring him across the nation.

During the luncheon forum before a crowd of hundreds at a big hotel in the Financial District, Mrs. Black and Cesar had lunch together on the dais. They got along like old friends, sharing interests in gardening and vegetarianism.

In his remarks, he discussed traveling for years across North America while championing the farm workers. He met countless people—especially Latinos, but people from all walks of life—who would tell him how the farm workers inspired them to be the first in their family to go to college, to become professionals or businesspersons, to run for public office.

The “one thing I hear most often from [Latinos], regardless of age or position—and from many non-Latinos as well—[Cesar said] is that the farm workers gave them the hope that they could succeed and the inspiration to work for change.”

Once the UFW “became visible,” Cesar realized his labors had gone far beyond the fields—when more Latinos began going to college, when they were getting elected to public office, when they were battling for their rights over a wide array of issues and in places across this land.

He said…

The union’s survival, its very existence, sent out a signal to all [Latinos] that we were fighting for our dignity, that we were challenging and overcoming injustice, that we were empowering the least educated among us, the poorest among us…

In that address nearly four decades ago, Cesar envisioned the mushrooming social, economic, and political influence of Latinos in every corner of the nation.

He had a resounding message for all of us in that speech. Cesar said,

Once social change begins it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.


We all stand on the shoulders of those who come before us. I am honored to follow Cesar Chavez as only the third president of the United Farm Workers in its 61-year history.

My predecessors were born in the United States. I was born and raised in Mexico—the granddaughter of a Zapotec woman whose indigenous roots go back before the Spanish conquest.

I first came to this country in my 20s, seeking—like millions of immigrants—to make a better life.

My understanding of the farm workers’ struggle hails from the fact that when I came to America, I did not speak or understand English.

I would only watch English television—no Spanish. I wanted to learn to speak English so badly. Every day I strived to master five to seven sentences, constantly repeating them all day.

Watching TV, I heard the word enjoy—but had the hardest time figuring out what it meant. Finally, after struggling, I learned its meaning. When I did, I really enjoyed it tremendously.

I appreciate what it means to come to a new country—to be exposed to a new language, a new culture, new people…and to learn to adapt to it all.

So, I have come to be equally proud of my Mexican and Zapotecan heritage—and my U.S. citizenship.

My immigrant background is why I can uniquely relate to a farm labor work force that is now overwhelmingly immigrant, largely undocumented—and heavily made up of women.

It is also not lost on me that I am the first Latina immigrant to serve as president of a national union in the United States.

I am also proud that the majority of the elected UFW executive board…are women.

My work with the UFW is personal—from being a Latina and an immigrant.

Not long ago, I fasted for five days in Seattle over retaliation against dairy workers in the Pacific Northwest who complain about grievances such as wage theft.

During the fast, I led a delegation of labor leaders, elected officials, and dairy workers to the Seattle headquarters of a big corporation buying from these dairies. We rhetorically pushed back against security guards trying to block us from talking with anyone. Finally, a company official came down to meet with us—in the lobby of a big skyscraper.

“There is nothing I can do,” this man exclaimed. He said we should send them our grievances—in writing. “We can’t take sides,” he added.

“We’re not asking you to take sides,” I replied. “We’re asking you to get the dairies to meet with us.” He still resisted.

Then one of the immigrant dairy workers—a woman named Josephina Luciano—stepped forward. She had been kicked in the face by a cow. Eleven of her teeth were knocked out. She nearly died. For a long time she couldn’t even kiss her three young children.

“If you won’t listen to me, then at least look at me,” Josephina demanded in Spanish as I translated. She opened wide her disfigured mouth. “I was kicked by a cow. I was in a pool of my own blood, and no one even knew how to call an ambulance. Later, my employer falsely claimed I was not a full-time worker, and I lost my workers’ compensation benefits.”

This company man soon had tears in his eyes. “There are other workers who want to share their stories,” I told him, and offered to translate.

“No, I’m from Puerto Rico,” he said. “I speak Spanish.”

Another female dairy worker spoke about how her husband had to watch as she was sexually harassed—watch silently because they had a family to support and couldn’t risk losing their jobs.

A male dairy worker said he wished he was treated as well as the cows he tends.

I have a passion within me—to help Josephina Luciano and other immigrant farm workers change their lives. That’s why I do what I do.


In preparing to share with you this evening, I recognized the historical parallel from nearly 40 years ago. I reread Cesar’s remarks and reflected on my role.

When he was with you, Cesar said he wanted change to come for farm workers not because of charity or idealism—but because it’s the right and decent and humane thing to do…for the men, women, and children who feed us all.

That mission remains unchanged. That is the cause to which we in the United Farm Workers remain committed today.

Thank you very much.