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Nan Freeman still inspires 48 years after the 18-year old college student gave her life for farm workers in Florida

Gathering to participate in a panel discussion and memorial service honoring Nan Freeman on Friday, Jan. 24, was a diverse audience of present-day students from New College of Florida in Sarasota; Nan’s family, friends and fellow students when she was on campus in 1971 and ’72; New College Rabbi and Professor of Judaic Studies Susan Marks; Sam Trickey with the National Farm Worker Ministry; and activists with Young American Dreamers organization in Florida. United Farm Workers spokesperson Marc Grossman made the following remarks on behalf of the union.

First, we acknowledge the presence of several brothers, retired United Farm Workers members who worked at Coca Cola’s Minute Maid orange groves who travelled to today’s observance.

I bring greetings from United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero, the first Latina and immigrant president of a national union in the United States.

Even from California, I was moved by Nan Freeman’s death because it was so heartbreaking—for her family and friends, and for the farm worker movement.

Seven years later I was Cesar Chavez’s spokesman and personal aide when Rufino Contreras, a young lettuce striker, was slain in the Imperial Valley. Cesar felt each death as a personal burden. That was never more so than with Nan, who was the first of five UFW martyrs, one woman and four men killed during strikes.

Cesar dismissed those who would minimize Nan’s death as just another young victim of a tragic accident. “To us,” Cesar declared, “she is a sister who picketed with farm workers in the middle of the night because of her love for justice. She is a young woman who fulfilled the commandments by loving her neighbors even to the point of sacrificing her life. Nan Freeman is Kadosha in the Hebrew tradition, a holy person to be honored and remembered.”

Cesar soon visited the Freemans at their home in Wakefield, Massachusetts. On the anniversaries of her passing, he held memorial services honoring Nan. Her family traveled to our headquarters at La Paz in Keene, California on the 15th anniversary of her death. They planted a tree in Nan’s memory at the park on our “Forty Acres” property in Delano.

A service is held each Sunday morning of the United Farm Workers’ constitutional convention honoring Nan and the other martyrs. Liz Freeman and Pam Albright joined the last one in 2016, along with hundreds of farm worker delegates and guests. The next service is on May 17, in Bakersfield.

At the UFW’s urging, Nan was inducted in 2013 into the prestigious Labor Hall of Honor at the U.S. Department of Labor headquarters in Washington, D.C. Her late father, Milton Freeman, witnessed the ceremony.

Why is it important to remember this 18-year old young woman who died 48 years ago and is little known today? Is it because there is a time in the lives of some women and men when they are called upon to embrace moral courage by making the difficult decisions that life can impose on us—making the choice of having your life count for something meaningful? These dramatic choices can have life-changing consequences—life ending consequences in the case of Nan Freeman.

Nan chose to be on that remote picket line in rural Florida with striking sugar cane workers at 3:15 in the morning.

Which is why the story of Nan’s death—and more importantly the moral courage she showed in life—is so universally compelling and as relevant today as when she made her fateful decision 48 years ago.

This campus is rightly proud of his history of activism. So New College students should know and be rightly proud of Nan Freeman, who gave her life for her activism. We have begun. Discussions with the administration and campus community about a fitting permanent memorial here for Nan, hopefully to be completed and unveiled at the 50th anniversary of her passing two years from now.

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We know Nan would have been unhappy if we focused on her. She would have us focus on what the movement is doing today. So, let me cover some recent UFW news:

• Farm workers for years only got pay raises when the minimum wage increased. Yet federal data for California shows farm workers in 2018 earned an average of $2.18 above the state minimum wage.

—The UFW helped pull the wages of many farm workers above the minimum wage in California’s largest agricultural regions—through dozens of negotiated and re-negotiated union contracts. They protect vegetable, mushroom, wine grape, tomato, berry, dairy, citrus and poultry workers in three states: California, Washington state and Oregon.

—The majority of California mushroom workers are unionized, with mushroom pickers averaging more than $40,000 a year plus complete family medical, dental and vision benefits; paid holidays and vacations; a defined-benefit pension plan; and much more.

—D’Arrigo Brothers, based in Salinas Valley, is one of the country’s largest vegetable producers. The recently renegotiated UFW contract for its 1,500 workers has major pay and benefit raises—plus the employer also covers 100 percent of the $624 per month per worker cost of complete family medical, dental and vision benefits. Workers pay nothing in premiums.

