Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cesar Chavez and the Continuing Struggle for Farmworkers Rights

Last week California celebrated Cesar Chavez day, honoring the farmworker advocate on his birthday, March 31st. Chavez died in 1993, but his work is still relevant today as farmworkers continue to face abusive conditions and as some loopy Texans recently tried to remove his story from textbooks (and failed - thank goodness!)

Chavez was the son of Mexican immigrants and grew up on their farm in Yuma, Arizona. When he was still a boy, his parents lost their farm (during the economic ravages of the Great Depression) and they went on the road as migrant farm laborers. Because of this, Chavez was unable to continue his formal education, but taught himself and grew to be very well-read and a gifted orator. He served in the military and then moved to San Jose where he became a community organizer working on behalf on behalf of urban minorities, and went on to found the precursor to the United Farm Workers of America. Chavez promoted non-violent protest, and organized and participated in fasts, boycotts, marches, and strikes on behalf of farmworkers rights. In recognition of his contribution to American society, Chavez was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.

Why should Chavez's work remain top-of-mind today? Because farmworkers are still suffering horrendous abuses on our soil that any American should be ashamed of. Modern farmworkers are in (isolated but jaw-droppingly horrendous) cases being kept as slaves, including this notable case from 2002 in which two brothers were sentenced for holding 700 workers as slaves. [The real shocker is that they were only sentenced to 12 years!]

But it is the story of a more mundane abuse that recently enraged me. Remember all those boycotts of Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, etc. over the price they paid for tomatoes? Well, you'll also remember that the fast food restaurants agreed to pay more to increase farmworkers wages. Well, it turns out all that extra money never made it to the workers. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange did not allow members to pass on the money! Allow me to restate: all of that extra money, intended for the laborers - well, it went straight into the farmers (including large corporate farmers) pockets. If you're like me you'll need a moment to hyperventilate now. Finally, last October the Exchange relented, and the money is finally going where we all thought it was going in the first place.

We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community...Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own. -Cesar Chavez

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