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UFW's new path: Help millions

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Average Employment By California Agricultural Region, 2004-2013

Average Employment By California Agricultural Region, 2004-2013
 

June 2004 Volume 10 Number 4

UFW's new path: Help millions


UFW's new path: Help millions
Union says farmworkers won't be left out of new endeavors that reach well beyond agriculture
By MATT WEISER, Californian staff writer
Wednesday May 12th, 2004, 12:15 PM
KEENE -- Paul Chavez surveys his late father's office at La Paz, and it is the bookcases that hold the most meaning.

They symbolize the diverse interests that inspired Cesar Chavez in his fight to improve the lives of farmworkers: books on nonviolence here, management and business theory there, history and tactics of organized labor, yoga and gardening.

All had a place on his shelves, all under one roof.

"Our work has got to happen a lot of different ways," says Paul Chavez, 47. "My dad referred to it as education of the heart."

Those shelves are a metaphor for the mission of the United Farm Workers Union today. The world is a more complex place, and so is the farmworker movement. Chavez's children and successors have rallied since his death to keep the movement relevant, to do with money and law and policy what Cesar Chavez did with charisma alone.

Along the way, they decided, some of Chavez's priorities and practices had to change.

The new National Chavez Center is one example. It opened April 23 at La Paz, becoming the most visible sign of the movement's ambitious new goal: To help 10 million Latinos and working families in 10 years.

For the first time, Chavez's office and gravesite are open to the curious public, and the man himself is being tapped as a commodity of sorts to draw new followers and, indirectly, to attract money.

It's a path that has some fearing the farmworker movement has lost its way.

"They've always had a nobility that has been real, because it's borne of adversity when everyone else is selling out," said James Lorenz, an Oakland attorney who co-founded California Rural Legal Assistance with Chavez. He's since become a rare independent watchdog of the union."I am generally skeptical about what happens when large sums of money come into any place. Money can do terrible things to people."

Leaders of the farmworker movement insist they aren't motivated by money. Instead they see the center as one way to "help 10 million people." To meet this goal, the movement plans to build more low-income housing, expand its radio network, and develop new programs to help educate poor children.

The union will continue advocating for workers, on farms and in factories, and will look for new ways to partner with employers instead of always fighting them.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said the new center will become an important tool for the union. In a way, he said, it will become a recruiting tool.

"We're not only recognizing Cesar there. We're recognizing all the contributions and the sacrifices that farmworkers have made," said Rodriguez. "It's done because we want to make sure this is a living legacy, not one that is just there for purposes of recognizing what contributions Cesar made in his lifetime, but more importantly ... how that applies to what we're doing today, and maintains his relevancy throughout time."

Many of the movement's new goals began to take shape several years ago with the help of Julia Sullivan, a Silicon Valley management consultant. Sullivan was brought in by leaders of the farmworker movement to help define their future.

A child of Mexican immigrants herself, Sullivan was moved by the experience of working with the UFW. She left feeling that the leaders of the movement were committed to establishing a secure future for the organization.

But she also felt they had a lot of hard work ahead.

"What they realized was that their purpose, as it was originally defined, was really kind of time-bound and society-bound," she said. "And there was also this pretty inspiring drive to make it relevant, and to kind of redefine themselves, but in a way that they carried forth the legacy they inherited. I left just praying desperately that they would have the will to do the hard work. I also was uncertain as to whether they would."

Marketing a legacy

Chavez's gravesite outside the center is now enclosed by a new mission-style plaza and gardens. The office where he ran the UFW for the last 20 years of his life, in the northwest corner of the center building, is restored and displayed just as he left it, as if frozen in time.

The center has an auditorium for showing films, galleries to display art and artifacts that represent the man and his principles, a gift shop to sell Cesar Chavez souvenirs and books.

There is no admission charge, Paul Chavez says, but donations will be solicited.

He admits that his father would have hated all this. Cesar Chavez scorned awards and attention, insisting they added nothing to the task of helping farmworkers, and he refused to be held above those he served.

But times have changed.

"Now we understand a little bit more that you do need to do some promotion," Paul Chavez said. "As we develop this, hopefully it will be a new type of tourism that goes along with it. We're hoping that we'll share the history and inspire them (visitors) to get involved. We're thinking that in the future, that will be part of how we do the work."

He hopes people will come to the center not to mourn his father, but to celebrate his life and beliefs. He sees the site serving not just as a memorial center, but as a venue that the public can rent for weddings, birthdays and other public gatherings.

The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, a UFW-affiliated nonprofit, built the new center with $2.6 million in state grants. The money came from Proposition 40, the 2002 Resources Bond Act, approved by voters to fund park and recreation projects.

Early in the farmworker struggle, Chavez refused several large public grants to provide health or social services to farmworkers. He felt the grant terms or the work required to administer the grants would deflate the most important work, which was bringing justice to the fields via union organizing.

