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UFW Will Help Jobless Americans Become Farmworkers


The United Farm Workers is organizing a national campaign aimed at recruiting U.S. citizens and legal residents to fill jobs that frequently go to undocumented farm workers. The "Take Our Jobs" campaign is designed to urge the enactment of immigration reform. We speak to UFW President Arturo Rodriguez about the organization's efforts to build support for immigration reform.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When millions of U.S. citizens are out of work and can't find a job, people who are not citizens but who are working in the U.S. become targets for a lot frustration. We've seen that frustration bubble up in Arizona and in political ads here in California. Many are making the claim that a cheap undocumented labor force is taking jobs away from citizens. But is that really true? The United Farm Workers is putting that claim to the test by launching a campaign called ‘Take Our Jobs.’ It's a way to show America just what kind of work immigrants are doing and to encourage lawmakers to adopt immigration reform. To tell us more about the ‘Take Our Jobs’ campaign, I’d like to welcome my guest. Arturo Rodriguez is president of the United Farm Workers. And, Mr. Rodriguez, welcome to These Days.

ARTURO RODRIGUEZ (President, United Farm Workers): Maureen, thank you very much for having me on the program. I really appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Would you be interested in signing up for farm labor? Have you ever worked on a farm or hired farm labor? Give us a call with your questions or comments. The number’s 1-888-895-5727. So, Mr. Rodriguez, explain a little bit more what the ‘Take Our Jobs’ campaign is.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, Maureen, we were, first of all, looking for a way to once again put the responsibility back on the members of Congress because they have not dealt with this issue of immigration reform here in the United States, both Republicans and Democrats. And we think that it’s extremely important to ensure that American consumers have the best food supply available, a safe and secure food supply. And we cannot do it unless we have farm workers in the fields, that’s the bottom line. And the reality of today is, is that the overwhelming majority of farm workers are immigrants and a significant percentage of them, well over 50%, are undocumented. So they need to take action as members of Congress. They need to fulfill their responsibilities so that we can ensure that the American consumers have that safe and secure food supply and simultaneously we need to maintain agriculture as a viable industry here in the United States. It would be tragic if we lost ag as we have many other industries over the course of the years.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, you have for the ‘Take Our Jobs’ you’ve set up a web site where people can put in their names and actually apply to be trained and to have them referred to a farm employer. And I wish that you could describe for us what it says on the website about the job duties of a farm worker.

RODRIGUEZ: You know, I don’t have it in front of me but I know it talks about the fact that they’d be, you know, willing to, first of all, work out in very difficult conditions. It talks about the hot sun and the fact that, you know, it goes over 100 degrees, that, you know, there’s – be required to work at a fast pace, there’s no transportation. You know, you have a lunch break, those types of things. I mean, it tries to paint a picture what the life of a farm worker really is that goes out there every single day whether they’re in the citrus, aguacate, strawberries, whatever it might be, to give folks a realistic picture before they make that decision.

CAVANAUGH: How dangerous is the work of a farm laborer?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, you know, according to statistics, government statistics, we have the most dangerous job here in the United States, working in the fields, because of all the farm equipment that you work around, tractors and, you know, you work around with irrigation pipes. I know there’s workers that in moving pipes have been electrocuted because they hit power lines and things of that nature. So it’s a – it is a difficult job. And then when you’re climbing ladders, oftentimes you end up falling down because you’re – if you’re picking citrus, Maureen, you’re carrying a 70 pound sack of oranges or lemons or something of that nature, avocados. And oftentimes, the orchards are planted on hills so it’s not the easiest place to try to climb up a ladder and to work fast at same time and to work with good quality. And so we have lots of ladder injuries, people falling down. We have lots of folks that – that when they’re picking crops like strawberries and things of that nature have problems with their backs and all those kinds of things so it’s difficult, it’s strenuous work.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Arturo Rodriguez. He’s president of the United Farm Workers. And we’re talking about the United Farm Workers’ ‘Take Our Jobs’ campaign. And I’m wondering, how serious are you about this effort? Is this a tongue-in-cheek effort or are – will people really, if they want them, get jobs out of this?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, we wanted to ensure – Yes, they can get jobs, first of all. And we’re definitely very serious about that, about trying to help anybody that’s very much interested in working in agriculture. That is definitely our purpose there, but also, simultaneously, we want to demonstrate to everyone that the immigrants that are here today, whether they’re documented or undocumented, are really performing a tremendous service here to all American consumers and to our economy here in the United States. They don’t come here to take advantage of the system, just the opposite. They are doing a job that today’s Americans, for whatever reason, do not want to continue working in agriculture out in the fields. And so without them, we just would not have an agricultural industry as we know it today.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Chris calling us from Carlsbad. Good morning, Chris. Welcome to These Days.

