If You Care About the Conditions of Farm Workers, It's Probably Thanks to These Amazing People

Leaders of the modern food labor movement talk about the legacy of Cesar Chavez, and new challenges to protecting worker rights.

A mariachi band performs under a United Farm Workers banner at a rally in Salinas, Calif., in 1975. The UFW was cofounded by American labor leader Cesar Chavez. (Photo: Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

Mar 28, 2014· 6 MIN READ
Twilight Greenaway is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She has worked as a writer and editor on the web since 2000.

Gerardo Reyes-Chávez doesn’t have much time to talk about Cesar Chavez. When caught on the phone recently, the farmworker and organizer with Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers was on a bus, riding between destinations on a 10-day, 10-city tour of the South and the Midwest.

The farm labor activist was on the road drawing attention to the fact that two large companies—Wendy’s and Publix Market—have so far refused to sign on to a fair food agreement meant to boost the livelihoods and improve the working conditions of tomato workers in Immokalee, Fla. Reyes-Chávez was traveling with around 60 other workers and their allies during a colder-than-average month of March, sleeping in churches and community centers.

(Despite the shared vocations and surname, Reyes-Chávez isn’t related to the founder of the United Farm Workers.)

When asked about Cesar Chavez' work to lead consumers in a campaign to win rights for grape harvesters in California some 50 years ago, he didn’t want to spend much time on the comparison. Although the coalition had early success in the 1990s encouraging students to boycott Taco Bell, he said that approach came up in the group before anyone had an opportunity to learn about the historical tactics of the UFW.

“There’s a law in physics that said that energy doesn’t go away, it just changes shape,” said Reyes-Chávez. “The work of Cesar Chavez and the early UFW didn’t go away. Our coalition is the new shape of that energy.”

It’s not that Reyes-Chávez doesn’t see Chavez’s work as important. During a campaign, he and his co-leaders don't have much time to talk to the media unless it’s to shine a laser-like light on their corporate targets—the world’s largest fast food and retail companies. In the last two years alone, they have successfully put pressure on companies ranging from Trader Joe’s to Chipotle to Walmart to sign their Fair Food Agreement. The agreement protects worker rights and provides them with one penny more per pound for the tomatoes they pick.

The Global Food Chain

Time isn’t the only limiting factor when asking today’s food labor activism to talk about the early days of the UFW. As Jose Oliva from Restaurant Opportunity Center United, known as ROC United, sees it, many of the tactics have remained the same, but the modern food chain is so much more complex that today’s activists might as well be on another planet.

ROC United has formed an alliance with several groups, including the Immokalee Workers. Together they represent farmworkers, warehouse workers, processing workers, grocery store workers, and restaurant workers. “The principle of figuring out who the top dog is and figuring out how to hit each part of the food chain still applies,” Oliva said.

But that’s about it. “In the '60s and '70s it was fairly easy to identify a supply chain, to say grapes are being taken from these fields and they’re ending up in these grocery stores. You had a direct link to the top entity,” he said. It’s not quite so simple anymore.

Understanding the often-opaque global supply chain means knowing exactly how easy it would be for a retailer to replace a supply of tomatoes from abroad, or bring in foreign workers when the domestic workforce pushes back. It also means painting a complete picture for workers of the chain as a whole.

“There’s this notion that people act primarily on their self-interest,” said Oliva. “If we’re talking about restaurant workers, they’re not necessarily going to act on behalf of farmworkers unless you’re able to explain the whole supply chain for them, so that you go beyond solidarity. It’s about really creating one common campaign that will benefit everyone.”

After all, farmworkers did gain significant rights thanks to the UFW. But today, many of them still work long hours under brutal conditions for very little pay. Meanwhile, seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in America are in food.

That’s why the Food Chain Workers Alliance is targeting the world's largest full-service restaurant corporation, Darden Restaurants, parent company of Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, and Red Lobster, among others.

He said organizations like his are still inspired by Chavez’s practice of empowering workers to fight their own battles.

“He came from the farmworker community, and his work was focused on farmworkers. That example of being the agent of change in your own community is something we’re extremely committed to. We don’t believe we need a savior from the outside. We’re not looking to politicians to save us,” said Oliva.

But the context in which today’s worker groups are organizing is different enough to make that fierce autonomy a double-edged sword.

The Disappearance of Labor Unions

As Frank Bardacke, author of Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, sees it, unions made all the difference in the 1960s.

“During the UFW grape boycott, which lasted about four to five years, they got a tremendous amount of support from the United Auto Workers,” he said, “around $1,000 a month, which was a lot of money back in the day. The unions were also important in terms of making up their picket lines and supporting their boycotts.”

