Immigration Reform in the Shadows of Cesar Chavez’s Legacy
Cesar Chavez’s personal aide Marc Grossman and organizer Rosalinda Guillen examine the current situation for farmworkers and whether the Senate’s immigration reform will improve their lives
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
March 31 is the birthday of the late Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez. It’s known as Cesar Chavez Day in California, where the state honors the memory of a man who led a nonviolent revolution to organize farmworkers. United Farm Workers, under the leadership of Chavez, rose in the 1960s, but its membership numbers are at about 5,000 today. So what’s happened to the organization that Chavez fought so tirelessly for?
Here to discuss the legacy of Cesar Chavez and today’s realities for farmworkers are our two guests.
Mark Grossman was Cesar Chavez longtime press secretary, speech writer, and personal aide. He knew and worked with him the last 24 years of his life. And Mark is currently the communications director for the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
And also joining us is Rosalinda Guillen. She is the director Community to Community, a farmworker organizing project in Washington. She’s from a farmworker family and worked for the United Farmworkers for over nine years.
Thank you both for joining us.
ROSALINDA GUILLEN, DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY2COMMUNITY: Thank you for having us.
MARC GROSSMAN, COMMUNICATIONS DIR., CESAR CHAVEZ FOUNDATION: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: So, Marc, you were by Cesar Chavez’s side through much of the struggle, really, and I want to get a sense from you. When he passed in the ’90s, we were already seeing the numbers declining for UFW’s membership. Did Mr. Chavez every talk to you about this, his feelings and thoughts about this decline? And is there really a decline?
GROSSMAN: There’s not. Cesar said that if the work of his movement ended with his death, that his life’s work would have been in vain. But today the United Farm Workers of America is aggressively helping farmworkers organize, negotiate new contracts with growers, and to win new legal protections.
The 5,000 number comes from the U.S. Labor Department reports that require you to say how many members you have on December 31, the dead of winter, when very few people are working in agriculture.
In recent years, the UFW has won new contracts with the biggest winery in America; with the biggest strawberry employer in America; with 75 percent of the fresh mushroom industry in California; with the biggest–one of the biggest dairies in the United States, in Eastern Oregon; recently, in the last year or two, with some of the biggest tomato growers in California. Thousands of additional farmworkers are winning the protections that union contracts bring.
Today the UFW is embroiled in a big fight on behalf of 5,000 farmworkers at the largest tree fruit grower in America, Gerawan Farming Inc. in Fresno County. So the UFW, you know, has–membership has grown, it’s declined, it’s grown again. It is increasing.
DESVARIEUX: Rosalinda, what’s your take? Is it actually increasing?
GUILLEN: Well, you know, my take, because we are talking about Cesar Chavez’s legacy, is that we really have to look at the numbers of workers under union contract, of workers organizing themselves, within the context of the food system in general. Every time farmworkers try to organize, it is a massive, incredibly difficult fight.
I think that the numbers–you know, when Cesar Chavez and the fight in the fields happened in the early ’70s, there were over 90,000 farmworkers under union contract in California. That was the banner and the rallying call for the rest of us. I was a teenager in Washington State at the time, and I didn’t even know about that, that that was happening, but many other farmworkers did. And I think that every time that farmworkers have organized at that level, there has been just this incredible pushback from the agricultural industry with their massive amount of public relations, their lawyers, their marketing. It is one of the most difficult things to do in America today, to organize farmworkers in this massive corporate food regime.
So the numbers, I really don’t want to speak to the numbers. Really, the numbers under union contract, the United Farm Workers is the only one that knows that at this point and what is published by the government, whoever wants to publish it.
What I do want to say, though, is that there are many farmworkers in America today that are trying to organize, that are attempting to come together in unity for better conditions and wages, and it’s back to, you know, David against Goliath.
DESVARIEUX: Marc, why is it so difficult for, essentially, workers to organize?
GROSSMAN: Well, it has always been difficult, and growers continue to fiercely resist unionization, some of them rabidly. It is even more difficult today. When I first began in the late ’60s, the majority of the workforce in California were Latino, maybe 65 percent. But there were also other minorities. There were African Americans. There were Filipino Americans. Today the workforce is overwhelmingly Latino immigrant, and the great majority is undocumented. So in addition to the traditional difficulties, you deal with a workforce that is very transitory but is also very afraid because their immigration status makes them so vulnerable to abuse.
