Thank you for the privilege of sharing this evening with the CAMP program at the University of Idaho—about the journey undertaken by me and many others within our farm worker movement. By offering insights about our activism with the movement, hopefully we can help many of you fashion your own advocacy around making genuine change happen for our people in Idaho and across the nation.
I know most CAMP students in this region come from rural Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Your parents were or are farm workers. Only a summer or two ago, many of you were out laboring in the fields with your families. Some of you still do. Those experiences probably helped prepare you to overcome obstacles to get here—obstacles you may continue facing in your studies and careers.
For many of you going to college is your first time away from home. The CAMP program can create a family away from home within the campus community. And many former CAMP students have gone on to offer the same opportunities to young women and men such as themselves—and to advance other worthy causes.
One of those CAMP graduates is Areli Arteaga. Her farm worker family spent a quarter century in Idaho agriculture. Areli graduated from the University of Idaho in 2017. Now she works with me as deputy political director for the United Farm Workers. She advocates for farm workers, mostly at the U.S. Capitol—and now with the new Biden White House and administration.
The week before last, Areli helped us convince the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the historic Farm Workforce Modernization Act the UFW is sponsoring on a bipartisan vote—with 30 Republicans voting “yes.” This is first immigration bill for farm workers to pass the House in more than 30 years. It would let undocumented field workers—plus their immediate family members—in this country now earn the permanent legal right to stay by continuing to work in agriculture.
It would free farm worker children from the never-ending fear of seeing their undocumented parents going to work in the morning and not knowing if they will return home at the end of the day because of the constant threat of deportation.
Areli is also working on helping America’s farm workers win overtime pay after eight hours a day, on winning genuine relief from toxic pesticides, and on protecting them from dying or becoming ill from extreme heat.
Areli Arteaga is an example of the dedicated advocates the CAMP program has produced.
All of us stand on the shoulders of those who come before us. I am honored to follow Cesar Chavez and Arturo Rodriguez as only the third president of the United Farm Workers in the union’s nearly 60-year history.
My predecessors were both born in the United States. I was born and raised in Mexico, the granddaughter of a Zapotec woman whose indigenous roots traced back before the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
I first came to this country in my 20s, seeking—like millions of immigrants before me—to make a better life for myself.
My respect for the UFW and the farm workers—and my understanding of their struggles—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 so badly to speak English. Every day I would strive to master five to seven sentences, constantly repeating them all day long.
Watching TV, I heard the word enjoy, but had the hardest time figuring out what it meant. Finally, after struggling, I came to know its meaning. When I did, I really enjoyed it tremendously.
I appreciate what it is like 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 earned the presidency of the UFW by working from the ground up. As secretary-treasurer and chief administrative officer, for a decade I oversaw the complex financial management, administrative, staff recruitment, personnel, fundraising, IT and social media operations of a far-flung organization—all under the mentorship of my predecessor, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. I was involved in field organizing, contract bargaining and administration, legislative and legal affairs, and the union’s far-reaching international initiatives.
The UFW has in recent years achieved much progress for farm workers.
For years they only got pay raises when the state minimum wage went up. So one recent gain by the UFW is helping pull the wages of many agricultural workers in California’s largest farming regions up above the minimum wage.
They are beginning to benefit from passage of the historic state law sponsored in 2016 by the UFW and the UFW Foundation—our sister organization—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.
That exclusion exposes nearly eight decades of bigotry in America. When the Fair Labor Standards Act—covering nearly all other American workers with overtime and other basic protections—was being debated, Southern segregationist lawmakers demanded President Roosevelt exclude farm workers as the price for their votes. Why? Who were farm workers in the South in the 1930s? African Americans.
Congressman J. Mark Wilcox of Florida clearly said, “There has always been a difference in the wage scale of white and colored labor…You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it.”
Farm worker pay also rose from many negotiated and re-negotiated UFW contracts. They cover vegetable, berry, mushroom, wine grape, tomato, dairy, date, feedlot and citrus workers in three states. Most of California’s mushroom industry is unionized. These mushroom pickers now average 45,000 dollars a year—plus generous benefits.
A renegotiated UFW contract with one of the nation’s biggest vegetable producers provides pay and benefit increases for 1,500 workers—including the employer paying 100 percent of the 624-dollar per month cost of complete family medical, dental and vision coverage.
The average unionized fresh tomato harvester earns between 30 and 35 dollars an hour. They are the highest paid tomato workers in America.
In addition, landmark recent UFW legislative and regulatory victories protect both union and non-union farm workers, including the 2016 overtime law in California. There was also the union-sponsored 2002 statute letting California farm workers use neutral state mediators to win union contracts when growers won’t negotiate them.
