UFW Toils in a New Field: Cities


The black Aztec eagle, symbol of the United Farm Workers of America, is quietly extending its wings beyond the fields of rural California to touch the skylines of America’s cities.

With little fanfare, the labor organization and its affiliates are looking to expand their growing radio network in cities such as Las Vegas, where gambling, not agriculture, is the cash crop.

They are acquiring and rehabilitating low-income urban housing in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.


They are even drawing up plans for service centers in such areas as South-Central Los Angeles and East L.A.

The union has also reopened a political office in Sacramento to address both white-collar issues for Latino workers who have moved beyond the fields and farm worker issues for those just arriving in the United States.

And this spring, the union marched shoulder to shoulder with a Fresno television anchorman and his newsroom colleagues who wanted a new labor contract.

“The Latino community is the most urbanized minority in this country, more than blacks,” said Paul Chavez, 43-year-old son of the late UFW founder, Cesar Chavez. “Who is our customer? Yes, it’s farm workers, and we will always serve them. But if we look at future growth, the Latino urban community is where it’s at.”

Like most unions, the UFW must adapt to a changing labor force--or cease to be relevant. It is still recovering from a drop in membership, which went from 45,000 to 20,000, after Cesar Chavez’s death in 1993. And just last summer, 1,200 strawberry workers in the Salinas Valley voted to have an independent union, rather than the UFW, represent them in negotiations with a major grower there. Whether the UFW can reinvent itself by moving into the cities will take time to assess. But the union’s leaders admit that the metropolitan migration has already triggered a self-examination within the UFW.

“We had to ask, do we feel comfortable extending ourselves beyond the fields?” Paul Chavez said. “Those are difficult questions.”

They underscore the fact that the UFW, historically the voice of a powerless and silent work force in rural California, is more and more often asked to join negotiations for Latino workers who are making their way in an increasingly urban, even corporate, world.

The new urban activism may open union leaders to criticism often leveled at Cesar Chavez--that he never decided whether the UFW was a labor union or a social movement. Although revered since his death, Chavez still has critics who say the UFW was never as effective a union as it could have been because its mission was blurred by issues unrelated to labor, such as the antiwar movement. Ruben Navarrette Jr., a student in public administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano,” said the UFW’s city projects have been delicately handled out of reverence for the UFW’s late founder.

“They can’t make it widely known that this is a departure [from Cesar Chavez’s work], but I think some people realize that this is brand-new,” Navarrette said. “The UFW has not traditionally been strong in urban areas. [But] if they stay exclusively in the rural areas, they’re going to continue to lose people who move into the cities.”

New Role Tests Old Relationship

The UFW’s early forays into the business arena are already resulting in some growing pains--what UFW President Arturo Rodriguez describes as a “natural evolution.”

An illustration of just how dicey that evolution can be surfaced when the UFW was asked to become involved in a contract dispute pitting newsroom employees at Fresno’s KFTV Channel 21 against Univision, the country’s largest Spanish-language network. The Fresno station is a Univision affiliate.

The chief operating officer of Univision is Henry G. Cisneros, one of the most prominent Latinos in the country and a former Clinton Cabinet member. Today, Cisneros is decades removed from the informal gatherings he attended as a rising politician in Texas to support Cesar Chavez and his son-in-law, the UFW’s Rodriguez. But it is a connection neither Cisneros nor Rodriguez has forgotten.

Many of the newsroom employees at Channel 21 are the children of farm workers, but they were relying on traditional union representation, the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, to handle the negotiations. For months they complained that they were paid almost one-third less than their English-language colleagues at other stations, even though Channel 21 had higher ratings than any of the English-language stations. Frustration turned to action in February, when eight of them embarked on a liquid-only fast to protest stalled negotiations, itself a tactic normally associated with Chavez and the UFW.

Then the station employees asked for help from the UFW itself. It had been there for their parents, they reasoned. Perhaps it could help them.

The UFW immediately dispatched flag-waving members to rallies outside the station and signed petitions in support of the broadcast union. Rodriguez himself signed a viewer boycott card against his friend’s television empire. The newsroom employees even held a silent protest during a Cisneros speech in Fresno and picketed outside the gates of Bel-Air, where Cisneros lives.

That public opposition embarrassed Cisneros and tested an old friendship, according to people in both camps.

“They were helpful. On the other hand, they were harmful,” Cisneros said of the UFW. “We have a very, very close relationship with the Farm Workers. [Rodriguez helped] us pull [the newsroom employees] back from the dramatic hunger strike.”

For Rodriguez, things felt tenuous at times as well.

