[Teresa Romero was just selected as the new president of the
United Farm Workers -- the third person to hold that office following
Cesar Chavez and Arturo Rodriguez. She is the first woman and first
immigrant to serve in that position. ] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 AN IMMIGRANT WOMAN TAKES CHARGE OF THE UNITED FARM WORKERS  
[https://portside.org/2018-09-20/immigrant-woman-takes-charge-united-farm-workers]


 

 David Bacon 
 September 19, 2018
American Prospect
[http://prospect.org/article/immigrant-woman-takes-charge-united-farm-workers-0]


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 _ Teresa Romero was just selected as the new president of the United
Farm Workers -- the third person to hold that office following Cesar
Chavez and Arturo Rodriguez. She is the first woman and first
immigrant to serve in that position. _ 

 Teresa Romero, the new president of the United Farm Workers, David
Bacon 

 

Women make up almost one-third of all agricultural laborers, but the
presidents and most top leaders of the United Farm Workers have
invariably been men. Dolores Huerta, the union's fiery co-founder,
faced down growers and negotiated many of the union's contracts. She
became secretary-treasurer, but not president.

Does it make a difference? The UFW has chosen a new president, Teresa
Romero, who says it does. Although she’s never worked in the fields,
she believes her gender gives her a close connection to the lives of
the women who do.  

After her election by the union's executive board on August 28 (the
next convention in 2020 will make a permanent choice), Romero’s
first field visit was to lettuce and broccoli harvesters working in
Salinas for the D'Arrigo Brothers Company. "In some crews a majority
of the workers are women," she says. "There was a time when they
didn't hire women for some jobs. I don't know what the reason was, but
whatever it was, it was wrong.  

"Women can do everything, and we want the opportunity to do it. I've
seen some older women in their 50s doing work that some younger people
can't. If growers are worried about a labor shortage, there are women
out there who can do the work.  But they want to be paid equally,
and treated respectfully."

After 25 years as president of the United Farm Workers, Arturo
Rodriguez is retiring in December, and the union has selected an
immigrant woman to replace him. The UFW has had only two presidents in
50 years: Before Rodriguez, it was Cesar Chavez. 

This is more than a changing of the guard. Internally the union is
trying to reflect more accurately its members. And while acknowledging
the epic battles of its early years, it is coming to terms with a new
group of California growers, some of whom see an advantage in
cooperation, even though others still want a fight to the death.

The UFW is also looking for ways to address more directly the problems
of its women members. Women in the fields are especially vulnerable in
today's anti-immigrant political climate, Romero charges. "Harassment
is very difficult for women to talk about, especially when they feel
they might be deported and separated from their children. And for
women, being fired is not their problem alone. Most are working with
their husband or brother or sister, and abusers hold those jobs over
their heads. It's important to have women in charge of crews as
supervisors, to make it easier for a woman to come and say, 'This is
what happened to me.'" 

More than 90 percent of California farm workers were born in Mexico,
yet UFW presidents until now have come from families with roots on the
U.S. side. Chavez was born north of the border, in Yuma, Arizona, in
1927. Rodriguez, who followed Chavez in 1993, hails from San Antonio,
Texas. Larry Itliong, the Filipino labor leader who shared leadership
with Chavez during the union's initial five-year grape strike, was an
immigrant, born in Pangasinan, in the Philippines. But he was never
president.

Born in Mexico City, Romero grew up in Guadalajara, and came to the
U.S. in her 20s.  She worked, successively, in a shoe store, in a
lawyer's office, as assistant to Rodriguez, and finally as UFW
secretary-treasurer. While she doesn't speak Zapoteco, the language of
her grandmother, her roots as an immigrant with indigenous ancestry
match the changing demographics of California's field laborers. People
from southern Mexico, speaking Mixteco, Purepecha, and Triqui as well
as Zapoteco, are the fastest-growing group among farm
workers.  They've often been the backbone of UFW organizing
campaigns and strikes during the last several years.

"I did what my grandmother did when she left Oaxaca to come to Mexico
City," Romero says. "Like her, I moved to a different place where I
didn't know the language or the culture. I never thought it would be
forever, yet now I've been here over 30 years. That's what happens in
the fields too. The workers and I share that same immigrant
experience."

The UFW was slow to adjust to the rise in indigenous migration. In the
early 1990s it signed an experimental agreement with an organization
of Oaxacan migrants, the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations.
Rodriguez credits its former coordinator and Mixteco leader, UCLA
professor Gaspar Rivera, with helping the union understand their
culture. Indigenous organizers were slowly hired. In the early 2000s
the UFW became a vocal defender of Triqui-speaking workers in the
Salinas Valley community of Greenfield, organizing marches when
immigration raids targeted them.  