CHRIS (Caller, Carlsbad): Oh, good morning. Thanks for taking my call. And, gosh, I just had to point out that the agricultural jobs are really just a small portion, a small percentage, of the jobs that are taken by undocumented immigrants that Americans would be happy to work in. And namely construction, and go to any construction site these days and any of the roofing, tiling, dry wall, painting, laying foundations has been saturated with undocumented workers and it’s for the same reason that agriculture is saturated with undocumented workers, not because people won’t do it but because the people in charge want to pay cheap labor. They don’t want to pay an American who’s going to require benefits and require a higher skilled level of pay. So, really, it’s a baloney argument to say that it’s all about agriculture because, really, all the manufacturing and construction jobs that are taken by undocumented immigrants, those are the heavy, heavy, weighing toll against the Americans who would gladly work in those manufacturing and construction jobs so pardon me…

CAVANAUGH: Chris, thank you. Thank you. We’ve got the point, and I would like Arturo to respond to that. So Chris says it’s not all about agricultural jobs.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, we understand there’s lots of other industries where there’s immigrants today and there’s undocumented immigrants working. But I would disagree with Chris in – There is a significant number of agricultural workers, we’re talking somewhere probably in the range of 800,000 to a million of the workers today that work in the fields do not have legal status here in this country. So that is a significant number of the approximately 11 to 12 million that we keep hearing are here in the United States, undocumented immigrants. So that you’re talking, you know, 10 to 15% of the individuals that are here. So that is very significant and then also when you look historically at agriculture, you know, it wasn’t until the 1970s that, really, immigrants came to work in agriculture. Prior to that time, in the 1960s when our organization began, there was a significant percentage still of Anglos working in the fields, Asians, Filipinos in particular, African-Americans. And the Latinos or Mexican-Amer – or Mexicans that were here were Mexican-Americans. They were folks raised here in the United States. So that is something that’s come over the last 30 to 40 years in terms of immigrants. And back then I know the wages weren’t good, the working conditions weren’t good. Farm workers weren’t covered under legislation. In fact, it’s through our efforts over the last 45-plus years that we have made a lot of those significant changes take place.

CAVANAUGH: Is your push for U.S. immigration policy reform wider than policy reform toward agricultural workers? Do you want to see that immigration reform extend to all the people who are here illegally doing all sorts of jobs?

RODRIGUEZ: There’s – Maureen, right now there’s three major pieces of legislation that are talking about immigrants here in the United States. One, obviously is the largest one, comprehensive immigration reform, and that would deal with all the issues confronting immigrants in every industry here in the United States. And then secondly, there’s a specific one targeted towards students, sons and daughters of immigrants that are here called the Dream Act. And, thirdly, there’s ag jobs, which we have worked jointly with the agricultural industry now for the last 10 years in terms of trying to get that passed before Congress here in the United States. And the agricultural leaders feel as strongly as we do that we need to have a legalized workforce here in agriculture in the United States. And because of that, we have now bipartisan support in both houses. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator Lugar out of the state of Indiana are sponsoring it in the Senate and on the House side it’s Congressman Howard Berman out of Los Angeles and Congressman Adam Putnam out of the state of Florida that are co-sponsors in both houses and we minimally want to see something done with that legislation this year because we feel it’s imperative to ensure, again, that we maintain an agricultural industry that continues to be vibrant here in the United States and support all the industries that are part of the agricultural industry, packing sheds, trucking and on and on and on, and those types of things to ensure – and that the workers are treated fairly and we have a secure food supply for American consumers.

