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What Would César Chávez Do?

This past Tuesday, March 31, 2015, marked the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Delano Grape Strike and the second annual César Chávez Day (officially declared by President Obama last year). All week, communities across the country held celebrations and set aside time to promote service and honor the life and work of Chávez.

César Chávez at a United Farmworkers rally in Delano, 1974.  Photograph by Wikipedia user Work permit and used under a Creative Commons license.
César Chávez at a United Farmworkers rally in Delano, 1974. Photograph from Wikipedia and used under a Creative Commons license.

The Delano Grape Strike began on September 8, 1965, with a partnership between the predominantly Mexican-American National Farmworkers Association and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee of mostly Filipino farm workers who demanded that the grape growers pay wages equal to the federal minimum wage. In 1966, the two groups merged to form the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). In addition to organizing boycotts and advocating for nonviolent resistance, Chávez led a 300-mile march from Delano to the state’s capital Sacramento, garnering national attention for the farm workers’ demands.

Previously unfamiliar with the renowned American farm worker, civil rights activist, and labor movement leader, I now live near the fertile Central Valley of California. The issues are front and center. Unfortunately, fifty years later, the same conversations persist locally and just south of the border. Farm workers in the coastal town of San Quintín in the Mexican state of Baja California just held a massive strike. Why didn’t that make national headlines? We make it a point to commemorate César Chávez Day, but do we acknowledge that the United States is driving an insatiable and potentially dangerous demand for produce?

According to the LA Times, the most recent labor movement manifestation 200 miles south of San Diego began on March 17, mobilizing thousands of workers at the peak of the late-winter harvest. For decades, workers had migrated north up the West Coast to follow the tomato and grape harvests, but recent amplification in border security has largely stalled this movement. Americans now demand strawberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers year-round. In the last decade, farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to around $7.6 billion.

However, after time spent in the United States, these workers started to demand better treatment in Mexico. Farm workers want higher wages. According to a major series produced by the LA Times in December called “The Product of Mexico”, these laborers are bussed hundreds of miles from Mexico’s poorest regions to work at huge agricultural complexes. They work 6-7 days per week and get paid 100-150 pesos/day ($8-12 USD). That is, if the growers decide to pay them weekly. Sometimes, they withhold wages for the entire duration of the 3-month contract.

The workers remain overworked and underpaid while agribusinesses, distributors, and retailers stand to gain enormously. Farm workers accuse agribusinesses of denying them government benefits, neglecting basic human rights, and proliferating cases of sexual harassment in the fields. These are the same issues Chávez and the UFW faced in the 60s and 70s.

For the past two weeks, approximately 50,000 farmworkers went on strike, confronted police, and blocked the major highway running north. They demanded a wage increase to 200 pesos/day ($13.10 USD). On Monday, March 30, commercial farms in Baja offered farm workers a 15 percent wage increase under the condition that they return to the fields. Many responded, for lack of another option. But that’s not enough. Leaders of this movement remain unsatisfied because they want services like health care and an end to abuses.

One company in the region accused of such abuses is BerryMex, a major supplier of Driscoll’s in Watsonville, CA. Driscoll’s recently released a statement assuring that BerryMex increased its workers earning potential to $5.00-9.00 USD/hour. However, they gracefully neglected any mention of remedying human rights abuses or access to services like water and sanitation.

So, what does this mean for us in the United States? On Monday, March 30, radio host Rose Aguilar featured this discussion on her regular program called “Your Call” on local public radio KALW in San Francisco. The U.S. gets 69 percent of its vegetables and 37 percent of fruit from Mexico, both conventional and organic. Grocery stores are required to stock particular fruits and vegetables year round because we the consumers demand it.

Fad diets and health trends tell us we need to consume more fruit and vegetables. This is true. What they leave out is that eating seasonally is actually better for the environment and us. Foods out of season have to be produced and shipped from elsewhere, exponentially growing the globe’s carbon footprint at the expense of the wellbeing of the farm workers … and our wallets. Usually, the produce is picked before ripening, which prevents the full development of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants – the reasons we consume these foods in the first place.

Furthermore, we tend to believe our produce should look a certain way. We shop over bruised apples. “The Product of Mexico” by the LA Times revealed how much investment has been channeled into constructing gigantic greenhouses and improving the sanitation of facilities in Mexico. Some growers even require that farm workers clip their fingernails before handling produce for fear of puncturing the tomato skin. If the produce falls to the ground, it is discarded because these sorts of blemishes certainly would not measure up to American standards. Meanwhile, farm workers resort to bathing in irrigation channels and living in rat-infested huts.

None of this is intended to detract from César Chávez Day. In fact, it’s the opposite. We should be channeling the lessons we learned from his movement decades ago to reexamine the status quo and continue to make it better. Is it time for a widespread campaign for U.S. consumers to boycott these products? Is it time for another grape/tomato/cucumber/strawberry strike?

Film used in 1969 by the United Farmworkers organizing committee to promote a nationwide grape boycott in American cities.

Brittany LaneBrittany Lane is a graduate candidate for a M.A. in International Policy Studies with a concentration on Human Security and Development at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She earned her B.A. in International Relations and Economics from the College of William and Mary. She is passionate about women’s rights, gender equity through sport, and youth development. She is a Graduate Assistant for The WIP.

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