Can the United Farm Workers of California Rise Again?

Veronica Mota marched under the sweltering sun, hoisting a cloth banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe above her head for miles.

“Sí, se puede,” she chanted in unison with dozens of other farmworkers, who waved U.S. and Mexican flags as they walked along two-lane roads lined by dense orange groves in the Central Valley of California.

The banner, flags and rallying cry — “Yes, we can” — echoed back more than half a century to when Cesar Chavez, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, led agricultural workers on a pilgrimage along a similar route to meet lawmakers in Sacramento.

“We are a legacy of Cesar Chavez,” said Ms. Mota, 47, who, when blisters began to form on her feet during the 24-day trek in August, gathered strength by thinking of how the march in the 1960s led to groundbreaking farmworker reforms and propelled the U.F.W. to national prominence.

“We can achieve what we want,” Ms. Mota said.

What the farmworkers wanted last summer was for Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign into law a bill that they argued would make it easier and less intimidating for workers to vote in union elections — a key step, they believed, in rebuilding the size and influence of a now far less prolific U.F.W. But changing a rule is not the same as changing the game. The question now is whether the U.F.W. can show it has not irretrievably lost its organizing touch and can regain the ability to mobilize public opinion on its behalf as it did under Mr. Chavez.

The union is a shadow of what it was decades ago. Membership hovers around 5,500 farmworkers, less than 2 percent of the state’s agricultural work force, compared with 60,000 in the 1970s. In the same period, the number of growers covered by U.F.W. contracts has fallen to 22 from about 150. The march last summer stood as a reckoning of sorts for a union desperate to regain its relevance.

California’s fields provide about half of the produce grown in the United States for domestic consumption.Mark Abramson for The New York Times
Farmworkers at an orange grove outside Fresno.Mark Abramson for The New York Times
U.F.W. officials say they have secured contracts focusing on health coverage.Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Labor organizing has rebounded nationwide in the last few years, with unions winning elections at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island and at least 275 Starbucks stores, and among white-collar workers in the tech and media industries. But in California’s fields, which supply about half of the produce grown in the United States for the domestic market, such efforts have found little traction.

It has been more than five years since the U.F.W. mounted an organizing drive and election petition in the state — at Premiere Raspberries in Watsonville. The U.F.W. unionization vote succeeded, but the company refused to negotiate a contract and in 2020 announced plans to shut down and lay off more than 300 workers.

Ms. Mota, who has worked seasonal jobs around the state for two decades, has seen her wages drop by about $6,000 over the last several years. She is now earning around $15,000 a year. She said that on farms without union contracts, bosses sometimes make veiled threats about cutting hours, refuse to give workers breaks in 100-plus degree weather and turn a blind eye to dangerous conditions.

“Where we do not have a union contract, there is no respect,” she said in Spanish on a recent morning from her ranch-style home in the farming town of Madera.

But the bill backed by Ms. Mota, which Mr. Newsom signed into law after the marchers arrived in Sacramento, has fueled a cautious optimism. Backers say the ability to more freely organize will help them gain more influence.

“There is new energy, new legislation and attention from the public in terms of workers’ rights,” said Christian Paiz, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched farm labor in the state. “We could be on the front lines of a renaissance.”

Farmworkers have, for generations and by design, existed on the fringes of the American work force.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 excluded farm and domestic workers from federal protections — a decision, rooted in racism, that ensured that the Black, Latino and Asian people whose work opportunities were largely limited to those two industries were not covered.

But by the 1960s, momentum for change was building.

Farm workers on their march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966.Jon Lewis/Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Mr. Chavez, who was a farm laborer picking avocados and peas before becoming a grass-roots organizer, teamed up with Dolores Huerta, a young workers’ rights activist from the Central Valley, and in 1962 they founded the National Farm Workers Association. It became the U.F.W.

Three years later, it was a key force behind the Delano grape workers’ strike, in which thousands of Mexican and Filipino farmworkers walked off their jobs, demanding raises from $1.25 to $1.40 an hour, as well as elections that could pave the way for unionization.

As the striking farmworkers made their way along the 335-mile trek in 1966, which started in Delano, the group grew steadily, and other unions began to pledge their support.

In the Bay Area, longshoremen had refused to load shipments of grapes that hadn’t been picked by unionized workers and, before long, a statewide pressure campaign had become a national one.

Weeks after the march began, a lawyer for Schenley Industries, a large Central Valley grape grower that was a target of the boycott, contacted Mr. Chavez, and the company soon agreed to negotiate a contract. It officially recognized the U.F.W., making it the first major corporation to acknowledge a farm union.

The grape workers’ strike stretched into the summer of 1970, when widespread consumer boycotts forced major growers to sign on to collective bargaining agreements between the union and several thousand workers.

In the years that followed, Mr. Chavez forged a relationship with Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and helped champion the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which established the right to collective bargaining for farmworkers and created a board to enforce the act and arbitrate labor fights between workers and growers. It was the first law in the country guaranteeing protections to farm workers.

