United Farm Workers members march again to the Capitol, where their clout is growing

By late morning it was already hot, but not nearly as scorching as it would be in a few hours. Lourdes Cardenas, 59, was already nearly eight dusty, sun-soaked miles from Turlock, and about as many more to walk to the day’s destination in downtown Modesto.

During the break, a mariachi in full regalia began to play, and Cardenas sank into a chair set up under a shadow structure, gathering up creams and bandages, and bending over her blistered, swollen feet.

But she didn’t think about quitting.

Cardenas, an immigrant from Mexico who has worked in California’s fields for decades, is among a small group of farmhands marching 335 miles from UFW headquarters near Delano to the state capitol for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Officially, the three-week pilgrimage aims to pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign legislation that would give farmworkers a choice, including voting by mail, in conducting union campaign elections. But the purpose is broader: clarifying the union is encouraged despite decades of declining membership.

“Enough is enough,” said Teresa Romero, the president of the UFW. People need to understand, she said, “that without these immigrant workers, the agribusiness in this country would disappear and then we’d have to pay a heck of a lot more for our food.”

Currently, agricultural workers can vote to join the UFW only if they do so at a polling station designated by the Agricultural Relations Board, which exposes them to retaliation, the union argues. New choices sanctioned by Assembly Bill 2183 would change that. Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year, prompting the UFW to march to the French Laundry, the Napa Valley restaurant where the governor got into political trouble after being caught eating during the COVID-19 pandemic was.

But this year, bill author Mark Stone (D-Scott’s Valley) said he’s working with Newsom and expects to send the governor a bill that addresses his earlier concerns. Regarding Newsom, his spokesman, Anthony York, said that “the government has been working on this issue for a long time,” adding, “We remain optimistic that we can reach a compromise.”

Agricultural interests have defied the law, but AB 2183 has another strong voice in Sacramento: Lorena Gonzalez, the former state congressman and farmhand’s daughter who is the new chair of the powerful California Labor Federation.

Gonzalez brought UFW back into the fold of the federation, which it left in 2006, and has thrown its influence behind the bill. She said she plans to march dozens of miles with the UFW in the triple-digit heat over the weekend to show her support.

She had a lot of company. The protesters were joined along the way by Cesar Chavez’s grandson, Andres Chavez, as well as politicians, members of other unions such as the Teamsters, history buffs, car club lovers, a motorcycle club and the adult children of farm workers who walked in memory of their Parents, along with people who bring their children to understand an important piece of California history.

And because this pilgrimage takes place in 2022, it also includes a truck with a porta-potty. (Aside from the protesters’ blisters and swollen feet, the porta-potty is the only part of the caravan so far to have suffered a serious mishap — it was hit by a car, but thankfully, organizers said, it was empty at the time. )

Gonazlez said the new law is crucial to protecting rural workers, who are often undocumented and risk not only being fired but also deported if they displease their bosses by trying to join a union. In addition, she said the law also has deeply symbolic meaning: it will show that California has the will to protect all of its workers, even the most vulnerable.

“As we continue to support workers in high tech, workers in retail, workers at Starbucks, workers in hotels, workers in all walks of life, I think supporting our farm workers in California ensures that very mindset,” she said . “Every poll I’ve seen shows people are pro-union and yet we still have all these barriers. California can lead the way if we use our laws as proactively as possible.”

In this context, the march is a step toward strengthening the union as a political force, as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s when young people flocked to the San Joaquin Valley to join the struggle and won union contracts despite brutal repression were by farmers and the police.

The first time the UFW marched from Delano to Sacramento was in the spring of 1966, when the union was only a few years old. Led by Chavez, who co-founded the UFW with Dolores Huerta, farm workers sought to raise awareness of the exploitative conditions in the fields and the campaign to organize workers.

By the time protesters reached Sacramento on Easter Sunday, the UFW had signed its first contract, Chavez was on the front page of The New York Times, and the union had become one of the strongest voices for justice in the 1960s. The UFW also conducted a march from Delano to Sacramento in 1994 to commemorate the first anniversary of Chávez’s death.

Despite Chavez’s later status as a national icon, whose name now adorns schools, parks and streets in cities across the state, the union he led has struggled for years. Recent estimates put membership at just 7,000, and some critics say the union hasn’t spent enough time organizing workers and winning contracts lately.

“After the 1980s, with isolated exceptions, the UFW stopped organizing unorganized farm workers,” said William B. Gould, law professor emeritus at Stanford University and former chair of the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Committee. “That is the brutal reality. The UFW is doomed. You can quote me on that. my three years [on the ARLB] they have done nothing.”

Union leaders consider such criticism unfair. Often undocumented or, increasingly, migrant workers, rural workers are among the most vulnerable and difficult to organize workforce. Long exempt from labor laws that protect workers in other sectors, they have long seen the cards stacked against them, experts say. Still, Romero said, regulations backed by the UFW presidential union, such as new protections for working in the heat, have benefited not just the workers represented, but all farm workers.

As they marched up the Central Valley, holding flags and singing:si se puede”, Many of the participants said they were doing this to pressure the governor to sign the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act.

“We are fighting for our rights,” said Veronica Mota, 47, a Madera farm worker who said she was there to represent “thousands of farm workers who are unable to leave their jobs” during the harvest season to speak out to join the fight.

But many others said they were there because of what the UFW represents to them – and the voice they hope to give it in the future.

Rikki Mezza, who works for the state, said she commemorates her father, Frutoso Meza, a Jalisco immigrant who worked in the fields and marched with Chavez in the 1960s. She wore his photo around her neck. Other members of her family, including her sisters, planned to march on other days.

Beside Mezza, Elva Beltran got out of her husband’s car and began marching in the middle of the day. She said she worked in the fields as a youth and wanted to show her support.

In Ceres, the caravan met a police escort – called in, organizers said, because of rumors that the march could be attacked by white supremacists. No harassment ensued, but the Central Valley’s Rebirth Car Club dispatched several brightly painted Lowriders to keep a watchful eye, and members of a local motorcycle club also showed up and blew up banda Music from big speakers.

Abel Martinez took the day off to drive his cherry red 1974 Lincoln Continental alongside the protesters, bringing his wife Sabrina, daughter and niece with him.

“We couldn’t be more grateful to these people who are walking,” Sabrina said.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-08-20/united-farmworkers-march-delano-to-sacramento-legislation United Farm Workers members march again to the Capitol, where their clout is growing

Alley Einstein

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