—The union medical plan on California’s Central Coast has expanded to cover up to 90 percent of medical costs with low deductibles.

—The UFW represents workers at some of the biggest fresh tomato companies in California. Union contracts create the highest paid tomato pickers in America who average nearly $30 per hour, plus benefits.

—When the UFW is active in an area, non-union growers know they must pay—and treat—workers better or risk giving the union inroads. That recently happened when:

—500 raspberry workers voted for the UFW at their ranch in Watsonville;

—when 400-plus blueberry workers voted for the union after striking near McFarland; and

—when one year ago, 1,800 mandarin orange workers at the Wonderful Company in Kern County struck over pay cuts and turned to the UFW for help.

—This year workers began benefiting from a state law the UFW got passed in 2016, granting California farm workers overtime pay after eight hours a day, phased in over four years. It ends the racist exclusion, at least in California, of farm workers from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

• Five hundred million dollars in health and pension benefits have been paid out to farm workers and their families under the UFW medical and pension plans over time.

            —Three hundred retired farm workers in Florida who worked over the 21 years of our union contract with Coca Cola are still receiving monthly UFW pension checks.

Nan and Pam Albright worked on an economic research project that later the year she died produced information that helped Cesar Chavez negotiate the first union contract with Coca Cola. Those contracts improved the lives of thousands of citrus pickers.

• UFW legislative and regulatory victories protect all California farm workers, both union and non-union. They include the 2016 overtime pay law…

…and the law the union won letting farm workers use neutral state mediators to hammer out union contracts when growers won’t negotiate them.

—In 2005, the UFW convinced Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the first state regulations in the nation that has saved countless lives by preventing the deaths and illnesses of farm and other outdoor workers from extreme heat.

We worked with Governor Jerry Brown’s administration to strengthen the heat rules in 2015.

—The UFW worked with President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency in 2015, to provide farm workers with the same national pesticide protections most other American workers enjoyed for decades. The Trump administration is now trying to repeal them.

• Farm workers’ biggest concern is immigration—beyond better pay and benefits, and even unionization. Following 20 years of hard work by the UFW—collaborating with other farm worker organizations—there were months of tough negotiations last year between the UFW, the nation’s grower associations plus Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The result was the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, which passed the House of Representatives on an overwhelming bipartisan vote last month.

It would let more than one million undocumented farm workers plus their immediate family members in this country earn legal status and a path to citizenship by continuing to work in agriculture.

Children would no longer fear their parents won ‘t return home from work. Workers could travel to their home countries for funerals, weddings and other events. Veteran H-2A guest workers would be able to get green cards.

Thousands of farm workers from many states organized in lawmakers’ districts. Many traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the bill. Prospects in the Senate are uncertain. We may have to wait for a Democratic president.

• The union has also pioneered bold new initiatives.

—The UFW Foundation is a sister organization in the farm worker movement—and now the largest provider of immigration legal services in rural California. It helps tens of thousands of farm workers and other low-income Latinos each year with a host of problems.

—As globalization transforms agriculture, the Equitable Food Initiative—which the UFW helped found in 2008, and chairs—is a consortium of unions, consumer and environmental groups, growers and major retailers. They collaborate to produce safer food under strict standards while meaningfully improving wages and protections nationally and internationally.

Huge retailers like Costco offer growers premium prices for their products if they meet EFI’s unique training and accountability standards ensuring higher pay and protections against pesticides and sexual harassment—by having farm workers, growers and retailers work together. EFI has already impacted the lives of 30,000 farm workers in four countries.

—Finally, the UFW founded the CIERTO program to remedy abuses of H-2A guest workers. CIERTO works with employers and workers on both sides of the border to ensure no farm worker illegally pays for the right to work, and to stabilize the workforce and end intimidation.

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Much progress has been won, but much more work remains. We invite you to join hundreds of farm worker delegates and guests at the UFW constitutional convention this May 14 through 17, in Bakersfield, California—including the memorial service honoring Nan Freeman and our other martyrs on Sunday morning, May 17.

Thank you.


At the panel discussion and memorial service for Nan Freeman were (left to right) the UFW’s Marc Grossman; Nan’s close friend and fellow student Pam Albright, who was with her when she died; Nan’s older sister Liz Freeman; former UFW staff representative Kenny Snodgrass; Sam Trickey with the National Farm Worker Ministry; and New College Professor Sarah Hernandez, who helped organize the event.