César Chávez’ birthday on March 31 is officially commemorated in many parts of the country, and it is an optional state holiday that was observed by state offices on Monday.
It recognizes and honors the person who spearheaded the movement to bring greater justice and working conditions to the most exploited and poorest laborers in the nation and Texas.
By the time he died in 1993 at age 66, Chávez had established the United Farm Workers union and began the systematic effort to improve the lives of agricultural employees, the majority of whom are of Hispanic origin.
An ardent advocate of non-violent direct action, Chávez became the nation’s most influential Latino civil rights leader, giving impetus to the Mexican American rights struggle on issues from college educational opportunity to employment equity.
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Where are we today with regard to farm worker issues, and where should we be?
Chávez helped achieve dignity, respect, fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, humane working conditions, and other protections for hundreds of thousands of farm laborers and won the first industry-wide labor contracts in American agriculture.
But that is only beginning of a long journey, the end of which is not yet in sight.
Texas agriculture ranks third among the states; it is a $25 billion industry. Texas leads the nation in the number of farms, orchards and ranches: 248,000, covering 130 million acres.
One of every seven Texans works in an agriculture-related job.
Yet, wages of people who are the backbone of agriculture, in the best scenario, range from $22,000 to $26,000/year. And, in South Texas, the median is $18,000/year — that, too, being unfortunately optimistic.
Many farm workers are paid “off the books” or not actually paid what the books represent. Many receive less than the $7.25 minimum wage.
Some 200,000 farm workers migrate around Texas during the year. They live in awful migrant housing or camps, often characterized by shacks in which an entire family must live and sanitary conditions that are appalling.
Exposure to dangerous pesticides and herbicides is rampant. Sometimes, workers are charged for their housing or forced to live in cheap local motel rooms at their expense.
Only domestic workers earn less pay than the farm employees.
Even though federal laws protect agricultural employees, they are haphazardly enforced. Congress will not fund sufficient enforcement personnel.
Texas’ enforcement of its own few laws protecting farm workers is even more pathetic, if not scandalous.
More than half of farm workers are undocumented and paid informally in cash, wages are kept depressed, and federally funded legal aid groups are not allowed to represent them in wage claims.
César Chávez did much to improve farm workers’ lives; he helped raise America’s consciousness and conscience.
The best tribute we can offer to his memory is to stir ourselves to action on behalf of the invisible laborers who put food on our tables.
James C. Harrington is the founder and director emeritus of the Texas Civil Rights Project.