This Monday, March 31st is Cesar Chavez Day. A day to honor Chavez—an American farm worker, labor leader, educator, civil rights activist, founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), and hero.
As farmworkers across the United States and the world continue to struggle for fair treatment, Chavez’s inspiration and passion live on. Please take a few minutes to help us spread the word and share this article via email and your social media channels or forward this newsletter to five friends.
The film, Cesar Chavez, was released March 28th, chronicling the life of Chavez and the movement he led as a civil rights leader and labor organizer.
Chavez gained the skills and experience he needed to start the National Farm Worker Association (NFWA), now known as United Farm Workers (UFW), as a child growing up on a farm in Arizona and then as a farmworker picking fruits and vegetables in California. He endured long hours, poor working conditions, and low wages, which led him to organize farm workers, lead strikes, fight the use of dangerous pesticides, and become a leading voice on the struggle for equality.
Chavez risked his life for the causes he believed in and he created a stage for invisible farm workers. On Mexican Independence Day, September 16th, 1965, Chavez and the Latino farm workers union joined Filipino American grape workers in the strike against Delano, California wine grape growers for years of poor pay and unsafe working conditions. Sharing the same picket line and vowing to remain non-violent, the strike drew unprecedented support—resulting in a boycott of California grapes, which spread across North America. Two and a half years into the strike Chavez began fasting to draw attention to the movement and he lost 35 pounds in 25 days.
By 1970, the grape boycott was a success and grape growers signed their first union contracts to grant workers better pay and working conditions.
As the leader of UFW, Chavez used non-violent strikes, boycotts, marches, and fasts to improve the working conditions of farm workers from all backgrounds. UFW won monumental gains for farm workers and civil rights, resulting in the election of thousands of Latino officials and shifted the U.S. political landscape.
“(Farm workers) are involved in the planting and the cultivation and the harvesting of the greatest abundance of food known in this society. They bring in so much food to feed you and me and the whole country and enough food to export to other places. The ironic thing and the tragic thing is that after they make this tremendous contribution, they don’t have any money or any food left for themselves,” said Chavez during his fight for farm workers’ rights in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, unfair wages and treatment still exist—here are five critical campaigns fighting for the rights of workers in the food system and continuing Chavez’s legacy for social justice, equality, fair wages, and safe food for all.
1. Raise the U.S. Minimum Wage for Restaurant Workers (and all Tipped Employees )
In the U.S. minimum wage for tipped employees is only US$2.13/hour. Some U.S. states, including Rhode Island, Washington, and Oregon, have increased their minimum wages, but the struggle for living wages still exists.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) builds power and a voice for restaurant workers through organizing workplace justice campaigns, creating partnerships with restaurants, and improving industry-wide standards.
Eaters and consumers can support ROC by eating with more awareness and learning about the labor practices of favorite restaurants. And people can use the National Diner’s Guide every time they eat out to get information on the wages, benefits, and promotion packages of places they dine at.
One of ROC’s tips is to leave behind a note, as simple as “noticed you still pay the subminimum wage of $2.13/hour to your tipped workers, as a frequent customer I’d love to see that raised!”
2. Support Farmers Across the United States
In the U.S., the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has built a membership of thousands of migrant farmworkers as a united voice and fight against injustice. Their successes include increasing wages and housing conditions. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) works internationally on three major campaigns including: The Campaign for Fair Food, The Fair Food Program, and the Anti-Slavery Campaign. CIW is a leader in worker-based human rights, the growing movement to end human trafficking, labor abuses, and modern-day slavery in agriculture. Their work has led to ground-breaking changes, including convincing Walmart to join the Fair Food Program in January.
Consumers can help by volunteering with FLOC to set up mobile health clinics for farm workers. CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food has ways for eaters to get involved in their home states, or learn about current campaigns. And UFW is screening the new Cesar Chavez film, which is helping draw more awareness to issues farmworkers face.
3. Support Meat Packing and Processing Workers in the United States
There are more than 240,000 United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members who work in the packing and food processing industry, producing everything from Tyson chicken fingers to Campbell’s Soup. In addition to helping get better wages and working conditions for their members, UFCW has submitted comments to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 23 Tyson plants that use hazardous chemicals.
And UFCW has an educational program available to workers to help them determine if the plant they work at is in compliance with occupational safety and health standards and take action if it’s not.
The 2009 documentary Food Inc. went undercover with UFCW organizer, Eduardo Pena, at a Smithfield plant in North Carolina to help send the message to consumers that cheap ham and cold cuts—ham is just US$0.79 per pound—are only possible because immigrant workers have severely low wages. Ultimately, UFCW wants consumers to not only care about what they eat, but also care about the workers who process the food they eat each day. Consumers can take action by encouraging government reform of immigration laws and by signing up for UFCW’s Friday e-newsletter, The Weekender, with actions for the week.
4. Make the Transportation of Food Safer
More than 35,000 dairy, 60,000 food processing, 80,000 bakery and laundry, and thousands of other employees are united across the U.S. as part of the Teamsters. These workers produce and transport almost all the food consumers see at grocery stores.
Teamsters help protect the people who transport our food and make sure both the food and employees are safe through collective bargaining and enforcing contracts. They work on many campaigns, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would potentially hurt dairy workers by outsourcing jobs overseas. Teamster’s local members are standing up to House legislature and the American government to show the TPP will only benefit big business, lead to unsafe food on U.S. tables, and hurt the environment.
Eaters and consumers can sign up for action alerts on their website.
5. Give Fast Food Workers a Living Wage
Fast food workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the food system. The campaign, Low Pay Is Not Ok, is helping workers at McDonald’s and other fast food chains fight for a living wage. In 2013, the campaign started a petition to increase wages to US$15/hour. Fast food is a US$200 billion a year industry and other campaigns, such as Fight for 15, are also working to increase the minimum wage for restaurant workers.
In addition, Unite Here! is the largest organization in North America representing food service workers including waiters, waitresses, cooks, and bartenders. Their Real Food Real Jobs Campaign is working to transform the low wage food service industry into one that provides affordable health care, retirement benefits, and respect. They also work to promote sustainable, fair food and eaters can join them by receiving campaign updates, while students can apply to be summer organizers as part of the Organizing Beyond Barriers Campaign.
“We are a movement that builds and not destroys,” said Chavez in 1970. His legacy continues on through the hope that, one day, we might bring justice, equality, and fair wages to all farmworkers across the world.
What similar struggles are happening outside the United States to food workers that Food Tank should be covering?
Email Danielle at Danielle@foodtank.com with your suggestions.