United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez speaks at Mac

By Clark Jacobson

Arturo Rodriguez, President of the United Farm Workers of America, gave the keynote speech for Latin Week, sponsored by Macalester’s Adelante student organization, on Tuesday night in Kagin Ballroom. Rodriguez has been president of UFW since the death of its legendary founder Cesar Chavez in 1993. With a masters degree in Sociology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Rodriguez has been an active member of UFW since his first boycott in 1969. Adelante has been working to bring Rodriguez to Mac since the beginning of fall semester.

“What I talk about this evening very much takes place right here, in Minnesota,” Rodriguez said during the beginning of his speech, before he outlined the history of farm workers’ struggle.

“There [used to be] no water in the fields for farm workers.There were no toilets.We weren’t covered under any minimum wage laws.Too often, farm workers were out in the fields and [crop dusters] would come over and spray harmful, cancer-causing chemicals while workers were out in the fields.”

Rodriguez explained the tactics the UFW employs for improving their working conditions. These include an extensive amount of boycotts, up to 36-day-long fasts, and 350-mile-long marches that last up to 25 days, which “demonstrate the commitment, the will, and the power [of farm workers],” said Rodriguez. He brought the audience to laughter when he shared personal anecdotes about the marches.

Rodriguez also promoted UFW’s current works-in-progress, such as what he called “majority sign up, a process that would make it easier for farm workers to gain representation within the state.” He cited dangers to workers, such as heat stress, as a major reason why the program holds such importance, since workers “knew that.we couldn’t have any real dependency on what the state would do and how they would enforce their laws.”

Rodriguez underscored the urgency of the UFW’s efforts with a story, in which he told the audience about the heat stress-caused death of a 17-year-old, pregnant, Mexican single mother who went to California to work in grape fields, brought on by the actions of a field foremen. The audience moaned, and there were some audible “That’s disgusting” comments, after Rodriguez said, “they measured her body temperature [after her death]. Her temperature was now 108.4, so she literally cooked, and so did her unborn child.”

He concluded his story with the fact that the farm labor company was taken to court, and the only punishment the foremen received was community service-no jail time. “You can imagine what confidence that gives to farm workers in the government’s ability to uphold the law.”

UFW’s plight to give workers better representation ties into an idea of Rodriguez’s and the UFW, which is based off the Fair Trade movement. Rodriguez would like to establish a set of working conditions standards, and says that his “dream would be to also follow the food supply chain wherever it goes for the product.to ensure products follow the set of standards that we have outlined,” said Rodriguez.

“I thought it was inspiring to see a defender of deprived workers claim that fair trade is still a domestic problem,” said Kai Wilson, class of 2014.

Rodriguez then referenced to his challenge to Steven Colbert, and other Americans, to work in the fields through the UFW’s ‘Take Our Jobs’ campaign, which he said was wildly successful-only 11 people who signed up for the challenge are actually now employed as farm workers.

“It made very clear that Americans,” said Rodriguez, “for whatever reason, no longer want to work in agriculture.”

Rodriguez finished his speech with an outline of other “victories” the UFW has experienced and led the crowd in a series of “Viva!” cheers.