Conspicuously absent from the movement's broad new goal -- "help 10 million Latinos and working people in 10 years" -- is any specific reference to farmworkers. But that does not mean the movement is turning its back on them.

"It doesn't mean you give up collective bargaining. Hell no," said Paul Chavez. "But now we're saying no, we're in representation. And we're beginning to ask, 'Can representation take other forms as well?'"

'Kings of La Paz'

The center also states in bricks and mortar something that leaders of the farmworker movement have not revealed publicly until now: The UFW might leave La Paz one day.

Many of the nation's strongest unions eventually moved their headquarters to Washington, D.C., finding it necessary to be near the Capitolto achieve the political clout for continued success. The center, UFW leaders say, is a way to ensure a unique identity for La Paz that will survive the needs of the union itself.

Plans also call for transforming another building at La Paz, the former Stonybrook children's hospital, into a conference center. The movement also recently purchased the old clapboard Keene Store, located alongside Highway 58. It will be turned into a visitor's center, with all arriving traffic diverted along a new road that passes the store and leads toward the center.

"When the next group of leaders comes in to run this thing, they're not going to have the same emotional attachment to this place that we do," said Paul Chavez. "And chances are, they will probably have known my dad not from working side-by-side with him, but from seeing a video or reading about him, right? We saw that La Paz really needed to have its own place in the movement carved out."

La Paz was once home to most of those who worked for the union. They lived in dozens of mobile homes on the property. But as people move out, the mobile homes are being pulled out behind them. Only a few residences remain, notably those occupied by Paul Chavez and his family, Arturo Rodriguez, and Cesar's widow, Helen Fabela Chavez.

"I'm telling my kids, if things go well, La Paz will change as we know it, so they'll have less privacy. Right now, they're the kings of La Paz," Paul Chavez joked.

Raising the roof

The California Institute for Rural Studies has identified housing as one of the biggest problems facing farmworkers today. Fewer growers today provide housing for their workers compared to when Chavez was alive. And, in a reflection of the larger housing market, farmworkers struggle with rising rents and scarcity in the housing market like all other workers.

The movement has already built 2,200 units of affordable housing in several states. Most of the housing development is handled by the National Farm Workers Service Center, a nonprofit started by Chavez and now led by his son.

Paul Chavez said the service center's new goal is to house 100,000 people within 10 years. To do this, Chavez figures, will require a staff of about 800 people and an investment of $500 million.

That's an ambitious goal. But the service center has already increased its housing portfolio by a factor of 10 since 1990, when it managed only 240 housing units. Its staff has grown from 34 people then to about 225 now.

The movement's housing projects offer more than just shelter. Many are social service hubs for their residents. For instance, at Casa Hernandez in Delano, an 80-unit senior housing project, the service center recently won a $100,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation to offer health assessments, eyeglasses and gardening programs for residents.

Casa Hernandez was completed by the service center in 1999 using $5 million in government tax credits and other subsidies. It shows how far the farmworker movement has come: The site was once a vineyard where the UFW staged one of the first grape strikes, and it lies across the street from the union's first headquarters on First Avenue.

"I can remember coming out and picketing the grapes right where we're standing," Paul Chavez said while touring Casa Hernandez recently. "There's a little bit of poetic justice in that, right?"

Out with 'old time'

The movement's radio network, Radio Campesina, will have a bigger role in the future. Chavez started the network in the 1980s with a single station devoted to educational programming and old-time jazz and Mexican music. More stations were added later, but his successors gradually realized the network had few listeners because contemporary farmworkers and immigrants weren't interested in old-time music.

Today the network consists of nine stations in three states, with common programming shared via satellite from central studios in Bakersfield. Only two of those stations occupy the "educational" bandwidth, while the rest are conventional commercial stations that accept advertising.

The content today consists of lively Mexican ranchera music, popular with today's immigrants, and educational programs on politics, health and culture. Today it is the top Spanish-language radio network in the San Joaquin Valley, and No. 2 in Phoenix. The network has 500,000 daily listeners in the United States, and an additional 300,000 south of the border.

"Since we changed the radio station, the old-timers -- they're still pissed at me," said Paul Chavez. "We understand now that the real power of radio is having listeners. The idea is, we can use it to create debate and create a movement. We have an opportunity to help shape popular culture. It's how we adapt that allows us to remain relevant."

For the first time last year, the network received financial assistance from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and it plans to syndicate some programming to reach more Latinos via other networks. Radio Campesina is also talking with National Public Radio about developing a Spanish-language news service, and NPR has offered to mentor the Campesina news staff.

So broad is the network's reach among farmworkers that even the combative Western Growers Association, one of Cesar's top enemies during his life, has purchased advertising time on Radio Campesina to reach labor contractors, many of whom are Latinos themselves.

Paul Chavez finds another healthy dose of irony in this. But he confesses that if growers wanted to purchase radio time to counteract the UFW's message during a strike, "I'd have a hard time saying we should do it."

"We're not journalists," he says. "We're activists who happen to have access to a microphone."

