First Latina Immigrant Leader of National Union Hits Ground Running

The United Farm Workers (UFW), the first and most effective union representing field workers and fruit and vegetable pickers in the U.S., recently chose Teresa Romero as its first woman president. Romero is also the first Latina and first immigrant woman to become president of a national union in the United States. She succeeded Arturo Rodriguez as the third president of UFW in December 2018.

Celebrated grassroots labor activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta along with Gilbert Padilla founded UFW in 1962. Chavez’s legendary, life-threatening hunger strikes gave the plight of migrant workers — whose sweat and toil have long played a crucial role in the U.S. economy — a permanent place on organized labor’s map.

In the following interview, conducted just after what would have been Chavez’s 92nd birthday on March 31, Romero discussed the history of the union and the fight for equal rights and protections for more and more women now working in the fields. Romero told Truthout that the UFW will continue to aggressively push for legislative and regulatory reforms for farmworkers, covering such key issues as worker protections, the use of pesticides, and immigration reform.

She is also pushing support for a bill creating “blue cards” that would allow immigrant farmworkers to permanently remain in the United States if they work in agriculture. “The blue card bill offers America’s farmworkers and their families relief from the palpable fear that [pervades] local communities and threatens stability in the agricultural industry,” Romero says. “Many farmworkers are afraid to leave their homes when they drive to work every morning. Their skill and hard work in feeding America, and all of us, has earned them the right to apply to legally remain in this country and work without peril.”

Dennis Bernstein: Welcome Teresa Romero. You are the first woman to lead the UFW. How does it feel?

Teresa Romero: It is an amazing opportunity for me. Not only am I the first woman president of the UFW, I am the first Latina woman who is president of a national labor union.

Congratulations. March 31 would have been Cesar Chavez’s 92nd birthday. Unfortunately, he died early at 56 or 57 years old. How did you celebrate?

We had a march in Salinas, California, where hundreds of people joined us to commemorate his birth and acknowledge his legacy. It was at the Cesar Chavez Park, and I would say we had over 1,000 people. We also wanted to promote the blue card, which would give residency to farmworkers and their families.

Let’s talk a little about women in the fields. I guess you would assert that women are just as capable as men of working in the fields.

Absolutely. I have been visiting the fields for many years and have had the opportunity to talk to farmworkers. As in any field, the women do their hard work, and then go back home and assume the role of mother and wife, ensuring the kids eat, do their homework and getting them ready for the next day. They still have that dual responsibility after a very hard day.

They also face a sort of double or triple jeopardy in terms of harassment in the fields, particularly if the women are undocumented. Would you talk about the struggles women have at that level and how you plan to work with them so that they are protected?

Unfortunately, we encounter this day in and day out. This is one of the most difficult things for women to talk about. We are working on empowering them and giving them a voice. The #MeToo movement is not just in Hollywood. [Sexual assault] happens everywhere and these are especially vulnerable women. One thing we have been very successful in doing is involving everybody in the supply chain, including the retailers, making them aware of what is happening in their supply chain.

So that people understand the urgency of the issue, could you give us a few examples of the ways in which women have been undermined, attacked, abused?

Many undocumented women are afraid to speak out. I am currently working with dairy workers in the Pacific Northwest who have not only been abused but retaliated against. One woman had been sexually harassed for a long time, often in front of her husband, who worked with her. They knew that they would be fired if they spoke out, and they had a family to support. When [her husband] eventually reported it, not only was she fired, but her harasser was promoted.

Would you say that having a president who not only disrespects women but is also a racist has, in turn, made the community you represent more vulnerable?

Absolutely. More people are being arrested on their way to work or taking their children to school. The worst part is that now they have to tell their young children, 5 or 6 years old, what they have to do if their parents do not come home. The children go to school every morning not knowing if their parents will be home at the end of the day. This is a direct result of the current administration’s position on immigration.

Are you aware of situations where just that happened, where a parent was detained while dropping their kids off at school?

A year ago, there was a case of a farmworker couple who were driving around looking for work and were stopped by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Unfortunately, they tried to get away and lost control of their vehicle and both died, leaving behind six children between the ages [of] 8 and 18 years old. What’s more, an uncle who was trying to help raise the kids was targeted by immigration shortly after.

We need to remember that these are hard-working, professional people. Many think that field work is just manual labor, but it is very specialized. These workers understand different crops and how to raise them. It is not only difficult, physical work, but also takes a lot of knowledge. We immigrants are being demonized, and we work very hard to make a living.

Your own background gives you a lot of experience also with Indigenous peoples.

We have many workers from Oaxaca, Mexico. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a Zapotecan Indian who did not speak Spanish when she was married. I am encountering many people who speak different tongues, and we are adapting to be able to meet their needs.

You have been on the cutting edge. Let’s talk a little about the kinds of legislation you have been working on and some of the battles coming up.

I was in Sacramento, California, the last couple days because we are supporting a bill introduced by State Assembly Member Robert Rivas to help build adequate housing for farmworkers. Current housing is deplorable. You see two or three families living in a two-bedroom apartment, or you see housing that is completely dilapidated and unsafe. That bill passed out of committee and was our first victory. We are also sponsoring the immigration reform bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Zoe Lofgren. As you know, farmworkers are now entitled to overtime pay in California, for any work over nine-and-a-half hours in one day.

The overtime bill has passed in California and is now being considered at the federal level?

It has passed in California. It has been introduced at the federal level, but it is going to be a long process and an uphill battle like it was here. But we are not going to give up because it is the right thing to do. For those who oppose it, for those who think that farmworkers don’t deserve it, shame on them!

The folks that do some of the hardest work in this country, who make it possible for people to have abundant meals over the years, often don’t have enough to buy meals for themselves.

The UFW has always done work, not just for collective bargaining, but also because we realize that there are many others needs that farmworkers have. That is why we also engage in legislative work. We have a medical plan and a pension plan that have paid out over half-a-billion dollars in benefits to members. The legislative work we do helps not only our members but every single farmworker in California. When we are successful on immigration, it is going to affect every farmworker in this country.

What comes next? What’s on your agenda this week? Give us a sense of the resistance that the UFW is offering in the face of a president who has demonstrated a hatred and distrust of Black and Brown people in this country.

When he goes low, we go high, and he just keeps going low. Our approach is to continue the work we are doing in collective bargaining and legislative work to be able to impact the people who really deserve it. His actions and his denial of the contributions of farmworkers and immigrants in general are something he will eventually have to answer for. If anything, we are more energized to keep fighting for the people we represent.

Finally, I would like to get your response to the extraordinary measures Trump has taken in terms of breaking up families and disappearing thousands of immigrant children.

It is despicable; it is inhumane. I don’t think he has any understanding of the suffering he is causing because he is so far removed. He is causing long-term pain and suffering for these families. These children who have been separated from their families are going to grow up thinking that they were abandoned. But it is one person responsible for creating these emotional scars, and that person is Donald Trump.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. The full audio interview was first broadcast on the author’s radio show “Flashpoints.”