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The Lasting Impact of Cesar Chavez
Today is Cesar Chavez Day, a federally recognized holiday honoring a champion for social justice and advocate for the farmworkers who sustain our Nation.
Cesar Estrada Chavez (March 31, 1927 – April 23, 1993) was a Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist who dedicated his life’s work to what he called La Causa (the cause): the struggle of farmworkers in the United States to improve their working and living conditions through organizing and negotiating contracts with their employers. Committed to the tactics of nonviolent resistance practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later becoming the United Farm Workers) and won important victories to raise pay and improve working conditions for farmworkers in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Most famously known for his strike against California’s grape growers*, Cesar Chavez asked Americans to boycott the popular fruit because of the meager pay and poor working conditions farmworkers were forced to endure. In 1970, after five years of the Delano grape strike, farmworkers won a contract promising better pay and benefits. A few years later, their efforts led to the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which established collective-bargaining power for farmworkers statewide.
*While Cesar Chavez continues to get credit for starting the strike, it was actually Larry Itliong, a Filipino-American organizer, who led a group of Filipino-American grape workers to first strike in September 1965. (Larry Itliong is pictured in the bottom picture, in the center)
“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”
Farmworkers are among the poorest workers in the United States. Hazardous conditions are routine and include pesticide exposure, heat stress, lack of shade, and inadequate drinking water. Not to mention the discrimination tactics and abuse they receive from their employers.
In order to feed the country, over two million farmworkers labor on farms across the United States. They handpick the vast majority of fruit and vegetable crops produced here making them the backbone of our $200 billion agricultural industry.
It is the great paradox of our food system: the very people who work to feed the U.S. struggle to feed their own families.
Fast forward to August 3rd, 2022 where a historical, 24-day long march began where Farmworkers and Farmworker advocates marched 335 miles, starting from Delano, California and ending at the Sacramento State Capitol; The same march Cesar Chavez did in 1966.
This march was to get the attention of Governor Gavin Newsom and convince him to sign AB 2183, the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act. This bill would give Farmworkers the right to vote for a union, free from intimidation and threats, allowing them to vote in secret whenever and wherever they felt safe.
With just two days to spare, Governor Newsom signed the Farmworker Bill AB 2183, on September 28th, 2022.
While there hasn’t been much of an update on the AB 2183 bill, as it just went into effect as of January 1st, 2023, below are some events that have taken place recently with farmworkers.
California Governor Recently Vetoed Farmworker Bill
In December 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the California Farmworkers Drought Resilience Pilot Program, which would have offered farmworkers, many of whom have lost work hours due to the drought, $1,000 a month of supplemental pay from 2023 through 2026. And unlike all other social safety net programs, there would be no immigration status or eligibility requirements, meaning that undocumented farmworkers, who account for an estimated 50% of farmworkers, could receive funds.
New AEWR Wage Effect Final Rule protects Farmworkers
What is currently a very controversial topic amongst those in the agriculture industry, The Department of Labor recently amended it’s regulations governing the certification of agricultural labor or services to be performed by temporary foreign workers in H–2A nonimmigrant status. Specifically, the Department is revising the methodology by which it determines the hourly Adverse Effect Wage Rates (AEWRs) for non-range occupations (i.e., all occupations other than herding and production of livestock on the range).
This rule follows the Trump Administration’s AEWR rule which was blocked by the UFW and UFW Foundation’s successful lawsuits against the Trump Administration. The Trump Administration’s proposal to reduce the AEWR would have threatened the jobs of countless domestic farmworkers and pushed those willing to accept the below-market wages even further into poverty. According to Farmworker Justice, blocking the Trump AEWR rule saved farmworkers an estimated $500 million in wages over the course of 2021 and 2022.
This newly amended rule goes into effect on March 30th, 2023.
California’s Late Winter Storm Events
California is responsible for producing 1/3 of the nation’s vegetables and nearly 2/3 of the nation’s fruits and nuts.
