KEENE, CALIF. -- Thirty years ago, Cesar Chavez and the farm workers did the impossible: They overcame the awesome power of California agribusiness.
In the 1960s, Cesar and the United Farm Workers were struggling against history. During the preceding 80 years, every organizing attempt had been defeated. Every strike had been crushed. Every union had been vanquished.
But Cesar changed history's course 35 years ago when he helped lead a five-year strike and boycott against Delano-area grape growers in California's great Central Valley. It was one of those little miracles of our time when, on July 29, 1970, 29 table-grape growers came to the UFW's Delano headquarters and signed their first-ever union contracts.
On that bright summer day, Cesar wore a white ceremonial Filipino shirt to honor the brave Filipino-American vineyard workers who began the walkouts in 1965. He thanked the millions of people who proved "through nonviolent action in this nation and across the world that social justice can be gotten."
Much has changed since then, and much has remained the same. Organizing farm workers today is a difficult and, at times, daunting task. But it is nothing compared to the obstacles faced by Cesar and the UFW in our early days.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to be done to secure a decent life for the people who are responsible for bringing food to our tables. Many farm workers labor long hours in the fields for poverty wages.
According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, nearly 800,000 children still work in agriculture. These young people can suffer even more than adults from exposure to potentially dangerous pesticides.
Farm workers usually have no health benefits and often do not have access to toilets and fresh water. But some things are improving. Since a new organizing drive began in 1994 -- a year after Cesar's death -- farm workers have voted for the UFW in 20 union elections and signed 24 new -- or first-time -- contracts with growers in a number of crops, including lettuce, roses and wine grapes.
UFW membership has grown to more than 27,000 members, up from about 20,000 in 1994.
The UFW continues to produce small miracles. We secured a union contract for workers at the largest winery in Washington state. We now have a pact protecting 450 workers at the Southeast's largest mushroom farm, in Florida. Nearly 70 percent of mushroom workers on California's Central Coast are also protected by UFW agreements. More than 50 percent of the Central Valley rose industry is under union contract, including the nation's biggest rose producer, a company that employs 1,400 workers.
The UFW is currently bargaining with some major California growers. One of them is Coastal Berry Co., America's largest employer of strawberry workers. We are also trying to secure a contract with D'Arrigo Bros., the state's second biggest vegetable company, and Gallo, the number-one wine-grape producer in Sonoma County.
In addition to recent organizing gains, Cesar Chavez's movement continues to push for progress both in and out of the fields. The National Farm Workers Service Center, a tax-exempt organization Cesar founded in the 1960s, is now the largest nonprofit home builder for farm workers and other poor people in the Southwest.
In the last decade, it has built -- and also manages -- more than 2,500 high-quality homes and apartments. The Service Center also operates "Radio Campesina," the farm workers' radio network. With eight stations in three states, "Radio Campesina" boasts the largest listening audience of farm workers in the country. It's also the number-one Spanish-language radio station in the markets it serves, according to Arbitron ratings.
Today, there are many battles for farm workers to wage. For example, the UFW is helping lead the battle for immigration reform. It has called on the government to grant amnesty to undocumented workers who are already in this country. And the UFW is seeking badly needed legislation in California to curb daily abuses by farm labor contractors. Too often, growers hire these middle men who directly cheat and exploit farm workers. Then the growers absolve themselves of responsibility for the mistreatment.
We owe a lot to our UFW predecessors. "Ninety-five percent of the [Delano grape] strikers lost their homes and cars," Cesar said on that triumphant day 30 years ago. "But in losing those worldly possessions, they found themselves."
Today's farm workers are indebted to Cesar and those brave strikers for their sacrifices. They were truly nonviolent warriors on the long path to freedom.
The writer became the UFW's second president upon the death of his father-in-law, Cesar Chavez, in 1993. This article was made available by the Progressive Media Project, Madison, Wis.
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