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Cesar Chavez: A True American Hero March 31, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
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Cesar Chavez. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Saturday, 31 March 2012 09:22

Dick Meister, Dick Meister’s Blog | Op-Ed

I hope we can all pause and reflect on the extraordinary life of a true American hero today (March 31). It’s Cesar Chavez Day, proclaimed by President Obama and observed throughout the country on the 85th birth date of the late founder of the United Farm Workers union. It’s an official state holiday in California, Texas and Colorado.

As President Obama noted, Chavez was a leader in launching “one of our nation’s most inspiring movements.” He taught us, Obama added, “that social justice takes action, selflessness and commitment. As we face the challenges of the day, let us do so with the hope and determination of Cesar Chavez.”

Like another American hero, Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez inspired and energized millions of people worldwide to seek and win basic human rights that had long been denied them, and inspired millions of others to join the struggle.

Certainly there are few people in any field more deserving of special attention, certainly no one I’ve met in more than a half-century of labor reporting.

I first met Cesar Chavez when I was covering labor for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was on a hot summer night in 1965 in the little San Joaquin Valley town of Delano, California. Chavez, shining black hair trailing across his forehead, wearing a green plaid shirt that had become almost a uniform, sat behind a makeshift desk topped with bright red Formica.

“Si se puede,” he said repeatedly to me, a highly skeptical reporter, as we talked deep into the early morning hours there in the cluttered shack that served as headquarters for him and the others who were trying to create an effective farm workers union.

“Si se puede! – it can be done!”

But I would not be swayed. Too many others, over too many years, had tried and failed to win for farm workers the union rights they absolutely had to have if they were to escape the severe economic and social deprivation inflicted on them by their grower employers.

The Industrial Workers of the World who stormed across western fields early in the 20th century, the Communists who followed, the socialists, the AFL and CIO organizers – all their efforts had collapsed under the relentless pressure of growers and their powerful political allies.

I was certain this effort would be no different. I was wrong. I had not accounted for the tactical brilliance, creativity, courage and just plain stubbornness of Cesar Chavez, a sad-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken man who talked of militancy in calm, measured tones, a gentle and incredibly patient man who hid great strategic talent behind shy smiles and an attitude of utter candor.

Chavez grasped the essential fact that farm workers had to organize themselves. Outside organizers, however well intentioned, could not do it. Chavez, a farm worker himself, carefully put together a grass-roots organization that enabled the workers to form their own union, which then sought out – and won – widespread support from influential outsiders.

The key weapon of the organization, newly proclaimed the United Farm Workers, or UFW, was the boycott. It was so effective between 1968 and 1975 that 12 percent of the country’s adult population – that’s 17 million people – quit buying table grapes.

The UFW’s grape boycott and others against wineries and lettuce growers won the first farm union contracts in history in 1970. That led to enactment five years later of the California law – also a first – that requires growers to bargain collectively with workers who vote for unionization. And that led to substantial improvements in the pay, benefits, working conditions and general status of the state’s farm workers. Similar laws, with similar results, have now been enacted elsewhere.

The struggle that finally led to victory was extremely difficult for the impoverished workers, and Chavez risked his health – if not his life – to provide them extreme examples of the sacrifices necessary for victory. Most notably, he engaged in lengthy, highly publicized fasts that helped rally the public to the farm workers’ cause and that may very well have contributed to his untimely death in 1993 at age 66.

Fasts, boycotts. It’s no coincidence that those were the principal tools of Mohandas Gandhi, for Chavez drew much of his inspiration from the Hindu leader. Like Gandhi and another of his models, Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez fervently believed in the tactics of non-violence. Like them, he showed the world how profoundly effective they can be in seeking justice from even the most powerful opponents.

“We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons,” Chavez explained.

His iconic position has been questioned recently by outsiders claiming Chavez acted as a dictator in his last years as head of the UFW. But what the UFW accomplished under his leadership, and how the union accomplished it, will never be forgotten – not by the millions of social activists who have been inspired and energized by the farm workers’ struggle, nor by the workers themselves.

Chavez deservedly remains, and undoubtedly will always remain, an American icon who led the way to winning important legal rights for farm workers. But more than union contracts, and more than laws, farm workers now have what Cesar Chavez insisted was needed above all else. That, as he told me so many years ago, “is to have the workers truly believe and understand and know that they are free, that they are free men and women, that they are free to stand up and fight for their rights.”

