This month, a new film documenting César Chávez’s historic campaign to organize farmworkers in America will be released in time with what would have been his 87th birthday. Chávez rose to prominence as a founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), where he organized thousands of poor Latino workers laboring in fields throughout central California. Through nonviolent but aggressive tactics — many of which we’ve seen revived today — Chávez and the UFW successfully won higher wages, safer working conditions, and collective bargaining rights for generations of farmworkers, culminating in the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975.
So as we celebrate the legacy of this historic leader, we must also pause to consider that today farmworkers — and others laboring for low wages along the food supply chain — are still struggling. Back then, Chávez and his supporters famously camped outside grocery stores to encourage shoppers to boycott grapes until conditions and wages improved. But today, instead of a grocery store, he may indeed have been standing outside of a Walmart.
After all, not only is Walmart the largest private employer in the United States today, but the company has effectively “Walmart-ified” the entire supply chain of food and manufacturing in America, including farming. More than one quarter of all groceries in the United States are purchased at Walmart. In other words, many of the farmworkers laboring in U.S. fields and as far away as China, in effect work for Walmart.
Most of Walmart’s supply chain workforce is comprised of poor people of color, but the company is owned by six members of the Walton family, all of who are among the 85 wealthiest individuals in the world. Together, they control as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined. While Walmart workers must subsist on an average wage of $8.81 per hour — and farmworkers along the company’s supply chain earn even less — the Walton family earns over $1.5 million per hour. Instead of sharing the prosperity with its employees or addressing dangerous working conditions, the company chooses to spend much of its profits buying back its own stock. It’s no wonder workers across the Walmart empire have appealed directly to the company — and the family that controls it — to address egregious working conditions.
The examples of Walmart’s abuse of these workers are easy to find. Take the 2009 UFW campaign organizing workers picking grapes for Giumarra, a major produce label that contracts with Walmart. Recognizing that Walmart was ultimately responsible for the conditions facing the mostly Latino workforce, the organizers publicly called on the company to address rampant wage theft and other abuses in Giumarra’s fields.
Many other workers along Walmart’s supply chain have followed suit and called on the company to address working conditions. In 2012, Mexican guestworkers at a Walmart-contracted crawfish processing plant in Louisiana went on strike after being beaten and required to work 24-hour shifts. They were threatened with deportation if they spoke up and faced what the New York Times described as “forced labor on American shores.” Walmart attempted to cover up the abuse and falsely claimed they were “unable to substantiate” the workers’ allegations. But thanks to the workers — no doubt emboldened by César Chávez and the history of farmworker justice — the contractor was eventually found guilty for willful violations of labor law and fined by the Department of Labor.
The abuse doesn’t end there. A few months later, workers at a Walmart-contracted warehouse outside of Los Angeles took action to protest a lack of drinking water, extreme heat and other dangerous conditions. Following in the footsteps of the UFW, the workers staged a 50-mile “pilgrimage” from the warehouses to downtown Los Angeles. Members of the UFW even joined the march to call on Walmart to address safety in its warehouses.
Despite Chávez’s meaningful work securing core protections for farmworkers, today’s farmworkers still face unsafe working conditions, weak labor laws, and insufficient wages. Men and women who pick our produce earn an average of $10,000 to $12,000 per year and are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line.
Of course, these low wages are what keep prices artificially low at Walmart — just as they kept the cost of grapes and other foods low in Chávez’s time. Even if the full cost of lifting wages were passed onto consumers, retail price increases would be negligible. In fact, one study suggested that raising farmworker wages above the poverty level would cost American households an average of just $38 per year. Another economist found that if Walmart increased its associates pay to $10.10 — which is the rate increase mandated by the Fair Minimum Wage Act under debate in Congress right now — the cost of products like a DVD would increase by a penny if the company passed labor costs directly to consumers. Even a senior editor at Forbes magazine wrote recently that Walmart can afford to give its low-wage workers a 50 percent raise, it just chooses not to. But these increases would be a small price to pay for a massive boost to the working poor, as well as our economy.
When César Chávez launched his first 25-day fast in 1968, he said, “Those who oppose our cause are rich and powerful, and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our own bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons.”
Today, that spirit of César Chávez’s inspiring, creative civil disobedience lives on through the brave activism of Walmart associates and workers along its supply chain, including farmworkers, immigrant workers and their supporters who are challenging corporations and special interests. By walking off the job, organizing mass protests, fasting and speaking to the press, they are putting pressure on low-road corporations to change their exploitative practices.
There are critics who argue that Walmart cannot be challenged, just as there were similar cynics who dismissed the farmworkers’ fasts, boycotts and tenacity. By making the UFW’s cause everyone’s cause, Chávez’s fight ultimately led to significant advancements for farmworkers. Transforming labor practices for workers in Walmart stores and along the supply chain is no different. Walmart recognizes its power in the workplace and in the market. If more of us can harness the lessons of César Chávez, we’ll reclaim our power to change Walmart and reclaim our jobs, our communities and our economy.
Sarita Gupta is the Executive Director of Jobs With Justice and the Co-Director of Caring Across Generations.