Will a new generation of activists finish what Cesar Chavez started?

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All over the country this week—in classrooms, community centers, and living rooms—Americans are honoring Cesar Chavez, the civil rights icon who co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America. Regrettably, not everyone celebrating Chavez on his commemorative holiday may be aware that the workers whose rights he and others fought so hard to protect are arguably more vulnerable now than they were at the labor union’s height.

The data speaks for itself:

  • There are an estimated 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S., and the workforce is young: the average age of a farmworker is 36, and 25% are under 24—including an estimated 3% who are children between 14 and 17-years-old.
  • As an industry, agriculture in the U.S. generated $835 billion (that's almost 5% of the Gross Domestic Product) in 2014. Yet the average annual income for an individual farmworker today is between $10,000 and $12,499. The average family income for a farmworker household isn’t much better, at $15,000 - $17,499—significantly lower than the federal poverty threshold of $24,036 for a family of four.
  • Nearly 8 in 10 farmworkers are foreign born, and language is a major barrier for most. Nearly two-thirds reported speaking either little or no English, and 38% say they cannot read English “at all.”
  • An estimated 99% of all crop workers (who have the most physically taxing and lowest paying farm jobs) are Latinos, and at least half of all U.S. farm workers are undocumented—which means they’re barred from receiving most federally subsidized services, including Medicaid and food stamps.
  • Meanwhile, only 34% of farmworkers report having some form of health insurance, and a majority of those pay out-of-pocket for their care. This, despite the well-documented occupational hazards associated with farm labor, such as prolonged exposure to pesticides, heat exhaustion, and mechanical accidents like tractor overturns. Each day, about 243 agricultural workers suffer a serious “lost-work-time injury,” according to the Center for Disease Control, and 5% of those injuries cause permanent damage.
  • Despite the obvious lack of basic labor protections in the agriculture industry, only 2% of farmworkers belong to labor unions, according to a 2013 Center for Progressive Reform report.

To be sure, Chavez’ dream of a well-organized and empowered farm labor force has yet to be fully realized.

That point wasn’t lost on the 1,000 or so organizers, politicians, teachers and students who gathered last Saturday at the San Diego Convention Center to pay their respects to the late labor leader, at an event organized by the student-led Cesar Chavez Service Club.

One of the speakers was Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who spent 16 years working alongside Chavez in the 60's and 70's when the UFW was at the peak of its powers. He spoke of marches and boycotts past, but also about the existing need for young people to get involved in labor issues and embrace the idea of service to others.

After the breakfast, Ganz sat down with Fusion to talk about the farmworker movement and what the future could hold if a new generation of activists is willing to pick up the torch.


It’s been more than five decades since Cesar Chavez began organizing farmworkers in California, yet today they’re still among the most vulnerable workers in the country. What happened to the movement?

I think the Union was at its peak strength from about 1968 to 1983 or so, and after that it went into decline. We had an internal problem in the union—you know, there are a lot of people who have written about exactly what happened. But basically, there was a leadership crisis. It’s tragic, because for that period of say, 15 years, we made a huge difference in the lives of farmworkers and their families, the broader working community, and the community more generally. It’s like that Bob Dylan song: “You’re either busy being born or you’re busy dying”—you’re either growing or you’re shrinking. It began to go backwards around ’82, ’83, and… today [farm working] conditions are terrible. And the whole job has to be done all over again.


Where would you hope to see young organizers and activists focus their attention, in regards to the farming industry in particular?


If I think to the extent that people are committed and motivated, [young activists should be] picking up the effort to organize a farmworkers’ union. California still has the best labor laws in the country for organizing. That was one of the results of our struggle—the Agricultural Labor Act. It’s been screwed up and so forth in different ways but it’s still far above anything else in the country [regarding labor law]. And if a group of young people really wanted to take it on, [California] would be the place to do it.

If Cesar Chavez were alive today, what do you think he would be mobilizing people around?


