Cesar Chavez Day: celebrating farmworkers

Cesar Chavez Day on March 31 celebrates the legacy of one of the most influential activists in American history. Chavez spend his career empowering his fellow farmworkers, a group that is still struggling for improved working conditions and living wages. 

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP/File
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, left, and Paul Chavez, son of Cesar Chavez, lead the 14th Annual Cesar E. Chavez "Si Se Puede!" March on Cesar Chavez Street in Austin, Texas, on Saturday March 28, 2015. Hundreds marched in the mile-long route to City Hall for a rally.

National Farmworker Awareness Week (March 24-31) concludes on Cesar Chavez Day, which commemorates the legacy of one of the most influential activists in American history. In the United States, more than 2 million men and women work on farms, providing the fruit, vegetables, and other crops that feed consumers around the world. Unfortunately, those same consumers often overlook farmworkers and their contributions. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked the agriculture industry as one of the most hazardous workplaces in the U.S. While in the fields, experts say, farmworkers are at risk for both fatal and nonfatal injuries, lung and skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor reported at least one farmworker death per day, as well as hundreds of injuries due to work-related accidents—an injury rate 20 percent higher than that of the private industry.

Farmworkers are typically socioeconomically vulnerable immigrants with low levels of formal education. They receive low wages—in 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that agricultural workers earn an average annual income of US$18,910—and one-quarter of the farmworker population live below the national poverty line. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, almost half of farmworkers lack work authorization, which, in addition to deficient resources, has created a population with little power to speak for themselves. 

As a Mexican-American migrant worker, Cesar Chavez spent his career empowering his fellow farmworkers. Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 (now the United Farm Workers), and organized protests, marches, and boycotts to demand improvements in the treatment and economic status of farmworkers. In a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, Chavez declared his vision to “overthrow a farm labor system in this nation which treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings.”

Despite Chavez's impact, the struggle for improved farm working conditions continues, and has been the subject of recent revelatory films. The 2014 documentary Food Chains offers an inside look at the hurdles facing a group of Florida farmworkers as they take on the US$4 trillion global supermarket industry. The short film Pesticide Lake reveals the tragic consequences of toxic pesticide use on those working in fields.

Organizations like Farmworker Justice, the Farmworker Advocacy Network, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee work to further Chavez's vision. Not only do these groups combat issues facing farmworkers, but they provide ways for consumers to take action and encourage fair treatment of those whose toil brings food from the field to the kitchen.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.