Cesar Chavez, center, leader of the National Farm Workers Association, outside a farm in 1966, with supporters bearing signs proclaiming “Strike.” The association was a predecessor of the United Farm Workers.Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos

But the union’s gains soon began to erode. Mr. Brown’s Republican successor, George Deukmejian, and his appointees made changes to the farm labor board in the 1980s and cut funding, arguing that the adjustments were necessary to correct an “easily perceived bias” in favor of farm workers and the U.F.W. and against growers. And even when the union has won elections, it has often faced legal challenges from growers that can drag on for years.

The law that Mr. Newsom signed last year, Assembly Bill 2183, was the union’s biggest legislative victory in years. It paved the way for farmworkers to vote in union elections without in-person election sites. For years, U.F.W. officials argued that dwindling membership numbers stemmed from fears about voting in person at sites often held on properties owned by the growers.

The bill faced opposition from growers, who contended that the measure would allow union organizers to unfairly influence the process. Mr. Newsom initially voiced reticence, but signed the measure into law after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Biden publicly pushed him to do so.

“In the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union,” Mr. Biden said at the time.

Supporters of the measure highlight how the demographics of farmworkers have changed over the years. In the 1970s, under Mr. Chavez, many farmworkers were U.S. citizens, but migration from Mexico and Central America in the decades that followed created a work force composed primarily of undocumented workers. Because they lack immigration papers, supporters say, they are especially vulnerable. (Undocumented workers can be covered by labor agreements.)

In signing the measure, Mr. Newsom and the U.F.W. agreed to support follow-up compromise legislation that would guard farmworker confidentiality during elections and place limits on card-check voting, a method in which employees sign cards in favor of unionizing.

Last summer, as she marched past vineyards and groves of mandarin oranges, Ms. Mota thought of the harvest cycle that has defined much of her life.

She reflected on the dormant season, in December and January, when she prunes pistachio and almond trees, and the rainy months, when it’s sometimes hard to find work. But then comes the prosperous citrus and grape harvests, through the spring and the fall, which always make her think of the families who will eventually toast with wine squeezed from the fruit she plucked from the vine.

“I love for my hands to harvest a fruit and then seeing those fruits and vegetables in the restaurant,” Ms. Mota said.

U.F.W. supporters marched last year to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that would make it easier for workers to vote in union elections.Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle, via Associated Press

She thought, too, about the invisibility and dangers of her work — the tiny teeth marks etched into her leather boot by a snake bite, the molehill where she badly sprained her ankle, the co-worker airlifted to San Francisco with injuries.

“We are ignored,” she said.

Still, she didn’t feel that way during the march, where in many towns people greeted them with snacks, Gatorade and full meals. While the group was in Stockton, an inland port city, Ms. Huerta, now 92, stood before the crowd wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the words, “Sí se puede.”

“You all have made me so proud,” she told them.

Ms. Huerta, who helped negotiate the first farmworker contract with Schenley, left U.F.W. leadership more than two decades ago to pursue other causes. But in an interview, she said the need for unionization remained as high as it was when she helped start the union.

“Farmworkers wanted the support and still want the support,” said Ms. Huerta, who attributed the dearth of contracts to a refusal by growers to bargain in good faith.

Despite setbacks in recent decades, U.F.W. officials say they have continued to secure contracts that focus on health care benefits, wage increases and cultivating a respectful culture between farmworkers and employees. At Monterey Mushrooms, which has operated under a contract since the 1980s, U.F.W. officials say the average annual income for a mushroom picker is $45,000 and includes vacation time and a pension. (The statewide average for farmworkers is between $20,000 and $25,000 a year, according to the U.S. Labor Department.)

“With a union contract, workers are educated about their rights and empowered to defend them,” said Teresa Romero, the union’s president.

Issues might vary from farm to farm, Ms. Romero said. “In one workplace it may be low wages, in another it may be unsafe conditions, in still another it may be the workplace culture — having to pay bribes or endure sexual harassment to get work or having a particular supervisor who is racist or cruel,” she said. “We understand the immense risks that workers are taking when speaking up on the job; it takes courage for workers to form their union.”

Dolores Huerta, a founder of the U.F.W., at a rally in the 1970s.Cathy Murphy/Getty Images

Ms. Romero said she was confident that the new state law — along with a streamlined federal process to protect workers involved in labor disputes surrounding immigration threats from employers — would translate into more bargaining power and more contracts.

Some labor watchers are skeptical of the union’s ability to reinvigorate itself.

Miriam Pawel, an author who has written extensively about the union and Mr. Chavez, said the U.F.W.’s decline reflected a shortfall in organizing efforts in the communities where farmworkers live.

“It’s evolved more into an advocacy organization and walked away from the more difficult work of organizing,” Ms. Pawel said. Referring to the 1975 labor relations act, she added, “They have the most favorable labor law in the country and have barely taken advantage.”

Ms. Pawel cited a 2016 state law mandating that agricultural employers pay overtime if people worked more than eight hours in a day. The union lobbied for the measure, but growers warned that they couldn’t afford to pay overtime and would adjust schedules to avoid doing so. The new overtime rule has been phased in over the years, and some farmworkers have voiced anger about losing hours.

