September 16 is Mexican independence day. September 16, 2015, is also an anniversary worth honoring: fifty years ago, California farmworkers—the majority of Mexican descent—gave birth to the United Farm Workers (UFW), led by the extraordinary organizer Cesar Chavez.
Chavez has been canonized by liberal supporters, but the union was formed by the workers against his wishes. Chavez intended to build not a union but a community organization, shaped equally by the organizing principles of Saul Alinsky and Chavez’s deeply pious Catholicism. In 1965 he believed that unionization would be a premature move, easily crushed by the big corporate growers. Farmworkers had tried unionizing since the 1920s but, each time, their attempts had been smashed, by growers wielding anti-communist scare tactics and their deputies wielding clubs. Journalist and longtime Nation editor Carey McWilliams once described California’s agricultural system as “fascism in the fields.”
But as word of Chavez’s organizing efforts spread, farmworkers themselves forced his hand. In Texas’s Rio Grande valley, melon workers declared themselves an affiliate of Chavez’s group without consulting the organization. In California, Imperial Valley asparagus workers, Ventura County lemon workers, Sacramento Delta grape workers, and Salinas valley garlic workers all led wildcat strikes. In the summer of 1965, migrant Filipino farmworkers in the grape fields of southern California won a wage increase from $1.20 to $1.40 an hour; when they headed north to the Central Valley, they naturally asked for the same wage, but the growers refused. So at a mass meeting of Chavez’s group on September 16, 1965, Mexican-American farmworkers voted overwhelmingly to join the Filipino grape workers’ strike. Thus was born the United Farm Workers.
Organizing farmworkers was, and still is, more difficult than organizing factory or clerical workers. The political power of politicians who represented big growers, from North Carolina through Mississippi through Texas and California, got farmworkers excluded from coverage in all of the New Deal–era federal legislation protecting workers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA, passed 1935) that gave workers a right to unionize excluded agricultural workers. So did the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA, passed 1938). So did many state laws concerning overtime, minimum wages, health and safety. Union organizers, even when they were themselves farmworkers, could be barred from entering company property to talk with workers, even when the workers lived on company property; and workers who lived in these company camps were often evicted at the first sign of protest.
The UFW won major gains between 1965 and 1973, thanks in large part to the nationwide grape boycott—by far the most successful boycott in U.S. history. The New Left, creating an atmosphere of dissent and demands for social justice, inspired many to support the new union. The civil rights organization SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) even paid the wages of a few UFW organizers. The boycott derived much of its energy from volunteers eager to help. The UFW leadership had the wisdom to encourage boycott leaders to adapt strategies to local conditions. In New York City, every grocery chain (save one of the smaller) stopped carrying grapes.
But soon after 1973, a combination of factors led the UFW into a decline: the corrupt Teamsters union, in cahoots with growers, attacked UFW strikers physically, appealed to ethnic prejudice, and set up rival unions; the UFW leadership lapsed into paranoia, hysterical anti-communism, and disunity; and grower lobbying killed a California bill to allow UFW organizers to enter the fields and migrant worker camps to talk union.
Today, some of the progressive political mood of fifty years ago has reappeared in new forms, spurred by Occupy, anger about inequality, and anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter. Farmworker activism, too, has been reborn in a new form—no longer centralized, led by a single charismatic leader, male-dominated, or aimed at building a national labor union.
Farmworkers’ recent successes, if modest thus far, arise from flexibility and creativity, using new approaches necessitated by ever-growing obstacles to traditional unionization. The first and most encouraging victory is that of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) from Florida, which calls itself a worker-based human rights organization. The first major immigrant-led farmworker group based on the East Coast, it has won wage increases and significant protections for 30,000 workers. Its Fair Food program has persuaded Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and many fast food chains to buy tomatoes only from growers certified by CIW’s monitoring program—run by workers themselves. (It is currently targeting Wendy’s, the only one of the large fast-food chains not to sign on.)
