The rise of organized labor in agriculture is epitomized by the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the largest and oldest union of agricultural laborers in the nation, and its influence on environmental public policy, operations, and worker conditions. Many salient actors, events, and campaigns have contributed to this influence.
The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), precursor to the UFW, was cofounded in 1962 by César E. Chávez and Dolores Huerta. Their lifelong commitments were to win recognition and respect, better wages, and safer working conditions for agricultural laborers in California and elsewhere. Earlier efforts to organize agricultural labor in the United States, such as the National Agricultural Workers Union, which Chávez joined in 1947, were not successful. Moreover, no labor union in the United States had ever expressed much concern about the effects of pesticides on farm workers and their families.
La huelga en general (also known as the general strike) catapulted the Chávez-led UFW to international attention after September 16, 1965, when it joined a strike against grape growers started eight days earlier by a union of Filipino workers in Delano, California. From the beginning, Chávez expressed concern about the harmful effects of commonly used pesticides on farm workers. In 1969 he marched with several hundred other protesters to the national headquarters of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and demanded increased government surveillance of pesticide use on food crops.
By the early 1970s, following Chávez-led fasts, secondary boycotts, and protest marches, Huerta had negotiated UFW contracts with many central California grape growers that required protective clothing for workers laboring in fields sprayed with pesticides and effectively banned the use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane) and other dangerous pesticides. These contracts also required longer periods before reentry into pesticide-sprayed fields—beyond state and federal standards—and also mandated the testing of farm workers on a regular basis to monitor for pesticide exposure, several years before comparable government rules were established. The UFW was also the first union to require joint union-management committees to enforce state safety regulations regarding the use of pesticides in vineyards.
From the beginning, Chávez urged farm workers like Pablo Romero and activists like Marion Moses to become physicians committed to addressing the many pesticide-related health threats to farm workers. After medical school, Romero worked as a physician at the UFW clinic in Salinas, California, where he also helped form a community task force that set new rules to minimize the risk of accidental pesticide exposure. Moses, a native West Virginian and former UFW nurse, became Chávez's personal physician and union researcher, after studying internal and occupational medicine. Moses later founded the Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco, California, with the mission of educating the public about the adverse health effects of exposure to pesticides in the home, within the community, and at work.
The UFW initiated another antipesticide boycott against grape growers in 1984 after research found hundreds of thousands of local residents suffering from pesticide-related illnesses and an unusually high incidence of cancer among children in central California. Chávez called on Americans to once again stop buying grapes until the industry stopped using pesticides known to cause, or suspected of causing, cancer in laboratory animals. The UFW used an innovative direct-mail campaign to carry Chávez's antipesticide plea to consumers all over North America.
Following two mid-1980s incidents near Salinas in which hundreds of farm workers received emergency hospital treatment after they were twice accidentally sprayed with pesticides, the UFW pushed for Monterey County's enactment of the toughest pesticide restriction laws in the nation, which prompted similar policy changes throughout the state of California. Thus, the UFW became the first labor union to demand government protection for farm workers and others from dangerous pesticides, including airplane-sprayed chemical drifts. After Chávez's unexpected death in 1993, the UFW's leadership maintained its strong antipesticide position by continuing to advocate for more protection for farm workers and other who work and live near and around the fields.
Griswold Del Castillo, Richard, and Garcia, Richard A. (1995). César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. University of Oklahoma Press.
Ferriss, Susan, and Sandoval, Ricardo. (1977). The Fight in the Fields—César Chávez and the Farmworker Movement. New York: Harcourt and Brace.
Ross, Fred. (1989). Conquering Goliath—César Chávez at the Beginning. Keene, CA: El Taller Grafico Books.
Children's Environmental Health Network Web site. Available from http://www.cehn.org/cehn .
San Francisco State University Web site. "César E. Chávez Institute for Public Policy." Available from http://www.sfsu.edu/~cecipp .
United Farm Workers Web site. Available from http://www.ufw.org .
José B. Cuellar