WOODBURN, OREGON — Disoriented, poor and unorganized, Latino immigrant farmworkers traditionally have not had a lot of political power in the United States. They often do the low-wage jobs American-born workers won’t do, working in an industry that largely precludes its workers from bargaining through unions. And because many immigrant farmworkers have entered the United States illegally, they are hesitant to speak up in the face of unpaid wages or miserable working conditions. But in the berry fields and nurseries of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Ramon Ramirez is helping to change that.
In a converted Methodist Church
in downtown Woodburn, Ore., Ramirez runs the Northwestern
Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, known as PCUN from its Spanish
name, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste.
The group organizes over 5,000 members — in the U.S. both
legally and illegally — to fight for better working and
living conditions in the surrounding fields.
are capable of taking on leadership roles," says the 49-year-old
Ramirez. "They know the ins and outs of their communities. They
know how to communicate."
Once solely focused on
farmworker rights in the Willamette Valley, PCUN has expanded its
advocacy to include other civil rights issues, global farmworker
issues and immigrant rights. Most recently, PCUN helped beat back
several bills in the 2003 Oregon Legislature that would have
prohibited farmworker strikes, allowed police officers to cooperate
with immigration officials, and required legal residency for driver
Ramirez "has the ability to unite different
constituencies and organizations in ways that most people might not
perceive," says Tarso Luis Ramos, director of the Research and
Action for Change and Equity program at Portland’s Western
States Center. "That requires a level of political courage and
Ramirez’s style evokes a
fellow Latino labor organizer, Cesar Chavez, the founder
of United Farm Workers, which led boycotts to demand higher wages
for workers in the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, it was Chavez who
ignited Ramirez’s labor-organizing career. When Ramirez was
15, Chavez spoke at his East Los Angeles high school.
really resonated with me," Ramirez says. "Cesar Chavez was like,
‘You can make a difference now.’ "
took those words and ran with them. The son of a Mexican-born
farmworker-turned-housepainter father and an American Indian
mother, he had long been aware of farm labor struggles and
immigration issues. He remembers the anguish his family experienced
when the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) deported his
brother-in-law when his sister was six months pregnant. During
frequent immigration raids in the Los Angeles area in the 1960s and
1970s, INS agents stopped him and his father and asked them, both
U.S. citizens, for their immigration papers. "There was a lot of
anger there," Ramirez says.
When he graduated from high
school at 16 and enrolled at Colegio Cesar Chavez, a short-lived
private college in Mt. Angel, Ore., Ramirez fell in with a "new
family" of immigrant farmworkers who worked in the Willamette
Valley’s plant and tree nurseries, berry farms and vineyards.
After witnessing many of the problems he had seen in California
— poor living and working conditions, little recourse for
redressing grievances with employers — Ramirez decided these
workers needed to organize.
With Chavez in mind, he
pursued more effective ways to communicate, taking photography
classes, working at a community newspaper and learning how to use a
In 1975, in response to large immigration
raids, the 20-year-old Ramirez teamed with fellow activist Cipriano
Ferrel to create the Willamette Valley Immigration Project. Over
the next decade, the Project worked to defend the human and civil
rights of immigrants who, while not necessarily in the United
States legally, were part of the country’s taxpaying
workforce. Ramirez and Ferrel formed PCUN in 1985 with 100
farmworkers. After Ferrel’s death in 1995, Ramirez became the
PCUN has taken a
page from the immigrant labor movements of the early 20th
century that brought together German, Italian, Polish and
other immigrant worker communities. Ramirez has expanded the
PCUN has teamed up with national civil
rights organizations, such as the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People. And when PCUN wanted to fight
proposed Oregon ballot initiatives it saw as anti-immigrant, it
teamed with the Rural Organizing Project, which began as a
coalition to protect the rights of sexual minorities and had
experience with ballot initiatives. The partnership was no small
feat, Ramos says, considering the homophobia that often runs deep
in Latino communities.
PCUN also brought a broad base of
support to a nine-year boycott of one of Oregon’s largest
food processors, NORPAC, a company owned by 240 Oregon farm
families. When NORPAC refused to allow its workers union
representation, PCUN urged prominent food buyers like Sodexho not
to purchase NORPAC products. The boycott cost NORPAC some important
customers, and the food processor eventually agreed to draft
guidelines for labor relations between farms and farmworkers.
Now, PCUN and others have begun to pursue a collective
bargaining law in the Oregon Legislature. The 1935 National Labor
Relations Act gives other manufacturing and service industries
collective bargaining rights, but farmers were left out, according
to some, to protect the agriculture industry’s interests.
Among Western states, only California has a law giving farmworkers
the right to collective bargaining through unions.
year, the Ford Foundation chose Ramirez as one of 17 people showing
extraordinary leadership in fighting "some of the nation’s
most entrenched social problems." He was awarded $115,000, with
which he plans to found a leadership institute for immigrants.
Ramirez may have extended his concern to farmworkers all
over the world, from Korea to Honduras, but hanging out with those
who live in the Willamette Valley still comes first.
have to listen to what immigrants are saying," he says. "It’s
something that you need to keep in front of you at all times."