By Toni Frésquez
This year’s inauguration of President Joe Biden brought a new perspective and historic momentum to our nation. Although he has only been in office for two months, President Biden has enacted several measures and executive actions to reverse the numerous inequities promoted by the nation’s former president and administration.
One simple act, in particular, brought national attention to a beloved humanitarian—César Estrada Chávez—showing that President Biden is present and mindful of the farm worker movement’s history and its leadership. A sculpted bust of César Chávez oversees a collection of personal framed photos on a table behind President Joe Biden’s desk in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C.
There was no fanfare by the President or the White House, but the notable act of placing the bust of César Chávez in the Oval office speaks volumes to the acknowledgement of a movement that changed history.
The gesture was embraced by those who understood how momentous the action was to the Latino community. Labor leader Dolores Huerta, 90, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation discussed the issue with NPR in late January.
“I think, for all Latinos, especially when we have been under such vicious attack under the Trump administration. It was an acknowledgment, and it was not only for Latinos. I think it was for all people of color. And it was also a big acknowledgment, I think, for all working people and for labor unions also,” said Huerta. “We’re just so happy that President Biden chose to have César Chávez as a person in his office. I mean, that is a great honor for everyone.”
Although, the U.S. has not declared César Chávez as a national holiday, millions continue to remember the late labor leader on his birthday, March 31st; and continue to advocate for a national holiday honoring Chávez. In 2014, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31st as César Chávez Day, however, the honor was designated as “commemorative” and is not recognized as a national holiday.
“This is an opportunity for the nation to acknowledge that farm workers have always been essential, putting food on the tables of Americans even during a pandemic. This is the year to get it done.”
Diana Tellefson Torres, UFW Foundation
The history of César Chávez runs deep into the farm worker movement and the ultimate sacrifices made by agricultural workers and the members of the United Farm Workers’ union.
In 1962, César Chávez along with labor leaders, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla and numerous other organizers, began efforts demanding fair wages and working conditions for farm workers through the initiation of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW) union.
In the early years, Filipino leaders Larry Itliong, Peter Velasco and Philip Vera Cruz were instrumental in the progress of uniting Chicano and Filipino farm workers.
Today, the UFW advocates across the nation on behalf of its’ members initiating local and federal legislation benefiting agricultural workers, as well as targeted actions in farm worker communities providing food, and currently COVID-19 vaccination sites for farm workers.
Farm workers have always struggled at the hands of agricultural authorities, whether it be unscrupulous employers, unlivable wages, unchecked government work programs or navigating the insidious actions of Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE).
Throughout the pandemic, the plight of the farm workers has been elevated, reminding Americans where their food comes from and the backbreaking work by agricultural workers in the United States, and the glaring lack of equities afforded to these essential workers.
Last week, on March 18th, H.R. 1603, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bipartisan bill spearheaded by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA-19) and Dan Newhouse (R-WA), passed the U.S. House of Representatives with a 247-174 vote.
The bill provides a compromise solution by permitting farmworkers—and their spouses and children—to earn legal status through continued employment in the agricultural sector, and would make changes to the H-2A agricultural guest worker program.
“The men and women who work América’s farms feed the nation. But many of them do so while living and working in a state of uncertainty and fear, which has only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren. “Stabilizing the workforce will protect the future of our farms and our food supply. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act accomplishes this by providing a path to legal status for farmworkers and updating and streamlining the H-2A temporary worker visa program while ensuring fair wages and working conditions for all workers. I look forward to working with Senators on both sides of the aisle to get this bipartisan legislation that serves the best interests of our country to the President’s desk.”
The bill was negotiated over eight months in 2019 with input from farmers, agricultural stakeholders, labor organizations, and farmworker advocates. In December 2019, it became the first agriculture labor reform legislation to pass the House of Representatives since 1986. Since its passage in the House, a bipartisan coalition of Members has been working to strengthen support for the legislation.
Farm workers and their advocates hailed the passage of H.R. 1603, the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, and H.R. 6, the Dream and Promise Act of 2021. It is the result of months of intense negotiations between lawmakers from both parties, the United Farm Workers, the United Farm Worker Foundation, Farmworker Justice and most of the nation’s major grower associations.
“House passage of these two bills in the first weeks of the 117th Congress demonstrates the commitment to emancipating Dreamers, TPS [Temporary Protected Status] recipients and farm workers,” said UFW President Teresa Romero. “Farm workers’ hard work has earned them the right to a stable future in the United States. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act honors the professionalism of those who feed the entire nation and much of the world. It is the result of thoughtful compromise among bipartisan lawmakers, agricultural employers and farm workers.”
Farm workers and their advocates credit author U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and the chief Republican negotiators—Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). They also recognize key roles played by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Judiciary and Rules committees, and the bill’s 23 bipartisan cosponsors.
“Today’s [Mar. 18] votes are the direct result of decades of determination by farm workers and undocumented youth fighting for their right to keep their homes in the United States,” said UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres. “This is an opportunity for the nation to acknowledge that farm workers have always been essential, putting food on the tables of Americans even during a pandemic. This is the year to get it done.”
Cover Photo: César Chávez was in Denver, Colorado promoting the Lettuce Boycott in 1973 at Loretto Heights Campus, photo by Juan Espinosa / LCAC/Abarca Family Collection.
Toni Frésquez is the Editor for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.
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