Teresa Romero: ‘Farmers put food on our table without caring if it benefits a Democrat or a Republican’

The president of the United Farm Workers labor union is fighting for federal protection to protect agricultural workers from high temperatures and heat deaths

Teresa Romero
President Joe Biden awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Teresa Romero, the president of United Farm Workers, at a White House ceremony in May.Alex Brandon (AP)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

Teresa Romero, 74, says she does her job while standing on the shoulders of giants. She is not exaggerating. Since 2018, she has presided over United Farm Workers (UFW), the union founded more than 60 years ago by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the emblematic Chicano labor leaders. Raised in the Mexican state of Guadalajara in a family where the father was a manufacturer of tortilla-making machinery and the mother was a homemaker, she came to the San Fernando Valley, California, in the 1970s. A few years later she became a beneficiary of the amnesty that then-president Ronald Reagan granted to millions of irregular immigrants, making Reagan the last president of the United States to reach out to a sector of the population that is being vilified and persecuted these days.

This experience has given Romero a different perspective. She is the first immigrant and the first Latina to head a national union. She began as an assistant to the president, Arturo Rodríguez, and over the years she became secretary and treasurer of an organization that is based in California, America’s largest agricultural producer.

During her time leading the UFW, Romero has made the issue of immigration reform a priority. She got state officials to relax the rules so that farmers could unionize. Her latest crusade, spanning decades, is to provide protection to the thousands of people who work outdoors in extreme heat. The proposal has been rejected by several Republican politicians, who refuse to give day laborers, most of them undocumented immigrants, access to clean drinking water or 10-minute breaks.

Her significant influence within a fundamental political sector has made Romero a powerful figure. Last month, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden, the highest civilian honor in the country. The award was presented to her at the White House along with a generation of politicians such as Michael Bloomberg, Senator Elizabeth Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi, among others. The conferral of the award means that a circle has been closed: César Chávez was honored posthumously by Bill Clinton in 1994.

Question. How is it possible that agricultural workers continue to die in the United States?

Answer. I wish I had the right answer. The majority of farm workers in this country are immigrants and many of them, a large majority, are undocumented. Many times they do not make their voices heard for fear of being fired or deported. So they put up with a lot of things. That’s why, when we passed our law in California, lives were saved. And now we want to do it at the federal level.

Q. There are very strong agricultural states that resist this law.

A. Yes, that is why we do not want to make it a state-level reform. It should not be up to each state whether a worker lives or dies. Especially with the weather conditions, which are changing so much. That is why we are working at the federal level, to be able to protect not only workers who are dedicated to agriculture, but also any others who work outdoors and are exposed to heat. Republicans are not interested in these types of protections, but we will continue to fight.

Q. The most notable case is that of Florida, where the governor has prohibited this type of protection. What are we dealing with? Is it an anti-union or anti-immigrant issue?

A. Both things. As I mentioned before, the majority of workers are immigrants. Many of them are undocumented. The governor thinks, in his way of seeing life, that they are not important. It is disgusting that a governor does not give these lives any consideration. They put food on our table every day. When they are working all day in the fields, hunched over under high temperatures, they don’t wonder if their work is going to benefit a Republican or a Democrat. They continue to do their job so that we can all eat.

Una campesina pizca moras protegida del sol en una cooperativa del Estado de Washington, en julio de 2023.
A farmworker picks blueberries at a cooperative in Washington state in July 2023.John Froschauer (AP)

Q. You say that now is not the right political time to approve this type of legislation. When would it be, in a country so divided?

A. Our bill has been introduced, the problem is that the person who decides which bills get put to a vote in Congress is a Republican spokesperson.

Q. Is unionism experiencing a good moment in the United States? Couldn’t that lend strength to the cause?

A. Yes, definitely. We have to imagine the life of a farm worker, who gets up early in the morning because they have to study or help their children. They work eight to 10 hours a day, they come back tired, especially during the hot season. But they also want to have a family. The people who sit and watch the news know that we have the support of the president. There is no immigration reform, so right now the only way these workers can be protected is through the union. Someone has their back, they have a voice, they have protection. Otherwise, they have nothing.

Q. Before coming to the UFW, you had a construction company. What do you say to employers who are anti-union?

A. Many people say that as entrepreneurs they create hundreds and thousands of jobs and that if it were not for them, there would be no work. What I always tell them is to see it from the other side. If they didn’t have their workers, their company wouldn’t exist. What we have to do is treat them with dignity, with respect and pay them fairly. And unfortunately here in the United States that does not happen in agriculture.

Q. You are running a campaign that warns that the danger is more than heat stroke. There are silent epidemics linked to high temperatures.

A. It’s very difficult for workers to sit and think about that when they are earning the minimum wage and have to support their family and don’t want to lose their job. It is the sacrifice they make every day. They are willing to endure a lot. And when they are threatened and intimidated that if they talk to the union they are going to be fired, it is something very difficult to combat. The workers cannot endure another summer, two summers or three more summers while we go state by state to save their lives. We need those protections at the federal level and that is why we are demanding them.

Q. How long was this fight in California?

A. The first regulations that existed were in 2008, when a young woman died from the heat. Then we started to apply more pressure and we were able to reinforce the protections, but we should not wait until more people die. What we say here in the union is that the laws on the books are not the laws in the fields. Why? Because there is no one there. We need a federal agency with sufficient resources to ensure that these measures are being implemented.

Q. You recently received the Medal of Freedom from President Biden. What did that mean to you?

A. It means a lot. It was a great honor, but the reason I was there is because of the people I serve. They are the ones who always feel invisible. The consumer does not see them, the ranchers and the employers do not see them. Neither do the authorities. That day, we were able to demonstrate that farm workers can be seen at the highest levels. We are trying to elevate the way they are appreciated.

César Chávez, el líder chicano de los campesinos, durante el boicot a la uva de 1965.
Labor leader César Chávez during the grape boycott of 1965.George Brich (AP)

Q. During the pandemic these workers were essential because they did not stop working, but years later a battle for basic rights still has to be fought.

A. When something really had to be done, which was to make vaccines, masks, protection and information available to them, we were the ones who had to do it. We had the advantage of having people who support the farmers and we received donations of thousands of masks, which we distributed among workers in California, Oregon and Washington. But there were problems because many were not covered since they were undocumented. Not only do they have to be seen as essential workers, they have to be treated as such.

Q. You are the first immigrant to head a national union. Do you have a different task compared to other leaders in the U.S. labor movement?

A. The task is the same, to try to improve the lives of the people we represent. The fact that I am a migrant gives me a more direct way of understanding the challenges they face every day. I don’t have to imagine what they are thinking or suffering. When I hear people say, “I can’t go see my mom, who I haven’t seen in 20 years,” I understand them on a different level.

Q. Is there concern among your colleagues about what may happen after the November election?

A. We have fear, concern at every level. Even immigrants who work in the fields or elsewhere, who do not have a union, who work in another industry, have that fear. What is going to happen? The fact that they have an accent when speaking English, that their skin is brown or black. That fear exists. Everyone, not just migrants, must be aware of what we can lose.

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