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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Oct 9, 2012, 4:38 pm

Farm Workers’ Advocates Charge Hypocrisy in Obama’s Dedication of Monument to Cesar Chavez

BY Mike Elk

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On Monday, President Obama dedicated a memorial to labor and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, but critics say the President has failed to follow Chavez's example.   (Wikimedia Commons)

President Obama appeared yesterday at the Nuestra Reina de La Paz in Keene, Calif., to dedicate the Chavez National Monument honoring the late United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez. Before Chavez began his activism, President Obama said, “no one seemed to care about the invisible farm workers who picked the nation’s food—bent down in the beating sun, living in poverty, cheated by growers, abandoned in old age, unable to demand even the most basic rights”.

“Our world is a better place because Cesar Chavez decided to change it,” Obama added. “Let us honor his memory.  But most importantly, let’s live up to his example.”

However, farm workers' advocates were quick to point out that President Obama has not lived up to Chavez’s example, citing in particular the Obama administration's decision last April to abandon a proposed regulation that would have prohibited children employed as farmworkers on non-family owned farms from using certain types of hazardous farm equipment. (Child farmworkers are killed at a rate six times higher than children employed in any other industry.)

“We are pleased President Obama is recognizing the important legacy of Cesar Chavez by establishing the Cesar Chavez Monument, and commend him for it. Of course we are profoundly disappointed the Obama Administration chose to withdraw updates to the Hazardous Orders for children employed in agriculture earlier this year,” says Norma Flores, who worked as a child farmworker and is now the director of the Children in the Fields Campaign. “This was a missed opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Cesar Chavez, who advocated for the protection of the nation’s farmworkers. As a result of this withdrawal, farmworker children’s lives continue to be put in jeopardy harvesting America’s food.”

The decision to withdraw the rule was widely regarded as an attempt to shore up support in rural farming states in an election year. The decision was also seen by many as a response to Big Agriculture, which stirred up concern among family farmers by claiming that the law would prohibit their children from working on the farms. In reality, the proposed regulation would have applied only to those farms big enough that they employ children who are not related to them.

When the child farm worker safety rule was withdrawn in April, the Obama administration released an official statement saying that "the decision to withdraw this rule—including provisions to define the 'parental exemption'—was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms."

Workplace safety advocates are pessimistic about whether the rule will be reconsidered, even if Obama is re-elected. Rena Steinzor, the president of Center for Progressive Reform, wrote in a blog post on Sunday:

The Farm Bureau (aka Big Ag) and its supporters in Congress attacked the rule relentlessly, labeling the rule an assault on family farms. The White House never went to bat for DOL’s proposal, never bothering to make the case why the rule was needed. The rule’s opponents were able to dominate the debate, despite frequent, outright lies. Farmworker and worker safety advocates supported the rule, but lacked the political power that Big Ag was able to bring to the fight.

On April 26th of this year, the Administration withdrew the proposed rule. The press release took the extraordinary step of saying “To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration” added Steinzor. “President Obama will honor farmworkers on Monday. But when the Administration had the chance to actually take action to make agricultural work for young people safer, it caved to political pressure. Sadly, actions speak louder than words.

White House spokesman Matthew Lehrich did not respond to a request for comment.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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