As the first fruits of the strawberry season appear in supermarkets across the country, farmworkers, labor activists, and members of the religious community are organizing to demand better working conditions for those who work in the fields.
The United Farm Workers has begun a massive campaign to organize strawberry workers for better wages and working conditions. On April 13, the union, which is famous for its grape boycotts led by the late César E. Chávez, held a large rally and march in Watsonville, California, to show support for the strawberry workers. The UFW’s renewed connection with farm workers, after a long period of focusing on mobilizing consumers, has brought new energy to the union.
While strawberries are one of California’s most lucrative agricultural crops, the 20,000 farmworkers who work in the state’s strawberry fields are known to be some of the most exploited in the country. Strawberry picking—which requires stooped-over, back-wrenching labor—is considered one of the most difficult of agricultural tasks. While the California strawberry industry grosses more than $650 million a year, field workers only make about $8,000 per year and almost never receive health insurance or job security. Many live in cars, crowded shacks, or in the fields in which they work. According to a study by the California Institute for Rural Studies, a 50-percent increase in worker wages, which the UFW advocates, would cause the price of a pint of strawberries to go up only 5 cents.
While the UFW is not calling for a boycott, religious leaders who are part of the National Strawberry Commission for Workers’ Rights, a coalition of religious, environmental, civil rights, women’s, and community groups, are lobbying managers and owners of supermarkets to sign on to a statement supporting the rights of the strawberry workers. According to Rev. Michael Szpak, who is part of the religious leaders’ task force of the Commission, this statement will then be used to organize local congregations and individuals to support justice for the workers.