In the 1960’s, counterculture movements defined the political and economic climate in the United States. The ‘Chicano Movement’ or ‘El Movimiento’ leveraged the labor, economic and political liberties of ethnic Mexicans in America. Labor leaders like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong drew attention to the plight of the mostly Mexican and Filipino farmworkers in rural California. Chavez led peaceful demonstrations to promote farmworkers’ rights and advocated for improved working conditions and fair wages. Activists endured hunger strikes, prosecution, and violence at the hands of counter protestors and law enforcement. In 1966, the National Farm Workers Association, founded by Chavez, and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee merged to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and later the United Farm Workers.
Today, there is still no federal standard to protect unionization among farmworkers, which means there is no guarantee for overtime pay or health, disability, or worker compensation benefits. Several states, however, have enacted measures, including Arizona, California, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Maine, Oregon, and Wisconsin. According to BLS data, as of 2019, an approximate 1.7% of agricultural workers are members of unions.
The transitory nature of the farmworker community, compounded by a lack of documentation and federal protection, compound the challenges that unions face in organizing workers. Fear of reprisal and loss of employment fuel the disincentive for workers to join labor unions. And, with limited English proficiency plus information and resource deficits, farmworkers are susceptible to violations of their rights.
To fill the gap, initiatives like AFOP’s National Farmworker Training Program and the Children in the Fields Campaign also empower the farmworker community. The training program provides critical health and safety training, resources and information for workers in the field. Children in the Fields promotes “the plight of this hidden population” through education, advocacy, awareness and expression.
The fight for civil rights is not over. The forgotten heroes of generations past and the under-served communities of today are united by adversity and the struggle for fundamental protections under the law. Until farmworkers are granted these rights and until every single one is treated fairly, AFOP vows to continue the fight.