While this should be the busiest time for farmworkers, California has been receiving back-to-back rounds of Atmospheric Rivers(long, narrow bands of air that can carry water vapor for thousands of miles) since December 2022 (14 so far) that have decimated crops and flooded entire communities; severely reducing work opportunities for many of the state’s farmworkers, who lack social safety nets. One representative with the United Farm Workers estimated “workers have lost up to two months of income.”
47 counties are currently under a State of Emergency. In Monterey County alone, one of the largest produce producers in California, the most current report of agricultural losses is exceeding $450.5 million.
On top of dealing with loss of work, farmworkers are also dealing with the loss and/or severe damages to their homes and vehicles. An if there is work available for farmworkers, the weather means harvesting crops in more dangerous conditions. For Ventura farmworker Octavio Diaz, he recently injured his right leg trying to pull it out from deep, sticky mud. “I kept working after I hurt my leg because we sustain ourselves by working in the farms. We don’t have other sources of income. You have to work to be able to support your family.”
With devastating disasters like this, few have access to emergency relief or government assistance. Language barriers and immigration status being some of the biggest reasons.
California Governor, Gavin Newsom, visited Parajo on March 15th, after a levee burst on the Parajo River, flooding the entire community. He had promised relief, telling residents that “no other state does more for farmworkers.” He stated that there would be an “immediate response” from Biden, and that FEMA aid would be coming to Pajaro as soon as his office put in a request for a major disaster declaration. It wasnt until March 28th that the governor’s office had finally submitted a request for that declaration.
“When the man who feeds the world by toiling in the fields is himself deprived of the basic rights of feeding, sheltering and caring for his own family, the whole community of man is sick.”- Cesar Chavez
Cesar may have passed away over 3 decades ago, but his legacy is still alive wherever farmworkers organize and stand up nonviolently for their rights.
We can continue to honor Cesar Chavez’s work by taking the following actions:
1. Educate yourself and others: Learn about the issues that farmworkers face and educate others about their struggles. This can include reading books, sharing articles, documentaries, and other resources on social media, and engaging in conversations with friends and family.
2. Support fair labor practices: Support fair labor practices by buying products from businesses(like the Co-op!) that support fair labor standards and treat their workers with respect and dignity. This includes supporting unionization efforts and advocating for policies that protect workers’ rights.
3. Volunteer: Volunteer with organizations that support farmworkers’ rights and work to improve their working conditions. These organizations provide a range of services, including legal aid, advocacy, and support for workers’ families.
4. Advocate for policy change: Advocate for policy change at the local, state, and national levels that supports farmworkers’ rights and improves their working conditions. This includes supporting legislation that protects workers from exploitation and ensures fair wages and safe working conditions.
5. Support farmworker-led organizations: Support farmworker-led organizations that are working to improve the lives of farmworkers and advocate for their rights.
The 2023 Farm Bill- Agovacy at its finest!
Resigned and reauthorized every five years, the largest piece of food-related legislation is up next year, the Farm Bill. This bill determines policy and funding levels for agriculture, food assistance programs, natural resources, and other aspects of food and agriculture under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its impact on the farming industry, its related programs and industries, and the communities they support is tremendous.
The original Farm Bill was enacted during the 1930s as part of the New Deal and had three main goals:
- Keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers.
- Ensure an adequate food supply.
- Protect and sustain the country’s vital natural resources.
While each new Farm Bill is unique, and 18 bills have followed the initial one, the issues addressed in the last 2018 Farm Bill encompassed agricultural commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, research, extension and related matters, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance and miscellaneous. To the left is a chart of the $428 million dollars that went towards farm and program support in the last bill.
Discussions on what is due to be the 2023 Farm Bill have already begun at field hearings and producer meetings across the country, where stakeholders have been vocalizing their recommendations and priorities for the next Farm Bill:
- The American Soybean Association shared their soy industries 2023 Farm Bill priorities
- The National Association of Wheat Growers released their 2023 Farm Bill priorities
- The American Farmland Trust’s formal recommendation
- Native Farm Bill Coalition’s Successes from the 2018 Farm Bill and Opportunities for the 2023 bill
- Recommendations from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
The current baseline for Farm Bill programs for the next five years is $648 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s May 2022 estimates. A new estimate in spring 2023 will set the budget for the new Farm Bill.
