WMU News

Noted farm labor organizer speaks at WMU March 31

March 25, 1999

KALAMAZOO--One of the nation's most successful farm labor organizers will speak at Western Michigan University on Wednesday, March 31, as part of WMU's Cesar Chavez Day, which commemorates Chavez' birthday.

Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, will present "Farm Workers in the Midwest: Memories of Cesar Chavez" from 4 to 5 p.m. in 208 Bernhard Center. The free public talk is being sponsored by the Latino Student Alliance, Division of Minority Affairs, and Student Assessment Fee committee.

"Cesar Chavez, who died in 1993, founded the United Farm Workers Union and probably is the best known organizer of farm workers in the United States," said Miguel Ramirez, coordinator of Latino programs in WMU's Division of Minority Affairs.

"The day set aside in Chavez's honor celebrates his 30 years of leadership and nonviolent struggle to improve civil rights and working conditions for migrant farm laborers."

Like Chavez, Velasquez began working in the fields as a small child and grew up in poverty. Despite the odds, he obtained a high school education and went on to became the first member of his family to graduate from college.

In 1967 at the age of 20, he co-founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee along with his father and a small group of farm workers. Under his leadership, the union made history 11 years later by organizing the largest agricultural strike in the Midwest.

The eight-year walk-out of cucumber and tomato pickers led to the formation of independent commissions in the United States and Mexico to negotiate and oversee collective bargaining rights for farm workers.

The strike culminated in migrant workers negotiating the nation's first three-party labor contracts, bringing together farm workers, farmers and industrial produce corporations. These agreements classified thousands of farm workers as employees. As a result, many farm workers began receiving regular wages for the first time and became eligible for workers' compensation, minimum wage and Social Security benefits.

In 1993, Velasquez formed the Farm Worker Network for Economic and Environmental Justice to increase collaboration among U.S. and international farm worker organizations. He continues to work to improve the lives of farm workers and their families through labor initiatives as well as speaking engagements across the country.

Velasquez tells his audiences that even with the oldest children working, the typical migrant farm working family still has an income well below the poverty line. In addition, he says, farm workers have half the average American's education, a 20-year shorter life span, and, because of pesticide exposure, a greater chance of dying from cancer.

For his leadership and humanitarian contributions, Velasquez has been recognized by organizations including the National Hispanic Organization, the National Council of La Raza, the Midwest Academy and the National Council of Churches. He also has received the John T. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and the Bannerman Fellowship.

For more information about Velasquez or Cesar Chavez Day, call Ramirez at (616) 387-3329.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, 616 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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