Behind the Story: Can U.F.W. Make a Comeback?

Cesar Chavez, with dark hair and checkered shirt, co-leader of the National Farm Workers Association, a predecessor of the United Farm Workers, in 1966.Credit…Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos

Decades after Cesar Chavez made the United Farm Workers a powerhouse in California’s fields, the union has lost much of its clout.

U.F.W.’s membership in the 1970s was around 60,000. Now it’s closer to 5,500, less than 2 percent of the state’s agricultural work force.

But the union is hoping to regain its relevance and the ability to mobilize public opinion as it did under Chavez, as Kurtis Lee and Liliana Michelena recently reported for The New York Times. The question is whether the union can pull it off.

“This is a major moment for labor organizing nationwide,” Kurtis told me. “We’ve seen unions win elections among white-collar workers in the tech and media industries. But that has not been the case for some of the most marginalized workers in the country — farmworkers, especially those here in California.”

Kurtis and Liliana traveled to several communities in the Central Valley to report on unionization efforts among farmworkers in California’s fields, which supply about half the produce grown in the United States for the domestic market.

As they explained, after the U.F.W. rose to prominence through grass-roots organizing in the 1960s, it began to lose influence in the 1980s. The union continues to advocate farmworker protections in Sacramento and to secure local contracts for workers, but it has also seen precipitous membership drops in recent decades.

But the U.F.W. believes that a new California law could help reverse its decline. Signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, Assembly Bill 2183 was the union’s biggest legislative victory in years, paving the way for farmworkers to vote in union elections without in-person election sites.

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The U.F.W. and its supporters said the law was needed because of how farmworker demographics had shifted since the 1970s, when many farmworkers were U.S. citizens. Migration from Mexico and Central America in the following decades created a work force comprising primarily undocumented workers.

That has led to heightened fear among farmworkers that seeking unionization could get them fired, or even deported, advocates of the new measure say. The law will help protect against voter suppression and retaliation, since unionization votes would be kept private from employers, they argue.

Though Newsom vetoed similar legislation in 2021, he signed A.B. 2183 into law after Representative Nancy Pelosi, then the House speaker, and President Biden publicly pushed him to do so. “In the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union,” Biden said at the time.

As is often the case, what happens in California going forward will most likely be watched closely by unions and activists who work on behalf of farmworkers elsewhere in the country.

“There is new energy, new legislation and attention from the public in terms of workers’ rights,” said Christian Paiz, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched farm labor in the state. “We could be on the front lines of a renaissance.”

For more:

  • Read Kurtis and Liliana’s full article.

An overflowing canal and a flooded fruit farm in Watsonville.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

The rest of the news

  • Storing water: Landowners and local water managers are using farmland to capture and funnel the recent barrage of water and snow to feed depleted aquifers, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Gun laws: A judge blocked key parts of a California law that restricts the sale of handguns, saying the requirements are unconstitutional and cannot be enforced, The Associated Press reports.

  • Scenes from storms: A relentless stretch of winter storms has flooded communities, trapped residents in snow, caused mudslides and shut down major roadways. Here is what photographers across the state have witnessed so far.


  • L.A.U.S.D. strike: More than 1,000 Los Angeles schools closed on Tuesday after staff members began a three-day walkout. Instruction is expected to be canceled through Thursday.

  • Potential Hollywood strike: Television and movie writers want raises, saying that Hollywood companies have taken unfair advantage of the shift to streaming by devaluing creative work and creating worsening working conditions.

  • Trash interceptor: Ballona Creek Trash Interceptor 007 has so far held up during the storms, sparing the Pacific from thousands of pounds of garbage, The Los Angeles Times reports.


  • Housing: Fresno has moved into the second stage of an effort to house the homeless that officials say has been successful, The Fresno Bee reports.

  • Floods: The inevitable melting of California’s massive snowpack means that flooding problems are only beginning in the Central Valley, The Fresno Bee reports.


  • Rise in violence: Fights involving dozens of adolescents at a mall in San Francisco are part of a greater trend in increased youth violence, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Credit…Andrew Bramasco/Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty

What you get

For $5 million: A Spanish-style home in Los Angeles, a renovated 1905 bungalow in Palo Alto or a Cape Cod-style retreat in Laguna Beach.

Credit…Ryan Liebe for The New York Times.

What we’re eating

Broccoli and farro stew with parsley and capers.

Credit…AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Gabrielle Pascoe, who lives in Hollywood:

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Plane spotters at the In-N-Out Burger in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles.Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

And before you go, some good news

In Los Angeles, a whole ecosystem has developed around watching planes flying into and out of Los Angeles International Airport. In a city where people are primed to view the everyday cinematically, the distance between person and airplane can feel thrillingly thin.

Plane spotters fill well-situated parks, beaches and even restaurants’ outdoor patios to catch a glimpse of low-flying aircraft. The watchers resemble amateur meteorologists, logging serial numbers in notebooks and uploading stats to obscure databases.

The Times published a photo essay that captures watchers’ collective sense of awe:

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Isabella Grullón Paz contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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