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If Cesar Chavez Were Alive Today

This month, a new film documenting Cesar Chavez’s historic campaign to organize farmworkers in America will be released in time for what would have been his 87th birthday. Chavez rose to prominence as a founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), where he organized thousands of poor Latino workers laboring in fields throughout central California.

Sarita Gupta

Through nonviolent but aggressive tactics, Chavez and the UFW won higher wages, safer working conditions and collective bargaining rights for generations of farmworkers, culminating in the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975.

So, as we celebrate the legacy of this historic leader, we must also pause to consider that today farmworkers – and others laboring for low wages along the food supply chain – are still struggling. Back then, Chavez and his supporters camped outside grocery stores to encourage shoppers to boycott grapes until conditions and wages improved. Today, instead of a grocery store, it might be a Walmart.

Not only is Walmart the largest private employer in the United States, but it has effectively “Walmart-ified” the supply chain of food and manufacturing in America, including farming. Reportedly, more than one quarter of all groceries in the United States are purchased at Walmart. In other words, many farmworkers laboring in U.S. fields and as far away as China, in effect work for Walmart.

Much of Walmart’s supply chain workforce is comprised of poor people of color. The company is owned by members of the Walton family, who are among the wealthiest individuals in the world. Together, they control as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined.

While Walmart workers must subsist on an average wage of $8.81 per hour – and farmworkers along the company’s supply chain earn even less – the Walton family earns dramatically much more. Instead of sharing the prosperity with its employees or addressing questionable working conditions, the company chooses to spend much of its profits buying back its own stock.

It’s no wonder workers across the Walmart empire have appealed to the company – and the family that controls it.

The examples of Walmart’s treatment of workers are easy to find. Take the 2009 UFW campaign organizing workers picking grapes for Giumarra, a major produce label that contracts with Walmart. Recognizing that Walmart was ultimately responsible for conditions facing the largely Latino workforce, organizers called on the company to address wage and other work-related issues in Giumarra’s fields.

Other workers along Walmart’s supply chain have followed suit. In 2012, Mexican guest workers at a Walmart-contracted crawfish processing plant in Louisiana went on strike after being threatened with beatings. Many workers were required to put in shifts as long as 24 hours. They were threatened with deportation if they spoke up and faced what The New York Times described as “forced labor on American shores.”

Walmart claimed they were “unable to substantiate” the workers’ allegations.

Months later, workers at a Walmart-contracted warehouse outside of Los Angeles took action to protest a lack of drinking water, as well as extreme heat and other conditions that they felt were dangerous. Following in the footsteps of the UFW, the workers staged a 50-mile “pilgrimage” from the warehouses to downtown Los Angeles. Members of the UFW even joined the march to call on Walmart to address safety in its warehouses.

Despite Chavez’s meaningful work securing core labor protections, today’s farmworkers still face unsafe working conditions, weak labor laws and insufficient wages. Men and women who pick our produce earn an average of $10,000 to $12,000 per year and are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line.

Of course, these low wages are what keep prices artificially low at Walmart – just as they kept the cost of grapes and other foods low in Chavez’s time.

Even if the full cost of lifting wages were passed to consumers, retail price increases would be negligible. In fact, one study suggested that raising farmworker wages above the poverty level would cost American households an average of just $38 per year. Another economist found that if Walmart increased its associates pay to $10.10 per hour – which is the rate increase mandated by the Fair Minimum Wage Act under debate in Congress – the cost of products like a DVD would increase by a penny if the company passed labor costs directly to consumers.

These increases would be a small price to pay for a massive boost to the working poor, as well as our economy.

When Cesar Chavez launched his first 25-day fast in 1968, he said, “Those who oppose our cause are rich and powerful and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our own bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons.”

Today, that spirit of Cesar Chavez’s inspiring, creative civil disobedience lives on through the brave activism of Walmart associates and supply chain workers, including farmworkers and immigrant workers. They and their supporters are challenging corporations and special interests. By walking off the job, organizing mass protests, fasting and speaking to the press, they are putting pressure on corporations to change their practices.

By making the UFW’s cause everyone’s cause, Chavez’s fight ultimately led to significant advancements for farmworkers. If more of us can harness his lessons, we’ll reclaim our power to change Walmart and reclaim our jobs, our communities and our economy.

Sarita Gupta is executive director of Jobs With Justice, which focuses on worker rights and economic issues. She is also the co-director of Caring Across Generations, which works on dignified care for older Americans, people with disabilities and families. 

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