Although the efforts of Chávez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, focused primarily on the West Coast, he influenced farmworker unions to form in Texas and Ohio—and his impact continues to be felt in smaller agricultural states such as Maryland.
In 2000, the Federal Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Worker Study (NAWS) found that approximately 10,000 migrant workers reside annually in Maryland. Many of the migrant workers are lawful permanent residents or U.S. citizens who arrive from other states, such as Florida and Texas.
An additional 1,000 farmworkers perform agricultural work in Maryland through lawful participation in a federal guest-worker visa program.
Regardless of lawful immigration status, the vast majority of farmworkers in Maryland face harsh living and working conditions, both of which remain largely dictated by their employers.
Today’s migrant farmworkers remain generally non-English speaking, are often destitute due to low wage rates and high levels of wage non-payment, work in America’s second-most dangerous occupation, and are geographically isolated from most social services.
Through Chávez’s union, and in conjunction with community and legal services advocates, many improvements in farmworkers' rights have been achieved.
For example, in 1975, Chávez was instrumental in working with California Rural Legal Assistance to obtain a decision from the California Supreme Court banning the “short-handled hoe” as an Unfair Labor Tool. However, migrant workers remain a population extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
Through its statewide outreach, Maryland Legal Aid has witnessed the long hours temporary migrant workers are required to perform. There are migrant workers in every Maryland county.
Maryland’s robust seasonal economies demonstrate that migrant workers in the agricultural, crab, landscaping and hospitality industries come at local employers’ requests to perform hard, necessary work.
Crab house, horse and dairy workers often begin work at sunrise; pack house, nursery and field workers often end long after sunset. Almost all lack health benefits, sick days or personal leave, much less paid leave.
Farmworkers in Maryland would be unlikely to receive any leave on March 31st if it were declared a day of commemoration. Nevertheless, the symbolic recognition of Chávez’s efforts to improve their living and working conditions is broadly inspiring.
Designating March 31st as César Chávez Day will provide an important opportunity for all Marylanders to reflect upon workers’ contributions and the holiday’s call to service towards others.
Last year, President (then Senator) Obama stated on Mar. 31, 2008, in the Los Angeles Times that, “As farmworkers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages, we find strength in what César Chávez accomplished so many years ago ... [a]nd we should honor him for what he's taught us about making America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation. It's time to recognize the contributions of this American icon to the ongoing efforts to perfect our union.”
America at its best is not the history of a few, but the stories of us all. Maryland gave birth to our national anthem, and has always been a vital part of American history. It should join the charge to remember all of our nation’s heroes.
I urge Maryland to join President Obama in remembering the unsung legacy of César Chávez.
Daniela Dwyer is supervising attorney of Maryland Legal Aid's Farmworker Program.
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