Recognizing shared interests

Rodriguez said the union's future will include a number of new areas of work. Like the new National Chavez Center, they might have alarmed Chavez.

Rodriguez believes changing times create new common interests between workers and growers. For instance, the United States is importing more of its apples and oranges from China, where hundreds of thousands of acres of new fruit orchards are coming into production. This cheaper, imported fruit has impacted apple growers in Washington state and orange growers in California.

Labor contractor Tony Padilla, supervising a crew of farmworkers harvesting oranges north of Bakersfield recently, said this is why harvesting wages haven't increased beyond the $12 per bin that workers have been paid for 20 years.

"Ranchers have been going through very hard times because of the constantly decreasing value of oranges, and this is also affecting workers," Padilla said.

Rodriguez said the union wants to work with these growers to elect politicians and enact trade legislation to protect American produce -- and the jobs needed to harvest them.

"Are these employers just going to sell out their properties to developers? And then what happens to the workers and their families?" Rodriguez said. "We would rather be in a position to sit down and try to figure these things out with the industry, as opposed to always assuming if the UFW's behind it -- then boom -- that must be against our interests. It's just the opposite."

Philip Martin, an expert on farm labor at UC Davis, cautions that the union is likely to confront sensitive limits on this kind of strategy.

"As we go into an era of water transfers and maybe new restrictions on pesticides, will the UFW wind up lining up with farmers to keep the water flowing, or with environmentalists?" he asks. "Which way is that going to cut over time?"

Working together

The UFW also wants to spread the relationship model that it formed with Jackson & Perkins, the rose grower in Wasco. The two have had a contract since 1995 that covers 800 employees, and is considered one of the most amicable in the UFW's portfolio.

The two collaborated in 2000 to develop the Our Lady of Guadalupe rose, named for an icon of the farmworker movement, allowing the company to profit from its relationship to the UFW. In return, the company donates 5 percent of sales from the rose to a college scholarship program for Hispanics.

Company spokesman Bill Ihle notesthat Rodriguez left his wife Linda's bedside when she was terminally ill to attend the much-hyped unveiling of the new rose in Los Angeles. Company officials reciprocated by later attending Linda's funeral.

"He was there (at the unveiling) because he knew that if we sell more roses, that's good for his people. This man has walked a mile for us, and we as a company have walked a mile for him," said Ihle.

"The union has gotten, quite frankly, more sophisticated in their business sense," adds Ihle. "We have gotten more sophisticated in understanding our workers, and the benefits of that have been wonderful. We open up our balance sheet to them. We have strategic meetings with them and they fully understand what we as a company need to survive."

Bruce Nissen, a labor expert at Florida International University, calls this the value-added model of union organizing. It is best exemplified by contracts with major manufacturers like the Saturn car company and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, where workers help devise production innovations that save money -- and jobs.

But Nissen believes this is not where the future of organized labor lies.

Ironically, he said labor's best hope for success may rest with the model that the UFW seems to be leaving behind, the "social movement" school of organizing. In this model, a union mobilizes workers and a sympathetic public to pressure employers into improving wages and working conditions.

"The key to it kind of lies with the workers themselves," said Nissen, also co-editor of Labor Studies Journal. "It seems to me that if the farmworkers union could get strong responses out of the workers themselves, and the workers do feel like they're part of a movement, I think you'd probably get great responsiveness out of the consumer as well. My guess is the roots of the problem are internal to the United Farm Workers and the constituency they're attempting to organize."

Rodriguez said the union is looking for new ways to help workers beyond collective bargaining. For instance, he notes a recent case involving the trays used by vineyard workers to harvest grapes. The workers were required by their employers to take the trays home each day and wash them, then bring them back to work the next morning. This is illegal, Rodriguez said, because the workers weren't being paid for maintaining the trays at home. It also impacted their quality of life at home.

He said the UFW can put pressure on the grower to halt such illegal practices without having it lead necessarily to a union election and contract on that farm.

For example, in March the UFW won a class-action lawsuit against a Salinas vegetable grower for not paying workers for the time they spent traveling to and from the fields in company vans. The grower could end up owing workers $13 million in back wages.

Branching out from ag

The union also wants to win more contracts outside agriculture. Many former farmworkers have moved into other industries, but Rodriguez said they still want the benefits that union membership can provide. Union leaders feel an obligation to help those workers, and they're going to start acting on it.

"If there are people that feel that we can really help them in their situation, then we want to explore that. We don't want to automatically turn them away as we've done for years and years now," Rodriguez said.

Historically, the UFW has had to deal only with California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Now it must learn the National Labor Relations Act, which governs all nonfarm labor organizi { cboth in California and nationally. Though the state law is based largely on the national law, there are significant differences.

These differences and other UFW habits became painfully clear in the union's dealings with Guy Chaddock & Co. The Bakersfield furniture manufacturer in 2001 became the union's first nonfarm contract. But many workers later rebelled against the union, ultimately deciding they no longer wanted UFW representation.