CAVANAUGH: Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers. Let’s take a – hear from a couple more callers. Gail is calling us from Tecate. Good morning, Gail. Welcome to These Days.

GAIL (Caller, Tecate): Good morning. It’s a great program. I’ve worked up until quite recently as a manager of a horse ranch in east county where we had Mexican ranchhands and they were absolutely fantastic. They were legal but they did twice to three times the work. When they were on vacation and we’d get American young men to do the work of mucking and feeding the horses and watering and just generally helping on the ranch, the Americans would whine, they would complain, they couldn’t get the work done. It would take them – they would just do half the amount of work. The Mexicans were just phenomenal.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, Gail, I appreciate it. Let’s take another call. Matt is calling us from Escondido. Good morning, Matt, and welcome to These Days.

MATT (Caller, Escondido): Yeah, a lot of the jobs that the immigrants take have reduced the wages. Example might be the like in the fifties, you could work at a gas station and be middle class. But right now, we just have – we’ve flooded the labor market with cheap labor so all these jobs, the wages have gone down. And the previous caller that mentioned the construction industry is absolutely right. I have a friend that works in construction and it’s been flooded with cheap labor and those are good jobs, construction jobs, and they’ll – that’ll be another segment that will – the wages will go way down just like a lot of other areas.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Matt. I wonder, Arturo, what would immigration reform do to stabilize wages in professions? Would that actually help a great deal if we had a really solid immigration policy maybe with a path to citizenship for the people who come over here and work?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, it definitely would have a big impact, Maureen, because, first of all, the immigration reform today is going to be done through an earned legalization process. And what I mean by that is, is that nobody will get legal status automatically or get their, I should say, their permanent green card, permanent residency. So we will have – the immigrants will have to work for several years in order to be able to achieve that. They’ll have to pay fines. They’ll have to ensure that they learn the language, and on and on and on. There’ll be a number of different requirements that’ll be set for them to do that. And they’ll be able to come out of the shadows. They won’t have to hide from anyone what type of status they have here in this country. So then they can be engaged in a process and to exercise their rights here in this country like any other working American would in terms of having decent working conditions, ensure that they have good wages and benefits and things of that nature. So I think it’s going to definitely be able to change the environment and the landscape of a number of different industries here in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Dave is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Dave. Welcome to These Days.

DAVE (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I’d like to concur with the woman that was I think it was a horse ranch. I’ve – I’m a contractor in San Diego, have hired both, you know, citizens and – U.S. citizens and immigrants. I pay people the same based on their skill level, everybody pays into Social Security and all their taxes. And you cannot compare how much better Mexican workers are and how – and the high maintenance you have with U.S. citizens in comparison.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thanks for the call, Dave. I appreciate it.

I want to ask you, if I may, Arturo Rodriguez, there is some concern about the farm labor traveling from California to Arizona because of this new law, SB-1070 in Arizona. How will that perhaps impact the migration of workers that normally go to Arizona to work?

RODRIGUEZ: If they implement, Maureen, SB-1070 in the state of Arizona, it’s going to be, I think, devastating for the agricultural industry and it’s going to be devastating for American consumers. Yuma, Arizona, during the winter season, beginning in November, is the new vegetable garden for the entire United States. We are dependent on getting our vegetables from that particular area. And we’ve already heard folks from the Salinas Valley there in the Central Coast saying they don’t even want to go down to work in the Imperial Valley because of the closeness that it is to the state of Arizona and their fear that there’s going to be an increased enforcement in those particular areas. And so consequently, it’s going to, I think, it could have a very devastating impact on workers there in the Yuma area and throughout the state of Arizona.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder what cooperation or response have you gotten from farm owners from the ‘Take Our Jobs’ campaign?

