Members of the United Farm Workers march to the Capitol again, where their influence grows

By late morning it was already warm, but not as hot as it would be in a few hours. Lourdes Cardenas, 59, had already covered nearly five dusty, sunny miles from Turlock, with about as many more to get to today’s destination in downtown Modesto.

At break time, a mariachi in full dress began to play, and Cardenas slumped into a chair set up under a shade structure, picked up some creams and bandages, and bent over her puffy and swollen feet.

However, she had no plans to stop.

Cardenas, an immigrant from Mexico who has worked the California fields for decades, is among a small group of farmhands who, for the first time in nearly 30 years, travel 335 miles from UFW headquarters near Delano at the State Capitol.

Officially, the three-week pilgrimage aims to pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom into signing a bill that would allow farmworkers to choose, including mail-in voting, how elections are held in the countryside. of unionization. But the goal is broader: to signal that the union is emboldened despite decades of declining membership.

“That’s enough,” said UFW president Teresa Romero. People need to understand, she said, “that without this immigrant labor, the agricultural industry in this country would disappear, and then we would have to pay a lot more for our food.”

Currently, farm workers can only vote to join the UFW if they do so at a polling place designated by the Farm Relations Commission, which exposes them to retaliation, according to the union. New ways to vote sanctioned by Assembly Bill 2183 would change that. Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year, prompting the UFW to march to the French Laundrythe Napa Valley restaurant where the governor got into political trouble after he was caught having dinner during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this year, the bill’s author, Mark Stone (D-Scott’s Valley), said he was working with Newsom and planned to send the governor a bill addressing his earlier concerns. As for Newsom, his spokesman, Anthony York, said “the administration has been engaged on this issue for a long time,” adding, “We remain optimistic that we can reach a compromise.”

Farming interests have opposed the law, but AB 2183 has another powerful voice in Sacramento: Lorena Gonzalez, the former congresswoman and farmworker’s daughter who is the new leader of the powerful California Federation of Labor.

Gonzalez brought the UFW back into the fold of the federation, which she left in 2006, and threw her influence behind the bill. She said she plans to walk dozens of miles with the UFW in the triple-digit heat over the weekend to show her support.

She had a lot of company. The marchers were joined along the way by Cesar Chavez’s grandson, Andres Chavez, and politicians, members of other unions like the Teamsters, history buffs, club car enthusiasts, a motorcycle club and adult children of farm workers marching in memory of their parents, as well as people leading their children to understand an important part of California history.

And, because this pilgrimage takes place in 2022, it also includes a truck carrying a Porta-Potty. (Apart from the walkers’ blisters and swollen feet so far, the Porta-Potty is the only part of the caravan to have suffered a serious accident – it was hit by a car, but luckily, organizers said , it was empty at the time .)

Gonazlez said the new law is crucial to protecting agricultural workers, who are often undocumented and risk not only being fired but also deported if they upset their bosses by trying to join a union. But beyond that, she says, the law is also deeply symbolic: It will show that California is committed to protecting all of its workers, even the most vulnerable.

“As we continue to support workers in the high tech industry, workers in retail, workers at Starbucks, workers in hotels, workers in all aspects of life, I think California, supporting our agricultural workers just guarantees that mindset,” she said. said. “All the polls I’ve seen show that people are pro-union and yet we still have all these obstacles. California can lead the way, if we can use our laws as proactively as possible. »

In this context, the march is a step towards strengthening the union as a political force, as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s, when young people flocked to the San Joaquin Valley to join the fight and the union contracts were won despite brutal repression. farmers and the police.

The first time the UFW marched from Delano to Sacramento was in the spring of 1966, when the union was only a few years old. Led by Chavez, who founded the UFW with Dolores Huerta, the farmworkers were trying to draw attention to the exploitative conditions in the fields and the campaign to organize workers.

By the time the marchers reached Sacramento on Easter Sunday, the UFW had signed its first labor agreement, Chavez had made the front page of the New York Times, and the union had become one of the most powerful voices of the 1960s for the justice. The UFW also led a march from Delano to Sacramento in 1994, to commemorate the first anniversary of Chavez’s death.

Despite Chavez’s later status as a national icon, whose name now adorns schools, parks and city streets across the state, the union he led has been struggling for years. Recent estimates put the membership at just 7,000, and some critics complain that the union has not spent enough time lately organizing workers and winning contracts.

“After the 1980s, with few exceptions, the UFW stopped organizing unorganized farm workers,” said William B. Gould, professor emeritus of law at Stanford University and former chairman of the Council on Relations state agricultural labor. “That’s the brutal reality. The UFW is moribund. You can quote me on that. My three-year-old [on the ARLB] they did nothing.

Union leaders say such criticism is unfair. Because they are often undocumented or, increasingly, guest temporary foreign workers, agricultural workers are among the most vulnerable and difficult to organize members of the workforce. Long exempt from labor laws that protect workers in other sectors, they have long seen the bridge drawn against them, experts say. Still, Romero said, regulations backed by the UFW president’s union, such as new protections for working in the heat, have benefited not just the workers represented, but all farmworkers.

As they marched up the central valley, waving flags and chanting “if it sucks, ” many attendees said they were doing this to pressure the governor into signing the Voting Choice in Agriculture Labor Relations Act.

“We are fighting for our rights,” said Veronica Mota, 47, a farm worker from Madera who said she was there to represent “thousands of farm workers who cannot leave their jobs” during the season. crops to join the fight.

But many others said they were there because of what UFW means to them — and the voice they hope to help give it in the future.

Rikki Mezza, who works for the state, said she was walking in memory of her father, Frutoso Meza, an immigrant from Jalisco who worked in the fields and walked with Chavez in the 1960s. She wore her picture around the neck. Other members of his family, including his sisters, planned to walk on different days.

Next to Mezza, Elva Beltran got out of her husband’s car and started walking in the middle of the day, saying she had worked in the fields when she was young and wanted to show her support.

In Ceres, the caravan picked up a police escort – summoned, according to organizers, due to rumors that the march could be targeted by white supremacists. No harassment materialized, but the Central Valley Rebirth Car Club sent several brightly painted lowriders to keep a watchful eye, and members of a local motorcycle club also showed up, blasting bandaged the music from the big speakers.

Abel Martinez took the day off to drive his cherry red 1974 Lincoln Continental alongside the walkers, accompanied by his wife, Sabrina, daughter and niece.

“We couldn’t be more grateful to these people walking,” Sabrina said.

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