Company president David Edwards said the union initially did not know that federal law allows workers to opt out of union membership, and failed to tell workers this. And in the initial materials provided to workers, the UFW improperly assumed all employees spoke Spanish. It also addressed them, embarrassingly, as farmworkers.

"They don't understand the business, therefore, they can't be effective to help both the worker and the employer. It's a two-way street," said Edwards.

Rodriguez acknowledged that the union has a lot to learn about federal labor law.

"We don't have as much experience with it. It's learning about different industries, it's learning about different types of employers, it's learning about a different law. We learn all that stuff very quickly and adapt to it," he said.

A sea change

Rodriguez said the union will continue working in politics, spending money to support laws and politicians who benefit working people and immigrants.

One new law backed by the union is just starting to pay back in a big way: the mandatory mediation law, SB 1736, which went into effect in 2002. The law requires mediation to reach a contract between grower and union after workers vote to be represented by a union. Previously, growers could use a variety of tactics to prolong the contract process indefinitely.

The union says that since 1981, workers on 428 farms have voted to join the union, but only 185 contracts were signed, often because growers stalled the process. Dozens of contracts remain outstanding to this day, and thousands of workers have gone without representation as a result.

The first payoff came in February, when the UFW signed a contract with Pictsweet Mushrooms in Ventura -- 17 years after employees there voted for UFW representation.

"It's just got to be a sea change for them," said attorney Lorenz. "The major line of defense that the growers had is gone, and they know that."

As a result, Lorenz believes the union's prospects are bright. But he cautions that the movement's many other endeavors -- housing, radio, politics, museums, fund raising -- could cause it to lose focus at an important time.

"Right now they're positioned better than they were since about 1982," he said. "There were a lot of people who assumed the union was the underdog. I never assume anymore that the union is the underdog. But now I think they can go for more."

Staff Writer Rosario Ortiz contributed to this report.

Activists look back, ahead
Veteran organizer, youthful newcomers remain inspired by the work and spirit of Chavez
By HENRY BARRIOS, Californian staff photographer
e-mail: hbarrios@bakersfield.com
Tuesday May 11th, 2004, 11:15 PM
A prayer by Cesar Chavez asking for strength and courage is recited at the beginning of a recent United Farm Workers organizing meeting in Delano.

And a question is asked:

"Se Puede?" Can it be?

"Si, se puede," comes the firm reply. Yes it can.

No one believes the words more fervently than Lucy Boutte, who leads the meeting.

In a union where many are lifelong members, she is a newcomer, having started less than a year ago.

As an organizer, Boutte uses her own story and encourages others to share theirs to bridge generations and secure each person's bond with the union.

Deep roots

Growing up in East Los Angeles, Boutte first heard of farmworkers' plight in the late '60s and early '70s.

"Actually, with Cesar Chavez, that's when I really started my activism, right out of high school," she said.

Together, she and her father helped organize food drives for farmworkers and delivered the food in caravans.

As the UFW cause expanded, students in the mostly Latino East Los Angeles began protesting for equal educational opportunities. The distinctive UFW flag -- red with a black eagle -- could be seen flying at the student marches.

Boutte attended those marches and boycotted markets not supporting the farmworkers' strike.

In the early '70s, Boutte organized parents to rid a school of a World War II-era temporary building that was still in use. Many felt the building was symbolic of how the educational needs of Latinos were dismissed by the power structure.

The old structure was replaced by a permanent building.

That began 20 years of activism through her church. Boutte came to the UFW after cutbacks eliminated her job.

She feels she has come home, back to the place where her activism began.

Little by little

After a recent march to celebrate Cesar Chavez Day, Josefina Flores shared her story with other UFW members.

Flores joined movement in 1965 in Selma. She heard rumors of a strike, but her husband wouldn't allow her to participate.

"He was involved, but he told me the strike was only for men," she said.

One day she and her girls sneaked out to a meeting. Her husband saw her, but it was too late.

"Little by little I became more involved," Flores said in Spanish.

She recalled one defining moment.

"I used to work at a packing shed ... in Reedley and when the marchers came by that had come from Delano, I felt so proud because they carried the Virgin of Guadalupe, a cross, and there was people marching. Well, you're not going to believe me, but we walked out -- about five of us women -- and we joined the march and here I am today."

Flores never had the opportunity to go to school.

"I worked since I was 8 years old," Flores said. "I helped my parents work in the fields. But I learned. I learned to read and write and everything in the United Farm Workers Union."

Opening doors

For Antonio Enrique Ramos, the UFW was a portal to a better life.

"Since I arrived in 1975 I started working in the fields. In that year they used to pay $4.50 per bin of oranges."

Then there was a rumor about a man named Cesar Chavez who was organizing from Arizona to the San Joaquin Valley. Soon after, Ramos saw his wages rise to $7 per bin.