RODRIGUEZ: You know, actually I was on the Stephen Colbert Show…


RODRIGUEZ: …last Thursday evening and there Stephen Colbert accepted to go work in the fields. And there was a grower that simultaneously agreed to have Stephen Colbert come to his farm to work on it so that he, in fact, can experience what it is to work as a farm worker here in the United States. And just this past weekend, on Saturday, there was a strawberry owner that allowed Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren to go out in the fields there and to pick strawberries for about an hour and a half so she could get a realistic taste of what it’s like to work in the fields, and she spent time there talking to the workers. And I think growers are very much open and willing and wanting to let folks understand what it is to work in agriculture, the importance of immigrants today to the agricultural industry, and the importance of ensuring they have legal status so that they don’t have to fear the raids, they don’t have to fear losing experienced professionals on their jobs.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Renee is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Renee. Welcome to These Days.

RENEE (Caller, San Diego): Oh, good morning. Your guest keeps bringing the conversation always back to agriculture and while there are illegal workers in all 50 states, there is not necessarily agriculture in all 50 states, manufacturing, construction, as has been noted. I know my husband was a carpenter and on his career as a carpenter, he managed nicely, we raised our children but now if my son wanted to do that, he could not raise a family. So to back up to your other caller, it has pushed wages down. And, certainly, Americans are not clamoring to go out and work as farm workers. It’s the other sectors that is the emphasis and I think the conversation needs to stay there.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. Pidush (sp) is calling us from Carlsbad. Good morning, Pidush. Welcome to These Days.

PIDUSH (Caller, Carlsbad): Yeah, hi. How are you? Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. I’m fine.

PIDUSH: Yeah, okay. I came in this country from India and I came as a student and my visa status was F-1 visa, you probably know about it. And in the high tech sector, I’m talking computer signs and IT sectors, they also issue government (unintelligible) of H-1-B visa because we need these people. Without that, this country cannot go ahead at any level, agricultural level, manufacturing level, and we need these people. Why don’t we get a viable category and the U.S. government can sit down and say like H-1-B or F-1 visa that we need this many people to support these industries and give them the certificacy and give them a work permit and so understand how many of these people do we need? Believe me, I’m a small business owner. Without these people, it would be very tough to run the business, and a lot of manufacturing companies will go away.


PIDUSH: So we need these people and we already are doing it in other categories, high tech sectors, student level. Why don’t we create a category to let these people come and help the industries when they need to deliver (unintelligible) because if you look at it very honestly, in this country, the level of our port is shrinking.


PIDUSH: It’s not actually growing but family-wise, the number of people coming out of American families so a lot of people I hear they’re complaining that a lot of construction jobs going, manufacturing jobs going. To be honest with you…


PIDUSH: …these jobs are full of level four…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. Thank you. I wanted to just jump in there because you made an awful lot of points. And I wonder if you would comment, Arturo, because he basically – One of the most interesting points Pidush made is he’s saying, you know, on the high end people understand when people are coming in for very, you know, technical jobs, high-paying jobs, people say, you know, we need to recruit the great minds from around the world. But on the other hand, when we’re recruiting such valuable people who will come and pick our food, we don’t necessarily have that same attitude.

RODRIGUEZ: No, I know. It’s kind of a – it doesn’t really add up right in the end, Maureen. I mean, the reality is, is that farm workers are professionals, they have a lot of expertise, they have a lot of experience in working in agriculture, and as we’ve seen, not too many folks can pick and harvest the crops as good as they can with the quality that they do the work and also to be observant enough to know when food supplies are being tainted and there’s problems that exist there in the fields. So I think, again, we owe a tremendous amount here as Americans to the work that farm workers do every single day for us and ensure that we have the best supply of fruits and vegetables on our tables and to the ag industry for what they do to, again, make sure that America’s the best fed nation in the entire world.

CAVANAUGH: And, Arturo, except for the couple of celebrity workers that you mentioned, how many people who – have actually signed up?

RODRIGUEZ: That I know of right now, there’s actually three people that have gone on our website of the approximately 5,000 and they’re actually working in the fields. We’ll have a follow-up this weekend to find out, you know, what took place and transpired over the weekend but as of last Thursday, that’s what the count was.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you very much, Maureen, for having me on the show. I very much appreciate it and look forward to coming back someday.

CAVANAUGH: Terrific. Arturo Rodriguez is president of the United Farm Workers. If you’d like to comment or if we couldn’t get your question on the air, please go online, Coming up, a conversation about the earth’s oceans, our “Deep Blue Home.” That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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