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Part I: The Campesinos - Farmworkers in Oregon: History and Politics

"In the 1950's and 60's during the summer children did much of the farm work. Most were Anglo children earning spending money for summer work. The farmers organized buses to run into each town and city and pick up thousands of children. It was a good experience for young people and kept them busy all summer. However, child labor laws were passed in the late 1960's to inhibit this practice. A huge concern for labor and environmentalist was the amount of dangerous pesticides used on the fields. White children would not be exposed, so farmworkers mostly from Mexico, were hired to do the work."

Who they are

Farmworkers are among the hardest-working and lowest-paid workers in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Labor annual wages average $7,000 to $8,000. A workweek often exceeds forty hours. Farmworkers have no legal right to overtime pay or paid breaks. Approximately 100,000 farmworkers [98% Latino, the majority of Mexican origin] harvest about 170 different crops each year in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey the proportion of foreign-born workers in the U.S. rose 10% from 1989 to 1995. Seven in ten agricultural workers were born outside the United States. 95% of foreign-born farmworkers were from Mexico (NAWS 1997).

Farm workers in the U.S. are quite young; two-thirds were under the age of thirty-five. The proportion of farm workers who were younger than 17 doubled from 4% in 1989 to 8%; most young workers were either white U.S. born or Mexicans and were found in specific regions of the country.

The participation of women in farm work declined over the last several years from 25% to 19%. One in three U.S. born workers was a woman whereas only one in eight foreign-born workers was a woman.


Oregon Farmworker history is closely aligned with the California farmworkers history and history of Mexico. Many people do not know that at one time the border of Mexico came almost to the border of Oregon. There were Spanish gold mines in the central Cascade mountains in the early 1800's and Spanish culture began to merge with Native culture at that time.

The History of Farmworkers

In the late 1800's, thousands of Chinese and Japanese workers were brought to work in the fruit orchards and sugar beet fields of California. Many of these people were brought to Oregon to work in the lumber camps or on the railroads. They were the first farmworkers, to form associations and strike for improved wages and conditions. But their victories were short-lived. Racist laws were enacted to exclude Chinese and Japanese from the U.S. during the economic depressions of the late 1800's.

The IWW helped the farmworkers unionize in California. At the same time they helped the lumber workers unionize in Oregon. Both actions led to much violence and discrimination against these workers. However, the movement was on and many joined the unions. During the depression of the 1930's, unions were weakened because of the number of unemployed vying for any work. Some unions excluded farmworkers and discouraged them from organizing through violent and oppressive methods.

In the 1950's and 60's Caesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers organized in California but little was accomplished in organizing Oregon. The Willamette valley was a patchwork of lush, fertile farms growing fruit trees, berries, beans, corn, beets and other produce. Cooperative canneries were abundant in almost every city. During the summer children did much of the farm work. Most were Anglo children earning spending money for summer work. The farmers organized buses to run into each town and city and pick up thousands of children. It was a good experience for young people and kept them busy all summer. However, child labor laws were passed in the late 1960's to inhibit this practice. A huge concern for labor and environmentalist was the amount of dangerous pesticides used on the fields. White children would not be exposed, so farmworkers mostly from Mexico, were hired to do the work.

Agriculture in Oregon is a three billion dollar business and Oregon ranks among the top three states nationally in the production of at least 13 commodities (including berries, grass seed, pears, cherries, hops, mint, onions, cauliflower, and Christmas trees). In the past twenty-five years, growers have increasingly pooled those profits and bought up the major processing facilities from multi-national corporations such as General Foods. Most of the Willamette Valley canneries have been shut down.

In 1985, 80 farmworkers and treeplanters founded PCUN. PCUN is Oregon's largest Latino organization. PCUN stands for Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, in English this means Northwest Treeplanters and Farmers United.Their fundamental goal is to empower farmworkers to understand and take action against systematic exploitation and all of its effects. Their offices are located in Woodburn, Oregon.

Since the 1980's PUCN has registered more than 4,500 members, 98% of which are Mexican or Central American immigrants with about half residing permanently in Oregon. The mid-Valley's fruit and vegetable growers have depended heavily on Mexican labor since the 1940s. Reforestation and plant nurseries emerged in the 1970s as major winter occupations, enabling thousands of area farmworkers to remain in Oregon year-round.

In 1988, PCUN helped to start the Farmworker Labor Rights Project which challenged the institutionalized discrimination and injustice faced by farmworkers. PCUN challenges labor laws, their enforcement, battles prevailing labor practices, and works to bring growers to the collective bargaining table. Today they are still advocating for the rights of farmworkers in Oregon. PCUN has been instrumental in bringing livable safe housing, healthcare, better wages and safety standards to Oregon's farmworkers and treeplanters and their families.

Immigration and Labor Justice

Important issues for farmworkers is the ability to become permanent citizens of the U.S., be paid a fair wage, and work under safe conditions. Many Campesinos work in the U.S. for years and never reach that dream. Like other immigrant groups who came to the U.S. for a better life they are being treated as second-class humans, but because of racist ideologies and corporate greed in the U.S. it has taken many of them much longer to reach citizen status.

In December 2000, the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW) and a coalition of the major agricultural and landscape employers, working with several members of Congress, reached a bipartisan compromise to reform immigration laws. A summary of the compromise is as follows:

(1) create a legalization program to extend legal immigration status to undocumented farm workers who have been working in the U.S. and continue to work in agriculture for a period of time; (2) made major reforms in the existing agricultural guest worker program, the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. In addition, guestworkers would be covered by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983 (AWPA), the principal federal employment law for farmworkers.

