UNITED FARM WORKERS STILL NEED OUR HELP BADLY!
|Farm Workers Still Need Our Help Badly!
By Dick Meister
DON'T BE MISLED BY THE widespread acclaim for the United Farm Workers union
and its late founder, Cesar Chavez. Although the union has made important
gains, farm workers remain among the most mistreated of workers.
They still need the strong public support that led to creation of the UFW
in 1962 and are seeking it in a newly launched fund-raising drive that
highlights the serious health hazards facing farm workers and the UFW's
attempts to combat them.
Union President Arturo Rodriguez notes that the health of farm workers --who
regularly work in temperatures that reach 100 degrees and beyond -- is often
at risk because of "dangerous working conditions, lack of access to adequate
medical care and insurance and the callous indifference of their employers."
The union, as Rodriguez noted, has helped enact laws requiring employers to
provide drinking water and worker training "on what to do if they're
overheated or having symptoms of heat illness." The laws, however, are often
ignored and many workers "are afraid to speak up, fearful they will lose
their jobs or be disciplined."
Rodriguez cites the experience of farm worker Margarita Garcia at a Kern
County farm last June.
The temperature was more than 100 degrees, she recalled, "and I felt I was
overheating. I looked for shade, but there was none. There was only one jug
of water available for the whole day for 40 thirsty workers."
Garcia's experience was not that unusual. Other workers tell, for instance,
of "bosses providing umbrellas to shade grapes while leaving nearby workers
to bake in the sun."
Exposure to blistering heat is only one of the great dangers farm workers
face. Rodriguez notes, for example, the serious threat from pesticides and
fertilizers. They often work in fields that have been sprayed with such
poisons that cause nausea, vomiting and dizziness as well as severe heat
rash and other skin problems.
As a matter of fact, notes Rodriguez, farm workers' exposure to heat and
pesticides as well as on-the-job injuries "make agriculture one of the most
dangerous jobs in America."
Many, it not most, grower employers seem downright indifferent to the
workplace dangers and severe health problems of their workers.
Rodriguez cites sure evidence of that in the experience of several workers
such as Delano vineyard worker Manuel Serrato. He recalled a pregnant co-
worker who fell while picking grapes and "injured herself very bad. She was
in so much pain that she was crying, but the company didn't want to send her
to the doctor."
Serrato also recalled that at the beginning of the grape harvest last year,
his wife Paula was bent over to pick up a tray full of grapes when she
heard a loud "pop" followed by "back pain so severe she couldn't stand up."
She said "the foreman began to laugh at me and did not want to send me to
the doctor." When Paula returned to work the next day, the foreman warned
her he didn't want any more "problems", so told her to start working under a
different name. She refused, and the foreman fired her.
Rodriguez also cites the experience of Reyes Flores Trujillo, who fell from
the top of a ladder while pruning grape vines:
"I lost consciousness for about 15 minutes. When my coworkers saw that I
wasn't moving, they picked me up and called an ambulance, but it never
Reyes finally got treatment, said Rodriguez, "but the accident had a
devastating impact on his life." When he returned to work, Reyes said, "the
foreman gave me a lot of pressure and said I didn't produce enough." But
because of his injuries he couldn't produce more or find a job elsewhere.
The only important help available to Trujillo, as to other farm workers, is
the United Farm Workers. Despite extremely heavy pressures from powerful
anti-union corporate grower interests, the UFW has negotiated and continues
to seek and enforce union contracts providing health insurance coverage to
UFW members through the union's Robert F. Kennedy Farm Workers Medical Plan.
It's not that growers can't afford to pay for the decent coverage guaranteed
by the union negotiated contracts. Farm income, which reached an estimated
$108 billion last year, continues to grow at a record pace.
The UFW's need for increased public funding is also at record levels.
As UFW President Rodriguez says, "The lives and health of farm workers are
at constant serious risk. TShey urgently need our help, and they need it
Dick Meister, a San Francisco columnist, is co-author of "A Long Time
Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's farm workers" published by
Macmillan. He can be reached at dickmeistersf @ earthlink.net.
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