Farmworker Justice & the Ecology Center Farmers’ Markets

For the twenty-five years that the Ecology Center has managed the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets, justice has been a guiding value. The safety and health of farmworkers is a key tenet of sustainable agriculture, but also the farmworkers’ ability to have a voice and to demand fair treatment.

Information about the people who work the farms is featured on our farm fact sheets, which you can access online or read at each vendors’ booth at the farmers’ markets, under the heading “people.”

Both Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm provide a living wage and health care benefits to full-time employees, and strive to offer year-round employment to as many people as possible. As a result, the majority of their workers are year round. Both farms have over 50 year-round employees.

The road from farmworker to farmer is a tough one, but a journey that two of our vendors have made. Maria Catalan of Catalan Family Farm and Efren Avalos of Avalos Organic Farm both worked as farm laborers in California before completing a training program through the Rural Development Center in Salinas now known as the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association. Maria is now one of the first Latina migrant farm laborers to eventually own her own farm. Efren spent 12 years as a farmworker for a large California strawberry grower, and he now owns his own 16 acre farm in Hollister. For both Efren and Maria, the Ecology Center Farmers’ Markets were the first place that they sold after starting their own operation.

The workers at Swanton Berry Farm, another vendor at the Ecology Center Farmers’ Markets, are unionized and represented by the United Farmworkers of America. On their website, Swanton states, “The existence of a union contract formalized our commitment to the human side of the farming equation, much as the process of organic certification formalized our commitment to a set of farming practices. It sets our an extensive system to which both parties agree, and provides a framework, which goes beyond the informal goodwill of an employer.”

On Tuesday March 27th, the Ecology Center will host its 3rd annual celebration of César Chávez day at the South Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Artists, speakers and performers from community based organizations dedicated to building a strong social, economic and civil rights movement will gather to commemorate the life and work of this extraordinary public figure and the farmworkers he fought to represent.

In many ways, free and cheap agricultural labor has been the foundation of food production in the United States. Exploitation of farmworkers has its roots in slavery, grew into indentured servitude and sharecropping, and persisted in the creation of an agricultural industry that is structurally dependant on low wage labor. Farmworkers’ attempts to unionize in the early 1900s were largely unsuccessful, as employers were not required to negotiate with workers. When the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1936, most Americans obtained the right to join unions and bargain collectively. Farmworkers, however, were specifically excluded from the legislation in order to gain support from Southern politicians.

In 1941, the United States and Mexican governments started the “bracero” program, which brought approximately 192,000 Mexican citizens to work fields in the US. The program was initially developed to address labor shortages during World War II, but remained in effect until 1964 because of its popularity among growers. Theoretically, workers were to be provided with standard contracts to ensure fair wages, decent hours, and access to transportation, emergency medical care and other benefits. Few of these protections were actually enforced, and the essentially unlimited pool of laborers willing to work enabled landowners to undercut wages and break strikes. Early attempts to organize in California by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union and National Farm Labor Union failed, largely because the seasonal nature of farm work, the fact that most farmworkers had to move constantly to support themselves, and the existence of huge labor surpluses. Obtaining better conditions for farmworkers would require a different approach.

César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla were heavily influenced by the Community Service Organization (CSO), which operated in Mexican American neighborhoods in California during the 1950s. The organization helped people deal with everyday problems like access to education for their kids, filing taxes, and studying to obtain American citizenship. The first incarnation of the United Farmworkers’ Union was a completely different, community-based approach to organizing, and it was called the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA). The association slowly gained traction between 1962, when it was founded, and 1965 as César Chávez and other organizers traveled around California’s farmworker communities, reaching out to working people.

It wasn’t until September of 1965 that farmworkers began to successfully come together to challenge abuse in their industry. Another organization, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), made up of mostly Filipino immigrants, called a strike to challenge the Delano table grape growers, and the NFWA voted to join them. The two organizations merged in 1966, creating the UFWOC, all the while creating alliances with church groups, student activists, other organized labor, and consumers. In 1968, Chávez even went on a hunger strike, attracting a visit from Robert Kennedy and gathering further public support.

The struggle against the Delano table grape growers eventually focused on support from consumers—by 1969, approximately 14 million Americans boycotted all table grapes. The Delano growers finally signed historic contracts with the UFWOC in 1969. In 1972, the AFL-CIO accepted the UFWOC as a full-fledged member, and the UFWOC changed its name to the United Farm Workers.

Following years of disputes with the Teamsters Union, Chávez and UFW lobbied Governor Jerry Brown to pass the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which gave agricultural workers the right to use secret ballots to choose their unions and required growers to bargain with unions that won elections.

Despite the historic gains made by Chávez, the UFW and farmworkers nationwide, agricultural laborers remain among the most exploited groups of working people nationwide.

One of the biggest struggles facing California’s farmworkers today is the use of the pesticide methyl iodide on strawberries. This fumigant is known to cause cancer, late-term miscarriages, and is likely a neurotoxin and water pollutant. According to a fact sheet produced by the UFW, the pesticide is so reliably carcinogenic that scientists use it in labs to create cancer cells (See their fact sheet on the pesticide: ). While the pesticide is banned from all Ecology Center Farmers’ Markets, farmworkers across California—where 85% of strawberries are grown—working for conventional strawberry growers are still being exposed the toxic chemical. The banning of the chemical has been one of the UFW’s top priorities since Schwarzenegger’s administration approved its use in 2010.

Like Chávez, union leaders look not only to unite workers so they can demand safe conditions, but to also apply pressure to government to pass laws to protect agricultural workers’ rights. As consumers, we can join their fight for justice.

Working People of California “Chapter 13: César Chávez and the Unionization of California Farmworkers” by Cletus E. Daniel.
“César Chávez and the UFW: The United Farmworkers Union” by Rick Tejada-Flores.
United Farm Workers:
Swanton Berry Farm:
“Methyl Iodide: The Facts”

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2 thoughts on “Farmworker Justice & the Ecology Center Farmers’ Markets

  1. Pingback: César Chávez Celebration Tuesday, 3/27: Rain or Shine! « Ecology Center

  2. Pingback: Community Profile : Full Belly Farm - Community Grains

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