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Published On: Wed, Apr 2nd, 2014

Border patrol agent discusses meeting Cesar Chavez

(Back to part one) Chavez had begun organizing by signing up farm workers for burial insurance, a benefit of great importance to them. Now he sought multi-year contracts for his members that would not only permit bargaining with the growers for wages, but for improved working conditions including sanitary facilities in the field, a fair system for rehire, and healthcare. Hire-back clauses reduced the uncertainty in migrant families’ lives. With grower funding, the union established health clinics for members and their families. Through the NFWA’s lobbying with the California Legislature, the backbreaking short-handled hoe was outlawed.

César Chávez at a United Farmworkers rally, 1974. photo Work Permit, retouced by Joel Levine via wikimedia commons

César Chávez at a United Farmworkers rally, 1974.
photo Work Permit, retouced by Joel Levine via wikimedia commons

The golden era for California farm workers lasted just less than two decades. Some observers blame internal difficulties within the NFWA that caused Chavez to stop organizing. By 1993, he didn’t have a single contract with grape growers. But according to UC Davis farm labor economist Philip L. Martin, “Continuing immigration was the main reason that, in the 1990s, contractors and other agricultural service firms could undermine unions by organizing and deploying workers on farms.”

After the loss of bracero labor in 1964, growers had relegated themselves to working with Chavez, but by the 1980s, with plenty of illegal workers available, they no longer had an incentive. Contracts were lost to the rival “company” unions established by the Teamsters. Wages and working conditions for farm workers regressed. Benefits were lost. Labor-saving agricultural innovation ceased.

By 1978, annual apprehensions of illegal Mexican border crossers exceeded 1 million, remaining at that level until 2008. In 1987, 22 years after the end of the Bracero Program, a new law made knowingly employing illegal immigrants a crime. It proved ineffective, easily subverted by the use of phony Social Security and immigration documents. A pilot program included in the legislation to electronically verify employment documents has remained just that for 27 years.

Today, an estimated 2.1 million immigrant, citizen and undocumented farm workers work an average of 100 days or less a year, earning less than $10,000, and living in poverty little different than that John Steinbeck described in Grapes of Wrath.

Cesar Chavez fought to bring farm workers into the mainstream of American economic life, and the millions of consumers who supported his boycotts aided his quest. But the great opportunity afforded by the end of the Bracero Program was lost, not by Chavez, but because powerful economic interests working in Congress blocked reforms that would have ended agriculture’s access to exploitable illegal workers

GUEST AUTHOR: Michael G. Harpold, author of Jumping the Line (www.jumpingtheline.com), began his 35-year career in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as a Border Patrol Inspector. Early in his career, he met César Chávez and Harpold’s involvement with farm workers during the grape strike led to a lifelong interest in their plight. He frequently testified before congressional committees on proposed immigration legislation and the INS budget. Harpold holds a bachelor’s degree from California State University at Fresno and attended Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco .

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