This summer in California, as legions of migrants culled America’s bounty from sun-scorched fields, Governor Jerry Brown put the right to unionize even further out of their reach. Brown’s decision to veto a controversial bill to provide streamlined card-check voting for farmworkers trying to form unions reflected Brown’s drift to the right since his first term as governor, when he signed the landmark 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act giving farmworkers unprecedented collective-bargaining rights.
Activists expressed outrage, and Brown later proposed more moderate reforms for farm labor rules. But the failure of the campaign for card-check, a voting system that could help union organizers overcome resistance from employers, reflected deeper setbacks in the farmworkers’ movement since César Chávez led grape boycotts that drew thousands into the United Farm Workers union. Forty years later, card-check advocates sought to build public support by linking weak union protections to the tragedy of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant teen who had died in the sweltering grape fields—a case that echoed what the media and public condemned as America’s “Harvest of Shame” during the Civil Rights Era. Policymakers’ tepid response today suggests that the industry’s abuses have become even more entrenched in an increasingly corporatized food system, fueled by a ruthlessly exploited migrant labor force.
But while the traditional farm labor movement may have lost ground, other groups have surfaced on the horizon to push beyond the bounds of traditional unions, on and off the farm.
By approaching farmwork as a critical link in the food industry machine, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has put a national spotlight on brutal conditions on Florida’s tomato farms. Led primarily by Latino migrant workers, the organization has enlisted organic consumer advocates, student activists, and religious leaders in seeking accountability at every point in the food supply chain, from seed to sandwich. The CIW’s campaigns have pressured major restaurant chains like Taco Bell and McDonald’s to raise workers’ pay by an extra penny per pound of tomatoes harvested (potentially adding thousands of dollars to a workers’ yearly income). The group recently overcame the opposition of several major growers’ associations and is now targeting supermarkets. This summer, the group’s Campaign for Fair Food went after Publix and “Traitor Joe’s,” staging street rallies in cities across the country to expose their complicity in tomato wage slavery.
In contrast to traditional shopfloor mobilization, CIW’s project revolves around a fusion of consumer and worker activism. “It’s been the consumer voice and consumer power that has really made this campaign a success,” said CIW co-director Lucas Benitez, “especially now, when consumers want fair food. They want to know that what they’re buying has been produced fairly; they want to know where it comes from. And so when their consumers are making demands, companies work to meet those demands.”
Stoking consumer consciousness similarly feeds into the work of the Farmworkers Support Committee (CATA), an advocacy group based in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Partnering with organic certification agencies and other labor organizations, the group has helped roll out a "food justice" certification system, based on fair farm labor standards, that informs buyers about how their food was grown, and what kind of work went into harvesting it. Meanwhile, the group’s Food Justice Project reaches out locally to promote sustainably grown, pesticide-free food, while educating community members about the connection between ethnic food traditions and healthy eating. By raising dual-consciousness around their diet and the people who feed them, CATA’s coordinator Nelson Carrasquillo said, "we want to complete the circle in terms of reaching out to the consumers.”
While federal labor law is anemic in many industries, immigrant farmworkers have even fewer rights and protections. The New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act originally excluded farmworkers, targeting a workforce in which Latinos and blacks have long filled the roughest jobs. Farm labor has grown more institutionalized since the 1940s, through both undocumented immigration and notoriously exploitative guestworker policies (legislation was recently proposed to revamp the visa-based, but still draconian, migrant labor system). Farm workers later gained some minimum wage protections in the 1960s, followed by stronger standards for farm contract labor in 1983, after boycotts attracted millions of Americans to “La Causa.” But today, with formal unions like UFW covering just a tiny fraction of the sector, and still no federal collective-bargaining protections, both documented and undocumented farmworkers are routinely exposed to violent abuse, wage theft and human trafficking.
Campaigns for stronger federal regulations have limped along. Public Citizen recently welcomed the Labor Department’s announcement that it would ramp up safety protections for child farmworkers, who are extremely vulnerable to accidents and injuries on the job. But the group hasn’t persuaded the administration to establish a mandatory safety standard for heat exposure, despite tens of thousands of heat-related injuries over the past two decades.
On the state level, California is actually relatively safe ground: farmworkers in Georgia and Alabama have faced a rash of anti-immigrant legislation and crackdowns on undocumented workers. One lonely bill for collective bargaining rights on New York farms has repeatedly stalled.
One of the country’s largest unions, the AFL-CIO, works around the hostile political landscape by adapting shopfloor pressure tactics for mobilizing in the fields. Its affiliate, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, collaborates with local growers to collectively pressure agribusinesses at the top of the supply chain. FLOC’s current focus is tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, which is known for brutal treatment of workers in North Carolina fields. The strategy is to “build sustainability from the bottom up,” said founder (and former farmworker) Baldemar Velasquez. Still, in his view, though migrant communities may benefit from government interventions, like labor regulations or federal aid programs, there’s no substitute for worker-driven collective bargaining. “That cannot be done by Congress,” he said. “That cannot be done by wishful thinking, that cannot be done by [corporate] codes of conduct…. That can only be done by recognizing the workers’ right to speak for themselves, so that workers can talk about negotiating a fair day’s pay for a fair day of work.”
Farmworkers’ struggles have taken divergent paths since the heyday of the grape boycotts, but they’ve also converged with the hardships facing other low-wage, immigrant-heavy sectors. Earlier this year, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and CATA joined other labor and community groups at a major international gathering of the Excluded Workers Congress, a coalition that advocates nationwide for organizing rights and fair pay in largely unregulated sectors, from day laborers to taxi drivers.
As a historical vanguard among the country’s marginalized workers, farmworker activism today may represent a new kind of solidarity that bridges labor and community.
Organizing at the edges of Washington and the mainstream labor movement, Benitez said he doesn’t feel impeded by the lack of a formal union or federal protections. “Basically what unions do across the country is try to improve working conditions, try to improve wages for its members,” he said. “And that’s basically what we’re doing in our own way as a community organization—just working towards making things better in our own way, and in a way that works for our particular community here.”