This article first appeared in inequality.org
Over the past several decades, United Farm Workers has changed the tenor of labor organizing for one of America’s most vulnerable groups of workers. Last month, the labor union added a new page to that history by selecting Teresa Romero as its new president. A veteran of UFW’s administrative staff, Romero will become the union’s first woman president. UFW also says she’ll be the first immigrant woman to head a national union.
Romero will take over for current president Arturo Rodriguez when he steps down later this year. When she does, she’ll become the third president in UFW history, following Rodriguez and famed UFW co-founder Cesar Chavez.
While she may not have formally led the union as president, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta co-founded the organization and played a key role in its development — in addition to coining their iconic “Sí se puede” slogan. Though Huerta stepped away from the union to start her own foundation, she continues to be one of the public faces associated with the farmworker justice movement.
Huerta was one of the organizers of the Delano grape boycott in the 1960s, building on the strike from Filipino workers on California’s grape farms. The boycott brought widespread attention to the poor pay and conditions of the workers in California’s fields, eventually gaining international momentum and forcing farms to improve their working conditions. Huerta also negotiated the first collective bargaining contract in the U.S. with an agricultural business,
In her time at UFW — and through her organizing work since left the union — Huerta has been vocal about the need for more women in labor leadership positions. “I am absolutely thrilled to see that we have a woman as the new president of the United Farm Workers,” Huerta told NBC News.
“About half of the people that work in the fields, maybe 40 percent, are women, often they are not really recognized…but they are a very, very, very big part not only of the workforce but also of the leadership of United Farm Workers.” Huerta also told NBC that the choice of Romero was a landmark decision “not just because she’s a woman because she’s so qualified…I think they have made a wonderful selection.”
There couldn’t be a more important time for Romero to take a leadership position, given the current hostility towards immigrants in the national discourse. Romero, who moved to the United States from Mexico, told KPBS how her background as a Latinx immigrant helps her connect with farm workers.
“I know the struggles. I know how difficult it is,” Romero said. “I do understand the difficulty for them to bring their families, to try to support themselves and their families, and at the same time to integrate themselves into a new culture and language.
That’s why Romero also considers immigration reform her number one priority as she takes the helm of UFW. “I think a lot of the issues that immigrants are having now, especially women, are being shadowed by their immigration status,” Romero told the LA Times. It’s quite the challenge to take on, especially given the tough political climate for both immigrants and unions. But immigrants are the backbone of the U.S. agricultural system and advocating for their safety and dignity is key to the interests of UFW members. “Everything we do here — everything I do here — is for the benefit of farmworkers,” Romero told The Desert Sun. “That’s why immigration reform is important.”
Negin Owliaei is a researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies and co-edits inequality.org.