"After the $7 raise, pay went up to $10," he recalled. And growers started providing equipment -- bags, scissors, gloves -- that previously had to be bought by the worker.

Today Ramos is an elected member of the Farmersville School Board.

"(Cesar Chavez) opened a lot of doors with his struggle," Ramos said. "People have moved into the political arena."

Ramos hopes his days harvesting oranges are nearing their end. He is opening a used car lot.

A new generation

Sisters Erika, 18, and Nancy Oropeza, 15, are just discovering what the UFW could mean to their lives.

They recently arrived in Delano from Kansas, but their family originally came from Michoacan, Mexico. Nancy attends Cesar Chavez High School, and Erika goes to adult school.

The sisters have become active in the UFW, recently helping organize the Cesar Chavez Day march.

After the event, said to be one of the largest in recent memory, Nancy beamed with pride and teenage enthusiasm.

"I am so proud of all the people that came out to encourage us," she said. "The union can help all of us, not just our family and parents but us also."

She believes students can benefit by the encouragement they get from the union to strive for education and better jobs and not end up in the fields.

Constant tide

An even greater task for UFW organizers like Boutte is reaching a constantly changing new wave of immigrants who are quick to settle for anything they can get.

She described a typical conversation with a new immigrant:

"I ask them, 'Why did you come?' They reply, 'Well, to work.' And I ask, 'For what?' They say, 'To make money.' I ask, 'And are you making money?' 'Well no.' they reply."

They make enough just to sustain themselves, she said.

The only way to better wages is to organize, Boutte tells the newcomers. Often, they blame their fellow workers.

So, she said, she challenges them: "Cesar started going house to house till he got 10,000 people finally," she tells the new immigrants. "It's about allowing them to see the possibility, to capture the dream."

Uphill battle

Where Boutte sees possibility, reality still shows a long, hard road ahead.

Artemio Hernandez picked oranges recently near Highway 65 north of Bakersfield. He earned $12 per bin.

Hernandez, who has been in California since 1992, isn't a union member and has never been approached to join.

Still, he believes strongly in the UFW.

If workers need help, he said, the union is there for them when no one else is.

For UFW organizer Lucy Boutte the question remains, "Se Puede?"

Chavez's devotion inspired Arvin couple
Angel and Hilda Sumaya recall the spirit, violence of 1973 grape strike
By ROSARIO ORTIZ, Californian staff writer
e-mail: rortiz@bakersfield.com
Posted: Monday May 10th, 2004, 11:30 PM
Last Updated: Monday May 10th, 2004, 11:30 PM
Many years have gone by since Hilda Sumaya marched side by side with Cesar Chavez and farmworkers from all over the county.

But the 70-year-old Arvin resident still keeps a set of the red and black flags she carried back then.

In 1972, Sumaya was working at a vineyard in Arvin when she and other workers were approached by union members.

A year later, Sumaya joined a three-month strike by grape workers in California's Coachella and San Joaquin valleys.

Sumaya had three small daughters then -- Christina, Hilda and Isabel. But said she couldn't ignore the workers' cause.

"It was all the injustices you would see," Sumaya said. "We had no restrooms and drinking water. And without unions, who did you go to for complaints?"

She remembered meeting with strike organizers and other workers at a park in Lamont at 3 a.m. to plan.

"We had a leader who would tell us what to do and where to go; and then Cesar Chavez would come with his guards and his dogs," Sumaya recalled.

"Chavez was a small, real humble man," she added. "When he talked, you listened."

Sumaya's husband, Angel, also 70, wasn't a farmworker at the time; he was a custodian in a county building in Lamont.

But after meeting Chavez, he helped support the strike.

"I joined my wife whenever I could," he said.

He marched because as a former farmworker, he realized the others needed his support.

"In the old days, there were no supplies and people had to go without drinking fresh water for hours and work without breaks," he said. "The only break that you had was your lunch break."

The strike wasn't easy.

Mrs. Sumaya recalled workers joining from all over Arvin, Lamont, Delano and Earlimart. Some were arrested and countless others beaten, she said.

The violence disturbed Chavez so deeply, he called off the strike and began a second grape boycott.

The Sumayas ended their union involvement in 1974. But both still believe strongly in the cause. The union still does a lot for the workers, they said.

One of the UFW's major accomplishments, the Sumayas said, was that it encouraged workers to educate themselves and fight for their rights. And it opened the doors of politics for farmworkers.

"One of the things that the union brought us was political awareness," Mr. Sumaya said. "I saw what Cesar was doing, and it motivated me to run for public office."

Soon after the strike, Mr. Sumaya ran won a seat on the Arvin School District Board of Trustees. He's been on the board ever since.

The Arvin couple also said that although farmworker conditions have improved, the union could still make things better.