Union meetings are still mostly in Spanish, as are contracts (which
are also in English), but translation into indigenous languages is
becoming more common. "It has been a challenge," Romero says. "But if
we don't understand people's culture, they will see us as outsiders.
When we learn and understand what's important to them, it opens
doors."

The United Farm Workers is not the same union Cesar Chavez left in
1993 when he died in San Luis, Arizona. He'd gone to Yuma, just a few
miles from his birthplace, to testify in an all-consuming legal case
against one of the union's most bitter enemies, the Bruce Church
lettuce company. Bruce Church, like many other growers whose workers
had voted for the union in the late 1970s, refused to negotiate with
the union.  

By the time Chavez died, the UFW had shrunk to a few thousand members
from a peak of about 40,000 in the late 1970s. Over 160,000 workers
had voted for the union under California’s Agricultural Labor
Relations Act, the law the union had fought for in 1975. Like Bruce
Church, however, most growers wouldn't sign contracts. Many others who
did either went out of business, changed their names and dumped their
workers, or simply refused to renew their agreements.  

Wages fell. "Things got so bad that the year before Cesar died we
wanted to do something to give people hope," Rodriguez remembers, "and
thousands of workers went on strike in Coachella to raise wages." Two
years later the union repeated its seminal march of 1968, from Delano
to Sacramento. "Cesar was gone. But that didn't mean we wouldn't
continue to fight."  

In 1996 Bruce Church finally did sign a contract to settle its
decades-long legal war with the union, and over the next 25 years, the
UFW stabilized and began to grow. According to Rodriguez, 10,000
people now work under union agreements, mostly in California.

A successful boycott at the Chateau Saint Michelle winery in
Washington state gave organizers the idea for an arrangement to force
growers to negotiate. "The workers there won a contract using the idea
of mandatory mediation," he says. The threat to return to the boycott
was so powerful that the company agreed that a contract would be
imposed if negotiations hadn't concluded by a set date. 

In California the union convinced the legislature to pass a law with
the same mechanism, to deal with the many companies where workers had
voted for the union, but which never signed contracts. Now, if a
grower won't negotiate after its workers organize and vote for the
union, a state mediator can write up an agreement and the Agricultural
Labor Relations Board can impose it.  

Growers predictably challenged the law, but the California Supreme
Court upheld it in 2008. Several large growers, employing thousands of
workers, then signed contracts, either because the state imposed them,
or knowing that the state would if they didn't agree. That inspired
further challenges. The world's largest peach grower, the Gerawan
family in Fresno, tried again to have the law declared
unconstitutional, but again the state courts upheld it. That case is
now on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  

"Mandatory mediation is important to us," Romero says. "If workers
vote for a union, we have something we can use to get an agreement.
But a law on the books doesn't by itself create change in the fields."
 

The union also persuaded the legislature to act on issues affecting
workers far beyond its own members. Until recently, at least one
worker died in the fields every year, in the fierce summer heat in the
San Joaquin Valley where temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees.
When a pregnant young woman, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, collapsed
in 2008, the uproar over her death inspired protective legislation. "I
went to so many funerals of people who died of the heat," Rodriguez
recalls. "Her death stuck with me, though, in part because her father
Doroteo lost his job when he spoke out. We won today's heat
protections because of what they and others lost."

Another legislative victory gained overtime pay for farm workers on
the same basis as other workers. "We convinced legislators when we
reminded them that farm workers had been excluded from overtime by
racism long ago," Romero says.  

Overtime pay and heat protection have now been extended to all farm
workers in California. Yet, taking inflation into account, farm
workers are paid much less today than they were in the period of the
union's greatest strength in the late 1970s. The master vegetable
contract of that era pegged starting hourly pay at about 2.5 times the
minimum wage. If the same ratio held today, California farm workers
would be earning over $27 an hour. Instead wages are close to the
minimum of $11 an hour for large employers this year, and $12 next
year. It's not uncommon to find groups of migrant workers living under
trees, or sleeping in their cars at harvest time.

While union contract wages are generally much higher than the minimum
wage, the UFW faces a daunting challenge in trying to raise the income
of farm workers across the board. Meanwhile, the contested terrain
between growers and the union is changing rapidly. For several decades
corporate growers have been globalizing their operations, growing
fruit and vegetables in many countries. At the same time, as trade
agreements like NAFTA have displaced poor rural communities in Oaxaca
and elsewhere, farmers have come to the U.S. looking for work and
survival. "We have a mostly undocumented workforce, and no
immigration reform in sight," Rodriguez says. "Growers are running
away to Mexico and elsewhere. It's a huge problem." 