And that’s why we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform that the U.S. Senate approved last June. And it is languishing in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
DESVARIEUX: Rosalinda, you’re actually there on the ground, organizing these workers. Can you speak to what Marc just said about the difficulties of organizing them? Can you speak to your own experience?
GUILLEN: Absolutely. You know, the changing workforce in agriculture, the farmworker workforce–besides all the points that Marc just mentioned is the fact that it is a very indigenous workforce. It’s like the United States has drawn from the most southernest parts, southernmost part of Mexico. We’ve got Mixteco, Trique, we got indigenous people from Oaxaca, Guatemala, from Guerrero, from other areas. They don’t even speak Spanish.
Thanks to NAFTA and the trade agreements that have happened that United States has agreed with many countries in South America, peasant farmers have been displayed [sic]. And that’s what we’re organizing. And it’s an extremely difficult job, and I’m telling you, the pushback that we get not just from corporate agriculture an a statewide level here in Washington State, but even here locally, there’s such a resistance to raising the wages of farmworkers, to treating them with respect, to just having the very basic minimum protections that are supposed to be protected by law, you know, with underfunded state agencies.
And California is really the best place for farmworkers today, because there is that Agricultural Labor Relations Act. But in other states where there isn’t anything like that, it is very, very difficult. We have threats against our lives, threats of violence against the workers. Blacklisting is rampant in local, rural communities when farmworkers try to improve their wages.
So nothing here, as far as I can see, has changed very much from when you watch the movie Cesar Chavez. And I think if you speak to rural organizers on a national level in various rural areas that are trying to improve the lives of farmworkers, you’re going to see and feel the fear that farmworkers–but not just farmworkers, but also the advocates and the organizers like myself have in that pushback that is still happening in America today every single time farmworkers try to organize.
And I want to speak to that, to say that that, again, is in the context of the way that consumers look at purchasing their food, the way the local communities look at their food system.
I think that the legacy of Cesar Chavez is that we have to look at this within that context, that it is more than just about the farmworkers, but it’s the consumer’s responsibility to ensure that things do improve, because we can’t do it alone.
DESVARIEUX: What about the UFW’s relationship with the Democratic Party? ‘Cause you have some critics saying that the UFW became reliant on the Democratic Party after the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 was passed. Do you agree, Marc?
GROSSMAN: Well, you know, towards the end of his life, Cesar came to regret placing so much reliance on the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, because under 16 years of Republican governors, enforcement of that law fell apart. It was ignored.
You know, to follow up on some stuff Rosalinda was saying, it’s true California has the toughest laws in the nation to protect farmworkers, but so often they are ignored, they are not enforced. It’s true with the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.
Several years ago, the UFW convinced then-governor Schwarzenegger to issue the first state regulations in the country to help protect farmworkers and other outdoor workers from dying or becoming very ill from extreme heat. But Cal/OSHA, the state work safety agency, says that maybe a third of agricultural employers ignore those regulations. And since 2005, when we won them, another two dozen farmworkers have died from the heat.
It’s the same thing with child labor and field sanitation and pesticide protection, a lot of laws and regulations that Cesar and the UFW won in California but are very poorly enforced under both Democratic and Republican governors.
And that’s why the UFW has to keep organizing and negotiating and winning protections, because, you know, we have a good governor in California, Jerry Brown, but we have a state civil service that too often isn’t well financed, that doesn’t have the staff. There are, what, 80,000 farms in California. The state inspects for field sanitation maybe 300 a year. At that rate, it’ll take 250 years to inspect every farm once.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about where these laws are created–Washington. You mentioned earlier, Marc, the comprehensive immigration reform that the Senate is trying to get passed there in Congress. I want to ask, Rosalinda, your opinion about these guest worker visa program, because you have folks like Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook really pushing for this ’cause they want high-skilled workers, but there’s also agribusiness who’s really lobbying for this because they want that cheap labor force, essentially. So can you describe what kind of deal this comprehensive immigration reform will be for workers?
GUILLEN: One of the worst things that can happen to the American worker, not just farmworkers but all other workers. What the current bill does is it creates these new W visas that opens up–essentially opens up many industries to corporate interests bringing in guest workers from other parts of the world.
Here, locally what’s happening is that it becomes like the solution for every farmer and every corporate agricultural interest to the comprehensive immigration reform. So we have a local problem here, where farmers are already looking to bring in guest workers and replace local workers.
We’re very much opposed to this program. We think it’s an extension of the dreaded bracero program that happened before. We think it’s a corporate solution, for corporations to be able to use workers as cheaply as possible.