“If the union were stronger in the fields, and at organizing, it could have won elections and demanded better overtime provisions in contracts,” Ms. Pawel said.

Ms. Romero pushed back against such criticism, arguing that, until Mr. Newsom signed A.B. 2183 in September, many farmworkers had justified fears that, if they sought unionization, their bosses would fire them or even try to get them deported.

Indeed, a report by the University of California, Merced, Community and Labor Center found that 36 percent of farmworkers said they would not file a report against their employer for failing to comply with workplace safety rules and that 64 percent cited fear of employer retaliation or job loss.

And since the bill’s passage, the Farm Employers Labor Service, a trade group that staunchly opposed the law, has placed advertisements on Spanish-language radio stations, warning about what it means to be in a union. In one ad, a man shouts: “Signing a union petition can lead to the union stealing 3 percent of your salary! Do not let them!”

Those messages deeply concern Ms. Romero.

“Filing for an election when workers are not protected from genuine risks of retaliation will only lead already poor people into further hardship,” she said. “This is the implicit threat that the growers’ power depends on.”

Joe Del Bosque at his melon farm in Firebaugh, Calif. He has never had a union contract and plans to keep it that way.Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Many California growers say they can be better bosses without unions.

On a recent afternoon off Interstate 5 in the small city of Firebaugh, Joe Del Bosque stared out at bare fields on the melon farm he has owned since 1985. A thick fog hung over the area, and the ground was puddled from rain water. It was the quiet season on the farm, where he employs more than 100 farmworkers annually.

Mr. Del Bosque said that when he was a boy, his parents, legal U.S. residents, traveled from a town near the California-Mexico border to the Central Valley to pick melons every summer. As a farm owner, he has never had a union contract, and aims to keep it that way.

He provides his employees with good conditions and fair wages, he said, without their having to pay union dues. “From my experience, workers who are moving around from season to season do not want the extra hands involved,” he said of the union. “They just want to work.”

He said he had little trouble finding field hands, including migrants who move from farm to farm with each season. And he noted that in the Salinas Valley — closer to the coast, where housing is more expensive — many growers rely on H-2A visas, which let them bring workers, often from Mexico, for just a few months of the year.

That impermanence, he said, works against the U.F.W. “If the workers are here only a few months a year and then leave the state, how are you going to organize?” he said.

Mr. Del Bosque said that he respected the U.F.W.’s history and the groundwork of Mr. Chavez and Ms. Huerta, but that he opposed A.B. 2183. The law, he contends, will allow the U.F.W. to unfairly sway farmworkers at their kitchen tables and behind closed doors.

That’s the intimidation factor,” Mr. Del Bosque said.

Asuncion Ponce began harvesting grapes in the late 1980s. He says bosses on unionized farms “don’t mess with you.”Mark Abramson for The New York Times

While the impact of the law remains unclear, it has buoyed the spirits of some farmworkers.

Asuncion Ponce started harvesting grapes along the rolling green hills of the Central Valley in the late 1980s. Through the decades, Mr. Ponce has worked on several farms with U.F.W. contracts. Bosses on those farms, he said, seemed aware that if they harassed or mistreated workers, the union would step in.

“They don’t mess with you any more,” he said, “because they think there could be problems.”

Even so, he has seen his financial security decline. He averaged $20,000 a year in the 1990s and 2000s, he said, but these days he brings in around $10,000 a year picking grapes and pruning pistachio trees. His eight-hour shifts are no longer supplemented by overtime, as growers have cut hours — partly as a result of the overtime bill U.F.W. leaders supported.

Occasionally, Mr. Ponce said, he relied on third-party contractors, who growers sometimes employ, to find him available work. But he said he was optimistic that with the new legislation he would land a full-time job on a union farm.

On a recent evening, the 66-year-old sipped coffee and decompressed after a shift at a farm outside of Fresno. His feet ached and his flannel shirt was stained with fertilizer, but he is happy that his job lets him spend all day outdoors — a passion born in his hometown in the Mexican state of Puebla, where he harvested corn and anise.

He smiled softly under his white mustache as he spoke about the legacy of Mr. Chavez, which inspired him to join for several legs of the pilgrimage last summer.

“I marched for many reasons,” he said in Spanish. “So we are not as harassed and mistreated as we are now in the fields, so benefits and better treatment come our way.”

For Ms. Mota, joining the march helped awaken a new spirit of activism.

Over the years, she said, she felt afraid to talk about unionizing at work, but now she tells any colleagues who will listen about the advantages she sees: the ability to negotiate a better salary, benefits and a respect for seniority.

Her viewpoint was shaped in her early years as a farmworker. “Throughout the years I have realized that we are marginalized,” she said. “They don’t value us.”

Once, she said, she watched as a farmer grabbed a knife used to harvest cantaloupe and put it to the cheek of another worker. He glared into the farmworker’s eyes, she said, and called the workers his slaves.

“You feel humiliated,” she said, fighting back tears.

She is convinced that having a strong union is the only answer. “We deserve a dignified life in this country,” she said.

“Throughout the years I have realized that we are marginalized,” Veronica Mota said.Mark Abramson for The New York Times

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