Beyond the Furrows: Farmworker rights from the 1930s to now

Jul 12, 2021

To tell the story of farmworkers in this country, let alone the Central Coast, Cesar Chavez needs to be mentioned.

In a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, Chavez outlined the mission of his work.

"All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: to overthrow a farm labor system in this nation that treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings," Chavez said.

His work has been recognized in California with a state holiday in his honor.

When Chavez's son Paul found out a bust of his father would be placed in the Oval Office, he was shocked.

"We were just as surprised as everyone when we saw the place they had placed it," Paul Chavez said in an interview with NBC's Los Angeles affiliate.

To be in the president's highest office makes sense when you look at Chavez’s track record on paper, and how his efforts have played a role in recent American history: the rise of the United Farm Workers, their organizing a series of strikes that brought farmworkers to national attention and its bringing forth the empowerment of Latinx Americans in the United States.

Chavez's advocacy efforts culminated in 1975 when the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. That legislation was instrumental because it gave farm workers collective bargaining rights in California. It was the first time any state gave its farmworkers the right to do so.

According to Dartmouth College professor Matt Garcia, Brown was instrumental in working with the UFW and Chavez.

"He actually still regards that as maybe his greatest accomplishment in public life," Garcia said, referring to Brown. "So the full force of the state was behind farm worker rights at that point."

Garcia is a professor in both the History Department and Latin American, Latino, and Carribean Studies Department at Dartmouth. His academic research centers around California's agricultural labor history — citrus workers, the UFW and their role in the greater farmworkers movement are all subjects he's written about in his books.

The lead-up to the Agricultural Labor Relations Act's 1975 implementation requires earlier context from the National Labor Relations Act, signed into law in 1935. Also known as the Wagner Act, it denied farmworkers their collective bargaining rights while granting them to other fields of work.

Garcia said the Wagner Act, in part, led to a "long-standing problem with the empowerment of farmworkers, as workers, as people with rights had to have a living wage to have a place to live that was clean and sanitary."

The Bracero Program — which brought in Mexican farmworkers to temporarily work in the United States to help with war efforts — also contributed heavily to distraught conditions, according to Garcia. The program, which first began in 1942, saw most workers associated with it arrive following World War II, Garcia added.

"They were used in many ways to hold down wages, because they could always be sent back to Mexico," Garcia said. "They worked under the threat of being returned at any time. And so their impermanence or temporariness undercut the ability to create those unions that would give them power in the field and power over their lives."

These conditions led to Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla to begin organizing farmworkers and help end the Bracero Program in 1964.

"The growers were not going to acquiesce so easily," Garcia said. "And so it took a five-year boycott before collective bargaining rights were reached in 1970, and then eventually were codified in the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 in California only."

Those five years of striking between 1965 and 1970 — known as the Delano grape strikes — were pivotal, especially in making the broader community aware of farmworker issues, and led to boycotts of the grape industry.

"The boycott became the main way to take the fight that's in the field that's mostly out of sight — out of minds of most consumers, and really brought it into the city," Garcia said.

But when the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in California was signed, advancements for farmworkers petered out. While farmworkers have seen some advancements in their rights — and activists continue to fight for these rights — it hasn't been the same since Chavez.

Garcia pointed out a multitude of reasons — one of which is the partisan nature of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, created by the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, where the governor could appoint persons to the board.

"And so if the governor changed — and the governor did change to a Republican that was hostile to unions — then that body would then no longer be favorable to farm worker rights," Garcia said.

In addition, Chavez moved away from farmworker rights, focusing more on poverty issues, according to Garcia. He adds that Chavez became invested in creating an intentional community similar to Synanon, where they grew food in this new community.

"Cesar took his eye off the ball," Garcia said.

So: now what?

Over the course of the next 11 weeks, KCBX News will try to help answer that question. We're going to explore the farmworker community along the Central Coast — particularly in Santa Barbara County — the issues that exist here and the people behind it all.

Beyond the Furrows is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation.