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This César Chávez Day, Let’s Recommit Ourselves to Ensuring Dignity and Protection for Essential Farmworkers

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Ahead of César Chávez Day this Sunday, several rallies around the country have been shining an important light on the late labor leader’s continued legacy, the vital contributions of farmworkers, and the ongoing need for justice, dignity, and full rights for these essential laborers. 

United Farm Workers (UFW) hosted an event in Sunnyside, Washington, where the labor organization has been fighting for the rights of mushroom workers who have faced retaliation after attempting to unionize. “The effort to unionize came after Washington Attorney General Bob Fergusons sued Ostrom, alleging the company discriminated against domestic workers and women and deceived workers when it came to job requirements and wages,” Yakima Herald-Republic reported. But while the farm agreed to settle with Washington for $3.4 million, UFW said farm management fired workers who were vocal in the unionization effort over supposed productivity concerns.

“These people who work day in, day out, who during the pandemic were considered essential workers and they were working every day and they’re not treated with the respect or dignity they deserve,” UFW President Teresa Romero said at the rally. “They want it. And they’re fighting for it.”

In Lansing, Michigan, community members said their event commemorating Chávez was an important way to recognize “the impact he had on labor rights for migrant workers,” WILX reported. “By him being an activist for migrant workers, he fought for their right to come and produce these fruits and vegetables and they were getting paid pennies on $1,” Rosa Vines told WILX. In Texas, LUPE’s annual César Chávez March linked his fight for farmworker justice to the struggles facing borderland communities today, including the state’s draconian “show me your papers” law currently blocked by the courts

“Despite challenges such as SB4 and Operation Lonestar, our community demonstrated powerful unity, serving as a symbol of our collective strength in denouncing these anti-immigrant policies this past Saturday,” LUPE said in an email received by America’s Voice. “It was a reminder that together we can advance our vision for America, a country that celebrates our diversity, contributions, and experiences.”

In a California town central to the legacy of Chávez, Oxnard community members said they’ll march this weekend, “rain or shine,” KEYT reports. Marchers are set to meet “at Cesar Chavez School, where a statue of him is located,” the report said. While Chávez was born in Arizona, his family moved to Oxnard when he was boy to work as avocado pickers. As an adult, Chávez organized farmworkers in the area. 

“We see from the experience in Oxnard, Cesar Chavez took the power of the march and used it in Delano,” home of the famous grape strike, said Dr. Frank Barajas, professor of history at the California State University Channel Islands. “We believe very strongly that we got to invest in the future of our kids…that was Cesar Chavez’s dream,” Javier Gomez, Founder of Inlakech Cultural Arts Center, told KEYT. “How do we change the world? How do we change today? We change it by educating the kids.”

Dr. Monica Brown, a professor at Northern Arizona University, said the work of Chavez and Huerta “influenced laws [throughout] the entire country and created better conditions for farmworkers and their families. It was here in Arizona that Dolores Huerta first said the famous words, ‘Sí se puede!’ while speaking to a group of workers in Phoenix who kept saying, ‘We can’t organize the workers here. We can’t. No se puede!’ Dolores responded, ‘Sí se puede! Yes you can!’”

Farmworkers have recently won important unionization victories in California and New York. But we know the fight for dignity and full protection isn’t over. Extreme heat during the past several years has taken the lives of a number of farmworkers, including Efrain López García, who died while laboring in the fields last year. The Florida worker was harvesting a tropical fruit called Longan when he told his coworkers he wasn’t feeling well. “The workers weren’t sure what to do,” the Miami Herald reported. “Their bosses, they said, had never trained them on how to recognize the signs of heat stroke or administer first aid in an emergency.”

While lawmakers have introduced the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act in the past, which would require OSHA to implement a national heat stress standard, no such standard is currently in place at the federal level. 

Despite their essential work feeding America, millions of farmworkers are also vulnerable to employer exploitation and deportation due to our outdated immigration system. At least half of the nation’s roughly 2.4 million farmworkers are estimated to lack legal immigration status. In California, that number could be as high as 75%. These often overlooked farmworkers also fed us during the pandemic and were among the essential workers who risked their lives to keep our vital food sector running. 

Many became sick. “California’s agricultural workers have contracted Covid-19 at nearly three times the rate of other residents in the state, a new study has found, laying bare the risks facing those who keep a $50bn industry afloat,” The Guardian reported in 2020. While many U.S. workers were able to shelter, that’s just not a possibility for farmworkers. “You can’t pick strawberries over Zoom,” one advocate said that same year.

It’s necessary to recognize and honor the labor of essential workers, but we can and must do more. This César Chávez Day, let’s recommit ourselves to ensuring that farmworkers and other essential workers finally win the dignity, respect, and full protection they deserve. As Chávez once said, “the fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”