More to be done on 40th anniversary of farmworkers' strike
July 14, 2005
August will mark the 40th anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike, but the effort to ensure the rights of farmwokers is still not over.
The strike lasted five years, involved more than 5,000 farmworkers and successfully led to the first collective bargaining agreements for farmworkers in U.S. history.
Unlike almost any other job in the United States, workers toiling the fields had no real rights prior to this momentous event. Laws that protected other workers did not apply to farmworkers.
As a result, many farmworkers were subject to hazardous working conditions, harmful toxics, child labor and poverty wages. Required breaks and working hour restrictions also did not apply.
In 1942, because of labor shortages from World War II, Congress created the Bracero Program, which allowed millions of Mexican workers to enter the United States to work in the fields and in other labor-intensive industries.
This program exacerbated the disparity and the horrible conditions many migrant workers found themselves in. At times, entire families would get paid only 20 cents for three hours of work.
The Delano Grape Strike and the historic march to Sacramento, Calif., brought the abuses of migrant farmworkers to the national forefront.
Millions of people across the country participated in marches and boycotts in supportof the workers.
Because of those efforts, California is the only state in the country that has a labor law that applies to farmworkers and ensures protections.
But today in the United States, only 2 percent of all agriculture companies are unionized. Now we are facing another Bracero Program with President Bush's proposed temporary worker program, which would expand the industry that migrant workers can work to include not just agriculture but all other industries. Not unlike the previous Bracero Program that was described by its last director, Lee G. Williams, as a system of "legalized slavery," Bush's program could again put migrants in jeopardy and undermine years of farmworker organizing.
What's more, such treaties as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are undercutting working class and poor communities across borders and eliminating any social programs designed to keep people thriving in their home communities. By paying poverty wages in impoverished economies, U.S. businesses and corporations are essentially creating a mass migration of Mexican workers into the United States in search of better paying jobs, as well as destroying thousands of U.S. jobs. Unfortunately, these unemployed workers then become prey to worker abuses -- both domestically and abroad.
As we speak, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) -- the expansion of NAFTA into Central America and the Dominican Republic -- has passed the Senate and is in the House for final review, despite massive citizen outcry.
And a month ago, the United Farm Workers launched its campaign against Gallo Wineries, insisting on collective bargaining agreements for its workers.
We cannot forget the sweat, blood and struggle of so many that have fought for labor rights in the history of the United States. As Americans, we need to continue the fight for the dignity of farmworkers and fellow workers everywhere.
Claudia Rodriguez-Zinn is the Youth Leadership Program coordinator at Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org). The Youth Leadership Program looks at ways corporate-driven globalization impacts youth and youth opportunities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.