A line of protesters march toward the capital of California. People are holding different flags, including the American, California, and United Farm Workers flags. Another person in the front is holding a pole with feathers that reads American Indian Movement.
Image Source: United Farm Workers @UFWupdates / Twitter https://twitter.com/UFWupdates/status/1562781258614177792/photo/1

The Fight for Farmworkers’ Rights in California

Earlier this month, President Biden weighed in on the side of California farmworkers, endorsing legislation that would provide agricultural workers “an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union” (The Nation). Half a century after César Chávez brought national attention to the farmworkers’ union, why are conditions so bad that hundreds of thousands are once again marching from Delano to Sacramento to demand justice? And why is defending migrant workers’ rights such a hard sell in a state that some believe is a progressive utopia? 

In the 1960s, masses of Filipino and Mexican farmworkers united under the banner of the United Farm Workers (UFW), embarking on massive strikes and calling for a nationwide boycott. At the peak of the UFW’s power, the base rate for farm work was double the minimum wage. But since the 1970s, conditions have worsened dramatically (In These Times). The top-down leadership of the farmworkers’ union impeded new organizing while growers launched a campaign to get an anti-UFW governor elected in California (KPFA). 

TAKE ACTION

Sign the petition to demand that Governor Newsom sign AB 2183.

• Call Newsom’s office at 916 445 2841 and tell him to support farmworkers. You can follow this call script:

I’m calling to demand that Governor Newsom sign AB 2183. Farmworkers need to be able to vote to join a union in a safe environment free from intimidation. Preventing the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act from becoming law is indefensible and shameful.

The average farmworker family makes less than $30,000 a year. Almost a quarter of households earn less than $20,000 (Department of Labor). California farmworkers make about half as much as non-agricultural workers (EPI). U.S. law explicitly denies farmworkers legal rights afforded to all other workers. They don’t have federal protections against anti-union retaliation, have a lower federal minimum wage, and are exempt from overtime pay provisions (NFWM). California, the source of 70% of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, has passed limited legislation to improve conditions for agricultural workers (Comestible). But farmworkers, overwhelmingly from Mexico and Central America, remain a caste of second-class citizens. Farmworkers are killed in industrial accidents, collapse during unimaginable heat, and are showered with pesticides (The Grist). Hundreds die on the job each year (PBS). Like Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez is commemorated today to distract from conditions much like those he fought against. 

“It’s the labor of underpaid workers with few rights that has made Big Ag so big, and that has made our state so rich,” the Sacramento Bee editorial board explains (Sacramento Bee). 

Last month, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers walked more than 300 miles to urge the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act (AB 2183) that would allow California farmworkers to vote by mail to join a labor union (ABC 7). AB 2183 would impede farm owners’ ability to intimidate workers into voting against joining a union. As it stands, votes on whether or not to join a union takes place in the fields, where owners have called ICE on their employees and had pro-union workers physically beaten (ABC 7The Nation). The march was organized by the United Farm Workers, the union of César Chávez, who Newsom recognized with a state holiday last year. “Chávez challenged Americans to recognize that the crops on their dinner tables were picked by human hands,” read Newsom’s proclamation (CA).

Yet Newsom refuses to sign the legislation the farmworkers’ union is fighting for, vetoing a similar bill last year (KVPR). Governor Newsom’s solidarity with farmworkers doesn’t extend to those alive today. Though Newsom claims that he only opposes the bill because of concerns about the “integrity” of mail-in ballots, he expressed no hesitation about the legitimacy of the mail-in votes that got him elected (The Nation). Agriculture is California’s largest industry. Owners wield tremendous political power (CA). Newsom has taken over $1 million in campaign donations from them. 

But even without such financial ties, Newsom wouldn’t be a neutral party. Governor Newsom employs hundreds of agricultural workers at wineries and vineyards as co-owner of PlumpJack Collection of Wineries. PlumpJack, which received $3 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans, recently added another 129-acre vineyard to its holdings (CBSSan Francisco Chronicle). 

Social justice-inflected political statements notwithstanding, California is much like other areas of the United States: a “corrupt oligarchy” where “economic elites and organized interest groups and organized interest groups play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence” (Vox). This is doubly true when politicians are economic elites themselves, including Newsom (net worth: $20 million), President Biden (net worth: $8 million), former Secretary of State Clinton (net worth: $21 million), Secretary of State Blinken ($10 million), Vice President Harris ($7 million), Senator Warren ($12 million), and Attorney General Garland ($20 million). 

That’s why we have to keep the pressure up. It’s almost certain that much of what you’ve eaten today came from California farmworkers. For a “progressive” politician to stand in the way of legislation that would facilitate these workers organizing for a dignified workplace and standard of living is unconscionable. We must extend our solidarity to our fellow workers in the fields across this country and take action to support their fights. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• California farmworkers are fighting for the opportunity to safely and secretly vote to join a union. 

• Farmworkers have one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. 

• California Governor Gavin Newsom claims to honor the legacy of César Chávez while fighting against Chávez’s union today. 

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