April 1995, Volume 1, Number 2
Farm Workers and Immigration
Farm workers are one of only three US occupations with one million
or more workers in which the majority of workers are immigrants--the
other two are maids and janitors. There are two to three million farm
workers, including about 800,000 persons who work for wages sometime
during each year on California farms.
About half of these California farm workers might be considered
dependent on farm work for most of their earnings--a typical
California farm worker earns about $5 hourly for about 1,000 hours of
work, for $5,000 in annual farm earnings.
For over 100 years, most California farm workers have been persons
who could not obtain any other jobs in California, usually because
they lacked English, skills, and contacts. In 1965, Cesar Chavez
organized a strike by California grape harvesters to protest grower
refusal to pay mostly local workers the same wages that they were
required to pay to non-immigrant Mexican workers and, since the
Bracero program ended in 1964, Chavez's United Farm Workers was able
in 1966 to win a 40 percent wage increase.
In 1975, California became the first major agricultural state to
enact a law that granted farm workers the right to organize into
unions, and required employers to bargain with the union
representative elected by workers. During the next 20 years, there
were about 1,200 elections involving 100,000 workers--the same worker
could vote in several elections--but one-third of these elections
were held in the last five months of 1975.
Most farm labor leaders until the 1980s opposed illegal
immigration and endorsed employer sanctions. During the 1950s and
1960s, Ernesto Galarza, Julian Samora, and Cesar Chavez called for a
beefed up Border Patrol and stiff employer sanctions to stop illegal
The UFW changed its position on immigration in the 1980s. During
the late 1960s and early 1970s, the UFW charged that illegal
immigrant workers were an obstacle to unionizing farm workers. The
UFW through the early 1980s testified in support of employer
sanctions to reduce illegal immigration.
The UFW has consistently opposed temporary worker programs, but in
the mid-1980s began to oppose employer sanctions on the grounds that
they increased discrimination against Hispanics. The UFW, unlike most
AFL-CIO unions, favored NAFTA, and developed a cooperative health
insurance program with the Mexican government under which UFW members
can have their health insurance continued while they are in Mexico.
Immigration marked the rise and fall of the UFW. In 1980, the UFW
asked for another 40 percent increase. After a bitter strike that saw
growers turn to labor contractors who organized crews of often
illegal workers to be strike breakers, the UFW won an Pyrrhic
victory--many companies that agreed to UFW demands went out of
business. UFW membership fell from a peak of perhaps 60,000 in the
late 1970s to as few as 5,000 in the early 1990s.
The UFW resumed efforts to organize farm workers after Cesar
Chavez died in 1993, and in December 1994, the UFW won an election to
represent the 1,400 workers employed by Bear Creek, better known as
Jackson-Perkins, the rose company. On March 17, 1995, the UFW
negotiated a three- year contract that increases wages and benefits
22 percent over the life of the contract, sets a $5.82 hourly
starting wage, and offers nine paid holidays, including Chavez's
March 31 birthday.
The UFW won eight farm elections in 1994, and reportedly
negotiated 22 other contracts between May 1994 and March 1995. The
UFW reports that it is currently negotiating 31 other contracts.
Unions represent 11.2 percent of American wage and salary workers
in the private sector. There were 16.7 million union members in 1994,
of whom 13.3 million are represented by the AFL-CIO.
On March 31, 1995, the United Farm Workers Union held events
around the nation to honor the anniversary of the death of UFW
founder Cesar Chavez. At a fund-raising dinner in Los Angeles, plans
were unveiled for the Cesar E. Chavez Library Complex, to include his
grave site, as well as a training and education center in Keene,
The UFW strongly opposed Prop 187 in California. The rallies
marking Chavez's March 31 birthday included more no-on-187
participants than farm workers.
Marches and observances were typically larger in urban than in
rural areas. In San Diego, about 3,500 participants from 69 Latino,
labor, community, school, service and other organizations marched to
honor the late farm-labor leader and urge a national holiday in his
memory. A street was renamed for Chavez in San Francisco.
In Fresno, an estimated 1000 marchers on April 2 remembered
Chavez, the "Gandhi of the grapes."
Some 210 Mexican farm workers are receiving $1.5 million in back
wages from the Ventura farm of Edwin M. Ives, who was charged with
slavery in 1990 for harboring illegal workers on his ranch. Ives, who
paid the largest immigration fine in US history, received a one-year
sentence that permits him to operate his farm by day, and be in jail
The $2,000 to $35,000 checks--which average $3000-- to workers in
Mexico have changed lives--new houses, new cars, and consumer
durables were purchased. In Oaxaca, 20 workers pooled their awards to
start a furniture factory.
Daryl Kelley, "Workers' Futures Blooming After Payments of Fine
Against Rancher," Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1995, p. B1. Jonathan
Marshall, "Floods Force Farm Workers Out of Jobs, San Francisco
Chronicle, March 24, 1995. David Armstrong, "Joblessness could soar
due to floods," San Francisco Chronicle, March 24, 1995; Pamela
Podger, "Agriculture board elimination urged; farm union protests,"
Sacramento Bee, March 23, 1995, A3. Michael Parrish, "With New Pact,
Union takes big step back to prominence," Los Angeles Times, March
18, 1995. Robert Rodriguez, Hundreds march in memory of Chavez, The
Fresno Bee, April 3, 1995; Don Villarejo, "A Bittersweet Holiday for
Chavez," Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1995. Paul Elias, "Farm Labor
Gains Help Lower County Jobless Rate to 6.7%," Los Angeles Times,
March 25, 1995. . Roberto Rodriguez and Patricia Gonzales, "UFW
organizers carry Cesar Chavez' legacy to a new generation,"
Sacramento Bee, March 31, 1995; Julio Moran, "Veterans of UFW Battles
Gather to Pay Tribute," Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1995. Julio
Moran, "Veterans of UFW Battles Gather to Pay Tribute," Los Angeles
Times, March 11, 1995.