"As with anything in life, we have to keep improving," Mrs. Sumaya said.
Out of touch
For most ag laborers today, the UFW is not in the picture
By MATT WEISER and ROSARIO ORTIZ, Californian staff writers
e-mail: mweiser@bakersfield.com
e-mail: rortiz@bakersfield.com
Posted: Monday May 10th, 2004, 11:30 PM
Last Updated: Monday May 10th, 2004, 11:30 PM
His morning in the orange grove began only 15 minutes ago, but Sabas Vargas is already beaded in sweat.

He moves swiftly, clipping plump oranges with one hand and guiding them into the huge bag around his shoulders with the other. When the bag is full, he floats down the ladder to dump the heavy load into the bin below. Then it's back up the ladder until the bag is full again.

Tall and thin, with buzz-cut hair, Vargas is a first-generation American and a second-generation farmworker. He is 18, newly married, and living at home with his parents.

He is picking oranges on a warm day in March because he dropped out of Granite High School in Porterville and needs work.

"It's hard work to fill one of these bins," Vargas says in perfect English as he spills his bag into the white plastic container. It is about 3 feet square, and Vargas earns $12 for each full bin. The average worker can fill four or five bins a day, for daily pay of about $50. There is no hourly wage.

"It's hard work," he repeats. "I think they should pay us more."

Vargas has never heard of the United Farm Workers or Cesar Chavez -- has never had contact with anyone from the union.

More often than not, that is the story told by farmworkers today. No contact with the union. Never been a member.

The story is the same for his father, Enrique, 43, who picks oranges just a few trees away in the same grove.

He's been a California farmworker for 31 years and has never had any contact with the UFW. But he'd like to.

Here in Kern County, where the union built its reputation, and throughout the nation, farmworkers still suffer paupers' wages and long for better conditions.

"Orange pickers, for example," Enrique Vargas said, "are not getting any raise and have to pay for their own tools, except for gloves, which we get from the contractor once in a while."

This explains one obvious difference between father and son: The father's picking bag is canvas, torn and stained from years of work; the son's is crisp green nylon, fresh off the shelf. Both wear heavy canvas oversleeves to protect their arms from sharp branches and thorns as they plunge into the thick trees to collect every orange.

These items cost the workers about $40, nearly a full day's pay. Many farmworkers say the piece rate of $12 per bin is only $1 more than pickers earned 20 years ago.

Overall, according to the California Institute for Rural Studies, workplace and living conditions have declined for farmworkers compared to a generation ago. Real wages are lower -- averaging $7,500 annually today -- and decent housing is harder to find. And while some working conditions have improved, others have not.

Even worse, perhaps, public awareness of the farmworkers' plight has waned considerably.

"I think it has fallen out of the public eye," said Christopher Kelsch, executive director of the institute.

"I think folks usually go to the store and they buy their vegetables and I don't think they trace it back to where most of it is produced -- in the Central Valley of California. The reason why their tomatoes and vegetables and nuts are cheap is because we have an influx of affordable labor at our disposal."

Enrique glances down the row of orange trees and says he hopes his son's experience with farm work is short.

"I've always told him there is no future here for a young boy like him," he says as he moves through the same hurried and tedious picking routine. "But he quit school and while he decides to go back, I brought him here to work with me."

Images of the past

Enrique was raised in a poor family from Oaxaca, Mexico, and started working in the fields at age 12. He has heard of the UFW, and believes Cesar Chavez and the union helped bring dignity to the fields.

Many workers share this view, even if they have had no personal dealings with the union. They credit the union with achieving respect for farmworkers, and for Latinos in general.

"We used to get pressured by our supervisors and emplmages," says Franco Ensaldo, 39, a Richgrove resident. "The union changed how our bosses treated us, although the salary remained the same."

Ensaldo works in a vineyard south of Arvin on a crew doing field maintenance. He was a UFW member for one year in 1996 at a Fresno vineyard. Then he went home to Mexico and didn't come back to the States until last year. He's had no contact with the union since.

Though he says his working conditions are fine, Ensaldo would probably join the union again, given the chance, just to protect himself.

Nearby, Miguel Ramirez drives a tractor on the vineyard crew. It pulls a trailer carrying an air compressor and hundreds of wooden stakes. As he maneuvers the tractor between rows of vines, teams of workers walk alongside with nail guns, attaching stakes to raise the height of each trellis.

A second team follows with ladders, laboriously nailing wires atop each stake down the length of each row.

These workers, like Ensaldo, earn $6.75 an hour, the state minimum wage. Ramirez earns a little more as a tractor driver, $7.20 an hour.

"Cesar Chavez was a leader who fought for our rights," said Ramirez, 67, a Lamont resident. "I think the union has worked because people before didn't have any bathrooms and they only earned $1 an hour."

Ramirez knows. He made $1 an hour when he first came to the area in 1965. He's worked on farms in the Lamont area ever since, yet he's never had any contact with the UFW and doesn't know how it operates.

Changing, for the worse

All these workers -- in the vineyard and the orange grove -- have bathrooms and water for drinking and washing available to them in the fields.

The California Institute for Rural Studies reports that 82 percent of workers have access to bathrooms and water in the fields today. Yet other problems persist.

