Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America (Photo/Tanya X. Leonzo)

40 years fighting for farm workers, the UFW president after Chávez is not done yet

César Chávez, the Mexican-American farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist, who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in the 1960’s — now called the United Farm Workers (UFW) — is part of American labor history. But many might not be as familiar with his successor,  who has been continuing to fight for the rights of farm workers.

Arturo Rodriguez, the second president of the UFW after Chávez, says approximately 80 percent of farm workers are undocumented immigrants. He just came back from his weekly trip to Washington, DC to meet with various senators who are working together, over the next few months, to get the comprehensive immigration legislation passed, “so we can get them to understand the urgency of doing this for the agricultural industry in the U.S.,” says Rodriguez.

Rodriguez joined the UFW in 1973, slightly after he graduated with a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. That’s when he met Chávez. For the next 40 years, Rodriguez has been organizing boycotts and fighting for civil rights in the agricultural community.

“The majority of farm workers are undocumented workers, and they are all immigrants, so they come to this country not being able to be part of society, and because of their undocumented status, that often makes them prey to employers that want to exploit them,” says Rodriguez. “It’s a tough situation and it’s tough for them, especially if they had to cross the border and pay some coyote thousands of dollars. They come here deep in debt,” Rodriguez adds.

Besides working so hard without benefits, farmers risk their lives and live day to day worried about their families, says Rodriguez. And today, the number of undocumented farm workers is much higher than ever before.

Rodriguez explains the proposal that the Senate is currently reviewing will allow current farm workers in the U.S. to gain legal status if they can demonstrate they worked 100 days in agriculture from 2011 through 2012. In five years, they can gain permanent residency and can go back and forth to see their families.

“Eventually after five years, they will not only be able to get their green card but be able to apply for citizenship,” says Rodriguez. “The visa program that will be established for temporary workers requires employers to pay for their transportation, have access to legal protections in the event that employers try to violate their rights, and they will be provided with housing by their employers, or housing allowance to cover the amount of money they need for their rent,” he explains.

Rodriguez says the proposed legislation also guarantees a certain wage for coming to work here — well above minimum wage.

“We’ve worked very, very hard to negotiate this agreement, and it looks like everyone is committed to doing it in the agricultural industry,” says Rodriguez. “We’re working very hard for the Senate to pass the bill this month, and then for Congress to do the same thing over the coming months. By far, that will be our biggest accomplishment.”

Rodriguez says he has always loved feeling like he was really making a difference.

“I’ve worked in about every position you could think of in this organization,” says Rodriguez. “I always wanted to be of service to people. I’ve had lots of opportunities to go and be part of businesses, but what appealed to me more than anything is how to bring respect to the people in this nation.”

Fighting for those who don’t have a voice, he says, is something impressed upon him by Chávez.

“I knew that he was tired. I knew he was exhausted. I knew that he could have just rolled over and stayed in bed, but he was always so driven by the needs of the farm workers that he would be there every single day to make a difference,” says Rodriguez. “I saw that time and time again, and that’s what impressed me  — that’s what we inherited from César.”

He also adds that Chávez would not allow any excuses, not even money, to stop him.

“You figure out how you get it done…if you’re not willing to do that, you’re not going to be successful,” says Rodriguez.

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