The Evolving Movement For Agricultural Worker Rights

California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed in 1975. When its promises weren’t fully realized, workers there and in other states organized.

(Photo by Tim Mossholder / Unsplash)

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This is an adapted excerpt from the recent book “The Sustainability Revolutionists: Heroes and Hope for Our Planet’s Future” by Lucia Athens, the city of Austin’s first Chief Sustainability Officer. The author shares biographies of three heroic figures representing the three pillars of sustainability: environment, economy, and equity. This excerpt, published here with permission from the author, is part of the book’s larger story of renowned labor organizer César Chávez.

Author’s note: The current Hollywood Writers Strike highlights once again the need for fair pay for workers who provide needed services, but who are often “invisible” to the end consumer. Union writers struggle to make ends meet, especially during less active times such as between show seasons and the current age of streaming platforms, which provide less in residual payments with subsequent screenings than network TV historically had. This is somewhat parallel to the seasonal need for farm workers who have no year-round source of income. The need to address workforce equity, and how far we have yet to go to achieve it, is clearly delineated in the ongoing struggle to achieve fair treatment for many types of workers essential to our economy.

Labor organizing has experienced a resurgence of late for many service workers, but not so for agricultural workers. Through the collective impact efforts of many individuals, from many walks of life, California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 was passed, the first of its kind in the US to protect farmworker rights. Adopted at the height of the United Farm Workers movement led by César Chávez, it served as a vehicle to galvanize their Union, empowering tens of thousands of workers who realized the potentiality of organizing for the first time. Unfortunately, the promise of that law was never realized and progress since then has been a mixed bag. Over the years, Union activity in the fields dissipated and the organization would never again appear so powerful and well-organized as it did in the time surrounding the Delano grape strike.

The wages and conditions of the largely undocumented farmworkers of California are not necessarily significantly better than they were decades ago. Challenges vary from farm to farm, such as sexual harassment, low wages, or unsafe working conditions. However, some progress continues to be made, indicating gradual evolution toward better protections for the workforce who grows the food we rely on. The New York Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, signed into law by former Governor Andrew Cuomo, took effect in January 2021. It requires permits for migrant farm worker housing, overtime pay, at least one day of rest per work week, workers’ compensation, paid family leave, and the right to organize. In 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill guaranteeing additional farmworker union voting right protections such as confidentiality.

Elsewhere, increasing climate change-related heat waves and fires in the Pacific Northwest have wreaked havoc on a farming way of life and the lives of farm owners and migrant field workers, spawning the need for new health protections. Brutal triple-digit heat for days on end caused deaths of day laborers, resulting in Oregon and Washington establishing new worker safety regulations starting in August 2021. These include mandatory access to shade, cool drinking water, rest breaks, and wellness checks. The rules also require temporary housing to be maintained at a maximum temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

The states of Washington, Minnesota, and California have similar rules. Hazardous air quality caused by wildfires also threatens the health of outdoor workers, particularly those with asthma or other health conditions. The Oregon mandate requires employers to provide filtration masks to workers if the air quality index reaches unsafe levels. Continuing droughts and fires also ruin crops or make it impossible to continue growing food at all. In 2021, Meyer Orchards of Medford Oregon, a four-generation family farm in operation for 111 years, was forced to throw in the towel. They chopped down their entire 115-acre orchard of pear trees — the drought made it too costly to irrigate any longer.

Today, many organizations have taken up the causes of food justice and farmworker rights. In 2011, Mily Treviño-Sauceda and Mónica Ramirez, working from Oxnard, California, formed the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance, or Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, to champion the nation’s 700,000-plus vulnerable women working in the agricultural industry. These women suffer from unequal pay, exploitation, violence and sexual abuse, and reproductive health problems stemming from pesticides. In 2017, they helped launch the Time’s Up legal defense fund, to support women working low-wage jobs. This is a story of the power of love and solidarity to empower disparate people to join forces.

Treviño-Sauceda and Ramirez were planning to contact women in the entertainment industry in conjunction with sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein and others. Some supporters urged that the letter should criticize the Hollywood movement for leaving out female farmworkers in a broader discussion of women’s right to freedom from sexual harassment. Instead, the letter took a tone of empathy and allyship on behalf of many underrepresented workers including janitors, hotel and domestic workers.

“Dear sisters,” the letter read, “even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.” The letter went on to say, “We understand the hurt, confusion, isolation and betrayal that you might feel … Please know that you’re not alone. We believe and stand with you.”

(Photo by Gayatri Malhotra / Unsplash)

The letter was later shared by one of Hollywood’s biggest influencers, Reese Witherspoon, with nearly four million followers on Facebook. The collective voice of #MeToo had expanded exponentially to include women, according to NBC News, “from opposite ends of the country’s economic and class divides: actresses and farmworkers.” In addition, the women of Hollywood realized that their voices were powerful enough to influence change for others beyond their small group.

Here’s Hope

Perhaps the most inspiring and promising recent example of transformational change for farmworkers is occurring in Florida. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers have successfully organized against abysmal living and working conditions within the tomato industry. Immokalee is an unincorporated community in Southwest Florida, on land once occupied by the Seminole and Miccosukee peoples. The word Immokalee means “your home.” The coalition describes the social conditions they are working to reform as a little-known form of American apartheid.

The Coalition works to end slavery and human trafficking in the agricultural industry and to establish supply chain standards to eliminate forced labor. Harvard Business Review named the coalition’s Fair Food program as one of the 15 most important social impact success stories of the past century. Their labor standards program leverages the collective impact of farmworkers, Florida tomato growers, a national consumer network, and retail buyers including Subway, Whole Foods, and Walmart. The organization staged a national boycott of Taco Bell, protesting the use of Florida tomatoes tied to unfair wages and working conditions. The coalition gained broad student, religious, and community support, including many campus-wide boycotts of Taco Bell. National news attention ensued, causing Taco Bell to eventually agree to the Coalition’s demands to purchase only Fair Food tomatoes at slightly higher prices, with the price increase guaranteed to go directly to tomato pickers.

Food can be both a unifying and divisive issue — the way we grow it, harvest it, source it, prepare it, and dispose of it when we are done.

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Lucia Athens was previously the City of Austin’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, where she has served since 2010. A licensed landscape architect, Athens is a leader in climate action and sustainability who brings more than 30 years of experience and wisdom to the table.

Athens helped develop Austin Energy’s Green Building rating, the first in the world, and later chaired the LEED® 2.0 Site and Water technical group. She has served on the National Board of Directors for the US Green Building Council, the Green Business Certification Institute, and EcoDistricts. She currently co-chairs the WELL for Cities Advisory Council, and serves on the LEED for Cities and Communities Working Group.

Athens has collaborated with many organizations, including Forbes IGNITE, Rocky Mountain Institute, World Resources Institute, Clinton Global Initiative, and the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems. In 2015, she was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation residency fellowship at the Bellagio Center at Lake Como, Italy.

Athens is a frequent keynote speaker on behalf of organizations including The Economist, Atlantic Monthly, Metropolis Magazine, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

A native Texan, Athens makes her home in Austin with her husband and two adorable rescue dogs.

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Tags: laborfoodbooksfarmingagriculture

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