Saturday, October 30, 2010

Two Steps Forward? Part Two

Earlier this month I wrote about a dialogue at the annual LatCrit conference on the subject of whether Latinos/as have a better life in the United States than they did some 50 years ago. I disagreed with remarks at the conference celebrating progress made, at least from the eyes of undocumented immigrants. Here I look from the similar perspective of the U.S. farm worker, most of them Latino/a and many of them undocumented. When César Chávez and Dolores Huerta started organizing Latino/a farm workers in the early 1960s in Delano, California, few were unionized and their work pay and conditions were miserable.

No doubt in the last 50 years some slight progress has been made—the grape boycott brought national attention to the plight of farm worker. The United Farm Workers union, among other achievements, helped outlaw use of the back-breaking short-handled hoe in California fields. At the same time, miserable conditions prevail today for U.S. farm workers. By 2005, only 2 percent of California’s field laborers were represented by a union. Wages are abysmal, with most farm workers making less than $10,000 a year. Labor contractors manipulate any wage protections by charging excessively for transportation and work equipment. A 2004 UC Berkeley study found that in addition to the sex trade, forced labor is prevalent in other U.S. labor sectors, including agriculture (10 percent) where Latino/a immigrants are often victims of involuntary servitude. Farm workers have slipped from the national consciousness after their brief heyday in the 1960s and 70s during the grape strike and the high-profile organizing efforts of the UFW.

But a green sprout has pushed through in Oregon. At a ceremony I attended earlier this year, our local union, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) broke ground on a leadership institute building and last Friday held a forum to begin galvanizing volunteers to support the institute. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times blasted the UFW for straying from the roots of organizing farm workers and for engaging in such endeavors “far from the fields” as owning a Spanish-language radio station and trying to create a larger anti-poverty social movement. PCUN’s Radio Movimiento, an FM station, and its leadership institute, might be similarly criticized by those with a shallow understanding of the history of the challenges farm labor unions face. Only a struggle that aims to unite the Latino immigrant community in its allied industries and to teach the history of the movement struggles can gain ground against the seemingly intractable dynamics of agri-business and the globalized economy that have ravaged farm workers. I am looking forward to contributing to the leadership institute to help create a new generation of movement leaders to continue the honorable struggle of workers in the fields and beyond. ¡Viva la Causa!