Seasonal work and low incomes make it difficult to finance farmworker housing projects without major subsidies, said Manuel Bernal, a housing expert Chavez brought in a few years ago to run the department.
Decent, affordable housing is one of the most critical needs for farmworkers across California. The real estate boom has made sheds, garages, overcrowded apartments and shacks even more common accommodations.
A bargain in Salinas is a tiny one-bedroom apartment for a family of four in a 1950s labor camp with a board where the window should be and a hole in the roof. The tenant, who once organized her neighbors to protest poor conditions, is now afraid to complain for fear she would be evicted or the camp shut down; she could not find another place to live for the $450 a month she pays in rent.
In San Diego, a coalition of advocates, lawyers and religious leaders has been trying for years to work out a plan with the city of Carlsbad to build housing for farmworkers who live in shacks in the hills. So far, each proposal has been defeated by community opposition.
In the sprawling Del Mar camp where hundreds of farmworkers live at the height of the season, neighborhoods are defined by Mexican hometowns. The trees provide camouflage, hiding the shacks, while their branches double as closets. Frying pans, toothbrushes and plastic bags stuffed with clothes dangle from limbs.
One afternoon, three friends built a home from scrap lumber scavenged from construction sites; it took 10 minutes to cut one two-by-four because the handle kept coming off the ancient, rusted saw.
Jose Gonzalez, who lived in the camps when he first came from Oaxaca two decades ago, now works as a night manager at Rite Aid and spends his spare time trying to help more recent arrivals. He worries most about drinking water and pesticide contamination. "In jail we have criminals who have better living conditions," he said. "Why can't we do that with the hardworking people?"
Banking on the UFW Brand to Build Political Clout
In 1998, political consultant Richard Ross showed UFW leaders a statewide poll of Latino voters. The UFW ranked at the top as a name to trust.
"Richie just said, 'This is gold,' " UFW Political Director Giev Kashkooli recalled.
From then on, the union has been selling its brand.
In 1999, the union began running political campaigns as a business. Since 2000, the union and several related nonprofits have received close to $1 million from state campaign committees alone, a combination of civic donations and payments for election help.
Most unions contribute money to candidates; the UFW collects it instead. Most unions give money to their political action committees; the United Farm Workers PAC pays the union.
"We're unusual in that we actually get paid to run campaigns," Kashkooli said.
The UFW frequently works on campaigns in areas where it does not have members but ranks high in polls, such as Long Beach, and where candidates believe the affiliation will help their cause. They are often campaigns advised by Ross, a lobbyist who also works for the UFW.
In Calexico last spring, for example, the Viejas Indians paid the UFW $75,000 to run a campaign to win approval for a casino in the Imperial Valley city. Rodriguez sent letters urging support and enclosing a UFW pin with an eagle.
"I have a very soft spot for the union; it was kind of a blow to see that we were on opposite sides of the fence," said Mary Rangel-Ortega, an Imperial County educator who led the losing fight against the measure.
Politicians at all levels of office routinely contribute to the annual Chavez Foundation fundraising dinners, turn out for the walkathons and buy ads in the programs for the UFW conventions. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is featured prominently on the UFW website advertising "Sí se puede" wristbands.