Why working in the fields is no laughing matter

My family and many others spent well over 25 years organizing and eventually founding the United Farm Workers Independent Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, based in San Jose, Calif. Led by Oscar Gonzalez, from 1961 to 1983, we were able to organize committees throughout California, specifically in the coastal areas from Northern California down to the Mexican border.

It was during that time, in 1966, that the UFW, IBT merged with the National Farm Workers association led by César E. Chávez and others and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, thereafter becoming the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

Since having worked alongside “braceros” in the vegetable industry in Oxnard, Calif., in the early 1960s, I was able to understand the issues involved in foreign contract labor then embodied in the Bracero Program. At that time people like the Hon. Dr. Ernesto Galarza, César E. Chávez, Gilbert Padilla, John Soria and others opposed this inhumane system of indentured servitude, which did not allow workers protections, the right to decent wages, or the right to decide whether to have a union of their choosing represent their interests.

Although the Bracero Program was abolished through the efforts of Galarza, Chávez, Padilla and others, it has now resurfaced as the “guest worker” program.

Recently, Arturo Rodriguez, president of the UFW, appeared on Comedy Central’s Steven Colbert Report to encourage U.S. workers to take jobs in agriculture.

Along with UFW’s “Take Our Jobs” Campaign, the union comes out in support of proposed federal legislation called Ag-Jobs.

In essence, Ag-Jobs would allow the recruitment of foreign workers from countries like Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam to labor in U.S. fields as “guest workers.”

In coming out in support of Ag-Jobs, ironically the UFW is taking on a contradictory role, being a union in defense of farm workers’ rights and now acting as agents in the recruitment of foreign agricultural workers for the U.S. corporate agri-business-industry.

Ag-Jobs is heavily supported by the National Farm Bureau, California Nisei League, Western Growers Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and President Obama.

The need for an overhaul of our immigration laws is not in question here. The issue is that at a time when unemployment is estimated at between 18 percent and 21 percent in California’s Central Valley and there are over 10 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. it is a complete farce to mislead the public by promoting and pushing for importing cheap foreign labor through a guest worker (Ag-Jobs) program.

What we need are decent wages and working conditions and humane immigration reform.

A great example is the recently introduced State Bill 1121 by State Sen. Dean Florez, which would allow agricultural workers to earn overtime for more than eight hours worked in a day and 40 hours in the work week. However, the same corporate growers who are in favor of guest workers testified in opposition to this bill, while continuing to work farm workers overtime at 10 hours per day and over 60 hours per work week. Corporate growers have testified and argued that “agriculture is very unique,” in other words, agricultural workers, who are majority Mexicans and other people of color, can be treated with indifference.

The real issue is organizing and representing workers and the workers’ right to negotiate a union contract. The real issue is legalization for all immigrants who are here to work because their home economies are being devastated by free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA.

The real issue is the millions of American workers who are unemployed and struggling to feed their families, while the White House and Congress bail out Wall Street to the tune of billions of dollars.

I, and others, believe that the UFW needs to concentrate on organizing and representing workers. The real issue is decent wages, benefits, safety protections, and the right to unionize, NOT more guest worker programs that exploit workers who are not free to unionize and who are completely in the hands of the employer who is free to hire and fire at will.

If agricultural growers paid a decent wage, U.S. workers would apply for those jobs and there would be no need for guest workers.

Al Rojas was formerly a farmworker, and UFW labor organizer from 1961 to 1979, coordinator for the Pittsburgh Grape Boycott from 1968-1970, SEIU Local 1000 labor leader and former California State Deputy Labor Commissioner. He is currently vice-president of the Sacramento Labor Council for Latin American Advancement chapter.

Photo: A farmworker harvests spinach on a field in Colorado. (Howard F. Schwartz/Colorado State University/CC)