As UFW looks back, challenges loom ahead
Dolores Huerta, one of the founders of the United Farm Workers union, remains a force within the movement five decades later.
There was no doubt in Josefina Flores’ mind about making it to the 50-year
anniversary the farm-worker labor movement.
The 83-year-old former organizer has given her all to the movement founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Flores even took bullets in the early days, when workers struggled to reform labor standards for thousands of farm workers in California and beyond.
Over 3,000 people gathered at the United Farm Workers (UFW) convention this weekend in Bakersfield, Calif. to celebrate Chavez’s first organizing efforts in 1962 with just 200 campesinos that eventually sparked the farm worker movement. Flores joined in 1965 when she was just 26 years old.
Similar to how she had done with Chavez, Flores led her colleagues down the convention hall floor with one fist up and a UFW flag in her other hand. She wore a red vest with hundreds of colorful pins with slogans from the many campaigns she organized for over the years.
Josefina Flores, 83, recounted the difficulties she faced as a farm laborer in the 1960s.
The farm worker movement broke onto the national scene in 1965, when Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association joined a grape-pickers strike organized by a predominantly-Filipino American union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, in Delano, Calif.
The two unions merged to form United Farm Workers in 1966.
With mounting pressure from an international boycott effort, the Delano Grape Strike ended in in 1970 when growers agreed to improve living conditions and boost wages.
This success showed “the impossible had become possible,” said speakers at the conference. It encouraged farm laborers and their supporters in the years to
come to fight for better working standards.
In the decades since, the UFW has organized thousands of farm workers and negotiated contracts that required rest, access to clean drinking water, toilets, and shade basic industry standards.
However, like the five-year grape strike, successes were the result of difficult struggle and sacrifice.
“We suffered a lot. We were beaten and jailed. But the next day we were back there [on the picket line],” said Flores.
Flores remembered being shot seven times. Bullets pierced her left hand, arm, side and spine; injuries that left her unable to walk for two years, she said.
“We had to fight because if we didn’t our kids and our youth would suffer today,”
The UFW started services for farm workers that continue today including a pension and healthcare plan, a credit union, housing, and an educational fund.
Last year, UFW contracts covered about 27,000 farm workers, according to a spokesperson, though reports peg that as a lower number.
Arturo Rodriguez, the current president of the United Farm Workers union, is tasked with maintaining its relevancy in the 21st century economy.
“We wanted to honor those pioneers, continue to discuss and plan for our organizing work right now and have a vision that is as bold and as challenging as those pioneers did,” Arturo Rodriguez, President of the UFW, said of the convention.
Currently, the UFW faces three major challenges to continuing its work.
Immigration reform is one of the biggest challenges, said Rodriguez, who hopes to expand membership by at least 10,000 over the next four years.
“Unfortunately, when you don’t have legal status in the country you’re more vulnerable to farm-labor contractors or growers who want to exploit the fact that you don’t have the right to be here,” said Rodriguez.
Also, the food industry has rapidly expanded into a global enterprise that uses less manual labor than in past decades, which has limited the reach of UFW.
“We need to figure out how to prepare to represent outside the United States,” said Rodriguez.
Though farm laborers have achieved success in California, which is the only state where farm workers have a right to unionize, UFW has not been as successful in expanding into other states. And in California, farm workers represented by UFW still face tough conditions, according to a report in The Nation.
“In California we have representatives who support us,” Flores said. “But in other places people are suffering more or worse than what we suffered when we started this struggle.”
After a quick pause, she added.
“In my opinion if people suffer, they suffer because they don’t want to join the union.”
(Photos: Albert Sabaté)