Remembering Cesar Chavez

The Napa I grew up in is probably not the place you'd come to spend a long weekend winetasting. Real Napa, as we call it, is not glamorous or exclusive. In the old days, my dad says, “it used to be a place where poor kids could grow up in the country.”  Today, even with the fancy restaurants and expensive tourist shops, Napa is still an agricultural town at heart, which means it is a farmworker community.

The wineries that have made Napa famous are also workplaces. The workers in the vineyards work long hours in freezing cold and sweltering heat. Most have no health care and no pension. Wages are low and workers are often paid piece rate.

Farmworkers are routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides. The cancer rate is very high, as are birth defects among the children whose mothers work in the fields. Heat stress has caused not only serious illness, but also deaths.

But it hasn't always been this way. My mother-in-law, Emma, started working as a farmworker at the age of 19. The daughter of a bracero, she joined her father in Napa to work beside him in the fields.

A few years in, everything changed. A young organizer named Cesar Chavez came to town. At first workers were scared but they were soon inspired to make a better life by joining the farmworkers union.  As longtime worker advocate Aurelio Hurtado recalls, “He had a simple message: we're people and are not afraid of anything when it comes to our future. We're here to work, not to beg.”  

When Emma tells me the stories, her face lights up and she says, “me encanta con la union.” She loves the union. Throughout her 35 years working in the vineyards, my mother-in-law and her compañeras rode buses up and down the state to wave their union flags in support of labor organizing and union boycotts.

Because she had a union, Emma was able to work for one employer for three decades. She was able to buy a home and provide security for her son. She worked ten hour days, six days a week, but she had health benefits, a small retirement, and job security. And because she had a union, she felt she was part of a movement to make conditions better for all workers.

But joining a union is no easy matter. Over 92 percent of employers conduct anti-union campaigns, 75 percent hold one on one meetings to discourage workers from unionizing, and 25 percent fire workers for organizing. This intimidation is much more intense in the fields, where workers have few other options and are often the sole support for their extended families in Mexico. In addition, many workers fear immigration consequences and are fearful to speak out about abuses or demand their rights. 

That's why farmworkers need a better way to organize. SB 104 would protect the right of farmworkers to join a union. Under this bill, workers could decide for themselves whether or not to join a union without the threat of losing their job or facing deportation. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed this bill year after year, leaving farmworkers with little hope of improving their lives. 

You hear a lot these days about “union bosses.” The whole notion is kind of funny, since union leaders are democratically elected by their members — it's actually the other side that's got all the bosses. But on Cesar Chavez day, I am reminded that real leadership is about empowering people to believe in themselves.

My mother-in-law is soft-spoken and sweet, but put her on a picket line and she is transformed. To me, that's what Cesar Chavez stood for, and it's what our labor movement is all about. All workers, especially farmworkers, deserve the right to join this movement.