Grocery shopping happens on a weekly basis in most households, but how often do we pause to consider the people responsible for growing the food that makes its way into our grocery carts? We all benefit from the work of farmworkers, but they often do not get the appreciation they deserve. Farmworkers, particularly immigrants, have often been exploited, abused and denied their basic rights as workers and human beings.
As we approach the birthdays of two significant farmworker rights activists, César Chávez (March 31) and Dolores Huerta (April 10), take some time in your lessons to teach students about these five farmworker rights activists who have fought to improve working conditions for farmworkers across the United States.
César Chávez is probably the most well-known farmworker rights activist. He was born in Arizona in 1931, but after his family lost their homestead, they moved to California where they became farmworkers. Chávez served in the Navy for two years, then returned to California and began his work in organizing. In 1962, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta. They recruited union members and used nonviolent resistance to fight for what Chávez referred to as la causa (the cause). In 1965, the NFWA joined the Filipino American labor group the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to carry out a strike against California grape growers. This strike lasted five years and led to a nationwide boycott of California grapes. During the strike, the NWFA and the AWOC merged to form the United Farm Workers, and Chávez became president. His continued life’s work helped lead to improved working conditions, increased pay for farmworkers, and the right by law for farmworkers to unionize and bargain collectively. Chávez died in 1993, but his legacy continues to influence others today. Teach students about his life and legacy with this lesson plan.
Dolores Huerta is the only individual on this list who did not actually work as a farmworker. However, her community was filled with farmworkers, and she witnessed the support and care her mother provided to them while she was growing up, inspiring in her a fierce passion to fight for and serve those facing injustices. After high school, Huerta went to college and became an elementary school teacher, but soon left teaching to pursue civil rights work. Through her work for justice, she has been arrested, beaten and harassed, yet she continued to pursue her mission and invoke her rallying cry, “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, we can”). She co-founded the NFWA and the UFW, and “engineered a number of wins including the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975—a historic victory that gave farmworkers in California the right to organize for better compensation and working conditions.” She later went on to found the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2002 to support social justice causes across the United States. She has been honored with numerous awards over the years, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and despite now being 91 years old, she continues to be a champion in the fight for human rights.
When discussing the Delano, Calif., grape strike, most people think of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, but few have heard of Larry Itliong. Immigrating to the United States from the Philippines when he was 14, Itilong had dreams of becoming a lawyer, but discrimination prevented him from getting the education he needed. He ended up working as a farmworker and in salmon canneries in Alaska. While he never became a lawyer, his desire to fight for justice was not squelched. He saw the abuse and injustices that farmworkers faced and began to fight for their rights. He founded the Alaska Cannery Workers Union and then later became the head of the Agriculture Workers Organizing Committee. Itliong spoke multiple languages: “Apart from Ilocano, Pangasinense, Tagalog (Filipino), and six other Philippine languages, he also became fluent in English, Japanese, Cantonese and Spanish.” These language skills served him well as he recruited, organized and unionized Filipino farmworkers all the way down the West Coast. After leading a successful strike against grape growers in Coachella, Calif., that resulted in increased wages, he went to Delano and organized 2,000 Filipino American farmworkers to strike against the grape growers. Itliong knew though that in order to be successful in their strike, it was important to unite all farmworkers. Therefore, he reached out to and convinced the NFWA to join the strike. His instrumental work in organizing the California grape strikes led to a precedent of improved working conditions for farmworkers across the country.
Lucas Benitez immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a teenager and began working as a farmworker in Florida’s tomato fields. The abuse and harassment he endured from crew leaders led him to co-found the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The coalition has since earned the Clinton Global Initiative’s Global Citizen Award and the Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons, and has also launched the Fair Food Program. Benitez’s inspirational work to end slave labor, human trafficking and exploitation in U.S. agricultural fields has had many great successes. For example, in 2005, the CIW was able to organize a national boycott of Taco Bell that led to the company agreeing to increase wages and improve working conditions. This sparked many other national food chains to follow suit. Benitez continues to make strides for the rights of farmworkers today. Teach your students about his work with the lesson plan below.
The right to a just wage, the right to work free of forced labor, the right to organize—three of the rights in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights—are routinely violated when it comes to farmworkers in the United States.
Librada Paz came to the United States at just 15 years old in search of opportunity and with dreams of becoming an engineer. She ended up in rural New York state with her siblings, where she worked 10-hour days, seven days a week, and faced physical abuse and harassment. Her siblings later supported her as she sought her degree and made her dreams of becoming an engineer come true. The injustices she experienced while serving as a farmworker led her to become a voice for others. Through her work with Rural & Migrant Ministry, she saw that laws were passed that required farmworkers to be provided with restrooms and drinking water. Her work continues today, and in 2012, Paz received the RFK Human Rights Award. Students can learn more about her work with the lesson plan below.
The farmworker rights movement for fair wages and working conditions continues today and is an important part of the fight for human rights. Learn more about these activists and this movement in Share My Lesson’s collection, Rights of Farmworkers: Labor Leaders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta.
Megan Ortmeyer is an SML Team Member and has worked in the AFT Educational Issues Department since fall 2018. She received her M.A. in education policy studies in May 2020 from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University.