March 25-31 marks Farmworker Awareness Week – a week that culminates on March 31, Cesar Chavez Day. The backbreaking work of planting and harvesting our food is largely performed by immigrants from Latin America for low pay under difficult working conditions.
Like domestic workers, during the New Deal reforms farmworkers were excluded from the protection of critical labor laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (which protects workers who want to form a union) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (which sets the federal minimum wage and dictates that other workers earn overtime when working more than 40 hours per week). This means that farmworkers have had to work state by state to secure these rights, a process that remains largely incomplete. Only a few states such as California and New York have passed laws protecting farmworkers’ right to organize and form labor unions. And this year Oregon joined a handful of states that have passed overtime pay laws covering farmworkers.
The Catholic Church played a critical role in the great farmworker organizing campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, especially in California, where Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) organized grape harvesters. The UFW sought leverage through a national boycott of table grapes. Chavez, himself deeply committed to his Catholic faith, relied on allies in the Church and the wider community to promote the boycott and secure basic rights for workers in the fields.
The Catholic Labor Network is part of the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM), an interfaith coalition standing in solidarity with farmworker organizations such as the UFW, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Today the UFW is seeking reforms in California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act to make it easier for farmworkers to form unions; the FLOC is campaigning for RJ Reynolds to clean up abuses in its tobacco supply chain; and the CIW is calling on Wendy’s to source its tomatoes from growers committed to fair labor practices. The CLN and the NFWM continue to support farmworkers in all of these initiatives.