My dad, a union laborer, raised me on stories of Chavez’s heroics, taking on the wealthy landowners in our small agricultural town. My mother-in-law started working in the fields at 19 and recalls when a young organizer Cesar Chavez came to address the workers. She remembers how scared they were to be seen talking union but says pretty soon “me encanta con la union.” She was in love with the union. That’s the kind of devotion Chavez inspired in farmworkers across California and beyond.
For us in the Labor Movement, Cesar Chavez’ birthday is also a time to reflect on the state of the movimiento and the legacy he left behind. Chavez was a pioneer in organizing Latino farmworkers; a few decades later, immigrant workers are leading our unions and almost every organizing drive in California. Chavez was able to win incredible victories, but we have not been able to sustain all of them. Farmworkers today face many of the same injustices he saw when he first came to this state and very few have a union.
The Grape Boycott organized by Cesar Chavez remains one of the greatest achievements of the Labor Movement in the last 50 years. At the height of this boycott, 14 million Americans refused to buy table grapes in solidarity with the farmworker struggle. The Delano growers finally agreed to settle the boycott by signing union contracts that revolutionized the way work was done in the fields. In addition to the changes in wages and benefits, they banned the exploitative contratista model and instead workers went through hiring halls and got work by seniority. It was a new day. As a UFW member, my mother-in-law was able to take her young son to the dentist for the first time, to save up money to buy a home, and to work at one winery for 35 years.
It seems fitting that this Cesar Chavez day weekend, the workers at Taylor Farms in Tracy are wondering if they will ever get those same protections. The labor contractor model that we once tried to eliminate from the fields is now emerging in the warehouses, hotels, and food processing plants. At Taylor Farms, where they pack lettuce, cut onions and prepare other food products for major retailers and fast food companies, workers may be employed by any one of three employers. While some are hired directly, others work for a farm labor contractor and others for a staffing agency.
Workers at Taylor Farms are supposed to accept that dangerous conditions and frequent injuries are just part of the job. They are pressured not to report injuries or files reports and workers who do are fired. They work in freezing temperatures and are denied meal breaks and even bathroom breaks. But it is not even clear who their real employer is or who can be held accountable for these abuses. The contractor system is working just as it was designed to—keeping workers divided and protecting the company from responsibility for the workers who make the business run.
When these workers came together to organize for better conditions, they were threatened, intimidated, and at least ten workers were fired in the campaign to prevent a union. They were told that if the union won, the company would get rid of its contracts so temporary workers would lose their jobs. Those workers were told that they were not real workers, they don’t count, and that they would not even have the right to vote.
The company encouraged a group of supervisors and lead workers to roam the plant freely to intimidate workers even as union supporters were constantly monitored and their movements restricted. Fliers were posted calling workers “burros” for supporting the union. The employer interference was so outrageous that at the conclusion of the election last Friday night, the National Labor Relations Board took the rare step of impounding the ballots –refusing to even count them until they investigate the hundreds of charges of illegal conduct that the Union has filed.
The struggle of the workers at Taylor Farms is exactly la causa that Cesar Chavez devoted himself to. That every worker has the right not just to dream of a better life but to stand up for one. That those who work with their hands to get food to our tables deserve also to feed their children. They are fighting not for themselves, but for their co-workers, for their families, and for a better future. They too are leaving a legacy that will inspire generations to come.
It is discouraging to see that the labor contractor system that Cesar Chavez fought to abolish has instead multiplied. But Cesar would not lose hope, even in the face of employer intimidation of workers and interference in their right to a free and fair election. As he said in a speech in 1984, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”
Today, as we celebrate Cesar Chavez, he would surely say what my dad said in his final days: Get to work. Stand with the courageous workers at Taylor Farms and in the fields and in the warehouses. This is our fight and, as working people standing together, it’s ours to win.