Then came the election of George W. Bush and September 11th. Growers reneged on the compromise agreement. Senate Bills were introduced to destroy any victories that farmworkers had gained in the preceding 20 years. This included grower-supported legislation to lower the H-2A program wage rates, depriving thousands of US and foreign farmworkers of wage increases required by law. None of the bills have advanced, but the growers have lobbied hard especially for the wage-cut bill. New offers from growers include less safety precautions and lower wages. Legislators are also being lobbied by groups opposed to easing limits on immigration and increased buildup of racism after September 11th,

The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), passed in 1983, was first designed to provide migrant and seasonal farmworkers with protections concerning pay, working conditions, and work-related conditions, to require farm labor contractors to register with the U.S. Department of Labor, and to assure necessary protections for farmworkers, agricultural associations, and agricultural employers.

However, because of political manipulation by the Agriculture Industry, the Act has provisions for excluding most seasonal farmworkers. The Act reads: " Farm labor contractors, agricultural employers, and agricultural associations must provide migrant and seasonal agricultural workers with information on wages, hours, and other working conditions. In the case of housing, housing providers must provide migrant and seasonal agricultural workers with information on housing."

Exemptions from the act (most seasonal farmworkers) Those exempt from these provisions include:

  1. All those listed above except number 1, --agricultural employers and associations or their employees.
  2. Individuals or immediate family members who engage in farm labor contracting activities on behalf of their exclusively owned or operated operation.
  3. Any person (for example, a farm operator), except a farm labor contractor, who qualifies for the 500-man-days exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Plus several States have farm labor contractor registration laws whose coverage and provisions override Federal law.

For more on this subject see The Farmworkers Justice Fund

Farmworker health

Respiratory problems

Agricultural work includes constant exposure to respiratory irritants, including pesticides, dust, plant pollen, and molds. Workers performing tasks may have their faces close to, or for some activities can literally be engulfed in, such irritants, constantly breathing in particles that can cause respiratory difficulties. Other workers, for example in nursery/greenhouse operations or mushroom production, work in enclosed spaces that may be poorly ventilated. Often these conditions are exaggerated through smoking. The results can be chronic respiratory illness, including allergies, bronchitis, and asthma (Scheneker, Ferguson, and Gamsky, 1991; Von Essen, 1993; Garcia, Dresser, and Zerr, 1996).

Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show almost half of all reported occupational illnesses within agriculture are associated with skin diseases or disorders (BLS, 2000).


A 1990 study by the Migrant Clinician's Network found dermatitis to be the primary cause for patient visits to four migrant health centers among male farmworkers in their twenties (Dever, 1991). Most physicians are not trained to treat agriculturally related dermatitis and have little experience identifying the cause of problems or they often do not involve themselves in lawsuits or legal entanglements involving chemical exposure. Workers are hesitant to seek medical help for these conditions until they reach extreme levels.

A high incidence of cancer is suspected but not well documented among the farmworker population. Agricultural workers are exposed to known cancer-causing chemicals, and studies find a high prevalence of breast cancer, brain tumors, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and leukemia within agricultural communities. According to the Farmworker Justice Fund the pesticides which cause the most reported farmworker poisonings have been the target of EPA scrutiny over the past few years. This group, known as organophosphate insecticides (OPs), was derived from nerve gas during World War II. It includes well-known products such as parathion, malathion and diazionon. Overexposure to these insecticides can cause injury to the brain and nervous system and result in symptoms ranging from nausea, dizziness, and headaches to coma, convulsions and death.

Constant exposure to the sun can promote skin cancer within workers (Blair and Zham, 1991; Zham and Blair, 1993). Because farmworkers are mobile, live and work within numerous and varied situations, and may move in and out of agricultural work, the long-term studies necessary to investigate cancer prevalence have been lacking with this population.

Infectious disease

Tuberculosis and parasitic diseases are attributable to deficient sanitation both at work and at residence sites, poor quality drinking water and failure to provide uncontaminated washing and drinking water (Wilk, 1993; Ciesielski, Seed, Ortiz, and Metts, 1992; Jacobson, Mercer, and Simpson, 1987). Seasonal agricultural workers, due to lack of economic resources, must live in deficient housing or overcrowded conditions that are conducive to unhealthy conditions.


Blair, A., Zahm, S. H. (1991). Cancer among farmers. Occupational Medicine 6: 335-354.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) (2000). Workplace injuries and Illnesses in 1999. Washington, DC.

Ciesielski, S., Seed, J. R., Ortiz, J. C., Metts, J. (1992). Intestinal parasites among North Carolina migrant farmworkers. American Journal of Public Health, 82 (9): 1258-1262.

Dever, G. E. (1991). Migrant Health Status: Profile of a Population with Complex Health Problems. MCN monograph series. Austin, TX: National Migrant Resource Program.

Jacobson, M. L., Mercer, A., Miller, L. K., Simpson, T. W. (1987). Tuberculosis risk among migrant farm workers on the Delmarva Peninsula. American Journal of Public Health 77: 29-32.

Larson, A. C. (1995). An Assessment of Farmworker Schenker, M. B., Ferguson, T., and Gamsky, T. (1991). Respiratory risks associated with agriculture. Occupational Medicine 6: 415-428.

National Agricultural Workers Survey - Summary findings (April 1997) http://www.dol.gov/asp/programs/agworker/report/main.htm

Wilk, V. A. (1993). Health hazards to children in agriculture. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 283-290.

who was the Zahm? 17.Aug.2005 08:12

carol naturesacres@yahoo.com

wondering who the Zahm was that was mentioned