In 1968-69, I remember first hearing about the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez. Many of my friends were getting ready to participate in the grape boycott and, after hearing about the plight of California’s farmworkers, I had to join. In addition to not buying grapes, I joined informational picket lines at several grocery supermarkets in Chicago, where I was living at the time. The boycott was successful, and the UFW grew stronger after signing contracts with several major grape producers. Over the next few years, it grew in strength and numbers. The union had many successes, including the elimination of the hated short-handled hoe, national legislation to protect some aspects of farm labor, and a slew of California protective laws to improve wages and working conditions. These last were important because California has the largest number of farmworkers in the country, and the most agriculture of any state.
As we remember Cesar Chavez on his birthday today, it is good to remember these achievements, none of which could have happened without his visionary and skilled leadership. However, it is also a good time to ponder how far we have to go in our efforts to achieve justice for the people who prepare and harvest the crops that become the food we eat every day.
For starters, it is still shocking to realize the federal law that mandates time and a half for overtime pay exempts agriculture! A farmworker can work 60, 70, or 80 hours per week and still only receive the same hourly pay, whether it is for the first or last hour worked. Now, where there is a union contract that calls for the premium pay for overtime, they will get it, but only a relatively small percentage of migrant and seasonal farmworkers are covered by union agreements.
That same federal statute, the Fair Labor Standards Act, prohibits children below the age of 16 from working for wages, except in certain jobs that the Secretary of Labor permits 14-year-olds to hold. Even then, they are precluded from working more than three hours per day when school is in session, or more than 40 hours per week in non-session weeks. Not so for agriculture. Child farmworkers are legally allowed to work at age 12 for unlimited hours, as those hours are not during the school day. They can also perform work labeled as hazardous at age 16, while in all other industries this type of work is strictly reserved for adults.
Job-related benefits are virtually unknown to most farmworkers. They usually get no health insurance, often aren’t covered by unemployment insurance, and in some states, they aren’t even entitled to worker’s compensation. If they get sick, or it rains or snows to the point they can’t work, they get no pay. Pensions? Almost unheard of in the fields, again, unless there is a union contract.
I could go on and on, but the point is made: it is still the case that farm labor is not honored in the way most other jobs are in America. When I was a child, garbage collectors made horribly low wages and labored under terrible working conditions. Today, that work can provide a decent living. The same is true for public transportation workers, for truck drivers, and for certain professionals such as teachers. They may feel they are poorly paid, but they can at least achieve a middle class life. The same cannot be said for the vast majority of farmworkers. It is still a job that is usually compensated at the minimum wage. Even when wages are higher, it is often for a short period, such as for the duration of a lucrative harvest. Then, they experience long periods of unemployment. The net result: an annual income far below the federal poverty line.
How do we help farmworkers realize the hopes generated by the movement that Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and others so courageously began? It is through persistent and focused advocacy. For instance, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has proposed common sense changes to the rules governing young farmworkers in order to better protect them from hazardous conditions. It is a modest set of rules that would not affect family farms or small farm enterprises. Yet, the agricultural industry and its political allies have reacted as though these protections will end rural life as we know it. This reaction reminds me of the charges the industry leveled against Cesar Chavez in the early days, when growers claimed they’d have to go out of business if they were forced to treat workers humanely. It didn’t happen then, and it won’t happen now if these rules are implemented. What will happen is that fewer children employed in agriculture will be injured or die because of the incredibly dangerous situations they would no longer be legally able to be placed in.
Cesar Chavez’s legacy is in our hands. We need to honor that legacy by pushing hard to overcome the barriers to justice that farmworkers continue to face. We can start with the proposed updates to the rules concerning children employed in agriculture, and eliminating the exemptions for agriculture in the laws governing work in America. When that is done, we can proudly claim to be a part of the Chavez legacy.