April 21, 2008 at 3:46 am Leave a comment

Chavez may have been the leading voice of farm workers in the ’60s, but the struggle he and the United Farm Workers Union brought to national attention isn’t over.

Jessica A. Camarillo / Adelante
Volume II, Issue 2 (March 2008)

March 31 is approaching. Get ready for Tejano music, colorful Puebla dresses and the occasional grito.

But amid the celebrations in honor of the birth of Cesar Chavez, the man widely known for organizing the United Farm Workers Union during the Chicano Movement, activists and farm workers today are still living his struggle. Chavez’s union may have seen many victories during his lifetime and after his death, but the plight of farm workers is far from over.

Many organizers and activists went unnoticed before, during and after the Chicano Movement. But not Chavez. He knew how to organize the masses and how to make the media work to his advantage. Chavez became one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century after leading a five-year strike, which begun in 1965, against Delano grape growers for equal wages for foreign workers.

At the forefront of farm labor issues today, even after more than 30 years since Chavez’s movement, is still annual wages. Farm workers received an average of $900 per year in 1960, according to Edward R. Murrow’s documentary “Harvest of Shame.” That was barely enough to make ends meet then, but even now farm workers are living at or just above the poverty line. Through the evolution of wage rights and increases, workers can now expect to earn anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 annually, said Sean Sellers, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin and member of the Student Farm Worker’s Alliance.

New groups to protect farm workers from low wages formed throughout the country after Chavez successfully unionized Californian farm workers. One of the most vocal groups to emerge in recent years comes from the opposite coast. Created in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) formed in 1993 as an organization of workers, many of which are Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian. Florida does not protect the bargaining rights of farm workers so a union is not possible.

According to the Department of Labor a living wage for an individual in Immokalee is about $18,500. But in today’s globalized world, the coalition is up against corporations and not the area growers of Chavez’s times. Growers have lost the upper hand since the 1960s, and in recent years, corporations pay growers for their crops and therefore control the wages of many, if not all, workers.

After six years of hunger strikes and marches to get the attention of the growers, the CIW saw no results. Realizing they had been targeting the wrong group, the coalition began campaigns to attract the attention of corporations, such as Taco Bell, Burger King and now Whole Foods Market, which is headquartered in Austin.

The coalition first visited the campus in 2004 to gain support in their attempt to break a contract between Taco Bell and the Texas Union. The contract stayed in place, but the “Boot the Bell” campaign forced Taco Bell’s supplier, YUM Brand to enforce a code of conduct which includes a zero tolerance policy for slave labor, and a penny increase in the price of each barrel of tomatoes.

Sellers said that penny significantly affected farm workers’ wages with an 80 percent raise. While those negotiations only affected Florida workers, the coalition formed a deal April 6, 2004 with McDonald’s, just one week before they planned to boycott, Sellers said. In contrast to the YUM Brand agreement, McDonald’s must enforce this contract nation-wide.

After four years, the Coalition marched back on campus this Febraury to protest against Burger King. Their hopes for the campaign are to create a stronger contract, following the pattern of McDonald’s deliberations.

Though their battle with the King is not over, the coalition is also targeting Whole Foods, which is one of the few corporations to sell Santa Sweet Tomatoes. Ag-mart, the grower who provides the tomatoes, purportedly uses pesticides harmful to the workers and pays sub-poverty wages among a list of other allegations by the coalition.

Workers in Immokalee sued Ag-mart for $250,000 to $2 million in unpaid wages, according to the CIW website, ( Not only are wages low, but some workers also claim they are not receiving any wages or only partially of what growers promise for their day’s work.

Alfredo Santos, editor of “La Voz de Austin,” a local newspaper, knows what it’s like to be paid less than promised. Dropping out of high school at age 16, Santos picked crops throughout Texas, Missouri and California during the 1960s and participated in Chavez’s farm worker movement.

Once, he said, a foreman misjudged the amount of crop a field would yield. He and fellow farm workers filled more cucumber baskets than expected, but instead of being paid the wages they were originally promised, the foreman lowered the wage per basket because he didn’t want to lose money.

“You know, even though we were poor, we weren’t stupid,” Santos said. “We had a basic sense of justice and fairness.”

Santos returned to school at age 18, and after graduating in 1974 from the University of California, Berkeley, he went back to the fields—this time as a union organizer for the United Farm Workers Union.
Chavez lived out many of the injustices that can still be seen today, Santos said. He grew up in terrible living conditions, with no electricity, no running water and no restrooms. Like Chavez, the goal of CIW is to unionize and educate farm workers.

CIW delivered a letter to Whole Foods via certified mail in March 2007 and re-delivered it by hand in this February. Since the Coalition cannot set a meeting with John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO, they plan to protest the shareholders’ meeting March 10 at 8 a.m.

But the challenge of unionization is that it promises a future reality, Santos said. “Your having to compete with two different realities—hoy vs. manana,” he said. “What you are doing in essence is trying to sell people on the idea of a better tomorrow, but it becomes very difficult when you are dealing with the hunger of today, the needs of right now.”

Photos by Andy Lin

Entry filed under: March 2008 issue. Tags: , , , .


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