And let me just say that it’s not just about low wages. This is about control. It’s about corporate management being able to have total and complete control over their workforce, therefore stifling any kind of organizing and any kind of uprising against and demands for enforcement of worker rights laws. And I think that’s really the most critical point that we need to make. This is about control–corporations controlling their workers. And in agriculture, it’s going to give the corporate industries even more control over the workers and more power to stop the organizing and improving the conditions of farmworkers in the fields and in the orchards and in the berry fields.
DESVARIEUX: Marc, if I understood you correctly, you’re actually supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Why?
GROSSMAN: Well, the bill was a compromise negotiated with the growers. And what you have to remember is that there was a 50 year tradition in American law that says that you cannot import a temporary foreign worker in farm labor unless American domestic workers have been given the first shot at those jobs. The situation you have now is about 1 million farmworkers, it is estimated, are undocumented in this country, out of about a million and a half altogether. What the bill that was passed by the Senate would do would be to allow the great majority, almost all, we believe, of those 1 million undocumented farmworkers to immediately earn legal status by continuing to work in agriculture. The labor shortages that the growers have complained about, some of them real, some of them not, would be obviated by having a million more eligible farmworkers who have legal documents and under the law would be given the first shot at those jobs. You could not bring in a temporary foreign worker without giving domestic workers a right to take those jobs.
We also enhance the–you know, we were very insistent in those negotiations to make sure that the legal rights of domestic farmworkers were protected and the legal rights of whatever H-2A workers (it’s–the H-2A is a current guest worker program in agriculture) are brought in. So, for example, under the current system an H-2A worker who is denied the protections of the arrangement that he’s brought in to work under, whether it’s transportation or wage rates, has no legal remedy under the migrant and seasonal workers protection act. They do under the negotiated agreement that was passed by the Senate.
There’s no way that a comprehensive immigration reform bill, especially one concerning farmworkers, is going to get through Congress unless it was a compromised negotiated agreement. We don’t like H-2A or guest worker programs too, but the price for getting a bill out of the Senate and the possibility of passing it by Congress and signed by the president was to come up with a negotiated arrangement with the growers. We fought very hard with them to keep the cap on the number of H-2A or guest workers that would be allowed in every year.
It’s true that even under Public Law 78, the bracero program, under the H-2A program, there have been many violations of worker rights, those workers that are imported. We’ve put additional protections that we negotiated into the Senate bill so that workers have a cause of action, so they or their advocates, whether it’s the United Farm Workers or Rosalinda’s group, to go to federal court and enforce those distinctions. And that’s a distinction between the Senate bill and the H-2A and bracero programs.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. So you guys are clearly both on opposite sides of this issue. But I want to talk about wages. Why have we not seen wages gone up? ‘Cause in the 1970s–. We had a guest on. He basically worked in the field for nearly a decade, and he said he was making $14 an hour. Now agricultural workers are making minimum wage, oftentimes. So, Rosalinda, what needs to change for wages to go up? What can be done beyond organizing?
GUILLEN: Well, let me tell you, if this bill passes with the type of guest worker agreements that were made, wages are not going to go up. It’s not just that wages are low, but it’s that there is these–what do you call it?–wage systems that are set up for workers to be able to be paid by piece rate, whether it be by the pound, by the box, or by the bin. Here in Joaquin County, they even get paid by the number of vines that they prune in the raspberry fields. So there’s every way you can think of for the agricultural industry and farmers and growers, if they are so inclined, to conduct these very elaborate wage systems on their farms that basically amounts to rampant and systematic wage theft for farmers all across the country.
So it’s become really a sad situation for a farmworker that only increases the poverty of farmworkers. The generational poverty just keeps growing and growing in this country. And I think that you cannot talk about increasing the wages of farmers today without looking at this perfect intersection of comprehensive immigration reform, changes in the food system, and food production in general, because I don’t know how you can possibly work to systematically improve the wages of farmworkers in the United States while at the same time having these kinds of guest workers and W visa programs. So it’s an extremely difficult situation.
And yes, you can go to court, you can file for violations, you can try to change state law to increase the wages for farmworkers, but come on. We all know over–history has shown us that we are the poorest, the least represented, and the least able to have access to the system, to the justice system, so that we can defend ourselves. So you are putting farmworkers in some of the most difficult situations for recruitment that I have seen in a long time.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Very interesting discussion. Rosalinda Guillen and Marc Grossman, thank you both for joining us.
GUILLEN: Thank you.
GROSSMAN: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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