It is a pleasure being invited by the students at St. Mary’s School of Law to take part in this annual symposium sponsored by The Scholar. Thank you for the privilege of sharing with you today on behalf of those whose voices have frequently been ignored.
All of us stand on the shoulders of those who come before us. I’m honored to follow Cesar Chavez and Arturo Rodriguez as only the third president of the United Farm Workers in its nearly 60-year history.
My predecessors were both born in the United States. I was born in Mexico—and am equally proud of my Mexican and Zapotecan heritage and my U.S. citizenship. That is why I can uniquely relate to a farm labor work force that is overwhelmingly immigrant—and largely undocumented.
My respect for the UFW and 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. So it is not lost on me that I am the first Latina immigrant to serve as president of a national union in the United States.
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. One recent UFW gain is helping pull the wages of many in California’s largest agricultural regions up above the minimum wage.
They are beginning to benefit from passage of the historic state law sponsored by the UFW in 2016 that grants farm workers phased-in overtime pay after eight hours a day. That law ends—at least in California—the racist exclusion of field workers from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Farm worker pay also rose from many negotiated and re-negotiated union contracts. They cover vegetable, berry, mushroom, wine grape, tomato, dairy, date 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 a host of generous benefits.
A 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.
Another of these gains has been the UFW emerging as a national leader for immigration reform.
Farm workers face many daunting dilemmas. But the greatest dilemma—and what makes so many of them so vulnerable to abuse—is their lack of immigration status. The greatest concern 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—plus lawmakers from both parties—for meaningful agricultural immigration reform proposals. They would let undocumented farm workers—and their immediate family members in this country now—earn the legal right to permanently stay by continuing to work in agriculture.
The latest such measure was negotiated between the UFW, national grower associations and both Democratic and Republican congressmembers. A year ago last December it became the first agricultural immigration reform bill in more than 30 years to pass the U.S. House of Representatives—with 34 Republican votes. It by far received more bipartisan support that any immigration proposal in recent years.
Mitch McConnell never allowed a vote in the Senate on the bill, called the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. But there is a new president—and a new Senate majority. We are optimistic.
On his first day in office, President Biden placed a bronze bust of Cesar Chavez behind his desk in the Oval Office. But there was more than symbolism. He also became the first president to send to Congress on his first day in office a far-reaching comprehensive immigration reform bill—a bill that includes the best terms for farm workers ever proposed.
Under the Biden bill, farm workers with work histories would immediately get legal status—along with Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status recipients. This bill is fundamentally different than what any other president has ever done in emancipating farm workers and other immigrants.
We are helping lead the national immigrant rights coalition that is pushing for making a reality of genuine immigration reform, which enjoys widespread public support.
By the way, the UFW Foundation—a sister organization with the UFW in the farm worker movement—is the largest provider of legal immigration services in rural California, serving tens of thousands of farm workers and other poor Latinos each year throughout the Central Valley and Central Coast with federally-certified representatives and attorneys.
California farm workers suffered from a perfect storm of deadly perils last year: The coronavirus pandemic, extreme heat and choking smoke from wildfires. Compounding these predicaments is that half of the workers are undocumented, according to federal data, and they fear turning for help to government or private sources.
Farm workers often must live, commute and toil in overcrowded, substandard and unsanitary conditions. The challenges are disheartening.
—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 PPEs and social distancing are observed in fields and packinghouses—which UFW surveys show is too often not the case—farm workers frequently find themselves in close quarters.
—Farm workers 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. Some moms face legal action because they are forced to leave kids alone while they work.
—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 agricultural 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 11-question survey produced some surprising results. Among them is that when asked, 47 percent of responding field workers said they absolutely would get vaccinated. Another 26 percent said they would take the vaccine—for a total of 73 percent who would accept it.
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. This UFW Foundation survey shows the overwhelming majority of farm workers want the vaccine.
When COVID first emerged, the UFW urged all unionized employers to ensure proper protections. Most acted responsibly.
The UFW also keeps in regular contact with 50,000-plus 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 precautions to protect workers from the virus and provide required PPEs.
Early in the pandemic, the UFW and other food industry unions helped convince Governor Newsom to require two weeks paid sick leave for all food workers, including farm workers.
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 the UFW and UFW Foundation 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.
For me, this work is personal. It has to do with the fact I am a Latina and an immigrant.
I fasted not long ago for five days in Seattle over the retaliation endured by Pacific Northwest dairy workers who complained about grievances such as being cheated out of their pay.
I led a delegation of labor leaders, elected officials and dairy workers to the Seattle headquarters of a big corporation that buys from these dairies. After much rhetorical pushback against security guards, a company official finally came out to meet with us.
“There is nothing I can do,” this man claimed. He said to send our grievances in writing so they could investigate. “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, 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—and 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’ comp 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—silently because they had a family to support and couldn’t risk 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.