Here is a quick rundown of what the process of passing the Farm Bill looks like:
Legislatively, it all begins with hearings in Washington, DC and across the country – these are listening sessions where members of Congress take input from the public and organizations about what they want to see in a new bill.
- AGRICULTURAL COMMITTEES
House and Senate Agriculture Committees each draft, debate, amend and change, and eventually pass a bill; the two committees work on separate bills that can have substantial differences.
- FULL CONGRESS / “THE FLOOR”
Each committee bill goes next to “the floor” – the full House of Representatives or Senate. Each bill is debated, amended, and voted on again by its respective body (House or Senate).
- CONFERENCE COMMITTEE
After both the full House and Senate have passed a Farm Bill – which can take a while, and may require a bill being sent back to committee for more work before passage, the two bills (House and Senate) go to a smaller group of Senators and Representatives called a “Conference Committee,” which combines the two separate bills into one compromise package. Conferees are typically chosen mostly from House and Senate Agriculture Committee members.
- FULL CONGRESS
The combined version of the Conference Committee’s Farm Bill then goes back to the House and Senate floors to be debated – and potentially passed.
- LAST STEP: THE WHITE HOUSE
Once the House and Senate approve a final Farm Bill, the bill goes to the President, who can veto it and send it back to Congress or sign it into law.
Once the Farm Bill is signed into law, it’s time for the Appropriations phase: Setting money aside in the yearly federal budget to fund the programs in the Farm Bill, which the federal government operates on a fiscal year from October 1st to September 30th.
Happening simultaneously with the annual appropriations process is Rulemaking. After Congress passes a Farm Bill, the USDA is responsible for writing the actual rules for how these programs will be implemented on the ground.
The recent pass of the Inflation Reduction Act will play a major role in the Farm Bill
U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown says the Inflation Reduction Act should help jumpstart the 2023 Farm Bill process.
“When we passed the Inflation Reduction Act, we funded some farm programs ahead of time, something we’ve never done,” he says. “So, this Farm Bill should be more productive and more helpful both to consumers and farmers because we planned for it better than we have in the past.”
According to an analysis from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Inflation Reduction Act will provide about a 47% increase over previous Farm Bill levels.
And with the Biden Administration making Climate Change a federal priority, it is likely that the new Farm Bill will reflect such efforts.
No exception to previous years, the final draft of the bill will impact every American in a way that so few others do and will require immense collaboration and compromise on both sides of the aisle — and the final product will impact the food and beverage ecosystem for generations to come.
Recognizing and Appreciating Farmworkers in the Field
The Davis Food Co-op would like to recognize and appreciate all of the Farmworkers at Local Farms and beyond for the valuable role that they play in maintaining our food system and making the items that can be found at the Co-op so easily accessible. Through a pandemic, heat wave, wildfires and more, they are still out there working hard every day so that we can all have food on our tables. It is incumbent upon us all to show gratitude for the people that make every meal of ours possible throughout the entire year by recognizing the challenges that they face and advocating for protections for these workers
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Issues Farmworkers Face
Modern accessibility to food combined with a fast pace lifestyle can make it easy to overlook the importance of what is happening behind the scenes of the services we utilize on a daily basis. For many of us, we throw away our trash without any thought of the garbage collector that wakes up before the sun to take it away for us, we wear clothing without consideration for the person whose hands stitched it all together and all too often, we purchase and consume our food with no appreciation for the farmworker who picked that food for us, even in the harshest of conditions. Farmworkers keep the entire world fed by working in sometimes dangerous conditions, and yet they are often not protected by the same laws that protect other workers.
Often, the first step towards positive change is through acknowledgement of the issues at hand. We believe that pushing for this positive change is the best way that we can truly show appreciation for our farmworkers. The most recent data that we have on farmworkers in the U.S. comes from a 2015-16 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers (NAW) Survey. Among many findings, the NAW reported that:
- There are an estimated 2.4 million farmworkers laboring on our nation’s farms and ranches, cultivating and harvesting crops and raising and tending to livestock.
