March 31, 2014
Greetings from sunny California, where today we celebrate the State holiday Cesar Chavez Day! California is known as the fruit basket and salad bowl of the U.S. When we bite into a grape (or strawberry, orange, lemon, almond, date, fig, raisin, olive…), we rarely think about the first hands that touched it. But chances are those hands belong to a California farmworker.
Those hands probably worked very long hours in hot, difficult conditions for very little pay. Those hands belonged to someone who was probably younger than 31 (sometimes 12 years old) and far away from their family and their birthplace south of the border. On the job, that farmworker may have experienced injury, heat stress, pesticide poisoning, sexual assault, or lack of access to toilets or water . And after long hours of hard work, that farmworker may have not been paid the low wages they were owed.
The combined injustices of harsh working conditions, back-breaking work, low pay and sub-par protections gave birth to the union The United Farmworkers (UFW). Together with Filipino American farmworkers led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and others accomplished the famous Delano Grape strike. The purpose of the strike was to demand pay equal to the federal minimum wage for farmworkers picking table grapes in the U.S. Starting in 1965, the strike lasted five years, gained national attention, convinced millions of American consumers to boycott table grapes, and ended with a significant victory for the UFW. The union got a contract with table grape growers that affected the wages and protections of more than 10,000 farmworkers.
Chavez and the UFW went on to hold many more successful strikes, despite difficult odds. They even accomplished a change in California law, which now gives collective bargaining rights to farmworkers in the state (more on that below).
This past weekend, Cesar Chavez, the movie, was released in theaters nationwide. I’m excited about the attention this will give to Chavez and the plight of farmworkers in the U.S. But with this renewed attention, it is important to be aware that farmworkers still work in grueling conditions and that the U.S. government provides farmworkers with fewer protections today than most other laborers in this country.
Below, I give a quick summary of some of the most critical laws we have in the U.S. to protect workers, and how they still exclude workers in agriculture:
The National Labor Relations Act: This is the federal law that allows workers to collectively form unions without being punished by their employers. This law expressly excludes farmworkers. States can go above this federal law, but few do. California is a notable exception, and we have Cesar Chavez and the other brave farmworkers of the 1960s to thank for that. Note that this does not mean farmworkers in states without protections do not organize. It means that they must overcome even more odds to do so successfully.
The Fair Labor Standards Act: This is the federal law that gives U.S. employees a right to minimum wage and overtime pay. Small farms are exempt from providing minimum wages to their employees. Farmworkers are excluded from rights to overtime pay.
The Social Security Act: This is what gives employees unemployment insurance (benefits for out-of-work people who are able and willing to work but can’t find employment). Small farms are exempt from providing benefits to their workers. States can opt out of providing benefits to agricultural guest laborers. Undocumented workers have no benefits.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration: This is the federal agency that sets standards for workplace safety and health. Many standards exclude agricultural workplaces. Small farms are completely exempt from enforcement of OSHA rules.
Workers’ Compensation: This is what protects you if you get sick or injured on the job. The level of benefits is set at the state level. Despite the fact that agriculture is one of the most hazardous industries, many states provide less coverage for farmworkers than other workers. In 16 states, employers do not need to provide any workers’ compensation to migrant or seasonal farmworkers.
Why are we still failing to provide adequate protections for farmworkers in the U.S? Seen through the old lens of power in politics, it all makes sense. What do politicians need? To get reelected. And what do they need to do that? Votes and resources to get votes.
The majority of agriculture workers are undocumented workers living in poverty. Resources? Few. Right to vote? Usually not.
Big Ag, on the other hand, is a major political contributor with several interest groups. Resources? Check. Right to and influence over voting? Check.
Of course, this equation is oversimplified. In addition to the United Farm Workers, there are several groups organizing farmworkers for better conditions and pay. And there are some important successes that should be given real attention. But unfortunately those wins are the exception, not the rule. As long as U.S. policies at the federal level condone lesser protection of farmworkers than other workers, these groups will always be fighting against the grain.
One of the most important factors that keeps many farmworkers fearful of unionizing, in the dark about their rights, and willing to work in deplorable conditions is lack of citizenship status. In my next post, I will address agriculture’s role in U.S. immigration policy.
>> Read Sarah Rodman’s next blogpost on immigration – Hard work, low pay, poor conditions: Ag jobs and the immigrants willing to do them
If you want to read more on this topic, these are some good places to start:
United Farmworkers (@UFWupdates)
 United Farmworkers, Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation. Inventory of Farmworker Issues in Protections in the United States; 2011.