Back in 1938, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act set minimum wages and overtime for nearly all workers in the country. To win the votes needed to pass the legislation, President Roosevelt had to appease Southern lawmakers. He was forced to exempt farm and domestic workers – then mostly African Americans in the rural South. During the debate, one Florida congressman actually declared, “You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it ... This bill, like the anti-lynching bill, is another political goldbrick for the Negro.”
While Congress was working to keep the status quo, denying equal employment benefits to people of color, a young Latino was enduring the effects of this hardship. Today, 78 years later, when farm workers are mainly Latino, this shameful legacy of racism and discrimination still infects our society.
Cesar Chavez devoted his life toward ensuring fair pay and decent working conditions for migrant farmers. Born into a Latin-American family in Yuma, Arizona in 1927, Chavez experienced poverty during the Great Depression. After losing their businesses, his family moved to California and settled as migrant farm workers. He quit school in 1942, when he was in 7th grade, because he wanted to help his mother in the fields. The family struggled, working long hours and barely making ends meet.
In 1962, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta. The organization was later renamed United Farm Workers. He also supported the Delano Grape Strike by Filipino American farm workers who fought for higher wages, three years later.
In 1965, along with the NFWA, he led a strike of California grape pickers on the momentous farmhands march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento for parallel goals. This strike persisted for five years and attracted extensive national attention.
During his lifetime, Chavez went on many hunger strikes and led boycotts to draw attention to the plight of farm workers. In the 1980s, he led a boycott to protest the use of toxic pesticides on grapes. He also went on a hunger strike or as he called it, “spiritual fasts,” to garner more public attention. During this time, he also became one of the key figures in getting the exoneration provisions into the 1986 federal immigration act.
California, the biggest agricultural employer in the nation, is one of a handful of states with any overtime protection at all for farm workers. However, these laborers only receive extra pay after working a grueling 10 hours a day. The fight for pay equality continues.
Currently, the UFW is lobbying to bring pay wages for farm workers in line with other workers. According to the website:
The UFW is determined to right this wrong. The group is sponsoring AB 2757, “The Phase-In Overtime for Agricultural Workers Act of 2016.” The bill was introduced on February 19 in California’s legislature and would gradually move toward paying California’s farm workers overtime if they work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week by the year 2020.
This isn’t the first time the UFW has led this battle. They had two previous efforts to enact an eight-hour overtime law in California. The first passed the legislature in 2010, but was vetoed by then-Governor Schwarzenegger. The second lost by just a handful of votes in the Assembly in 2012. The new law would be phased in over four stages in order to make it easier for employers to implement. Hillary Clinton wrote to top CA legislators to convey her strong support for this legislation.
“Excluding farm workers from overtime after eight hours was wrong in 1938. It’s wrong now. This deplorable caste system must end ... and it starts in California, which provides over half of America’s fresh produce and sets the pace for the entire nation,” the website says.
Farm workers deserve the same overtime as other workers. Farm workers toil for low wages hour after hour, often in extreme temperatures and dangerous conditions. Even worse, farm workers are some of the only workers in America that are not paid overtime after an eight-hour day or 40-hour week. To sign the pledge, go to the website at http://action.ufw.