Longtime United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez will step down from leadership of the union founded by his father-in-law, Cesar Chavez, the union confirmed Tuesday.
His replacement, Teresa Romero, will be the first woman and first immigrant to lead the labor organization.
Romero, 60, the current secretary-treasurer of UFW, was born in Mexico City and has a background in office management and legal affairs. She came to the U.S. in the 1980s and became a citizen 16 years ago.
In an interview, Romero said immigration reform would be at the top of UFW’s agenda, largely because workers who lack documents are “terrified” and reluctant to speak up about other issues.
“I think a lot of the issues that immigrants are having now, especially women, are being shadowed by their immigration status,” Romero said.
“I am very proud I’m a U.S. citizen and I’m very proud of my Mexican and Zapotec heritage; it’s something that’s in me,” she said.
Rodriguez, 69, a native of San Antonio, came up through the organizing ranks of the UFW after joining the national grape boycotts as a college student. He married Chavez’s daughter, Linda, in 1974, and took over leadership after Chavez died in 1993. Chavez was born in Yuma, Ariz.
The UFW — based in Keene, Calif. — boasted a membership of about 80,000 in the early 1970s. It now reports 10,248 members nationwide, about 85% of them working under collective bargaining agreements, according to U.S. Department of Labor documents.
The vast majority of the state’s seasonal farm labor force, estimated at 350,000 to 450,000, do not belong to a union. The UFW, the Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers are the top organizers.
Romero will inherit the challenges faced by her predecessor and by unions nationwide — increased mechanization and reliance on nonunion contractors, and the whittling of the political power of organized labor.
At its heart, the UFW remains torn between whether it can be both a grass-roots union and a broad social movement operating in the halls of power, said Philip Martin, a UC Davis agricultural economist and farm labor expert.
After Chavez’s death, Martin said, Rodriguez shifted the union back toward winning elections and getting contracts and organizing strawberry workers — the latter of which ultimately fell short.
“There was a big burst, a big effort at unionizing, but by 2000, then there was a switch toward the Legislature,” Martin said.
Martin noted Romero’s lack of farmworker background — Rodriguez, likewise, did not come from the fields.
“It is worth noting that the UFW does not have union locals, and so therefore does not have a system under which current farmworkers are trained in leadership development with the idea that they will rise within the union,” he said.
The union has weathered several bruising battles to avoid being voted out of power by its own members, and has been locked in a decades-long standoff to win a contract with the state’s largest fruit grower, Gerawan Farming.
The union also was hit last year with a million-dollar judgment to settle claims that its own organizers, who themselves formed a union, had been underpaid. The UFW reported $517,000 in settlements last year, according to federal documents. The union said it had net assets of $3.1 million.
The UFW’s decline has been mitigated by recent victories, including a contract inked with Salinas, Calif.-based produce company D’Arrigo Bros., a decades-long adversary. The contract came after months of personal diplomacy between family scion John D’Arrigo and Rodriguez.
Romero was selected by the union’s national executive board and will take over after Rodriguez steps down Dec. 20, the UFW said in a written statement. She has been with the union for nine years and previously managed a construction company and an immigration law firm, the union said.
Romero’s appointment allows her to serve nearly two years before facing election as required under the union’s constitution, and it bypasses several members with longer tenures.
“We thought this was a good time to do it,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not in crisis. We’re in a strong situation, so let’s pursue this. It was a democratic process that we went through; all of us had a chance to throw our hat in the ring if we so chose. But in the end we all came to a unanimous decision around Teresa.”
Rodriguez would not comment on whether others vied for the position, saying they were part of “internal discussions.”
“We’re very excited about what we did and the future that it gives us — having an immigrant woman heading the organization,” Rodriguez said.
6:10 p.m.: This article was updated with interviews with Arturo Rodriguez, Teresa Romero and an agriculture economist and farm labor expert.
This article was originally published at 2:10 p.m.