- The farm labor workforce is a predominantly immigrant workforce. According to the NAWS, approximately 75% of farmworkers are immigrants. Approximately 49% of farmworkers are immigrants who lack work authorization.
- Due to the seasonal nature of the work on many crop farms, the large majority of crop workers do not work year round, even if they work for more than one farm in a single year. Farmworkers averaged 33 weeks of farm work over the course of a year and worked an average of 45 hours per week.
- 57% of farmworkers are married, and 55% of farmworkers have children
- Farmworkers averaged $10.60 per hour in wages. The average annual individual income of farmworkers was in the range of $17,500 – $19,999.
- 33% of farmworker families had incomes below the poverty line. However, because the survey results did not include dependents living outside of the United States, this number may not completely reflect the full number of families living in poverty.
- Despite the high level of poverty, most farmworkers do not receive any public benefits. At the time of this study, only 18% of farmworkers received food stamps, 17% received WIC (a supplemental nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and 43% received health insurance through a government program, like Medicaid.
- Most farmworkers (53%) have no health insurance, and limited access to health care, making them particularly vulnerable to environmental and occupational health hazards. It was found that 71% of workers reported that their employer did not provide health insurance or pay for medical treatment for injuries or illnesses suffered outside of work. Only 18% of employers offer health insurance to their workers.
Organizations to Support
There are many great organizations that are actively advocating for farmworkers, both locally and nationally. We encourage you to check them out to learn more about the work that they are doing and how you can get involved and let us know of any other organizations we may have missed by emailing [email protected].
California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF): www.crlaf.org/
“CRLAF is a statewide non-profit civil legal aid organization providing free legal services and policy advocacy for California’s rural poor. We focus on some of the most marginalized communities: the unrepresented, the unorganized and the undocumented. We engage in community education and outreach, impact litigation, legislative and administrative advocacy, and public policy leadership at the state and local level. We seek to bring about social justice to rural poor communities by working to address the most pressing needs of our community: Labor, Housing, Education Equity, Health Care Access, Worker Safety, Citizenship, Immigration, and Environmental Justice.”
Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF): www.caff.org
“Founded in 1978, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers and The Farmers Guild is a California-based nonprofit that builds sustainable food and farming systems through local and statewide policy advocacy and on-the-ground programs in an effort to initiate institutionalized change. Our programs address current problems and challenges in food and farming systems, creating more resilient family farms, communities and ecosystems. We work to support family farmers and serve community members throughout the state, including consumers, food service directors, schoolchildren and low-income populations with the aim of growing a more resilient, just and abundant food system for all Californians.”
The National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH): www.ncfh.org/
“The National Center for Farmworker Health is a private, not-for-profit corporation located in Buda, Texas dedicated to improving the health status of farmworker families. We provide information services, training and technical assistance, and a variety of products to community and migrant health centers nationwide, as well as organizations, universities, researchers and individuals involved in farmworker health.”
Farmworker Justice: farmworkerjustice.org/
“Farmworker Justice is a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice. We work with farmworkers and their organizations throughout the nation. Based in Washington, D.C., Farmworker Justice was founded in 1981. In 1996, Farmworker Justice became a subsidiary corporation of UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), the nation’s largest constituency-based Hispanic civil rights organization.”
United Farm Workers: ufw.org
“The UFW continues organizing in major agricultural sectors, chiefly in California. Recent years have witnessed dozens of UFW union contract victories protecting thousands of farm workers, among them agreements with the some of the largest berry, winery, tomato, dairy and mushroom companies in California and the nation. More than 75 percent of California’s fresh mushroom industry is now under union contract. Many recent UFW-sponsored laws and regulations protect all farm workers in California, especially those at non-union ranches. They include the first state standards in the U.S. to prevent further deaths and illnesses from extreme heat and in 2016 the first law in the country providing farm workers in California with overtime pay after eight hours a day. The UFW continues to actively champion legislative and regulatory reforms for farm workers covering issues such as worker protections, pesticides and immigration reform.”