It was already warm by late morning, but not nearly as hot as it would be in a few hours. Lourdes Cardenas, 59, had traveled over eight miles from Turlock and still had approximately that many miles to walk to her final destination for the day in downtown Modesto.
Cardenas retreated into a chair placed beneath a shade structure during break time, gathered creams and bandages, and knelt over her blistered, swollen feet while a mariachi in full regalia started to perform.
But she didn’t think about stopping.
Cardenas, a Mexican immigrant who has spent decades working in California’s fields, is one of a tiny group of farmworkers who are marching 335 miles from the UFW’s headquarters near Delano to the state Capitol for the first time in almost 30 years.
The three-week pilgrimage’s stated goal is to persuade Governor Gavin Newsom to adopt a law giving farmworkers a choice, including the option of voting by mail, in unionization campaigns. The goal, though, is more general: to convey that the union has more confidence despite decades of declining membership.
The UFW president Teresa Romero declared, “Enough is enough.” She stated that “without this immigrant labour, this country’s agricultural industry would vanish, and we would then have to pay a heck of a lot more for our food.”
Farmworkers face reprisal because they can only vote to join the UFW at a voting location specified by the Agricultural Relations Board, the union claims. Assembly Bill 2183’s new voting procedures would alter that. When Newsom vetoed a similar bill the previous year, the UFW staged a protest outside the French Laundry in Napa Valley, where the governor went afoul of the law after being seen eating there during the COVID-19 outbreak.
But Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), the measure’s author this year, said he is collaborating with Newsom and anticipates sending the governor a bill that satisfies his earlier concerns. The government has been working on this issue for a while, according to Anthony York, who is Newsom’s spokesperson. York continued, “We remain optimistic that we will be able to find a compromise.”
The measure has faced opposition from agricultural groups, but AB 2183 has another strong advocate in Sacramento: Lorena Gonzalez, a former assemblywoman and the descendant of a farmworker who is now in charge of the powerful California Labor Federation.
Gonzalez has backed the bill with her influence after bringing the UFW back into the fold of the federation after it departed in 2006. She stated that she intends to march dozens of miles with the UFW this weekend in the sweltering heat to show her support.
She’s been around a lot of people. Andres Chavez, Cesar Chavez’s grandson, politicians, Teamsters members, history buffs, car club enthusiasts, a motorcycle club, adult children of farmworkers walking in memory of their parents, along with people bringing their children to understand an important period of California history, have all joined the marchers along the route.
And considering this journey is in 2022, there is also a vehicle with a Porta-Potty in it. (So far, other than the blisters and swollen feet of the marchers, the Porta-Potty is the only component of the caravan to have experienced a significant accident; fortunately, organizers say, it was empty at the moment.)
Gonazlez argued that the new rule is essential for safeguarding farmworkers, who are frequently undocumented and who run the risk of not only being fired but also of being deported if they try to form a union and offend their employers. Beyond that, she added, the bill is also profoundly symbolic, demonstrating California’s willingness to defend even its most defenseless workers.
She said, “I think in California to support our farmworkers only insures that mind-set as we continue to assist workers in the high-tech business, people in retail, workers at Starbucks, workers in hotels, and workers in every part of life. “Every poll I’ve seen indicates that people are pro-union, but there are still so many obstacles in our way. If we can use our laws as effectively as we can, California can set the standard.
In that regard, the march represents a step in the direction of strengthening the union as a political force, much like it did in the 1960s and 1970s, when young people flocked to the San Joaquin Valley to join the struggle and union contracts were won despite terrible persecution from farmers and the police.
The UFW marched from Delano to Sacramento for the first time in the spring of 1966, when the union had just recently been formed. Farmworkers were attempting to raise awareness of the exploitative working conditions in the fields and the drive to organize workers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the UFW with Dolores Huerta.
The UFW had already signed its first labor contract by the time the marchers arrived in Sacramento on Easter Sunday, Cesar Chavez had made the front page of the New York Times, and the union had already established itself as one of the most powerful voices for justice of the 1960s. In 1994, the UFW organized a march from Delano to Sacramento to mark the first anniversary of Chavez’s passing.
The union Chavez founded has been in trouble for years, despite his subsequent stature as a national icon, whose name is now emblazoned on schools, parks, and streets in communities all over the state. According to recent estimates, there are just 7,000 members, and some detractors claim that the union has not recently put enough effort into genuinely organizing workers and securing contracts.
William B. Gould, a former chairman of the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board and an emeritus professor of law at Stanford University, claimed that the UFW stopped organizing unorganized farmworkers after the 1980s, with a few notable exceptions. “That is the harsh truth. The UFW is inactive. You may use my words as evidence. They did nothing for me during my three years on the ARLB.
According to union officials, this criticism is unfair. Farmworkers are among of the most vulnerable and challenging workers to organize since they are frequently illegal or, increasingly, temporary foreign guest employees. They have long felt the odds are against them because they are excluded from labor rules that protect workers in other industries, according to experts. However, according to Romero, the UFW president, measures supported by the union, such increased safeguards for working in the heat, have helped not only the represented workers but also all farmworkers.
Many of the demonstrators claimed they were marching up the Central Valley to put pressure on the governor to approve the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act as they waved flags and shouted “si se puede.”
Veronica Mota, a 47-year-old farmworker from Madera, declared that she was there on behalf of “thousands of farmworkers who can’t leave their work” during the harvest season to join the struggle. “We are fighting for our rights,” she added.
However, a large number of people claimed they were there because of the UFW and the voice they hoped to give it in the future.
Rikki Mezza, a state employee, explained that she was marching in honor of her late father, Frutoso Meza, a Jalisco immigrant who worked in the fields and marched alongside Cesar Chavez in the 1960s. She wore a necklace with his picture on it. Her sisters and other family members had varied dates for their marches.
Midway through the day, Elva Beltran, who had marched beside Mezza, got out of her husband’s car and said she wanted to support Mezza since she had toiled in the fields as a small child.
The caravan picked up a police escort in Ceres, which organizers claimed was requested as a result of suspicions that white nationalists could try to disrupt the march. Although there was no actual harassment, the Rebirth Car Club of the Central Valley sent out a few colorful lowriders to keep an eye on things. Additionally, members of a nearby motorcycle club showed up and started playing banda music loudly from their loudspeakers.
Abel Martinez, his wife Sabrina, his daughter, and his niece took the day off work to join the marchers in their cherry red 1974 Lincoln Continental.
Sabrina remarked, “We are so appreciative of these people who are walking.
This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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