Cesar Chavez, legendary labor leader and co-founder of United Farm Workers, was a person of deep faith who practiced nonviolent action in search of justice for farmworkers. Committed to the teachings of Jesus and inspired by the work of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he mobilized workers, students, religious groups and consumers to peacefully secure higher wages, safer working conditions and better legal protections for those in the fields. Beyond the traditional tactics of pickets, marches, boycotts and strikes, Chavez’s spirituality also led him to engage in the discipline of fasting as a prayerful act for the farmworker movement and declaration of non-cooperation with those who profit from the exploitation of farmworkers.
In the summer of 1988, Chavez engaged in a 36-day “Fast for Life” in response to the harmful impact of pesticides on farmworkers and their families. Regarding his purpose, Chavez said, “During the past few years I have been studying the plague of pesticides on our land and our food. The evil is far greater than even I had thought it to be, it threatens to choke out the life of our people and also the life system that supports us all.”
Through this spiritual act, Chavez firmly linked the work of creation care with that of farmworkers’ rights.
Decades after Chavez’s fast, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) continues to collaborate with farmworkers, students, people of faith and consumers for justice. Founded in 1993, the worker-based human rights organization and its allies utilize the same nonviolent tactics and discipline of fasting to secure dignity and rights for farmworkers. CIW’s anchor initiative, the Fair Food Program, which is a unique partnership among farmworkers, produce growers and participating retail buyers, has lifted wages, improved working conditions, reduced exposure to chemical fertilizers and pesticides and put an end to widespread sexual harassment, forced labor and other abuses for tens of thousands of farmworkers who pick tomatoes, peppers and strawberries in seven different southern states.
While these successes are significant, there is still much work to do. Agriculture fields across the United States are still doused with chemicals. In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges says, “Growers saturate the soil with chemical fertilizers. More than one hundred herbicides and pesticides are used to prevent fungal diseases, weeds, disease spores, and nematodes. These chemicals often accompany the produce to the supermarket shelves. Some are highly toxic, known to cause damage to the brain and nervous systems.” Thousands of farmworkers also are still not protected by the Fair Food Program and thus do not receive fair wages, safe working conditions and other basic rights it affords. According to Hedges, “Harvesting tomatoes and other produce from the nation’s agricultural fields is arguably the worst job in the country…. There are weeks with no work and no wages…. Workers must bend over plants for hours in blazing temperatures…. They often endure verbal and physical abuse from crew leaders. Women suffer sexual harassment…. The meager pay, along with endemic wage theft and systemic minimum wage violations, keep the majority of workers below the poverty line.”
More than a decade ago the Episcopal Church declared its commitment to the struggle for farmworker justice when the Executive Council adopted a resolution to support the Alliance for Fair Food – a national network of people working in partnership with the CIW for farmworker justice – that calls on the church to “…promote principles and practices of socially responsible purchasing in the corporate food industry in order to advance the human rights of farmworkers by (1) encouraging study and appropriate action on these matters by missions, parishes, dioceses, and provinces of the Episcopal Church; and (2) urge the church at every level to respond to possible calls for boycotts and other actions, shareholder resolutions, and peaceful public witness as means of advancing the goals of the resolution.” During last year’s convention, the Diocese of Southern Ohio affirmed this commitment when it passed a resolution in support of the CIW’s national boycott of Wendy’s – the Columbus-based fast food chain that has moved its tomato purchasing to Mexico in lieu of joining the Fair Food Program. Just a few short weeks ago members of St. John’s Church in Franklinton were part of a group of 19 students and community members who engaged in a week-long fast to be in solidarity with farmworkers and urge The Ohio State University to cut its contract with Wendy’s as the institution promised to do if the fast food giant failed to join the Fair Food Program.
As the intersectional struggle for justice continues, clergy and parishioners must further engage in what Chavez called a “multitude of simple deeds for justice.” For some, that may mean taking the pledge to boycott Wendy’s, delivering a letter to a local store manager or showing support for the boycott on social media. For others, this may mean organizing with the CIW, engaging in peaceful public witnesses or participating in an extended fast. Whatever the deed, each is a powerful act of solidarity with farmworkers and helps advance the intersectional struggle for justice that makes another world possible.
Patrick Kaufman is a community organizer who lives and works in Franklinton. For nearly a decade, he has engaged in community-based food systems work with his neighbors to overcome the economic, environmental, and social injustices they experience and to build an equitable community for all people. Patrick currently serves as Mission Council Member at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Project Coordinator of MTSO’s Community Food and Wellness Initiative, Program Developer of Franklinton Gardens, Voting Member of the Franklin County Local Food Council, and Member of the Greater Columbus Growing Coalition. Contact Patrick at Patrick_kaufman@hotmail.com.