Keep Me in the Loop!

Teresa Romero Remarks at Senator Bill Monning Labor Recognition & Issues Breakfast

Thank you, Senator Bill Monning, for hosting this breakfast, for recognizing the contributions the labor movement makes in this community and for providing a forum to give voice to our agendas and issues. The Monterey Bay area hosts the largest concentration of unionized farm workers in the nation.

It is a privilege to help you recognize Arturo Rodriguez this morning. It was an honor to succeed him as president of the United Farm Workers of America—and as the first Latina and first immigrant woman to lead a national union in the United States.

I owe this honor—and my achievements over a decade with the UFW—to the mentoring Arturo generously provided. He helped prepare me for the UFW presidency by having me oversee complex union operations involving financial management, administration, staff recruitment, personnel, fundraising, IT and social media for a far-flung organization involved in field organizing, contract bargaining and administration, legislative and regulatory and legal affairs, and innovative international initiatives.

* * *

Arturo dedicated 45 years of his life to the union—the last 25 years as president. He helped it survive and make meaningful progress for farm workers following Cesar Chavez’s passing in 1993. As president emeritus, Arturo continues aiding the union by maintaining key relationships with employers, retailers and elected officials. He also focuses on immigration reform.

His introduction to Cesar Chavez and the movement came through his parish priest in Arturo’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas in 1966. Arturo was a grape boycotter as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s University in 1969. He doesn’t often talk about the master’s degree in social work he earned at the University of Michigan in 1971. That’s when he was also organizing support for UFW boycotts.

Arturo began full-time service with the union in 1973, when he first met Cesar Chavez, who over two decades became his mentor. Thus began four and a half decades of organizing farm workers, helping them negotiate union contracts and leading countless farm worker boycotts and political campaigns throughout North America.

Arturo organized the very first union election under the Agricultural Labor Relations Act not far from here when artichoke workers at Molera Packing in Castroville voted for the UFW in September 1975.

Fifty years after Arturo left home, he and his wife, Sonia, finally got to return to live and work in their native San Antonio, Texas.

* * *

The transition to a new president of the UFW at the end of last year came during a time of progress and strength for the UFW under Arturo’s leadership. We recently achieved a lot, much of it on the Central Coast.

• Farm workers for years only got pay raises when the state minimum wage went up. One of Arturo’s accomplishments was the UFW helping pull wages for many farm workers up above the minimum wage in California. This year, farm workers began benefiting from passage of the landmark law sponsored by the UFW that Senator Monning helped pass in 2016—granting farm workers phased-in overtime pay after eight hours a day. That law ends, at least in California, the racist exclusion of farm workers from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

We are now sponsoring federal legislation to enact eight-hour overtime for all American farm workers. Senator Kamala Harris introduced it in the Senate.

• Farm worker pay also rose directly from dozens of negotiated and re-negotiated union contracts. They cover vegetable, berry, mushroom, wine grape, tomato, dairy, citrus and poultry workers in three states. Most of California’s mushroom industry is unionized; mushroom pickers now average $45,000 a year—plus a host of benefits.

Arturo played a crucial personal role with John D’Arrigo in renegotiating the UFW contract with D’Arrigo Brothers—based in Salinas and one of the country’s largest vegetable producers. It was signed last year, and provides big pay and benefit increases for 1,500 workers, including the employer paying 100 percent of the 624 dollar per month cost of complete family medical, dental and vision coverage.

The UFW represents many workers in the California’s fresh tomato industry at companies boasting the highest paid tomato workers in America. They average unionized fresh tomato harvester earns 29 dollars and 50 cents an hour.

In addition, the union won historic contracts with companies such as Gallo of Sonoma, one of America’s largest wineries, as well as union agreements in Oregon and Washington state.

Five hundred million dollars in health and pension benefits have been paid to farm workers and their families under UFW contracts—most of it during Arturo’s tenure as president.

• To better serve farm workers on the Central Coast, last year we fulfilled a dream Cesar Chavez shared with farm workers since the 1970s. That’s when we dedicated the 10,300-square foot Central Coast Farm Worker Center—the UFW’s extensively renovated modern facility serving unionized farm workers in Oldtown Salinas.

Arturo put me in charge of raising the $1 million we needed to build this facility located just blocks from the National Steinbeck Center. The complex boasts state-of-the-art technology, including WiFi, interactive whiteboard (large interactive displays in the form factor of a whiteboard) and video conferencing. It also offers private spaces where workers can discuss confidential matters such as immigration and health issues with professional staff plus room to strategize and plan for the future.

The large union hall hosts big meetings and doubles as exhibition space to educate workers and the pubic about the more than five decades of proud UFW history in this region.

• Landmark union legislative and regulatory victories under Arturo’s leadership protect both union and non-union farm workers, including the 2016 overtime statute and the 2002 state law—sponsored by the union—letting farm workers use neutral state mediators to hammer out union contracts when growers won’t negotiate them.

The UFW is now helping farm workers use that Mandatory Mediation Law to get Premiere Raspberries to implement a union contract ordered by the state of California after its 550 employees voted for the union during a state-conducted union election at the Watsonville company in 2017.

• Too often we in the UFW went to the funerals and consoled the grieving families of farm workers who perished from extreme heat. After a string of heat deaths, in 2005 the UFW convinced Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the first comprehensive regulations in the nation to protect California farm and other outdoor workers from dying or becoming ill when temperatures soar.