In 2005, the UFW convinced a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to issue the first state regulations in the nation to prevent the heat deaths and illnesses of farm and other outdoor workers. We worked with Governor Jerry Brown’s administration to strengthen those rules and their enforcement in 2015.
The UFW also worked with President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency in 2015, winning equality for farm workers by providing them with the same pesticide protections most other American workers enjoyed for decades. Donald Trump tried rescinding some of those guarantees.
In 2019, the UFW and UFW Foundation sponsored bills to ban chlorpyrifos in California agriculture. It is a toxic chemical that damages the brains and lowers the IQs of infants and young children. Our legislation convinced Governor Newsom to eliminate use of chlorpyrifos that year through executive action.
Another achievement has seen the UFW emerge as a national leader for immigration reform.
Farm workers face many dilemmas. But the greatest one—what makes so many of them so vulnerable to abuse—is their lack of immigration status. The greatest concern undocumented farm workers voice today to the UFW is not the desire for better pay or benefits—or even unionization. They want a green card.
The UFW disagrees with the growers about most things. But we have come together to negotiate with the industry—and lawmakers from both parties—for meaningful agricultural immigration reform proposals granting legal status to undocumented field workers.
The latest bill—the Farm Workforce Modernization Act—just passed the House. It has received more bipartisan support that any immigration proposal in recent years.
On his first day in office, President Biden placed a bronze bust of Cesar Chavez in the Oval Office. But it was more than symbolism. He also became the first president to send to Congress on his first day a far-reaching comprehensive immigration reform bill. And President Biden also strongly supports our ag immigration reform bill.
Many farm workers across the nation in 2021 will get pay increases averaging more than 5 percent as a result of twin victories by the UFW and UFW Foundation late last year in federal court in Fresno, California.
We stopped the Donald Trump administration from slashing the pay of both H-2A guest farm workers and domestic field laborers. Without those court rulings, Trump’s actions during the closing weeks of his presidency in late 2020 would have amounted to a massive transfer of wealth from farm workers to agricultural employers—comprising hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
One of our federal lawsuits reversed the suspension by Trump of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biannual Farm Labor Report. It sets minimum wages for imported H-2A foreign guest workers—and also heavily impacts pay for domestic workers who frequently labor at the same companies or in the same farming areas. Without this survey that Trump tried to end, farm worker pay for both domestic and foreign agricultural workers would have been cut by more than five percent in California, by up to 27 percent in Oregon—and by 46 percent in Idaho.
That’s right—Trump would have cut nearly in half the pay of many Idaho farm workers. This was avoided because of the UFW and UFW Foundation’s successful court challenges plus action by the new Biden administration after the inauguration on January 20th.
Finally, our union has pioneered bold new initiatives, most notably the UFW Foundation and the Equitable Food Initiative. UFW Foundation, our sister organization in the farm worker movement, is now the largest provider of immigration legal services in rural California. It also assists tens of thousands of farm workers and other low-income Latinos each year on a host of problems they face.
As globalization continues transforming American agriculture, what has emerged is the Equitable Food Initiative—or EFI—that the UFW helped begin in 2008, and chairs. Equitable Food Initiative is a consortium of unions, consumer and environmental groups, growers and major retailers.
They all collaborate to produce safer food in compliance with strict standards while meaningfully improving wages and protections nationally and internationally. Major U.S. retailers such as Costco tell growers they will pay premium prices for their produce if they observe basic labor and environmental standards—such as paying better that the minimum wage and protecting farm workers from pesticides and sexual harassment.
EFI has already impacted the lives of 30,000 women and men in four countries through its unique training and accountability program—ensuring safety and higher pay by having farm workers, growers and retailers work together.
The UFW also founded another international initiative, the CIERTO program, to remedy abuses of imported H-2A guest workers, mostly from Mexico. CIERTO works with employers and workers on both sides of the border to ensure no farm worker has to illegally pay for the right to work—and to stabilize the workforce and end intimidation.
The past year has been a time of great challenge and suffering for farm workers across the country.
Farm workers in California and other states suffered from a perfect storm of deadly perils in 2020. They were the coronavirus pandemic, extreme heat and choking smoke from wildfires.
Agricultural workers often must live, commute and toil in overcrowded, substandard and unsanitary conditions.
—Field workers can’t shelter in place or work from home. Federal, state and local governments classify them as essential workers. They must go to their jobs to feed America.
—Lack of transportation to and from the fields is an even bigger problem. Finding rides is now harder out of fear of COVID.
—Even if personal protective equipment and social distancing are provided in fields and packinghouses—which UFW surveys show is too often not the case—farm workers frequently find themselves in close quarters.