Pesticide exposure remains a big issue: Many workers report exposure and illnesses, but only 57 percent say they have received training in pesticide safety. Kern County had the state's highest number of pesticide exposure cases in the 1990s, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Farmworkers under UFW contracts praise the arrangement. At Jackson & Perkins in Wasco, a major rose grower, workers have seen their wages increase $2 an hour since they voted for union representation in 1995. They say managers listen when they raise concerns, and they don't fear losing their jobs for doing so.

"The union is good. It protects us and we've worked comfortably because of that," said Miguel Angel Sillas, 62, a worker at the rose grower for 23 years.

Today, the vast majority of farmworkers are employed by labor contractors, not the growers. But in most cases, contractors are not considered employers under the Agriculture Labor Relations Act and are not bound by the collective bargaining rights granted to workers and unions under the law.

Labor contractors enjoy a kind of middleman status, which has created a new home for abuses. Many contractors became not just employers, but service providers for workers adapting to a new country. Some have taken advantage by becoming slumlords, charging workers for rides and offering check-cashing services for a steep fee.

The dominance of contractors "was something that no one anticipated," said Philip Martin, a UC Davis professor and author of "Promise Unfulfilled," a new book on unions and farm labor. "Cesar Chavez always thought contractors were the enemy. That's why the law was written the way it was."

Ironically, it was the UFW that pushed for contractors to be excluded from the act, arguing unions could not create stable relationships with contractors because growers ultimately set wages and working conditions.

Today the division of labor in the fields is even more complex.

A crew supervisor who works for a labor contractor says he often finds himself a lonely middleman, trying to protect his workers from an unreasonable workload, yet pushed to boost productivity by the contractor, the grower, or both. The 46-year-old man declined to give his name, fearing retribution.

"The union should do something different for workers, such as stop some employers from demanding too much of their employees. That's a constant problem," said the supervisor.

Even contractors are now organizing to protect themselves from some of the same grower abuses that motivate the UFW, and to police their own industry. Michael Ojeda this year helped start the San Joaquin Valley Farm Labor Contractors Alliance in Bakersfield. He hopes to stop unlicensed contractors from undercutting established firms, like his, which are regulated by the state and follow state labor laws.

Ojeda said growers are tempted to save money by hiring these cheaper "pirate contractors." This makes it harder for licensed contractors to stay in business, which hurts workers in the long run. He said many growers no longer pay contractors enough to cover payroll taxes, insurance and other costs.

"It's become a nightmare and a lot of contractors are folding up and going away -- except, of course, for contractors that are working illegally," Ojeda said.

Too many new workers

Immigration has also had a profound effect on farm labor, and it hasn't helped that the UFW's position has been inconsistent.

As Martin documents in his book, Chavez fought to hold back the tide of immigrant workers, rather than trying to organize them. He accused immigrants of eagerly accepting lower pay and thereby undermining the union's work to boost wages.

After Chavez's death, in the late 1990s, the union changed its position and began supporting an open immigration policy. It started trying to organize undocumented workers and pushed to expand their rights.

Grower-friendly labor policies created the oversupply of immigrant farmworkers, Martin said. By the end of the 1990s, the share of undocumented workers harvesting the nation's crops had jumped from 10 percent to as much as 50 percent, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

The huge number of immigrant workers available for farm jobs suppressed wages and also made workers reluctant to strike. Strikers were easily replaced by new arrivals who did not know or care about unions and labor law.

Today, immigrants are as likely to seek jobs with non-farm employers as soon as they enter the country. Those who go straight into field work are more likely to see it as transitional, rather than long-term.

"Some day, I'd like to get out of here and work in a factory," said 18-year-old Luis Ceballos, looking sad-eyed and weary as he began another day amid the orange trees. A Porterville resident raised in a farmworking family, he knew nothing of the UFW, and said he urges his 10-year-old brother to stay in school.

Low pay remains a barrier to the welfare and assimilation of farmworkers. Adjusted for inflation, national farmworker wages in 2000, at $5.15 an hour, were nearly 25 percent lower than in 1966, when Cesar Chavez won the first big wage increase from grape growers after his famous march from Delano to Sacramento.

Martin of UC Davis documents that a 40 percent increase in farmworker wages today would suppress immigration by encouraging investment in mechanized harvesting.

It wouldalso boost the annual earnings of a seasonal farmworker by more than $3,000, yet would cost the average food consumer only $8 a year.

Studies by the California Institute for Rural Studies also found that 70 percent of farmworkers have no health insurance, and only 7 percent have access to any form of government health insurance. Most live in substandard, overcrowded housing without heat or air conditioning. Many have no housing at all, living outdoors or in cars.

Looking for a way out

Farmworkers are eager to improve their living conditions and to participate in American life, with or without the union's help. But today, it seems they are more likely to seek a better life by finding work in other industries, rather than in trying to organize their coworkers for boycotts and contracts.

