California Farm Workers Honor Boycott

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In Salinas, Calif., tens of thousands agricultural workers heed the call for a national work boycott by staying away from the fields. As Ben Adler of member station KAZU reports, they had union and industry support for the action, designed to demonstrate immigrant worker strength.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Baghdad. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Waving mostly American flags, hundreds of thousands gathered across the country to rally for immigration changes. The Day Without Immigrants attracted widespread participation by legal and illegal immigrants from San Francisco to New York, Chicago, and Miami.

Here in Los Angeles, two major ports in the area came to a halt after truck drivers didn't show up for work. Construction sites were quiet, some restaurants closed. The workers had headed downtown, where police counted 650,000 people at two major rallies, some going to both. Up north in Salinas, where Cesar Chavez led the Farm Workers' Movement 30 years ago, a rally emptied the fields and transformed the city.

From Member Station KAZU, Ben Adler reports.

BEN ADLER reporting:

During a harvest season--when more than 30,000 workers are typically scattered across the fields of Monterey County--yesterday, strawberry, lettuce, and artichoke fields surrounding Salinas were empty, not a worker or moving farm vehicle in sight. Instead, the workers were marching in the streets of the city.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

ADLER: The eastern part of Salinas looked like a neighborhood celebrating a major holiday, and it was, in fact, International Workers Day, or May Day. Virtually everything was closed: restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses. United Farm Workers National President Arturo Rodriguez led the march.

Mr. ARTURO RODRIGUEZ (President, United Farm Workers National): While drove out throughout the valley on our trip up here, we didn't see any farm workers working in the berries, in the vegetables, in any of the crops. It just shows the tremendous commitment and support this year on the part of the farm worker community in joining in unity with immigrants throughout the nation.

ADLER: Of all the marches in the country yesterday, Rodriguez chose Salinas.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: This is the heart and the salad bowl of America, and we wanted to be joining with all of the farm workers here throughout this county, and throughout the county of San Benito (unintelligible) to really be in unity with them.

ADLER: Thirty years ago, Cesar Chavez led immigrants through the streets of Salinas as he organized farm workers. Salinas Police Department Sergeant Terry Heffington says she hasn't seen a crowd like this since then.

Sergeant TERRY HEFFINGTON (Police Department, Salinas): I was born and raised in Salinas. In fact (unintelligible) workers, but with the city of Salinas, I've been here since, ooh, almost 21 years. I haven't seen anything of this magnitude, and also peaceful.

ADLER: Heffington estimated the crowd at 13,000. Organizers said there were more than twice that. But there were no arrests, as the marchers followed Cesar Chavez's example of non-violent activism. Four separate columns of people marched from different parts of town, meeting up in a single group--10 people wide at times, stretching down the street for block after block. The crowd included students who skipped school, but farm workers and their families were by far the most prominent group. Many growers actually gave their workers the day off.

Jim Bogart leads the Grower-Shipper Association.

Mr. JIM BOGART (Leader, Grower-Shipper Association): The industry and this association, in particular, are very sympathetic as for the reason or purpose of the march. The agriculture industry really has been leading the charge on legislation for effective immigration reform, including an adjustment of status or amnesty provision, if you will, for workers that are here.

ADLER: Amnesty legislation would benefit growers who depend on immigrants for cheap labor. Bogart says most employers asked workers to tell them if they planned to take the day off, and he says he did not get a single panicked phone call from growers.

Union organizer and Salinas City Councilman Sergio Sanchez said he appreciated the support.

Mr. SERGIO SANCHEZ (Salinas City Council member): You know what? It's very commendable that employers to join us and support us and support their workers. I think they clearly understand the need for immigrants in this country, and they understand the need for them so they can do business.

ADLER: Several other cities around Salinas also held rallies yesterday, including one in the nearby Monterey peninsula town of Seaside. One marcher, Manuel Cortez(ph), is a permanent resident who does landscape work. Lingering after the march, Cortez said he and his coworkers took a vacation day yesterday with their supervisor's full knowledge. He says he has papers, but his friends and family don't.

Mr. MANUEL CORTEZ (Protester): (Through translator): I'm here because I want all my people to have what I have. Some don't have permission to work. They don't have permission to drive a car, and that's unjust. They go to work, but they do it in fear. They drive, but they do it in fear.

ADLER: Cortez says now he and other Mexican immigrants just want to be able to live in the U.S. legally, without that fear.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler.

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