“With Univision it was difficult,” Rodriguez said. “We have made friends on both sides.”

A Union Becomes a Social Movement

The UFW is a distinct union in that “it displays the passion and vision of a social movement,” said Daniel Rothenberg, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who wrote “With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farm Workers Today.” The union also wields “enormous symbolic power, particularly among Latinos,” he said.

That power base was built in the early 1960s when Chavez’s fight, la causa, drew attention to deplorable conditions in California’s farm fields, including the absence of bathroom facilities, poor protection against pesticides and little bargaining rights.

Chavez’s crusade blossomed during the civil rights era, attracting environmentalists, students and prominent figures such as Sen. Robert Kennedy, folk singer Joan Baez, and actor Anthony Quinn.

That the union succeeded on any front was due, in part, to timing. Chavez was not the first person to try to organize farm laborers into a union, but his effort drew public attention and the sympathy that came with it during a time of intense social and political upheaval. The UFW began to act as much like a civil rights organization for Mexican Americans as a labor organization for farm workers.

When thousands of janitors walked off the job in Los Angeles this spring demanding higher wages, Rodriguez committed to help the striking Service Employees International Union. Eliseo Medina, a former UFW officer who now is a leader in the SEIU, called the UFW “the modern-day pioneer of saying that a union needs to be a social movement that can speak for workers on a broad range of issues.”

The social movement “is not a distraction. It’s very complementary,” Medina said. “Where you might get into trouble is where you lose focus of what you’re trying to do, which is build power for your members, whether that’s in the community, at the ballot box or in the workplace.”

Since 1994, the UFW has won 20 of 21 elections in the fields. The election they lost occurred in June, when an independent group organized hundreds of strawberry pickers in Oxnard and the Salinas Valley. The vote turned, in large measure, on the group’s pledge not to collect dues or use hard-driving union tactics in representing them. The loss has been tempered somewhat by a recent state Agricultural Labor Relations Board ruling that split the strawberry pickers into two regional parts--700 workers in Oxnard and 12,000 in the Salinas Valley--and certified the UFW as the workers’ representative in Oxnard. That a group challenged the UFW’s hold on migrant workers was not unusual. Most farm worker elections in recent years have come with a challenger, typically a grass-roots independent trying to nibble away at the UFW base.

Indeed, there are those who believe that by continuing to split its efforts between the field and the cities, the UFW will be weakened. Navarrette, the Harvard scholar, said the UFW has traditionally been criticized for its inability to juggle its activities in, for example, a boycott in one industry and an election in another.

“The UFW didn’t prove itself too apt to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time,” he said. “They want to remain relevant. If they don’t follow [the migration of Latinos to the cities], they border on irrelevance. If they focus on the city, will they lose strength in the country?”

Laborers Seek Better Life in Cities

When the UFW was founded, about 10% of the fieldworkers were Dust Bowl-era transients from Oklahoma and Arkansas. Forty percent were immigrants, and another 40% were U.S.-born Latinos. There were also a small percentage of black and Filipino farm workers.

Now, more than 80% of farm workers are immigrants, mostly from Mexico, Rothenberg said.

And about 30% have been working here for less than four years. It is the starkest indication, Rothenberg said, that individuals with options do not submit themselves to the backbreaking work of the fields.

According to the most recent survey conducted by the Labor Department, 52% of farm workers interviewed did not have work authorization papers. Their median income was less than $7,500 annually, and despite increases in the minimum wage over the last decade, farm workers have lost 11% of their buying power.

The message is clear, according to Rothenberg and other labor researchers. Seasonal fieldwork, which was never a lucrative job, now barely provides sustenance. As soon as recent immigrants can find job opportunities in the cities, they leave rural areas.

When they arrive, the UFW wants them to have access to union centers that provide translation, financial and immigration services. Rodriguez would not discuss where the UFW service centers will be, but he said areas such as East L.A. and South-Central L.A. are exactly where the UFW wants to make its presence seen and felt.

In Las Vegas, where Latinos often work in casinos and restaurants, Paul Chavez has been trying to open a new station on the farm workers’ southwest communications network, Radio Campesina. Chavez, like Rodriguez, believes the farm-city strategy is critical to the union’s future. The agenda for the six radio stations the union already owns is to broadcast “UFW propaganda” of public service, educational and health messages. But just like the union’s very popular KNAI-FM (88.3) station in Phoenix, the programming design being hammered out for a station in Las Vegas will focus on the service industry and construction issues, rather than on agriculture. And the hourly public service announcements will be remodeled, much as they have in Phoenix, to provide background noise that is familiar to city dwellers, rather than a backdrop of sounds familiar to rural farm workers.