Carlos Ortega, 53, is one of the best-paid workers in the orange harvest. A truck driver and forklift operator, he earns $1.40 for each bin of oranges he loads and then transports to a packing house. That usually works out to about $130 a day.

He has worked in agriculture since age 13, and says his generation had little choice.

"Our parents raised us this way," he says. "We have no schooling and this is what we can do for a living. We have the knowledge (to work in the fields), but it isn't something we like."

Ortega has never been a UFW member, but believes the union helped improve conditions for farmworkers. Yet he refuses to let his two children work in the fields. His son, 22, attends Porterville College, and his daughter, 20, wants to be a secretary.

"I tell them to go to school," he said. "If I let them come to work in the fields, they might never get out of here."

Graciela Sanchez of Earlimart can't vote, but she made time in March to attend a political rally at the UFW's Forty Acres compound in Delano. The occasion was a visit by Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

"We're seeking better treatment for all farmworkers," said Sanchez, 30, who attended the rally with her husband and daughter. "We want to be taken into consideration. We want legalization to become a reality."

Today the UFW has joined growers in support of Senate Bill 1645. The bipartisan "earned legalization" bill, three years in the making, would grant permanent resident status to undocumented farm workers.

To qualify as temporary residents, they must have worked at least 100 days in agriculture over the 18 months before Aug. 31, 2003. Then, to become permanent residents, they must labor at least another 360 days over three to six years. After earning residency, their spouses and children in the U.S. would be granted the same immigration status.

Worker advocates condemned earlier "earned legalization" bills as no different from indentured servitude. The bill's fate is far from certain, but it has become the new middle ground on immigration reform, in part because it streamlines the "guest worker" immigration program that growers depend on, and because it provides a route to legalization for an estimated 500,000 farmworkers.

But it also freezes guest worker wages for three years, maintaining the poverty status of these immigrants. And it not only limits the new legalization route to those workers who are already in the country, but it locks them into farm jobs for three years.

In other words, the bill offers farmworkers a mighty tempting carrot, but requires continued toiling to reach it.

Artemio Hernandez, also a Porterville resident, has been picking oranges in California for 12 years. He came north from Oaxaca to help his parents. Today he barely earns enough to pay for his own food and rent and send some money home to Oaxaca.

Hernandez, 30, has never had contact with the UFW. He has tried several times to learn English and find work outside agriculture. But he works 10 hours a day, six days a week, and is usually too tired after a long day in the fields to think about going to school.

"Since I came to the United States in 1992, we've always been paid between $11 and $12 per bin," he said. "Sometimes it is the same working conditions that won't let you improve your life."
UFW co-founder keeps lighting fires for change
At 74, Dolores Huerta hasn't lost her passion for activism
ROSARIO ORTIZ, Californian Staff Writer
e-mail: rortiz@bakersfield.com
Posted: Monday May 10th, 2004, 11:30 PM
Last Updated: Monday May 10th, 2004, 11:30 PM
If Dolores Huerta were anyone else, she would probably be done by now. Retired. Resting on her laurels. And if she were, who could blame her? The petite, black-haired woman has done more in her 74 years on this planet than most could accomplish in two lifetimes.

But she is far from retired, having started a new organization in 2003 that teaches people how to become community activists.

Her latest endeavor comes after a lifetime spent agitating on behalf of farmworkers, undáG®ented workers and the downtrodden in general.

Just the highlights of her bio leave one with a definite "living legend" feel:

* She co-founded the United Farm Workers.

* Successfully lobbied for and against a number of measures related to farmworkers in both the state and nation's capitols.

* Negotiated California's first-ever farmworker labor contracts.

* Helped push through the historic amnesty act of 1985, which granted legal residency to 1.4 million undocumented immigrants.

* Was arrested 22 times in the course of picketing or protesting.

* Reared 11 children.

* Survived a police beating that ruptured her spleen and, later, an aneurysm that traveled from her heart to her abdomen, both of which nearly killed her.

Her lifetime of battling on behalf of the poor has earned Huerta a respect that borders on hero worship.

"Dolores is a courageous woman who's fought on behalf of the community at large," said Andrés Cruz García, a Salinas farmworker and follower of the UFW movement.

"There are very few people such as Dolores Huerta."

Plotting a new course

Huerta's career with the UFW ended in 2000 when she resigned to begin planning her own nonprofit organization. The Dolores C. Huerta Foundation was started in January 2003 after she received a $100,000 award from the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship.

She remains a vice president emeritus of the UFW.

Huerta said she had been thinking for years of creating a nonprofit to teach people how to organize themselves to better their communities.

"That's what Cesar (Chavez) and I just came out of, out of community organizing, and it was something that we always talked about that we wanted to go back to," Huerta said at her foundation headquarters in Bakersfield.

The organization's purpose is "to build communities of conscience and bring organizing," Huerta said.

Huerta is the driving force behind the foundation, which is run by her daughters.

"The community has so many issues that are confronting them r
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