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#UFWToo. Union head Teresa Romero wants us to remember the farmworkers

She’s the first woman to lead the fabled United Farm Workers union, which was established nearly 60 years ago by César Chávez, perhaps the best known Mexican American in U.S. history.

Teresa Romero is also the granddaughter of a Zapotec woman whose indigenous lineage predates the Spanish conquest of the nation of Mexico.

Romero was born and raised there until she came to the United States in her 20s to make a life for herself like millions of other immigrants before her.

At 60 now, hers is a story of firsts, up-from-nowhere feats of determination and magical twists of fate that led her, against all odds, to the helm of an organization steeped in California history, American labor history and Mexican American history.

Love him or hate him, and few ever felt neutral about him, César Chávez broke through cultural and economic barriers to force Americans to consider that narratives of the least among us – the workers of California’s harvest fields, often from Mexico, whose tireless labor delivered unto us the fruits and vegetables that sustain Golden State and the world.

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Through grape boycotts and hunger strikes, Chávez shamed us and forced us to look beyond our cheap and delicious food to consider the often-exploited hands picking it. At the helm of the UFW until his death in 1993, Chávez also inspired generations of Mexican Americans who would transform California politics and communities.

No pressure, Teresa Romero!

Chávez’s shoes can never be filled, so Romero is not even going to try. Appointed to president of the UFW last fall, after Arturo Rodriguez, Chávez’s successor, retired, Romero sees a different role for herself.

Her job is to pierce the veil of ignorance that still envelopes California about farm labor. Educated people actually believe the war for farmworker rights was won by Chávez back in his 1960s and ’70s heyday. Or farmworkers never cross their minds at all.

Romero is here to say: The battle is not over.

California may no longer have hostile Republican governors packing labor relations boards with their farmer friends, but exploitation still happens in the fields. Getting overtime for farmworkers required a monumental effort. The Democratic majorities finally approved a terribly watered down bill that – after decades – granted California farmworkers the right to overtime for workers toiling more than 9½ hours per day or 55 hours a week.

When did this happen? In 2016! Yes, 2016!

And even then, AB 1066, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, is only now being phased in at large farms. On small ones with fewer than 25 employees, overtime won’t be phased in for three more years. And if the economy goes sour, the governor can suspend the overtime victory if it’s deemed bad for business.

“I had members of the legislature tell me they thought farmworkers already had overtime,” Romero said last week, She was in here in Sacramento lobbying the legislature to protect farmworkers against dangerous chemical pesticides. Yeah, that’s still happening too.

“Some were embarrassed to learn that farmworkers didn’t have the right to overtime,” she said.

Farmers argued that workers who toiled 60 hours or more a week, or 10 hours or more a day, could get overtime. But guess what? Workers would work right up to those levels and be dismissed just before they could be compensated.

“I’ve learned that working with this union that nothing comes easy,” she said.

Nothing has come easy for Teresa Romero either.

She became President of the UFW last fall despite never having worked a day in the fields. She earned the job by learning about farm labor from the ground up, first as Rodriguez’s assistant. She took that job a decade ago after the economy crashed. She owned a business in Lancaster – a construction management business – but as we know well, construction worked tanked after the Great Recession.

She answered an ad for a job to help Rodriguez. She thought she would do that for two or three years and then move on to something else. Instead she found her calling. Her presence gave Rodriguez an idea: He would turn over the day-to-day operations of the union to her while he worked on organizing and legislation.

No one could have imagined that she would run the whole union, but soon everyone saw she was the right person.

Her predecessors – Chávez and Rodriguez – were both born in the United States. Romero was born in Mexico City and raised in Guadalajara. Despite her lack of a farmworker background, her status as an immigrant means she has more in common with her members than her predecessors.

According to the UFW, its 10,000 members, working under 33 union contracts in three states, are mostly immigrants as well. Most work in California, but the UFW does represent some workers in Oregon and Washington.

Romero knew poverty. Her parents were not unionized workers in Mexico, so they didn’t have the rights that she fights to secure for her members today. She had barely heard of the UFW until she was an adult who had immigrated to the San Fernando Valley in the early 1980s. She raised four kids of her own and three step-children. She’s a grandmother now.

What is her greatest challenge? Piercing the ignorance of people who don’t know that farmworkers still toil in dangerous conditions.

Romero was in Sacramento to lobby for SB 458, authored by State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles. Her bill, introduced last month, seeks to ban chlorpyrifos (pronounced klor-PEER-ih-fahs). Here is how it was described recently by KQED: “Chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxin, first produced by the Dow Chemical Company in 1965, that’s meant to disrupt the nervous system of insects by inhibiting production of an enzyme. Mounting evidence concludes that whether touched, tasted, or eaten, it’s dangerous to humans as well. Most often, people consume tiny, tiny amounts of it as residue on vegetables and fruit.”

Here is the text of Durazo’s bill: “Prenatal and early life exposure to chlorpyrifos is associated with elevated risks of reduced IQ, loss of working memory, delays in motor development, attention-deficit disorders, and structural changes in the brain.”

Sounds like it should be easy to ban, right? It won’t be because Big Ag makes “moderate” Democrats behave in curious ways

Last fall, Romero spent time in Washington state with female dairy workers who told harrowing stories of being sexually harassed on the job. These included stories of women being harassed in front of their husbands, also dairy workers, and being unable to stop it or do much about it.

As workers did in the heyday of the UFW, workers fasted in front of the office of Darigold – Washington’s largest dairy – to protest conditions there.

“This is what I want to change,” Romero said. “It’s hard changing #MeToo in Hollywood. It’s even harder in the fields.”

Maybe we need an #UFWToo. But even if workers don’t belong to the UFW, Romero wants to be there for them. She said she has tried to help farm laborers who feel threatened daily since Donald Trump became president.

“The children of farmworkers are being raised in fear and resentment,” she said. “They go to school not knowing if their parents will be there when they return. We have to fight for the rights of people who need it. This will never change otherwise.”

Romero is ready for the fight and has dedicated her life to it. Hopefully, you can find time to pay attention.

Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.
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