Even as immigration enforcement is creating a climate of fear in
California farm-worker towns, the government is encouraging growers to
hire that flow of displaced people, but only as temporary contract
labor through the H-2A visa program. President Donald Trump, despite
his otherwise sour anti-immigrant rhetoric, told a rural Michigan
rally in February, “We have to have strong borders, but we have to
let your workers in. We have to have them.”

In the last few years, the number of workers brought to California on
temporary H-2A work visas has climbed steeply.  The state's growers
imported 3,089 H-2A workers in 2012. In 2017 the number had mushroomed
to 15,232—a 500 percent increase in just five years.Some growers see
the possibility of replacing at least part of their workforce of
resident farm workers with this contracted labor. Some major
agricultural corporations, among them Tanimura and Antle, are building
barracks for hundreds of H2-A workers in Salinas. 

Some immigrant rights activists have called for abolishing guest
worker programs, citing the abuse of the workers, and the potential
for undermining the existing farm labor workforce. Romero and
Rodriguez believe growers face a labor shortage, however, and need at
least some H-2A workers at peak harvest times.  

Romero argues that if there are going to be H-2A workers, the union
has to protect them like other workers. "In Mexico they are charged
thousands of dollars by recruiters, which is illegal. The [recruiters]
bring them here and take away their documents. Some families in Mexico
haven't heard from their loved ones for months, or don’t even know
if they're alive. And the contractors say 'no women.'" The union
helped set up an organization, CIERTO, which advertises "clean
recruitment." It also partners with organizations in Mexico that
monitor the recruiters.

But the H-2A program, with its threat to replace the established work
force, scares the workers living here, Romero admits. As well,
defending the rights of H-2A workers is extremely difficult, as
growers can fire them for protesting abuse or not working fast enough,
which then triggers the workers’ deportation. But Romero remains
optimistic that growers will never be able to use the program to
replace their workforce. 

As she sees it, the future of the UFW lies in its ability to work with
growers like D'Arrigo Brothers. The union just renegotiated a contract
with the company covering 1500 resident farm workers, along with about
200 H-2A visa holders. Some D'Arrigo employees have worked at the
company for several decades. John D'Arrigo says that the key to
dealing with the current shortage of farm labor is to encourage
workers to stay by making them direct employees, rather than hiring
them through contractors. 

"With direct hires, there's less product left in the field," Romero
says, outlining a potential increase in productivity. "D'Arrigo wants
the workers to come back year after year—a workforce that is part of
the community. If he gives them benefits, they'll want to keep coming
back. We can have a training program, with older workers spending time
with newer ones. The company can listen more to the workers, to see
what works and what doesn't, making workers part of the solution—not
just pushing them to work faster." Items like the training program
remain options for future contracts, but the new agreement does
provide family health care, with the company paying the premiums,
along with increased job security.

Cooperation, Romero believes, helps both management and labor. "When
we work together workers bring solutions to the table. Production is
better. Quality is better.”

Part of her argument is that farm labor is undervalued, not just
economically, but socially. "Growers need a competent and stable
workforce," she emphasizes. "Nobody knows what's happening at the farm
level better than the workers. The people are skilled and experienced.
They have endurance. Farm work is a profession that deserves the same
respect and consideration as a reporter or an engineer.”  

Cooperation, however, hasn’t often been the norm in agricultural
labor relations. According to Rodriguez, "We have to change what
attracts workers to agriculture. There have to be better wages, but
that's not everything. The work can't require that someone be disabled
by their job by the time they're 50 years old."  

The UFW, however, was born in massive strikes and national boycotts,
which forced giant grape growers like John Giumarra and Richard
Bagdasarian to sign contracts in 1970. Those companies are still a big
presence in California agriculture, and not at all friendly to the
union.  

If the union has to fight, the boycott is still an effective weapon,
Rodriguez says. "You don't need to cut 50 percent of their business. A
small group of committed people can influence consumers and have an
impact. If there's no other way, then that's necessary."

Romero agrees, although she'd clearly prefer talking to fighting.
"People like Giumarra—I don't know if we'll ever change them," she
says. "Those who want to do things the old way have to be forced to
change conditions. If workers say a company isn't doing right, and
they want to strike and boycott, then we're going to do it.”  

_DAVID BACON is a California writer and photojournalist; his latest
book is In the Fields of the North / En los Campos del
Norte (University of California / El Colegio de la Frontera Norte,
2017)._

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