Freedom. No leader has ever left a greater legacy. But the struggle continues. Despite the UFW victories, farm workers are in great need of fully exercising the rights won under Chavez’ leadership. They need to reverse what has been a decline in the UFW’s fortunes in recent years, caused in part by lax enforcement of the laws that granted farm workers union rights.

Many farm workers are still mired in poverty, their pay and working and living conditions a national disgrace. They average less than $10,000 a year and have few – if any – fringe benefits. They suffer seasonal unemployment.

Job security is rare, as many of the workers are desperately poor immigrants from Mexico or Central America who must take whatever is offered or be replaced by other desperately poor workers from the endless stream of immigrants. Child labor is rampant.

Most hiring and firing is done at the whim of employers, many of them wealthy corporate growers or labor contractors who unilaterally set pay and working conditions and otherwise act arbitrarily.

Workers are often exposed to dangerous pesticides and other serious health and safety hazards that make farm work one of the country’s most dangerous occupations. They often even lack such on-the-job amenities as fresh drinking water and field toilets, and almost invariably are forced to live in overcrowded, seriously substandard housing.

Cesar Chavez Day should remind us of the continuing need to take forceful legal steps and other action in behalf of farm workers – to help them overcome their wretched conditions and finally provide a decent life for all those who do the hard, dirty and dangerous work that puts fruit and vegetables on our tables.

We need, in short, to carry on what Cesar Chavez began. We could pay no greater homage to his memory.

Copyright © 2012 Dick Meister

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.

Farm Workers Witness Historic Vote on Fair Treatment of Farm Workers Act May 19, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
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By Edgar Sanchez
Special to the UFW

SACRAMENTO – California’s farm workers would be able to vote without fear for union representation under a historic bill approved Monday by the State Assembly after lengthy debate.

SB 104 – the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act – passed by a 51-to-25 party-line vote, prompting applause from 160 farm laborers packing the Assembly Gallery. Another 100-plus farm workers and their supporters watched the debate on television, in a legislative hearing room.

The bill, previously passed by the Senate, now awaits the signature of Governor Jerry Brown to become law.

The measure, granting farm workers the same organizing rights enjoyed by all state employees, is strongly opposed by the state’s $36 billion agricultural industry.

Introduced by Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), SB 104 would give the state’s more than 400,000 farm workers an alternative to on-the-job polling place elections to decide whether to join a union. The new option would allow them to fill out state-issued representation ballots in their homes, away from bosses’ threats and other interference.  If a simple majority – more than 50 percent — of workers sign the ballots, their jobs would be unionized.

All elections would be supervised by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, with the workers choosing the process.

In a bid to derail SB 104, opponents in the Assembly described it as a job killer, “an anti-democracy bill” and a tool to “blatantly stack the deck against employers.”

Supporters called it a long-overdue proposal to end years of abuse by some unscrupulous labor contractors and growers fighting the United Farm Workers Union.

 “This is a great victory for us,” Felipe, a 30-year-old farm worker from Kern County, said after the vote.  “There won’t be any more intimidation on the part of contractors or farm bosses when union elections take place.

“There won’t be because if 104 becomes law, the vote could be in your house, without anybody pressuring you,” he said.

 Felipe – not his real name — requested anonymity because he fears reprisals from his employer, who he said intimidated workers into voting against unionization in 2006.

“Before the election, we were told we would lose our jobs if we voted for the union,” the $8-an-hour laborer  said. “I came to Sacramento today without my bosses’ knowledge. They don’t know that I came here.”

The Assembly passed SB 104 on the third anniversary of the heat-related death of Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, who had collapsed on a vineyard east of Stockton.  The pregnant laborer fainted after being denied proper access to water and shade in nearly 100-degree heat.

In all, 16 farm workers have died in the California heat since 2005, Luis A. Alejo (D-Watsonville), SB 104’s principal co-author, stated on the Assembly floor.

He cited two main reasons for the ongoing deaths:  Employers, including Maria Isavel’s, intentionally disregard heat regulations and the state seldom enforces the laws.

Even the justice system failed Maria Isavel, Alejo said, expressing disbelief that no one went to prison after she was “killed.”

