people in America have virtually no
influence at any level of our society or government and
the plight of farm workers makes the complaints of the
middle class about economic and political privation look
like a walk in the park.
was a time in this country when the attempts by the working
class to enjoy some of the fruits of the nation’s well-endowed
economy were in the news every day. There were the civil
rights movements of the 1960s, and earlier, that spurred
efforts to gain equal rights to the descendants of slaves.
Those efforts included the union organizing movements
of the 1930s and 1940s.
of those movements and their successes to move the nation
ahead, the men, women, and children who worked bent over
in the fields all day, every day, thought they might be
in line for the same kind of societal benefits. By then,
a growing majority of the field workers in the states
where most of the food in the U.S. comes from were Mexican,
Mexican-American, or other immigrants.
the United Farm Workers union won its first contract in
1966, many of the workers thought their exploitation as
workers was coming to an end. The UFW was successful in
organizing. UFW’s Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta had
the ear of sympathetic politicians at the state and national
level. There were even politicians who believed that justice
in the fields was long overdue and newspapers and television
news programs often featured a particular struggle of
the migrant workers.
California, the first agricultural labor act was passed
and it was believed that the field would be leveled to
a degree, so that the unions representing farm workers
would be able to deal with growers at the bargaining table
and union members would gain the rights enjoyed by other
unionized workers. The resolve and the power of the growers
and the politicians who did their bidding were underestimated.
the organizing slowed and the growers and their thugs
in the field and in the legislative halls got out the
brass knuckles and injunctions, unionization in the fields
slowed and, in fact, the membership of the UFW shrank.
union, under the leadership of Arturo Rodriguez, who worked
closely with his father-in-law, Cesar Chavez, continued
to fight back, trying to make it easier for field workers
to organize and protect both their own health and the
livelihoods of their families and communities.
encouraged passage of legislation in California
that would make it easier for workers to organize. It
was the same “card check” form of organizing that is represented
in the language of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)
at the national level that has had the Republicans and
others on the right in hysterics. As a result of that
hysteria, EFCA hasn’t gone anywhere.
U.S. employers have used every trick in the book
to defeat union organizing in other parts of American
society, the situation for farm workers is much more dire.
Violence has been an important tactic of the growers and
the history of that tactic remains in the minds of the
workers, many of whom are women. The threat of it has
kept hundreds of thousands of farm workers in line. And,
it has kept them from voting for a union, even in secret
ballot elections on the farm.
why card check is so important to determine whether farm
workers want a union. Under such a law, the usual intimidation
by the growers would have been minimized and the workers
could express themselves freely through their vote without
fear of physical harm or fear of losing their jobs. The
law that Governor Jerry Brown vetoed last month would
have been a vital move for farm workers, in the direction
of full participation in America’s
and the UFW had enough strength to have the same card-check
legislation moved to the governor’s desk four times in
the past four years. And, four times Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
vetoed it. Each time, the Democratic-controlled California
Legislature passed the legislation to the governor. This
time, though, the legislature sent it to a governor of
their own party, a governor who supported the UFW and
farm workers, in general, and who in the past spoke of
his relationship with, and support for, Cesar Chavez.
power of the right wing in America
cannot be overestimated as some of the more extreme right-wingers
in the country are to be found in the California Legislature
and congressional delegation. Even when they are in the
minority, the GOP’s power is proven to a large extent
by Brown’s veto. Why would he veto a bill that would give
a minimal amount of power to workers who have none? It
is the power of money, whether in California
or in the country at large. Corporate America is laden with money that it can, and does,
spend to defeat anything that smacks of power to the people
or, especially, power to workers.
has said that he will seek to make life easier for farm
workers by working within the existing law, but that law
has been so often a useless tool that Chavez once said,
only half joking, that it seemed the only thing to do
would be to scrap the law and start over.
growers’ power over the workers, whatever the state, is
illustrated in the short statement of one of the women
many other workers, in every field in California
or any other state, have worked for free? This statement
was from Petra Soto, an Oxnard, Cal.-area union strawberry
worker, but it could have come from any one of thousands
of workers who not only work bent over in the hot sun
for 10 hours a day, but know that they could be fired
at any time, if they asked for water too often or took
more toilet breaks than the boss thought was necessary.
What other indignities have they had to withstand? The
list is long.
bill that Brown vetoed was called the “Fair Treatment
for Farm Workers Act.” How long will it take for farm
workers to get fair treatment in the fields? There’s no
something as important as food for the nation (and the
farm workers provide most of it, whatever kind of work
they do and wherever they work), there is little interest
in their treatment by the people who eat all of that food.
Part of it is because there is little to no news coverage
of any of the farm workers’ issues. Part of it is that
the people who are trying to achieve decent pay, benefits,
and working conditions for farm workers are trying to
do it through legislation, which is designed to make agribusiness
more humane. In reality, the only ones who can achieve
justice for farm workers are farm workers, in the strength
expressed through solidarity and their own union.
why it is such a travesty that SB 104 was vetoed, even
though the growers and their friends in Corporate America
whined that the law would “give the workers too much power.”
Welcome to Wonderland!
Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former
union organizer. His union work started when he became
a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early
1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in
New York State. In
addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers
as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure
from factory food producers and land developers. Click
to contact Mr. Funiciello.