Farm workers rally for social justice
By Daily Bruin Staff
April 13, 1997 9:00 p.m.
Farm workers rally for social justice
Strawberry industry pressured to improve pay, conditions
By Hector Ronquillo
Daily Bruin Contributor
WATSONVILLE, Calif. — United by a will for social equality,
30,000 farm workers and union supporters marched through this
sleepy farming town yesterday to protest poor living conditions and
low wages for strawberry workers in the largest display of
solidarity by farm workers in American history.
After years of substandard working conditions, workers hope to
pressure the strawberry industry to increase wages and job security
for workers, abolish sexual harassment and child labor, grant
health insurance, provide clean bathrooms and water, and stop the
use of deadly pesticides.
If the industry chooses to ignore the workers’ demands, the
United Farm Workers (UFW) plan to strike back with a boycott of the
fruit, a time-honored tactic dating back to Cesar Chavez’s struggle
against California grape growers in the 1960s, said UFW organizer
and UCLA alumna Jeanette Conchas.
Rob Roberts, a talk show host for KSLO 1080 AM in nearby Santa
Cruz, stood against the farm workers, saying that the unions came
While strawberry growers left town for the weekend march,
Roberts and a group of 15 people stood by the side of the road,
protesting the UFW’s efforts.
"Most workers are not even in favor of the union," Roberts said.
"The union just wants to show off their power."
The average farm worker earns $8,500 for a nine-month season,
according to state estimates. A survey conducted in 1993 by the
Santa Cruz County Farmworker Housing Committee found the average
yearly income for a family of four to be $14,092, nearly $1,500
below the poverty line.
Most workers have not had a significant raise in the last decade
and income has actually decreased after inflation, UFW officials
As a result, teenagers and children as young as 7 years old
often have to labor in the fields to help provide for workers’
basic necessities, according to the AFL-CIO and the UFW.
To increase wages, the UFW is proposing a 5-cent increase per
pint of strawberries. According to the California Institute for
Rural Studies, an independent research organization in Davis, the
5-cent increase would increase wages by 50 percent without
effecting the industry’s profits.
UFW officials and farm workers also charge that sexual
harassment is rampant at the farms, with some women workers facing
employers’ demands for sex in exchange for work.
Strawberry growers are also the farming industry’s largest users
of pesticides – especially methyl bromide, which was scheduled to
be banned in 1996. But in a special session, the California
Legislature allowed Gov. Pete Wilson to delay the ban for two
The use of pesticides has been shown to have negative effects,
including birth defects in babies whose parents came into contact
with the chemicals, on the health of farm workers. The lack of
adequate health insurance creates an added burden for the
At McFarland Farm, "the number of farm workers who develop
cancer because of contact with pesticides is 1,200 percent higher
than the national average," Conchas said.
In the past, the UFW has targeted the strawberry growers – the
workers’ employers – for the improvements. But the UFW has learned
that the growers often find ways to maneuver out of a situation
where workers have strong support from the labor union.
"In four elections where the farm workers have voted to have the
UFW support them, the growers have destroyed their own fields and
crops, forcing 500 workers from their jobs," said UFW co-founder
Dolores Huerta, who helped organize the march through
But rather than contend against 270 strawberry growers, the UFW
is concentrating their efforts against the eight corporations that
have complete control over the growers and the industry.
The corporations control everything from farmers’ wages to the
use of pesticides. In addition, they have complete power over the
distribution and marketing of the fruit, according to the AFL-CIO
and the UFW.
Strawberry growers argue that living conditions vary from farm
to farm, and that a minority of farmers are giving the entire group
a bad reputation, Roberts said.
They feel that rather than take action against all the farms,
the union should focus its efforts on those farms where the living
and working conditions are truly harmful.
But the UFW disagrees with the growers’ claims, noting that
every farm creates some form of injustice for the workers through
unhealthy living conditions, Conchas said.
Even mere talk of the UFW starting a union at an area farm
creates tension at all farms, workers claim.
"Every time there is talk of forming a union, the growers would
tell us that it would only make things worse," said Luis Hernandez,
a mushroom picker for 24 years who had to quit his job because of
back problems.JUSTIN WARREN/Daily Bruin
UCLA students board a bus to Watsonville at Dodger Stadium
Sunday morning, joining 30,000 others in protesting farm workers’