Today, the number of labor unions, and the membership of once gigantic organizations like the auto workers union, has shrunk considerably, leaving behind a great deal of questions about what, if anything, will replace them. Less than 7 percent of the private sector is unionized, compared with around 30 percent in the 1960s.

“I think the challenges are in some way greater than they were back in the UFW’s heyday,” said Sandy Brown, professor at University of San Francisco and an early employee at the first organic farm to work with the UFW.

“That said, there are opportunities. A lot of the organizing I see is a patchwork of smaller, local-level organizations. They’re not unions, and they’re not trying to become unions,” Brown said. She points to the work of decentralized groups, such as Fast Food Forward, which have staged a series of well-publicized strikes and walkouts in the last year. Although the group has received support from the Service Employees International Union, it has resisted official affiliation.

In some ways these groups make sense to Brown. They provide more flexibility; they’re not weighted down by a history of trade unionism that few younger Americans appear to understand. But it can also be chaotic and “atomized,” she said.

Most important, “workers engaged in walkouts and strikes unaffiliated with organizations that are explicitly intended to engage workers in collective action and bargaining with employers don’t really have any rights,” Brown said.

In the case of the Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Agreement, she said, “it does include some mechanisms for involving workers in future negotiations, but it’s not collective bargaining. It's not building power in the workplace in the same way that a union might be able to do.” The workers can also register a complaint 24 hours a day, endangering growers’ status as suppliers for the big brands, but Brown points out that the agreement isn’t mediated by the public sector. “Without any non-market mechanisms for accountability, the workers are vulnerable,” she said. “If the public stops paying attention, you don’t have a labor relations board to mediate something for you.”

Bardacke, on the other hand, is heartened by what he sees. Whereas the outside union involvement with the UFW initially offered a lot of strength, he also believes that Chavez soon became too enamored with the process of planning boycotts and stopped organizing the “rank and file” farmworkers on the ground.

Today’s food labor organizers don’t have that choice. “The recent fast-food-worker strikes and the Food Chain Workers Alliance is very promising in really bad times,” he said. “The fast-food workers put minimum wage back on the national agenda.”

These groups, he said, are “experimenting with how you can wage power on a job even without a union. I think people have to fight and lose and fight and lose and learn how to work better.”

The Movement Cycle

Aside from the prevalence of labor unions in his day, Dorian Warren, a Columbia University professor who researches labor and race, points to the fact that Cesar Chavez was working in a different cultural moment than today’s food workers.

“Farmworkers were part of what I call a movement cycle,” said Warren. “There were several social movements either winding down or picking up at that time. The Chicano movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and, later, the gay liberation movements. More was more in the air in terms of movement culture.”

Furthermore, the UFW was “more than just a group of farmworkers coming together as farmworkers,” he said. “There was definitely a cultural element; that sense of identity and pride helped them come together. There’s not a clear sense of that with the fast-food strikes now; their only shared identity right now is as low-wage workers.”

But Warren also compares the diffuse fast food organizing to the Occupy movement, which he credits with raising the issue of inequality nationally in a new way.

“It’s now part of the national conversation,” said Warren. “We have politicians running, and winning, on the theme of inequality—like Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, who actively supports fast-food workers.”

On a similar note, Brown points to the fact that today’s food workers are harnessing a growing interest in food justice, as part of the good food movement. “I don’t think it would be possible [for food labor organizers] to do what they’re doing if we hadn’t had 10 years of alternative food activism around other food issues,” she said.

ROC United’s Oliva thinks the moment is ripe for big changes. He points out that the restaurant industry now accounts for the largest percentage of private sector employees in the nation: “Including Yum! Brands, Darden, and McDonald's, restaurants account for 13 percent of all of the workforce.” The only other time a single industry has held so much power was in the postwar era, when the auto industry accounted for one-sixth—or nearly 17 percent—of the jobs in the U.S. by 1960. Of course, that’s also when the UAW numbers hit their peak, with 35 percent of the nation's nonagricultural enrolled at the time, and the middle class in the country blossomed.

On Cesar Chavez Day, this coming Monday, ROC United and others in the Food Chain Workers Alliance will be delivering a petition to raise the minimum wage to Congress.

“It is in some ways a Chavez moment,” Oliva said, describing the national trend toward wage stagnation, which he believes is especially problematic within the food industry. "Campaigns like these will decide the future of the middle class in this country, as in, Will we have one or not?”

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is involved in the production and marketing of Cesar Chavez.