—They often live in cramped, multi-generational households. If they become infected with the virus or are exposed to others who are sick, where can they go to quarantine?
—Lack of childcare is an even bigger dilemma during COVID.
—They deal with ensuring distance learning for their children—while they must be at work.
All of this is why the coronavirus is disproportionately afflicting field workers and why infections and deaths are growing at alarming rates. Government at all levels must do all it can to remedy these inequities. It begins with getting farm workers vaccinated as quickly as possible.
A major survey just completed by the UFW Foundation received responses via texts from some 11,000 farm workers. The great majority said they want to get vaccinated.
These results contradict the narrative popular among many journalists that large numbers of farm workers are reticent or skeptical about being vaccinated. That view has influenced some local health officials not to prioritize agricultural workers since it is more challenging to reach this rural, immigrant population.
In March and April, the UFW is joining with our partners in the farm worker movement as well as Latino groups and local governments to vaccinate thousands of California farm workers through community vaccination clinics—such as at our historic “Forty Acres” property in Delano—and at some unionized farms.
When COVID first emerged, the UFW urged all unionized employers to ensure proper protections. Most did.
The UFW also keeps in regular contact with more than 50,000 farm workers—most of them non-union—through a Facebook page and other platforms in Spanish exclusively for agricultural workers. We conduct surveys and receive a stream of comments and reports. They show too many non-union farm employers have not taken proper steps to protect workers from the virus and provide required PPEs.
Early in the pandemic, the UFW and other food industry unions convinced Governor Newsom to require two weeks of paid sick leave for all California food workers, including farm workers, impacted by COVID.
A partnership with UFW Foundation, the UFW and chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen distributed nearly 190,000 fresh meals prepared by local restaurants to field workers across California between April and August. We continue distributing emergency boxes with help from local food banks.
And we are distributing hundreds of thousands of surgical masks to protect against the virus—plus hundreds of thousands of N-95 or equivalent respiratory masks to protect against wildfire smoke.
The United Farm Workers has long been active in the Pacific Northwest. We have helped wine grape, dairy and feedlot workers organize and negotiate union contracts protecting them in the Yakima Valley of Washington state and in eastern Oregon. We have helped other dairy workers in the region organize to assert their rights and remedy their grievances.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Washington state its rules protecting workers from the virus were so weak that the UFW sued the state for better protections—and we won. Now Washington state has some of strongest worker protection guidelines against COVID-19 outbreaks.
After winning those stronger rules, we began informing farm workers of their new rights. As a result, the UFW helped workers file complaints with the state over violations that ended up in a historic two-and-a-half million dollar fine against a big tree fruit employer for ignoring Washington state COVID protections.
Meantime, a dairy worker who is a UFW activist became the chief plaintiff in a case seeking overtime pay that reached the Washington state Supreme Court last year. Remember, the UFW passed a law in California in 2016 requiring overtime pay in that state.
The Supreme Court of Washington ruled it is unconstitutional to exclude dairy workers from overtime pay.
It wasn’t clear this decision applied to all farm workers in the state, although it sets a precedent. So the UFW is sponsoring legislation backed by a broad coalition so all farm workers will receive overtime pay after eight hours a day or 40 a week. The bill passed the Washington state Senate and is now being debated in the state House of Representatives.
In your own state of Idaho, the UFW in 2017 helped bring to light some of the most flagrant abuses of farm workers we have seen anywhere.
Workers at a dairy in the rural southern Idaho town of Murtaugh sought help from the UFW. We arranged for attorneys to represent them in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Boise. That lawsuit alleges a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy under which veterinarians from Mexico were lured to Funk Dairy under visas illegally obtained for the dairy under NAFTA—the North American Free Trade Agreement—to work as veterinarians.
These veterinarians were instead forced to toil as low-wage general laborers under arduous, grueling and unsanitary conditions. Among the deplorable abuses alleged in the lawsuit, several of the veterinarians sustained serious injuries at the dairy. One who was hurt while milking cows had to have part of her index finger amputated because the dairy didn’t ensure she received appropriate medical treatment, according to the suit.
Funk Dairy recruited the six veterinarians from among Mexico’s most prestigious universities with promises of high wages, bonuses, paid vacations and other benefits, free housing and transportation between Mexico and Idaho.
Instead, the veterinarians immediately found themselves laboring nine to 14 hour-days, six days a week as general laborers. Their duties included milking cows, cleaning cow pens, collecting garbage, sweeping and cleaning veterinary areas and washing company vehicles.
The dairy engaged in what has been reported as forced labor and human trafficking by deceiving, threatening and mistreating the veterinarians.