Still, more farm workers kept dying because some employers ignored the state heat rules—and kept treating farm workers as if they were agricultural implements instead of important human beings. So the UFW helped farm workers file class action lawsuits against the state. That litigation was settled with the Jerry Brown administration in 2015, and produced more effective, timely and consistent enforcement of state heat rules. That year, California also strengthened the standards.

Arturo just returned from Washington, D.C., where he spoke during introduction of a bill sponsored in part by the UFW and UFW Foundation that would extend heat-illness preventative measures to all U.S. workers by creating a federal standard for heat stress protection.

• Arturo and the UFW worked with the Obama EPA to win equality for farm workers by providing them with the same pesticide protections most other American workers enjoyed for decades. We are fighting against the Trump EPA, which rescinded those protections.

• Under Arturo, the UFW became a leader in the national movement for immigration reform. We negotiated with national grower associations to create the agricultural provisions of the bipartisan 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill. They would have let immigrant farm workers earn permanent legal status by continuing to work in agriculture. The measure passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote but died when House Republican leaders refused to allow a floor vote.

• Then Arturo and the UFW worked with President Obama and the White House to include many farm workers in the president’s executive order protecting immigrants from deportation.

• Finally, the union pioneered bold new initiatives. They include the UFW Foundation, a sister organization in the farm worker movement that is now the largest provider of immigration legal services in rural California. UFW Foundation staff works out of our new Salinas farm worker center.

The UFW also helped found the Equitable Food Initiative, a consortium of unions, consumer and environmental groups, growers and major retailers—all collaborating to produce safer food while meaningfully improving wages and protections nationally and internationally. It has already impacted the lives of nearly 30,000 women and men in four countries through unique training and accountability programs ensuring safety and higher pay by having farm workers, growers and retailers work together.

And the UFW founded the CIERTO program to remedy abuses of H-2A workers. CIERTO works with employers and workers on both sides of the border to ensure no farm worker has to pay for the right to work, and to stabilize the workforce and end intimidation.

* * *

Before becoming president, I was blessed by serving as secretary-treasurer and chief administrative officer of the union. The UFW and I are also graced with an experienced team that is ready and supportive.

We are ready to keep taking on Donald Trump and cynical politicians who attack immigrants and farm workers—the people who feed all of America and much of the world. Without farm workers, none of us eat!

As Arturo explained, we continue pushing immigration reform. America cannot tolerate having millions of our most productive workers live in constant fear. We will continue fighting to protect the most vulnerable.

We are ready to continue demanding farm workers be treated as the professionals they are—with the skills, knowledge, experience and physical endurance most other Americans don’t have.

* * *

I was born in Mexico City and am proud of my U.S. citizenship as well as my Mexican and Zapotecan heritage.

My respect for the UFW and farm workers—and my understanding of their struggles—hails from the fact that when I came to the U.S., I did not speak or understand English.

I didn’t know what the word “enjoy” meant. I didn’t just want to learn the translations of words; I wanted to understand the meaning. It took a while, but when I understand what enjoy meant, I truly enjoyed it.

* * *

At the beginning of this year I fasted for five days in Seattle against the Darigold corporation over alleged retaliation against Pacific Northwest dairy workers who complained about grievances such as being cheated out of their pay.

I led a delegation of labor leaders, elected officials and dairy workers to the Seattle headquarters of Starbucks, which buys from Darigold dairies. After much pushback against Starbuck’s security, a company official finally came out to meet with us.

“There is nothing I can do,” this man claimed. He said to send our grievances in writing so Starbucks could investigate. “We can’t take sides,” he added.

“We’re not asking you to take sides,” I replied. “We’re just asking you to call Darigold—to ask them to meet with us.” Starbucks still resisted.

Then one of the dairy workers, Josephina Luciano, stepped forward. She was kicked in the face by a cow in 2017, knocking out 11 teeth. She nearly died. For a long time she couldn’t even kiss her three young children.

“If you won’t talk or listen to me, then at least look at me,” Josephina demanded—and she opened wide her disfigured mouth. “I was kicked by a cow. I was in a pool of my own blood, and no one even knew how to call an ambulance. Later my employer falsely claimed I was not a full-time worker and I lost my workers’ comp benefits.”

The Starbucks’ representative soon had tears in his eyes. “There are other workers who want to share their stories,” I told him, and offered to translate.

“No, I’m from Puerto Rico,” he said. “I speak Spanish.”

Another female dairy worker spoke of how her husband had to watch as she was sexually harassed—silently because they had a family to support. A male dairy worker said he wished he were treated as well as the cows he tends.

I have a passion within me to help Josephina Luciano and other farm workers change their lives.

Last May we reached a legal settlement between a Darigold-member dairy in Washington state and a dozen aggrieved dairy workers who filed a wage and hour lawsuit against the company. The workers will recover the wages they say were stolen by the dairy. The dairy agreed to drop its lawsuit against the workers and the UFW, which the workers maintain was retaliation for them seeking to recover their wages.

The settlement was a victory for the workers. They are happy and satisfied.

Sometimes, David does defeat Goliath. The UFW will keep fighting for these and other farm workers across California and the nation.

Thank you.

– end –