If it was Cesar Chavez that was leading [the UFW] up until about 1976—if things hadn’t gone the way they had—a national union of farmworkers could well exist today; and if Cesar was the age that he would be now (89) he would sort of be reflecting on a life of accomplishment.

It’s a little hard to answer, because so much of what we do [as organizers] is in the context of the times we are in. I think the irony of all of this is that, that particular piece of work (organizing a farmworkers union) is undone… In the Imperial Valley there is more agricultural work today than there was when we were organizing. You see, there were all of these predictions that machines were going to [replace manual labor], but there are twice as many farmworkers in California today than when we were organizing (in the 60's and 70's). No one is actually motivated to do the organizing and no union is committed to doing it; the UFW can’t do it, and so it’s just out there and needs to be done. The wage in the Imperial Valley now is like $10 an hour. In 1980 we got it up to $5 an hour. That was 35 years ago. So it’s work that has to happen, and maybe your generation will pick it up.


What do you think of the movements young people have been building more recently: Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Dreamers? Are there lessons to be learned from the farmworker movement of the 60's and 70's?

Starting with the Dreamers, I think that’s a very interesting movement because that was young people who were threatened with their status, who found the courage to come out, to claim leadership, to organize, and to take on the people they were told not to take on, like the President. They didn’t succeed in all of their legislative efforts, but they made a hell of a lot of progress, and trained a whole lot of new people in organizing. That was a hell of a good campaign.


The Occupy [movement] was a little strange… There is a famous article by a feminist sociologist from the 1970’s about the Women’s Movement called The Tyranny of Structurelessness, and what she argues is that [with] any social movement, in the beginning, there is often a lot of resistance to any kind of structure because people experience any kind of structure as oppressive, and they want to change that [despite] the fact that you need structure in order to be able to organize. It’s sort of like freedom from becomes more real to them than freedom to be able to do something. I want to be free from this bullshit… [but] I need structure to do that. It happens in almost every movement. And the question of whether these movements will survive or not has a hell of a lot to do with solving the structure problem. And in Occupy they didn’t, in fact they sort of made a virtue out of not structuring.

With Black Lives Matter, I think, it’s an exciting and important movement, reawakening a whole generation to the realities of racism in the country—incredibly important that way. But I think they are struggling with this [structure] question. There are different groups, some are angry with other groups—this sort of stuff goes on within movements—and the question is whether they can get it together. What turns a moment into a real movement is the capacity to sustain itself, to become strategic, to focus, and to follow through on their actions. The Civil Rights Movement had multiple organizations with different tactics, different approaches and there was a period when it sort of converged and then there were periods when it didn’t. But this thing about “everything’s new”—I just don’t buy it. Of course it’s new, we’re all different but we’re also the same. The dynamics of trying to create deep social change are not that new. It’s been around for a long time. You go back to the Protestant Reformation and see some of the same dynamics to that resistance to structure, not wanting to have leadership, and the same stuff. And it’s natural—it’s just gotta be dealt with. That’s my take on that and I hope that Black Lives Matter [finds a mode of structure so that this movement can be sustained], I really do.                               


This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.

Gabriela Espinal, from San Diego, recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz where she earned degrees in art history and visual culture, and feminist studies. For the past three years Gabriela was a part of the student broadcasting organization Rainbow TV, a group that would film and edit live productions put on by the Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center at UCSC. More recently, Gabriela has been working with Media Arts Center San Diego in their Teen Producers Project, a program that gives local youth access to video cameras and editing software so they can engage in digital storytelling as a means of self-expression, communication and social change. As a fellow, Gabriela is interested in reporting on housing insecurity, immigration reform, human rights concerns along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the school to prison pipeline. Gabriela is very excited and grateful to be working with Fusion as a Rise Up: Be Heard fellow.


Jacob Simas is the project manager and editor of the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism fellowship at Fusion.