“Those responsible for her death were ‘sentenced’ to community service,” despite prior worker-safety law violations, he said.  “Community service? For manslaughter?  I don’t need to be an attorney to know that that is a disservice to our justice system.”

Noting that Maria Isavel’s uncle, Doroteo Jimenez, was in the Assembly Gallery, Alejo urged colleagues to “consider telling him that we will not let Maria Isavel’s death be for nothing … but, not with our words.  But, with our actions today.”

Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), said that when Maria Isavel died, “her body temperature was over 108 degrees.”

“Members, can you believe that only six years ago there were no standards for working in the heat in California?” she said.  “…Today, we have an opportunity to take another step on the long, tortuous path for civil rights in the farm worker community.

“I ask for your ‘Aye’ vote” on SB 104, she said.

Asking for a “No” vote was Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks.

“I rise in opposition to this bill, even though I support the cause of protecting the farm workers in the field,” he said. “Right now, we tolerate a system where (they) are systematically abused.  They are exploited …

“SB 104 does nothing to protect farm workers,” he said.

Also blasting SB 104 was Bill Berryhill (R-Ceres), a longtime farmer who said that, if enacted, 104 would “get rid” of secret-ballot elections on ranches.

The bill runs counter to what Cesar Chavez fought for, Berryhill said, reminding that the UFW’s co-founder campaigned for farm workers’ right to choose a union through secret ballots.

William W. Monning (D-Carmel),  responded to Donnelly’s and Berryhill’s remarks.

“Mr. Berryhill is right,” Monning said.  “The philosophy of Cesar Chavez, (fellow UFW co-founder) Dolores Huerta and the union was to achieve secret-ballot protection for farm workers.”

That milestone came in 1975 when then-Governor Jerry Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act into law, he said.

Monning, a distinguished lawyer and former law professor, told colleagues he knows how the Act evolved.  In the mid-1970s, he worked in the UFW’s Legal Department as it lobbied legislators for the Act’s passage.

But, Monning said, “under the current rules … once a petition for election is filed it sets in motion a wave of disparate power – the power of the labor contractor, the power of growers to maximize threats, intimidation, closed company meetings (to) dissuade workers” from voting for union representation, “even in the privacy of that secret ballot.”

“So now, by the time we get to election day, the election’s already been determined,” he said.  “So we need to amend this law to level the playing field, to allow workers in the privacy of their homes, labor camps, to sign a card authorizing union representation” for themselves.

Then, in what appeared to be a direct rebuke to Donnelly, Monning denounced “those colleagues who say they oppose this bill because they care about farm worker rights.”

He continued:  “When I look to an authority on farm worker rights, I look to farm workers.  And farm workers are here today, here at their own expense, many missing a day of work asking us to give them the tools to end the exploitation of unscrupulous labor contractors who intimidate, bend the rules and violate the rights.

“Members, the legacy of Cesar Chavez is embedded in this legislation.  I ask for your ‘Aye’ vote.”

The farm workers applauded enthusiastically.

Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, accused opponents of distorting the facts.

SB 104, he said, “does not eliminate the secret ballot.  It simply adds card check … as another option for farm workers to choose collective bargaining.”

Sandré  R. Swanson, D-Oakland, said SB 104 would make it easier for farm workers to organize and demand basic rights that other workers in California already have.

“We’re talking about the right for farm workers not to have to die of heat stroke, to have adequate water, available restrooms and decent pay,” he said.  “That is fundamental to the opportunity to work in this state.”

After arriving in California’s capital from across the state, the farm workers had assembled at mid-morning in the basement of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, where they were welcomed by, among others, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, several assembly members and Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento.

“You are pilgrims seeking a better way of life,” Soto told the gathering.  “You deserve human benefits.  And you are not alone in your struggle.  Many people support you.”

Rodriguez said simply:  “Today, we’ll be witnesses to history.”

With that, the farm laborers began a silent pilgrimage to the Capitol, a couple of blocks away.

After the vote, Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), Assemblymember Alejo and other members of the Legislature addressed a cheering UFW crowd in the Capitol basement.  The speakers vowed to do what needs to be done to ensure that Governor Brown signs SB 104.

Edgar Sanchez is a former writer for The Sacramento Bee and The Palm Beach Post

 

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