In 1972, Chavez undertook a 24-day fast in protest of new legislation in Arizona that would deny the state’s farm workers the right to strike or organize boycotts during the harvest season. Jack Williams, the republican governor at the time, infamously stated that, “As far as I’m concerned, those people don’t exist.” As the weeks went by and Chavez grew so weak that he was eventually hospitalized, pressure mounted for him to give up the fight. As the legend goes, even local Latino farmworkers visited his bedside imploring Chavez and Huerta to drop the battle, saying repeatedly, “No, no se puede.” Chavez was too weak to speak at that point, but Huerta fired back: “SÁ, se puede! SÁ, se puede! SÁ, se puede!”
Despite intense pressure from the civil rights community, Arizona’s draconian agricultural labor law was never overturned, and stands to this day. But the UFW has had many victories over the years, including the 1975 California Labor Relations Act, which established farm workers’ rights to collective bargaining in the state, among other basic labor protections – rights which American farm workers were denied by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
Nine other states have since enacted legislation allowing farm workers to form unions (New York may soon be the tenth, if a recent lawsuit is successful), but on the whole, both state and federal labor laws in the US continue to treat farm workers as second-class citizens, with loopholes that enable agricultural employers to exploit their (predominantly) Latino workforce, and vastly different standards than those for all other workers regarding overtime pay, minimum wage and child labor.
A massive supply of cheap labor from the south of the border underlies this essentially racist agricultural labor system, which is why immigration reform remains at the top of the UFW agenda. UFW president Arturo Rodriguez shared his thoughts on the subject via phone from the organization’s headquarters in Keene, California, near the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, an area of such bountiful agricultural productivity that it has often been called “the food basket of the world.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Modern Farmer: What is your vision for immigration reform?
Arturo Rodriguez: We want to make sure that the ag industry is comprised of workers with legal status in this country so we can avoid the exploitation and abuse that often occurs when you don’t have legal status. But secondly, we want to ensure that the ag industry is able to maintain a workforce that they can count on and that has the skills to do the work that is necessary – farm workers must be seen as professionals. I think consumers would overwhelmingly prefer that their food be produced here in the United States, as opposed to being dependent on some foreign country to provide us with our fruits and vegetables. That’s why it is critical to maintain a viable workforce here in the United States. So we want to make sure that whatever immigration reform we do takes that into account.
MF: When it comes to the impact of immigration on the agricultural sector, the H-2A guest worker program is often at the center of the debate. What’s your position on how this program can be improved?
AR: If the industry is going to require workers from outside this country to come in and supplement the domestic worker supply that we have available to us, then we want to make sure there is no discrimination, and no legal way of keeping domestic workers from getting a job, or not providing them with the same opportunities. And secondly, that there should be strong rules around the wages that those workers get, that their transportation expenses should be taken care of, and that housing is taken care of while they’re here in this country. And that whatever wages are paid to the H2-A’s, that that same wage be applied to domestic workers that are here, so there is no incentive for employers to bring in workers from the outside to displace workers that are here legally now within our country.
“[Donald Trump] has no real understanding of what immigrants contribute to our country, how the economic viability of the country is dependent on immigrants today, how the agriculture industry would be decimated if we did not have immigrant labor working in that industry, and how important it is to give them a path to legal status.”
MF: How do you compare and contrast the immigration policies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
AR: I think it is oil and water. First of all, I don’t think Donald Trump has a real understanding of the complexity of the immigration system in our nation. From all of what I’ve heard of him say on the issue, he has no real understanding of what immigrants contribute to our country, how the economic viability of the country is dependent on immigrants today, how the agriculture industry would be decimated if we did not have immigrant labor working in that industry, and how important it is to give them a path to legal status.
MF: What do you say to Trump’s idea about a wall on the border with Mexico?
AR: That he has no idea of what happens on the border. His idea of putting up a wall to keep people out is totally ridiculous. We have built walls before, we have done everything we possibly can to keep people out. So rather than being focused on how we develop a better relationship with Mexico and other central American countries, instead of focusing on that and trying to figure out how these two major economies can survive – since Mexico consumes a lot of what is produced here in this country – he is trying to create more barriers, and more animosity between the two nations. That makes no sense at all.
MF: And what about Clinton’s take on immigration?
I think what Secretary Clinton has said very much mirrors what I just explained.
MF: In February, UFW representatives met with Clinton to discuss their concerns about farmworker rights and immigration reform. How did that go?