Since taking over the UFW’s nonprofit wing, the National Farm Workers Service Center, in 1990, Paul Chavez has overseen the construction of 600 single-family homes and the purchase or development of 2,600 rental housing units in the Central Valley.

But in following the urban migration of many former farm laborers, the organization has acquired and rehabilitated 216 units of affordable housing in Albuquerque and 576 units in Fresno, signed a purchase agreement for 126 units in San Francisco, made offers for 36 units in downtown Phoenix and entered into negotiations with a landlord for 2,000 units in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA, said these new investments are clearly a strategic decision.

“There’s been such tremendous changes in virtually all work forces. . . . The challenge posed to the farm workers is not unique,” he said. “These recent initiatives in cities and addressing housing concerns are an extension of that commitment to view the Farm Workers’ movement as a broader social justice movement.”

The union also is preparing for legislation on a number of fronts. Fourteen months ago, it asked Rosalinda Guillen to reopen the UFW’s political office in Sacramento, which had been closed for 15 years. Guillen, a former strawberry picker from Washington state who helped organize union contracts, has a broader responsibility than her predecessors. “These are the children and grandchildren of farm workers that are not working in the fields, but are still not earning enough. Our mandate as a union is to do everything possible to make life better for our communities. We’re a social justice organization,” Guillen said. “We looked around and said, ‘How can we better the lives of our Latino community?’ Definitely politics.”

In keeping with that strategy, Guillen oversees the UFW’s voter registration efforts and a 70-person census task force to help prevent an undercount of the Latino community.

And she is raising money by methods plucked from middle-class America, literally and figuratively miles from the marches held alongside dusty fields in years past. A month ago, the second annual UFW corporate-sponsored walkathon began simultaneously in East L.A. and San Francisco. “We try to do the walkathon where our people are, the people who recognize the eagle, the grandchildren of farm workers,” Guillen said.

A Legacy for the Next Generation

If there is a leading example of those field-to-city migrants, it would be Reina Cardenas, a Channel 21 on-air reporter and a hunger striker in Fresno. She is one of the reasons the UFW was even involved in the dispute against Univision.

Born in the United States to Mexican immigrants who worked in the fields, Cardenas grew up in the Central Valley, helping her parents and sisters pick grapes and tree fruit. By the time she was a teenager, she knew that the fields held no future for her, and she left to earn her diploma from UCLA. She is now 27 and earned $25,300 last year as a full-time reporter for the station.

On a recent weekday, Cardenas looked camera-ready in a red suit and black high-heeled shoes. She stood outside the neglected house she shares with her parents, sisters and a nephew in the farm worker town of Del Rey, about 20 miles southeast of Fresno. The porch was outlined in old flakes of paint. A discarded black commode leaned near the front door.

Cardenas’ salary is the main source of income for everyone who lives in the three-bedroom house. Her decision to join the hunger strike and her public stance against a powerful corporation left her parents feeling uneasy. It was only when her mother, 59-year-old Esperanza Torres de Cardenas, saw the familiar UFW black eagle flag at a rally outside the station that she felt reassured.

“The UFW is giving an importance to their [contract dispute] by supporting them,” she said in Spanish. “My daughter is a farm worker and a journalist. The UFW has always encouraged farm worker children to advance, to move forward.”

On March 31, the 73rd birthday of Cesar Chavez, Cardenas along with 12 other colleagues approved a new contract offered by Univision. Although their salaries still do not match those of their English-language competitors, Cardenas’ salary went up nearly 14%, and some of her colleagues saw increases of up to 40%. As part of the negotiations, Cardenas was singled out for additional training programs by the network, a provision that is likely to lead her to a larger city with a more prominent broadcasting role.

That evening after the vote, a celebration began outside the station. Dozens of supporters and UFW members gathered to share a fish stew that had been prepared by a local restaurant, and they listened as Paul Chavez spoke briefly to the jubilant crowd.

“I talked about my father’s legacy,” he said after the rally. “Working in the fields leaves an impact on people that lasts for generations.”

Throughout the negotiations, Rodriguez said, the UFW had decided not to put in writing its support for Cardenas and her colleagues. They wanted to keep things loose and remain a viable go-between for Univision and the newsroom employees, even though it was not a farm worker dispute.

“We wanted to leave that as an opening, as a possibility,” Rodriguez said, admitting that if the UFW continues to chart this new course, it is bound to be involved in more disputes that test old alliances.

“There’s going to be more and more of them as this goes on, as we involve ourselves beyond agriculture,” he said. “That’s to be expected.”