Since many farmworkers are undocumented, protests are often tied to demands for their protection. In California, legislators have advanced a bill to provide state permits that would protect workers from deportation, thereby bypassing the federal stalemate on immigration. In New England and New York, activists are organizing dairy farmworkers whose working conditions often include no days off, no overtime pay, no right to unionize, and living in rooms in cattle barns without adequate access to showers or laundry facilities. Earlier this year Migrant Justice, a Vermont group, successfully pressured Ben & Jerry’s, which boasts that it sources its eggs from cage-free chickens, to treat its dairy workers fairly, too. In New York state, the Worker Justice Center is conducting a battle against a particularly nasty operator, Marks Farms, where many undocumented people work. Its owner Christopher Peck is obviously nervous about this activism, having fired and evicted workers—many of them undocumented—for meeting with Worker Center representatives in their own homes.
On the West Coast, farmworkers cultivate and pick crops from southern Canada into northern Mexico, just as grower corporations operate across borders. Many U.S. growers recruit in Mexico through the H-2A visa program, the replacement for the old bracero program. They also grow berries in Mexico itself through subsidiaries: for example Driscoll’s, the California-based berry giant, relies on growers BerryMex and MoraMex across the border. So activism is spreading in Mexico as well, often spurred by Mexican-Americans with experience organizing stateside. In Baja California, some 50,000 indigenous farmworkers struck in March 2015, asking for a raise from $9 to about $13 a day; police responded to the protests with tear gas, rubber bullets, and hundreds of arrests. The big growers steadfastly refused to increase workers’ pay, and threatened smaller growers who wanted to offer raises.
In April these workers decided to affiliate with Washington state’s farmworker organization, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), and began calling for a boycott of Driscoll’s (thus far not well publicized beyond the West Coast). As the crops rotted in the field, the governor of Baja, worried about his regional economy, pressured the government to do what the growers would not. In order to bring the workers back into the fields, the Mexican government offered major concessions, including social security, equal pay for women, health care and new housing, even offering to supplement whatever raise the workers got—in other words, making taxpayers subsidize the agricultural corporations.
The group that the Baja workers aligned themselves with in Washington, Familias Unidas, is campaigning locally against Sakuma Brothers Farms, another Driscoll’s-owned grower. The familial name chosen for the workers’ group indicates its attempt to combine the functions of an AFL-CIO union with those of a community organization. Familias asks for the minimum wage, sick leave, and an end to racist taunting by supervisors. But since it does not have the protections provided by the NLRA or the FLSA, it has had to bring civil suits to challenge Sakuma’s repressive practices: firing pickers who were members of the group, hiring security guards to follow and eavesdrop on workers—even sending them once into the women’s bathroom.
Last year, Familias won big in the courts, and Sakuma had to pay an $850,000 settlement for wage theft. Familias’s subsequent victory, last November, ended Sakuma’s practice of prohibiting nonresidents from visiting workers in their camps. Workers at Valley Pride berry farms in Bow, Washington, which also sells to Driscoll’s, have now joined the struggle, with thirty-five workers going on strike this August.
Adding to the ferment is the revival of the AFL-CIO-affiliated FLOC, or Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Working primarily in North Carolina and Ohio, its priorities have been to secure protection against pesticide and nicotine exposure in the tobacco fields and to reduce workers’ over-long hours in severe heat. It forced R.J. Reynolds to accept an independent monitor of conditions in tobacco fields, and as of 2014 had organized 7,000 of the state’s 30,000 tobacco workers. FLOC has pioneered three-party union contracts, which include the workers, growers, and the large agricultural manufacturers who buy their products—replicating from the workers’ side the supply chains established by the corporations.
This is a new style of organizing, expressing the unique conditions of the people who grow and harvest our food—many of them undocumented and migratory, supporting families both here and in Mexico, concerned with health, education, and women’s equality as well as wages and hours. It will be a long battle, but the mood among farmworker activists has improved greatly in the last decade, as highlighted by a series of celebrations of this fifty-year anniversary. This spring, hundreds of labor leaders and a few progressive politicians came together to honor the earlier farmworker movement and to celebrate the unveiling of a statue of Chavez and Dolores Huerta in Napa, California. Let’s hope their fifty-year-old work will blossom again.
Linda Gordon is University Professor of the Humanities and History at NYU. Her most recent book, written with Dorothy Sue Cobble and Astrid Henry, is Feminism Unfinished.