Sunday 29 March 2009
by: Leslie Berestein, The San Diego Union-Tribune
The dynamics of the farm labor population have changed since Cesar Chavez and others began organizing workers in California's fields.
In the early 1960s, a guest-worker program that had imported workers from Mexico since the days of World War II was drawing to a close. Those who were left picking crops were largely legal residents or U.S. citizens of Mexican and Filipino descent, along with working-class white and black Americans.
"Back then, probably 80 percent were documented, and about 20 percent were undocumented. Today it would be just the reverse," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, the nation's first farm labor union. The UFW was founded by Chavez, whose birthday is celebrated Tuesday.
The makeup of the nation's manual laborers - and in particular, farm laborers - changed as economic conditions in Mexico and other parts of Latin America coincided with a demand for cheap labor in the United States.
It is now estimated that as many as 90 percent of California's farmworkers are foreign-born, most of them here illegally. This resonates in San Diego County, home to more small farms than any other county in the United States, according to the San Diego County Farm Bureau. Agriculture has repeatedly ranked fourth or fifth among the county's top industries.
Nationwide, the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., has estimated that while only 4 percent of unauthorized workers are employed in agriculture, such workers make up the vast majority of farm labor.
As the labor force has changed, so has many organized labor groups'attitude toward unauthorized workers, whom they once viewed as low-paid competition and, in the case of farmworkers, as strikebreakers.
Along with prominent labor groups such as the Service Employees International Union, the UFW, which has about 27,000 members, is a vocal proponent of revamping immigration laws to grant legal status to those already working here.
While guest-worker plans continue to be a sticking point and dissent persists among trade unions in some industries, the general thinking in recent years has gone as such: If you can't beat the competition, let them join.
Unauthorized workers who are easily exploited give an unfair advantage to employers who hire them and drive down wages for other workers, say labor leaders who favor legalization. Giving them legal status and rights would level the playing field, while bringing them into the union fold would boost membership and bargaining muscle.
"There has been a significant change in the mind-set of the labor movement," Rodriguez said.
This is not a new position for the UFW, which lost ground in the 1980s to a combination of political resistance and growers' increasing preference for unauthorized workers as more arrived.
The union has supported initiatives calling for legalization, including the 1986 law that granted amnesty to roughly 3 million people residing in the United States illegally.
As with other labor groups that more recently have endorsed legalization, it is a position that evolved along with the work force. Early on, the UFW's stance was less sympathetic toward the illegal workers, who were viewed as competition.
But that view is often misconstrued, some scholars say.
In 1969, four years into a five-year grape strike, Chavez testified before Congress that if illegal workers were removed from California, "at least from the strike fields, we would win the strike overnight," said Jorge Mariscal, who teaches Chicano studies at UC San Diego.
"There is no question that in the early days, they had a strike going on. The growers were bringing in undocumented people to break the strike, so of course they had to be against that," said Mariscal, who cited the quote in a book he wrote about the Chicano movement, "Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun."
Anti-illegal-immigration activists have often referred to actions the union took at the border in protest of strikebreakers as justification for staging border watches.
During strikes against growers in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was common for growers to bring in workers from Mexico as scabs. In 1974, during a strike against citrus growers in Yuma, Ariz., UFW members stationed themselves at the Arizona-Mexico border.
"The UFW protested the inactivity of the (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and then began stopping Mexican undocumented workers at the border, trying to convince them not to scab," reads a passage from "Cesar Chavez: A Triumph of Spirit," a biography of Chavez co-written by Richard Griswold del Castillo, a professor of Chicano studies at San Diego State University. Some strikebreakers did turn back, but there were also violent confrontations, according to the book.
The position union members took against strikebreakers was born not out of qualms over legal status but out of self-preservation, Rodriguez said.
"If you bring in people more hungry than the ones already here, those workers are forced to do what is necessary to take care of their families," he said.
Today, legalizing workers once seen as competitors has become a priority; the UFW kicked off a new pro-legalization campaign this month.
It is also viewed as a necessity.
"We think this is really critical for the future," Rodriguez said.
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