AR: It was great, it was fantastic. We met with her with about 100 workers from our leadership throughout the country, and we had a chance to directly talk with her about the issues. She took the time to spend with our worker leaders to hear their questions and concerns, and respond to them, for about an hour. The workers were very frank with her, and very upfront, as workers can be. They wanted to hear directly from her that this was an issue that’s important to her, to make sure that she’s on the right side, that we are all thinking the same way here, that we are not operating in two different directions. The workers asked questions on other issues, about jobs, their security in regards to future benefits in this country, those kinds of things. That’s when we decided to endorse her. She was excellent.
Richard Thornton / Shutterstock.com
MF: Tell us your thoughts on President Obama’s legacy to the farm worker movement. Was there any progress made during his administration?
AR: Early on in the president’s administration we were able to deal with a very important issue around H2-A workers. President Bush, prior to leaving office, took away all of the protections that we had for guest workers: in regards to transportation expenses that are supposed to be paid for by the employers; adverse effect wage rates, which has to do with the wages that workers that we send for are paid when they come here to work in agriculture; and also housing issues – they relaxed all of the requirements in regards to that. We worked with Secretary [of Labor] Hilda Solis to put back into place those protections for domestic workers, as well as protections for any guest workers that came into this country.
MF: In 2013 there was a major effort at national immigration reform, which ultimately floundered. Tell us what happened.
We have been trying to bring about reformation of this damaged, non-functioning system for almost two decades. The most intense period was in 2013 when the Senate had their Gang of Eight and we were simultaneously meeting with 12 of the agriculture industry presidents and CEOs and various associations, representing almost all the different crops and commodities within the ag industry. We met for several months under the leadership of Senator Dianne Feinstein [D-CA] and finally got to the point where all the parties had reached agreement on what we would include in the Senate bill [known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act]. It was a compromise that both the agriculture industry employer representatives and the farm worker community had come to terms with. We were hopeful at that time, but unfortunately the House was not supportive of it and nothing ever happened.
MF: So under Obama, the lack of immigration reform wasn’t due to a lack of effort on his part, so much as opposition in Congress?
AR: Right. Though we learned a lot from working with President Obama’s administration. He certainly made accessible to us the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Labor. We worked closely with with EPA administrator Gina McCarthy last year to finally bring about protections for farmworkers around the issue of pesticides which had not been done before over the past two decades. We were very happy about the fact that his administration was willing to take that kind of stance. Of course we always want more, but we found his administration to be very open to listening to the issues surrounding farmworkers and the agricultural industry and willing to take action and put energy and resources into that.
MF: And you had a huge victory recently in California, with the passing of new legislation that guarantees overtime pay to farmworkers working more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours per week.
AR: It was 78 years ago when farmworkers were excluded from overtime regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act, back when President Roosevelt was in office. Still, we had a vicious fight with the ag industry here in the state. The reality is that we face tremendous opposition from the agricultural industry on any of the issues that we’re trying to change, even the ones that seem so blatantly wrong, like overtime.
“Do we want to exclude people because of differences … Or do we want to have a nation that really embraces diversity?”
MF: Did overtime pay come up in your discussions with Clinton as a national issue?
AR: We did not talk to her about it as a national issue. She was involved in helping us get it passed here in California. That’s what we asked of her at the time, and she was very supportive and helpful.
MF: Does the UFW intend to launch a national campaign on the overtime issue in the near future?
AR: We’ll see what happens with the presidential election first. If we tried nationally to change that, we would have a holy war between the ag industry and our organization.
MF: What do you hope will come out of this election, not just in terms of who is elected, but as a result of the turmoil that has been stirred up?
AR: I think it’s a real test of our nation to really determine what type of leadership we want. Do we want to exclude people because of differences that might exist in religion, ethnicity, cultural issues, and so on? Or do we want to have a nation that really embraces diversity, which has served as one of the primary strengths of our country throughout the years, and figure out how to improve on that, how to make it better, how to ensure a United States of America that is inclusive, and really is working on behalf of everyone, and realizing that we need immigrants to continue coming into our country?
This country cannot survive, as many other countries are finding out throughout the world, without a young population willing to do the kind of work that is required in many types of jobs. Otherwise, you’re going to be importing large numbers of workers to try to fulfill those needs. So I think it is really incumbent upon us as a country to look at what the future holds and have a leader that is not biased against certain groups of people for any reason. That’s my two cents.