Activists Agitate for Chavez Holiday

"This is a beautiful movement coming from the ground up," said Evilina Alarcon, a community activist in East Los Angeles. "We're proving that there's so much passion for this day."

Legislation stalled for half dozen years and vetoed by former Gov. Pete Wilson appears to be heading through the California Assembly as a bill which will not only make the birth of Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), a paid annual state holiday for state workers, but will ask teachers to spend part of the day giving California's nearly six million students lessons on Chavez and leading them in an afternoon of community service in his name.

For the past year, working nights and weekends, spreading the word from churches to concerts, Alarcon has championed the Chavez holiday cause, enlisting celebrities such as Carlos Santana and Edward James Olmos. Dozens of county governments have also passed resolutions in support of a holiday while the holiday supporters have bombarded the capital in Sacramento with 100,000 petitions and postcards.

Thus, the Washington Post's Rene Sanchez reports, California lawmakers have been deluged in recent months with petitions demanding a Chavez holiday and with tens of thousands of postcards bearing his portrait and comparing him to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Rallies to promote the Chavez holiday have been staged around the state.

State politicians have become sensitive to the Chavez holiday as Hispanics are the fastest-growing portion of California's giant electorate and occupy nearly one-fifth of the seats in the state legislature, including the speaker's chair. Demographers are forecasting that in five years, Hispanics will make up one-third of the state's population, up from one-fourth in 1990.

"Just about the last thing most politicians, Democrat or Republican, want to do in California anymore," Sanchez points out, "is antagonize that constituency -- especially by balking at memorials to a man many Hispanics regard as a latter-day saint."

Two other states -- Arizona and Texas -- both faced with new pressure from Hispanic activists, have also adopted Chavez holidays recently, each more limited than the one proposed for California. In Arizona, where Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, the holiday for him received support from Republican legislators worried that a vote against the bill could turn Hispanic voters against their party in the upcoming November elections.

In California, the Chavez holiday legislation will soon reach the desk of Gov. Gray Davis. Although the Democrat has been publicly circumspect, Davis's aides say he has "deep respect" for Chavez.

"This is historic. This is extraordinary," said Richard Polanco, a Democratic state senator from Los Angeles who is the chief sponsor of the holiday in the legislature. "It is the right thing to do." Arturo S. Rodriguez, Chavez's successor as president of the United Farm Workers, which currently has about 27,000 members in California, praised the new plan for the holiday. "It would be what Cesar was all about," he said. "We can't think of a more meaningful way to honor his legacy."

As Susan Samuels Drake in her poetic memoirs, Fields of Courage: Remembering Cesar Chavez & the People Whose Labor Feeds Us (Many Names Press: Santa Cruz, California: 1999) observes:

"So who was Cesar Estrada Chavez? Certainly, no single word or phrase or book can contain him. His titles were many: organizer, prophet of sustainable development, eager recycler (he even saved vegetable seeds from his garden to plant year after year), health nut, student of dozens of subjects. He was a powerful, persuasive speaker, labor leader, charismatic hero; American-born farm worker of Mexican descent; the Mexican Martin Luther King; America's Gandhi."

The one-time secretary to Chavez, Drake adds: "Friend and foe alike admit that no one accomplished what Cesar did. No one else inspired 100,000 farm workers to shed their independent ways and sign up for membership in a fledgling labor union. No one else used nonviolence so effectively as an organizing principle; only a handful of others had even tried to, in the 1930's. Cesar integrated people from diverse cultural backgrounds into a movement that swept its way into political, medical, legal, economic, environmentalist and religious circles."

Meanwhile, California labor officials recently ruled that some 600 pickers at the nation's largest strawberry grower should be represented by separate bargaining units in Oxnard and Watsonville, increasing the likelihood that the UFW will once again represent pickers in Ventura County. The ruling, affirmed by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, clears the way for a June election at the Coastal Berry Co.'s Oxnard operation.

In June, 1999 the UFW lost an election to represent all of Coastal Berry's workers in Oxnard and Watsonville to a rival union, the Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee. The UFW filed scores of objections to that election, including one saying that Coastal Berry's pickers would be better served by separate bargaining units. A state labor judge last month agreed and the state labor board has upheld that ruling.

Copies of Susan Samuels Drake's book can be ordered through: Capitola Book Cafe, email or phone 831-462-4415.

Farmworkers' Preschool Kids Exposed to Poisons

"It's cause for concern, but not cause for alarm. The point is, we don't understand what pesticides do or don't do in small children. And we need to keep an eye on those who get more exposure than others." -- Dr. Richard Fenske, Director of the University of Washington's Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.

