A half century on, union still fighting for farmworkers

Robert Kennedy and Cesar Chavez in 1968 when Chavez broke his fast.
Robert Kennedy and Cesar Chavez in 1968 when Chavez broke his fast. Take Stock

Nearly 50 years ago, my father, Robert F. Kennedy, flew to Delano for his first visit with Cesar Chavez. It was six months into a five-year strike by Filipino and Latino grape workers. To the surprise of everyone, including Chavez, my father visited a vineyard picket line and spoke with strikers at their union hall.

He was the first national political figure to unequivocally embrace their struggle. A close personal bond was forged with Chavez. Two years later, my father returned to Delano – where anniversary events are set for Saturday – when Chavez broke his 25-day fast for nonviolence, calling him “one of the heroic figures of our time.”

My father was assassinated three months later in 1968. Since then, our family repeatedly stood with Chavez and his movement. When a reporter in Delano asked whether Chavez and the grape strikers were communists, my father retorted, “No, they’re not communists. They’re struggling for their rights.”

Now it’s my turn to defend Chavez’s successors against equally dishonest claims that malign their character and offend the truth. The chief canard is that the United Farm Workers stopped organizing farmworkers and abandoned the fields. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Most of the civil rights groups that organized mass protests in the South during the 1960s are no longer active, replaced by others that carry on the fight. The UFW, however, continues energetically battling for farmworkers.

On California’s Central Coast, UFW contracts include Dole, a huge strawberry producer; D’Arrigo Bros., a big lettuce and vegetable grower; and 75 percent of the state’s mushroom industry. Among union contracts in the Central Valley are those covering more than 1,500 farmworkers at four companies, mostly growing tomatoes. Conscientious consumers seeking fine wine produced by unionized workers can turn to Gallo of Sonoma or the Napa Valley’s St. Supery and C.K. Mondavi wineries.

These gains are remarkable given virulent intransigence from growers. For example, thousands of workers at one of the nation’s largest table grape and tree fruit producers, Gerawan Farming Inc., won a union contract in 2013 under a recent UFW-sponsored law letting neutral state mediators hammer out contracts when growers won’t negotiate with them. This mammoth company, already owing its workers millions of dollars under the contract and accused by state prosecutors of multiple labor law violations, refuses to implement it and is taking its case to the California Supreme Court.

Union contracts significantly improve farmworker pay. Mushroom workers annually earn an average of $40,000 plus full family health benefits. Workers under other UFW agreements make an average of $1 an hour above what low-wage workers need as a “living wage.” Health and pension benefits received by farmworkers under UFW contracts total nearly $500 million, mostly through the union’s Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan.

UFW’s legislative and regulatory victories chiefly benefit non-union workers. It was the UFW that persuaded then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 to create the first state standards in the country to help prevent death or illness when temperatures soar in the fields. Enforcement of the rules substantially improved when farmworkers who partnered with the UFW settled a lawsuit with the state last June.

The union partnered with table grape workers at Sunview Vineyards who just won a $4.5 million settlement from a class-action lawsuit over wage and hour violations. Similar suits involve thousands of other farmworkers.

Since the majority of U.S. farmworkers are undocumented, according to federal data, immigration reform is a rare point of agreement between growers and the union. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez and major farm groups fashioned parts of the immigration reform plan passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013 that would let undocumented agricultural workers stay in the country. President Barack Obama issued his executive order on immigration last November after working with the UFW to protect hundreds of thousands of farmworkers from deportation.

The UFW is the first to admit much more work remains. But the union has done a lot – and it keeps fighting. Some rationalize their criticisms of Chavez and the UFW by insisting they are merely rejecting hagiography. Those who say the UFW stopped organizing remind of another word – dishonesty.

My father stood by Chavez and the UFW nearly 50 years ago because he admired their courage and perseverance. That’s why I proudly stand with them now.

Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.