“The significance of NFWM’s work is its ability to join forces with every effort in the country,” said Hector Rodriguez, National Farm Worker Ministry President. “NFWM assists and organizes farm workers to advocate for themselves by supporting their efforts and by being there with them as they walk the halls of Congress or lobby legislators to pass effective legislation – because they [farm workers] have always been locked out. That accompaniment, organizing, and work on behalf of and alongside farm works – that’s the most significant ongoing work.”
Throughout its history, NFWM has supported the strategies endorsed by the farm workers, from marches to boycotts to advocacy. It is the NFWM’s role to amplify the farm workers’ voices, which often involves ensuring that farm workers’ stories are told in the halls of power – in Congress and state capital buildings across the country.
“On a national level, we did a lot of work around immigration reform and guest worker issues,” remembers Virginia Nesmith, former NFWM Executive Director, who says she also worked to develop staff on the state level to increase advocacy efforts in state capitols. “We had staff in California, Oregon, Washington state for a brief time, in North Carolina, and in Florida and through the YAYAs.”
Irv Hershanbaum, 1st Vice President for the United Farm Workers, shared 5 ways the NFWM has been an ally and a partner to the UFW’s advocacy efforts:
- Immigration reform: “The UFW has been at it for 15 years and the Ministry has been alongside us. They got the churches and congregations to send postcards to legislators – they did that for a year to get [Senator Dianne] Feinstein [of California] on board [with immigration reform for farm workers] and now she is our champion. We’ve built strong support at the grassroots level with the Ministry’s active support.”
- Staff support: “Over the years, the Ministry has assigned staff to campaigns for several months. At one time, we had 15 people on staff [from the Ministry] to help us out. Virginia Nesmith was one of the staff [that worked with us]. We actually camped at her house in St. Louis for the Monsanto campaign.”
- Sent delegations to visit members of Congress: “Julie [Taylor, current Executive Director of NFWM] recently sent delegations to visit congresspeople in their North Carolina home offices. Virginia [Nesmith] went to DC once with a big delegation of 25-50 farm workers. She organized churches to house and feed them. We wanted members of Congress to hear from workers. The Ministry made that possible.”
- Vigils: “The Ministry organizes pastors to conduct vigils [when that helps make a point].”
- Letters: “The Ministry organizes church groups to sign on to letters to be sent to representatives about the issues [that matter to farm workers].”
From wages to safety to human dignity, legislative change is often slow and incremental. Here are three stories of fighting for change in the halls of power.
Bert Perry, long-time NFWM staff in Florida, recalls advocacy work focused on pesticide legislation: “We went to Tallahassee (Florida) to try to get better pesticide regulations. We didn’t win but it built good awareness. We did a project with the [Florida] Farmworker Association on miscarriages and babies born with health problems. The percentages of miscarriages for farm worker women was three times higher than the average population because of the pesticides and the hard work in the fields.”
Suzanne Darweesh, Chair of the Orange County Interfaith Committee to Aid Farmworkers, recalls supporting local advocacy efforts in California related to overtime pay: “There was a bill before the California legislature [to require overtime pay for farm workers] so we had a local demonstration. An Assemblyman abstained and we needed his vote. We worked with the UFW to coordinate farm workers to visit his office and we circulated a petition for people to sign saying they were in support of overtime pay for farm workers. Then we had a rally in front of his office.”
Geiv Kashkooli, Political and Legislative Director of the UFW, recalls the NFWM’s assistance in the 2002 fight to pass mandatory mediation legislation in California (“NFWM was terrific!”).
Giev described Orange County, California as a “bastion of conservatism” at the time that was pressuring the governor, a democrat, to say he wouldn’t sign the bill. With only a few days’ notice, the UFW launched a 200 mile march from Fresno, CA to Sacramento. “We organized the march on 4 or 5 days notice and NFWM was extraordinary. They organized churches and pastors and priests and congregations to meet us at each location along the way.”
The walk took about two weeks, with people of faith joining the marchers. “Each morning and each night, there was a prayer service,” he remembered. “Virginia [Nesmith] was Executive Director at the time. She personally came to Sacramento to organize housing [for the marching workers] and to take care of dozens of people with two weeks notice. There were a lot of volunteers – Jeanne Giordano, Marty Shank. It was an extraordinary set of efforts that led to the Governor signing the bill.”