On Cesar Chavez’s Birthday, Berry Pickers Demand More Than $8 a Day
On Tuesday, Cesar Chavez Day, hundreds of parades and events will take place in the U.S. and around the world to commemorate the labor and civil rights hero. In Los Angeles, Department of Motor Vehicles offices and other public buildings will be closed in his honor, and the Mexican American union leader will even have a courtyard named after him at the United States Department of Agriculture complex in Washington, D.C. It's fitting in light of his influence but not of his personal wishes: Before he died in 1993, Chavez strongly opposed having things named after him or receiving personal awards. Were he alive today, Chavez might skip the parades and ribbon cuttings altogether and instead head to Mexico to stand in solidarity with farmworkers like Bonifacio Martinez Cruz.
Cruz has emerged as a leader among thousands of farmworkers in Baja California who two weeks ago stopped working over objections to abysmal pay and poor conditions. The strike comes at nearly the height of harvest season, leaving tons of United States–bound produce rotting in the fields and forcing growers to hear their workers' demands for better pay. The demonstration has Chavez's fingerprints all over it, from the advisory role the United Farm Workers union has played in negotiations with growers to his legacy of empowerment that Cruz says inspires the striking workers.
"We know Cesar was a fighter for farmworkers in the U.S.," Cruz said Friday in a phone interview. "For us, he is a hero."
Cruz says he is paid between 100 and 110 pesos (less than $8) for up to 12 hours of picking strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries for San Quintín's giant BerryMex—fruit sold in the U.S. under the Driscoll’s label. Following December's series of stories on farmworker abuses in the region from the Los Angeles Times, a loose alliance of indigenous farmworkers—which calls itself Alliance of National, State, and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice—petitioned the Baja California state government with a list of issues they wanted to see addressed, including higher pay, the guarantee of government-required benefits, and protection for women from sexual assault.
According to the workers, they never received a response.
So, on March 17, thousands of them walked out—as many as 50,000 farmworkers by some estimates. Initially, the demonstrations turned violent, with workers clashing with police and military, blocking highways, and even occupying government buildings. It appears the protest has taken a more peaceful but equally fierce tone—principles espoused by Chavez.
Just as the demand for the berries and vegetables comes from the U.S., many of the tactics used in Mexico were learned north of the border. A number of the workers leading the strike have been involved in similar struggles in the U.S., including Fidel Sanchez, who worked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers.
"People have had enough," says Armando Elenes, national vice president of United Farm Workers. "They've been putting up with these conditions for many, many years, but things reached a boiling point. After so much, you've just got to do something. It's coalesced around the fact that you have a lot of indigenous workers. Now they've made a decision that they're not going to put up with it."
The negotiations have stalled, with farmworkers lowering their requested minimum daily pay to 200 pesos ($13) and growers unwilling to raise pay by more than 15 percent. Leadership gathered over the weekend to determine the group's next steps, while Elenes says workers participated in a caravan to several Baja California cities, including Ensenada and Tijuana, to raise awareness of their plight. According to Cruz, some farmworkers are being encouraged to return to the fields, while he and others will "continue going forward in asking the government to listen to us."
The struggle proceeds on other fronts as well. In Washington state, berry pickers subjected to "undignified work conditions" are embroiled in a labor contract dispute with Sakuma Brothers Farm. More than 10,000 consumers have petitioned Driscoll's, asking it not to do business with the supplier until a fair contract is reached. This week, farmworker and consumer advocacy groups are calling for stricter pesticide regulations in California after elevated levels of fumigants were detected in the agricultural community of Watsonville. The coalition of groups, which includes the UFW and Pesticide Action Network of North America, is playing up the Chavez symbolism too—he fasted in the name of pesticide reform for 36 days in 1987. The coalition announced results of a study and called for new regulations at a Tuesday press conference.
Elenes says that immediately after hearing the workers were striking, the UFW deployed staff to the region to sit with the worker leadership as it negotiated with growers. Additionally, the UFW is circulating a petition demanding that large grocery retailers, such as Walmart, Kroger, and Target, hold their Baja suppliers accountable for "abiding by the law, paying decent wages, and treating their workers with dignity." Just 48 hours after launching the petition, 20,000 people had signed. The market-based tactic is classic Cesar Chavez, as is the visual of ordinary workers standing up to demand their dignity.
"Obviously, when they're chanting, '¡Si, se puede!' throughout the world, it serves as an example of the inspiration that's been provided [by Chavez]," he says. "As Cesar always said, the work needs to continue even after he's gone. That's exactly what's happening. I believe these workers, some of them, were inspired by what Cesar did."