Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reminds of union's early days.
By Jeff St. John and Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee
Echoing the spirit of his father's 1968 presidential campaign, Robert
F. Kennedy Jr. stood before the United Farm Workers on Saturday in
Fresno to argue for an America more attuned to the needs of the least
Forty years ago, the elder RFK met with UFW founder César Chávez in
Delano to bond with farmworkers and Hispanics for political change.
Now, Kennedy's son is doing the same -- by urging a vote for Barack Obama.
"We need to restore the hope and idealism we've lost over the last
eight years," Kennedy said.
The three-day UFW constitutional convention in Fresno -- held every
four years -- has become a regular stop for politicians. Sen. John
Kerry, D-Mass., phoned in a speech during his 2004 presidential
campaign. Former Gov. Gray Davis spoke at the union's convention in 2000.
It's a far cry from the 1960s, when the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy,
D-N.Y., met with Chávez. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles just
months after his visit and never saw the union grow from a
struggling, grass-roots organization into an iconic national force.
The changes are evident by the speaker list. Today, the UFW is
scheduled to hear former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Hillary
Clinton, D-N.Y., at 2 p.m. It will likely be the last public
appearance Clinton makes before the Democratic National Convention
this week in Denver.
Both the UFW and Kennedy, a long-time environmentalist, supported
Clinton in her run against Obama for the Democratic presidential
nomination. Now both say they are behind Obama.
But Kennedy hasn't changed his tune about the Bush administration.
He blamed the Bush White House for what he called disasters, ranging
from the economy to the Iraq war.
"This is the worst administration in the history of the United
States," he said.
Tanis Ybarra, the union's secretary treasurer, said it was no
accident that Kennedy spoke before the union's membership this year.
Chávez, who died in 1993, forged a friendship with the Kennedy family
in the late 1960s.
It was the elder RFK who was at Chávez's side in Delano when the
union leader broke his 25-day fast for nonviolence. The moment was
immortalized in a photo showing the two men huddled together.
"There is a bond there that has lived on," Ybarra said. "There is a
lot of history between us."
Political connections may not be enough to keep the union from
struggling with membership in the face of farmer opposition. For
instance, the UFW was unsuccessful at a high-profile organizing drive
in 2005 to organize thousands of workers at Central Valley table
grape-growing giant Giumarra Vineyards. The union alleged that
employer intimidation skewed that vote.
And the Los Angeles Times reported in 2006 that UFW contracts
indicated the union had only 7,000 workers under contracts at the
height of the growing season.
Union officials said the figures were inaccurate. The UFW has about
27,000 members, all under contracts, said spokeswoman Vicki Adame.
The union always has been known for championing farmworker rights in
Officials are pushing for better organizing rights and federal
immigration reform. The UFW remains a strong influence in America
today, say experts.
"For all the complex struggles and the internal confusions, it is an
organization of enormous symbolic and real importance for American
farmworkers," said Daniel Rothenberg, a law professor at DePaul
University in Chicago who studies the labor movement.
But the UFW also has taken steps to find common ground with the
farmers it once fought, said Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei
Farmers League, which adamantly opposed the UFW during its formative
years in the 1960s and 1970s.
That cooperation led to the so-called "AgJobs" proposal in Congress,
which would give more than a million farmworkers now in the country a
way to earn permanent residency and eventual U.S. citizenship.
The proposal has not succeeded. The most recent version in Congress
was dropped from an Iraq war spending bill earlier this year.
But while farmers still have many differences with the union, the
AgJobs effort is a sign of how the union and growers can work
together, Cunha said.
During the convention this weekend, the union is electing its
executive board. Much of the convention is aimed at informing members
of issues and getting support. And there are presentations on
Attendees heard from family representatives of six farmworkers who
have died this year, possibly as the result of heat illnesses.
The UFW has argued that the rash of suspected heat-related deaths
show state safety laws and regulations aren't being followed by
growers and labor contractors.
Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez on Saturday presented a film the
Los Angeles Democrat and former labor organizer made to highlight
what he called a failure to enforce state laws protecting farmworkers
from heat illness and other hazards.
Bee staff writer Bob Rodriguez contributed to this report.The
reporters can be reached at (559) 441-6330.