Thursday, April 1, 2010

Si Se Puede and Blueberries

With much appreciation the United Farmworkers (“UFW”) website announced yesterday that in a meeting with UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta and UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, President Obama was going to officially proclaim March 31, 2010, as Cesar Chavez Day.

The announcement is stellar but also comes with a fragile hope that it will draw much needed attention to the population that feeds the nation under grueling conditions. Farm work is dangerous employment whether resulting inter alia from pesticide exposure or the physical demands cultivating and harvesting commodities exacts on the human condition. Its no secret the extent to which the environment can injure field workers.

Heat exhaustion for example has resulted in field workers’ deaths while toiling in 100 degrees tying grapes to vines or harvesting commodities. Intensive heat caused the 2008 death of seventeen-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez who had been working in the California grape fields. The death of fifty-four year old Eladio Hernandez also bears witness to the failure of agricultural employers expediting breaks or permitting access to shade and other heat relief measures. While the state has strict heat related laws and while agricultural leaders might assert such deaths are rare the fact remains life saving equipment was not available in the rural fields where both collapsed. The distance from medical care with attendant delays in seeking treatment for Maria and Eladio may have also expedited their deaths.

Further harm to farmworkers includes funding decreases for summer school programs denying their children alternatives from working alongside their parents. For decades lacking childcare or the impoverishment of the families has caused children to accompany their parents in fieldwork. Last fall young children were discovered and photographed picking blueberries in a Michigan field that included a five-year-old child. The photograph revealed in each of her tiny hands a bucket of berries thereby causing further anguish for those who enjoy consuming the fruit of her labor. Ultimately the employer was fined but additional questions surface as to what happened to this little person and her familia.

Declaring March 30th Cesar Chavez Day is thereby additionally important as a reminder that farm laborers are critical to feeding the nation and expediting global agricultural markets. Yet federal law precludes their attempts in improving their terms and conditions of employment or fail to allow lack child care for their precious children. Grounded in the “golden period” of the New Deal a host of agricultural laws privileged small owner operators with exemptions from law applicable to other industries. The National Labor Relations Act for example in defining who is included also provides that the Act “. . . .shall not include any individual employed as an agricultural laborer.”[1] Yet in contrast the farming of today is an entirely different enterprise than what motivated the 1930-1940 exemptions and underscore changes are mandated in the present. In turn a huge agricultural history illustrates farmworker activism witnessing brutality, violence and as in the present, resistance to legislative attempts in improving their conditions.[2] This history also shows while the majority of farmworkers are of Mexican and Indigenous origins, farmworker communities are diverse that include among others, Jamaicans, Haitians, Asians who have collectively advocated for change.

With this very important Presidential Proclamation an opportunity in turn thereby emerges. Specifically the USDA, nutritionists and others strongly encourage the increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables. Yet these commodities rely extensively on migrants and seasonal workers and while some employers are sanctioned, limiting remedial relief to sanctions merely repeats the status quo. For example, while OSHA and the Department of Labor might ultimately levy fines against violators of child labor laws or environmental harms, the reality of farm labor conditions remains. Farmworkers and yes even in limited circumstances their employers of small independent operations need assistance to challenge and transform agricultural exceptionalism in meeting the reality of agricultural labor in the present.

During his 2008 election campaign President Obama adopted Cesar Chavez’s “si se puede” with amazing results. In this instance, and perhaps on the strength of “si si puede” change for the nation’s farmworkers is not only critically important but also possible.

[1]National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 152 (3) (2010).

[2]Emily Claire Atkin, Farmworker Bill Amended, Resistance Doesn’t Fade Away,, Jan. 19, 2010.

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