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Fighting for farmworkers – a Q&A with Maricela Morales

Maricela Morales, CAUSE

In this post, leaders from the worker rights movement share insights from their efforts to advance rights and protections for California’s workers. Read more conversations with leaders here.

Farmworkers in California, even as essential workers who help feed the nation during a pandemic, are still fighting for basic rights and protections. We talked to Maricela Morales, Executive Director of CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy), who for the last 20 years has fought for issues ranging from a living wage to a green economy, about her lessons in the fight for justice for California’s farmworkers.

The James Irvine Foundation (Irvine): Could you give us some examples of progress for local coalitions organizing farmworkers?

Maricela: Despite [the fact that] farmworkers are the earliest mass worker sector in California, very little research on the farmworker labor experience exists. Across Ventura and Sonoma County we’ve documented how [issues like] clean bathrooms and drinking water, as well as wage theft, are top priorities for farmworkers.

The wildfires that hit Sonoma, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Monterey Counties also have led to on-the-ground farmworker organizing to advocate for disaster information and protection. This experience is informing statewide wildfire policymaking to ensure that vulnerable outdoor workers are taken into account.

Irvine: What issues facing farmworkers might the broader worker rights community sometimes miss—and could learn from?

Maricela: California farmworkers continue to face a degree of mass worker isolation and inaccessibility stemming from historical roots in the California Mission Indian farming system. The inaccessibility of language, literacy, immigration status is compounded by employers who still are known to call in [local] sheriffs when workers exercise their right to strike. California is facing a modern-day Bracero program — tens of thousands of guest workers contracted in Mexico to labor in California while their employer has complete control of their daily lives for months.

Irvine: As a leader in the field, what are one to two personal lessons you might share on what it takes to advance economic justice for workers?

Maricela: One lesson is that economic justice is intersectional with housing and immigration status. When workers are displaced from their home it results in displacement from their job or from their own organizing. Undocumented workers are denied unemployment insurance and other safety net programs. To advance economic justice for workers takes strategically organizing on multiple issues.

Another lesson is that even in the age of technology, there is no substitute for in-person organizing.