Recommitting to Justice for Farm Workers
September 1, 2003
A few decades ago, the plight of farm workers was at the forefront of the nation’s attention. Through the decades we read “The Grapes of
Wrath” and then later watched “The Harvest of Shame.” In the 60’s and
70’s people boycotted, marched, and/or fasted in support of workers.
This past year, we were reminded, if only for brief moments, that the
plight of farm workers is still very much a serious concern. United
Farm Workers’ founder, the late Cesar Chavez, was honored for his
leadership and vision by the U.S. Postal Service with a new
commemorative stamp. And in the spring, we all watched in horror as
nearly one hundred immigrant farm workers were found inside a locked
tractor-trailer in the sweltering heat.
Beyond these occasional headlines, the hardships that farm workers and
their families continue to suffer are rarely on the evening news but
still have a claim on our conscience.
The Bishops and Farm Workers
Our Conference has long stood by farmers and farm workers in their
struggles to live with dignity and make a decent living for their
families as they provide affordable and plentiful food for us and our
families. Beginning in the late sixties, the U.S. bishops decried their
low wages, untreated health problems, inadequate education and housing,
and lack of year-round employment. The late Msgr. George Higgins, who
wrote this Labor Day statement for so many years, was a pre-eminent
leader and champion in this cause. He condemned the fact that most farm
workers were not covered by national labor laws, including the minimum
wage and unemployment insurance. The fact is, these labor protections
are still sorely lacking for farm workers. Such seemingly modest
safeguards, which most other workers enjoy already, would offer steps
towards a better life.
Later this year, our Bishops’ Conference will consider a significant
document on farmers, farm workers, and the agricultural sector. This
reflection will raise some new issues–increasing concentration and
globalization, trade, and genetically modified foods. But on this Labor
Day we should focus on an old test for our nation and Church: How do
we treat those who harvest and prepare our food? Sadly, they are the
“least of these” (Matt. 25) in our own time.
Farm Workers Today
Today these workers are increasingly moving from the fields to the
factories: working in meat and poultry processing plants, and large hog
and cattle operations. They settle in rural areas and too often find
themselves linguistically and culturally isolated and vulnerable to
exploitation and discrimination because of their legal status and
language barriers. More than 50 percent of farm workers in the U.S. are
undocumented and more than 80 percent are foreign-born.
But their vulnerability does not begin in this country. They are also
preyed upon in their desperate effort to reach the United States. In
May, when police discovered the aforementioned truck crammed with
immigrants—nineteen of the 100 men, women, and children were dead,
including a five year old child. The U.S. Border Patrol reports that
last year 371 people died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican
officials believe the number is higher. Yet, thousands still take the
risk, still come to find work and a better life for themselves and their
families. We recognize that, as an alternative to widespread
undocumented migration, a just and fair legal pathway must be
established that protects the basic labor rights of foreign-born workers
and recognizes the reality of so many of these workers in the field.
In addition, farm workers already present and working in the U.S. should
have an opportunity to earn permanent legal residency.
When farm workers do come, they too often find meager jobs, decrepit
housing, and unsafe conditions. Some end up living under bridges or
even in caves. Those who do find housing in labor camps sometimes live
without decent sanitation, despite state and federal health laws.
Violations of wage and hour laws are commonplace. Their children often
must join them in the fields because without their help, the family may
not survive. They can face death and injuries on the job from
dangerous farm equipment and the threat of poisoning from the pesticides
used to protect the crops.
Some farmers treat their workers well and we should commend and
acknowledge their efforts on this Labor Day. But too many do not, often
relying on labor contractors, some of whom essentially traffic in human
labor and suffering for economic profit. Many of us seem content to
avert our eyes or ignore the reality that so many who provide our food
live in such misery.
More Action is Needed
We call upon our nation to develop policies that reflect a fundamental
respect for the dignity and rights of agricultural workers. At a
minimum, we must ensure that agricultural workers earn a decent wage for
themselves and their families and live in conditions that are safe and
humane. Comprehensive immigration reform which features legalization is
needed to ensure that undocumented migrant farm workers obtain legal
status and can assert their basic labor rights.
Our Catholic teaching tells us that the economy, including the
agricultural sector, must serve people and not the other way around.
Work is more than a way to make a living, and farming is one pre-eminent
example of our participation in God’s creation. Catholic teaching on
the dignity of work calls us to engage in productive work and supports
the right to decent and fair wages, health care, and time off. Workers,
including agricultural workers, have a right to organize to protect
these rights and to have a voice in the workplace.
In California, after years of organizing efforts, the United Farm
Workers union (UFW) recently signed a contract with the nation's largest
direct employer of strawberry workers, many of whom are recent
immigrants. The hard-won contract should improve the wages, benefits,
working conditions, and job protection for some 800 workers near
Watsonville, California. We applaud the efforts of the workers,
growers, and the UFW for negotiating these changes.
However, even when workers are organized, their employers might refuse
to negotiate a contract with the new union. Nationally, 32 percent of
workers still have no contract two years after the initial election.
Because of weak and ineffective labor laws, organizing workers is
difficult in the best of situations but especially farm workers who have
fewer labor protections. One bright spot was the recent California
legislation that requires mandatory arbitration so that workers who do
organize can get a contract.
This Labor Day, as we reflect on work and workers in this land, let us
renew our commitment to stand in solidarity with farm workers and other
agricultural workers in defending their life and dignity and helping
them to secure decent wages, safe working conditions, and better labor
protections. Let us stand with the men and women in Immokalee,
Florida, who pick tomatoes, the poultry workers in Maryland and
Delaware, the fruit and vegetable pickers in California, and the meat
packers in the Midwest. The plight of agricultural workers may not be
on the evening news or in the headlines, but it should be at the heart
of our thoughts, reflections, and priorities as we celebrate Labor Day
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops