Jessica Govea Thorbourne, 58; Organizer for UFW Sounded Alarm on Pesticides
Jessica Govea Thorbourne, a charismatic organizer for the United Farm Workers union, who raised early alarms about fieldworkers’ exposure to dangerous pesticides and led table grape boycotts in Canada that helped win acceptance for the union at home, died Jan. 23 of breast cancer at a rehabilitation center in West Orange, N.J. She was 58.
Govea Thorbourne worked closely with UFW co-founder Cesar Chavez for 16 years, beginning when she was 19. Two years later she was directing crucial boycotts in Canada that helped the union win one of its first contracts with a California grape grower and ultimately settle with the entire industry.
She also led voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives for a number of Democratic candidates, including presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy during his California Democratic primary campaign, Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Alan Cranston and Art Torres, who served 20 years in the California Legislature before becoming the first Latino chairman of the state Democratic Party.
She later moved to the East Coast and spent the last two decades as a labor educator, teaching organizing skills at Rutgers and Cornell universities.
Govea Thorbourne’s contributions to the farmworker movement have been largely unheralded, but stories such as hers “are really the true history of the union,” Jerry Cohen, the UFW’s general counsel from 1967 to 1981, told The Times this week. “She is like the heart and soul of the union when it was at its best.”
Born in Porterville, Calif., Govea Thorbourne went to work in the fields with her parents when she was only 4. She spent every summer until she was 15 in backbreaking toil, filling bags with cotton bolls, scrambling on her knees to pick up prunes that been shaken from trees, and clipping bunches of grapes from row after row of vines while trying to avoid the wasps that hovered over the fruit.
A childhood photo of her shows a smiling, pigtailed girl in a white shirt and denim pants leaning on a shovel, but Govea Thorbourne’s memories of those days were far from sunny. Her skin would itch and burn, which she at first thought was caused by the heat but later attributed to the pesticides that covered the plants she touched every day. “The thing I hated most, though, was that there was no toilet. I just had to find a place and hope no one could see,” she said in the 2001 book “We Were There, Too,” which profiles reformers whose activism took root during their youth.
Her father, Juan Govea, was a respected leader of the Mexican American community in Bakersfield when Cesar Chavez and Fred Ross Sr. recruited him to help organize local workers for their Community Service Organization, a precursor of the UFW. Govea Thorbourne accompanied her father as he went door to door, listening to people’s stories of the struggles they encountered in their jobs, at government offices and in their children’s schools.
“My father never talked down to people. He listened carefully and spoke respectfully,” she said. “I learned a lot about organizing just from listening to these conversations.”
By age 9 she was helping her father turn out leaflets about the Community Service Organization meetings and reciting patriotic poems at rallies. At 12, she was president of the Junior CSO and led other farmworker children in a successful petition drive for a neighborhood park after her best friend was killed by a speeding truck while taking her siblings to a park three miles away. “That was the first time she led an organizing campaign,” said Fred Ross Jr., a fellow organizer who worked for the UFW from 1966 to 1977.
After she graduated from Bakersfield High School, Govea Thorbourne joined the National Farm Workers Assn. (later renamed the United Farm Workers), which Chavez had formed in 1962. She was a caseworker helping union families when three women came to her for help dealing with rashes, headaches and dizzy spells. They were told their problems were caused by heat exhaustion, but Govea Thorbourne believed the cause was pesticide poisoning.
At first, union leaders did not pay much attention to the alarms she was trying to raise, but she persisted until they “finally made pesticides an issue,” Cohen said.
The adverse effects of pesticide exposure became a central part of the story UFW organizers told to build support for the boycotts. The issue received national attention when then-Sen. Walter F. Mondale (D-Minn.) made pesticides a focus of Senate hearings on migrant workers in 1969.
“When we won contracts with the grape industry,” Cohen said, “we put in clauses to protect farmworkers from pesticide. Jessica was the first to raise the issue in an insistent manner.”
Govea Thorbourne was only 21 when she and Marshall Ganz were sent to Canada in 1968 to enlist consumers there in the union’s fight against growers.
“She earned a real following up there,” said Ganz, now a lecturer in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
“She was a gifted speaker ... and she could sing [the farmworkers’ story] as well as speak it,” he added, recalling songs she sang that conveyed the longing and sadness in the workers’ lives.
By winning broad-based support among students, labor and churches, Govea Thorbourne and Ganz drew millions of Canadians in Toronto and Montreal -- then among the top five markets for California table grapes -- into the boycott, which gave the UFW critical leverage in its fight for recognition at the bargaining table.
“The boycott they led was one of the most effective and key in settling the grape strike,” said Eliseo Medina, a former UFW board member who is now a national officer of the Service Employees International Union. “Mind you, when the boycott began, there was no formula for how to do a boycott. Marshall and Jessica invented the formula, and many of us learned from that.”
Govea Thorbourne would later serve as national director of organizing for the union and in 1977 became a member of the UFW’s executive board. Years later, as an educator, she would often tell the young union workers she was training that she was not even sure where Canada was when she volunteered to go there.
“People who were thinking they could never do something like this drew strength from hearing her talk. She was very humble,” said Ken Margulies, who worked closely with her as director of training programs for labor organizers at Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor Relations.
At Cornell she worked extensively with Chinese-speaking members of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents healthcare workers. She also helped train coffee-processing workers in El Salvador in the early 1990s.
Although she could not prove the connection, she believed that her cancer, which was diagnosed in 1993, was caused by her exposure to pesticides as a youth working in the fields, according to her husband, Kenneth Thorbourne Jr., whom she married in 1987.
She also is survived by her mother, Margaret Govea; two sisters; and two brothers.
Her husband said that, despite her suspicions about the origins of her illness, she was never bitter about her fate and continued to work until last fall, when the cancer spread to her brain.
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