A study in 2014 by the Urban Institute documented 122 closed cases of labor trafficking in the United States, with 71 percent of the victims entering this country on lawful visas such as the NAFTA Professional—or TN—Visas issued so the six Mexican veterinarians could work at the dairy in Idaho.
Conditions at the dairy were very unhygienic, even for an animal facility, the suit contends. The lawsuit claims the workers were not allowed a meal period—and instead had to eat on top of boxes or other materials in the milking area—amid flies and mice.
The lawsuit reveals that several of the veterinarians sustained serious injuries at the dairy. There was the woman who had part of her index finger amputated. The dairy refused another veterinarian who injured a finger more than 48 hours off, claiming that the other four fingers of her hand were good enough for her to keep working.
One veterinarian was made to live in the basement of a home with rats, spiders and insects—with no lighting, heating or furniture. It was uninhabitable without heating during Idaho’s freezing winter.
Rather than resolve the veterinarians’ grievances, the workers allege the dairy threatened to have them deported if they displeased management. About one year into the veterinarians’ three-year NAFTA visas, the dairy terminated their labor contract and refused to pay for them to return to home.
The workers’ lawsuit was initially dismissed by a federal judge in Boise. The workers’ attorneys appealed and just argued their appeal before a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The attorneys—along with human trafficking experts who watched the recent oral arguments—believe the hearing went well.
If the Idaho workers win this appeal, their case would go back to federal court in Boise for trial or settlement. A victory would set a precedent in the 9th Circuit—covering the western United States—and clarify that schemes to defraud and coerce workers into toiling against their will with threats of deportation are illegal under federal law.
We hope such a finding by the federal appeals court will give courage to other dairy and ag workers to come forward. We know forced labor and human trafficking is poorly understand and massively underreported.
My work with the UFW is personal. It is because I am a Latina and an immigrant.
I fasted not long ago for five days in Seattle over retaliation endured by Pacific Northwest dairy workers who complained about grievances such as being cheated out of their pay.
During the fast, I led a delegation of labor leaders, elected officials and dairy workers to the Seattle headquarters of a big corporation that buys products from these dairies. After we rhetorically pushed back against security guards who tried to block us from talking with anyone, a company official finally came down to meet with us in the lobby of the big skyscraper.
“There is nothing I can do,” this man claimed. He said we should send our grievances in writing so they could investigate them. “We can’t take sides,” he added.
“We’re not asking you to take sides,” I replied. “We’re just 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, knocking out 11 of her teeth. She nearly died. For a long time she couldn’t even kiss her three young children.
“If you won’t talk or listen to me, then at least look at me,” Josephina demanded in Spanish—as 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.”
The company representative 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. He had to 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.
Cesar Chavez passed away nearly 28 years ago. Yet his legacy continues to grow—witness his bust displayed by President Biden in the Oval Office.
Today, we take part in Cesar Chavez commemorations across America. We hear from women and men he personally influenced.
There was the young woman who told Cesar she wanted to escape the fields by becoming a teacher’s aide. He convinced her to get a teaching credential. She became a school administrator.
There is the nurse who became a doctor at Cesar’s urging.
There was the young UFW paralegal, the son of striking farm workers, who was challenged by Cesar to become a lawyer. Now he is a Superior Court judge.
Whenever he met young people in the union, Cesar believed they had a lot to offer. He always urged them to do more than they, or others, thought they could do—especially if they came from a farm worker or working-class family. He got them to believe in themselves—to become administrators or accountants or negotiators.
He literally helped hundreds of people fulfill their dreams—dreams many didn’t even know they had at the time. He gave people opportunities no one would have given him when he was a migrant kid with only an eighth grade education—sort of like the CAMP program.
In the process, he also inspired generations of people—millions of men and women—to social and political activism. Most never worked on a farm.
Cesar liked to say his job as an organizer was helping ordinary people do extraordinary things.
It was part of his greatness that he inspired hope and confidence in people who never had them before—and he never gave up, no matter the odds or the obstacles.
Perhaps that is why he succeeded where others with much better educations and much greater resources tried and failed for a hundred years before him to organize farm workers.
Let me conclude with some words from Cesar in 1984, during a landmark address before the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco.
The ‘80s were a hard time for the UFW. It was under attack by Republicans who occupied the White House and governor’s office in California—like many of us felt during the Trump era. Our people’s political influence was mostly ignored. We were seen as a “sleeping giant.”
Cesar used that speech to lay out a very different vision of the future. He predicted the exploding social, economic and political awakening of Latinos across America when he 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 have looked into the future and the future is ours.
If he were here today, Cesar Chavez would tell us we can do anything, that we can make a difference and that we can overcome through our own faith and perseverance.
So “!Si Se Puede!”
And thank you.