By Contributor on July 29, 2010

By Alvaro Huerta

Forty years ago, workers in the United States won a great victory.

On July 29, 1970, the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) ended its successful grape boycott when the growers agreed to sign the first contract with the union.

It seemed like an improbable outcome, as the battle pitted a mostly Mexican as well as Filipino immigrant work force against powerful agricultural growers in California.

Led by the late Cesar Chavez and tireless Dolores Huerta, the UFW was founded in the early 1960s in response to the inhumane working conditions for farmworkers in California and other states, such as Arizona, Texas, Florida and Washington state.

While many American workers during this period enjoyed the right to organize, 40-hour weeks, minimum wage and relatively safe working conditions, farmworkers lacked these basic rights and protections.

In an effort to seek justice, dignity and respect in the rural fields of America, UFW leaders, its members and sympathizers organized and joined picket lines and marches, signed petitions, supported labor laws, lobbied elected officials, distributed educational flyers, produced documentaries, penned songs, performed plays, held teach-ins and generally supported the nationwide boycott.

The charismatic Chavez — who graced the cover of Time magazine on July 4, 1969 — engaged in numerous and lengthy hunger strikes to draw attention to the cause.

As was the case with the civil rights movement, many UFW activists were beaten up and a few were killed for the simple act of supporting the right of farmworkers to organize a union and negotiate for fair labor contracts.

But the rightness of their cause prevailed.

So inspirational was it that Barack Obama, when he was a candidate for president, adopted the group’s slogan: “Si, Se Puede” (“Yes, We Can”).

Now, 40 years later, farmworkers continue to toil under harsh working conditions.

To draw attention to this, the UFW has launched an innovative campaign called “Take Our Jobs.”

The “Take Our Jobs” campaign encourages unemployed Americans to work in the agricultural fields to pick fruits and vegetables as a means to educating the public of the importance of immigrant labor issues and desperate need for humane labor reforms at the national level.

As part of this campaign, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez appeared on “The Colbert Report,” the popular cable show, to shed light on the plight of “los de abajo” (those on the bottom).

The best way to honor this 40th anniversary of the UFW’s landmark success would be to support humane labor law reform for farmworkers and to strengthen the right to organize.

Si, Se Puede!

Alvaro Huerta is a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley’s department of city and regional planning and visiting scholar at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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