A study of urine samples of 109 children in Washington State's Chelan and Douglas counties, the first such study using biological measurements, has shown preschool children of farmworkers are being exposed to chemical poisons at higher levels than federal regulators consider safe. However, none of the children in the alarming study were engaged in farm work, but were rather exposed through chemical poison residue in their homes, and from food consumption.

Dr. Fenske said the UW study, to be published in the June issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institutes of Health, showed some children were exposed to levels as much as 20 times the safety standards set for adults by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But most who exceeded the limits were no more than three times over.

As the Seattle Times' medical writer Warren King notes, "scientists don't know whether the children have suffered long-term adverse effects from the exposure. Another extensive UW study is examining what levels might be dangerous for children. Existing federal rules for safe levels of exposure to pesticides focus only on adults."

Researchers looked at the children's exposure during 1995 to two chemical poisons in regular use to fight coddling moths in apples: azinphos-methyl and phosmet, both organophosphate chemicals. Of 91 children of farmworkers, 56 percent showed exposures to azinphos-methyl beyond federal limits. Of 18 nonfarmworker children who lived more than a quarter-mile from an orchard, 44 percent had exposures over the limits.

Prior research in 1995 found chemical poison levels in the house dust of the state's Wenatchee-area agricultural workers were five times that of nonfarmworkers' homes.

Currently, the University of Washington is conducting extensive research in chemical poison exposure and its effects on children. A five-year, $6.6 million study is looking at everything from how farmworkers bring chemical poison residues into their homes, to children's genetic susceptibility to the chemicals.

Use of Undocumented Workers Depresses Wages

Olivia Mendoza and Juana Mendiola, two Mexican nationals, have accused two Yakima Valley fruit growers and packers -- Zirkle Fruit and Matson Fruit -- of colluding with a Yakima employment agency -- Selective Employment Agency -- to systematically hire undocumented workers in an effort to depress farmworker and packinghouse wages.

In an unprecedented class-action lawsuit filed in US District Court in Spokane, Washington, in early April, the workers charged that all other legal agricultural workers are harmed by depressed wages because of the deliberate employment of undocumented workers willing to work for less.

David Lighthall of the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis, California, told the Seattle Times' Lynda Mayes that the lawsuit was unprecedented. "I haven't heard of anything like this, where you have documented workers disgruntled because jobs are going to undocumented workers. Obviously, if this case were successful, that would be a very big deal, but what might be more important is the light this will shed on the whole hiring system."

The workers' attorney, Steve Berman, told Mayes that the class-action suit is an effort to improve wages and working conditions for agricultural workers. "Illegals will work for less because they are afraid to assert their rights," Berman said. "That depresses wages for legal workers, and also makes it harder for legals to stay employed, because there is this big pool of illegal workers out there."

If the suit is successful, Berman acknowledged, it could hurt undocumented workers by denying them work. "You have to start somewhere. Growers will never respond with better working conditions if they can use the illegal workers against the legal ones, to keep them down."

Mayes reports that all three Washington companies, or their attorneys, have denied the workers' claims. Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League called the allegations "absurd. They don't care about the industry or the people in it, who they hurt, or how ridiculous they look over here in the agricultural community," he said of attorneys bringing the suit. "They are only in it for the money."

Gempler said the employers named in the suit pay about the same wages or more than others in the Washington agricultural industry. Packinghouse workers typically make about $7.50 to $8 an hour. Pickers get about $9 an hour for apples and pears, and more for cherries, depending on the farm and the workers' speed and skill.

Growers have estimated that in recent years as many as 70 percent of farmworkers do not have valid papers, depending on the location of the farm, the season and the crop. About 90,000 seasonal workers are employed in the agricultural industry every year.

Despite reported efforts to screen all workers for legal status, growers point out that false documents are easy and cheap to obtain, and that employers are legally restricted in their ability to verify them. If they look too closely or too long, employers can be accused of discrimination.

The US Immigration and Nationalization Service estimates there are five million undocumented workers in the US, including about 52,000 in Washington State.

Growers, meanwhile, are urging a new immigration law be passed by Congress, legislation that has some support from labor. The bill sought by growers would create the country's first major amnesty program since 1986. In it, workers could become legal residents in return for working 180 days a year in agriculture in each of the next five years. The AFL-CIO, however, is calling for outright amnesty for the millions of agricultural workers.

A. V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201

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